Tag Archives: The Pledge

Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, (1921-1990) was one of the two great Swiss writers of the twentieth century (IMO, the greater of the two). Like the other one, Max Frisch, Dürrenmatt wrote both novels and plays, though Dürrenmatt’s plays, especially “The Visit,” are better known than is his fiction. As with August Strindberg, whose masterpiece “Dance of Death” Dürrenmatt reworked (as “Play Strindberg”) Dürrenmatt’s view of human relationships and aspirations is so dark that I sometimes suspect that his intent was comic. What I’ve read about Dürrenmatt treats him as a despairing existentialist, but Gore Vidal glimpsed what might be a parodist lurking in the shadows in his version of Dürrenmatt’s play about the last Roman emperor “Romulus the Great” who wants to stay down on the ranch (I mean farm) but, unlike the current American emperor, distrusts not the people, the law, and government, but the project of world-domination.


Dürrenmatt’s short 1958 novel Das Versprechen was the basis for a 1960 Swiss-Spanish movie (“Es geschah am hallichten Tag”— It Happened in Broad Dalylight) and for Sean Penn’s great 2000 film. Although the book has a movie poster cover with Jack Nicholson grimly staring off to his left, the book-movie tie-in was botched and the book was published ten months after the film was released. (Thus, there is a glut of copies, and low-price copies are plentiful.

Although I have read a lot of Dürrenmatt and seen productions of some of his plays, I wanted to read The Pledge because of my admiration for Penn’s film. The main elements of the plot were in the novel and reading it reassured me that I interpreted the ending of the film correctly.

In the book, his former boss tells the story of a senior detective to a writer with whom he contrives a meeting. How the police official came to tell the story takes up some pages and the story is sketchily told in contrast to the rich details with which Penn and Nicholson show the growing obsession and eventual unraveling of the character who is named Lt. Matthäi in the book.


Rather than being about to retire (as in the movie), Lt. Matthäi is taking up a position in Jordan contracted by the Swiss government. The mother of a young girl who has been murdered asks Lt. Matthäi to promise to find the killer — promising on his soul. He makes her that dire pledge and she is satisfied he has fulfilled it when his successors drive a suspect who was near the scene of the crime and has a molestation record to suicide, but Lt. Matthâi knows that the killer is still out there.

Plot-spoiler alert

Other than the story-telling frame, the only thing of any importance that is in the book but not Penn’s film is a scene (echoing the center of “The Visit”) in which Lt. Matthäi confronts a lynch mob. It is the most dramatic scene in the book, in fac

In the book and in the film the ex-policeman baits a trap for the killer with a young girl who fits what he sees as the pattern for the serial killer. In the novel this is straightforward. Betrayal of trust is hardly an issue. By showing a significant relationship between the ex-cop who is on a mission, the girl, and her mother, the film makes this a far more complicated matter and the agonized choice to go ahead with his plan to endanger a girl whom he loves and who loves him and whose mother he loves and who loves him is the heart of the film’s greatness. The ex-cop unravels in both versions, but in the book it is seeming to have been mistaken that drives Lt. Matthäi to despair. At least in my interpretation of the film, it is sacrificing the family he has built that destroys Jack Nicholson after the failure of the stakeout he convinced the police to do, not a blow to his professional ego heavily invested in his infallible intuitiveness. (The film detective’s career was over: he was retired and supposed to concentrate on fishing, whereas Lt. Matthäi throws away his career when he was supposed to take up another post that was part of his nation’s foreign policy.)


The plot of Sean Penn’s film is in the book, as are outlines of the main characters, but the film develops the characters, makes the plot more heartbreaking (for viewers and for the characters) and shows what the characters go through rather than telling about it from the detached perspective of the policeman’s former boss. The book is a swift read (29 chapter divisions, 172 pages of large type) but ingenious in contrast to the performance of Jack Nicholson (, Robin Wright Penn, and others) and the psychological deepening in the film.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Sean Penn’s directorial masterpiece: “The Pledge” (2001)

Sean Penn’s 2001 film of the 1958 novel The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is a portrait of a policeman’s self-destruction. It is not an action-filled thriller. It is not “about” catching or stopping a serial killer.


The man who entices and murders eight-year-old girls becomes the focus of Detective Jerry Black’s life after his official retirement from the Reno police force. We have seen and heard before that detectives have to be able to think like criminals to thwart them. We have seen and heard of more than a few breaking laws to uphold the rule of law, to destroy villages to save them, etc. Such dangers need to be regularly considered, but the policeman metamorphosing into what he (and sometimes she) is trying to eliminate is a relatively minor component of the disintegration of (ex-) Detective Black.

