Friday, 29 January 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Six

The Body Snatcher - Part Three

Prize fighting memento mori
We fade in on the next scene to be confronted by the grinning skull of a skeleton, with laughter in the background providing aural continuity with the last scene. The laughter in this case is a convivial sound of group mirth, as opposed to the hollow echo of knowingly triumphant laughter with which Fettes was left at the cold heart of the previous night. This is a sound which mockingly confronts death with humour, defusing an object of fear by making it ridiculous. In echoing the laughter of the previous scene, this mockery may also be seen to be taking in Fettes, with his earnestness and the potentially comical look of befuddlement which the previous scene faded out on. The two anatomical demonstration skeletons in the dissection room have been placed so that they face each other, with fists raised in readiness to duke it out in literarily bare-knuckled fashion. This is the reductio ad absurdum of human conflict, life as a constant struggle unto death for pre-eminence and survival. It is an emblematic representation of a view of the world boiled down to the bare bones of Darwinian survival of the fittest bouts. It will also come to be symbolic of the deathly conflict into which MacFarlane and Gray are locked.

The student who has created this comical tableau identifies himself by imitating the fighting skeletal posture, thus framing himself as a life model for his own memento mori doppelganger. Fettes descends the staircase, indicating his new status, which he further demonstrates with a series of instructions delivered with a humourlessness which bears the seeds of MacFarlane’s self-importance and impatient pomposity. He has swiftly adopted the bearing of one from ‘upstairs’, the world of imposing and conspicuously displayed wealth and social standing. When he notices the skeletons’ new arrangement, he snaps ‘I suppose this was your doing, Service?’ This name is possibly a nod to Robert Service, the so-called ‘bard of the Yukon’, famous for his narrative ballads of the gold rush and later of the first world war, who was born of Scottish parents and educated in Glasgow. Service, who has maintained an attitude of humorous scepticism throughout Fettes’ intermediary instruction, issued through borrowed authority, is like a light, puckish shadow-self to Fettes’ ponderous and overly-serious persona. With his mischievous sense of playfulness, he also has an inbuilt resistance to the allure of authority, which he refuses to respect. Fettes, in his dumb innocence, lacks this necessary scepticism, which is a less embittered form of Gray’s anti-authoritarianism. Service is not further developed as a character and appears seldom hereafter. He exists in this scene to provide a contrast to the character of Fettes, and to highlight a world of camaraderie from which Fettes’ social elevation has excluded him.

Human contact - negotiation
Joseph shambles into the room, his neck seemingly locked, as if he has survived a hanging, like Lugosi’s Igor in Son of Frankenstein. This suggests that he is only at one remove from the dissection corpses which he cleans up after. He is an anatomy specimen in the waiting. He tells Fettes that ‘a lady is waiting for you’. This is Mrs Marsh, who has noted his kindness with Georgina and asks him to intercede with Doctor MacFarlane on her behalf. Fettes makes a pointed reference to his status in the household hierarchy as an intermediary assistant, pointing out ‘I’m not in a position to ask for favours’ since ‘I’m only a student’. But we have seen him issuing orders to the other students and expressing disapproval of Service’s japery, so it is clear to us, if not to him, that he has risen in the ranks to an ill-defined position which nonetheless makes him more than ‘only’ a student. She touches his arm, the third character to have done so, and as with the other instances, this is an invitation to a new level of intimacy and confidence. He has been reluctantly drawn in by MacFarlane and recoiled from Gray, but here he immediately accedes with enthusiasm. Human contact has broken through the stilted formalities of verbal address, with its tangle of social codes. They both smile as Mrs Marsh affirms that ‘Georgina was right, you are a kind man’. Georgina’s absence from the scene suggest that Fettes’ motivations extend beyond kindness to a young girl. In the original script, Meg is present before this exchange, having let Mrs Marsh in, and immediately recognises the connection which is being made. She utters under her breath ‘so it is in that direction that the wind blows, eh. It will get you nothing’. There is a touch of bitterness to this statement which is out of keeping with her character in other scenes, in which she exudes a feeling of melancholic resignation, which is possibly why her presence was removed from this one. Meg observes from the perspective of experience and can see how Fettes is tending towards the same corrupting development of spirit as that she has witnessed in MacFarlane. Meg’s marginalisation within the household for reasons of social propriety is symbolic of a wider casting aside of the traditions and observances of an old Scotland, with its Highland heart, in favour of the new enlightenment, based in the urban centres of the south, Edinburgh in particular. Meg is stranded in this brave new world in which cold rationalism and materialism pave over ritual and romance.

From the human exchange in the upper world, we return to the dissection room, where MacFarlane analyses parts of a ‘specimen’ in front of his students. We notice the sideways glance of Service, which has a touch of the self-amused, raised brow look of Orson Welles about it, weighing MacFarlane up and refusing to be swept along by his easy, populist manner. MacFarlane jokes about the jaw muscle being designed to ‘chew food and bite our enemies’, a reduction of the human experience to mechanistic functionality and a restatement of the Darwinian tableau set up by Service. The joviality and off-hand nature of his teaching methods are in contrast with the formality and self-importance of his manner upstairs during professional encounters. This is like a glimpse of the youthful MacFarlane, the young man with whom Meg first fell in love. Perhaps it is an indication of the reason why he has decided to devote himself to teaching and has shrugged off the responsibility of surgical practice. This is an arena in which he can recapture some of the uncomplicated society of his youth, before the preoccupations of social distinctions and etiquette attendant upon his professional status became predominant. This throwaway manner is also possibly an indication of an inherent weakness of character, an evasion of responsibility in choosing to pass on his knowledge rather than directly apply it for the greater good. He is thus able to enjoy the benefits which his qualifications bestow without having to put them to the test.

His Imperial Highness upstairs
MacFarlane’s easy manner is instantly jettisoned when someone makes an off-colour remark about Burke and Hare. ‘It’s a poor subject for jest’, he snaps, ‘particularly for a medical student’, at which point he exits upstairs. The offender is put firmly in his place, and any notions of fraternity and fellow-feeling are quashed. MacFarlane has been reminded of how far he has come from this fresh-faced group of green and innocent students. His own loss of innocence, and the moral compromises which it encompasses and which he has incorporated uneasily into his world view, remove him from this company, no matter how much he may try to inveigle himself back into its ranks. Another student asks ‘what did you say to His Imperial Highness?’, a sarcastic appellation which indicates that these pupils are not taken in by his breezy bursts of affability. The offending student remarks that Burke and Hare are ‘dead and buried’. Glances are cast upwards, to the ‘upstairs’ world, echoing Gray’s pointed rolling-eyed gesture earlier. The inextricable connection between the two worlds is made, with Gray as the dominant force of the lower level. Burke and Hare may be dead and buried, but they have their inheritor, and their work and possibly also their methods live on.

Poor wee Robbie - the cost of intellectual progress
The scene dissolves into a shot of Fettes striding along the street. Dissolves are a much used device in this film and serve to make hidden connections manifest. Here, Fettes’ light-hearted mood, as he whistles a merry Scots air to himself, reminds us of MacFarlane’s punctured cheer in the previous scene. Just as MacFarlane’s delusion of carefree youthfulness was cut short, so Fettes’ enjoyment of the morning is brought to an abrupt halt as he passes a crowd at the gates of the graveyard. Gaiety turns to horrified realisation as he learns from the old woman he had met during his graveside lunch of the death of Robbie, the Scots terrier, and the desecration of the grave he had been guarding. Such sudden transitions hint at the proximity of life and death within this society. The mourning for the dog, with its evident basis in the local legend of Greyfriars Bobbie, makes this seem like an act of ancestral pillage carried out with a pointed contempt for the values and sensibilities of the local community. Tradition is swept aside to meet the needs of supply and demand.

