It is interesting where you can pick up unexpected movies. I guess this is nothing new, I remember petrol stations selling video cassettes in the 1980s and these days you can get DVDs not only there but from newsagents and supermarkets too. Sometimes it seems incredibly random what is available and especially for movies that a more than a couple of years old you do sometimes wonder how they were selected to be put on the shelf. It was through a supermarket that I recently picked up a copy of 'Gorky Park' (1983) for £3. Due to my love of crime authors like Leonardo Sciascia, Josef Škvorecký and to a lesser degree Philip Kerr, I have always been drawn to detective stories set in regimes which prevent the normal processes of 'standard' crime fiction, i.e. that the detective finds the criminal and s/he is brought to justice. In dictatorships with their vested interests and often competing factions, the resolution of the crime is often the detective's least concern especially when set beside staying alive in the internecine wars between different factions of the regime.
Thus, it is of no surprise that I was drawn to 'Gorky Park'. Around 3 million copies of the book, written by American Martin Cruz Smith and first published in 1981, were sold. It remained in the US book charts for 144 weeks in the 1980s in hardback and paperback editions. I do not know the sales figures for the UK but they must have been similarly high. Cruz Smith went on to write another six books featuring the same detective Arkady Renko down to 2010, however, the original novel remains the most successful book he has produced, though he has been publishing since 1970. It is difficult to place precisely why the novel was such a success. I think, in part, it was due to the setting of the USSR at the time of the so-called Second Cold War. For English-speaking readers it was an alien setting. In addition, the hero of the novel is a high-ranking Soviet police officer, Captain Arkady Renko, Chief Investigator in the Moscow Militsiya, which despite its designation (i.e. 'militia') and military ranks, was the police force. In this first novel the prime suspect is an American businessman, Jack Osborne, a dealer in sable furs, which at the time the USSR had a monopoly over. Thus, for the reader, the usual sympathies are over-turned even though Renko roots out corruption in the Soviet system rather than viewing it as an idyll. Ironically, in many ways he is purifying the crumbling USSR of its corruption. Unlike many Soviets, however, he views the West (he visits the USA briefly in 'Gorky Park') as similarly corrupt.
Aside from these perspectives which differ from most English-language detective stories, there is an interesting crime. Three bodies, two men and a woman are found in Moscow's Gorky Park with their faces and fingertips sliced off to prevent identification. Investigating the crime drags Renko not only into the business of Osborne but also KGB officers and high-ranking Militsiya officers, thus creating the kind of vested interest tension that you look for in such novels. Renko is at risk of his life for much of the novel and one of his men, Senior Lieutenant Pasha is shot dead by a KGB agent.
Anyway, when I saw the DVD I decided to buy it, to pass some time in my lodgings watching it on my laptop. I had seen it before, but cannot remember how long ago and in some ways it impressed me less than the first time. However, this does not mean it is not worthwhile watching. The movie was directed by British director Michael Apted (born 1941) who has directed numerous movies but is probably best known for 'The World Is Not Enough' (1999) and 'Enigma' (2002). The screenplay was written by British scriptwriter and playwright, Dennis Potter (1935-94), probably best known for his television dramas, notably 'Pennies from Heaven' (1978), 'The Singing Detective' (1986) and 'Brimstone and Treacle' (1987 adapted by himself from his 1982 play).
The movie has loads of British actors in it. Ian Bannen (1928-99) plays Chief Prosecutor (Lieutenant-Colonel?) Iamskoy, Renko's boss; Michael Elphick (1946-2002) plays Senior Lieutenant Pasha; Richard Griffiths (born 1947) plays Anton, a lawyer friend of Renko's; Ian McDiarmid (born 1944) plays Professor Andree,v an archaeologist who reconstructs faces from skulls something commonly seen in programmes nowadays but a novelty in 1983; Rikki Fulton (1924-2004) plays the leading KGB antagonist, Major Pribluda; and Alexei Sayle (born 1952) plays petty criminal Golodkin, interesting given his Russian heritage. I guess this fits in with the casting of British actors in Hollywood movies to play all kind of European roles. The stars: William Hurt (born 1950) as Renko, Lee Marvin (1924-87) as Osbourne and Brian Dennehy (born 1938) who plays New York detective William Kirwill who comes to Moscow seeking his dead brother were all American; the sole female character, Irina Asanova, was played by Polish actress Joanna Pacula (born 1957).
