The first two adaptations of David Peace’s novels have been characterised by a stylistic dualism. Their foregrounds are both occupied by more of less convincing Crime tropes. Searches for murderers, attempts to ferret out corrupt cops, investigations of conspiracies and doomed love stories. However, the meat of these two films lay not in the foreground, but in the background. Red Riding : 1974 and 1980 were films whose visuals spoke of an encroaching and slowly expanding evil. An evil that slowly becomes systemic before taking on almost mythological proportions. Visually the films gave us an image of the North as a Garden of Eden fallen into the worst kind of sin. Red Riding : 1983 undoes a lot of that work by using words to fill in beautiful cracks and gaps left by powerful images. Its obsession with salvation seems naïve and very much like a cop out. However, the sheer banality of 1983’s evil has a power of its own.
On the 8th of March, the West Yorkshire Police Force received a letter purporting to be from the Yorkshire Ripper :
I am sorry I cannot give my name for obvious reasons. I am the Ripper. I’ve been dubbed a maniac by the Press but not by you, you call me clever and I am. You and your mates haven’t a clue that photo in the paper gave me fits and that bit about killing myself, no chance. I’ve got things to do. My purpose to rid the streets of them sluts. My one regret is that young lassie McDonald, did not know cause changed routine that night. Up to number 8 now you say 7 but remember Preston ’75, get about you know. You were right I travel a bit. You probably look for me in Sunderland, don’t bother, I am not daft, just posted letter there on one of my trips. Not a bad place compared with Chapeltown and Manningham and other places. Warn whores to keep off streets cause I feel it coming on again.
Sorry about young lassie.
Jack the Ripper
Might write again later I not sure last one really deserved it. Whores getting younger each time. Old slut next time I hope. Huddersfield never again, too small close call last one.
The letters and tapes that followed were a hoax that sent the struggling West Yorkshire investigation into a tailspin, convincing several senior police officers that the Ripper was from Sunderland. One particular way in which the letter hindered the investigation was by claiming responsibility for a murder in Preston in 1975. A murder, it turned out, the Yorkshire Ripper was not actually responsible for. James Marsh’s Red Riding : 1980, based on a novel by David Peace, considers what might have happened if certainly nefarious elements within the West Yorkshire Police Force had put Wearside Jack’s error to use for their own ends.
If Red Riding : 1974 is a film about the first bite at the apple of original sin then Red Riding : 1980 is the ensuing gag reflex.
When the Red Riding trilogy was screened on Channel Four earlier this year it came very close to making me regret an action I have come to think of as the great cultural emancipation. Five years ago, I unplugged the aerial from my TV, I cut the wire at the wall and forever freed myself from the great cognitive heat sink that is television. It was a close run thing. I was this close to buying a set-top aerial. A few months later with the DVD version now safely in my hands, I am still sure that I made the right decision as Red Riding : 1974 is a film that demands revisiting.
*Please Note – This Piece is Full of Spoilers*
There are ideas that seem to be of a certain place and time. Call them icons, if you will. One of the most powerful icons of the early to mid twentieth century is the femme fatale. Born of a cultural climate where gender was not divorced from sex and where women were expected to be virginal and submissive, femme fatales rejected this essentialist vision of gender by being sexually aggressive, socially independent and more than willing to use their sexual wiles to render men subservient to their own desires and goals. Decades after the arrival of the contraceptive pill and miles down the road towards sexual equality, you could be forgiven for thinking that a society such as ours has outgrown the need for bold cinematic challenges to our understandings of gender. Indeed, nowadays the femme fatale seems like little more than an anachronism; as out of place in the modern world as a cockney spiv might be in pre-Credit Crunch London. However, even the most liberal of societies falls into lazy thought patterns, habits of conception that need to be re-examined lest they go stale, rot and become oppressive dogma. Swedish Vampire film Let The Right One In (2008) is a film that rides out not only against popular theories of gender, but also against the commonly held belief that children are innocent, pliable creatures who need to be protected from adults. It does so by rejuvenating and reinventing that most iconoclastic of icons, the femme fatale.
In order to grasp the devastating beauty of Derek Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open (1984), it is first necessary to grasp the devastating beauty of another text; Conrad’s altogether more famous Heart of Darkness (1899). Conrad’s book ends with one of the most memorable soliloquies in British literature :
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
‘The horror! The horror!’”
As one of the most commented upon texts in academic literary criticism, this passage has been found to contain endless meanings but one particular meaning has clawed its way up out of the Darwinian jungle of ideas with greater panache and ferocity than the others. The most common interpretation of that final line is that Kurtz has somehow seen the savage, devouring emptiness that lurks at the heart of existence. A heart of darkness that can only truly be grasped by the mad or the inspired who can free themselves of the comforting fictions that animate our day-to-day lives. For Queen. For Country. For Myself. For Love. All fictions. One reason for the popularity of this interpretation is that it echoes the themes of meaninglessness that pervade existentialism, that most popular of Post-War philosophical postures.
Noir crime fiction is seen by some as a form of populist agitprop for existentialism. While Camus and Sartre took over the left bank, it was the Noir writers who were on sale in every news-agent. It is only natural to read Raymond’s book as a continuation of this de facto intellectual alliance, but I would argue that Raymond’s take on existentialism is almost diametrically opposed to that of Sartre, Camus, Kafka or Marcel.