Tuesday 4 August 2020

The Current Cinema - Ripley Underdone - THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY (Giuseppe Capotondi, Italy, 2019)

I came to write something about The Burnt Orange Heresy  somewhat slowly. 

It was our Friday night movie at the Randwick Ritz, one of two new movies in the theatre that week, almost an afterthought after the management seemingly had to plump in favour of a retro led reintroduction to cinemagoing.    Probably smart too because on its opening weekend The Burnt Orange Heresy  was in the Ritz's Cinema 6 (the smallest) and had barely a dozen punters at the prime 6.30 pm session. Elizabeth Debicki on the front cover of the previous week’s SMH Spectrum had seemingly not raised interest.

I noted  from the credits that the film was based on a book by the admired American crime writer Charles Willeford, a favourite author of twenty or more novels including three others that have been made into movies – Cockfighter, Miami Blues and The Woman Chaser.  Nobody had made anything of that in the lead-up and it was a Willeford I hadn't read.

Then I got to John McDonald in the Fin Review, and now available on John's personal website. As an art critic John indicated he was ‘approaching the movie with a sceptical eye’. The subject, an art critic and historian, bellicose, smart, ambitious and ultimately prepared to go all the way to murder for the purpose of furthering his career. Like all critics I hear you say. 

So, another film adaptation where a European transplants crime from the grime of the US to the elegance of Europe. Think Bande a part  and Shoot the Pianist  and that other story by Donald Westlake that Godard stole to make Made in USA.  (Westlake pursued Godard for reparations until his dying day.) The Burnt Orange Heresy  is another one that leaves   the novel’s Florida setting way behind and does some massive transformations. 

Now it is set in Milan and Berenice Hollis, the girl from Duluth Minnesota who attracts the critic’s attention, is now the skinny and much more sophisticated Debicki and not the large-arsed and uncultured woman described by Willeford. (The size of Berenice’s bum is remarked upon by Willeford several times.)

Both the film and the book have a serious problem. Both tell us that the mysterious and reclusive painter who provokes murderous behaviour is a master whose work has not been seen for decades. If indeed it ever has. He is an artist with a reputation that seems entirely unjustified.

He does however provide Willeford in his novel the chance to show off his ‘knowledge’ of art history, cinema, literature, cultural studies and more.  Little asides on art movements and much smirking. Like….”The artist’s bookcase …held about thirty books. Most of them were paperbacks, five policiers from the Série Noire, three Simenons and two by Chester Himes, Pascal’s Pensées, From Caligari to Hitler, Godard on Godard, an autographed copy of Samuel Beckett’s Proust  and several paperback novels by French authors I had never heard of.” Get the idea. But you have to wonder how many of Willeford’s readers have the slightest idea what he, or some researcher, is talking, indeed pontificating, about.

The biggest transposition is in James Figueiras, the criminal critic on a mission to make his own reputation and accumulate wealth. In Giuseppe Capotondi’s version he’s an even more robust Mr Cool, the smart-arse self-promoter who offs his girlfriend and at the end has just a chance of reckoning descending on him.  Inevitably Capotondi makes you think of Highsmith’s American in Europe Tom Ripley and her novel “Ripley Underground”, another story about art forgery, murder and mayhem but so much less pretentious, so much less bombastic. 

If The Burnt Orange Heresy  has had any effect on me it has  prompted me to go back and look at Roger Spottiswood’s adaptation Ripley Underground, starring the least interesting of the movie Ripleys, Barry Pepper. 

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