3/9/11

A Night at the Monastery

When this blog embarked on its journey through the brittle pages of venerable paperback editions and pass hefty hardcover volumes with crackled spines, I did not anticipate that less than ten posts later I would be critiquing my first detective movie – and a pretty obscure one at that. It's not that I didn't want to do the same hack job at reviewing movies as I do with books, it's just that I'm already familiar with the well-covered, critically acclaimed magna opera of cinematic mysteries, such as Green for Danger, The Murder on the Orient-Express and The Maltese Falcon, that doing movies simply wasn't in the short term plans for this place.

I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised and greatly impressed by Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (1974), an adaptation of Robert van Gulik's 1961 novel The Haunted Monastery with screenplay by Nicholas Meyer (of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution fame), which starred an almost all-Asian cast – only the character of Judge Dee was played by Khigh Dhiegh, who was of mixed North African ancestry. This was quite a different approach from an earlier attempt to adapt the Judge Dee stories to the small screen, an ephemeral series made for British television in the late 1960s, which had a cast without a single Asian actor among them.

But the pleasure of watching this fine movie isn't just derived from its ethnic authenticity; it also treats its source material with the respect it deserves, even reusing many of the books dialogue, and did a splendid job at recreating the locale of the book: an old and musty monastery, plagued by ghostly apparitions and infested with death, during a heavy thunderstorm.

That's not to say that there aren't some minor changes, here and there, but for the most part the plot follows the book like a shadow – and both start off with a somewhat familiar trope of the detective being overcome by a sudden storm, which forces him to seek shelter in a dark and a dreary monastery on the night of its anniversary. But the festivities can't muffle the whispers of murder echoing through its darkened hallways and endless staircases. 



And although it's more a story of suspense than one of ratiocination, Dee still does an excellent job at uncovering the truth behind the former abbots death, deducing the truth from the man's final drawing of a cat, and the way in which he disposes an unsavory character, who murdered several innocent women, would've received the nodding approval of both Reggie Fortune and Mrs. Bradley. The story also contains a subplot involving a ghost window, appearing and disappearing in front of the Judge's eyes, however, the solution is very crude and antiquated – so don't expect too much from it.

On the whole, there's not much that can be said against this film, except that they pulled a Peter Ustinov by casting an actor who does not at all resemble the Judge Dee from Van Gulik's illustrations, and that one would wish they had either picked a better, more detection orientated, book (e.g. The Chinese Gold Murders) or simply had made more than one episode. But these are minor quibbles, really, that pale measured against the overall quality and enjoyability of the movie.

The one thing I don't understand, though, is why it's relatively a little-known film, even though it's one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever seen and was even nominated for an Edgar! 

In closing, I can only say that I hope that Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders will become available on DVD at some point in the future. It's too good to languish in obscurity! 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for taking me down memory lane! I remember watching this when it first aired in the 1970s on ABC TV. I don't think it's as little known as you think.

    It was a good time for GA mysteries in the 1970s on TV - Ellery Queen, a few adaptations of Rex Stout on network TV; Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter and the excellent "Rivals of Sherlock Holmes" on PBS. But then there were those hideous updates of Christie's books with Helen Hayes as Miss Marple. In my opinion the most un-Marple-like of all actresses to play her.

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