A Stroke of Luck (1936)

Reino (Toivo Palomurto) is a high-level engineer at a shipyard, laid off along with many of the workers as the recession bites. His girlfriend Maire (Ester Toivonen) is sure they’ll muddle through, but her father, the shipyard owner Mr Rauta (Yrjö Tuominen) has other ideas, and is determined to find a more suitable suitor for his daughter. Mistakenly believing that Reino has stolen ten thousand marks, Rauta forbids Maire from seeing him, although all’s well that ends well after she’s fought off the cad Korppi (Jorma Nortimo) and the scheming shopkeeper Nixman (Kaarlo Kartio).

Erkki Karu planned on directing this remake of the Swedish Uppsagd (1934, Laid Off) after completing the previous year’s The House at Roinila, collaborating on the script with Ensio Rislakki, a journalist and satirist known for wordplay and literary parodies. But Karu’s demise dumped the project unceremoniously on Glory Leppänen, a 35-year-old theatre director whose film experience was limited to acting roles in a couple of silent movies.

Inadvertently becoming Finland’s first female film director, Leppänen delivers Onnenpotku (A Stroke of Luck) on the cusp between silent and sound. A dozen plot points are conveyed by close-ups on letters, notes and posters, as if she misses the days of intertitles, and in what is either a provocative staging decision or a fault in the audio, a whole dance sequence without any accompanying soundtrack. It is as if she doesn’t trust audio to convey anything of worth, causing several sequences to unfold as mime. Most notably, the rude mechanical Jussi (Aku Korhonen) accidentally robs the nervous shopkeeper Nixman, when the latter mistakes his cigarette case for a gun, a scene played entirely silently, when the words “Oh, it’s only a cigarette case” might have helped dispel the misunderstanding.

In a reversal of the original Swedish version, the Finnish title “A Stroke of Luck” emphasises the hero’s escape from straitened circumstances, rather than his unemployment. The film certainly caught the spirit of its time, finding a Recession-era audience ready to sympathise with its downtrodden workers making the best of a bad situation. Employers and capitalists are presented as snarling baddies, with both Korppi and Nixman sporting ridiculous caterpillar moustaches. If anything, Leppänen is let down by her leads, both of whom had played similar roles before, but who seem ill at ease with performing as a couple already in a relationship. When they kiss, it looks like Palomurto is trying to eat Toivonen’s chin. Meanwhile, Yrjö Tuominen is creepily hands-on in his dealings with his on-screen daughter, constantly pawing at the former Miss Finland under the guise of delivering paternal advice.

Toivonen seemed to spend much of her acting career similarly put-upon. She was still only 22 at the time she appeared in this, her third feature film, catapulted into the limelight by her beauty-queen status. That, in itself, carried a heavy burden, forcing her into a role as an example of pure Finnish womanhood, intended to demonstrate to overseas immigration bureaus that Finns were Europeans, not as had been argued in some quarters, Asians. Pushed into an acting career she for which she was ill-prepared, she would marry and retire at the end of her twenties, later writing in her memoirs of her perpetual annoyance with directors, critics and cinema-goers who were unable to see past her looks.

But many workers in cinema’s early days were similarly finding their feet by trial and error and would not necessarily stick around – Glory Leppänen would return to a successful career in theatre; Toivo Palomurto would retire behind the camera to become a film composer, and Jalo Kalima, who played “Man in Coffee Shop”, would go back to being the Professor of Slavic Philology at the University of Helsinki.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

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The House at Roinila (1935)

Elli Ojala (Laila Rihte) is duped out of her inheritance by her devious cousin Olli (Kaarlo Kartio), and has come to find work at the neighbouring farm, Roinila. There, she falls for Eero (Eero Eloranta), the heir to Roinila, who starts to suspect that Olli has not told Elli everything about her late father’s will. Eero and the retired sea captain Matti (Hemmo Kallio) sneak off to Helsinki to consult a judge. Finding Eero’s hat in the lake, the farm matron Sanna (Kaisu Puuska) immediately assumes he is dead, and breaks the news to the manor folk. Eero and Matti return to save the day, waving notarised documents, the sputtering Eero is taken away by the authorities, and everybody else heads off for a multiple wedding.

