Friday, 19 June 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twelve

The Seventh Victim - Part Four

Back at the restaurant , we see Mrs Romari singing in the restaurant and the camera pans up to find Mary singing in the shower. The link between the two creates the feeling that Mary is at home here, and even happy, feeling like part of the family. Mrs Redi intrudes on this scene, appearing as an abstracted shadow behind the curtain in a scene which many have commented anticipates Psycho by several years, although the threat here remains implicit. The curtain remains as a distorting veil throughout and is not torn violently apart as it is by Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s film. The enlarged and blurred shadow of Mrs Redi’s head, warped by the shape of her hat, is drained of humanity, a looming abstract of menace, her presence reduced to her emotionless monotone of a voice, devoid of expressive inflection. There is a feeling that the darkness in this barely human shape might expand to swallow up Mary’s vulnerable form. Mrs Redi tells her to go back to school, but Mary sticks up for herself, forcing her to become more explicit in her threats. These are directed more at Jacqueline, who Mrs Redi reveals as the murder of August. ‘You go back to school’ she reiterates. She is another person who is telling Mary what to do. The fact that she evidently knows about what Mary saw on the subway creates a sense of paranoid unease. It is as if nothing you do is unobserved. They are everywhere, watching you, noting what you see, what you feel.

The devouring shadow.

Mrs Redi enters Natalia Cortez’ apartment where a gathering of people awaits her. This is the first sighting we have of the Palladists. Here, Mrs Redi displays signs of nervousness, admitting that ‘this is very trying for me’. She is not a fully established presence here yet and still feels that she is on trial, as perhaps all of them will be in perpetuity, ever watchful for the stumble which will find them outcast. Or worse, for as we discover, any betrayal is punishable by death. The two contradictory dictates of the society are ‘the rule of non-violence and the rule that whoever betrays us must die’. The effects of capitalism work at a distance, allowing a disavowal of any direct causation, of corporate responsibility. Frances is here and doesn’t understand. She has yet to have her human feelings of compassion and empathy expunged. She is told that ‘some of us must believe without understanding’. Follow the prevailing ideology and enjoy its benefits without ever realising what it truly stands for or who its patron saint is. The man who seems to be the default leader of this group quotes their founder, Johann Rosenquartz, as having written ‘we will avoid violence, for once undertaken, violence can become its won master and lead to either good or evil.’ Neither outcome is desirable for these people. They wish to maintain a status quo in a morally neutral universe in which all such distinctions are rendered obsolete. It is a universe in which power can be exercised without compunction or restraint. Further quotes underline the specificity of the world this group was set up to prevail over: ‘those who go out into the marketplaces and speak of us and give knowledge of our being and our deeds; whomsoever doeth this shall die’. These are the prototypes of the hubristically self-named ‘masters of the universe’, the manipulators of the global markets who operate behind the painted backdrops of the world stage. With moral neutrality comes emotional neutrality. This is a peculiarly joyless gathering. Jacqueline’s betrayal came about through her unhappiness, which drove her to see a psychiatrist. She had failed to attain the required level of detachment, the almost zen-like ability to view the world in abstract terms, through figures and cost benefit analyses. Frances is also unable to suppress her humanity and is visibly upset. She clearly doesn’t belong here.

We next discover Jason in his classic bohemian artist’s garret, writing at his desk. Mary enters, the muse of this creative renewal. Jason is clearly delighted to introduce her to his world, holding her hand and telling her ‘I want you to see my room’. But Mary’s reply, ‘but it’s such a small room, Jason’, is filled with sadness, as if for her it is a representation of his failure. He has chosen this room as he chooses his seat at the feet of Dante in order to fulfil his fantasy of being a bohemian poet. Every textbook detail of the artistic life has been perfectly reproduced with the exception of the one vital detail – the writing of verse. Jason indicates the roof window ‘through which I see the world’, the window of imaginative vision. A searchlight flashes across the sky, which he immediately translates in his fanciful fashion into ‘a sword blade cutting the cloak of a prince’. Mary pulls him out of his reverie by telling him that she intends to return to Highcliffe, her school, having capitulated in the face of Mrs Redi’s threats. She is acceding to her role as princess in the tower, subject to the agencies of others. Jason’s response is to call Gregory, who he informs Mary is in love with her. He clearly feels that his feelings are insufficient to keep her here. After all, he is merely a failed poet in his ‘small room’, whereas Gregory is a professional with his own office and a good income. With him on the team, the quest for Jacqueline is renewed, with the intention that she give herself in to the police. Jason brings Judd into the equation, leaving to find him with his new poems (‘verse I wrote’). He ineptly shadows him, Judd waving to him to let him know that this is all a game. Being a detective in the real city as opposed to searching through books, Jason proves hopeless. He is more comfortable in the world of ideals couched in literary language.

