Nightcap (Movie)

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000)
Also titled Nightcap in English translation
Written by Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol, adapted from ‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ by Charlotte Armstrong
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronic and Anna Mouglalis

When I read and reviewed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb close to a year ago I had nothing but praise for the book, calling it one of the best reprints to have appeared in Penzler Publishers’ American Mystery Classics range to date. Little wonder then that when I learned that there was a French film adaptation, I had to seek out a copy.

Nightcap is faithful to much of the original novel’s situation, making only a few minor changes which I will discuss in a moment. The premise of the story is that a young woman learns that at birth there was an incident at the hospital in which she was mixed up with another child. The parents insisted on switching the children and nothing more was said but when she learns that the identity of the other father, she is fascinated as they are one of the leading figures in her field of study. Determined to meet them, she forces an introduction at his home, meeting his wife and son who all learn the story.

During that meeting she sees that his wife takes an opportunity to purposefully spill a container of hot chocolate that she had just prepared for her stepson. Our heroine is curious why someone would do that and, suspecting foul play, she decides to return to the house in the hope of stopping what she believes will be an attempt at murder.

As I noted in my review, I think that this is a wonderful concept for a story that blends suspense with a howcatchem-type inverted mystery. What I love most though is that this is a concept that sees a heroine knowingly step into an incredibly dangerous situation to protect a relative stranger – in this case, a young man who is quite cold and bitter toward her. Being aware of the dangers to come makes that decision all the more impressive and made me like the young woman – named Jeanne in the film – all the more.

Most of the differences in the initial setup of the story are quite minor and reflect the relocation of the story from America to Switzerland. Perhaps the most significant change is the decision to alter the subject Jeanne is studying from art to music – a decision that makes a lot of sense in the context of the shift of medium. Art would naturally work in a visual medium but the use of music allows for the engagement of an additional sense while retaining the opportunity for a mentor-mentee relationship to develop with the man who could have been her father.

The film does a good job of introducing us to the various characters and explaining the rather complex scenario in its opening few minutes. This is the most convoluted part of the story and I had worried that it might seem all the more artificial when seen played out on screen. To my pleasure however I found that the decision is made to play Jeanne’s choice to meet the family she might have had out of curiosity rather than a sincere belief that she was really his daughter. Similarly, I appreciate that the film chooses to have André be excited about the prospect of a mentee rather than taking the idea too seriously.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film experience is that while we are privy to the thoughts of Ione, the stepmother, we are kept more distant from Marie-Claire. We observe her actions but do not learn why she is doing them. This is not just because we have lost the internal monologue – the film never fully explains the story even in retrospect, trusting the viewer to piece the material together.

It is, for me, a rather unfortunate decision as I think it prevents the film from building a sense of suspense as effectively as the novel. I had loved the way that the reader was given knowledge of Ione’s intentions in the book, raising our anticipation to see whether her plans would come off. Without knowledge of that inner voice we are kept from knowing exactly what she has in mind or why, which not only prevents the viewer from anticipating developments but it also means the viewer will likely have questions at the end of the movie, particularly in relation to her motives.

That is a shame because in other respects I quite enjoyed Isabelle Huppert’s performance. It is a little flatter and colder than I had imagined Ione in the book but it fits this setting quite well, making an interesting contrast with Jacques Dutronc’s warmer and more expressive André. Both give strong performances and I appreciated that each underplay their parts, seeming very convincing alongside each other.

The film’s production values, like the performances, are a little understated and few would suggest that this offers much visual appeal. The camerawork and editing is quite simple, favoring long takes observing actors rather than quick cuts – a choice that gives the performances more room to breathe. There are a few moments of sloppiness however, such as a boom mike dropping into shot during a scene between Huppert and Brigitte Catillon. Given this took place in long shot and goes nowhere near the actors, I have no idea why it wasn’t spotted in the edit and a tighter crop or alternate take used.

The biggest changes made between the book and the film all take place in the denouement and naturally, I don’t want to discuss them in any detail for fear of spoiling anyone. The alteration is significant because it changes the context of the ending and means that the movie ends on a somewhat different note, arguably touching on some slightly different ideas. The change itself didn’t bother me but the choice to have everything play out off screen and relayed to us in dialogue did feel a little disappointing.