The last film directed by Erkki Karu (1887-1935), The House at Roinila (Roinilan talossa) is based on the 1883 play by the same name by Minna Canth (1844-97), a writer and activist so celebrated that she became the first Finnish woman to get her own national flag day. But The House at Roinila is unrepresentative of the work that made Canth truly famous, written two years before she would drift into gritty social realism with A Worker’s Wife (Työmiehen vaimo). Instead, it is a rather gentle and frankly unfunny pastoral comedy, in which three intersecting couples fall in love and overcome their tribulations. Elli and Eero are the supposed leads, although their romance is shadowed by that of Anna (Rauni Luoma), the daughter of Roinila, and her farmhouse manager Mauno (Toivo Palomurto). But although Canth was renowned in later life for her commentary on Finnish class and gender roles, The House at Roinila seems to offer little in the way of distinction between upstairs and downstairs. Mauno and Anna might witter about the struggle they face for coming from different worlds, as if they are somehow in some star-crossed dilemma like the characters in Miss Julie (1888), but there seems little difference – in class, clothes, mannerisms or language – between the lady of the manor and the peasant at the plough.

This may be a feature of the shift in setting. Canth’s stage play was a contemporary drama, and indeed, there is little in the first half of the film to make you think it is not set in the 1880s. A glimpse of electricity wires crossing a field presages the sudden influx of modern technology partway through the film, as Eero goes out for a drive in his motor car, thereby revealing that this movie adaptation, by the playwright Artturi Järviluoma, has moved the action fifty years later than Canth’s original. Like a similar moment in The Wind in the Willows, when what could have easily been 19th century country life is disrupted by a passing 20th century vehicle, it conveys the sense that decades of unchanging rural existence are beset by immense changes. In the gap between 1883 and 1935, Finland has won its independence, and fought a civil war largely defined by the social divisions between town and countryside. And it’s the countryside that is the true star of this film, as Karu’s camera lingers for long reveries on the lakeland of Hollola, near Lahti. Much of the film is shot outdoors in the long days of a Finnish summer – remarkably few scenes are set indoors, and when they are, they seem drab and lifeless by comparison.

Most of the cast, sadly, are also quite dull. The male leads are characterless drones, while as the disinherited Elli, Laila Rihte seems permanently dumbfounded to find herself at the centre of action and attention, all too aware that a camera is watching her. Rauni Luoma, as Anna, is supposed to play second fiddle, but her features are so striking, and her screen presence so powerful, that she dominates any scene she is in. Not that she hasn’t got competition from the underlings, particularly Kaisu Puuska as the idiotic Sanna who, common to many supporting actresses in 1930s Finnish films, has seemingly been directed to play her every scene as if she is an over-acting pantomime dame.

Acting the rest of the cast off the screen is veteran stage performer Hemmo Kallio as Matti the old sailor, a remarkably thin role that he stretches with comedy business, songs, soft-shoe shuffles and his recurring English catchphrase: “All right! Yes!” A man of the world with two hipsterish stud earrings, Matti has a seemingly endless supply of novelty pipes to smoke, and travels in the course of the film’s two hours from grating comedy bumpkin to vital saviour of the day. His own flirtations, with the aging cook Leena (Kaija Suonio), form the last of the three couplings in this film, but are the only ones that come with any sense of realism or genuine humour.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

Scapegoat (1935)

Boss-eyed wantwit Adalbert (Kaarlo Kartio) inherits nine thousand marks from his uncle. Deciding, for reasons unclear, that he really wants to open a milk shop, he finds a job at the swish Helsinki department store Sampo, in order to learn about sales. There, he is swiftly dragged into the schemes of the vivacious shop-girl Irja (Ester Toivonen), who persuades him to become the store’s in-house scapegoat. Whenever a customer has a complaint, Adalbert publicly takes the blame, thereby saving the more established staff from censure.