Measuring humanity
There is another dissolve on Fettes’ pensive and troubled face, fading back in on a shot of MacFarlane working intensely at his desk, studying a bone. A slyly suggestive link to the kind of object the dog might have spent many a happy hour chewing on, and one which points to the lack of concern the doctor would likely display at the creature’s destruction. The dissolve once more creates a notional connection between different spaces and the characters within them, creating lines of cause, effect and culpability. MacFarlane measures the bone with a pair of dividers. His pose is like that of William Blake’s god of the material world, measuring out the universe in his famous picture ‘Ancient of Days’, originally the frontspiece of Europe: A Prophecy. Blake’s figure is a recasting of the old testament God as Urizen, a tyrant of reason, of intellect discorporated. MacFarlane casts himself in a similar light in the speech he will shortly give to Fettes, which amounts to a rallying cry of ideological recruitment. Fettes enters MacFarlane’s study and announces for a second time that he wishes to quit. The doctor reacts with angry incredulity, pointing out ‘you’ve got your lodgings and a certain stipend’. His material needs are met, and as far as MacFarlane is concerned, this level of basic maintenance is all that needs to be taken into account. Fettes reveals his acquaintance with the old woman, her son and the dog. A specimen has thus been humanised, raised from the level of anonymous flesh and bone and given a name and a mother to mourn over it. The concern for the dog which has been killed in the procurement of the body is another example of the human relationship with animals which plays an important symbolic role in the film. The compassion shown towards ‘lesser’ creatures takes on an added significance in the light of the ensuing speech, in which MacFarlane persuades Fettes to continue his studies, and his role in the household hierarchy, by outlining his philosophy.

Human contact - passing on ideals
After a pause, as if to gather his thoughts and present an argument forceful enough to convince Fettes to stay, MacFarlane reminisces about when he was an assistant and ‘had to deal with men like Gray’. Thus he immediately deflects responsibility from himself, painting Gray as a convenient monster. He reduces him to a type, as if he is barely worthy of being given a name. He goes on to stake a position for himself beyond the law, effectively beyond good and evil. It is a Nietzschean world view in which men of (self-declared) superior intellect become a new, elitist priesthood who determine what means are acceptable to reach goals which they believe to be essential for the evolutionary progress of man, ignoring the ‘stupid and unjust laws’ of ‘ignorant men’ which are based on outmoded moral philosophies. In a brief and unconvincing reflective aside, he declares himself to be ‘sorry for the woman’ before rising to declarative rhetorical mode once more, asserting ‘her son might be alive today if more doctors had been given the opportunity to work with more human specimens’. MacFarlane puts his hand on Fettes’ shoulder as he makes his summation, another use of physical contact to create a sense of common purpose. ‘I let no man stop me when I know I’m right’, he avows with the unshakeable certainty of the materialist scientist who sees everything in terms of the absolute, the physically quantifiable and empirically demonstrable. Specimens are for ‘enlightenment and knowledge’, bodies serving to feed the mind. Such an outlook seeks to effect a Cartesian splitting off of the intellectual from the physical, a disembodiment. After his forceful declaration of what amounts to a précis of the new enlightenment philosophy, he tells Fettes ‘if you’re a real man, and want to be a good doctor, you’ll see it as I see it’. Meg’s fears are bearing fruit as MacFarlane begins to mould him in his own image, implanting the seeds of a new, more ambiguously shaded moral sensibility which departs from the religious precepts with which he was brought up. In her terms, Fettes is being corrupted.

Breezing past the street singer
We fade to the street singer, perhaps prompting us to think of Meg, the moral observer within the household. She sings a mournful Scottish ballad whilst people pass by and drop pennies in her pot. She reminds us once more of the poverty elsewhere in the country, and of the cost of the modernising spirit which MacFarlane represents. Someone is selling a ‘penny pamphlet on the Duke of Wellington’, whose extremely unpopular government had recently fallen, and perhaps upbraiding him for his conservative opposition to the Reform Act (eventually passed in 1832) which would significantly extend suffrage throughout the United Kingdom. It’s more background historical detail provided by Lewton for those who care to notice, highlighting the spirit of social change in the air. It is change which will do no good for those at the lower levels, such as Highland beggar, however. MacFarlane strides past her with head held high, not deigning to register her presence. The spinning wheel in the shop window again alludes to the sheep who have displaced her and her kin from the land. Fettes and MacFarlane reach a sign which marks their destination, ‘Hobbs Public House – for Gentlemen and the Commonality’. This a space where classes meet, their social separation temporarily suspended.

Public space - no boundaries
Inside, a boy sings as he turns a hog roast on a spit above the fire. The continuity of song connects outside with in, and suggests the street singer is in exile from such warm and welcoming interiors. MacFarlane’s warming of his hands before the fire suggests that it is cold outside, too. A voice intrudes on his comfort, observing that the pig is ‘a fine specimen, isn’t he, Toddy MacFarlane’. This is the first time we have heard mention of MacFarlane’s first name (not even Meg has used it thus far) and its use in diminutive, familiar form is a striking deviation from the carefully qualified use of names thus far. The use of the word ‘specimen’ also, and deliberately on Gray’s part, draws a parallel between the pig on the spit and the bodies on the dissecting tables, the latter providing the matter for intellectual sustenance. Gray, much to MacFarlane’s discomfort, invites them to sit with him with an expansive sweep of his tankard. He is like a spirit of place, at ease in his surroundings. In the script, Lewton makes clear that, the sign notwithstanding, there are clear divisions within the inn, and this is the ‘common’ section. At the repeated use of the name ‘Toddy’, MacFarlane strides over and says ‘don’t call me that confounded name’, one of several lines in the following exchange taken directly from Stevenson’s original short story. The pointed use of names becomes a stick with which to provoke, through the breaching of conventions of social and class observance. Having made veiled references to a shared past, Gray repeats the invitation, this time with more of a threatening inflection which makes it more of a command. At this stage, the balance of power is indicated by the fact that Gray is seated, with MacFarlane looming furiously over him, Fettes hovering anxiously at his side. Conceding Gray’s mysterious leverage, he sits (and Fettes with him). We sense that this constitutes a victory, an assertion of power on Gray’s part. Alluding further to a wild and shared past, Gray says ‘I’m a pretty bad fellow myself, but MacFarlane is the boy’, another line lifted directly from the source story.

The spirit of place
Gray pursues his advantage over MacFarlane, taking over the ordering of food and asserting his authority within this environment. The contrast in their appearances is striking, Gray with unshaven face and heavy coachman’s cape, hat and scarf, and MacFarlane with his frilly cravatte emerging from an elegant jacket. Gray’s heavy coat, scarf and tall hat are like a suit of armour which he keeps on even in this interior, warmed by its large and blazing fire. Gray indicates to the waiter, with exaggerated emphasis, that ‘I’m with my friend, the great Doctor MacFarlane’. He gestures towards him with his great thumb, and pushes his ever-present sardonicism to new and aggressive heights as he says ‘he wants to sit here with the commonality’. It is clear that MacFarlane wants nothing of the sort, and is only reluctantly rooted to the spot through the mesmeric hold which Gray appears to have over him. The waiter hesitates before fulfilling Gray’s order, enough to register the fact that he considers such profligacy to be beyond his usual means.

