Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Five

The Body Snatcher - Part Two

Dwarfing heights
Our first view of the inside of Doctor MacFarlane’s imposing residence is from an elevated perspective high on the staircase which faces the doorway. This makes the mother and her child seem very small and insignificant, as if the house has swallowed them up. The hallway in which they are left to wait is a shadowy space, with massive furnishings of dark wood. Lewton’ s screenplay describes it as a ‘gloomy and forbidding entry’ with ‘antlered stag head…cruel-looking walking sticks in the umbrella stand (and a) light-footed Mercury with caduceus upraised’, all of which serve to leave the little girl cowed and terrified. None of these props makes it to the film as finally shot, but the atmosphere which they seek to create remains intact. The camera takes a low angle to show us the looming staircase from the level of the girl’s seated perspective. The stairs form a barrier; There is no way that she could climb them, confined as she is to her chair. Being left stranded here, her fear and anxiety are evident. This is not a welcoming place.

Impossible ascent
The opening of a door to the side throws light onto the little girl’s face, a symbolic ray of hope. Doctor MacFarlane appears, dapper and immaculately turned out. Lewton describes him in his screenplay as ‘carrying himself with the assurance that the world is not only his oyster, but that he has it pinned on a fork and can swallow it and digest it with pleasure’. He greets their introductions (she is Mrs Marsh, the girl her daughter Georgina) with bland indifference. However, when she presents a letter from a Dr Maximilian of Leyden, his interest is immediately piqued, and he becomes more animated. The importance of names and the prestige with which they are imbued is another important theme which runs throughout the film. The mode of address is a way of establishing status and the relative levels of authority within a relationship or exchange. Here, the Doctor only recognises the two visitors to his house through the absent medium of ‘a very famous colleague of mine’. The unnecessary mention of his fame is a self-aggrandising way of declaring his own importance as a ‘colleague’ or equal. The letter proves the magic key, and they are ushered into the living room. MacFarlane declares that he would be ‘delighted to honour his request’ to examine Georgina, making it clear that it is Dr Maximilian rather than his patient who is the key figure in this exchange.

Talking down
They move to the warmer surroundings of the living room, which is filled with imposing objects which reflect a serious life of importance and stature. MacFarlane and Georgina look at each other briefly and with mutual disease. The Doctor seats himself on the arm of a chaise longue and directs his questions to the mother in a curt fashion over the girl’s head. He is impersonal and businesslike, and at the question ‘born paralysed?’, we see Georgina cast her eyes down, as if in shame. When he does address her directly, he remains seated on the arm of the chair, giving him a higher elevation, so that he is talking down to her, arms folded. He also refuses to use her proper name, referring to her only as ‘child’. The relative elevated and seated positions establish the levels of power in the relationship, contrasting also with Gray’s conscientious efforts outside the house to render himself un-imposing. MacFarlane’s refusal to address Georgina by her name reduces her to a depersonalised object, an abstract list of maladies and symptoms, a body with no spirit.

The doctor’s questioning takes on the air of an interrogation, with a demand for instant answers. His questions are fired with rapid impatience and with evident exasperation at having to deal directly with an inferior (a child!) of such intellectual incapacity. Georgina retreats into herself, putting up a defensive wall of rote ‘I don’t know’ responses to rebuff what turns into a verbal assault. MacFarlane all but shouts at her to ‘point where it hurts. You can at least do that, can’t you?’ This only serves to send her further into the retreat of mute negation, and she is capable of no more than a minimal, downcast shake of the head. Seemingly unwilling or unable to try a different approach, Doctor MacFarlane turns to Mrs Marsh, addressing her with a curtly formal ‘ma’am’ as a means of officially declaring the meeting to have been a failure and drawing it to a close. Social decorum, so conspicuously absent in the undisguised anger of his exchange with Georgina, a mere child, is adopted as a calculating mask to generate distance and disengagement. Such brusque observance of social niceties finds its counterpoint in Gray’s heavily underlined sardonicism, which serves also to satirise its underlying insincerity. Having been thus summarily dismissed, Georgina whispers to her mother ‘he frightens me’. It is the fear, easily transmuting into anger in later years of the powerless in the face of those who would scarcely deign to register their existence, and when forced into a position where they have no choice but to, do nothing to hide their utter contempt.

A friendly tete-a-tete
There is a knock at the living room door and the young student who we’ve met dining in the graveyard enters. MacFarlane enters him in with evident recognition and offers him the ‘chance to test your bedside manner. Take a look at the child’. Again, no attempt at naming, the child remains an impersonal object. The young man (as yet also unnamed) walks towards her and smiles, a simple form of communication and indication of openness. Georgina puts the first question to him, initiating a conversation and thus creating for herself an equal role in it. To her enquiry ‘are you a doctor too?’ he replies ‘not yet’. Given the display of disdainful hauteur we have just witnessed from Dr MacFarlane, with his evident concern for the status which his title conveys, this places the young man in a position of innocence, and also at a socially unelevated level which further eases the course of the conversation. The theme of innocence and corruption is one which is further developed as the story progresses.

The young man asks her about her chair, an expression of curiosity in her life which serves as an indirect line of questioning and gives him the opportunity to crouch down and talk to her at her own level. In thus reducing his stature, he discards any assumption of authority or superior power and allows her confidence to grow accordingly, such that she puts his own question for him; ‘What you really want to ask me about is my back, isn’t it? About where it hurts?’ She proceeds to show him and to describe the specific nature of the pain in a cogent and intelligent manner. When he asks her whether it is alright for him to lift her onto the dining room table next door, she gives him an answering smile of affirmation and lifts her arms up in readiness. It is the same smile which she gave to Gray. With both men, she has felt safe in trusting her slight form, in all its vulnerable immobility, to their care. There is a connection made between the two men. They were both present, whether inside or outside, at the graveyard, and both have displayed an empathetic ability to communicate with a young girl and put her at her ease. The camera watches her smile and the young man lifting her from her chair from behind MacFarlane and Mrs Marsh, noting their observation of this moment and by extension their incorporation of its implications into the very different priorities of their worldviews.

Alone with Mrs Marsh in the living room, MacFarlane remarks that ‘the child seems to take to the lad’, without any apparent accompanying insight as to why this might be the case. Names are still avoided, maintaining a sense of abstracted, emotionally disconnected observation. This is further maintained by his continued use of formal address when asking Mrs Marsh about Georgina’s accident. She tells him that ‘a carriage overturned. My husband was killed and Georgina was hurt’. It is a brutally edited précis of a life-shattering event, emotionally dessicated through re-iteration. A link is made with Gray’s carriage, which we have seen pass by the graveyard earlier. Carriages are symbolically redolent of death throughout the film, either bearing the freshly unearthed dead or foreshadowing death in the offing. The sound of horse’s hooves and carriage wheels echoing on the stone cobbles of night-time streets becomes the sound of dread. And yet, conversely, it also becomes the daytime sound of hope for Georgina, of the possibility of recovery and rebirth. The unseen tragedy of the Marshs’ carriage accident also rhymes with Doctor MacFarlane’s fate on the rainswept Scottish moorland at the climax of the film, for which it acts as a portent. Carriages become symbolically freighted bearers of fate, to be either feared or eagerly awaited, or perhaps a confused mixture of both. They also represent traps (with punning literalness in the final scenes), prison boxes which represent lives constrained by social circumstance, convention and emotional isolation. Georgina’s confinement to her ‘wee cab’ is a more literal representation of the stultification of adult lives.

Tragic silhouette
Mrs Marsh’s explanation of the circumstances which have led to Georgina’s condition reveal her to be a widow. Will this leave room for romance with the man who can heal her daughter, thawing his cold heart in the process? His disinterested response to her tragedy, which elicits not a flicker of sympathy or pity, immediately snuffs out any such notion. He is interested only in facts which lead him to further understanding of the case at hand and, referring to the accident, brusquely enquires ‘how long ago?’ Mrs Marsh moves to the window, cutting a black silhouette against the light, still living in the shadow of this tragedy, three years past. Doctor MacFarlane wordlessly leaves her standing there to go and examine her daughter in the dining room next door.

