‘Please sit down and be patient’, is a request addressed by a stone-faced police investigator to the distressed wife of a murder suspect in The Man from London. The Hungarian director Béla Tarr asks the same of his audience, as his first feature in seven years is a deliberately paced formal excursion into film noir that is ultimately more interested in the emotionally debilitating effects of daily drudgery than it is in the mechanics of genre.
Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) is a lowly night switchman at the local railroad whose interest in life is slipping away between arrivals and departures. His relationship with his wife Camélia (Tilda Swinton) consists of mundane exchanges regarding money and food, punctuated by aggressive arguments. His teenage daughter Henriette (Erika BíÂ³k) has undertaken a menial job at a grocer’s, which Maloin perceives to be demeaning as the patrons can see too much of her legs. He seeks solace in alcohol, which numbs his disenchantment as much as it keeps the cold at bay, and in games of chess with the owner of the town inn. One night, Maloin witnesses a clandestine business transaction, which results in murder and the loss of a suitcase containing í‚Â£600,000, which he retrieves from the neighbouring harbour in an effort to better the lifestyle of his family. However, matters become complicated when an inspector arrives to locate the missing money and arrest the man who has stolen it. Maloin maintains his anonymous existence, eavesdropping on the investigation, whilst gradually developing a guilty conscience that will cause conflict in his home.
Although filmed in France, the unforgiving atmosphere of The Man from London is more suggestive of a town in Eastern Europe that has been omitted from the map. Indeed, the community that Tarr depicts is one that is so bereft of wealth, that when Maloin stumbles on to the fortune, he hides it in a locker, not knowing what to do with it. Shot in stark and simple black and white by Fred Kelemen, whose monochrome compositions often achieve a still life quality, this adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel adheres to the noir template despite its digressions, and Tarr delivers several quietly bravura set pieces. The ill-fated money transfer is shot in one extended take from Maloin’s point of view, and there is a later scene in which the central character awakens at nightfall, only to discover that he is being watched from below.
However, whenever the narrative appears to be gaining a modicum of momentum, Tarr’s camera pans away from the principal players to an extended shot of a group of drunkards balancing billiard balls on their heads, or focuses on an elderly man slurping from a bowl of soup. Such carefully crafted depictions of squalor have much in common with the cinema of Emir Kusturica, but they are less emotionally resonant, and Tarr’s reliance on a foreboding chamber score by frequent collaborator Mihí¡ly Vig suggests a lack of confidence in aligning pulp source material with his own social concerns.
Read this review and more in our winter print issue, which is explores celluloid snow with articles on Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, Aki Kaurismäki’s Calamari Union, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Christmas slasher movies and cult Japanese revenge tale Lady Snowblood. You can buy the current issue online, order back issues, or subscribe to the magazine at Wallflower Press. Subscription is í‚Â£12 UK or í‚Â£15 overseas for four issues of Electric Sheep (incl. P&P) – buy online from Wallflower Press and get a 15% discount! For gift subscriptions please email Wallflower Press.