The gesturing thumb - familiarity and contempt
Gray continues to hold forth, clearly enjoying the unease of his companions. He is delivering a performance, one in which every word is weighted with heavily underlined falsity. He relishes playing the role of MacFarlane’s equal and familiar comrade and observing the hatred which is evident in his every response. This encounter delineates the nature of the relationship between Gray and MacFarlane which is at the heart of the film, without at this stage providing us with any firm insight into its origins. Gray evidently enjoys prodding MacFarlane to get a reaction out of him, and his constantly maintained performance, with its archly emphatic delivery, is motivated by hatreds and resentments of his own. The remarks about the commonality suggest that these may partly rise from a former friendship or at least comradeship which has been deliberately put aside by MacFarlane as he has risen in social stature. As if to bring past associations to the surface, and claim a shared set of interests which would further reduce the social separation so essential to MacFarlane’s view of himself as a man of importance, Gray prompts them to talk of medical matters. In MacFarlane’s view, ‘men like Gray’ are mere suppliers, functionaries to be paid off and dismissed. For them to actually take an interest in the uses to which their specimens are put, to give purpose to their labours, is unthinkable. Gray’s reference to medical matters here is obviously also a threat, an allusion to past dealings and thus a nudge to remind the doctor of the leverage which lends him this power which he is so merrily exerting over him. MacFarlane tries to wrest back some sort of advantage by denying Gray the use of his familiar name (‘I will not have you call me by that name’). Gray realises the power inherent in the mode of address, however, and leans back, comfortable in his ascendancy. ‘You will not have it?’ he rhetorically replies in a voice which says you’ll have it and like it. The two engage in a duel of challenging stares before MacFarlane looks down, defeated.

When Fettes brings up the subject of Mrs Marsh with MacFarlane, Gray immediately intervenes, goading him with the suggestion that he’s afraid of failure. Fettes has unwittingly (or perhaps not) chosen the best tactical moment to pitch his intervention on Mrs Marsh’s behalf, introducing it as a new element into the ongoing power play. Making inroads into the doctor’s professional life, the aspect which defines his sense of self, of vocation, as well as his social standing, Gray says ‘I’d like for you to do the operation, Toddy’. This intrusion rallies MacFarlane into an attempt to regain a shade of his indignant authority. ‘Since when have you become the protector of little children?’, he asks with bitter sarcasm. We have seen Gray’s kindness towards Georgina, of course, and perhaps there is a side to him which genuinely wants to see the little girl cured. If this is so, he’s not about to admit it. This is about the assertion of his power within the sacred circle of MacFarlane’s professional practice. To succeed in manipulating the doctor’s actions at such an elevated level is to extend his control over him to new heights. As such, hints at past misadventures (‘some long-lost friends’) are used as blackmail. The incidental fact that such base motivations can lead to a beneficent outcome gives another ironical variant in the weighing up of the balance between ends and means. MacFarlane tries to cast his concession of defeat into terms which turn into a detached intellectual challenge, as if it is one which he has taken on himself (‘it might be an interesting case’). Gray has a look of grinning triumph on his face which belies the belief that this anything other than a retreat, however.

Enacting violent fantasies
Gray wears a nearly constant smile which has a sharp, vulpine edge which suggests it may be drawn back to reveal devouring teeth. It is a smile which acts as a shield, a defensive prelude to an attack. This rictus grin is an effortfully sustained mask which conceals and, through conscious suppression, channels the poisonous emotional waters which swill underneath. Without dropping this mask of patently false affability, Gray reveals the true basis of his relationship with MacFarlane, the nature of which they are both fully aware. ‘Toddy hates me’, he says, a comment of blank self-evidence whose statement is nevertheless a further victory thrust on his part in that it makes it plain that this hatred avails him of nothing. MacFarlane’s response is a by now reflexive and weakly futile ‘don’t call me by that name’. Each use of the name and disregard of demands not to use it has further drained the doctor of power and authority. Driving the point home, Gray plunges a knife into a hunk of bread, saying ‘Toddy’d like to do that all over my body’, another line taken from Stevenson’s source story.

Noticing the gooseberry
Fettes, intervenes at this point, having thus far been sidelined. He attempts a jest about ‘medicos’ getting rid of a ‘friend’ they dislike by dissecting him. Perhaps significantly (maybe Fettes is less naïve than he appears) Gray has just referred to him as ‘my friend’. The remark causes a temporary cessation of the verbal sparring as Gray and MacFarlane turn and look at him sharply. He has evidently stumbled upon an awkward truth. Fettes is now the awkward and gauche student, making bumblingly embarrassing attempts at humour which bring opprobrium down upon his head. He is wholly divested of any traces of the authority with which he attempted to dress himself in the dissection room. His throwaway comment is greeted with as much amusement as that of the unfortunate student who came out with the off-colour crack about Burke and Hare. Fettes first tentative steps towards ascendancy in the Darwinian dance of eminence and status are made to look utterly insignificant in the face of the intense intimacy into which the attraction of hatred and enmity draws these two. It’s almost like he’s playing gooseberry, his presence an awkward intrusion made worse when he actually draws attention to himself. Gray and MacFarlane are locked together like the two prize-fighting skeletons, and this analogy with the aggressively posed memento mori leads to a feeling that neither can (or perhaps cares to) break free from a relationship which is, in a strange way, the closest either will ever experience. We have already seen MacFarlane extricate himself from Meg’s embrace with a precipitate gesture betokening an underlying indifference. But we sense that only death can separate these two. Gray leans in to MacFarlane in a way which acknowledges this terrible intimacy and whispers ‘you’ll never get rid of me that way, Toddy’ with a viciousness which perhaps disguises his horror of the fate which he fears most of all.

The look of hatred
Gray now comes out with the centrally important dialogue in the film which spells out the symbolic heart of the relationship between him and MacFarlane. It’s a statement of the film’s predominant theme, and indeed that of much of Robert Louis Stevenson’s fiction. It is a divided soul speech which could equally have been addressed by Mr Hyde to Doctor Jekyll, had it been possible for the two ever to meet. ‘You and I have two bodies. Aye, very different sorts of bodies. But we’re closer than if we were in the same skin’. MacFarlane throws him a look of hatred which tells that he knows this to be true, and that his assiduous observance of his social status and professional bearing is an attempt to evade the acknowledgement of this unpalatable truth. Gray elaborates on his vague intimations of secrets buried in the shallow soil of the past, blankly stating ‘for I saved that skin of yours once, and you’ll not forget it’. Gray is seeming more and more like that psychosomatically generated tumour which MacFarlane diagnosed in Georgina, a manifestation of past deeds whose wake is still traced out across his later life; In short, a conscience, an awkward appendage he thought long since excised. Gray is the very physical spectre of past memory which refuses to fade away in consequence-free forgetfulness. He is a constant reminder for MacFarlane of the brutal and messy means through which his pure and abstract intellectual ends are achieved. The body to his mind, they are split along Cartesian faultlines. These are echoed in the dualities of place which are also observed throughout the film. The split in Edinburgh between the elegant Georgian new town of the Scottish enlightenment and the dark streets of the old lower city around the castle; the upstairs/downstairs divide in MacFarlane’s house; the contrast between that house and Gray’s Spartan dwelling; the divisions between gentlemen and commonality in the inn; and, reflected in the figures of Meg and the street singer, between Highland and Lowland. The divided soul which is Gray and MacFarlane is thus further reflected on a wider social level. Just as Gray is an essential but despised component of MacFarlane’s nature and work which he tries unsuccessfully to distance himself from, so this early modern society is seen to be built on divisive foundations, separated into compartments whose partition is maintained by custom, etiquette and law.

The scene fades out once more on the perplexed features of Fettes. This is becoming a repeated pattern. It is as if we are witnessing the incremental stages through which he is being disabused of his innocent belief in a morally coherent world. He wants to believe in MacFarlane as a great man into whose authority he can trust his intellectual and practical education. But it may be that he is beginning to realise that he should also pay attention to Gray, MacFarlane’s other, if not better half.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Poetic Price and Tolkien Cover Versions


A couple of interesting literary LPs were recently donated and have now gone up for sale on the Oxfam online shop. The 1967 LP Poems and Songs of Middle Earth was released by Caedmon records, who specialised in audio readings of a literary stripe. This features Tolkien himself reading from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil along with a short burst of Elvish in A Elbereth Gilthoniel. The second side is taken up by Donald Swann (yes, half of the Flanders and Swann musical humourist duo) playing his arrangements of Tolkien song lyrics from Lord of the Rings. These are sung by William Elvin in a classical tenor, and the music has the feel of the folk songs arrangements by composers such as Vaughan Willliams and Holst. It’s like a polite, tamed chamber music distillation of the spirit of the music (as you might imagine it). Pleasant enough, but hardly what you’d imagine them swinging their tankards along to down at the Prancing Pony. Any road, I see that someone has immediately snapped this one up, and a bargain at the price, I might add.