When the two medical men emerge, we hear MacFarlane refer to his young student as Fettes. This is the first time he has used his name, and thus the first time we have learned of it. Its use comes after they have been absorbed in the work of medical diagnosis. Fettes has become manifest, and thus nameable, for Doctor MacFarlane to the extent that he has become a useful part of his world of work, and has shown the intelligence to be deemed worthy of being a part of that world. The use of a surname as a mode of address doesn’t connote equality (there is no qualifying title) but it does indicate a presence which is worthy of being noticed, or which, in the case of Gray, cannot be ignored. MacFarlane is deep in thought, wholly absorbed by the medical problem he has just been presented with. He doesn’t look at the anxiously anticipating figure of Mrs Marsh as he diagnoses, musing as much to himself as to anyone else present, ‘a traumatic tumour, a sort of growth that presses on the nerve centres’. A psychosomatic illness, then, with the tumour almost a physical manifestation of guilt. Is this what Gray symbolically represents for MacFarlane?

Hopes raised
Mrs Marsh’s obvious question is ‘can anything be done?’ to which the doctor, still thinking the problem over, replies ‘a very delicate operation…but I believe it could be done’. With a mixture of imploring and demanding, she asks ‘and you will try? You will operate?’ The doctor is jolted out of his intellectual contemplation by this direct appeal. ‘Not I, Madam’, he replies, looking sadly downwards. He seems to have had no conception that in raising the possibility of a cure he is also raising her hopes. Her direct appeal to his emotions (‘a case like this, a little child who can never walk or run’) is swiftly rebuffed with a declaration of his responsibility to his teaching duties. He asserts his unmoveable position by adopting an authoritative tone and declaring ‘that’s a great responsibility upon me, ma’am, a great responsibility’, the re-iteration serving to draw a line under the matter by emphasising his importance and unquestionable status. Returning stony-faced to the room having ushered her out, he re-reads Dr Maximilian’s letter, returning to the safe comforts of a professional relationship.

Fettes re-enters the room, hands in his pockets, his casual demeanour suggesting that he feels at home here and also that he lacks the self-important bearing of the doctor class. When he tells MacFarlane that he intends to give up medicine, he is aghast, as if this is some kind of betrayal of a sacred trust. Fettes tells him ‘my father is a vicar at Thrums. It’s a small parish. Not much of a living.’ Thrums was the name given by JM Barrie to Kirriemuir, the town of his birth, and was the setting for several of his early novels, one of which, The Little Minister, was filmed in 1934 with Katherine Hepburn. Lewton could thus be assured that a good proportion of his audience might be familiar with the town, and already associate it with the Scottish ministry. Fettes’ religious background lends his character a dimension which will add weight to the moral dilemmas which he faces. The economic reasons behind his decision to quit medicine also introduce the elements of wealth and class, and the constraints which they (or the lack thereof) put on the individual’s ability to follow up on and fulfil a natural aptitude. These elements will come to bear in the bitter resentments which have come to constitute the major components of Gray’s character.

Sorrow for the unrecoverable past
MacFarlane won’t hear of it. ‘You’re too good a man, Fettes. I’ll not let you quit’. His solution is to make him an assistant. ‘That’ll pay your keep and your tuition, too’. He is made a part of the household staff, like the ‘housekeeper’, who passes the door at this point, a troubled look overcoming her face as she hears MacFarlane welcome Fettes to his new home. As the doctor ushers Fettes to the anatomy room to explain his duties, the housekeeper sternly calls him back. Alone in the room together, formality drops away. The housekeeper rhetorically states ‘you’re not having Fettes for your assistant’, half question, half assertion. To his quizzical ‘why not? He’s a good lad, bright and able’, she replies ‘aye, he’s a good lad’, underling this aspect of his character assessment as being the source of her objection. Her implication is that this quality of goodness might not survive in his new position. MacFarlane draws a comparison with his younger self, reminding her ‘wasn’t I assistant to Doctor Knox?’ She replies ‘aye’ with downcast eyes and a look of sorrow. Knox, the doctor whose ‘specimens’ were supplied by Burke and Hare, was evidently the agent of his corruption. ‘Did it spoil me, Meg, my lass?’ he asks, a question which cannot be answered without pushing the exchange onto a higher level of confrontation. The use of a Christian name immediately highlights the intimacy of this relationship, an intimacy which has been hidden in the presence of others. MacFarlane kisses her on the cheek and she immediately embraces him, throwing her arms around him and kissing him passionately. After a moment he removes her arms and throws out and off-hand and dismissive ‘don’t worry. It’ll do the boy no harm’. It is a hollow reasurrance. His withdrawl from physical contact, even from someone who clearly loves him, characterises MacFarlane’s aloof nature and emotional disconnection, and is repeated throughout the film. His only intimate contact is with the dead.

Anatomy specimen
We cut to the anatomy room, with its descending steps indicating that this is in the basement, establishing a divide between below and upstairs. This is indicative of the divisions within the household. Fettes, now that he is embedded within its structure, will become something of a middle man between the two levels. The emblematic division of spaces is replicated in the other public and domestic interiors which we will come across later. The anatomy room is the hidden dark heart of the house, the underside to the cultivated air of respectability on conspicuous display upstairs. Lewton outlined the atmosphere he wanted to convey in his script: ‘Dim. Long, level bars of light come through the wide windows to illuminate the bare austerity of this classroom. The long rows of tables have a sombre and empty look’. This is a space stripped of all the clutter of domestic accoutrements designed to comfort, impress signify in some sense or another. It is a room which reduces human life to a reductive, diagrammatic agglomeration of flesh and bone, blood and nerve and the needs which serve them. From behind the curtains at the back of the room the stooped figure of Bela Lugosi emerges, shambling like some subterranean Morlock. He moves past the anatomy diagrams hanging from the wall, and is thus likened to this primal level of physical function and need. He carries the bucket and wears the leather apron of the servant.

Abjection and contempt
A door is heard opening above and MacFarlane and Fettes descend. Lugosi is immediately still and alert as Fettes’s duties are explained to him. The sound of his brush against the bucket alerts them to his presence. MacFarlane is contemptuously dismissive of him, addressing him as Joseph, a use of the first name which in this case connotes the intimacy of contempt. He accuses him of ‘sneaking about like a redskin’, a racial slur which consigns him to marginality. We never get to learn any more of Joseph’s name – he never attains the significance to earn that respect. He is obsequiously subservient as he conspicuously scrubs to justify his presence in their company. He is an abject figure.

Drawn into confidence
MacFarlane takes Fettes by the elbow, an uncharacteristic moment of physical contact which indicates a degree of seriousness which needs to be marked, an important sharing of confidence. Leading him to one side he asks ‘you know where we get the bodies for dissection?’, testing the degree of his innocence. Fettes replies with the official version, that they come ‘from the municipal council. They’re the bodies of paupers’. This is a response which anticipates the outcome of the Anatomy Act. The corpses were supposed to come from executed criminals at this time. Poverty would otherwise have provided a plentiful supply. MacFarlane tells him that this official source is insufficient, and leads him behind the black curtain at the back of the room. The camera remains static on the other side, denying us entrance. The curtain is a discreetly drawn veil screening us from the unpalatable reality of death, and gives us the sense that we are being spared from seeing ghastly sights. And yet the camera begins to glide slowly towards it. Will the curtain part, allowing the privileged space beyond to be revealed upon the cinema (or tv) screen? Not yet. The curtain dissolves into grass in the darkness of night. The camera pans up to reveal Greyfriars ‘Robbie’ sitting guard on the soil of his master’s grave, a stiff wind ruffling his hair. The connection between the two spaces is made explicit, the curtain becoming the divide between anatomy storage room and graveyard. MacFarlane’s explicitly stated need for further ‘specimens’ makes him directly culpable for whatever transpires in the following scene.

Passing beyond the veil
There is the whinny of a horse and the dog is immediately alert. A gate creaks open and we see the shadow of Gray cast against the wall, with his tall hat and stooped gait, a shovel carried over his shoulder which could easily be a makeshift replacement for a scythe. It is like the similar graveyard shadow play in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (although without the surreal reversed movement). The dog growls and he whacks it on the head with his shovel, contemptuously kicking it to the side in a shower of dirt before starting to dig. This is the same Gray who we have seen treating a young girl with kindness and consideration, inviting her to say hallo to his horse. His is evidently a divided soul, capable of containing generosity and the capacity for unthinking brutality when his desired ends are obstructed.

Death goes to work
Fettes tosses and turns in his bed, as if intuitively sensing the violent end of the creature with which he shared his lunch. The sound of horses hooves echo in the courtyard below and he sees the carriage draw to a halt. This is the sound which will come to signify death. Downstairs in the anatomy room he answers the pounding on the door and comes face to face with Gray, grinning sardonically up at him from beneath his felt top hat, the freshly dug up corpse slung in a sack over his shoulder. His first words to Fettes, ‘give me a hand, this is heavy’, immediately make him complicit in the act. Gray tells him he’ll ‘find the specimen in good condition’, a linguistic depersonalisation of these human remains in the manner of Doctor MacFarlane. Gray, however, immediately goes on to say ‘he was as bright and lively as a thrush not a week long gone’, an acknowledgement of the human spirit which animated this body. Having laid it on the table, he muses that he was ‘a likely lad, I’m told’, before the camera focuses on his face as he fully takes in Fettes’ presence for the first time, as if wondering whether this is a new ‘likely lad’.

