Thursday, July 26, 2018

Mystery Movie Churches: The Detective

The Detective (aka Father Brown) 1954
The late Alec Guinness and I have something in common: we both owe a little debt to G. K. Chesterton’s fictional character, Father Brown. I’ll talk about my debt here, and I’ll talk about the debt Guinness had to the character at the end of the post.

When I was a kid, I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald Sobol. Each book was a collection of mini-mysteries. The inspiration for the character was obviously Father Brown, about whom Chesterton wrote many short stories (he never wrote a Father Brown novel). When I wrote my own series of Bill the Warthog mysteries, I flagrantly ripped off Sobel’s Encyclopedia Brown. I think that sort of makes Bill the Warthog the grandson of Father Brown. (Though nothing has ever topped the original Chesterton stories. Start with “The Blue Cross” and continue from there.)

Father Brown stories have been adapted much more often for television than for movies. An Austrian Father Brown series ran from 1966 - 1972. The six episodes of The Tales of Father Brown ran on Italian television from 1970 - 1971. The Germans had a series of Father Brown stories that ran from 2003 to 2014. But logically enough, the BBC has had the most success with the cleric. In 1974 Kenneth Moore starred in a 13 episode Father Brown series that ran in the U.S. on the PBS series Mystery! The BBC brought back Father Brown in 2014 in a series starring Mark Williams in the title role, and the series continues through the present. It can be found on Netflix.

But we don’t usually do TV churches, we do movie churches. Back in 1934, a version called Father Brown, Detective, starried Walter Connolly as the priest. Germans made two films, Das Schwarze Schaf (The Black Sheep) in 1960 and Er Kann’s Nicht Lassen (He Can’t Stop Doing It) two years later. But really, only one film has done justice to the character of Father Brown, and that is 1954’s The Detective starring Sir Alec Guinness as Father Brown.

The film opens with the police coming upon a crime scene. Father Brown has his head in a safe, and he tries to explain he wasn’t stealing but rather “restoring the swag of a parishioner.” The police arrest the priest, assuming he is a thief impersonating a priest. They go through a mug book looking for a suspect.

An officer from another district informs them that Father Brown is, in fact, a real priest ,“I think you’ve got the genuine article.” They release him (the police can’t imagine a real priest being a thief).

Father Brown thanks them for their hospitality. “It’s been most interesting. I’ve never been in a cell, except a monastery cell.”

So Father Brown goes to see the man truly responsible for the crime, a man named Bert. Brown tells him that he is greatly disappointed in him for being a thief, but even more disappointed in him for being such an incompetent thief. “You should consider honest work,” Father Brown says -- and gets him a job as a chauffeur for a rich widow.

There seem to be quite a few shady characters in Father Brown’s parish. There’s Charlie, a man in the parish that teaches him to fight. Others teach him the criminal vernacular of the underworld. From the pulpit Brown preaches, “We are not made good people, or bad people, just people… God abandons no one.”

Father Brown has one valuable item in his church, a cross that belonged to St. Augustine. (I would question the provenance of the object, but everyone in the film accepts the genuine nature of the item.) Brown plans to take the cross to a gathering at the Vatican, but the police warn him that the notorious thief, Gustave Flambeau (Peter Finch), will try to steal the precious object. Brown is excited by the opportunity to meet the famed thief and hopes to help him find redemption.

We get to see Brown use his powers of deduction in the film, often to recognize Flambeau while in disguise (What priest would order a ham sandwich on a Friday?), but even more, we see Brown use the power of empathy to understand the thief. Brown explains, “I try to get so far inside a man, I can feel his motives and become a criminal without actually committing the crime.” He also says, “The more you hear other people, the more you know yourself. The more you know yourself, the more you know other people.”
That’s why I’m giving Father Brown our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Mystery Movie Month: Alice, Sweet Alice

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
You might not be surprised that there’s a murder in this film -- after all, it’s Mystery Month here at Movie Churches. But the victim in this film isn’t some crappy old millionaire or a blackmailer or a widely hated jerk, the kind of people that are suitable casualties for a British cozy murder mystery. In this film, the first to die is an adorable little girl. Not just any adorable little girl dies, though. We’re talking ten-year-old Brooke Shields. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