The cover, by Pauline Baynes, is lovely, and is the same illustration used for the cover of the paperback omnibus edition of The Lord of the Rings which I first picked up at a school jumble sale at the age of about 10, and which went on to be, for me as for so many others, a formative reading experience. It’s still my favourite of all the many Tolkien covers. The woodland surround through which the broad sweep of hills, mountains and plains can be seen invites the reader into this imaginary world and captures the excitement of a new landscape to be travelled through and discovered, which is really the key to the book’s phenomenal success. The figures lurking and capering in the dark earth of the borders recall the capricious marginalia of medieval illuminations. Baynes, who died in 2008, was an artist who became good friends with Tolkien after she provided the illustrations for Farmer Giles of Ham, and through his recommendation also went on to illustrate his friend and fellow ‘Inkling’ CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was Baynes who created the maps for The Lord of the Rings, an innovation which went on to become something of a fantasy novel cliché. She illustrated many Puffin books, including Richard Adams’ Watership Down, another book and cover instantly familiar from childhood. You can find her obituary from the Telegraph here.


The other record is another Caedmon recording from the 60s, this time Vincent Price’s readings of the poetry of Shelley (here it is). Price’s velvet tones wrap themselves around the romantic verses wonderfully. There were many recordings of him reading Poe or other works connected to the horror genre, but here you feel he is in his element. This is the Price who cherished fine art and conjured gourmet delights which were in the themselves transitory works of art. Price may have accepted his ghettoisation within the walls of the horror genre with good grace, but (as some of his performances might suggest) his heart was elsewhere. It took a director of stubborn single-mindedness to jolt him out of his default mode of seductively knowing drollery, which was fine if the material was right. Hence the many apocryphal tales of greater or lesser accuracy about the abrasive relationship which he had with Michael Reeves on the set of Witchfinder General. Here, he delivers the high-flown romanticism of Shelley’s verse in a relatively low-key pitch, resisting the temptation to fall into the customary ‘poetic’ delivery which can sound so ridiculous to the modern ear. A lesser reader would certainly have delivered the famous ‘look on my works ye mighty and despair’ line from Ozymandias with a thunderous luvvie rumble, but not Vincent. He judges the moments to up the rhetorical ante, and as a result his readings have a fine balance and flow which make them a genuine pleasure to listen to. You can hear more of Price's inimitable (though many have tried) voice here, including his readings of two Keats poems, which should give you a flavour of what the Shelley LP sounds like. Now I really must try out some of his recipes. Although perhaps not the pie which he served up to Robert Morley in Theatre of Blood.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Walking Talkies


Eric Rohmer, who died on the 11th January, was a director whose films could at times seem almost parodically French. They generally featured characters (usually youthful) walking, eating or simply sitting but always talking. With lengthy circumlocution, they verbally dissect and rationalise their affairs of the heart, always in reasoned and even-tempered tones, never boiling over into outbursts of passion or rage. Young women weigh up the varying merits and demerits of their several lovers; older, often married men concoct abstruse philosophical self-justifications for their infatuation with younger women. Rohmer observes these attempts of the head to rule the heart with wry generosity. There is often a significant gulf between the attempts to impose an appearance of willed choice and control over instinct and emotion and the actual outcome of events. Fate intervenes to make mock over the presumptuousness of self-absorbed characters in believing themselves in command of destiny, whether their own or others.

Rohmer’s actual name was Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer, and it was as Maurice Scherer that he wrote the film criticism for which he was known before his film career took off. He ran and programmed a Cine-Club in post war Paris which attracted the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut, and all of them went on to write for the highly influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Rohmer himself became editor of Cahiers in 1958, after the death of his predecessor Andre Bazin, and held the post until 1963, when he was ousted by Rivette, amongst others. Rohmer’s inherent conservatism had led him to continue favouring the classicism of traditional Hollywood fare over the New Wave and European modernist trends which were then in the ascendant (amongst critics, at least). Rohmer continued as a critic throughout his career. He wrote the first book-length study of Hitchcock in collaboration with Claude Chabrol, emphasising the themes of Catholic guilt to be found in his films. His doctoral study on the use of space (or mise en scene) in FW Murnau’s Faust was also later published in book form. From the early 70s, he also taught a film class at the Sorbonne. This experience is reflected in the interviews contained on many of the dvd releases of his films, in which his analyses are always interesting and insightful.

Rohmer had little success with his early films, and his first feature, Le Signe du Lion, which was made in the late 50s but not released until 1962, was something of a disaster. He was never really a part of the New Wave, even though its directors were his contemporaries and colleagues, and he, like them, came to film directing through being a critic at Cahiers du Cinema. His real breakthrough came with his second feature, La Collectioneuse, in 1967, well after the New Wave’s first flowering had receded into the past. This was the third film in his self-designated thematic series 6 Contes Moraux (6 Moral Tales), the first two having been shorts. There would be two further thematic series into which he grouped his films; the Comedies and Proverbs of the 80s and the Tales of Four Seasons in the 90s. There is no pressing need to see the sequences in full, the films can be enjoyed as individual works in themselves. The idea of a series linked in however tenuous a fashion allowed for the playing of variations on particular scenarios and the presentation of a range of moral dilemmas centring around the different permutations of human relationships. Critics would point to these variations as having a narrowly limited range. Fans might point to such limitations as being positive, the subtle distinctions between films opening up the possibility of comparison and fine contrast.

Jean-Claude Brialy contemplating Le Genou de Claire
The 6 Moral Tales tended to focus more on the moral quandaries of middle-aged male characters experiencing moments of temptation. At this point (in the late 60s and early 70s) Rohmer still used well-known French actors and actresses alongside the non-professionals, with the latter of whom he would work up characters based partly on their own personalities. Familiar faces such as Jean-Louis Trintignant and Francoise Fabian in Ma Nuit Chez Maud and Jean-Claude Brialy (disguised beneath a beard) in Le Genou de Claire were as near as he got to star power. By the 80s and the Comedies and Proverbs sequence, which tended to feature female protagonists, he was largely using actors and actresses who he had discovered himself.

Beatrice Romand and Marie Riviere in Conte d'Automne
Perhaps the two most emblematic Rohmer actresses are Marie Riviere and Beatrice Romand. Riviere, with her slightly downcast mien and air of emotional fragility, played characters who expressed more emotion than was usual in a Rohmer film, occasionally verging on the self-pitying. Although personally, she never loses my sympathy, some commentators have found her characters particularly grating. She is the central presence in Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray), which was filmed with a significant amount of improvisational input, a method wholly at odds with Rohmer’s usual meticulously pre-planned working techniques. She also spends much more time alone than is usual in a Rohmer film. It is a film in which loneliness is so much more keenly felt in comparison to the extreme loquaciousness and sociable babble of his other films. Beatrice Romand’s small, stocky frame, sturdy Breton (?) features and halo of black frizzy hair are instantly recognisable, and she always looks like she’s up for a good verbal scrap. The two actresses played opposite each other as friends in Conte d’Automne (An Autumn Tale) in 1998, the one scheming on behalf of the other on this occasion to find her a partner who will help her manage her wine vineyard. The two evidently have a great time together.

