Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty One

Isle of the Dead - Part Two

The other guard dog

The gateway to the isle is marked by a statue of Cerberus which rises on its plinth above the landing place. This is another remnant of Classical Greece which suggests that this is also a gateway into the past, or into an enclave which is still haunted by the old gods. In an underlining of the symbolic congruence of the General with Cerberus, which in the original script was left to the audience to pick up, Davis blithely points at the statue and says ‘there’s another watchdog for you, General’. Whilst not denying any analogous kinship, the General points out that ‘he only guards the dead. I have to worry about the living’. In fact, Cerberus was a border guard who had to keep an eye out on either side, ensuring that the dead didn’t stray back into the world above, but tearing apart any living soul who might attempt to enter the underworld. In the original script, the statue’s symbolic properties are clearly delineated: ‘two of the heads have been carved to represent sleeping heads; the third head glares towards the mainland with a sightless, unseeing, but ever watchful stare’. Jorge Luis Borges, in his Book of Imaginary Beasts, describes the three heads of Cerberus as representing a view of the past, present and future. If the two thirds slumbering beast here represents the General, then he only looks to the present. But his stay on the island will force the other heads to awake into confused consciousness.

Where the siren song leads

The General goes down into the darkness of his wife’s tomb and emerges with the news that it has been broken into and her body taken. His eyes flicker around uneasily, and he seems apprehensive and fearful for the first time. Back at the boat, they hear a female voice singing a mournful song. The camera pans up the wet, moonlit stone steps which ascend the rock face and lead towards the tombs, from which the sounds seem to emanate. This is very much like a siren song, coming from the rocks. Again, there is the sense of an enclosed world in which the ghosts of the old religion can still be felt. The voice combining with the moonlight lends it the feel of a feminine environment, which may explain the continued unease of the General, who is now outside of the male world over which he can exert his unquestioned authority. They follow the sound, which leads them on through an open doorway into the dark shadows of one of the tombs, the further entrance a clearly outlined door of light at the far end of a corridor of darkness. Their voices echo against the stone inside the tomb, which is marked out as a space separate from the world outside by this dislocating shift in the nature of sound. Words suddenly sound hollow, at a remove from the people who voice them. Feeling their way through the darkness between the two doors is like crossing some threshold, with the world into which they emerge on the other side not the same as that which they have left behind. They come to a door on the other side, which has the feel of the entrance to a gatekeeper’s cottage. The singing stops, and the General, as if reasserting his masculine dominance, pounds heavily on the door with his fist.

The door is opened by a friendly and welcoming man, who will soon introduce himself as Doctor Albrecht, a Swiss archaeologist. In the background, a woman looks on nervously. If this is a female domain, then its presiding have momentarily been cowed by the General’s aggressive entrance. The General is immediately recognised by Albrecht, an instant notoriety which is absent in the original script, where he has to join in the general introductions. The original would have placed him as just another soldier, whereas here, word of his deeds evidently precedes him. The General eschews Albrecht’s hospitable greeting, and immediately goes on the offensive regarding the desecration of the graves. Albrecht’s apology and explanation that it had taken place a long time ago suggests a steady and ongoing crumbling of the precepts of a civilisation which has long since declined. The desecration of the tombs is caused by peasants looking for antiquities to sell, asset stripping their own past. The General’s immediate response is to tersely inquire ‘has anyone been punished for this crime’, the wider observation of his culture’s decline passing him by. He is attempting to shore up the crumbling structure of his country’s past through the rigid application of the law. The fact that these peasant’s are supplying a demand from other countries for the antiquities of classical Greece is irrelevant in his eyes. It is his own people who must accept responsibility and who must be punished accordingly. Albrecht all but confesses to his own part in this destructive market, this wholesale export of a country’s history. As an archaeologist, the island was ‘his great find’, with ‘antiquities dating back to Homer’. Again, the sense is conveyed of an enclosed world from which the past has yet to leach. Albrecht accepts moral culpability for the transformation of a living past into a commodified set of objects ripe for plunder. But the General refuses to admit the impact of a wider world, of a marketplace which reaches in from beyond the borders of his country. His sense of justice is rigidly codified, and allows of no mitigating circumstances, no recognition of the changing pattern of the system of the world. His sense of punitive justice is directed inward, at his fellow countrymen. ‘The legal guilt is theirs and must be reported to the authorities’. The authorities for whom he is a good and loyal guard dog.