Adalbert soon tires of his role, but glumly agrees to work out two weeks’ mandatory notice, during which time Irja comes to realise the error of her ways, and that her suitor Mr Vaara (Jaakko Korhonen) is really the owner of the company, observing his wayward staff undercover.

Based on a 1930 stage play of the same name by Yrjö Soini (a.k.a. Agapetus), director Erkki Karu’s film displays an uncharacteristically ham-fisted grasp of the cinematic medium, alternating between locked-off shots of entire scenes from the stage version, occasionally invaded by sudden, poorly integrated close-ups. The contemporary Ilta Sanomat review pointedly noted its failure to utilise the potential of the movie camera. This looks and feels like what it is – an unimaginative restaging of the play, occasionally enlivened by location footage.However, Syntipukki (Scapegoat) is notable for its location shots, not only of what was then Heikinkadu in central Helsinki (thirteen years before the street was renamed Mannerheimintie), but also of the famous Stockmann department store, which itself was only completed in 1930, and doubles for the fictional Sampo. There are some touching moments of local colour, particularly a sequence of an army of cleaners, bashful before the camera, as they arrive to prepare the store for its morning opening, and a bunch of naturalistically irritating schoolboys in the street, who have plainly ignored the director’s exhortations to neither look at the camera nor get in the actors’ way. In a remarkably confident decision on product placement, Stockmann embraced the idea of a film that showcased its flagship store, seemingly shrugging off the depiction of the staff within as work-shy and corrupt. Compare this to the more modern sensibilities of the Reebok corporation, which sued TriStar Pictures for $10 million in 1996 after the Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire took money for product placement and then had its cast repeatedly shout “Fuck Reebok!” on camera.

No such worries appear to have bothered Stockmann, which is presented as a lavish paradise of consumption, complete with sequences of a catwalk model show where Adalbert is pursued by a female contortionist, and a café performance by the singer Mary Hannikainen. The cobbled streets outside have altered remarkably little; the fixtures within are similarly unchanged, except the famous Stockmann Clock, which was not installed until 1965. Considering the fetish that every guidebook and language textbook has for wittering about this supposedly iconic meeting spot, it is strange indeed to see shots of the outside of the store that do not include it. As the good-hearted innocent Adalbert, Kaarlo Kartio is a holy fool, his nose pressed literally against the glass of the shop windows in a scene that both allegorises his outsider status and milks it for comedy value. He represents the vast majority of Helsinki urbanites, only recently arrived from a “countryside” that suddenly finds itself on the outskirts of a modern city, baffled by the customs and mores of the metropolis, even though many of the people around him are likely to be only a generation or less removed from similar rural backgrounds.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

Our Boys in the Air (1934)

The men of the Finnish air force push their planes to their limits in long-distance tests, and train in preparation for future conflict. Pilots Jarmo (Joel Rinne, who would star three decades later as Inspector Palmu in the movie series of the same name) and Kalle (Fritz-Hugo Backman), are ahead in the distance challenge, but are forced to put their sea-plane down outside Vyborg for repairs. They are helped by local girl Kerttu (Marta Kontula, in legally actionable hotpants), with whom Jarmo soon falls in love. Kerttu happens to be the sister of his fellow pilot Erkki (Kaarlo Angerkoski), who himself is sweet on the starey-eyed Aino (Irja Simola, who looks at him the way a hungry dog looks at a sausage roll).

The pilots are roped into air reconnaissance during a forest fire, during which Erkki saves Aino’s sister Mirja from a burning building. In the process, he is hit on the head by a falling plank, and dreams of a future air assault on Finland. He wakes up to discover that all is well, although the storm clouds of war are gathering.