1976’s Alice Sweet Alice was titled Communion when it was being shown at film festivals. The name was changed to Holy Terror when it was released in 1981 to capitalize on Brooke Shields’ newfound notoriety. Both alternative titles acknowledge the religious content in the film, though the Alice title doesn’t. Marketers may have been leary of the religious content, but it’s there. The film has a mystery; it is a whodunit, but it is also a horror film -- a “slasher” film -- in a religious setting.

The little girl, Karen, is killed in a church as she’s about to receive her first communion in a Roman Catholic Church. The priest is a major character in the film. Is he the killer? Could it be one of the nuns? The chief suspect, though, is Alice (Paula Sheppard), Karen’s older sister.

Before the murder, Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich) comes to the Spages home to celebrate Karen’s upcoming first communion. He kisses the girls’ mother, Catherine (Linda Miller), on the cheek when he enters and kisses the two daughters. He gives Karen a wrapped gift. She opens it to find a golden cross. Karen throws her arms around the priest saying, “I love you, Father Tom, I really love you!” Alice watches this all sourly.

She is apparently the bad sister. She steals Karen’s doll and threatens to break it. She locks Karen in her room. She terrifies her sister by wearing a scary mask, which leads to the murder scene, the church.

It is an old, red brick building. “Soul of My Savior” is sung by the congregation. Catherine knells and crosses herself as she enters the church, and we see many children dressed for First Communion -- the girls all in white -- led by the nuns toward the sanctuary. Karen is the last in line. A mysterious figure in a mask grabs and strangles her, dragging her away and putting her in a black box. The cross Father Tom gave her is ripped from her neck and a lit candle is thrown into the box.

Alice enters the sanctuary and tries to go forward for communion, but a nun smells smoke from the side room. Her screaming interrupts the service, so there is no communion for Alice. Karen is found dead, and Alice doesn’t seem particularly upset when she learns of her sister’s death.

As the police investigate, they interview Father Tom, meeting also Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton), the housekeeper of the home for the priests. Several priests live together, including a wheelchair-bound bishop who seems to be senile. Father Tom isn’t much help with the investigation.

Not surprisingly, more mayhem occurs, and many begin to suspect that Alice is responsible. Her mental health begins to be questioned. Father Tom brings comfort and counsel to those who are attacked and traumatized, and he offers to take Alice to a mental institution.

But here comes the big spoiler, the answer to the mystery, and you have been given warning to not read further if you don’t want know in advance the identity of the killer.

It isn’t Alice. It’s Mrs. Tredoni the housekeeper. She remembered the Scripture that says the sins of the fathers are visited on their children, and she believes it is her job to see to it that happens. She killed Karen to punish Karen’s parents for their sins, but then she keeps killing to cover her crime.

The conclusion of the film takes place again at the church. Father Tom learns the identity of the true killer. Mrs. Tredoni comes forward for communion, as does Alice. The priest refused his housekeeper communion because, well, she’s a killer who has not confessed. He also refuses Alice, because he doesn’t seem to like her attitude. Police enter the church to arrest the murderous housekeeper, and she stabs the priest. He dies in her arms.

So, at least Tom the priest isn’t the killer, which would have drastically impacted his Movie Churches Steeple rating. But he seems to show favoritism between parishioners, even between Karen and Alice. And he and the other priests in the house didn’t seem to teach their housekeeper very good theology, if she didn’t know that God doesn’t generally call people to murder. So we’re giving Father Tom and the other priests and nuns of Alice Sweet Alice a very meager 2 Steeples.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mystery Movie Month: Rust

Rust (2010)
Does a mystery need a murder? Sadly, it is what you expect from a mystery film. (Of course, I wrote a series of mystery books for kids without a single fatality. Perhaps you know the Bill the Warthog series, in which a talking pig detective solves crimes?) Those books have kid crimes -- petty theft, minor cons, truancy -- but no homicide. In adult mystery films, we expect someone will be offed and someone else will try to find out who done it.
By that definition, Rust is certainly a mystery film. A whole family is killed, and a man is accused of being responsible and is locked away -- but maybe it’s the wrong guy. Sounds like a murder mystery film, but slight differences in tone make Rust feel like different from a traditional mystery. One thing that changes the tone is the fact that the fire that killed the family doesn’t seem to have been set to cause their deaths. Travis, the small town’s eccentric, is thought to have set the fire just because he was nutty. Intentionality is important for a murder mystery: it makes the difference between murder and manslaughter.