After this initial awkward exchange, further introductions are made. It is at this point that significant differences from the original script become apparent. Albrecht first introduces Madame Kyra, an old woman dressed in black who has been watching the newcomers with a look of wary suspicion. It is a look, and an attitude, which seems permanently frozen on her face. Albrecht explains that he bought the house from Kyra, its original owner, and she stayed on as housekeeper. Kyra thus represents the displaced native population, forced to become servants in their own country to outsiders who come to pick over the relics of their past. She immediately draws the General to one side, separating them from these other outsiders. In the original script, this character, referred to as Ida, makes only a briefly functional appearance to pour Albrecht’s guests wine and is not seen again. But she is a central figure in the final film, serving as a poisonous influence, a whispering voice which awakens ghosts of peasant superstition from within the General’s subconscious. She is like the General’s Iago, feeding him suggestions which guide him towards actions which he believes to have been arrived at through his own volition. This role in the original script was taken by a character called Cathy, who was the daughter of Mr St Aubyn, the British Consul who will be introduced shortly. Her motives for playing on the Colonel’s confused state of mind relate to her search for a replacement father figure, someone who she can have all to herself and who will protect her from the world at large. Thea, the young Greek girl who her father has taken in as an orphan in the original script, is a rival for this attention and so she uses the Colonel as another passive weapon. Making the character who serves this role an old, dispossessed Greek woman shifts the motive from the Oedipal (or its Electra counterpart) and makes it dovetail more neatly with the wider theme of internecine conflict. It becomes another example of a culture and people turning on each other with unbridled self-hatred. The venom which Kyra directs towards Thea also introduces the psychological element of the jealous resentment of the old for the vigour and optimism of youth.

spreading the virus of fear

Albrecht introduces the other guests at the table as being ‘travellers, refugees from your battle’. Kyra, meanwhile, is beginning her campaign to cast her spell over the General. We see them profile to profile. She makes an offhand confession to having destroyed the bodies, but talks of ‘one among them, an evil one, wicked’. The General dismisses her tales as nonsense. ‘These are new days for Greece. We don’t believe the old foolish tales anymore’. But there is a hesitancy, a flicker of belief in his face as he says this. One of the great subtleties in Karloff’s performance is the way he manages to convey the General’s inward struggle, the conflict in his mind between the rationalism of modernity and the superstitions of older traditions which he has supposed to have been exorcised. Kyra is very much the dark side of the island’s female nature, the crone whose wisdom has turned inward and thus bitter and sour. The other guests at the table include Mr St Aubyn, the British Consul from Adrianople, and his wife, Mrs St Aubyn. The latter has already been pointed out to the General by Kyra, who draws his attention to her pallid appearance with a sly emphasis which ensures that he makes a mental note of it. In the original script, Mrs St Aubyn is replaced by a character called Miss Wollsten, who is the secretary of Mr St Aubyn. She and St Aubyn are in love, but the needy dependance of Cathy has prevented this love from blossoming, and it has remained suppressed, a furtive and secretive affair. In the original story, Cathy effectively seeks to remove this rival for her posthumous paternal affections by neglecting to divulge her knowledge of Miss Wollsten’s tendency to fall into cataleptic trances, thereby condemning her to premature burial.

A cockney far from home

The third person at the table, a small, rather distracted man, introduces himself as ‘Robbins, Henry Robbins, tinware’, a well worn greeting which marks him out as a salesman even before he proffers his card. Robbins is played by Skelton Naggs, one of Lewton’s regular and most distinctive actors, here essaying a rather stilted attempt at a cockney accent. Robbins is full of a melancholy longing for the familiar pleasures of home, an English variety of sehnsucht. ‘I’d give all the blooming statues in Greece for one whiff of fish and chips’. People have different notions of what constitutes culture, what is personally representative of the essence of civilisation, which permeates all levels of society. The idea of a country, what images, sounds and smells resonate in the mind when trying to sum up a mental collage, has to encompass all of its social levels, all its different regions. ‘Each to his own taste’, as Albrecht says, rather dismissively. But what really could be more evocative of England than the smell of fish and chips? Robbins stumbles off to bed, clearly feeling unwell, something Mr St Aubyn, the British Consul, ascribes, with a definite whiff of social snobbery towards his fellow countryman, to ‘plain drunkenness’.