The first of the films included in the monster 232-disc Suomen Filmi Teollisuus box set, Our Boys in the Air, Us on the Ground (1934, Meidän poikamme ilmassa – me maassa) was actually the third in a trilogy of propaganda films made by director Erkki Karu, following on from Our Boys (1929) and Our Boys at Sea (1933). It presents a fascinating glimpse of Finland in the inter-war period, but has an impossible hill to climb in narrative and technical terms, since it was made in the shadow of Wings (1929), an American film on a similar topic, rightly lauded for incredible achievement – the winner of history’s first Oscar.

Karu had been forced off the board of Suomi Filmi, the company he had run for over a decade, unjustly carrying the blame for a slump in cinema attendance brought on by the Great Depression. With plenty to prove, he leapt back into action for his newly formed company with Our Boys in the Air, although it would prove to be one of his final films; he died in 1935, aged just 48. One of his leading men, Kaarlo Angerkoski, would not last much longer, dead from a heart attack at 33 four years later – the press blamed cigarettes and coffee.

Our Boys in the Air was made during the tense 1930s, during which the smart money in Finland was sure that the Soviet Union would stage an attack. It is hence less of a war film than a pre-war film, informing the population about military preparations and developments in technology. Under the guise of a lecture attended by the pilots, what appears to be an actual military training cartoon about relative bomb strengths is spliced directly into the film. Made with the cooperation of the actual Finnish Air Force, the film features prolonged aerial sequences, including a beauty pass across Hamina, the symmetrical, radial streets of which make for an attractive view, and Finland’s second city of Vyborg, fated to be lost to Russia in WW2.

There are many elements that mark the film out as a product of its age. The cast occasionally spring into song in exactly the same way that Finns don’t. The soundtrack is oddly lacking, with silent engines, slamming doors that make no noise, and very little foley – sometimes, all you hear are the actors’ voices. There is also a clear demarcation between actors trained in the theatre, who mug and twitch like they are on drugs, and stiffer amateurs who, ironically, come across as more naturalistic. One of these is Miss Finland 1933 (and Miss Europe 1934), Ester Toivonen, who was a teenager working in a bread shop only a couple of years earlier, but has been propelled in front of the camera by her beauty-queen career, and here plays a nurse, ahead of her first true starring role the following year, in Karu’s Scapegoat.

The film was praised in its day for the flying sequences, which even critics unswayed by its preachy nature had to admit were compelling. Today, however, it is most remarkable for  the 25-minute dream sequence in its final act, in which the unconscious Erkki experiences a prophetic vision of bombing raids, anti-aircraft batteries, civilians in gas masks running for an air-raid shelter, and firemen digging survivors from the rubble.

“Thank God it was just a fever-dream, and not real,” observes Erkki’s father when he wakes, although it would all prove to be far too real in 1939, when Soviet planes bombed Helsinki. They are not bombs, joked the Russian minister Vyacheslav Molotov, they are just bread baskets. The Finns would respond in kind, claiming that the petrol bombs they threw at Russian tanks were just cocktails for Molotov.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.  

Sheriff

The Finnish police are left baffled by a double murder in a Turku house – a former cop ritually sacrificed and his girlfriend shot in the head. Private investigator Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is hired by the dead girl’s godmother to look for clues, and soon deduces that everybody has been looking in the wrong place. The police assume that the female victim was merely collateral damage; Vares realises that she was the real target, and her mutilated boyfriend merely a smokescreen. But why would anyone want to kill a highly-respected accountant?

The latest, and so far, last of the Vares films displays a visible stylistic shift from Hannu Salonen, a Germany-trained thriller director who would go on to make Arctic Circle (2018). It restores the comic-book freeze frames and mottos from the earliest films, and has a super-processed, enhanced look that fiddles with odd lens choices to stretch human figures or flatten out backgrounds. Audi is one of the film’s sponsors, but I don’t see any Audi product placement – perhaps it is worth more to the company to pay the Finns to repeatedly abuse, blow up and roll a bunch of Volvos.