Love and cafe noir - Zouzou tempts in L'Amour L'Apres Midi
Rohmer also casts actresses from the world of music. Zouzou (real name Daniele Ciarlet), a character known as much for whom she went around with in the 60s (Brian Jones, principally) as anything, was cast in L’Amour L’Apres-Midi (Love in the Afternoon) as a free spirit tempting the middle-aged, male protagonist to stray from his normal quotidian existence. The actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, who is possessed of (or by?) a strange pop bel canto voice which seems also to inflect her speech patterns, also appeared in several films. Rohmer even tried his hand at directing a pop video in the 80s, when the form was at its height, or nadir, depending on what aesthetic cup of tea you favour. He made it for the single Bois Ton Café, by Rosette (real name Francoise Quere – what is it with the French reducing female singers to singular girlish appellations?) Whatever its merits or demerits (and let’s face it, it’s no classic), it shows that he was no highbrow elitist turning his nose up at popular culture.

Rosette says Bois Ton Cafe

La Collectioneuse, released in 1967, was the first film which Rohmer made with Les Films Du Losange, an independent production company set up the director and actor (he was in Rohmer’s 1963 short La Boulangere de Monceau) Barbet Schroeder. He was to continue making films with them until he finished his Tales of Four Seasons with Conte d’Automne in 1998, and this long term relationship with a sympathetic independent producer allowed him to make his modestly budgeted films regularly and without interference. With a degree of self-effacement, Rohmer described himself as a cineaste du Dimanche, or Sunday film maker, which might also be a reference to the small and self-contained nature of his work. It’s a description which also incorporates his no-nonsense approach to filming, with his very economical use of resources in terms of actual footage shot, partly due to his extensive pre-planning and lengthy rehearsals with the actors (perhaps another reason why he preferred to work with a less experienced cast). In this, he was greatly aided by his early working experience with the cameraman Nestor Almendros, who went on to become one of the most highly regarded and sought after cinematographers in Hollywood.

This economical attitude to film-making and relationship with a small-scale producer is very much in line with the American independent cinema of the last few decades, and he can be seen as an influential progenitor of this type of film, whether directly or indirectly. The tendency of US indie films to feature kookie and off the wall characters may simply be a reflection of the American suspicion of articulacy and self-analysis (in the movies, at least – where analysis is something you pay someone else to do for you) which seems so natural in French cinema. A direct cross-over between the two worlds (and an interesting reflection of the resultant culture clashes) can be found in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and Before Sunrise and Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris, all of which are very Rohmerian.

Rohmer plays great attention to the atmospheres of setting and time (reflected in the variations in colour and light according to season and weather), which are captured in filming which takes place almost entirely on location. There is a sense that these environments, with their temporal and special specificity, affect the emotional weather of the characters who inhabit or move through them and play their part in guiding their flow of verbalised feeling. In a classic nature/nurture fashion, these characters are as much products of their surroundings as they are creatures of will. This is one reason why holidays, with their relaxed but also at times disconcerting feel of the temporary suspension of the known and familiar world, play such a large part in Rohmer’s work. Particular settings recur across films, with characters sometimes shuttling between them within the same film, as if between different states. There are the beaches and holiday houses of French coastal resorts in Conte d’ete, Pauline a la Plage and Le Rayon Vert, with a slight variant in the form of the Genevan lakeside house in Le Genou de Claire; The arid, pre-planned zones of the satellite new towns orbiting Paris in Nuits de la Pleine Lune and L’Ami de mon Amie; The many different faces and moods of Paris (where Rohmer lived) in La Femme de L’Aviateur, L’Amour L’Apres-Midi, Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune and Le Beau Mariage; And the comfortingly traditional pace of provincial and rural towns in Le Beau Mariage, and the Contes d’Automne, Printemps and Hiver.

Back at the beach - Conte d'Ete
Rohmer also made several historical films, whose literary provenance was foregrounded by a theatrical artificiality which serves to set them apart from the rest of his oeuvre as much as the period settings. The Marquise of O from 1976 goes as far as to use the German language in order to stay true to its novelistic source in an 1808 work by Heinrich von Kleist. Its concern with social attitudes and relationships negotiated through extended scenes of dialogue link it with Rohmer’s films set in the contemporary world, but the preoccupation with perceived honour and propriety as being an essential corollary to social standing conjures up a particular historical mindset. This is startlingly evident in the way the monstrous, unseen act which is the abyss at the heart of the story (the rape and impregnation of an unconscious woman) is circumvented by an evasive dance of manners designed to uphold the honour of all involved. A young Bruno Ganz is the initially dazzlingly romantic figure of the general who descends like a scouring angel to protect the Marquise’s honour, only to violate it and thus undermine such notions of gallant romanticism. He is a much chastened figure in the rest of the film, stripped of all heroic glamour as he seeks to make reparation for his sins with painstaking (and painful) insistence. The film also departs from Rohmer’s modern tales, as do his other historical works, in that it takes place almost entirely in interior settings.

Perceval Le Gallois was adapted from Chretien de Troyes’ medieval French romance telling of the Arthurian tales and was not a great success critically or commercially at the time (it was released in 1979), perhaps due to its deliberately stagebound air of artificiality (it would be interesting to compare it with Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac from the same era, which is a gruellingly realistic version of the myths). This may have prompted Rohmer to return to the modern world, as his next film started off the Comedies and Proverbs sequence and the 80s and 90s period which saw him at the height of his popularity. More recently he returned to literary historicism after the completion of the Tales of Four Seasons sequence. With mildly controversial consequences (although given that the doctrinaire left had never, and had never been likely to like his work, this was probably of little concern to him) he made a film set during the French Revolution in which the heroine was a Scottish aristocrat. The Lady and the Duke (L’Anglaise et le Duc) from 2001 again took a literary work as its source, this time a memoir of the revolutionary period by one Lady Grace Elliot with the self-explanatory title Journal of my Life During the French Revolution. The film focuses on her relationship with the moderate republican the Duke of Orleans and is taken up with conversations between the two as they observe the progress of events and seek to navigate their way through treacherous political waters, before finally plotting their escape when their eventual fate becomes self-evident. Rohmer’s last film, released last year, was the Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Les Amours d’Astre et de Celadon) which was a classical pastoral romance based on an early 17th century work by one Honore d’Urfe.

Fuseli's Nightmare sans imp - Die Marquise von O
The backgrounds of the exteriors in The Lady and the Duke are digital reproductions of illustrations of the time against which characters and other figures are seen to move. The effect is reminiscent of a modern-day magic lantern show and is again self-consciously artificial. It also shows that Rohmer was influenced by pictorial as well as literary antecedents. There are several direct references to works of art in his films, perhaps most strikingly in his restaging of Henri Fuseli’s famous painting The Nightmare in Die Marquise von O. The absence of the malevolently hunched imp suggests the absence of any supernatural agency involved in the Marquise’s predicament. Paintings are found hung from or pinned onto walls in several of the contemporary films, and Rohmer always draws attention to them in his interviews on the dvds of the films in question. They usually have some analogous link with the characters with whom they are associated, offering an oblique commentary on their personality or appearance. The Matisse painting on the wall in Pauline a la Plage is one example and makes for a good poster.

Matisse on the wall
Rohmer’s films can be divisive. Not so much in a love them or hate them way, rather love them or feel complete indifference towards them. Many simply can’t see the point in sitting and watching people talk endlessly about potential courses of action. The films exist on a plane of intellectual contemplation rather than action, and as such could be seen as inherently unfilmic according to some criteria. This could also make them a refreshing change from the more visceral pleasures generally offered up in the cinema, of course. Left wing critics tended to object to the self-absorption of the generally well-off characters and the lack of any engagement with social issues. True enough, but a critical approach which seems to demand that the films be something which they never set out to be in the first place, and to concern themselves with issues Rohmer evidently has no interest in addressing. Like complaining that a chicken doesn’t produce very good beef. But for those who enjoy the to and fro of a hearty philosophical discourse which is intellectually engaging even whilst at its most self-deluding, and who revel in the sensual pleasures of Frenchness in general (seen here in all of its most appealing, and some of its mildly irritating aspects), the films are a delight. And with all those many, many words, they are a great linguistic learning tool if you’re trying to pick up a bit of the old lingua franca.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Weird Tales for Winter


This looks like it could be well worth listening to. Several tales of the uncanny accompanied by appropriately atmospheric music from so-called ‘hauntological’ (what an ungainly and awkward term that is – only an academic could have come up with it) musicians and groups such as Moon Wiring Club, Mordant Music and Belbury Poly. The obvious writers and stories have been avoided, leaving an interesting selection of the new, the obscure and the neglected, along with more recognisable names such as Nigel Kneale and Thomas Ligotti, the latter of whom has already partaken in a literary/musical collaboration with Current 93. Belbury Poly have chosen the story His Name Was Legion by Sir Andrew Caldecott, a former governor of Hong Kong and Ceylon who took to writing ghost stories after the war. These were collected in the volumes Not Exactly Ghosts and Fires Burn Blue. He’s not a writer I’m familiar with, but his work is currently in print (at bargain prices) in the Wordsworth supernatural series. Kneale’s story, chosen by Moon Wiring Club is his haunted house tale Minuke from his pre-Quatermass (indeed pre-tv screenwriting) 1949 collection Tomato Cain. Although maybe they found it in the Pan Horror Anthology (number 11) in which it also appeared in 1970, with a typically garish cover (this is quite some way off from being the worst). These anthologies were filled out with some appalling rubbish and gave me terrible nighmares as a child. The covers, frequently seen on revolving wire racks in newsagents or at stations, were pretty gruesome. Such ghastly colours, too. Ahhh, growing up in the 70s.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Five

The Body Snatcher - Part Two

Dwarfing heights
Our first view of the inside of Doctor MacFarlane’s imposing residence is from an elevated perspective high on the staircase which faces the doorway. This makes the mother and her child seem very small and insignificant, as if the house has swallowed them up. The hallway in which they are left to wait is a shadowy space, with massive furnishings of dark wood. Lewton’ s screenplay describes it as a ‘gloomy and forbidding entry’ with ‘antlered stag head…cruel-looking walking sticks in the umbrella stand (and a) light-footed Mercury with caduceus upraised’, all of which serve to leave the little girl cowed and terrified. None of these props makes it to the film as finally shot, but the atmosphere which they seek to create remains intact. The camera takes a low angle to show us the looming staircase from the level of the girl’s seated perspective. The stairs form a barrier; There is no way that she could climb them, confined as she is to her chair. Being left stranded here, her fear and anxiety are evident. This is not a welcoming place.

Impossible ascent
The opening of a door to the side throws light onto the little girl’s face, a symbolic ray of hope. Doctor MacFarlane appears, dapper and immaculately turned out. Lewton describes him in his screenplay as ‘carrying himself with the assurance that the world is not only his oyster, but that he has it pinned on a fork and can swallow it and digest it with pleasure’. He greets their introductions (she is Mrs Marsh, the girl her daughter Georgina) with bland indifference. However, when she presents a letter from a Dr Maximilian of Leyden, his interest is immediately piqued, and he becomes more animated. The importance of names and the prestige with which they are imbued is another important theme which runs throughout the film. The mode of address is a way of establishing status and the relative levels of authority within a relationship or exchange. Here, the Doctor only recognises the two visitors to his house through the absent medium of ‘a very famous colleague of mine’. The unnecessary mention of his fame is a self-aggrandising way of declaring his own importance as a ‘colleague’ or equal. The letter proves the magic key, and they are ushered into the living room. MacFarlane declares that he would be ‘delighted to honour his request’ to examine Georgina, making it clear that it is Dr Maximilian rather than his patient who is the key figure in this exchange.

Talking down
They move to the warmer surroundings of the living room, which is filled with imposing objects which reflect a serious life of importance and stature. MacFarlane and Georgina look at each other briefly and with mutual disease. The Doctor seats himself on the arm of a chaise longue and directs his questions to the mother in a curt fashion over the girl’s head. He is impersonal and businesslike, and at the question ‘born paralysed?’, we see Georgina cast her eyes down, as if in shame. When he does address her directly, he remains seated on the arm of the chair, giving him a higher elevation, so that he is talking down to her, arms folded. He also refuses to use her proper name, referring to her only as ‘child’. The relative elevated and seated positions establish the levels of power in the relationship, contrasting also with Gray’s conscientious efforts outside the house to render himself un-imposing. MacFarlane’s refusal to address Georgina by her name reduces her to a depersonalised object, an abstract list of maladies and symptoms, a body with no spirit.

The doctor’s questioning takes on the air of an interrogation, with a demand for instant answers. His questions are fired with rapid impatience and with evident exasperation at having to deal directly with an inferior (a child!) of such intellectual incapacity. Georgina retreats into herself, putting up a defensive wall of rote ‘I don’t know’ responses to rebuff what turns into a verbal assault. MacFarlane all but shouts at her to ‘point where it hurts. You can at least do that, can’t you?’ This only serves to send her further into the retreat of mute negation, and she is capable of no more than a minimal, downcast shake of the head. Seemingly unwilling or unable to try a different approach, Doctor MacFarlane turns to Mrs Marsh, addressing her with a curtly formal ‘ma’am’ as a means of officially declaring the meeting to have been a failure and drawing it to a close. Social decorum, so conspicuously absent in the undisguised anger of his exchange with Georgina, a mere child, is adopted as a calculating mask to generate distance and disengagement. Such brusque observance of social niceties finds its counterpoint in Gray’s heavily underlined sardonicism, which serves also to satirise its underlying insincerity. Having been thus summarily dismissed, Georgina whispers to her mother ‘he frightens me’. It is the fear, easily transmuting into anger in later years of the powerless in the face of those who would scarcely deign to register their existence, and when forced into a position where they have no choice but to, do nothing to hide their utter contempt.

A friendly tete-a-tete
There is a knock at the living room door and the young student who we’ve met dining in the graveyard enters. MacFarlane enters him in with evident recognition and offers him the ‘chance to test your bedside manner. Take a look at the child’. Again, no attempt at naming, the child remains an impersonal object. The young man (as yet also unnamed) walks towards her and smiles, a simple form of communication and indication of openness. Georgina puts the first question to him, initiating a conversation and thus creating for herself an equal role in it. To her enquiry ‘are you a doctor too?’ he replies ‘not yet’. Given the display of disdainful hauteur we have just witnessed from Dr MacFarlane, with his evident concern for the status which his title conveys, this places the young man in a position of innocence, and also at a socially unelevated level which further eases the course of the conversation. The theme of innocence and corruption is one which is further developed as the story progresses.

The young man asks her about her chair, an expression of curiosity in her life which serves as an indirect line of questioning and gives him the opportunity to crouch down and talk to her at her own level. In thus reducing his stature, he discards any assumption of authority or superior power and allows her confidence to grow accordingly, such that she puts his own question for him; ‘What you really want to ask me about is my back, isn’t it? About where it hurts?’ She proceeds to show him and to describe the specific nature of the pain in a cogent and intelligent manner. When he asks her whether it is alright for him to lift her onto the dining room table next door, she gives him an answering smile of affirmation and lifts her arms up in readiness. It is the same smile which she gave to Gray. With both men, she has felt safe in trusting her slight form, in all its vulnerable immobility, to their care. There is a connection made between the two men. They were both present, whether inside or outside, at the graveyard, and both have displayed an empathetic ability to communicate with a young girl and put her at her ease. The camera watches her smile and the young man lifting her from her chair from behind MacFarlane and Mrs Marsh, noting their observation of this moment and by extension their incorporation of its implications into the very different priorities of their worldviews.