In addition, it’s not a police officer or detective who wants to solve the mystery. It’s a former pastor who’s also trying to solve another mystery: the mystery of evil and human suffering. Somehow, James Moore believes all this is tied together.
James Moore is played by Corbin Bernsen, who also wrote and directed the film. Yes, that Corbin Bernsen, from the TV shows L.A. Law and Psych and the Major League trilogy of films. His character, Moore, pastored in his small hometown, Kipling, but he left his town and left the ministry.

We see Moore arguing with a statue of Jesus on the cross saying, “This has to be a two way street, if you won’t answer the simplest questions...I have no choice but to walk away. I’ve given up everything for you. How can I fix that? I love you and honor you and respect you as much as the day I first followed you. I’m sorry, forgive me.”

The fire brought Moore back to the small town of Kipling. His friend, Travis, was placed in a psychiatric institution after the fire. When Moore visits him, Travis insists he set the fire, but Moore can’t believe it of his old friend.

Travis asks if Moore left the ministry because he “ran out of Jesus juice.” Moore seems to go along with that, but then sets off to find out what really happened the night of the fire.

Everyone else in town also seems to wonder why Moore left the ministry. The sheriff, Dwayne, asks, “Did you wake up and say, ‘sorry Lord, this dance is over’?” Moore agrees it was something like that.

Moore’s father says, “Son, every seed you’ve planted, everything you’ve ever put in the ground, including your mother, hasn’t yielded a single thing. And that’s not my fault, it’s not your mother’s fault, and it certainly isn’t God’s fault. My question for you is simple: do you ever plan on finishing anything?”

The only encouragement that Moore seems to get is from on old preacher in town. Pastor Barrow (John Hutchinson) who meets Moore in “the old church” in town. There is a new church as well, but the old one just seems to sit there. Moore tells Barrow he left the ministry because “it just doesn’t make sense.”

Barrow asks, “What is it that doesn’t make sense?”

Moore starts with “this thing with Travis,” but then goes on to talk about war and injustice and suffering and apostasy… And on and on. With all due respect to the former reverend, you really should figure out a little earlier in ministry that the world is a messed up place.

Pastor Barrow tries to help by telling a long, convoluted story that really makes no sense. And it doesn’t seem to help Moore at all.

What helps Moore is solving the mystery of the fire. To the great consternation of local law enforcement, Moore starts to interview people about the night of the fire. He learns that the family was quite religious and the father was very protective of his teenage daughter. He also learns that one of the local teens (a teen who smoke and drinks) was interested in the daughter.

Moore further investigates by bicycling on the route that Travis would have had to take the night of the fire, and discovers he couldn’t possibly have started the fire because he didn’t have time to make the trip. Eventually, Moore solves the mystery.

I’m going to spoil the mystery right now, so if you don’t want read the solution, quit reading right now. By reading on, you’re giving your consent to have the ending spoiled.

It turns out, the fire was started by one of the teens. Actually a group of about a dozen teen was present, but Travis took the rap so these poor young kids wouldn’t have to have their futures disrupted by taking responsibility for the death of a father, mother, and their three kids. Turns out, though, Travis wasn’t really helping. One of the kids, racked by guilt, commits suicide, and yet the rest of the kids are willing to let an innocent man suffer for their crime.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard pastors make an argument for the Resurrection by saying that if the disciples knew Jesus was still dead, someone would have eventually spilled the beans instead of insisting that He was alive. This film seems to say that in a group of a dozen teens, none of them would come forward with the truth about the tragic death of a family.

