Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirteen

The Seventh Victim - Part Five

Munch - The Dance of Life. Innocence to Experience

James Ensor. Distorted faces of the crowd.

The dark, deserted street in which she now finds herself is like the one along which Clo-Clo walked in The Leopard Man, lit by the same globe street lights. This is noir lighting, with pools of shadow of the deepest blackness. The block-like and angular figure of a man casts its cubist shadow from around a street corner. These are cubist shadows which distort the human figure in an expressionist manner. Picasso re-imagined by Munch, or Braque by Ensor. That these turn out to be cast by entwined lovers merely serves to highlight Jacqueline’s aloneness. The Lewton night-walk she is taking is in some ways an externalisation of depression, a condition which serves to distort the individual’s view of the world from which they feel excluded. In this sense, the voices of the Palladist cabal from which she has just escaped (or been allowed to escape) are merely the voices in her own head telling her how worthless she is and how the best course action for everyone concerned would be for simply to eradicate herself for once and all. She hurries on from the couple, harried by figures which she can’t see. One of the Palladist heavies emerges from the impenetrable blackness of a doorway as if he were attached to it, or part of it. He begins to follow her. Jacqueline turns pleadingly to passersby, but to no avail. As with Mary on the subway, there is a sense of being alone amongst multitudes, of the atomisation of the city’s inhabitants. Nobody cares, covert glances are swiftly averted. As she runs, her pursuer walks at a confidently nonchalant pace. In this expressionist nightmare, the laws of physical space are warped and he has to expend exponentially less effort to keep up than she does to flee. Jacqueline runs out into the road and is almost knocked down. Everything is now threatening, human and inanimate alike. It is as if the structures of the city are beginning to shift and conspire against her.

cubist expressionism.

She crawls along the face of a wall, back to its surface, with face in profile and hand outstretched. She looks like an Egyptian relief figure. She moves slowly, as if under conditions of heavy gravity. She comes across the backstage doors of a theatre, with its masks of comedy and tragedy. As she pauses in the doorway, the symbol for tragedy is covered up, as if to emphasise the fact that this is the mask which she now wears. There are sounds of laughter within, which correspond to the mask of comedy. The light is much brighter around this door too. Is this pointing to the compensatory comforts of art amongst the bitter experiences of life, the need for escapism and bright pageantry? If so, Jacqueline backs away from it, back into the shadows. It is another route to happiness which is denied her (and perhaps she would have been better of with art than psychiatry as a means of therapeutic release).

The living mask of tragedy.

As she retreats backwards, her hand, feeling along the wall, comes into contact with the fabric of a coat. She turns to see the rictus grin of her pursuer. The human form rendered as exaggerated expressionist mask. He releases the blade of his flick-knife with a threatening click (although we know that he cannot use it, of course). The laughter of the players intrudes upon this moment of silent menace as they burst out of the theatre doors. They are a motley parade of jesters, Romans and damsels an irruption of unreal colour into this bleak cityscape. Jacqueline allows herself to be swept up in the noisy throng, but is deposited outside the bar to which they convene. Inside, a jaunty barroom piano jangles away and she can see blurred shapes moving inside beyond the frosted glass. This is the world of light and life from which she is now excluded and in whose revels, by all accounts, she was once an active participant. What drew her away from it? Was it Gregory? Or the onset of depression, a desolation both experiential and metaphysical. She is outlined against the tavern sign, her exclusion represented in symbolic tableau.

The false hand of friendship.

Jacqueline finally makes it back to the apartment, her night journey ended but with the promise of future ordeals of psychological terrorism to come. Ascending the staircase, she pauses outside room 7, her death’s door. At this point, Mimi comes out of her room and the two come face to face on the landing. ‘Who are you?’ Jacqueline asks in a hollow voice. ‘I’m Mimi – I’m dying’ she replies matter of factly, as if this is an introduction she offers to anyone who asks. Jacqueline gives a ‘no’ of denial, a reflexive rebuttal of the reality of death. Mimi expands on her condition in a statement of defiance before the inevitable, a rejection of her previous submission which is like a less thunderous version of Dylan Thomas’ declamation ‘do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/rage, rage against the dying of the light’. That poem concerned itself only with men. Here, Mimi conducts her rebellion against quietude in a less clenched-fist waving fashion. ‘Yes, I’ve been quiet – oh, ever so quiet. I hardly move. And yet it keeps coming closer all the time, closer and closer’. ‘And you don’t want to die’, Jacqueline replies, more a statement than a question. ‘I’ve always wanted to die – always’. It is this inherent depression, this lurking darkness, which the Palladists have exploited to their own ends, denying Jacqueline the control of her own destiny which room 7 represents. ‘I’m tired of being afraid, of waiting’, Mimi says, articulating Jacqueline’s thoughts at the same time. ‘Why wait?’ she replies. ‘I’m not going to wait’, Mimi determines there and then. ‘I’m going out and I’m going out and I’m going to laugh and dance and do all the things I used to do’. As with the deaths in The Leopard Man , which were attendant upon the search for some of the essentials of living (food, love and material self-sufficiency) the brightness of life is here seen to contain the seeded shadow of death as an everpresent counterpoint. ‘And then?’ asks Jacqueline, as if wanting to force an explicit admission of the outcome of which they are both aware. ‘I don’t know’ says Mimi, avoiding the issue. ‘You will die’, Jacqueline bluntly states. At this point, both retreat behind their personal death’s doors, Mimi’s door which is the portal to the domain of death which for her is the outside world of fully lived life and Jacqueline’s which leads to her pre-prepared end. Their encounter, once more on the transitional stage of the staircase, has made up both their minds for them.

Meanwhile, Jason and Doctor Judd have arrived at the apartment from which Jacqueline has recently been expelled. Jason spits out his contempt. ‘The devil worshippers, the lovers of evil. It’s a joke, a pathetic little joke.’ They don’t look so sinister now. ‘You’re a poor wretched group of people who have taken a wrong turning’, he continues. Dr Judd looks up at him with what almost appears to be admiration. The fact that he was discovered performing his card tricks at this apartment suggests that he was being courted by (or was himself courting) the Palladists (possibly with Jacqueline as a bargaining chip on his part) with an eye towards joining their ranks. His joining the group of questing fools and subsequent courting of Jason’s friendship may have saved him taking ‘a wrong turning’, from fatally succumbing to his preference for ‘the sinister side’. The mystery of the Palladists relies on secrecy, a relentlessly humourless sense of self-importance and the abuse and exploitation of the weak and the lost. This is how they exercise their power and justify its use to themselves. Their unnamed leader speaks up for them, breaking the atmosphere of hangdog chagrin which is prevailing now all the lights are on and the cheap stage trickery has been packed away. ‘If I prefer to believe in satanic majesty and power, who can deny me? What proof could you bring that good is superior to evil?’ Speaking of devil worship as if it were a valid lifestyle choice, this man is once more positing a relativist world in which good and evil are meaningless and personal choice and power are everything. This challenge is repeated with a sneer, a hint that he is regaining some of his ubermensch authority (and the Palladists, with their occult dalliance justifying a claim to a natural lineage of power deriving from an inherent superiority resemble nothing if not a bunch of Nazis).

Dr Judd speaks up at this point. He says that whilst talking with Jason, he had been reminded of words recalled from childhood. This is the re-emergence of Innocence in his life, which had been so thoroughly infected with the world weary negations of Experience. This is the Lord’s Prayer, from which he quotes a couple of lines; ‘forgive us our trespasses’ and ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. This might seem like a rather lame riposte, but Judd is in effect offering himself up as an example. He has been converted, reborn. It is this evidence that there are other paths and that the misguided choices one makes are not irrevocable that makes them hang their heads in shame, like miscreant schoolchildren. As they leave on this revelatory note, Dr Judd gives them one of his sardonic glances, to let them (and us) know that he hasn’t abandoned some of the more charming habits of the world of Experience.

Mary is with Gregory in her room when Dr Judd calls to say that Jacqueline is on her way up to see her (as we know she had been). Gregory resolves to take her away with resentfully dutiful resignation. But who let the Palladists know where she was (and for that matter where Mary lived)? There is more to Gregory than his is revealed by his cagey exterior, and his sombre, joyless demeanour is definitely in keeping with the Palladist style. He tells Mary that he loves her through clenched jaw, having insisted that she remain facing away from him. She, on the other hand, looks him directly in the face when she tells him that she loves him, but that Jacqueline comes first. ‘At least I’ve heard you say it’, she says. There’s something of a reversal of roles here, as she is now the one acting with more emotional maturity than the repressed Gregory. She has evaded the trap which this relationship represented (and into which Jacqueline had fallen) whilst using it to measure her own feelings and the effect which she has on others. The recognition that these feelings will pass marks a growth in maturity. She has fallen for the first man who has shown an interest in her, and has now heard that that interest was reciprocated. But her ability to draw a line under the relationship shows that she remains in control of herself. Gregory, on the other hand, should know better and is dishonest both with himself and with others. The death of Jacqueline immediately after his declaration of love to her sister implies some correlation and thereby a degree of culpability on his part. He has already abandoned her to her own fate, only belatedly joining the quest which he had half-heartedly initiated on his own part. His role in the search was scarcely active, either, being mostly reliant on others calling him to join them once they’d done the legwork.

The final scene depicts the playing out of the choices made by Mimi and Jacqueline during their encounter on the landing. And in a film in which staircases have provided a central metaphorical space for transitions between states (innocence and experience, domestic shelter and unprotected exterior, life and death) it is appropriate that it is upon one that the film ends. Mimi goes to descend the staircase into the outer world in all her finery, ready for one final joyous danse macabre, and hears the sound of a chair crashing to the ground in room 7, a sound which means nothing to her but everything to us. We hear the words of Donne’s poem which had opened the film, and which now applies to both Mimi and Jacqueline. ‘I run to death and death meets me as fast/and all my pleasures are like yesterday’.

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