Now a gang of four, they go to find Jacqueline. As they wait outside the house where Judd has hidden her away, we see Mary in profile, with Gregory a sharp silhouette to her left, a figure of darkness who has detached himself from the shadowed night. Inside, we are faced with another staircase, down which Jacqueline descends with fearful tentativeness when Dr Judd calls her. She looks weary and wary. The hall of the apartment is a cheerless and spartan space, betokening a life stripped of joy. Jacqueline’s slow descent suggests a return to a world which has become strange through prolonged absence. There are also echoes of the madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre, the novel which Lewton had drawn upon for the story of I Walked With a Zombie. Jacqueline wears a fur coat much as Irena did in Cat People, but here it seems to make her seem smaller, as if she has shrunk inside her skin, retreated inside herself. Jacqueline and Mary embrace, but she steps back from Gregory. He tells her ‘you’re safe. Nothing’s going to hurt you’, to which Dr Judd replies ‘your husband seems very certain of that’. It is not a very convincing assurance. Of course, the diabolists can’t directly harm her, something of which Gregory is perhaps aware. They can only drive her to harm herself, as perhaps he also did. Much is hinted at, nothing directly stated. Dr Judd is open about his influence, having no pretence towards nobility. For him, Jacqueline’s emergence from the shadows means a diminution of his power over her, and thus he says ‘for me, this seems to be the end of a delightful relationship’. A relationship in which he was the wholly dominant partner.

The reviving draught.

Back in Jason’s room, Jacqueline sips a cup of tea. ‘It’s like coming back to life’, she says. She has returned from the underworld, like Eurydice or Persephone. Finally she gets the chance to tell her story, which we have heard in fragmented subjective extracts up until now. But still the professionals feel the need to chip in with the ‘official’ version. So Judd declares that ‘Jacqueline was always a sensationalist, trying to seize on to something, anything to bring her happiness’. A description which could also apply to himself. Jacqueline describes her misery and unhappiness, her need to break away from the Palladists which had led her into the purview of Dr Judd. The camera slowly moves in on her face, becoming more and more close-up until we see only her eyes as she describes how she was kept locked up in the room at La Sagesse and her terror at ‘the darkness in the corner of the room…all the little noises’. The focus on the eyes recreates the feeling of lonely fears, the movement in the darkness born out of isolation. The camera’s slow zoom in seems to be trying to force us to share her subjective viewpoint and the pitch of paranoid despair to which she was driven.

Meanwhile, the boys are sparring. Jason is looking to the searchlight again and this time likens it ‘Cyrano’s sword’ in a none too subtle analogy which alludes to ‘a man knowing he couldn’t have the woman he loved and wooing her for his friend’. ‘We’re friends aren’t we Gregory?’ he adds, as if the point needed driving home. Gregory’s surly demeanour (his default mien) suggests otherwise and Mary makes a tactical exit with her sister, Dr Judd positioning himself between the two potential suitors.

In the daytime, we are back on the stairs again as Mary says goodbye to Jacqueline. She has lost her haunted look and states ‘I won’t be lonely’ as Mary leaves her. She will never see her again. Once more the staircase serves as a transitional stage. At the kindergarten there are presentiments of retribution in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons which the children chant (‘here comes the chopper to chop off your head’). Death in the garden, et in arcadia ego. The world of Experience once more invades that of that of Innocence as Mary receives a phone call informing her that Jacqueline has left with two men.

The anti-grail.

Jacqueline is sitting in a high-backed chair in Natalia’s room, faced with a rank of Palladist’s in severe black formal attire. Their leader addresses her as ‘my dear’, but the endearment is cold and false. The recital of the rules further adds to the sombre ritualistic atmosphere. Jacqueline can only say yes or no to any question, once more denied the chance to express herself. These people are certainly not in the least interested in her motivations or psychological troubles. Words such as ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ are used, which make this sound like a family gathering or a business board meeting, or a mixture of both. They are words which carry an imperative towards certain actions without having a particular moral weight. They are, in a sense, words which replace the traditional moral distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong (and all shades in between) which motivate certain behaviours and choices, and which imply an obedient supplication to pro forma traditions. The poisoned cup is placed before her and a psychological waiting game intitiated to drive her to drink it. This is an inverted form of the ultimate object of the grail quest alluded to in the stained-glass window of Mary’s school which she passed on her way out to the world. The grail which holds not a renewal of life but coerced draught of darkness and death. Jacqueline’s fingers tapping on the arm of the chair sound loudly in the pendulous silence like a snare drum leading the condemned to the scaffold.

