Friday, 19 June 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Ten

The Seventh Victim - Part Two

Downstairs we hear the hectoring voice of a policeman, who is initially offscreen. His is the voice of official reason and rational authority. Meanwhile, the camera focuses on the poet, Jason Hoag, as he wanders across the café. The policeman is curtly dismissive of his attempts to express an interest, telling him to stick to the poetry. The implication is plain; poetry is strictly for the birds and has no place in the real world the policeman inhabits on a daily basis. He is firmly on the philistine side of the perennial ‘what use is art’ debate. Jason counters with a mildly stated defence of his calling, claiming that being a poet ‘in a way…makes everything my business, doesn’t it?’ It is a statement which underlines the centrality of poetry to the film, which in itself works in a poetic fashion, with its visual rhymes, imagistic suggestiveness and thematic resonance which echoes beyond the surface levels of story. Jason’s advice to Mary is pitched at a more metaphysical level than the pragmatic procedural prompting coming from the policeman. He tells her to ‘look into your heart. Do you really want to find your sister?’ He is introducing the idea of a dangerous knowledge. A knowledge which reveals aspects of the world which will change the seeker irrevocably. It is also a knowledge which reveals or manifests parts of the soul which had previously been occluded or had lain dormant. This revelation of self-knowledge is perhaps the most dangerous of all, taking us right back to the Christian Pentateuch foundation myth of Eden and the forbidden fruit, and is one with which Jason himself is perhaps well acquainted. He is suggesting to Mary that her quest is a metaphysical as much as an actual one, with attendant dangers of a less tangible nature. William Blake’s balance between Innocence and Experience, between the world perceived openly and intuitively or filtered through the control grids of institutional authority, is at stake. He is saying ‘are you really ready for this?’ But unlike the other characters whom she will meet and who will offer her help in her quest (both of whom are from the professional classes and have a cynical attitude towards the arts) he is not seeking to guide her but merely asking her to put the question to herself.

The next scene takes place in the missing persons bureau and the camera glides across the enquiry desk, subdivided into separated booths by flimsy screens. This is a collage of the lost and lonely, with snippets of dialogue (‘she was only 16’, ‘he went out without his hat or his coat’) giving brief descriptions of those beloved of some but destined to sink into the indifferent humus of the city. The officer’s businesslike ‘any identifying marks or characteristics’ makes it clear that this is a matter of routine for him, and that we are hearing of only a tiny sample of the city’s errant souls. For him, these are all just words filling the blanks on the forms which he has to fill. Their actuality as living (or maybe not) beings is secondary to bureaucratic requirements. Having found shelter (and the shadow of death) at the Dante restaurant, Mary is now beginning her journey into the underworld, the night lands, and this is the gateway. It is a journey which echoes the descents into the underworld of Dante and Orpheus (and even of Christ in apocryphal tales of the ‘harrowing of hell’, drawing on folk legend). She meets a potential guide to this realm in Irving August, a private investigator who opportunistically stations himself at this gateway and who offers her his services. He is a small man (smaller than Mary) but can offer her local knowledge, in both a physical sense (Manhattan is his lifelong manor) and metaphysical in his acquaintance with the ways of the underworld. As with mythical gatekeepers and guides throughout time, he needs payment. With chilly presentiment he tells her ‘it ain’t pleasant, the morgue’. Although his services are rebuffed at this stage, August is still warned off by a physically much larger man. The bullying nature of this exchange is clearly indicated both by this towering use of the menace granted by greater size and by the exertion of implied authority (August immediately knows who this person is and who he represents). But his identification of Jacqueline as the object of Mary’s quest piques August’s interest. Jacqueline is once more seen to be a well known (notorious?) denizen of the world which August knows so well. Once more, her cumulative mystery is enhanced.

The next scene finds us outside the morgue, a Dickensian scene of night fog and tail-coated funeral directors. The sign above the door which reads ‘he calleth all his children by their name’ is a further poeticization of death, as well as suggesting a personal relationship (as with the ‘princess’ and Orphee in Cocteau’s film). The men piling coffins outside almost evoke a feeling of a city under the scourge of the plague and suggest that death is working overtime. Mary exits from the morgue door and pulls her coat around her, warding of the chill of the night air or of the spirit.

From here she moves on to the lawyer whose name she has been given at the morgue, Gregory Ward. Fainting in his office, she immediately puts herself in the position of the damsel in distress and he becomes the confident face of adult authority, sitting behind the desk of an office with his name on the door. He is the first to offer answers to some of the mysteries lying behind Jacqueline’s disappearance, but there is a sense that, in their confident certainty, there is something glib and over-defined in his analyses of her character. This is Jacqueline as he sees her (and he immediately confesses that he loves her) but it is not necessarily any more real than the Jacqueline as princess or ‘bellissima Madonna’ portrayed by the Romaris. His attempts to articulate Jacqueline’s appeal are vague and unspecific; despite asserting that ‘there’s something exciting and unforgettable’ about her, he can only add that it’s ‘something you never quite get hold of’. She remains an evanescent phantom, with no-one seeming to be able to describe in terms of a real, living person. She is an essence as intoxicatingly intangible as the fragrances created at the perfumery she used to own.