This is a shame because I think the movie otherwise does a pretty solid job of adapting the source material to the screen. It is easy to imagine how this movie could have indulged itself too much in its premise, losing sight of the characters’ humanity. Instead I was pleased that the movie grounds itself in its characters, focusing on their emotional states as they respond to one another.

The lack of a strong ending, both in terms of the tension created and also the sense of resolution, keeps this from being a really great adaptation of the source material. Still, I liked the casting and performances a lot and I commend it for managing to sell the baby swap scenario so well (it actually adds a little to the novel, helping make sense of that plot strand a little better).

The Verdict:

Nightcap does not match its source material for tension, particularly in its conclusion, but in most other respects it is a very competent adaptation. While I strongly suggest starting with the novel, this is certainly worth a look.

The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1945

The Blurb

When Rosaleen Wright was found hanging, a note beside her body, the police are sure it is suicide. But her best friend Jane cannot believe it. Rosaleen was full of vitality and wit – and the note had no signature. Instead, Jane suspects Rosaleen’s boss, New York theatre impresario Luther Grandison. 

Grandison is rich, powerful and charismatic, but Rosaleen’s letters to Jane show a completely different man. One who is duplicitous, greedy – and dangerous. A man who would kill to protect his secrets. 

Jane is determined to find out the truth – and takes the ultimate risk when she gets a job with Grandison’s company, and finds herself up against one of Broadway’s deadliest actors in a desperate play for the truth.

The Verdict

This book boasts a clever and morally complex setup and an exceptional villain. My only complaint is with the overly tidy ending.

Yes, I know a man who has committed that gravest and most interesting of all crimes, the crime of murder, and who never has been suspected at all.

My Thoughts

I have only read a handful of Charlotte Armstrong novels so far but I already count myself a fan. I was blown away by the tension generated in The Chocolate Cobweb, a superb thriller, while I felt The Dream Walker was a fascinating and largely successful blend of the inverted and impossible crime forms. Little wonder then that I quickly set about tracking down copies of her other works and this title, reprinted a couple of years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range, was a natural next step.

The Unsuspected begins in the aftermath of a death. Rosaleen Wright, secretary to Luther “Grandy” Grandison, was found hanging in his home having apparently committed suicide – a belief reinforced by a note left by the body written in her own hand. Her friend Jane expresses her disbelief in the idea while dining with Francis, another friend of the deceased, and expresses her belief that it was not suicide but murder and that the man responsible is her charming and charismatic boss.

The pair conceive a plan to worm their way into his household to enable them to search for evidence that may confirm their suspicions. Jane convinces Grandy to hire her as a replacement for Rosaleen, giving her close access to him and his papers while Francis poses as the husband of his ward who had been tragically lost at sea only to find his position made much more difficult when she dramatically resurfaces.

The Unsuspected, like The Chocolate Cobweb, is an example of an inverted thriller in which our heroes place themselves in danger to try and catch a murderer who appears to have already got away with it. In addition to puzzling over whether the heroes will catch the killer and how they might manage it, the reader will also be looking at the reasons behind that murder. To put it another way, this is a blend of the howcatchem and whydunnit forms.

Understanding why anyone would place themselves in the orbit of a presumed murderer can be challenging but I feel Armstrong does a pretty good job here of giving Jane and Francis a clear and powerful motivation to get involved. While their situation becomes less comfortable as the action progresses, much of that could not be predicted at the outset and so the steady increase of danger feels quite natural to the situation: by the time the danger increases, they are already too invested and too close to the truth to back out.

Of the pair I found Jane to be the more likable. She is the organizer and while she is less active in driving the action than Francis, she retains an important role throughout. Given her need to stay deep undercover, she is often in the background of the action and I delighted in observing the sometimes quite subtle ways she exerts influence on the action.

