Friday, 19 June 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Eleven

The Seventh Victim - Part Three

A conspiracy of silence.

The following morning the headlines of murder are being shouted by paper sellers as Mary goes to meet Gregory in a restaurant. The old woman who has being hawking the headlines in a coarsely bellowing voice says thank you to a purchaser in a gentle and refined tone; a hint of the mysterious hidden histories lying behind every passing stranger on the streets. Gregory reads the paper and tells Mary that the murder is of another person. Death is common currency here, the daily news. Mary confesses her part in August’s death, demonstrating that she does not shy away from unpalatable self-knowledge. ‘He was a kind little man in his way…and I made him go down that hall into the darkness’. And yet her feelings of guilt don’t douse her flash of fierce independence when Gregory tells her to drink her milk, which earns him an admonitory ‘I don’t like to be ordered to do anything. However, he does take up his offer of a job working at a local kindergarten. This seems very similar to the position which she had been offered back at the school, and leads us to draw the parallel between Gregory and the head Mrs Lowood (and thereby also their relationships with Jacqueline and Miss Gilchrist respectively). Mary is ushered back to the world of innocence from which she has already taken several decisive steps.

In the waiting room of Gregory’s office, we encounter Dr Louis Judd, a psychiatrist who prefers writing about mental illness and leaving the untidy business of curing it to others. To the secretary’s inquiries on behalf of her alcoholic father, he replies ‘dipsomania is rather sordid’, with evident distaste. Could this be the same Dr Judd we have already met in Cat People. He is certainly played in the same manner by the same actor (Tom Conway) and has the same louche, vaguely decadent mien. Evidently the events here would have to be taking place in a an earlier time period than Cat People, given the fatal conclusion to the case which he took on in that film. Anyway, he and Gregory are acquainted through the agency of Jacqueline, who is Judd’s patient and is seemingly also under her power. Judd here is presented almost as if he is a modern incarnation of a magus, whose psychiatric practices have cast some kind of mesmeric spell over Jacqueline and allowed him to bend her to his will in ways which we are left to imagine. Judd makes no bones about the material nature of their relationship. ‘Her care imposes a financial burden upon me’, he states bluntly, just as Mary’s care at school was contingent upon the maintenance of fees coming from Jacqueline. His ensuing statement that there is ‘a grave danger of Jacqueline losing her sanity’ (a prognosis which he also imposed on Irena in Cat People) appears bereft of professional integrity given that he is clearly attempting to extort money from Gregory. His insistence that ‘she can only take cash’ only serves to further the sense of a shady backstreet deal, a petty protection racket , as does the fact that he is finally seen off with whatever ready money Gregory happens to have about his person. This is indeed ‘rather sordid’ as Judd earlier put it; human relationships as cash transactions, measured out in handfuls of bills snatched out of a pocket wallet.

From this scene, we cut immediately to the kindergarten, from the world of cynically exploitative ‘experience’ to the innocent (?) world of the playground. But Dr Judd invades this innocent (kinder) garden in his serpentine fashion, announcing out of the blue ‘I’ve come to take you to your sister’. The place he takes her seems to be some kind of home, presumably a low-key mental hospital. The mental hospital or asylum is a destination with which Lewton’s female characters are frequently threatened or to which they are consigned with little hope of release. Judd sardonically declares that ‘it’s amid marble splendours such as these that Jacqueline dwells’. This paints the home as a mausoleum in which she is enduring a living death under Dr Judd’s ‘care’. There is a split staircase ascending to the first floor and Judd declares, knowingly, ‘I prefer the left, the sinister side’. Once more, the stairway is presented as a transitional space, here promising the unveiling of the mystery of Jacqueline’s whereabouts and the reason for her disappearance and erratic behaviour. It also provides a metaphor for the choices we make in life. Judd’s choice of the left-hand path is made more out of the jaded world-weariness of ennui than through any real dedication to wickedness, but it is a choice which leads to real consequences for others which extend beyond his dilettante’s desire for new sensations. Before they go up the stairs, one of his patients pushes a pram out. This again reminds of the contrast between the ‘contrary states’ (as Blake put it) of innocence and experience. The latter lies above.