Vares does some actual detective work, being ideally placed to notice that, like him, the murders sit on the borderline between the everyday and the criminal underworld. Through his druggie associate Antidote (Jasper Pääkkönen, presumably just before he got his role in Vikings), he is introduced to a council of criminal kingpins who bankroll ventures that fall outside the scope of the mainstream economy – deposits for contraband smuggling, down payments for getaway cars, and, if my own bitter experiences are anything to go by, mortgages for expats. His quest drags him into Finland’s black economy, with its own set of rules and protocols, and surreal daytime speakeasies where men sit on leather sofas and listen to Puccini. In other words, this the Vares series’ answer to Shadow Line, caught between the police and the criminals, each using their own methods in the pursuit of the murderer.

The new look and new director, not to mention the introduction of Shostakovich (Jukka-Pekka Palo), Vares’ self-styled patron from the underworld, could amount to a soft reboot for the whole series, since the novel Sheriff was the first of a sub-trilogy within the long-running novel sequence. Writer-director Salonen has made some brutal decisions with the regular cast, relegating Vares’ usual drinking buddies to a couple of cameos in the closing scenes, and recasting the journalist Ruuhio. Previously played by the clean-cut, ever-youthful Mikko Lempilampi, who presumably has better things to do shooting the same year’s Girl-King, he has suddenly been switched for my favourite Finnish actor, Mikko Kouki, who looks utterly ridiculous here as a gum-chewing slob with a man-bun. I don’t understand why they bothered to say this character was Ruuhio at all; it would have been surely been less disruptive to just give him a different name.

They certainly didn’t keep the original name of squeeze-of-the-week Milla (Karoliina Blackburn), a motorcycle-riding hacker who is swift to reveal to Vares that she only pretends to be a lesbian to hold off unwanted suitors. In the original book, she was known by the actionable pseudonym Harriet “Harry” Potter, the now-obscured origin of a joke in the script that points out the only thing she has in common with the schoolboy wizard is that they both like girls.

The publication of the English translation of the Sheriff book in 2015 permitted me the chance to read a Vares novel and to notice some asides that are not repeated in the film. For example, in the book Vares is momentarily troubled by a vision of himself, strapped to a bed in an asylum, while a nurse reads out newspaper headlines about catastrophic flooding on the Finnish coast. Is this a nightmare? Or is it a premonition about the events of the science fiction coda, Hard Luck Café? He is also brooding about a case that he failed to solve, the death of Mirjam in the snow a decade earlier, as chronicled in Frozen Angel. Meanwhile, an aside reveals that his friend, the author Luusalmi has only ever published a single book, making a mockery of numerous past claims about his erudition. It’s almost as if the chickens are coming home to roost in this late addition to the Vares canon, as both author and hero look back over their past adventures and try to make sense of them all, dredging up some of their earlier claims for a bit of tardy due diligence.

Sheriff, as the book repeatedly reminds the reader, is the Finnish title of the film better known in English as High Noon – one of many Western references buried within the Vares books. But Sheriff also seems like an attempt by author Reijo Mäki to engage with something that has been lurking at the edges of his world for years. Every now and then in Vares stories we get a glimpse of the wider criminal underworld, an entire wainscot society with its own rules, regulations and regulators. In Sheriff, Vares finds himself digging into the mechanics of one of the institutions of this shadow world, a criminal bank prepared to loan money at high rates to high-risk, illegal propositions. It’s not quite The Wire, but more John Wick, as Vares comes to realise the subtle codes he has ignored, inscribed on the very walls of some of the criminals he is chasing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Tango of Darkness

At least, for once, we aren’t looking for someone who’s killed a girl. The six-year-old cold case Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) rakes over in Tango of Darkness (2012) is the murder of crooner Harry Koivikko (Jani Muurinen), found on the floor of a seedy flophouse in Turku. Like the partitive grammar case that fixes Finnish nouns if no other declension is available, Vares shambles through this movie picking up other people’s mess. His drinking buddy, journalist Ruuhio (Jussi Lempilampi) has already solved the mystery, but has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Vares must solve the case again in order to find out what has happened to Ruuhio, turning even the drama in this film into a case of reheated leftovers. Meanwhile, hard-man Veikko Hopea (Jussi Lampi), last seen locked in a fridge in Frozen Angel (2007) gets out of prison. “Hmm,” I said to the sofa, “I wonder if we’re going to watch him travel across Finland at occasional intervals throughout the film, only to arrive in the nick of time to save Vares from a bunch of other criminals?” No spoilers; I’ll let you guess. He also orders a room-service haircut from a Russian hooker called Olga, and then inveigles her into a blowjob, so… you know, that’s a bit of comedy business.