First meeting by cablight
‘You’re a new assistant?’ he enquires, with a hint that he’s seen many pass before. Fettes gives him his full name, and we thus learn that his first name is Donald. Gray maintains his sardonic tone as he turns the informality of this granting of first name term into a formal greeting (‘I’m very pleased to know you, Master Fettes’) accompanied by an exaggerated nod of the head. Fettes nervously stutters ‘Mr Gray?’, revealing that this has been an encounter he has been anticipating with some trepidation. This is affirmed, with another fine adjustment of the mode of address to ‘Cabman Gray’. The accurate and pointed use of names is evidently important to Gray. Here, his given first name is an indication of his profession (or trade in this case) which he wishes to emphasise, as if to make it clear that what he is doing now is a sideline, something to supplement the inadequate rewards of his honest work.

Him upstairs
Gray revels in the notoriety he senses he has been granted and says his name with a wicked and knowing grin which carries an air of incipient threat. ‘I’ve had some dealings with MacFarlane in the past, you understand’, he says with a raising of the eyebrows and rolling of the eyes which indicates ‘him upstairs’, again emphasising the upstairs/downstairs divide. The nature of these dealings and the length of the past into which they extend is left tantalisingly vague at this point. He pats Fettes on the back of the arm as he confides in him that he’s ‘always gotten on well with his assistants’. Fettes recoils from this contact and the confidence which it assumes in a way that he didn’t when Doctor MacFarlane made a directly parallel gesture. As if sensing this instinctive revulsion, Gray turns up the sardonicism a couple of notches and adds ‘providing, of course, they understand my humble position’, a remark accompanied by another bow of self-evidently overplayed humility. We are thus made aware of the Gray’s bitter preoccupation with his social status and the resentment at the treatment which it earns him, concerns which mirror the importance which MacFarlane attaches to his professional status and standing.

Recoiling from confidences
Fettes offers Gray pay, and he replies ‘of course. That’s the soul of the business’, a phrase which brings a deliberately inappropriate touch of the sacred into proceedings which have more to do with desecration, and which suggests a self-conscious awareness on the part of Gray of the exact nature of what he is doing. His manner is now arch, with a permanently fixed smile and a relaxed sense of being fully in control. He directs Fettes in carrying our the proper procedure, the paying of the ‘usual’ fee and the suggestion that he make ‘a proper entry’, proposing the ‘royal name’ of Macduff, one of the murdered victims of Macbeth in the ‘Scottish play’. Gray is clearly a man with an educated, if dark, sense of humour. He leans up to light his pipe from one of the gaslights and the angled line of its stem forms a parallel line with the slope of Fettes’ pen as he hesitantly makes the entry. This diagonal line of action across the screen suggests that Fettes actions are being guided by Gray’s remote agency. The business satisfactorily concluded, Fettes bids ‘Mr Gray’ goodnight and receives the sarcastic reply ‘my respects, Mr Fettes’, a farewell which serves to underline his own controlling hand in the whole exchange. His parting words, ‘may this be the first of many profitable meetings’, are carefully weighted and recognise the economic reality underpinning their dealings. But, with typical linguistic sinuousness, Gray hints that the profit he takes from such encounters might not be entirely monetary. There’s something more than mere business going on here, a fulfilment of a need on Gray’s part, which involves a constant and self-consciously controlled and delivered performance.

Parallel pipe and pen
A thoroughly disconcerted Fettes hears laughter coming from behind him, echoing that of the departed Gray. MacFarlane steps out from the shadows and announces ‘your first meeting with the redoubtable Gray’. As Gray leaves, so MacFarlane emerges, as if they were twin halves of the same soul. ‘You can count it a milestone in your medical career’, he tells Fettes. The camera zooms in on Fettes confused and troubled countenance, and the scene fades out on this shot. His innocence has been tested and it is far from evident whether or not he has emerged unscathed.

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