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29 july 2022

Charade (1947) is the novel I was looking for when I got sidetracked onto John Mortimer's later book Like Men Betrayed (1953). The latter is an offbeat crime story. The earlier Charade delivers an odder narrative, based on Mortimer's own wartime service as a screenwriter for a British-government film company.

The narrator of Charade is not a writer, though. He is a young man with no movie experience except reading a few highbrow film magazines. His mother, once a promising sculptor, still has a connection from her art-school past to the director in charge of the Action Film Unit, so she gets the narrator a place as fifth assistant director there. (It is late spring 1944, so her initiative keeps him out of the military as D-Day looms – an implication that the narrator prefers to elide.)

One of the oldest of situations: an innocent thrust among corrupt elders. A jaded screenwriter is the first to take the narrator in hand; next, the director's wife, who falls halfway in love with him; then the unit manager, the "continuity girl," several assistant directors, the soldiers they're filming, and the director himself. They all become close to the narrator, accept him, and respect him for his interpersonal skills: forgiving his complete ignorance of filmmaking.

In the novel's central incident, a sergeant falls off a cliff during a scene that the unit is filming. Suicide, murder, accident? The narrator's detective instincts are engaged, and the director's wife helps him investigate. But the crime may not even be a crime, and its realities remain opaque even to the narrator.

Much of Charade involves the aesthetic and ethical problems of making art that imitates life. Not that the novel becomes talky or idea-laden. But the narrator, screenwriter, and director all muse on the oddness of what they've set out to do. The Action Film Unit (in Mortimer's fictional world) does not make documentaries, exactly. But they don't use professional actors. They film stories of their own devising, using real people who might live such stories in real life, or at in some realer segment of their lives than their current occupation as an amateur film cast. They take situations they've observed, from living among these troops, and trace film scenarios over them, editing the "real" footage they capture into a dramatic narrative. The central death on the cliffside is actually captured on film, and the editor at first assumes it's been scripted (and is thus staged). Everything gets a bit hall-of-mirrorsy.

The director is convinced that his odd project will become an imperishable work of art. This sounds absurd till you remember that similar films like Robert Rossellini's Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero are among the greatest classics of cinema. Charade is thus an entry in the criticism about semi-documentary filmmaking of the 1940s, a chapter in the development of what the director in the novel recognizes is still an artform in its infancy, without a massive weight of precursors.

Charade itself is not a classic of the British novel, I don't think, though it's very well done. It is a young man's story, wish-fulfilling its hero into situations and successes he hasn't really earned. But it is an odd, original, and memorable book.

Mortimer, John. Charade. 1947. London: Viking [Penguin], 1986. PR 6025 .O7552