From the 1890s to the 2000s, Sarah Cook explores the films that inspired her new book, Diary Of Murders.
This week my book Diary Of Murders is out on paperback and Kindle (Wednesday 23rd August to be more exact). The story follows two doctors in Victorian London who fall desperately in love with one another when they discover they have the same dark desires – but soon they find themselves embroiled in murder mystery.
To celebrate the fact that it will be out soon, I’m going to talk this week about some old films that inspired my book.
Honourable Mentions: The Limehouse Golem (2014) is a brilliant, underseen Victorian murder mystery with an intense twist that, unfortunately, is just a tad bit new for this column but it is worth watching for incredible performances by Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke.
The Kiss (1896)
Directed by William Heise
I’ve spoken at great length about the Victorians and their gift to us all – cinema. Invented in the early 1890s by several different people, cinema – or the living picture craze – swept the world, with filmmakers producing countless short films for people to enjoy.
In 1896, Heise created a stellar sensation that caused controversy with early moviegoers. While it is a fallacy that audiences ran away from footage of a moving train, believing it was heading straight for them, this may be somewhat true – that the public deemed Heise’s film shocking.
Produced by Thomas Edison, The Kiss sees an affectionate couple – here May Irwin and John Rice – kiss for a prolonged time. It is a re-enactment of the final kiss from musical The Widow Johns.
It’s the very first kiss to ever be shown on film, and the Roman Catholic Church denounced it. A critic of the time described it as “the spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.”
However, in 1979, modern critics seem to have dismissed the whole affair as a myth – especially the outrage of the general public. Seems that the general Victorians had more of a relaxed view on kissing (amongst over things).
Directed by Thorold Dickinson
There are two different versions of Patric Hamilton’s incredibly tense and wrought play Gas Light. There’s the most famous one – George Cukor’s acclaimed 1944 version with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer – and there’s this British version which, I believe, is a lot more insidious.
Starring Anthon Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, the film follows a young Victorian couple – Paul and Bella – who move into the home of Alice Barlow, an old woman who has been unfortunately murdered years before. Bella starts to experience strange occurrences. She misplaces a small object or two and the lights flicker and dull. Paul is adamant that she is losing her mind when actually it’s him causing all of it.
Though Cukor’s film boasts an incredible performance from Bergman, and is certainly showier, Dickinson’s tremendous piece is meditative and sinister. One of the best actors of all time, Anton Walbrook, is given a particularly nasty character to work with and he is tremendous here as the putrid Paul. But props definitely need to go to Diana Wynyard, especially in the final showdown. She is breath-taking as the tortured Bella.
Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971)
Directed by Brian Clemens
I talk about my love for Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde all the time, especially the 1931 version. Heck, I even did an extensive column about cinematic adaptations, so I don’t need to tell you how much I love the story and its many iterations.
One of the finer, yet unusually different depictions of the story, is Hammer Horror’s Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde. It revolves around the titular scientist – who is also the infamous Jack the Ripper – using the victims for his experiments. However, when the transformation takes hold, he turns into the cold-hearted and psychopathic Sister Hyde.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this film. It’s a gory little number with incredible lead performances by Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick. What I enjoy most is the incorporation of other Victorian crimes such as Burke & Hare and Jack the Ripper, which really give a sense of grim Victorian London. But also, by including these elements, it makes Jekyll more fiendish at the start. I love adaptations that make the doctor more maniacal than just a man who fucked up.
Age Of Innocence (1993)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
The master of cinema himself Martin Scorsese has dipped his toe in so many different genres. From crime thrillers to religious opus’, the incredible filmmaker has a legacy to die for. My particular favourite, surprising no one, is his historical romance The Age Of Innocence.
Based on the Edith Wharton novel of the same name, the film revolves around the gentleman lawyer Newland who is betrothed to respectable young May Welland. However, when Newland encounters May’s ostracized cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, Newland’s world is upended as he falls in devastating love with her.
This fascinating exploration of societal bonds, particularly in the upper classes, is impressive. It also looks at the roles of women in a strict and often cruel society.. The story weaves through these people who are bound by their circumstance and yet are betrayed by their burgeoning and intense passions that spill out in furtive secret meetings. Scorsese brings this Gilded Age story to sumptuous, gorgeous life.
That sequence of repressed love and passions where Daniel Day-Lewis bows down to kiss Michelle Pfieffer’s feet is one of my favourites, etched permanently into my mind.
Directed by Steven Shainberg
If you have to watch a film that accurately portrays a BDSM relationship, then Secretary is the film for you.
Starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary revolves around Lee Holloway, who takes a job for demanding attorney E. Edward Grey (no, not that one). Though Grey is strict and eccentric, Lee soon falls into his world of dominance and falls deeply in love with him.
There’s always a fine line when it comes to portraying a kinkier relationship on the screen – because it could either be woefully mishandled or treated like a joke. As enjoyable, and sexy, as this film is, there is definitely some clear sensitivity with the subject matter. Working through Lee’s issues as she is opened up to this highly sexual world is incredibly well done, and Gyllenhaal should be celebrated for her nuanced performance here.
Diary Of Murders is out on paperback and Kindle on 23rd August.
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