Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why I'm Messed Up: Laughter in the Dark

One day in the late 1990s, I was reading a book written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1932 called Laughter in the Dark. That isn't really special. If it was the late 1990s, I was either reading Henry Miller, Nabokov, or the wildly underrated Heinrich Böll. Anyway, as I got to the end of the book, I had a massive wave of déjà vu when the amazing climax started to unfold. Sometime as a kid, I had seen the film adaption of Laughter in the Dark on cable and that ending had been buried deep in my brain just waiting for me to remember it.

Years later, I found the listing for the film version of Laughter in the Dark that was directed by Tony Richardson and was released in 1969. Finding the film proved to be another matter entirely. Forget DVD, I couldn't even track down a damn VHS copy. Then I turned to my usual sites for a download. Nothing. Son of a bitch! Other than some lobby cards and a poster, I couldn't find the film.

Now here's where complaining online helps. (I've been an advocate of online complaining since the first time I did it back in 1998.) I blogged right here on this very blog about how I couldn't find Laughter in the Dark. Then, in the summer of last year, someone read my post and contacted me. It was Rand C. He offered to send me a copy of the film if I promised to review it. Of course, I said yes. What Rand didn't know is that when I'm really excited about a film, I put it off. And since I'd been looking for this film since the end of the last century, my excitement was so huge that I I didn't watch Laughter in the Dark for 6 months. What can I say? I'm quirky.

Nicol Williamson plays Sir Edward More, a wealthy art dealer who is bored with his family and work. One day, a female usher named Margot (Anna Karina) catches his eye at the cinema. He becomes obsessed with the beautiful young woman and attempts to woo her while using an assumed name. Margot reverse-stalks Edward once she catches sight of his fancy car and chauffeur. Edward was hoping for an easy lay but Margot has got plans for this fool. With a well-timed telegram and a three day sex binge, she destroys his marriage and invades his life.

Unfortunately for Edward, Margot proves to be impossible to please and she's quickly seduced by his colleague Herve (Jean-Claude Drouot), a much younger and more dashing fellow. Margot convinces Edward that Herve is gay and encourages him to include the rogue on their vacation in Spain. When he finally catches on to the affair, Edward goes ballistic and demands that she never see Herve again. While driving through some mountain roads, he and Margot's arguing causes a car accident that leaves Edward blind.

Margot and Herve concoct a scheme to bleed Edward dry while continuing their affair. She rents a remote villa with a secret room where Herve will live and where they can get it on at night. As weeks go by, the embezzlement of Edward's money continues as she has the poor bastard signing blank checks. Worse still, Herve begins to get stir crazy to keep their twisted game going and plays tricks on the blind man for amusement. The cruelty escalates and -don't worry, I won't spoil it!

Director Tony Richardson was no stranger to adapting literature for the big screen but there's two things working against him. 1. Vladimir Nabokov's characters are total dickheads and 2. Richard Burton was an alcoholic. Burton was fired for being too drunk to work and was replaced by Nicol Williamson after filming had began. Williamson, who's played everyone from Merlin to Hamlet to Sherlock frickin' Holmes is a fine actor and does a great job here. But man oh man, his character is hard to sympathize with, especially with the word "SUCKER" tattooed on his forehead like that.

Transplanting Nabokov's novel from 1930s Berlin and Switzerland to 1960s England and Spain is easy when you throw miniskirts, hippies, inflatable furniture, and cacti into the mix. Cinematographer Dick Bush (Tommy, Sorcerer) brings some serious talent to the table which makes the fact that this film hasn't landed on Blu-ray yet even more frustrating. I love the setting in the Spanish mountains in the latter bits of the film. I kept waiting for Paul Naschy to show up and wolf out.

I think the film would have been served better if Margot hadn't been such a blatantly manipulative jerkwad and been more sly and seductive to the viewer. Anna Karina is lovely but the moment she started whining, I wanted to shut the movie off. Edward too should have been more likable right out of the gate but if memory serves, the screenplay follows Nabokov's version of these characters pretty closely aside from making them British. But if all of the blame landed squarely on the handsome but devious Herve, it would hurt the film. These three assholes kind of deserve each other.

How does the old saying go? "A fool and his money are soon parted shortly before that fool is destroyed by the brazen malice of two psychopaths." Edward's treatment at the hands of Margot and especially Herve is heartbreaking. Even if you despise the guy for his simpering foolishness, you still root for him by the final reel.

Before we get to the finale, let me just talk about how Laughter in the Dark affected me. Right at the beginning of the film where Edward is at the cinema. The film that the packed house is viewing is never shown but the sounds of a woman in peril and gunfire can be heard through the theater. These sounds cause uproarious laughter in the audience and Edward looks rather disturbed for a moment. Then he lays eyes on Margot for the first time. This brilliant piece of foreshadowing is how I knew I was in for a treat even though it would be a painful one.

When this film ended the other day after seeing it for the first time after all those years, I was left with a profound sense of dread and a renewed fear of human beings. Though it's not as good as the book, I think Laughter in the Dark absolutely deserves to be seen by film fans and Nabokov fans alike. The ending is a real crackerjack of a scene that I won't spoil here since this film is still unavailable on home video and I'm hoping people will seek it out. It occurred to me that maybe I only caught the end of this one when I was a kid. But it's entirely possible that I saw this whole movie which explains why I'm so messed up.

Special thanks to Rand C. for hooking me up with this film!

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