The film permits a brief glimpse into Finland’s tango culture, an odd relic of fifties nightclubs and dance-hall customs that continues to flourish in the domestic music scene. It does, indeed, launch a number of local pop stars, including Jari Sillänpää, a man with whose work I have become familiar with over the years because I am often mistaken for him by drunken Finnish cougars. The Finnish tango scene is big enough to support a number of artistes touring small-town venues with CDs in boxes, as long as they keep more or less to a repertoire that neither scares off the young nor annoys the old. Their lives, loves and scandals also seem to form the main material for the blue-collar press whenever a week goes by in which a ski-jumper hasn’t beaten his wife. Ballroom dancing’s enduring popularity, even in the 21st century, is a quaintly unifying element of Finnish life, responsible for, among other things, a bunch of guaranteed cross-generational floor-fillers at Finnish parties, as well as a talent show on Finnish television that I call Pixie Ballgown Accordion Smackdown. The quintessential Finnish dance-hall classic is “Satumaa” (The Fabled Land) written by Unto Mononen in 1955 and most famously sung by Reijo Tapale in 1962. It’s become a doleful staple of the male tango singers, and is a lament for a fairytale paradise forever beyond a man’s reach. At Kalevalanmaa, the centenary celebration of Finnishness put on by the Finnish National Opera in 2017, a performance of “Satumaa”, set at a country dance, was the cue for an audience singalong. In this film, it also lends its name to the hostel where Koivikko’s body was found, which has become a place of pilgrimage for his female fans.

The book on which this film is based, Pimeyden tango (1997) was published the year before the novel that was previously adapted into Kiss of Evil. In other words, beneath the skin, we are still dealing with a younger author writing a younger Vares, seemingly the sub-set of stories in which his job is to saunter in years after the police have given up, and inadvertently tie together the vital loose strands. Sometimes, as here, this is simply by presenting himself as bait to lure the criminals out of hiding, like a beer-soaked, gumshoe Christ. True to Reijo Mäki’s original novels, Vares is not present in several scenes in which motivations are explained and seemingly random deus ex machina events are set up. We, the viewers, know why certain events occur, but he presumably wanders off simply baffled by what has just happened to him.

As for the regulars, the biggest continuity change comes in the form of Vares’ neighbour Anna (Maria Järvenhelmi), a sometime stripper and formerly his driver of choice, who is now apparently in a relationship with Ruuhio the journalist. Vares tools around town in another Volvo, suspiciously like the one that got blown up in Garter Snake (2011). “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if this Volvo will meet a similarly explosive fate.” No spoilers, right? Vares is tracking the supposedly unfaithful wife of a local businessman, unaware that his client is a nutjob liable to want him dead if he doesn’t deliver the right evidence. “I wonder,” I said to the sofa, “if the client will try to have him killed, but accidentally kill someone else who has just killed another person who was going to kill Vares?” Perhaps I am getting a feel for the way that plots work in the Vares films, but if so, I have miscalculated the degree of screwing that goes on in this one, with Vares failing to bed absolutely anyone on camera. He does spend a while flirting with the sassy back-up singer Donna (Lolla Wallinkoski), a woman whose sole job in this movie is to convincingly hold a tune, at which she spectacularly fails. “Do you want to hear my new single?” she says to Vares as they drive along in his doomed Volvo, before turning on the stereo and subjecting us all to a caterwauling crime against music. She’s the 1997 Miss Scandinavia, although Finland isn’t in Scandinavia, so your guess is as good as mine how that happened.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Gambling Chip

There were moments in Lauri Törhönen’s film Gambling Chip (2012) where I honestly didn’t know what the hell was going on. Luckily, neither did our leading man, private eye Jussi Vares (Antti Reini), much of whose relationship with this instalment’s guest star is glossed over in a massive alcoholic blackout. Down on his luck and running low on cash, Vares is rude to a pretty woman who takes too long at a cash machine. Feeling guilty, and quite possibly motivated by her sports car and evident wealth, he uses his private eye skills to track her down and… nope. Blackout. He wakes up the next morning on her sofa, all records of their conversation erased from his mind and from the film.

That’s okay, Sole (Maria Haapkylä) is a bit weird, and wants to bang him now, and before you can shake yourself awake, they’ve become a couple. Vares starts showing up to the pub in a clean shirt, and his drunken buddies scoff that he’s become little more than a gigolo. But this is a Vares film, so something is bound to go wrong. Sole disappears for three days and turns up dead in the forest, leaving Vares as one of the prime suspects in her murder, and honour-bound to find her killer.

Uhkapelimerkki (2007) was one of the more recent Vares novels, in which our hero is less of a bar-room bruiser, and more of a lothario with a laptop. But our hero remains dwarfed by the big picture, as he so often is, stumbling seemingly by accident on the big financial scandal that lurks behind the case he thinks he is chasing. As ever in Vares stories, the main death either goes unsolved or is closed with a huge fatberg of reasonable doubt; a bunch of secondary murders are sort-of explained, but only in passing, a much tougher deus ex machina super-criminal visits rough justice on the small fry, while the white-collar kingpin behind it all seems to get away scot-free. In this case it’s Natunen (Kaarina Hazard) a sinister woman with her own cat-food canning plant, who’s been running an insider-trading scam using the names of people at an old people’s home.

As for the titular gambling chip, it’s a distracting affectation for a supposedly professional hitman, who spends so much time fiddling with it, you wonder if he has time to set the scopes on his sniper rifle. Finnish reviews for this entry in the franchise were particularly damning, possibly because Maria Haapkylä, star of the Maria Kallio police series and hence something of an antithesis to Vares in Finnish media, is pretty much wasted as Sole, a mentally-troubled heiress who may have initiated a whole chain of strikes and counter-strikes in the Finnish underworld out of a fit of man-hating spite. But the critical reaction may also stem from the lost possibilities that Mika Karttunen’s script seems to side-step, including Vares as a police suspect, the possible involvement of one of his old colleagues in some of the subsidiary crimes, and a bizarre sub-plot about the victim’s brother falling in love with cougar barmaid. Vares is something of a bystander for much of the film – his sole contribution to the action for almost half of it is simply being the victim’s boyfriend. He does, eventually, put some crucial clues together, but as in several other Vares films, ends up as little more than a witness to two criminal factions as they follow their own protocols of vengeance.

Perhaps the novel was similarly confused. Its original publication followed the entirely unexpected Vares story, the near-future sci-fi elegy Hard Luck Café (2006) which leapt a generation into the future to a Finland wracked by global warming and overrun with refugees. But such excitements were discounted once more, written off like a bad dream as we returned to Vares’ low-level sleuthing in this story — perhaps our hero has suffered more than one catastrophic blackout, and I will have more to say about this as we continue our Vares movie watchathon. There is, it seems, no career path for our hero. He remains trapped in the wainscots between middle-class Turku and his drinking buddies on the wrong side of the tracks. He never quite makes enough money to get an office, or an actual assistant. Success always eludes him; he’s always back where he started, getting hammered in the same pub, where the real-life owner, Tapio Korpela, has gradually insinuated himself into the action in ever larger walk-on roles, playing himself, here lurking uneasily at the edge of several scenes in a T-shirt that advertises Kukko lager, carrying a tray unconvincingly or making a meal out of operating a television.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.