Francis carries more of the action, in part because his role requires a greater degree of active deception. While I described Jane and Francis as heroes earlier, not everything they do in the course of this story is portrayed as heroic. Throughout the novel we see Francis do his best to convince Mathilda that they really were married prior to her taking that sea voyage, engaging in some pretty heavy gaslighting. Armstrong is quite clear about the mental distress this causes her, thoughtfully exploring her responses to these suggestions, and while it is clear that Grandy is also exerting a similar control over her the reader will have to decide for themselves if Francis’ actions are at all justifiable.

Armstrong does an excellent job of constructing her story to slowly build pressure on these two protagonists as they inch nearer to learning the truth. It is quite fascinating to see how she builds tension less through moments of action (and the threat that it might happen) as through the subtle changes within a relationship or even the language used within a conversation.

The character of Luther Grandison is, for me, the standout figure of the novel. I was struck by how strong his presence feels throughout the novel, even though his direct appearances are often quite brief. This serves to make the character seem more mysterious and to leave us in the dark as to exactly what he believes at any point, at least in the first half of the book. Early in the book there is a striking passage in which Jane and Francis discuss how some people have to wear masks until they die to hide their secrets and it is clear that Grandy is such a person. The question the reader has to resolve is just what lies behind that mask.

I have mentioned before on this blog that I am not a particularly imaginative reader – at least in terms of visualizing places and characters. Sometimes though I find myself thinking of film actors and in this case the person who sprang to mind was Claude Rains in his ability to be charming but also have a sharp edge. I was rather delighted to learn shortly after finishing the book that there was a film version and that he played that role (although the description sounds as though there were some changes made – I look forward to watching for myself at some point soon to see how it was adapted).

While I think the concept and the characters are exceptional, I found the novel’s resolution to be a little unsatisfying. It is not that I think the ending is untidy but rather the reverse. The book up until that point seemed to have played with the moral complexities of what was being done and I expected that to have a dramatic payoff. It should have been emotionally difficult and uncomfortable but that moment never came and instead Armstrong chose to whiff on confronting those challenging themes.

Still, while I think the ending is a little underwhelming dramatically, I admire much about this book up until that point. The premise struck me as clever and quite original while the characters seemed quite vividly drawn. Particularly Grandy himself. Though I think her next book, The Chocolate Cobweb, a more satisfying read overall, I found plenty to enjoy here and I really look forward to my next Armstrong read.

The Dream Walker by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1955

The Blurb

Olivia Hudson, a drama teacher at a Manhattan girl’s school, refuses to let her uncle John Paul Marcus play the role of dupe in a real-life revenge story. Uncle John is a beloved war veteran, a New York institution, and a hard-working philanthropist with an unimpeachable reputation. His mistake—an honorable one, at that—was disclosing the financial chicanery of industrial heir Raymond Pankerman, and it could cost John his life.
 
Raymond has staged the perfect crime, and the perfect frame-up, to destroy the old man. He has everything he needs: a failed and penniless playwright who’d sell his soul if the price was right, a budding television starlet looking for a breakout role, and a susceptible public suckered into believing a supernatural swindle that’s making headlines.
 
As a good man is taken down by the outlandish claims of an “otherworldly” publicity-seeking beauty nicknamed the Dream Walker, Olivia refuses to stand idly by—especially since she has the talent to outwit and outplay an actress at her own duplicitous game.
 
Inspired by the mob mentality of the postwar McCarthy hearings, Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker (also published as Alibi for Murder) is both an ingeniously clever mystery of double-crosses and triple-twists, and a still-relevant cautionary tale about the irreversible consequences of tabloid journalism and the gullibility of the masses.

The Verdict

A fascinating and creative play at blending the inverted and impossible crime sub-genres. Amazingly it works pretty well!

When Kent Shaw left the apartment that evening, his head was full, I’ll warrant, of his masterpiece. He would pull off the biggest show he had ever staged and no one would ever know it.

My Thoughts

A few years ago I read a novel called The Medbury Fort Murder. It was a novel that excited me a lot as the style and plot summary seemed to suggest that it was a blend of two of my favorite types of mystery fiction – the impossible crime and the inverted mystery. Unfortunately I was left disappointed that it didn’t meet those expectations and I was left to wonder whether it would even be possible to write an inverted impossible crime story. Having now read Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker I am happy to confirm that it is and that it works incredibly well. It blends the two forms without compromising on either, delivering a tight and compelling scenario.

