19 January 2006 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Brilliant use of locations.
'The Nine-Mile Walk', a 1947 story by Harry Kemelman, is rightly considered one of the greatest mystery stories of all time. Its plot is ingenious. A language professor named Nick Welt, trying to persuade a colleague that words have meanings which transcend their definitions, asks for a random statement as an example. The colleague obliges with this seemingly random sentence: "A nine-mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain." Through a fascinatingly logical series of deductions, the professor builds a strong case that the person most likely to have uttered that statement has just committed a murder. How did the colleague ever chance to come up with this particular sentence? The story's solution is surprising and satisfying.
Alvaro Brechner's film is a fascinating adaptation of Kemelman's classic story. The original tale is not very cinematic: it's basically just a conversation between two men walking along a road. Working on an extremely low budget, Brechner has imaginatively illustrated Kemelman's story, adding a powerful Spanish inflection. Brechner, born in Uruguay, is now based in Madrid. For this short film (just under 20 minutes), he brilliantly uses the mediaeval city of Toledo as a backdrop, with the city very nearly becoming a fully-fleshed character in the story.
In this film version, Nick Welt is a trial lawyer who has come to the modern city of Toledo to attend a lawyers' convention. Also attending the convention is Nick's colleague Carlos. Nick has a professional respect for Carlos, but feels that Carlos has a tendency to jump to illogical conclusions in his jury summations. The two men discuss this as they leave the convention and stroll through the Toledano streets. Nick offers to prove his point, challenging Carlos to make a random statement which Nick will then deconstruct. As in the original story, Carlos offers "A nine-mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain."
What makes Brechner's film very much more than a mere illustration of Kemelman's dialogue is his brilliant use of Toledo locations. As the two men stroll along, they become so enrapt in Nick's chain of logic that they fail to keep track of where they're going. Suddenly they discover that they're inside the labyrinthine streets of Toledo's inner mediaeval city ... and they can't find their way out. As Nick continues to deconstruct Carlos's statement, they carry on walking ... but are they moving deeper into the labyrinth, or not? Eventually, as Nick's chain of logic reaches its deadly conclusion, the two men encounter a cab driver (taxista). The ending is stunning, and unexpected even for those who have read Kemelman's story.
Brechner is a talented and intuitive director, and his adaptation of Kemelman's story is excellent. He's even more fortunate here to have such good actors. Gary Piquer, as Nick, is a Glaswegian Catalan (!) with unusual features and a distinctive accent, who handles his dialogue well and easily conveys the intelligence of his role. Alex O'Dogherty, as Carlos, doesn't look like my notion of a trial lawyer ... but I've met very few Spanish trial lawyers. O'Dogherty brings a conviction and a dogged tenacity to his role, as the two men find themselves enmeshed in two different labyrinths: the streets of Toledo, and Nick's remorseless logic.
I'll rate this brilliant short film a perfect ten out of ten. I eagerly await more film work by Brechner, Piquer and O'Dogherty, separately or in collaboration.