Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Friedrich Durrenmatt: The Pledge, novel and film

Friedrich Durrenmatt
The Pledge
Mystery, police procedural?

The description for the film, The Pledge, sounded interesting, so I rented it. It is a mystery story, but the focus is more on the detective than on the killer. A detective, played by Jack Nicholson, takes on the case of the murder of a child the day before he had intended to retire. The cast is also one of the inducements for viewing it: Jack Nicholson, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Aaron Eckhart, and Robin Wright Penn.

While researching the film on, I learned that the film is based on a novel by the same name by Friedrich Durrenmatt, whom I had never heard of. Some of the comments about Durrenmatt included statements that he was one of the most significant European writers and dramatists of the second half of the 20th century. It was then that I discovered that I had encountered Durrenmatt once before, some 45+ years ago in fact. I had seen his play, The Visit, on stage with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane.

I have never forgotten the play. A small town is dying. The company that was responsible for its economic life had closed down. A visitor comes to town. She had left this town many years ago, driven out, in fact, in disgrace when her lover denied being the father of her child. She has returned, one of the richest women in the country, and offers financial inducements in return for revenge. Her offer is refused, at first...

The Pledge is a subtly constructed novel about a promise made by Matthai, the police officer. Even though he supposed to leave the next day to take a job as police chief in Jordan, Matthai promises the mother of the murdered girl that he will catch the killer. The story is of that pledge and its effects upon the officer who has no life outside of his police work.

Suspicion falls upon an individual seen in the vicinity of the body. This individual, unfortunately for him, has a past record and is taken into custody. However, Matthai does not believe this man is the killer, so he starts his own investigation. Apparently two other young girls, both resembling the recent victim, have been killed within the past several years. While each was from a different small town in the mountains, there is an intersection in which the roads to each of the small towns meet and, moreover, one must come to this same intersection if one comes from outside the area. At this intersection is a gas station with a few rooms for travelers. Matthai buys the station and waits.

While this does seem to be an example of an excessive commitment on his part, especially since the police and citizenry are satisfied that the killer has been caught, I didn't think it actually had reached the stage of being an obsession. It wasn't until later in the film that I began to feel uneasy about his behavior, for everything he did made sense. His behavior made sense, but at a certain point he crossed the line beyond which no rational person would go.

There are some significant differences between the novel and the film but none that affect the overall theme of the novel. The differences are more about timing, about the presentation of information, and the focus of the theme--just how far should one go, even in attempting to prevent more murders in this case--remains the same.

Warning: What follows is information about significant events.

In The Pledge, like his play which I mentioned earlier, Durrenmatt gives us a situation in which an individual is placed at risk in order to benefit the group. One of the significant differences between the novel and the film is the way the officer sets up his trap for the killer.

In the novel, Matthai, now on inactive duty, goes to an orphanage and attempts to adopt a young girl, but he is refused. He then hires a local woman to clean the place and help him with customers. She has a young child, a girl about the same age and description, even to having blond hair, as did the previous victims. This might be a coincidence, except that now he has the girl always with him out in front, by the side of the road where drivers can't miss seeing her.

In the film, this is handled somewhat differently. One night, a young woman whom Nicholson had befriended in the past, comes to the station, seeking protection from an abusive ex-spouse. Nicholson lets her stay the night and then offers to let her stay if she will help out with the place.
Her appearance here with her young daughter then is a matter of chance. In the film then, there is always the possibility that her unexpected and unplanned appearance gave him the idea, whereas in the novel, he clearly plans to use the young girl as bait.

In the film version, Nicholson buys her a swing and puts it up in front of the station, in full view of drivers. When asked, he explains that it's safer out front where he can see her, whereas if he installs it in back, where there are no windows, anybody could come up out of the woods and he wouldn't be able to see him.

I don't want to reveal the rest of the story, so I'll stop here. That there is a killer who preys upon young children is horrifying enough, but that the detective is willing to use a young girl as bait to lure the killer into a trap is just as horrifying. What is most chilling is that when confronted with what he was doing, the officer is confused, for he doesn't see the problem. The killer is a threat and must be stopped. Nothing could happen to the young girl for she was well protected.

Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive here, but I don't think there's any justification that could justify putting a young child at risk. An adult could weigh the risks and decide whether to allow this to happen, but not a young child.

I wonder--am I being overly sensitive here?

Overall Rating: Nicholson and a great cast give us an excellent film version of a very chilling novel.


  1. I don't think I'll be watching this film. Your description reminds me of Mystic River - at least in the mood it evokes. I couldn't handle that - too depressing - so I don't think I could handle The Pledge, either. If you've seen Mystic River, how does it compare?

  2. Cheryl,

    I've seen _Mystic River_ and read the novel for a discussion group. I found both to be far more depressing than either the novel or the film version of _The Pledge_.

    The focus of the novel and the film is on the detective, and it's very subtly done, even the film version. And, it was only near the end when I realized just how driven he was.

    It's not a happy story, by any means, but it's not as bleak as _Mystic River_.

    What is clear is that obsessive behavior can be hidden from others and appear to be relatively normal behavior, even if a bit extreme. He made a pledge to the murdered girl's mother, and keeping his word was important to him. I don't find that too far out. Everything flowed normally or logically from that. Durrenmatt really did an excellent job of carrying me along, not noticing where this was going until late in the novel/film.

  3. Fred: By coincidence, my Dramatic Literature II course begins taking on one of Durrenmatt's contemporaries, Bertolt Brecht, when we talk about Mother Courage and Her Children in tomorrow's class. I am familiar with Durrenmatt (mostly through The Visit and his contributions to epic theater), but you've given me more useful information about something else from him that I should read and view. Thanks for the posting.

  4. R. T.,

    Glad to be of assistance. Have you seen a production of _The Visit_? It's been put on several times, but only by European studios. Perhaps one of these days Netflix will get around to making it available.