The book begins by the narrator, a former school teacher, revealing that she will tell us the real story of a plot aimed to bring down John Paul Marcus, a wealthy and highly influential public servant with an impeccable reputation. In the first few pages we learn who is behind that plot, what their goal is and even some details of how they planned to go about it. Yet in spite of knowing all that general information, Armstrong manages to create a sense of mystery about exactly how it will be achieved and we are left to wonder how the villains might get caught.

So, how does an inverted impossible crime story actually work? Armstrong structures her story so that we understand a few basic points about what they were planning but avoids giving us firm details. We know, for instance, that it will involve two women, that the plan involves a ‘supernatural element’ and that their goal is to implicate John Marcus in improper dealings with foreign nationals. As one of the villains remarks, ‘No sensible person is going to believe it. But he won’t be able to explain it…’. That doubt will be enough to taint him.

After introducing us to the personalities and describing the general gist of the plan, we are then taken through the sequence of apparently strange and supernatural events by the narrator. Knowing that they are a sham and who is responsible does not make them any the less interesting, even if it is quite clear early in the novel how the trick is being worked. Instead the focus becomes on whether and how the method being used will be detected.

The plan is a rather imaginative one and Armstrong has it build steadily, gradually bringing in new elements. In addition to the interest in discovering exactly what Kent Shaw has planned, there is added interest in seeing how he will be forced to respond to some unexpected elements and developments along the way. This not only illustrates the character’s resourcefulness and quick wits, it also helps establish him clearly as an antagonist as he shows himself to be quite ruthless in pursuit of his goal.

One question that I think needs to be addressed when a book deviates from an established structure is why the author chose to approach it in that way. After all, the impossibility Kent Shaw creates is quite clever. While the supernatural explanation clearly will not be the correct one, if we read an account of the events in a purely chronological order without any insight into the villain’s motives I think it would be quite puzzling.

There are a couple of things that I think this unusual structural approach adds to the story and one problem that it avoids. Let’s start with the latter because it’s the simplest: by quickly laying out the cause of the villain’s grievance, Armstrong avoids having to establish John Paul Marcus as a character. This is just as well because he is really there to be a type – a loyal, patriotic American statesman who will be targetted on baseless accusations made against him, evoking a sense of the McCarthy anti-communist hearings of this period.

In terms of what it adds, I think having the narrator be able to highlight aspects of the story as significant based on what they know of events to come helps to build anticipation of those developments. It also adds a sense of mystery about how something might prove important.

The other major advantage is that Olivia Hudson is a fine and rather heroic protagonist with strong and credible emotions. By contrast while I have little difficulty believing in the source of the grudge or that it might be the cause of some type of vengence, the pair of schemers are not particularly compelling or dimensional characters in their own rights. The things they do are interesting but their personalities are not a focus of the story.

In contrast, Olivia comes off as quite dimensional. While she has no direct knowledge of what has been planned, Olivia quickly grows suspicious. We are left to wonder at what point she will gain the awareness of the plot that we already know she has deduced based on references in the earliest chapters. When will be the moment that she is able to give voice to her suspicions and explain how it was done?

The book builds to a very solid conclusion that I think tackles those questions and answers them very neatly, wrapping up each of the key plot strands pretty well. I would suggest that readers should not expect to be surprised – they will have a strong sense of the destination from early in the novel – but the path to that point is interesting and entertaining.

It made for a solid cap to a very enjoyable novel. Yes, it can get a little melodramatic at points and the prose is occassionally a little heavy-handed but the book is often very clever and creative, offering plenty to interest fans of inverted and impossible crime stories alike.

The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.

But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface. . . .

The Verdict

A truly suspenseful and exciting story with an engaging premise and some striking characters. One of the best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range.


My Thoughts

Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb may have a somewhat quirky title but it is an absolute masterclass is generating and sustaining suspense. The reason it is so effective is that it boasts a simple but clear premise. Armstrong quickly sets up her situation and her characters, gives them each clear objectives and then we watch to see how the events will play out.

The protagonist is Amanda Garth, an aspiring painter, who at the start of the novel learns about a mix-up that happened at the hospital when she was born. For a few hours she was swapped with another child, Thone Garrison, the son of a prominent artist before her father persuaded the nurses that a mistake had been made. When she learns about the mixup she wonders if the nurses had been right after all and learning that Garrison is nearby she decides to drive to his gallery to meet him.

On visiting his home she comes to realize that she is fantasizing but before she leaves she notices something odd as Ione, Thone’s stepmother, deliberately knocks a flask of hot chocolate over that he was supposed to drink. After she leaves Amanda comes to suspect that there must have been something wrong and decides to return to the household in the hope of averting a murder.

This is a heavily condensed summary of the start of the novel but I want to leave as much of the details for you to discover for yourself as possible. What I can say is that within a couple of chapters we have learned that Ione was planning a murder and we learn more about the background to that plan. We are in no doubt about her role as the villain of the piece, nor that while she may have temporarily paused her plans that she will try again.

What we have then is a blend of suspense fiction and the howcatchem-type inverted crime story. These two story styles naturally complement each other and help to create a very compelling scenario. Knowing Ione’s character, motive and the rough outline of her scheme we recognize the danger that Amanda is placing herself in by returning to their home. What I think makes this situation so interesting though is Amanda is every bit as aware as we are of the danger she will be in. In fact some of her actions are intended to elevate that risk, hoping to expose Ione as a would-be killer.

Amanda’s willingness to put herself in danger for the sake of strangers makes her pretty instantly likeable as a protagonist. Though she clearly is prone to fantasy, Armstrong never makes her out to be foolish or incapable and she proves herself to be one of the strongest characters by the end of the novel. One of the reasons I found this book so difficult to put down is that I wanted to get to that end to see if she would outwit Ione and survive her ordeal which I think reflects how quickly I came to care about her.

I also think that Armstrong very neatly addresses why Amanda chooses to take this route rather than share her concerns with the local police. For one thing there is a lack of physical proof but she also smartly holds back some of the history of the Garrison family until after Amanda has committed to her course of action. Though she continues to take heavy personal risks, her actions are never thoughtless. There is no doubt for me that this is a character who seeks to control her story, not be a bystander or a victim, and that makes her pretty compelling.

Ione is similarly an interesting figure, though a little harder to understand in spite of Armstrong giving us a lot of background to her early on. I was intrigued by the psychological complexity of her motivations, even though Armstrong expresses it in quite clear and simple terms by framing it as an act of obsession. The one aspect of her motive that I think she is not so clear about is explaining precisely is the cause of that obsession though I think it is interesting to think about.

The character Amanda has to convince of the risk he faces is Ione’s stepson, Thone. This proves a challenge, in part because of the way she enters his life. He is suspicious of her motivations for approaching the family from the beginning and this leads to an enjoyable mix of antagonism and attraction, though the latter is always left to bubble under the surface to color those interactions rather than to define them. I enjoyed seeing how that awkward relationship developed and wondered whether she would be able to convince him of the danger he was in and, if so, how she would do that.

There is very little padding here – in fact very little material at all that doesn’t feel completely relevant to the main story. As a result this book feels really tight with developments happening at a greater pace than I would have ecpected.

These characters and their motives are defined well enough that the reader can often project how things are likely to play out but that does not mean that this book is predictable. There are several moments or developments that caught me by surprise and so while the end result was in keeping with my expectations, the path to that point was a little different than the one I anticipated.

It made for a truly engaging and suspenseful read that stands out to me as one of the very best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range. Thoroughly recommended to lovers of suspense fiction.

If you have read any other works by Charlotte Armstrong I would love to have your recommendations for which I should try next.

Further Reading

I have to thank Kate at CrossExaminingCrime for sharing her thoughts on this book a couple of months ago. Her review inspired me to give this a try for which I am clearly grateful!

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Amateur Night category as a Golden Age read.