For me, the best way to unwind is, inevitably, to watch TV, and the best TV where unwinding is concerned is crime TV. I don’t mean documentaries — such as are shown regularly on Fox History. Fox has long taken a view that the idea of ‘history’ is capable of accommodating Nancy Reagan and trashy murders. Now, as if in response to my tastes, and in a kind of evolutionary development, Tata Sky has dispensed with Fox History altogether and given us Fox Crime. But I don’t like reality crime either, of which Cops is presumably one example: “Television cameras follow real-life enforcement officers as they perform their daily duty to ‘serve and protect’ the public.” So says the prolific author of Tata Sky’s information panel. No, for me, unwinding means a story and, most of all, immersion in a particular world: a film, if possible, or, in lieu of a film, a series about fictional characters who have a propensity for solving crime.
Most of the new fare is unsatisfactory. Good films about homicide or even about violence in general are rare. When I say ‘good’, I’m not referring to thoughtful and unsparing psychological studies of killers and killing such as Dead Man Walking and Mystic River undoubtedly are. I mean a film that captures the anomalous and inexplicable magic that’s imparted to an environment by the occurrence of a murder. Of this magic, Hitchcock was maybe the sole purveyor — but, in making such a generalization, you miss mentioning Double Indemnity, or the musically clinical Anatomy of a Murder, whose enigmatic formalistic preoccupations begin with the poster by Saul Bass, with its Matisse-like collage of the dead man’s outline in the foreground, the background comprising a simple Rothko-like scheme of two vivid rectangular patches of colour. In Hitchcock’s hands, and in Billy Wilder’s and Otto Preminger’s respectively, sudden death is an uplifting experience that leaves us curiously light and happy — not uplifting, then, in some Aristotelian cathartic sense, but in the way it generates the sort of sensuous experience that’s peculiar to art, in response to art’s exactitude, its embodiment of a kind of perfection. These movies aren’t intended to instruct and delight — for instruction, we return to Dead Man Walking. These — Strangers on a Train, The Man Who Knew Too Much and, especially, Shadow of a Doubt — are meant for delight alone.
As an aesthetic achievement, surpassing all crime on television — in fact, most stuff on TV — is the early series of Columbo, with Peter Falk (who always looks Irish to me, but is of European Jewish ancestry) playing the shambling, irritating, middle-class detective for whom the sites of homicide are the immense houses of the tanned Californian rich of the early 1970s. Each episode begins, famously, with us being a party to the carefully-planned murder; and then we’re invited to witness how the superior or even genteel type who’s committed it becomes the disorganized detective’s unlikely quarry. Columbo is almost the only person here who belongs to the real world, such as you and I do, a fact underlined by his uxorious references to his wife and his infrequent mentions of his children, a real world given veracity by the fact that we never once see either it or the wife and children. The series takes us, in episode after episode, on a limited, idiosyncratic, picaresque tour of the houses, rooms, and recreational spaces of the Los Angeles nouveau riche. It is one of the few instances on film — besides the relatively recent Collateral, which has similarly picaresque and voyeuristic impulses — when the sterile stretches of Los Angeles look inexplicably alive. Or maybe LA was an interesting city once? But the main pleasure of Columbo derives from its contradictory love of colour: the hedonistic, Fauvist hues of the sunlit California in which the murderer lives and kills. I say contradictory because Peter Falk himself is drably clad in a mackintosh, and his often stubbly cheeks are grey: despite being of Italian stock, the detective is an Anglo-Saxon Puritan. Not so, clearly, the murderer.
What Columbo and other great crime offerings on screen give us is a closed world, defined by the murder, the killer’s delusions, the hunter’s constantly interrupted pursuit, and the details that comprise the scene of crime. The larger world is kept out; and this makes the murder movie akin to a parable or allegory, a formal kinship that’s in tension with its deep realism — in fact, the detective, with his unnatural eye, is a fetishist and connoisseur of the real. For the great crime movie, both political history and psychological inwardness are secondary; the kind of physicality that can be apprehended by the senses is everything. Being inside a closed world means that we experience, in a crime movie, what it’s like to be a child again. The scene of murder is a sort of ersatz home, at once intimate and indefatigably explorable. To be at home, to be vulnerable to a self-invented but plausible danger, and to be also happy is to approximate the condition of being a child. But the child at play in this way must have an implicit faith in a benign patriarchy, even if the father is remote or invisible. This is why the great crime stories and movies emerge in the time of imperialism or when the bourgeoisie is predominant, when the closed world denies, on one level, everything outside it, but is both protected and shaped by that invisible, nurturing authority. (In Bengal, this comforting microcosm of mysterious death and retribution, presided over by the bhadralok’s distant but watchful gaze, culminates and ends, like a brief seasonal holiday, with the Feluda movies.)
The various crime series on TV today — Silent Witness, Wallander, Waking the Dead, Criminal Minds, Dexter — are, in this regard, more grown up, in that they reflect the total erosion of faith in the paternalistic. This doesn’t necessarily make for better television or cinema, or better crime. The English crime dramas are now more and more indistinguishable from soap operas, because they’re mainly about the betrayal of trust — arising from adultery, and bullied and sexually abused children who have become adults. No one transcends this blighted social fabric: policeman, victim, and murderer are all obedient to Philip Larkin’s dictum: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” Given their soap opera-like longueurs and ambitions, English murder mysteries like The Midsomer Murders and Inspector Lynley lack the compression and economy of the earlier classics; they drift, and are inordinately long, which is the preferred manner when the scriptwriter and director, rather than the murderer, have a long, tortured confession to make. The American franchises, such as Criminal Minds, are uneasily quasi-religious: the deluded murderer — usually a man trapped in an arid working or middle-class suburb — is awaiting the Second Coming. As a result, the focus of Criminal Minds is not detail, worldliness, or physicality (what used to be charming about murder was the way it engendered a taste for minutiae), but apocalypse and the refulgent birth of new worlds.
I watch these various series largely because there’s nothing else. I have my own kind of relationship with them, which involves bemusement and incomprehension. Most of the time, I don’t understand what’s happening in them, and have to turn to my wife for clarification. Part of the reason for this is that the sheer badness of, say, Criminal Minds, makes my mind work associatively rather than receptively. Instead of listening to what somebody’s saying, for instance, I am, without premeditation, wondering whom their face reminds me of. As a result, about fifteen minutes into the episode, I’ve identified the murderer, and convey my hunch to my wife; five minutes later, I might correct myself and find a new candidate. Whatever the case, years of unconscious training — in reading expressions, in familiarity with filmic and murder mystery conventions — ensure my intuition about the killer is correct a startling eighty per cent of the time. Okay, maybe seventy per cent. In other words, I now view the murder mystery not as an object of pleasure, but as a crystal ball on which to test, to my wife’s chagrin, my psychic abilities. My drifting incomprehension, my hit-and-miss guesses, are apposite to the post-patriarchal world, in which none of us — viewer, murderer, victim, director — is any longer sure where we are.