But solving the crime is enough to get Moore back in ministry, especially because he can use a poem from the dead father for a sermon illustration. The father had a poem in his Bible (which survived the fire) about community and nature and God and stuff, and Moore shares this poem in his sermon, and all is swell.

The world is just as messed up as it was before, but his friend Travis is out of the asylum, so everything is okay between Moore and God again. I guess solving a mystery does that. If I was judging Pastor James Moore as detective, that would be one thing. But Moore as a pastor gets just Two (out of four) Steeples.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

In Theaters Now: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
There is no shortage of silly things said online, but the other day I noticed someone referring to Fred Rogers as a “secular saint.” It seems quite bizarre to me that a man who was an ordained Presbyterian minister would be called “secular.”

The star of a children’s television show is in the public conversation again, fifteen years after his death, because of the documentary about him that's in theaters now.

Movie Churches was created to examine the presentation of churches and clergy in the world of fictional films, but every once in a while it's okay to stray from our mission statements. Occasionally, we’ve posted about television, and on occasion, we’ve featured documentaries, especially when we want to recommend one. That's the case here.

There are some who may say that Rogers left the ministry for public television. Others would say, Fred Rogers made public television his ministry. He couldn’t talk about the love of Jesus on the government sponsored public air, but he could show the love of Jesus. He let preschoolers know that they were special and that people cared about them, that he cared about them. He exemplified the alledged quote from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”

This film frankly downplays the faith of Fred Rogers. Not much is said about his love of theology and study of great Christian intellectuals. But mention is made about Rogers concern in his last days that he would be numbered among the “sheep” in a reference to Jesus’ parable of the last judgement from Matthew 25. I think it’s safe to say, Fred Rogers loved Jesus, loved his neighbor, and is listed with those who say “Baa.” If we could give our steeple ratings to real people, not just fictional characters and churches, Fred Rogers -- and Mr. Rogers -- would rate Four Steeples.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

In Theaters Now: Ant-Man and the Wasp

As our first movie outing since moving to Seattle, today we went to see the latest Marvel film, Ant Man and the WaspIt was playing at The Admiral, a theater with a nautical theme (our film was at "Pier 3").

This film didn't have for Movie Churches. The lead character, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), is a thief rather than a clergyman (not that the two professions are always mutually exclusive). But Lang has recently been in trouble with the law after breaking a number of federal and international statutes (as those who saw Captain America: Civil War may recall).  Placed under house arrest, Lang must answer to a Federal Agent, Jimmy Woo (played by Randall Park of TV's Fresh Off the Boat).

At one point in the film, Woo tries to explain to Lang's daughter, Cassie, why her father was in trouble with the law. In doing so, he uses a great deal of bureaucratic terminology. Lang sarcastically says to Woo, "You sure have a way with kids," and Woo replies, "I am a youth pastor." This clerical reference goes no further in the film, but we do see Woo acting with integrity and kindness. He avoids foul language. He wants to be friendly, even with Lang, his supposed adversary. I find it quite impressive he finds time for youth ministry along with his demanding job with the FBI, so I'm giving Youth Pastor Jimmy Woo our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Mystery Month: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (1974, 2017)
I hoped there would be a railway chaplain. Before I starting writing this post, I found out there is indeed a railway ministry that puts chaplains on trains, and they’ve been around for 100 years, covering the 1930’s setting of this film. Sadly, there is no chaplain in either version of Murder on the Orient Express that I watched, but both have a missionary -- so I have something to write about for Mystery Month at Movie Churches.

If you don’t know the story of this Agatha Christie classic, you might want to stop reading right here, because the solution to the mystery is rather ingenious, and some of things I write may give away part of that solution. So you might want to stop reading this and pick up one of the many filmed versions to watch (or, you know, read the book). We’re reviewing the more famous 1974 & 2017 versions, but there are others (including a 2015 Japanese telling of the tale).

If you’re still with me, let’s start with director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 telling of the story. The film begins with flashbacks from the 1930 kidnapping and murder of the “Armstrong Baby,” Daisy, the child of a famous aviator. (In her novel, published in 1934, Christie was quite transparently retelling the story of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's son.) The film then moves to “the present,” several years later. A number of passengers are seen preparing to board the Orient Express, a luxury passenger train running from Istanbul to Paris. They seem to have very diverse backgrounds, but it becomes clear that all have a connection to that world-famous crime from 1930, and that the kidnapper is one of the passengers. Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), who modestly describes himself as perhaps the world’s greatest detective, is also on the train.*

At the train station we see a woman searching desperately for her St. Christopher medal. It’s Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman in an Oscar winning performance), a Swedish missionary. (I wondered about the accuracy of this, thinking only Catholics would have St. Christopher medals. But never wrong Wikipedia says that Lutherans also honor St. Christopher, so go figure.)

Since the film is, after all, a mystery, it’s only a matter of time before someone is murdered. The kidnapper, Ratchet (Richard Widmark), is killed. When Greta hears the news, she says, “God’s laws have been trounced, thou shalt not kill.” A railway executive, a friend of Poirot’s, hires him to solve the murder. He suspects everyone that has a connection to the the Armstrong family.

Does that include Greta? She claims to work in Africa as missionary “teaching little brown babies more backward than myself.” She claims to be going to Europe on a fundraising tour.

Poirot uses his “little gray cells” to deduce that Greta was the Armstrongs’ governess, who was bound and gagged during the kidnapping. On the train, she pretends to have limited English language ability. It becomes obvious that she wasn’t a missionary before working for the Armstrongs, before the kidnapping.

Now here’s where the real plot spoiling comes to play. Greta played a part in Ratchett’s murder. She commited the crime “for their Daisy and for mine; God forgive me.”

Kenneth Branagh went in a very different direction casting the nursemaid/missionary character for his 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express. Penelope Cruz plays Pilar Estravados. This is one of many changes Branagh made with his film, though the basic story is intact.

The film opens with a very different little mystery, Poirot solving a case in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. An official tells Poirot he has narrowed the suspects to a Rabbi, a Priest, and an Imam. Poirot, of course, solves the crime, and it is not the work of one of the holy men.

We first encounter Pilar, the missionary, on the train. She is offered wine and replies, “I do not drink.”
When asked if it doesn't agree with her, she replies, “Sin does not agree with me. Vice is where the devil finds his darlings.”

Again, there is the murder of the kidnapper, Ratchett (Johnny Depp). When Pilar is told of the death she says, “God rest his soul.” Again, Poirot must investigate her along with all the other suspects.

Hercule Poirot: You are a missionary but you trained as a nurse.

Pilar: I owed it to God.

HP: You owed Him a debt?

P: There were indulgent times in my life when I took more than I gave.

Later, from HP: Your hands are those of a boxer.

P: I train to fight. I work in dangerous places.

HP: Don’t you trust God?

P: He might be busy

HP: He is always busy.

Again, Poirot discovers the true identity of the missionary. He also discovers the true reason for her aversion to alcohol. She’d had one too many drinks the night of the kidnapping, and she blames herself for not being alert enough to put a stop to it.

And again Poirot discovers the missionary played a part in the murder. He talks to her about what he should do with what he has learned.

Pilar: You said your role was to find justice.

Hercule Poirot: What is justice here?

P: Sometimes the law of man is not enough
HP: Where does conscience lie?

P: Buried with Daisy.

HP: May you find your peace with this. May we all.

As you can see by this interchange, the 2017 version wrestles a little more with moral and theological issues than the former, which we’re in support of here at Movie Churches. Our Steeple rating for both missionaries, Greta and Pilar, is the same: one steeple, our lowest rating. Murder does that to Steeple ratings. Part of the justice doled out for the crime.

*I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that a church is mentioned in this portion of the film. While waiting to board the train in Istanbul, a British soldier tells Poirot, “The Church of Santa Sophia is magnificent!”

“You’ve seen it?” Poirot asks.

The soldier says, “No.”

