Friday, February 15, 2013

The television Van der Valk gets a new lease on life

It's amazing what turns up on DVD and in the Netflix inventory. I would have thought it unlikely that episodes from the early '70s of the (I supposed) long-forgotten TV series Van der Valk, based very loosely on the character created by Nicolas Freeling, would be resurrected.

Admirers of the literary Commisaris Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police will recognize little in the TV version beyond the names of the detective and his wife, Arlette. Freeling was, to my mind, the greatest writer of psychological crime novels. The TV Van der Valk lacks most of the introspection Freeling endowed his inspector with. The dialogue doesn't match the offbeat shades and rhythms of Freeling's. And Freeling's character wasn't the boozehound we see here.

The program has even given Van der Valk a detective partner named Kroon, who doesn't exist in the books. 

It's understandable: a screenwriter can't convey thoughts except through the clumsy device of voice-overs, so like Aeschylus, he has to introduce a second character for dialogue. Unfortunately, the actor playing Kroon (like that playing Arlette, a complex and interesting woman in the books) makes little impression.

Another oddity: The exterior shots of Amsterdam were recorded on film (in these early episodes, now corrupted and grainy) but the interiors were taped (and for the most part look sharp). Given that there is little control over lighting outdoors, it made sense to use film for its better subtlety and resolution, but it would have been less jarring to use it as well for the sound stage sets, pubs, hotel lobbies and so on. Budget, mes amis, budget.

Why am I bothering to write about this series at all? The main reason is that it stars Barry Foster, a first-rate actor who makes his Van der Valk -- while hardly resembling Freeling's -- memorable.

Foster's line readings, body language, gestures are a constant treat.When the script gives him an occasional Dutch word, it sounds to me like he pronounces it the way a Dutch person would. The same when he speaks his character's name -- something like "Fon dair Falk." His normal voice is classical English that suggests a touch of "good breeding."

He brings a certain impatience and grumpiness to the role, but unlike John Thaw in the Inspector Morse series, he doesn't let it degenerate into a tiresome routine.

Foster had a long and respectable career on stage, screen and TV, but never became the top-rank star his abilities should have led to. I suspect part of the reason is that his one role in a big budget film was in Hitchcock's creepy Frenzy, where he played a serial killer of women. The movie revolted a lot of people, myself included, and I suspect some of the distaste rubbed off on Foster.

But see him in the TV series Smiley's People and in the under-appreciated film The Whistle Blower (which also includes a typically superb performance by Michael Caine). Foster died in 2002.

The series ran for more episodes in the '70s, then was briefly revived in the late '90s. I hope it will gather enough new fans to make it worth someone's while put the rest of Van der Valk on DVD.

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