Youth, art and Death

The sound of Robbins tripping and falling heavily on the stair brings a rush of motion, and a light is cast upon a young woman who is bending over him. This is the woman to whom Kyra has insinuatingly referred, contrasting her health and youth with the sickly pallor of Mrs St Aubyn and leaving the General to draw the connection. Her feeding of his subconscious suspicions has evidently had its effect, as he watches her intently as she walks into the room. She is introduced to Davis as Thea, and it was her who sang the siren song which drew them here. As another Greek native, she automatically takes up the role of servant, pouring wine from a jug for the guests, a role taken by the minor character Ida in the original script. The character of Thea as originally written was very much a mirror reflection of Cathy, the two young women being inverted doubles. Whereas Cathy is trying to maintain an exclusive relationship with her father, and then find a suitable replacement in order to remain in a suspended state of protected childhood, Thea is fearful of the General, who she soon realises is her father, and shies away from revealing her identity to him. St Aubyn, in the original script, had adopted Thea (Theodosia, as he explains her full name to be) as his daughter Cathy’s companion; effectively as a second daughter, something which it is made clear that Cathy deeply resents. There is some initial awkwardness about her role, and Mr St Aubyn firmly points out that ‘this not a servant in my household’. This is clearly not the case in the film as it came to be made; and Thea, whose origins are left unexplained, is now the companion and nursemaid of Mrs St Aubyn and is expected to pour the wine. As she does so, we notice a picture on the wall behind her of an artist’s self-portrait, with death’s bony visage peering over his shoulder, playing a danse macabre on its fiddle. This memento mori is a reminder of the nature of the island, and of this house which otherwise seems so full of life. It also places the film itself within a long artistic tradition which serves to remind us of our mortality. The Latin phrase Et in Arcadia Ego, found in Virgil’s Eclogues, is perhaps the earliest example of the memento mori. It means I can be found even in Arcadia, a region which Virgil depicts as a pastoral paradise. This is usually interpreted as death declaring his presence in the midst of the most bucolically carefree days. Such reminders of mortality have always been a spur to the creation of art as a means of evoking the precious transience of life. This creativity becomes one response to the shadow of death, and even a validation of it. Lewton himself replied in provocatively hyperbolic terms to an order that his film should contain ‘no messages’ by saying ‘I’m sorry but we do have a message, and our message is that death is good’.

When Thea hears General Pherides’ name mentioned, she refuses to pour him wine. Her assertion that ‘he is a cruel man. He has a bad name’ is made with some feeling, and she is taking a moral stand. But again, it is notable that it is with a fellow countryman that she discovers the limits of her willingness to serve. The General allows himself to be argued into staying the night under the pretext of being able to make an inspection of a battery on shore before his troops break camp. Kyra immediately breaks through this self-justificatory use of ‘military efficiency’ by declaring ‘you stay to guard us’. In the strange atmosphere of the island which the General finds so disconcerting, she senses that she is already beginning to prevail.

the bed as temporary tomb

As everyone retires to bed, we move upstairs. This is an area of darkness and shadow and becomes associated with death and suppressed secrets throughout the film. It is the house’s equivalent to the tomb passages of the island. The corridor is the equivalent of the catacomb through which the house is reached, and the bedrooms are the sarcophagi. Lewton thus draws a parallel between sleep and death, an analogy which has been a recurring motif in literature over the ages. Virgil again provides an early example, in The Aenid this time, depicting the world of dreams as a borderland on the edge of the beyond: ‘There are two gates of Sleep, one of which it is held is made of horn and by it real ghosts have easy egress; the other shining fashioned of gleaming white ivory, but deceptive are the visions the Underworld sends that way to the light’. Such are the deceptive visions with which the General’s mind is clouded, and which lead Thea to doubt her own nature. Shelley links death and sleep in his poem The Daemon of the World, and the following lines could easily have served Lewton as one of his opening literary epigraphs, echoing his message that ‘death is good’: ‘How wonderful is Death,/ Death and his brother Sleep!/ One pale as the yonder wan and horned moon,/ With lips of lurid blue,/ the other glowing like the vital morn,/ Then throned on ocean’s wave/ It breathes over the world’. We see Thea walking along the dark corridor with her antique lamp. The light in darkness is a recurrent motif in the film. We have already seen Davis holding his lamp before him as he and the General cross the battlefield at night. As bearers of light, these two young characters are already subliminally linked. Davis, sharing his room with the General, is in a cheerful mood. For him, the marker of civilisation is the ability to luxuriate in a warm bath. He mocks the General for stripping his bed, as if he is still in a military barracks. The General has no time for the niceties of civilisation, preferring the asperities to which he has accustomed himself. Davis makes passing reference to Thea’s refusal of her hospitality, and the General replies that he doesn’t care what she thinks in a manner which makes it plain that the opposite is in fact the case.

