San Francisco International Film Festival 2008 screening
It’s an odd case when the first 12 or so minutes of a film contains almost no audible conversation. True, good film often relies on visual elements rather than chit chat to create an atmosphere and set the mood but The Man From London takes its sparse dialogue and moody cinematography and attempts maintain this unusual pace for over two hours in the noir-like drama from Béla Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies) with only moderate success.
Based on a pulp fiction story by Belgian writer Georges Simenon, the film tracks Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) a switchman at a seaside railroad station who witnesses a robbery and murder. The grim antihero absconds with the satchel of British pounds which begins his slow mental and physical descent. With his newfound riches, he forces his daughter to quit her job, and then he purchases an expensive fur for her both of which only leads to a robust argument with his intense wife Camélia (Tilda Swinton). He becomes more disturbed and less rational with each scene. Not the typical noir, the film deals with Maloin’s slow descent while a disciplined detective methodically attempts to solve this case of robbery turned murder.
Strangers lurking about, curious characters, a suitcase full of cash, dark and foggy settings, criminal cover ups and a distinct detective might spell a direct hit for any noir film. Tarr creates not so much a whodunit but more of a “whydoneit.” The why becomes as clear as London evening. A film can only sustain so long on endless tracking shots and atmospheric scenery. Here, the characters’ motivations and depth offer only a backdrop to the setting. Tarr uses textured shots to create facial emotion, that gives the citizenry some complexity but it only takes the journey so far. He leaves characters and circumstances either incomplete or downright confusing. One viewer left saying that this film exemplified one of Tarr’s most accessible films which to the casual noir lover might cause them to choke on the atmosphere that engulfs this darkly unfulfilling film.