Upstairs, a vacuum cleaner and a brush lean against the banisters, symbols of an attempt to clean away the past maybe. The brush falls as if knocked over by an invisible presence. They go into a locked room which Judd once more locks behind him. We are reminded of the similar room which Mary and the Romari’s broke open earlier to reveal Jacqueline’s preparations for death. But Jacqueline is not here, her recent presence marked by a spectral curl of cigarette smoke. She has become like a living ghost, haunting this disturbed dream house. ‘I don’t know why she left – she knows she shouldn’t have’ Judd says, his poise thrown. He is controlling Jacqueline in a way which Mary firmly resisted when Gregory displayed the merest hint of such an attitude. Even though we have yet to see her, we are already gaining an impression that Mary has many nascent qualities which are fully manifested in Jacqueline. Mary picks up Jacqueline’s monogrammed brush. Such personal objects are freighted with the melancholy weight of the departed. They can become imbued with associative power until they become almost unbearable to look upon; whereas to others it’s just a hairbrush. Dr Judd is suddenly fearful to the extent that he displays genuine emotion and self-doubt. ‘She’s left me to meet them alone’, he frets, ‘I can’t’. He flees and Mary stubbs out Jacqueline’s cigarette. We have seen how the extinguishing of a cigarette can stand for the dying out the fires of life in ‘The Leopard Man’. Here it seems to represent Mary giving up hope of ever seeing her sister again. She opens the door to leave and Jacqueline is standing on the other side. And then she immediately closes the door and is gone. Mary’s attempts to run after her are in vain.

This sudden appearance and just as sudden disappearance of a character whose almost mythological status has been slowly built up through a patchwork of anecdote anticipates the way in which Orson Welles’ Harry Lime is introduced in The Third Man several years later. All we are left with is a fleeting impression of a tired and haunted face, a finger to the lips including Mary in a conspiracy of silence. When she returns to the room once more, Mary notices in the mirror the smoke of a cigarette rising from behind the chair. This is a cause for fear, of course, but may also indicate the re-ignition of her hopes. The visual pun of smoke and mirrors, whether intended or not, also leads us to reflect on Jacqueline’s sudden emergence from her phantom existence as the ghost of other people’s memories, and the possibility that her dramatic entrance was not without its element of theatrical contrivance. The man in the chair is Paul Radeau, the large man who had menaced August and who is also a PI. He has lost none of his charmless, bullying aggression and his manner is the opposite (this is a film in which many characters seem to have their opposites) of the small, hesitant kindnesses of Irving August, upon whom he had so casually asserted his superior power and indirect influence. This unpleasant man has been hired by Gregory Ward, whom he shockingly reveals to be married to Jacqueline. The hints of a connection to a sinister organisation (of which Mary is unaware) which had immediately led August to back off the case (‘okay, Mr Radeau. It’s forgot’) cast Gregory in a very different light from that of the affectionate protector. This voice of authority and professional certitude is thoroughly corrupt.

Back at the café, Jason sits at his customary table at the feet of Dante who looms over him on the large wall mural. He reads while he eats, just as when we first saw him he was reading as he walked. Poetry and literature are for him the food he eats and the air he breathes. He demands more wine in a playfully demanding tone and it is obvious that this he is at home here and that he is indulged like a favourite son. His call for more wine also suggests that his approach to poetry is more Dionysian than Apollonian, the poetry of night and wild mystery rather than the bright sun of daylight rationalism and order. He woos Mrs Romari with flowery phrases (‘why do you bring me wine when you yourself are so intoxicating’) but his charms are on the surface and playful, with a hint of self-mockery. Meanwhile and in contrast to this scene Gregory is attempting to explain himself to Mary, but his words are evasive and unconvincing. Mary plays him off against Jason with mock innocent coquetry, telling him how he has complimented her. She doesn’t accept his elisions of the truth, reasonably pointing out that ‘you could have told me any time you were Jacqueline’s husband’. There is a sense that she fully sees through Gregory’s dubious charms but is stringing him along because she find him a useful echo location object against which to measure the effect which she has on others. He helps her to discover the lineaments of her own desires without at any time proving a likely figure to fulfil them.

Gregory is about to say that he wants to find Jacqueline in order to ‘settle things’ when Jason comes over. This is an ambiguous phrase which implies divorce but also has a sinister sense of finality about it. It is not even clear whether this ‘settlement’ is to be conducted with Jacqueline at all. We have already seen how Gregory and Judd have cut deals over her in his office. Jason’s arrival leaves the matter hanging unresolved in the air. He has been sent over by Mrs Romari to make Mary laugh after she has rhetorically asked why everyone can’t be happy like them, failing to notice the sadness and self-mockery underlying Jason’s clowning. His role here is the poet as jester, but it is a role which he refuses to play. Instead he acts the gallant, telling Mary with instant resolve ‘I’m going to find your sister’. Just as Mary’s quest is also a means of self-discovery, this will be a way for him to regain his sense of self-worth.

Controlling the cards.