Thea’s room is in darkness and she sleeps soundly. The camera slowly pans across the room to reveal Kyra watching intently from her bed. The sound of troubled moaning drifts in from next door and Thea wakes and goes to see what’s wrong. She wears a white toga. Kyra gets up to follow, slipping on a black robe and becoming part of the shadows. In the manner of many Mediterranean widows, Kyra seems to dress in nothing but black. She seems a part of the darkness which defines her character, a tenebrous soul whose tendrils curl out to infect others. For her, Thea’s compassion is immediately interpreted as predation. Thea is in fact attending to Mrs St Aubyn, whose room is striated with the film-noirish shadows cast by slatted blinds familiar from previous Lewton films. As before, these are suggestive of a world beyond, or slightly an angle to this one, or of the tentative nature of the tangible.

the light in darkness gutters

Thea offers to go to Mr St Aubyn and fetch her medicine, which entails going out once more into the dark corridor. Along the way her lamp is blown out, just as the light of Davis’ lamp blinked out on the shore where he had left it. The snuffing out of the lamp’s light serves to create an atmosphere of suspense, of course, but is also symbolic of the extinguishing of life and hope, of being plunged back into the shadows of superstition and fear. Lamps, with their feeble and vulnerable light, will be a recurring symbol of the human spirit flickering above the abyss.

Looming from the shadows

Thea collects the medicine, eliciting not a trace of suspicion from Mr St Aubyn, and goes back out into the darkness, all the more impenetrable now her light is out. The General suddenly looms out of the shadow and blocks her passage. He clearly takes pleasure in her fear, asserting his brute masculine power once more. He’s been sent up by Kyra, who has told him of Thea’s movements and cast them in the most suspicious light. He is acting as her watchdog. He asks Thea why she refused to serve him wine, and she reasserts her moral position by answering with a further question: ‘Why do you kill your own countrymen?’ This is a direct statement of the film’s themes of internal strife and self-destruction, of violence turned inwards. It is embodied in the way Kyra and through her the General direct their hatred and superstitious dread on Thea. Thea tells the story of how the General collected taxes from her village ‘with field artillery’. She represents an opposing force with which he is seldom confronted in his masculine military world and this confuses and troubles him. Thea represents the female power of the island which is the obverse to Kyra’s dark designs worked through suggestion. Her statement that ‘laws can be wrong and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel’ is a challenge to the ethos which has become the General’s raison d’etre. She posits a world where judgement is tempered by compassion. She is also implying that the General has no real power of judgement, no moral compass to guide his actions, and is wholly reliant on the rules laid down to him by others to provide a framework for his hollow soul. He has no response to her challenge, and is visibly rattled, his earlier triumphalism, occasioned by his ability to instill fear, entirely dissipated.

the caged bird sings in the face of death

The following morning, the General is still disturbed, and proclaims that he’ll be glad to get off the island. He’ll be back in the masculine world where his authority goes unchallenged, away from this feminine domain. But everything changes with the news that the hapless Henry Robbins has died in the night. The General sends for Dr Drossos and insists that until then everyone must stay on the island. When the doctor has arrived and made his tests, he announces the presence of the septicimic plague. There is a pan across the room and all who are gathered listening to this terrible news. On the wall is cast the shadow of a bird which is singing. Caged birds are a rather common symbolic device, and we have already come across them in Cat People. The cage most obviously represents the fact that they are trapped on the island, but it also acts to suggest the symbolic cages of social and nationalistic status and custom, as well as the more metaphysical cage of the span of life. The louvred shadows cast by the blinds upstairs could be seen in a similar light. Once the doctor has made his diagnosis, the General immediately takes over. ‘No one may leave the island’ he intones imperiously, blankly repeating it in the face of objections or demands to be excepted until it is evident that this is a command which brooks no questioning. ‘We will fight the plague’ he solemnly declares. The General has imposed his own brand of martial law on the island, asserting male dominance over this female realm. He is gearing up to meet the rider on the yellow horse. He has declared war on Death.

'No-one may leave the island'

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