Into this tense scene of vigilant inaction, we cut to Dr Judd and Jason for a parallel scene in which the psychological screws are turned. Apropos of nothing, Judd reveals that ‘that girl you loved, that other patient of mine. She didn’t disappear. She’s in an asylum. A horrible raving thing. I never wanted you to know’. The fate of the woman who we assume to have been his previous muse, the one who inspired his one success, has been hidden from him. By implication, this was a fate to which Jacqueline was also likely to succumb. Was Judd jealous of Jason’s success and determined to remove that which inspired it? Jason’s comment ‘and all the while, you’ve been my friend’, said with a certain amount of incredulity, belies the fact that thus far we’ve heard nothing but contempt for the poet from Judd. He seems to regard him as little more than a child, who must be shielded from the suffering and violence of the world, thus condemning him to sheltered stasis and stunting of growth that Miss Gilchrist had warned Mary of when she was about to leave school.

Back in the apartment, the one-armed Natalia plays a recurring figure on the piano. It is a disconcertingly unresolved series of descending whole-tone arpeggios, which creates an ambience of heavy suspension, of delayed resolution. It resembles Eric Satie’s conceptual piece Vexations, a single page of music with the instruction to repeat 840 times. This has a circular, unresolved nature and the arbitrary designation of a set number of repetitions suggests that it could in fact go on forever. It has in fact been played on a number of occasions (often by a relay team of pianists) initially by John Cage and friends. The music played here also suggests that the Palladists are prepared to wait as long as it takes. The concerted gaze of the group directed at her emphasizes the will to conformity on their part. Mrs Redi shows her inexperience by her unnecessary voicing of this exertion of will, telling her to ‘just drink’ and pushing the glass towards her. This actually serves to lessen the psychological effect. The group exercise in silent coercion is an attempt to get Jacqueline to conspire in her own destruction, to force her will into submission. It is the manufacture of consent, as Noam Chomsky would phrase it. This is the way (as Chomsky has it) that democratic societies (that is, those which don’t impose their power through direct armed force) mould conformity in the populace by creating and then feeding subconscious needs and desires rather than simply providing for the essentials of civilised life (food, shelter, the rule of law etc.). It is a modern variant, with the lessons of Freud taken on board and applied, of the classical Roman model of bread and circuses.

Back with Judd and Jason, the former offers the strangely worded proposition, ‘if you like, I’ll go with you to dinner, Jason’. An offer of friendship using all the wily indirection of the experienced psychiatrist. Not a question and one which shifts the initiation of the date away from the non-questioner. If this were a film made in a later decade, we might assume that this was a coy come-on (men don’t really ask each other out for dinner), a prelude to the two becoming lovers. This would certainly chime with Judd’s disposal of Jason’s previous muse, his coming between him and Gregory over Mary and his sustained interest in the poet over the years mixing with a surface veil of contempt. The relationship would also potentially parallel that hinted at between Mrs Lowood and Miss Gilchrist at the start of the film, with Judd being the dominant partner in this case. But it would take a fairly strenuous reading between the lines to justify such an interpretation here. The two, who have up until now been unaware of Jacqueline’s disappearance, are met by Mary who informs them of what has happened. The three head off to find her once more.

The room in which Jacqueline sits is now dark, faces harshly outlined by the stark shadows cast by the light of a standard lamp. She slumps in the chair, tired and weak. Frances hysterically pleads with her to drink, but when she picks up the glass, she dashes it from her hand. She breaks down and cries ‘the only time I was ever happy was when I was working with you’. An important use of the word ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ which sums up the change of regime at La Sagesse. This suggestion of the fragility of happiness and the rarity with which it is grasped again paints the city as a depthless well of loneliness and despair. ‘You were always so good to me’, she says. She talks of Jacqueline as if she were as close as family. It is quite the opposite of this self-interested anti-family, this cold corporate kinship to which she is now bound. It also shows us a hint of the warm, loving and sociable side of Jacqueline which has been driven into hiding. The spell is broken, the light switched on. A whisper in the ear of the goons who Mary espied about their dirty business on the subway sends them out into the night. Jacqueline is unceremoniously dragged up from the chair and shown the door. When she hesitates, the leader contemptuously snarls ‘I told you you could go’. She is framed in the doorway like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, shut out of the interior world and cast into darkness. That she should look back at this terrible family who have rejected her with longing shows the depths of despair and isolation into which she has plunged. The door is firmly shut.

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