Monday, July 2, 2018

July is Mystery Month at Movie Churches

This month’s theme here at Movie Churches provides a special challenge. One of the reasons people watch mysteries (for some people the only reason) is to work out the puzzle of who done it. People watching a mystery film for that reason want to know little of the plot ahead of time, especially about whether characters are “good” or “bad.” That goes for all the characters in a film, including the clergy.

This isn’t as much of a problem if the film is based on one of the wonderful Father Brown stories by G. K. Chesterton. If the adaptation is an accurate one, Father Brown will get our highest rating of 4 Steeples because he is a great priest and we probably could write up a post without giving away the mystery. (Okay, there are Father Brown stories with other clergy, but they aren’t always, shall we say, of the 4 Steeple variety.)

A film like Hitchcock’s I Confess, where the priest is accused of murder, is different. If the priest committed the murder, he obviously would get a pretty poor Steeple rating. Since it’s a Hitchcock film and the police suspect him early in the film, you KNOW he can’t really be the killer, but still…

With something like the made for TV movie, Vanishing Act, I feel safe giving away some secrets because if you watch it on YouTube (the only place I’ve found it), you’ll see warnings that the film was pirated from the “Manfocused Channel,” whatever that it. I know my readers wouldn’t dream of watching a pirated film, so I can tell you all about it. (Unless you are the kind of morally deviant person who doesn’t mind watching pirated films, and if so read no further, because I’m going to spoil.)

In the 1986 Made for TV Movie, Mike Farrell plays a man taking his honeymoon in a Colorado ski town. When his wife turns up missing, he goes to the local sheriff played by Elliot Gould. (Yes, you read that right: Farrell, B.J. Hunmovinicutt of TV’s M*A*S*H, shares the screen with Gould, Trapper John from the movie M*A*S*H. I know. Trippy stuff.)

Anyway, Husband Farrell gets a phone call from a priest, saying that Farrell’s wife has been staying for two nights at his church. Farrell goes the church to meet a priest played by the great Fred Gwynne (yes, that’s right, Herman Munster). Anyway, Farrell goes to the church, and the priest calls out the wife. And out comes Margot Kidder (yup, Lois Lane). Then Farrell says, “That’s not my wife” and Kidder says, “I am so” and there you go, you’ve got a mystery and I’ve got something to write about: good old Father Macklin (Gwynne).

He seems like a good guy, providing a cottage to a distraught woman who had a falling out with her husband on her honeymoon. But this is a mystery. Things are not what they seem. What if the “priest” is actually a con man, working with Kidder to pull a fast one? What if he’s not a nice guy, but a killer? What if he’s not a priest at all? Can we still use our Movie Church’s Steeple ratings to evaluate him? And further still, what if he’s not a priest or a killer con man but instead a policeman helping with an elaborate sting to catch the murderous husband? (I warned you about spoilers.)

The challenge of reviewing clergy in mystery films is that part of the mystery is whether the clergy are really who they claim to be. Is he a pretend priest who kills? Or a real pastor who kills? Or a pretend nun that doesn’t kill but shamelessly jaywalks? The possibilities are endless.

All I’m saying is, to do my job evaluating clergy and churches, I can’t worry about the niceties of keeping mysteries mysteries. If you go back to posts on The Night of the Hunter or 5 Card Stud with Robert Mitchum or The Confessor or Sacrifice with Christian Slater, you’ll see I spoiled those film. (Well, it’s not really possible to spoil a 21st century film with Christian Slater because so many people -- the writers, the directors, the producers and, of course, Slater himself -- have already done the work to spoil those films.)

So be warned. If you don’t know the ending to Murder on the Orient Express, watch a version of the film or read the book before you read what we have to say about it. It does have one of the all time great twist solutions in the whole genre, but that won’t keep me from writing about the film’s clergy.
Oh, and you may wonder how I would rate Fred Gwynne’s priest in Vanishing Act. He’d get 4 Steeples, of course. Because even if he isn’t a real priest in the film, he is Fred Gwynne, and he also wrote some pretty great children’s books.