Given that the movie was filmed not long after it is set, it was unsurprising that the company could not get access to the USSR and instead it was shot in Finland (a number of Finnish actors appear in smaller roles) and in Stockholm, where the action of the movie transfers to in the closing phase, rather than to the USA as in the novel. In many ways this is actually a more feasible plot as Osbourne has been smuggling sables out of the USSR and it would be comparatively easier to get them overland to Sweden than overseas to the USA without arousing the attention of both the Soviets and US authorities.
The movie makes good use of the setting, showing both the dreary life of the USSR in the 1980s plus locations such as Iamskoy's dacha and the police headquarters. The different kinds of crime of the USSR such as smuggling out icons and dealing in Western electrical goods feature as do run down buildings and ugly apartment blocks. Of course, since the 1980s the market for furs has largely evaporated and it is interesting that this factor dates it a great deal more than if it had been icons or people that were the items being smuggled out. The motive of wanting to escape to the West is one that does not appear in most crime stories and is an interesting driver for the behaviour of Irina. Osbourne is driven in turns by greed and lust. Many of the Soviet characters are motivated by financial greed or fear of running into the KGB. Renko as all good detectives should do, stands for something more moral, even though though morals are seen through a Soviet lens. There is violence. The defacing of the three victims and the gutting of Kirwill are noticeable. However, they tend to generate a rather muted reaction from the audience, perhaps because we are aware that in such a totalitarian system life is pretty cheap and any murder can be excused if it fits political expediency. This is notable with the fate of Iamskoy and arguably Pribluda.
All of these elements could have made for an excellent thriller with particular piquancy at the time it was released when we were all aware of the issues of the Cold War and at least could have an idea of how the Soviet people suffered under their regime. The key problem is the acting. Many of the actors make a great effort. Bannen, Griffiths and Pacula are good, even Fulton in a limited role; Marvin does not do badly even though in large part he is acting himself; Dennehy is similarly capable given he is playing a role pretty familiar to him. Sayle is simply Sayle no different in manner really to his performances on numerous comedy shows and even advertisements. However, to some degree that is tolerable especially if you do not know his comedy work as he is playing a cocky 'wide boy' or spiv. However, it jars if you recognise the act as well as I do.
The thing that really brings down the movie is how wooden so much of the dialogue is. Hurt is very badly served in this respect. He comes over as cold and emotionless when in fact he should be twisted by the different drivers and fear. His affection for Irina seems particularly cold. Given that he is a man motivated by what he feels is right, so much of this weakened by him appearing like some kind of android. Elphick did not have a wide range as an actor, but he is served even worse in this movie than say in his television series 'Boon' (1992-5). I believe Apted was rather limited by how Soviets were expected to be portrayed in movies of the time. We can see a similar situation in 'Red Heat' (1988) in which Arnold Schwarznegger plays Captain Ivan Denko of the Moscow Militsiya. Whilst this is a much more light-hearted thriller, like Hurt, Schwarznegger in a similar role has simply to come across as almost a robot, with a fixed life and monotone delivery. Schwarznegger resembles his android assassin character in 'The Terminator' movies (1984-2003); Hurt should be nothing like that. In many ways the Soviet characters in 'Gorky Park' are shown as having a range of motives and many pressures on them, but they bear them with a lifeless stoicism which undermines their credibility as people we engage with. I guess at a time when it still seemed possible that the USA and USSR would engage in war, it would have seemed unpatriotic to actually show Soviets as human even in fiction.
Whilst I enjoyed revisiting 'Gorky Park', I am always going to be conscious that if Apted had been able to break away from the stereotypical portrayal of Soviets, it could have been an excellent detective thriller.