Alone with Mrs Marsh in the living room, MacFarlane remarks that ‘the child seems to take to the lad’, without any apparent accompanying insight as to why this might be the case. Names are still avoided, maintaining a sense of abstracted, emotionally disconnected observation. This is further maintained by his continued use of formal address when asking Mrs Marsh about Georgina’s accident. She tells him that ‘a carriage overturned. My husband was killed and Georgina was hurt’. It is a brutally edited précis of a life-shattering event, emotionally dessicated through re-iteration. A link is made with Gray’s carriage, which we have seen pass by the graveyard earlier. Carriages are symbolically redolent of death throughout the film, either bearing the freshly unearthed dead or foreshadowing death in the offing. The sound of horse’s hooves and carriage wheels echoing on the stone cobbles of night-time streets becomes the sound of dread. And yet, conversely, it also becomes the daytime sound of hope for Georgina, of the possibility of recovery and rebirth. The unseen tragedy of the Marshs’ carriage accident also rhymes with Doctor MacFarlane’s fate on the rainswept Scottish moorland at the climax of the film, for which it acts as a portent. Carriages become symbolically freighted bearers of fate, to be either feared or eagerly awaited, or perhaps a confused mixture of both. They also represent traps (with punning literalness in the final scenes), prison boxes which represent lives constrained by social circumstance, convention and emotional isolation. Georgina’s confinement to her ‘wee cab’ is a more literal representation of the stultification of adult lives.

Tragic silhouette
Mrs Marsh’s explanation of the circumstances which have led to Georgina’s condition reveal her to be a widow. Will this leave room for romance with the man who can heal her daughter, thawing his cold heart in the process? His disinterested response to her tragedy, which elicits not a flicker of sympathy or pity, immediately snuffs out any such notion. He is interested only in facts which lead him to further understanding of the case at hand and, referring to the accident, brusquely enquires ‘how long ago?’ Mrs Marsh moves to the window, cutting a black silhouette against the light, still living in the shadow of this tragedy, three years past. Doctor MacFarlane wordlessly leaves her standing there to go and examine her daughter in the dining room next door.

When the two medical men emerge, we hear MacFarlane refer to his young student as Fettes. This is the first time he has used his name, and thus the first time we have learned of it. Its use comes after they have been absorbed in the work of medical diagnosis. Fettes has become manifest, and thus nameable, for Doctor MacFarlane to the extent that he has become a useful part of his world of work, and has shown the intelligence to be deemed worthy of being a part of that world. The use of a surname as a mode of address doesn’t connote equality (there is no qualifying title) but it does indicate a presence which is worthy of being noticed, or which, in the case of Gray, cannot be ignored. MacFarlane is deep in thought, wholly absorbed by the medical problem he has just been presented with. He doesn’t look at the anxiously anticipating figure of Mrs Marsh as he diagnoses, musing as much to himself as to anyone else present, ‘a traumatic tumour, a sort of growth that presses on the nerve centres’. A psychosomatic illness, then, with the tumour almost a physical manifestation of guilt. Is this what Gray symbolically represents for MacFarlane?

Hopes raised
Mrs Marsh’s obvious question is ‘can anything be done?’ to which the doctor, still thinking the problem over, replies ‘a very delicate operation…but I believe it could be done’. With a mixture of imploring and demanding, she asks ‘and you will try? You will operate?’ The doctor is jolted out of his intellectual contemplation by this direct appeal. ‘Not I, Madam’, he replies, looking sadly downwards. He seems to have had no conception that in raising the possibility of a cure he is also raising her hopes. Her direct appeal to his emotions (‘a case like this, a little child who can never walk or run’) is swiftly rebuffed with a declaration of his responsibility to his teaching duties. He asserts his unmoveable position by adopting an authoritative tone and declaring ‘that’s a great responsibility upon me, ma’am, a great responsibility’, the re-iteration serving to draw a line under the matter by emphasising his importance and unquestionable status. Returning stony-faced to the room having ushered her out, he re-reads Dr Maximilian’s letter, returning to the safe comforts of a professional relationship.

Fettes re-enters the room, hands in his pockets, his casual demeanour suggesting that he feels at home here and also that he lacks the self-important bearing of the doctor class. When he tells MacFarlane that he intends to give up medicine, he is aghast, as if this is some kind of betrayal of a sacred trust. Fettes tells him ‘my father is a vicar at Thrums. It’s a small parish. Not much of a living.’ Thrums was the name given by JM Barrie to Kirriemuir, the town of his birth, and was the setting for several of his early novels, one of which, The Little Minister, was filmed in 1934 with Katherine Hepburn. Lewton could thus be assured that a good proportion of his audience might be familiar with the town, and already associate it with the Scottish ministry. Fettes’ religious background lends his character a dimension which will add weight to the moral dilemmas which he faces. The economic reasons behind his decision to quit medicine also introduce the elements of wealth and class, and the constraints which they (or the lack thereof) put on the individual’s ability to follow up on and fulfil a natural aptitude. These elements will come to bear in the bitter resentments which have come to constitute the major components of Gray’s character.

Sorrow for the unrecoverable past
MacFarlane won’t hear of it. ‘You’re too good a man, Fettes. I’ll not let you quit’. His solution is to make him an assistant. ‘That’ll pay your keep and your tuition, too’. He is made a part of the household staff, like the ‘housekeeper’, who passes the door at this point, a troubled look overcoming her face as she hears MacFarlane welcome Fettes to his new home. As the doctor ushers Fettes to the anatomy room to explain his duties, the housekeeper sternly calls him back. Alone in the room together, formality drops away. The housekeeper rhetorically states ‘you’re not having Fettes for your assistant’, half question, half assertion. To his quizzical ‘why not? He’s a good lad, bright and able’, she replies ‘aye, he’s a good lad’, underling this aspect of his character assessment as being the source of her objection. Her implication is that this quality of goodness might not survive in his new position. MacFarlane draws a comparison with his younger self, reminding her ‘wasn’t I assistant to Doctor Knox?’ She replies ‘aye’ with downcast eyes and a look of sorrow. Knox, the doctor whose ‘specimens’ were supplied by Burke and Hare, was evidently the agent of his corruption. ‘Did it spoil me, Meg, my lass?’ he asks, a question which cannot be answered without pushing the exchange onto a higher level of confrontation. The use of a Christian name immediately highlights the intimacy of this relationship, an intimacy which has been hidden in the presence of others. MacFarlane kisses her on the cheek and she immediately embraces him, throwing her arms around him and kissing him passionately. After a moment he removes her arms and throws out and off-hand and dismissive ‘don’t worry. It’ll do the boy no harm’. It is a hollow reasurrance. His withdrawl from physical contact, even from someone who clearly loves him, characterises MacFarlane’s aloof nature and emotional disconnection, and is repeated throughout the film. His only intimate contact is with the dead.

Anatomy specimen
We cut to the anatomy room, with its descending steps indicating that this is in the basement, establishing a divide between below and upstairs. This is indicative of the divisions within the household. Fettes, now that he is embedded within its structure, will become something of a middle man between the two levels. The emblematic division of spaces is replicated in the other public and domestic interiors which we will come across later. The anatomy room is the hidden dark heart of the house, the underside to the cultivated air of respectability on conspicuous display upstairs. Lewton outlined the atmosphere he wanted to convey in his script: ‘Dim. Long, level bars of light come through the wide windows to illuminate the bare austerity of this classroom. The long rows of tables have a sombre and empty look’. This is a space stripped of all the clutter of domestic accoutrements designed to comfort, impress signify in some sense or another. It is a room which reduces human life to a reductive, diagrammatic agglomeration of flesh and bone, blood and nerve and the needs which serve them. From behind the curtains at the back of the room the stooped figure of Bela Lugosi emerges, shambling like some subterranean Morlock. He moves past the anatomy diagrams hanging from the wall, and is thus likened to this primal level of physical function and need. He carries the bucket and wears the leather apron of the servant.

Abjection and contempt
A door is heard opening above and MacFarlane and Fettes descend. Lugosi is immediately still and alert as Fettes’s duties are explained to him. The sound of his brush against the bucket alerts them to his presence. MacFarlane is contemptuously dismissive of him, addressing him as Joseph, a use of the first name which in this case connotes the intimacy of contempt. He accuses him of ‘sneaking about like a redskin’, a racial slur which consigns him to marginality. We never get to learn any more of Joseph’s name – he never attains the significance to earn that respect. He is obsequiously subservient as he conspicuously scrubs to justify his presence in their company. He is an abject figure.

Drawn into confidence
MacFarlane takes Fettes by the elbow, an uncharacteristic moment of physical contact which indicates a degree of seriousness which needs to be marked, an important sharing of confidence. Leading him to one side he asks ‘you know where we get the bodies for dissection?’, testing the degree of his innocence. Fettes replies with the official version, that they come ‘from the municipal council. They’re the bodies of paupers’. This is a response which anticipates the outcome of the Anatomy Act. The corpses were supposed to come from executed criminals at this time. Poverty would otherwise have provided a plentiful supply. MacFarlane tells him that this official source is insufficient, and leads him behind the black curtain at the back of the room. The camera remains static on the other side, denying us entrance. The curtain is a discreetly drawn veil screening us from the unpalatable reality of death, and gives us the sense that we are being spared from seeing ghastly sights. And yet the camera begins to glide slowly towards it. Will the curtain part, allowing the privileged space beyond to be revealed upon the cinema (or tv) screen? Not yet. The curtain dissolves into grass in the darkness of night. The camera pans up to reveal Greyfriars ‘Robbie’ sitting guard on the soil of his master’s grave, a stiff wind ruffling his hair. The connection between the two spaces is made explicit, the curtain becoming the divide between anatomy storage room and graveyard. MacFarlane’s explicitly stated need for further ‘specimens’ makes him directly culpable for whatever transpires in the following scene.

Passing beyond the veil
There is the whinny of a horse and the dog is immediately alert. A gate creaks open and we see the shadow of Gray cast against the wall, with his tall hat and stooped gait, a shovel carried over his shoulder which could easily be a makeshift replacement for a scythe. It is like the similar graveyard shadow play in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (although without the surreal reversed movement). The dog growls and he whacks it on the head with his shovel, contemptuously kicking it to the side in a shower of dirt before starting to dig. This is the same Gray who we have seen treating a young girl with kindness and consideration, inviting her to say hallo to his horse. His is evidently a divided soul, capable of containing generosity and the capacity for unthinking brutality when his desired ends are obstructed.

Death goes to work
Fettes tosses and turns in his bed, as if intuitively sensing the violent end of the creature with which he shared his lunch. The sound of horses hooves echo in the courtyard below and he sees the carriage draw to a halt. This is the sound which will come to signify death. Downstairs in the anatomy room he answers the pounding on the door and comes face to face with Gray, grinning sardonically up at him from beneath his felt top hat, the freshly dug up corpse slung in a sack over his shoulder. His first words to Fettes, ‘give me a hand, this is heavy’, immediately make him complicit in the act. Gray tells him he’ll ‘find the specimen in good condition’, a linguistic depersonalisation of these human remains in the manner of Doctor MacFarlane. Gray, however, immediately goes on to say ‘he was as bright and lively as a thrush not a week long gone’, an acknowledgement of the human spirit which animated this body. Having laid it on the table, he muses that he was ‘a likely lad, I’m told’, before the camera focuses on his face as he fully takes in Fettes’ presence for the first time, as if wondering whether this is a new ‘likely lad’.

First meeting by cablight
‘You’re a new assistant?’ he enquires, with a hint that he’s seen many pass before. Fettes gives him his full name, and we thus learn that his first name is Donald. Gray maintains his sardonic tone as he turns the informality of this granting of first name term into a formal greeting (‘I’m very pleased to know you, Master Fettes’) accompanied by an exaggerated nod of the head. Fettes nervously stutters ‘Mr Gray?’, revealing that this has been an encounter he has been anticipating with some trepidation. This is affirmed, with another fine adjustment of the mode of address to ‘Cabman Gray’. The accurate and pointed use of names is evidently important to Gray. Here, his given first name is an indication of his profession (or trade in this case) which he wishes to emphasise, as if to make it clear that what he is doing now is a sideline, something to supplement the inadequate rewards of his honest work.

Him upstairs
Gray revels in the notoriety he senses he has been granted and says his name with a wicked and knowing grin which carries an air of incipient threat. ‘I’ve had some dealings with MacFarlane in the past, you understand’, he says with a raising of the eyebrows and rolling of the eyes which indicates ‘him upstairs’, again emphasising the upstairs/downstairs divide. The nature of these dealings and the length of the past into which they extend is left tantalisingly vague at this point. He pats Fettes on the back of the arm as he confides in him that he’s ‘always gotten on well with his assistants’. Fettes recoils from this contact and the confidence which it assumes in a way that he didn’t when Doctor MacFarlane made a directly parallel gesture. As if sensing this instinctive revulsion, Gray turns up the sardonicism a couple of notches and adds ‘providing, of course, they understand my humble position’, a remark accompanied by another bow of self-evidently overplayed humility. We are thus made aware of the Gray’s bitter preoccupation with his social status and the resentment at the treatment which it earns him, concerns which mirror the importance which MacFarlane attaches to his professional status and standing.

Recoiling from confidences
Fettes offers Gray pay, and he replies ‘of course. That’s the soul of the business’, a phrase which brings a deliberately inappropriate touch of the sacred into proceedings which have more to do with desecration, and which suggests a self-conscious awareness on the part of Gray of the exact nature of what he is doing. His manner is now arch, with a permanently fixed smile and a relaxed sense of being fully in control. He directs Fettes in carrying our the proper procedure, the paying of the ‘usual’ fee and the suggestion that he make ‘a proper entry’, proposing the ‘royal name’ of Macduff, one of the murdered victims of Macbeth in the ‘Scottish play’. Gray is clearly a man with an educated, if dark, sense of humour. He leans up to light his pipe from one of the gaslights and the angled line of its stem forms a parallel line with the slope of Fettes’ pen as he hesitantly makes the entry. This diagonal line of action across the screen suggests that Fettes actions are being guided by Gray’s remote agency. The business satisfactorily concluded, Fettes bids ‘Mr Gray’ goodnight and receives the sarcastic reply ‘my respects, Mr Fettes’, a farewell which serves to underline his own controlling hand in the whole exchange. His parting words, ‘may this be the first of many profitable meetings’, are carefully weighted and recognise the economic reality underpinning their dealings. But, with typical linguistic sinuousness, Gray hints that the profit he takes from such encounters might not be entirely monetary. There’s something more than mere business going on here, a fulfilment of a need on Gray’s part, which involves a constant and self-consciously controlled and delivered performance.

Parallel pipe and pen
A thoroughly disconcerted Fettes hears laughter coming from behind him, echoing that of the departed Gray. MacFarlane steps out from the shadows and announces ‘your first meeting with the redoubtable Gray’. As Gray leaves, so MacFarlane emerges, as if they were twin halves of the same soul. ‘You can count it a milestone in your medical career’, he tells Fettes. The camera zooms in on Fettes confused and troubled countenance, and the scene fades out on this shot. His innocence has been tested and it is far from evident whether or not he has emerged unscathed.