October 27, 2006


British and French Noir (Neil McDonald, December 2003, Quadrant)

Some noirs were even in colour, like Leave Her to Heaven and Desert Fury - the menace and corruption beneath the richly textured visuals.

WHICH IS WHERE Inspector Morse comes in. The Oxford portrayed in the series, with its Gothic and Elizabethan architecture and panelled interiors of the colleges where many of the stories are set, is actually reminiscent of Raymond Chandler's sun-drenched California - the corruption infecting unseen. University rivalries result in multiple murders; the master of a college is revealed as a paedophile; and from the very beginning we are reminded of Oxford's dark history as a persecutor of "heretics", with one scene set at the site where Cranmer and Ridley were burnt at the stake. This is perhaps not enough to justify calling Morse British noir. Colin Dexter's novels, on which the series was based, are from exactly the opposite tradition to the hard-boiled literature that inspired so much of American and French noir. For all their wit and adroitness, Dexter's plots are in the tradition of puzzle plot narratives dating back to Trent's Last Case and the works of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers - both of whom were sent up mercilessly by Raymond Chandler:

There is one of Dorothy L. Sayers '[Busman's Honeymoon] in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check. This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap; a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business.

There is a scheme of Agatha Christie's [Murder on the Orient Express] featuring a M. Hercule Poirot, that ingenious Belgian who talks in a literal translation of schoolboy French, wherein, by duly messing around with his "little grey cells", M. Poirot decides that nobody on a certain sleeper could have done the murder alone, therefore everybody did it together, breaking the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an eggbeater. This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it.

Ironically, in Service of All the Dead Colin Dexter playfully reworks the Orient Express device; yet it's the one film of the series where the visual style is closest to traditional forties noir, with Morse given a slightly menacing presence from low-angle close-shots or highlights accentuating his eyes. The interior of the church - the setting for the murders - is filled with shadows, and Morse and his sergeant's exchanges seem to come from two silhouettes. This style was abandoned after the first series, but the further Inspector Morse moved towards picturesque visuals - especially when writers such as Julian Mitchell, Anthony Minghella, Alma Cullen and Daniel Boyle were freed from the constraints of Dexter's novels and began to develop their own screen-plays - the blacker the plots became. There were cases of paedophilia, satanism, drug addiction, plus many of the cultural changes of the 1980s.

In confronting these issues, Morse became a late-twentieth-century equivalent of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade. Noir films and fiction always had an element of redemption to go with the angst, and Chandler scholars have been quick to point out that for all Marlowe's "rude wit" and very American dialogue, his values are those of the best kind of English gentleman. Not surprising, since Chandler himself went to an English public school. While it's pretty clear that Morse went to grammar school, he is an ex-student of the series 'fictional Lonsdale College; Morse is widely read ("I thought you swallowed a dictionary at birth!" his sergeant tells him); does the Times crossword; plays Mozart, Wagner and Puccini; and despises most modern innovations: "I don't use plastic - I'll mail you a cheque," he barks down the phone when trying to book a seat at Covent Garden.

When Morse is not trying to inveigle his subordinate Sergeant Lewis into buying him drinks - a traditional English ale, naturally - he tries to educate him in the finer points of English grammar and literature. As played by John Thaw and Kevin Whately, Morse and Lewis have one of the best relationships in crime movies. Lewis can be bitterly critical of his superior - never more so than in the splendid Way Through the Woods, with its theme of shifting loyalties - but also learns from him. Morse may be at times irascible and exploitative, but we never doubt his respect and affection for Lewis - a superlative combination of fine writing and sensitive acting. The corruption of modern education becomes the object of Morse's most scathing rebukes: "Money seems to play a large part in the decisions of your college," he tells an educational administrator. And as every devotee of the series knows, Morse drives a red Jaguar - an emblem of old-fashioned Britain. [...]

Like Marlowe, it's Morse's search for a hidden truth that gives the stories their momentum. The inspector is not always right, and is often as exasperated and confused as any noir protagonist. But ultimately it is by his standards that the other characters' actions are judged, and Morse is not afraid to implement his own justice. In Death is Now My Neighbour, he virtually orders a particularly repellent character out of town. "Now this is really blackmail," the villain expostulates.

"You should have got ten years for what you did," Morse replies.

The inspector's justice never involves violence. On the two occasions in thirty-three films when he's forced to kill someone, Morse is devastated. He gets nausea at autopsies, and the deaths never occur just to provide a corpse or create a puzzle.

The mysteries in Inspector Morse are as much whydunits as whodunits. I'm not suggesting that the late Kenny McBain and Ted Childs - the executive producers of the series - deliberately set out to transform the strong material they inherited from Colin Dexter. Describing how Inspector Morse belongs to a more complex cinematic and literary tradition only demonstrates that the film-makers (including one of Britain's finest actors, the late John Thaw) achieved far more than they had intended. In so doing, they have created a body of work that is far more impressive than anyone realised when it first appeared. Inspector Morse is both in the tradition of English mystery fiction - complete with eccentric sleuth and intricate puzzle plots - and British noir, with a social commentary and complexity found in the best of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction. Unlike some of the modern practitioners of the genre such as James Elroy or Robert B. Parker, there is no celebration of violence. Inspector Morse is a powerful embodiment of civilised values, proving that late-twentieth-century television was capable of great artistry.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 27, 2006 10:50 AM

Never read Dexter. Liked the early Morse productions much better than the darker, later ones. Wondered about the change in tone. This article explains a lot.


Thanks for the referral to Ian Rankin a while back. I'm enjoying Rebus very much.

Posted by: jdkelly at October 27, 2006 4:24 PM

Still can't bring myself to read or watch the last Morse, but just read the 2nd to last & reread the 1st--the change over the course of the series is remarkable.

Posted by: oj at October 27, 2006 4:38 PM

I'm just re-running the Morse films. Tonight is series 5 volume 4, "Greeks Bearing Gifts" by Peter Nichols. I think the films are better than the books. Thaw developed the character beyond Dexter's range.

It's fun to watch for Dexter's Hithcockian habit of appearing in every film.

Do you know the Reginald Hill novels? Much better on the page than on the screen.

Posted by: Terry Hamblin at October 28, 2006 2:41 PM

I've never been able to get into the Hill books. Or the Harpur novels by Bill James. Early Inspector Wexford was good, until Rendell made him painfully PC.

John Harvey's Charlie Resnick books are fabulous.

Posted by: oj at October 28, 2006 2:47 PM