After the most bravura cinematic scene in the film — in which in a long-distance shot Detective Black (played by Jack Nicholson) crosses a barn covered with gobbling turkeys and tells the parents that their daughter has been murdered — a scene in which the audience cannot hear what is said, the scene justifying the title occurs. The dead girl’s mother coerces a promise from Detective Black that he will find the man who killed the girl. The mother demands that he swear this on his salvation, as she holds a cross made by her slain daughter.

This pledge is extremely serious to Swiss Calvinists (Dürrenmatt’s background). There is no indication that Detective Black believes that he has a salvation to pledge, though he reminds the police chief played by Sam Shepard that they are old enough to remember when promises meant something.

In my view, Jerry risks and loses his salvation not by making that pledge but by breaking another that is only implicit. Not wanting to give away the ending, I will return to interpreting what I consider a trinity of endings in a distinct section below.

First, though, some evaluative comments:

Whether it is his greatest performance since “Chinatown,” his greatest performance since “The Shining,” or his greatest performance since his Academy Award-winning performance in “As Good As It Gets” (his previous film), Jack Nicholson is exceptionally self-effacing getting very deep into the role of Jerry Black. That he can go through a whole movie without smirking is amazing, but only part of his accomplishment herein. Without the voice-over crutch that tells audiences what the perspective of so many jaded detectives is, Nicholson shows what Jerry Black is feeling.

In addition to Nicholson’s awe-inspiring performance are a series of intense performances in single-scene roles by Mickey Rourke(!), Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Benicio Del Toro (it could be argued that the last is in two or three scenes), and another compelling performance across a large range of emotions by Robin Penn Wright.


Personally, I would have liked there to be more about what turned Jerry Black into the person he is on his retirement day. Although it is easy to understand why he does not return to the child psychologist (played by Helen Mirren, an icon of the frustrations of catching serial killers…), it is unfortunate for Jerry Black that he did not enlist continued consultation from her.

English cinematographer Chris Menges (whose most memorable work has been in “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields”) provides some beautiful mountain and lake scenery (supposed to be Nevada, I think it is British Columbia, but the story is Swiss in origin, so who cares?). There are, perhaps, too many scenes of Jerry fishing. If so, this is the editor and director’s fault, not the cinematographer’s. However, I am not certain that these scenes and/or their length are harmful. The respites (for the audience as well as the character) arguably have a function, specifically to show that he is not completely obsessed with the killer (he is very obsessed, but not completely, you know?)

Some gimmicky camera work does not seem to me to advance the exploration of the character(s). I’m not sure if there is a technical term for the opposite of deep focus (blurry deep focus?). There are an inordinate number of shots from above, some very tight closeups, and (I think) too many lingering shots

so many fishing scenes necessary as calm, lucid interludes?

I thought there was a little too much foreshadowing, but given that a number of viewers were audibly perplexed after the screening, it is clear that what happens is opaque to some.

Composer Has Zimmer (The Lion King, As Good As It Gets, The Thin Red Line) provided rather obtrusive, sometimes obvious, but often effective music.


Late in the film it occurred to me that Jack Nicholson was back in Antonioni country. I was thinking of “The Passenger” in which he discards an old self. The photography of objects and various long shots (especially the aforementioned turkey barn one) recalled Antonioni (especially “Eclipse”). The most direct Antonioni predecessor occurred to me only later: “Blow Up.” That most commercially successful of Antonioni films was also about an obsessive attempt to figure out what happened, whether there was a crime (here, whether there is going to be another crime).

There is no doubt in my mind that Detective Black correctly identified the killer. Surely, the reason he did not show up for his rendez-vous became known to his former colleagues. But that doesn’t much matter to Jerry. At least it does not matter as much as that what he has done is very horrible, and he knows that he deserves to have lost everything by it.

I have practically no doubt that he loved both the girl and her mother. An obvious answer to Robin Wright’s final charge, “I thought you loved her,” is that he did. Human motivation is not so simple that the only two possibilities are that he loved her or he used her for bait. I think that both are true, which makes the latter more horrible. An argument could be made that he is saving not only her but some other possible target. Self-righteous policemen playing God, judging predators and taking action against them, are familiar, but not such a mixture of God and Abraham (even though he is not the biological father, I except that he has become a de jure as well as de facto father).

If I am wrong and the mother is right, what Jerry does is more horrible still, but to me the final dissolution (actually returning to and expanding upon the opening shot) only makes sense if Jerry knows that he has gambled his earthly salvation, his adopted family, to save his (quasi-)adopted daughter and her agemates. How this weighs in the equation with his pledge to the dead girl’s mother and his eternal salvation, I do not pretend to know. The original Calvinist doctrine of predestination would be a comfort in comparison to what seems the despair and annihilation of Jerry at the end.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray