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Literature / The Pledge

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Girls Beware!

"I'll wait, I'll wait, he will come, he will come."

Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman, better known as The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel, is a crime thriller written by the Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1958. A very popular subject in language classes throughout the German-speaking world.

It was based on the script for the Swiss-German movie Es geschah am hellichten Tag (It Happened in Broad Daylight), a cautionary tale for the public about child predators and murderers, starring Heinz Rühmann as the inspector and Gert Fröbe as the killer. This screenplay was written by Dürrenmatt too, but he was unhappy with the Surprisingly Happy Ending, brought forth by Executive Meddling.

So he chose to write his own version of the story, quite a bit Darker and Edgier and more complex than the film and its fairly standard plot. Among other things, it makes both the protagonist and antagonist more tragic, and gives the whole spectacle a Bittersweet Ending, perhaps even a Downer Ending.

In return, Dürrenmatt's book was itself adapted to film four times. The 1996 version, The Cold Light Of Day starring Richard E. Grant, moved the setting to post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. The 2001 version, simply called The Pledge and directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson, shifts the setting to rural Nevada.

Both later works follow Tag in their basic plot and premise:

Somewhere in Zurich, in the heart of the Swiss Alps, an old peddler named von Gunten makes a horrifying discovery; in a forest, a school-age girl had been cut to death with a razor blade.

From a local village, von Gunten calls his old acquaintance, Komissar Matthäi of the Canton Police, to come and investigate for himself.

The police investigator meets the murdered girl's parents, and promises them to find the killer, delivering the story's MacGuffin. Then he goes to the girl's school, and finds out from a classmate that she claimed a giant had been giving her chocolate hedgehogs. He finds a picture she drew before her death, featuring herself, the giant, a car and a Capricorn.

In the meantime, the locals have decided that von Gunten himself, previously convicted for sexual offence, is in fact the killer, and try to lynch him. To save him from the angry mob, Matthäi arrests von Gunten and hands him over to the local police. Equally convinced of his guilt, the police conduct a 20-hour non-stop Perp Sweating, and thus torture a confession out of him.

The case seems solved, especially when von Gunten, driven to despair by the interrogation, hangs himself in his cell. Matthäi gets commended for his work and even the victim's parents thank him for keeping his promise.

Matthäi himself is ordered by the confederation to travel to Amman, Jordan, to instruct the local police force. However, he gets severe doubts about von Gunten's guilt and his colleagues' apt and popularist judgement. Seeing how von Gunten is implicated with two further similar child murders throughout the country, the chances are high that there still is a serial killer on the loose.

Overtaken by guilt, he skips the flight to Jordan and quits his job as a police investigator, vowing to keep the promise he gave and track down the killer on his own. He buys a gas station in the alps, in direct vicinity of the crime scenes, and hires Frau Heller, a former Hooker with a Heart of Gold and her little daughter Annemarie. Having taken advice from local children fishing, Matthäi wants to use Annemarie as bait to catch the killer, who seems to be fixated on killing blondes in red skirts...

The films and the book provide examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The endings of Tag and The Pledge are substantially different.
  • Animal Motifs: Fish and fishing (mentioned in the book, underscored in the movie) - just as a fisherman uses bait to catch fish, Matthäi (Jerry in the film) uses a little girl as human bait in an attempt to catch a serial killer.
  • Anti-Hero: Matthäi, who first fails to stand up for von Gunten, and then uses an unsuspecting mother and her young daughter as live bait to catch a serial killer. In the Darker and Edgier novelisation, he also smokes and drinks excessively. He (and his colleagues) hit Annemarie out of pure frustration. And in the end, he goes insane and ends up a senile old drunkard.
  • The Bait: Annemarie, and she doesn't even know.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the novelisation, through a crass coincidence, the murderer dies in a car crash while driving to the police setup. The police end up thinking Matthäi was wrong all along, Ms Heller and her daughter leave him out of pure detestation, while he persists that the murderer will still show up and spends the rest of his miserable and lonely life waiting for him. Years later, when his superior finds out he was, in fact, right all along, he tries to apologise and tell him he was right, but Matthäi is already too addled to understand.
    Matthäi: I wait. He will still come.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: A serial killer who rapes and murders girls is pursued by an obsessive detective who's willing to use unethical and illegal means - namely, endangering a little girl by using her as bait to capture his quary.
  • Black Comedy Burst: The book indulges in some situational comedy when Da Chief goes to visit the Schrott widow for a Deathbed Confession (a major revelation in the story), only for her to derail multiple times reminiscing and stumbling over minor details, all while the priest (who's waiting to give her the final anointment) keeps telling her to get on with it.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The murder victim's drawing, originally dismissed as a product of her imagination.
  • Children as Pawns: In the various versions, the retired detective befriends/marries a single mother before he decides to use her daughter to lure in an elusive child murderer he never caught. The murderer is killed in a random car accident on the way to the girl, which means it was All for Nothing. The mother also finds out, and justifiably cuts all ties with the detective.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Deliberately played straight and lampshaded by Dürrenmatt just to avoid a Happy Ending. According to him, this was his way of showing that in real life, chances of catching such killers are lower than probable.
  • Convicted by Public Opinion: The villagers easily jump to the conclusion that the peddler committed the crime, though there was no evidence against him at this point.
  • Da Chief: In all adaptations, he is Matthäi's Friend on the Force after the latter quits. In the novelisation, he even is the narrator of the framework story.
  • Darker and Edgier: The novel. The setting is grittier, all the characters are more morally ambiguous.
  • Deconstruction: The Pledge is one of the crime story genre, as well as of the movie on which it was based. It subverts many of the tropes used in popular crime fiction and rides them into the ground (such as the ending). Thus the subtitle Requiem for the Detective Novel.
  • Determinator: Matthäi sets out to find the murderer even if it means losing his job and becoming a Vigilante Man.
  • Dirty Cop: The police examining the murder. They want the case closed as fast as possible, and shift all the blame on the old peddler.
  • Downer Ending: See Bittersweet Ending. It is pretty much one for the protagonist, though not for the audience.
  • Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: Yes, interrogating someone until he is psychologically unable to bear it anymore counts as torture as well.
  • Foreign Remake: The 2001 movie plays entirely in the U.S., somewhere in the Rocky Mountains (but filmed in British Columbia).
  • Freudian Excuse: In Tag, the murderer lives under the tyranny of his wife, and vents his spleen on his victims.
  • GPS Evidence: The capricorn drawn by the little girl helps Matthäi narrowing down the location of the murderer. Gritli Moser took inspiration from her murderer's license plate, which bears the coat-of-arms of the Canton of Grisons.
  • Henpecked Husband: Schrott's wife is making his life miserable in varying degrees in every adaptation. She is always more or less to blame for her husband's Freudian Excuse.
  • Informed Species: In the film, the toys and candies referred to as "porcupines" look a lot more like hedgehogs, especially the one hanging on the rear view mirror of the presumed killer's car (other than both being spiny, hedgehogs and porcupines don't look similar at all).
  • May–December Romance: A retired police officer in his 60s (played by Jack Nicholson) begins a relationship with a single mother (played by Robin Wright) who's his junior by about 30 years. The relationship ends disastrously when he decides to use their daughter as bait to catch an elusive child murderer. It's strongly implied that his main motive for the relationship was to have access to his "bait".
  • One Last Job: This case was supposed to be Matthäi's last job before his relocation to Arabia.
  • Perp Sweating: Done to von Gunten, for 20 hours, to get him to confess.
  • The Promise: Duh. The thing that keeps plot rolling, given by Matthäi to the murdered child's parents.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Matthäi is the only person in charge believing in the peddler's innocence.
  • Red Herring: It is established pretty early that von Gunten wasn't a murderer as much as a victim of popular judgement.
  • The Reveal: In the novelisation, years after the murders took place, an elderly woman receiving her holy unction summons Da Chief to her death bed and confesses to him that her husband was the child murderer and died in a car crash on the day of the setup, revealing to the audience and Da Chief that Matthäi was right all along. Too bad it's too late for Matthäi.
  • Serial Killer Baiting: Retired homicide detective Jerry Black continues pursuing an elusive child killer because of a promise he made to one of the victims' mothers. His obsession drives him to use his own unwitting stepdaughter as bait. Not only does it fail to draw in the killer (who died in a random car accident), it also drives an irreparable wedge between him and his second wife when she finds out what he did.
  • Setting Update: The American film version, made almost five decades after the book, predictably moves the story to the States and the Present Day.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism & Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty: Tag is very much in the middle with an upward tendency. Its novelisation and its adaptation are near the bottom. Dürrenmatt did a good job of actually letting the Swiss Alps, of all places, seem gritty.
  • Spanner in the Works: Some random idiot motorist crashed with the Serial Killer, killing him before he could get to the trap. This is the biggest trigger for the subsequent Downer Ending.
  • The Stakeout: The garage Matthäi uses as his headquarters
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: Tag ends with the killer getting shot by the police and an unsuspecting Annemarie getting entertained by Matthäi, who has taken the killer's place as ‘the wizard'. Her mother doesn't mind so much, either.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The population of the murder victim's hometown. In the novel, they even try to physically hinder von Gunten and the policemen escorting him from leaving by blocking the road with the local fire brigade's engine.
  • Vengeance Denied: Matthäi pledged to avenge the death of a little girl at the hands of a Serial Killer to her parents. After a long time figuring out the man's tactics, he sets up what he thinks is a fool-proof trap.... and the man never arrives. And the detective spends many years afterwards waiting for him, having destroyed his career and relationship with everybody he ever cared about once the fact he used the daughter of a woman he befriended as bait. Turns out that the serial killer was going to fall into the trap, but some random idiot driver hit his car and killed him instantly — a fact that is told to the other detective in charge of the case by the wife of the killer, as a Deathbed Confession. The story ends with the detective that made the pledge, now so addled from senility that he can't really think of more than maintaining his vigilance of the trap, refusing to accept that it was All for Nothing.
  • Vigilante Man: Matthäi quits the force and builds up a gas station business for the sole purpose of finding the killer.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In the novelisation, and especially in the 2001 movie, the mother gives on to Matthäi when she finds out why he even engaged her in the first place; to endanger her daughter's life by serving her as bait for a violent murderer.

Alternative Title(s): Das Versprechen