Gregory goes on to explain the mystery of the noose, again reducing its complex symbolism to a singular rationalised explanation which says more about his reductive view of the world than it explains Jacqueline’s motivations. He talks about her feeling that life ‘wasn’t worth living unless you could end it’ and that the ‘room made her happy’. But having neatly summed up her tangled psyche, he then goes on to dismiss it in an offhand manner; ‘she lived in a world of her own fancy’ and ‘I’m afraid she didn’t know what the truth was’. The latter statement clearly implies that Gregory believes that he does. He also talks of her in the past tense, as if he either thinks her dead or has dismissed her from his life. The disparaging view of a woman’s ‘fancies’ and the self-appointed authoritativeness of those who define (or diagnose) them is reminiscent of the way Irena and Jessica are treated in Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. Jacqueline also resembles Jessica in the way in which she is absent even though everpresent (through people’s reminiscences in this case), dead whilst still alive. Mary objects to Gregory calling her a ‘youngster’ but offers no objection to being taken to lunch, an experience which she evidently enjoys and consequently expresses guilt over, as if it is not right for her to feel pleasure. This is a further indication that the search for Jacqueline is also a journey of self-discovery. As she finds that she has an effect on people and even learns how she might use that to her own ends, there is a sense that the object of her quest grows less important, the lessons learned in the process becoming an end in themselves. And so Jacqueline grows evermore indistinct, a decaying echo of memory.

Back in the lobby of the apartment we are reacquainted with Irving August, who is again waiting at one of these ‘gateway’ points between the inner and outer worlds, between the safely lit interior of the domestic sanctuary and the night lands outside. He tells her that Jacqueline had deeded the La Sagesse buseness to Mrs Redi as a gift. There is a flash of professional pride as he tells her how he used a phony health inspector’s badge to get in. The fact that he has taken her case on without pay shows that for him this is something he does for more than just the money. It is a calling. He is an unlikely knight in shining armour (this image of the PI as a dishevelled descendant of the figure of Arthurian romance is one explored by Raymond Chandler through the character of Philip Marlowe and explicitly referred to in the opening of The Big Sleep). His is a small-time chivalry. When he tells Mary of a locked room at the La Sagesse works and she says with reflexive resolve ‘we could go there now’ he replies, with fearful hesitancy, ‘I don’t know if I want to go with you or not’. But he goes. His is the bravery of the coward. He is not blessed with the fearlessness of the hero but he confronts danger nonetheless.

The two investigators, now operating outside the law, break into the factory at night and find their way to the deeply shadowed corridor with the square of light at the end indicating that the locked room is inhabited. The heavy thuds of a pendulum mark out time in an ominous fashion and seem to be an externalised amplification of the tense beating of the intruders’ hearts. Mary sets of into the darkness but hesitates, afraid to go on. The darkness here is very dark, almost like a solid river of stygian blackness which must be crossed. And here Mary applies the little knowledge she has gained in the world so far. She puts on a voice of little girl innocence and says ‘you could go on, Mr August. It’s only a little way Mr August…you could go and open the door’. At he hesitantly makes his way forward, we see his progress from her point of view and notice that she is standing in such a way that the shadow of the La Sagesse logo etched into the circular window is cast onto her back. Her manipulative behaviour has somehow drawn her into the secret confederacy for which it acts as symbol and badge of membership. Irving is swallowed up in the darkness and Mary backs away a few steps, the logo disappearing. She hears the nightwatchman approaching and moves forward to warn Irving, who staggers out of the darkness and executes a stiff and strangely dignified walk along the corridor, hands clutching the knife which protrudes from his belly. Mary has sent him to his death.

Mary flees from the scene and now literally descends into the underworld of the New York subway. The night train is deserted and lonely, the couple sitting opposite and chatting only serving to emphasise her solitude. As the inspector lets her know, she’s been to the end of the line and back, lost in her own thoughts and no doubt reflecting on the enormity of what she has done and what it has revealed about her self. In deliberately using her appearance of youthful innocence to inveigle a man who had freely offered his help into entering the darkness which he feared, that very innocence has become tarnished. She has taken a step towards Jacqueline’s world of experience. As the train returns to 14th Street, where she had first boarded the train having fled La Sagesse, two drunks get on carrying their incapacitated friend. His hat slips and she sees that it is August’s body. She moves into the next carriage but they point her out, suddenly very sober. Mary goes around the few people in the carriage, trying to alert them to what she has seen, but no-one is interested. In the city, you are alone in the midst of the anonymous millions of the indifferent and uncaring.

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