Jason arrives with Mary and Gregory at a party at which Dr Judd is performing tricks for their host Natalia Cortez, who shuffles the cards with her one arm. ‘This is a trick of telepathy, not card manipulation’ he declares, displaying an interest in the occult (unless he is playing them along) which his arch-rationalist equivalent in Cat People would have roundly dismissed. It soon becomes evident that Jason too knows Judd, and that a former acquaintance of his (a ‘nice girl’ - like Mary) had disappeared from view once she’d entered his orbit. Maybe this was his Beatrice, Dante’s lost love who was the muse for The Divine Comedy. Jason is certainly lost on life’s path much as Dante was at the start of the Divine Comedy. In the Dorothy L.Sayers Penguin translation from 1950 the opening lines read thus: ‘Midway this way of life we’re bound upon/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.’ They are lines which could apply to many of the characters in the film. Judd is only too happy to point Jason’s lack of direction out to him. ‘I know you haven’t written for ten years’ he tells him. ‘I’d gave given anything to have written that book. You had all my admiration and respect…once’. When a woman at the party hears that they are looking for Jacqueline, she talks of her having gone ‘out of circulation’. This is since she has come under Judd’s care, and there is evidently a danger that, as with Jason’s friend, this could become a permanent condition.

Jason talks to Mary in a quiet corner, with Chopin music playing in the background, and sells himself to her, emphasising his knowledge, which has brought them here. He gains her approval and confesses to her his feelings of failure. The characters in The Seventh Victim are a cross section of failures. Jason with his fading literary ambitions, Gregory with his failed marriage and Dr Judd with his jaded contempt for his own professional practice. But only Jason faces up to his failure and finds in the quest for Jacqueline a chance to rediscover a sense of purpose and meaning in his life.

He goes to the library and uses his charms on the librarian to trace the books with Mrs Redi and Dr Judd have taken out. Throughout the film, people make conscious use of their charms to manipulate others. It is no accident that one of the central locales is a beauty parlour and perfume manufactory. It is natural that the poet turned detective should start his search in territory with which he is familiar, determining people’s character and connections through the books which they read. In this case, these are ‘black books’ from the restricted shelves.

Back at the restaurant, Jason waves and says hello to Mimi on his way up to see Mary. As a poet, he is on nodding terms with death. Mimi appears as a punctuating figure between scenes in much the same way as the statue of St Sebastian in I Walked With A Zombie or the fountain in The Leopard Man. She acts as a memento mori, a reminder of life’s transience. Jason shares his discoveries with Mary. Mrs Redi and Dr Judd have read the same books, as if there is some implicit link between psychiatry and the beauty industry (in fact, of course, Dr Judd has been following the same investigative path as Jason). Jason shows her the symbol of the Palladists, a historical society of devil-worshippers, which Mrs Redi had traced. It is ‘a parallelogram with a split triangle at its very centre’. This is the logo of the La Sagesse beauty parlour, the product brand. These devil worshippers don’t have the traditional cabalistic symbols, pentagrams or moons. Theirs is an abstract design, old but also moderne, fitting in with the design trends of the age. This is Satanism in corporate clothing, the devil as Mammon. The logo works as a magical sigil through the creation of consumer desire, the manipulation and maintenance of discontent and unfulfilled need. This capitalist demonology serves the ends of profit above all else, and the creation of a secret cabal ensures that the resulting accumulation of wealth and power is carefully corralled amongst a select few.

Jason has difficulty making Mary take this seriously, partly because they feel at ease with each other and he makes her laugh. In a film in which happiness is a rare thing, any smile or laugh becomes emphatic and underlined. Jason sends Mary off to find out about Mrs Redi, treating her as an equal in a way that is very different from the paternalistic treatment she gets from Gregory. She goes to quiz her friend Frances at the beauty parlour, a look of calculation in the mirror making it plain that she is consciously using her surface innocence in a calculating fashion. Mary speculates about Mrs Redi, suggesting that ‘it’s always seemed to me that she was sort of lonely and unhappy’, to which Frances replies ‘well, Mary, I guess most people are’. The theme of loneliness in the city is brought up again, and Mrs Redi is seen in a human light for the first time. There is a suggestion that in turning to the Palladists, Mrs Redi is trying to find a way out of her own isolation and unhappiness, seeking a new family. But this family seeks to perpetuate the atomisation which is inherent in the view of the world which they promulgate. Frances says ‘in the old days this would have been on the house’, but new values prevail and the niceties of human kindness are irrelevant in the pursuit of profit. Frances identifies the logo which Mary shows her (and with which Mary had herself been unwittingly etched during her fateful night visit) as being the new trademark (or logo as we would now term it). She is berated by Mrs Redi for this, who says ‘you fool. Why, that symbol is us…she was asking about us’. Thus the link between the society of devil worshippers and the world of corporate capitalism is explicitly articulated. They are the brand.

Occult Brand

No comments: