Friday, 29 January 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Six

The Body Snatcher - Part Three

Prize fighting memento mori
We fade in on the next scene to be confronted by the grinning skull of a skeleton, with laughter in the background providing aural continuity with the last scene. The laughter in this case is a convivial sound of group mirth, as opposed to the hollow echo of knowingly triumphant laughter with which Fettes was left at the cold heart of the previous night. This is a sound which mockingly confronts death with humour, defusing an object of fear by making it ridiculous. In echoing the laughter of the previous scene, this mockery may also be seen to be taking in Fettes, with his earnestness and the potentially comical look of befuddlement which the previous scene faded out on. The two anatomical demonstration skeletons in the dissection room have been placed so that they face each other, with fists raised in readiness to duke it out in literarily bare-knuckled fashion. This is the reductio ad absurdum of human conflict, life as a constant struggle unto death for pre-eminence and survival. It is an emblematic representation of a view of the world boiled down to the bare bones of Darwinian survival of the fittest bouts. It will also come to be symbolic of the deathly conflict into which MacFarlane and Gray are locked.

The student who has created this comical tableau identifies himself by imitating the fighting skeletal posture, thus framing himself as a life model for his own memento mori doppelganger. Fettes descends the staircase, indicating his new status, which he further demonstrates with a series of instructions delivered with a humourlessness which bears the seeds of MacFarlane’s self-importance and impatient pomposity. He has swiftly adopted the bearing of one from ‘upstairs’, the world of imposing and conspicuously displayed wealth and social standing. When he notices the skeletons’ new arrangement, he snaps ‘I suppose this was your doing, Service?’ This name is possibly a nod to Robert Service, the so-called ‘bard of the Yukon’, famous for his narrative ballads of the gold rush and later of the first world war, who was born of Scottish parents and educated in Glasgow. Service, who has maintained an attitude of humorous scepticism throughout Fettes’ intermediary instruction, issued through borrowed authority, is like a light, puckish shadow-self to Fettes’ ponderous and overly-serious persona. With his mischievous sense of playfulness, he also has an inbuilt resistance to the allure of authority, which he refuses to respect. Fettes, in his dumb innocence, lacks this necessary scepticism, which is a less embittered form of Gray’s anti-authoritarianism. Service is not further developed as a character and appears seldom hereafter. He exists in this scene to provide a contrast to the character of Fettes, and to highlight a world of camaraderie from which Fettes’ social elevation has excluded him.

Human contact - negotiation
Joseph shambles into the room, his neck seemingly locked, as if he has survived a hanging, like Lugosi’s Igor in Son of Frankenstein. This suggests that he is only at one remove from the dissection corpses which he cleans up after. He is an anatomy specimen in the waiting. He tells Fettes that ‘a lady is waiting for you’. This is Mrs Marsh, who has noted his kindness with Georgina and asks him to intercede with Doctor MacFarlane on her behalf. Fettes makes a pointed reference to his status in the household hierarchy as an intermediary assistant, pointing out ‘I’m not in a position to ask for favours’ since ‘I’m only a student’. But we have seen him issuing orders to the other students and expressing disapproval of Service’s japery, so it is clear to us, if not to him, that he has risen in the ranks to an ill-defined position which nonetheless makes him more than ‘only’ a student. She touches his arm, the third character to have done so, and as with the other instances, this is an invitation to a new level of intimacy and confidence. He has been reluctantly drawn in by MacFarlane and recoiled from Gray, but here he immediately accedes with enthusiasm. Human contact has broken through the stilted formalities of verbal address, with its tangle of social codes. They both smile as Mrs Marsh affirms that ‘Georgina was right, you are a kind man’. Georgina’s absence from the scene suggest that Fettes’ motivations extend beyond kindness to a young girl. In the original script, Meg is present before this exchange, having let Mrs Marsh in, and immediately recognises the connection which is being made. She utters under her breath ‘so it is in that direction that the wind blows, eh. It will get you nothing’. There is a touch of bitterness to this statement which is out of keeping with her character in other scenes, in which she exudes a feeling of melancholic resignation, which is possibly why her presence was removed from this one. Meg observes from the perspective of experience and can see how Fettes is tending towards the same corrupting development of spirit as that she has witnessed in MacFarlane. Meg’s marginalisation within the household for reasons of social propriety is symbolic of a wider casting aside of the traditions and observances of an old Scotland, with its Highland heart, in favour of the new enlightenment, based in the urban centres of the south, Edinburgh in particular. Meg is stranded in this brave new world in which cold rationalism and materialism pave over ritual and romance.

From the human exchange in the upper world, we return to the dissection room, where MacFarlane analyses parts of a ‘specimen’ in front of his students. We notice the sideways glance of Service, which has a touch of the self-amused, raised brow look of Orson Welles about it, weighing MacFarlane up and refusing to be swept along by his easy, populist manner. MacFarlane jokes about the jaw muscle being designed to ‘chew food and bite our enemies’, a reduction of the human experience to mechanistic functionality and a restatement of the Darwinian tableau set up by Service. The joviality and off-hand nature of his teaching methods are in contrast with the formality and self-importance of his manner upstairs during professional encounters. This is like a glimpse of the youthful MacFarlane, the young man with whom Meg first fell in love. Perhaps it is an indication of the reason why he has decided to devote himself to teaching and has shrugged off the responsibility of surgical practice. This is an arena in which he can recapture some of the uncomplicated society of his youth, before the preoccupations of social distinctions and etiquette attendant upon his professional status became predominant. This throwaway manner is also possibly an indication of an inherent weakness of character, an evasion of responsibility in choosing to pass on his knowledge rather than directly apply it for the greater good. He is thus able to enjoy the benefits which his qualifications bestow without having to put them to the test.

His Imperial Highness upstairs
MacFarlane’s easy manner is instantly jettisoned when someone makes an off-colour remark about Burke and Hare. ‘It’s a poor subject for jest’, he snaps, ‘particularly for a medical student’, at which point he exits upstairs. The offender is put firmly in his place, and any notions of fraternity and fellow-feeling are quashed. MacFarlane has been reminded of how far he has come from this fresh-faced group of green and innocent students. His own loss of innocence, and the moral compromises which it encompasses and which he has incorporated uneasily into his world view, remove him from this company, no matter how much he may try to inveigle himself back into its ranks. Another student asks ‘what did you say to His Imperial Highness?’, a sarcastic appellation which indicates that these pupils are not taken in by his breezy bursts of affability. The offending student remarks that Burke and Hare are ‘dead and buried’. Glances are cast upwards, to the ‘upstairs’ world, echoing Gray’s pointed rolling-eyed gesture earlier. The inextricable connection between the two worlds is made, with Gray as the dominant force of the lower level. Burke and Hare may be dead and buried, but they have their inheritor, and their work and possibly also their methods live on.

Poor wee Robbie - the cost of intellectual progress
The scene dissolves into a shot of Fettes striding along the street. Dissolves are a much used device in this film and serve to make hidden connections manifest. Here, Fettes’ light-hearted mood, as he whistles a merry Scots air to himself, reminds us of MacFarlane’s punctured cheer in the previous scene. Just as MacFarlane’s delusion of carefree youthfulness was cut short, so Fettes’ enjoyment of the morning is brought to an abrupt halt as he passes a crowd at the gates of the graveyard. Gaiety turns to horrified realisation as he learns from the old woman he had met during his graveside lunch of the death of Robbie, the Scots terrier, and the desecration of the grave he had been guarding. Such sudden transitions hint at the proximity of life and death within this society. The mourning for the dog, with its evident basis in the local legend of Greyfriars Bobbie, makes this seem like an act of ancestral pillage carried out with a pointed contempt for the values and sensibilities of the local community. Tradition is swept aside to meet the needs of supply and demand.

Measuring humanity
There is another dissolve on Fettes’ pensive and troubled face, fading back in on a shot of MacFarlane working intensely at his desk, studying a bone. A slyly suggestive link to the kind of object the dog might have spent many a happy hour chewing on, and one which points to the lack of concern the doctor would likely display at the creature’s destruction. The dissolve once more creates a notional connection between different spaces and the characters within them, creating lines of cause, effect and culpability. MacFarlane measures the bone with a pair of dividers. His pose is like that of William Blake’s god of the material world, measuring out the universe in his famous picture ‘Ancient of Days’, originally the frontspiece of Europe: A Prophecy. Blake’s figure is a recasting of the old testament God as Urizen, a tyrant of reason, of intellect discorporated. MacFarlane casts himself in a similar light in the speech he will shortly give to Fettes, which amounts to a rallying cry of ideological recruitment. Fettes enters MacFarlane’s study and announces for a second time that he wishes to quit. The doctor reacts with angry incredulity, pointing out ‘you’ve got your lodgings and a certain stipend’. His material needs are met, and as far as MacFarlane is concerned, this level of basic maintenance is all that needs to be taken into account. Fettes reveals his acquaintance with the old woman, her son and the dog. A specimen has thus been humanised, raised from the level of anonymous flesh and bone and given a name and a mother to mourn over it. The concern for the dog which has been killed in the procurement of the body is another example of the human relationship with animals which plays an important symbolic role in the film. The compassion shown towards ‘lesser’ creatures takes on an added significance in the light of the ensuing speech, in which MacFarlane persuades Fettes to continue his studies, and his role in the household hierarchy, by outlining his philosophy.

Human contact - passing on ideals
After a pause, as if to gather his thoughts and present an argument forceful enough to convince Fettes to stay, MacFarlane reminisces about when he was an assistant and ‘had to deal with men like Gray’. Thus he immediately deflects responsibility from himself, painting Gray as a convenient monster. He reduces him to a type, as if he is barely worthy of being given a name. He goes on to stake a position for himself beyond the law, effectively beyond good and evil. It is a Nietzschean world view in which men of (self-declared) superior intellect become a new, elitist priesthood who determine what means are acceptable to reach goals which they believe to be essential for the evolutionary progress of man, ignoring the ‘stupid and unjust laws’ of ‘ignorant men’ which are based on outmoded moral philosophies. In a brief and unconvincing reflective aside, he declares himself to be ‘sorry for the woman’ before rising to declarative rhetorical mode once more, asserting ‘her son might be alive today if more doctors had been given the opportunity to work with more human specimens’. MacFarlane puts his hand on Fettes’ shoulder as he makes his summation, another use of physical contact to create a sense of common purpose. ‘I let no man stop me when I know I’m right’, he avows with the unshakeable certainty of the materialist scientist who sees everything in terms of the absolute, the physically quantifiable and empirically demonstrable. Specimens are for ‘enlightenment and knowledge’, bodies serving to feed the mind. Such an outlook seeks to effect a Cartesian splitting off of the intellectual from the physical, a disembodiment. After his forceful declaration of what amounts to a précis of the new enlightenment philosophy, he tells Fettes ‘if you’re a real man, and want to be a good doctor, you’ll see it as I see it’. Meg’s fears are bearing fruit as MacFarlane begins to mould him in his own image, implanting the seeds of a new, more ambiguously shaded moral sensibility which departs from the religious precepts with which he was brought up. In her terms, Fettes is being corrupted.

Breezing past the street singer
We fade to the street singer, perhaps prompting us to think of Meg, the moral observer within the household. She sings a mournful Scottish ballad whilst people pass by and drop pennies in her pot. She reminds us once more of the poverty elsewhere in the country, and of the cost of the modernising spirit which MacFarlane represents. Someone is selling a ‘penny pamphlet on the Duke of Wellington’, whose extremely unpopular government had recently fallen, and perhaps upbraiding him for his conservative opposition to the Reform Act (eventually passed in 1832) which would significantly extend suffrage throughout the United Kingdom. It’s more background historical detail provided by Lewton for those who care to notice, highlighting the spirit of social change in the air. It is change which will do no good for those at the lower levels, such as Highland beggar, however. MacFarlane strides past her with head held high, not deigning to register her presence. The spinning wheel in the shop window again alludes to the sheep who have displaced her and her kin from the land. Fettes and MacFarlane reach a sign which marks their destination, ‘Hobbs Public House – for Gentlemen and the Commonality’. This a space where classes meet, their social separation temporarily suspended.

Public space - no boundaries
Inside, a boy sings as he turns a hog roast on a spit above the fire. The continuity of song connects outside with in, and suggests the street singer is in exile from such warm and welcoming interiors. MacFarlane’s warming of his hands before the fire suggests that it is cold outside, too. A voice intrudes on his comfort, observing that the pig is ‘a fine specimen, isn’t he, Toddy MacFarlane’. This is the first time we have heard mention of MacFarlane’s first name (not even Meg has used it thus far) and its use in diminutive, familiar form is a striking deviation from the carefully qualified use of names thus far. The use of the word ‘specimen’ also, and deliberately on Gray’s part, draws a parallel between the pig on the spit and the bodies on the dissecting tables, the latter providing the matter for intellectual sustenance. Gray, much to MacFarlane’s discomfort, invites them to sit with him with an expansive sweep of his tankard. He is like a spirit of place, at ease in his surroundings. In the script, Lewton makes clear that, the sign notwithstanding, there are clear divisions within the inn, and this is the ‘common’ section. At the repeated use of the name ‘Toddy’, MacFarlane strides over and says ‘don’t call me that confounded name’, one of several lines in the following exchange taken directly from Stevenson’s original short story. The pointed use of names becomes a stick with which to provoke, through the breaching of conventions of social and class observance. Having made veiled references to a shared past, Gray repeats the invitation, this time with more of a threatening inflection which makes it more of a command. At this stage, the balance of power is indicated by the fact that Gray is seated, with MacFarlane looming furiously over him, Fettes hovering anxiously at his side. Conceding Gray’s mysterious leverage, he sits (and Fettes with him). We sense that this constitutes a victory, an assertion of power on Gray’s part. Alluding further to a wild and shared past, Gray says ‘I’m a pretty bad fellow myself, but MacFarlane is the boy’, another line lifted directly from the source story.

The spirit of place
Gray pursues his advantage over MacFarlane, taking over the ordering of food and asserting his authority within this environment. The contrast in their appearances is striking, Gray with unshaven face and heavy coachman’s cape, hat and scarf, and MacFarlane with his frilly cravatte emerging from an elegant jacket. Gray’s heavy coat, scarf and tall hat are like a suit of armour which he keeps on even in this interior, warmed by its large and blazing fire. Gray indicates to the waiter, with exaggerated emphasis, that ‘I’m with my friend, the great Doctor MacFarlane’. He gestures towards him with his great thumb, and pushes his ever-present sardonicism to new and aggressive heights as he says ‘he wants to sit here with the commonality’. It is clear that MacFarlane wants nothing of the sort, and is only reluctantly rooted to the spot through the mesmeric hold which Gray appears to have over him. The waiter hesitates before fulfilling Gray’s order, enough to register the fact that he considers such profligacy to be beyond his usual means.

The gesturing thumb - familiarity and contempt
Gray continues to hold forth, clearly enjoying the unease of his companions. He is delivering a performance, one in which every word is weighted with heavily underlined falsity. He relishes playing the role of MacFarlane’s equal and familiar comrade and observing the hatred which is evident in his every response. This encounter delineates the nature of the relationship between Gray and MacFarlane which is at the heart of the film, without at this stage providing us with any firm insight into its origins. Gray evidently enjoys prodding MacFarlane to get a reaction out of him, and his constantly maintained performance, with its archly emphatic delivery, is motivated by hatreds and resentments of his own. The remarks about the commonality suggest that these may partly rise from a former friendship or at least comradeship which has been deliberately put aside by MacFarlane as he has risen in social stature. As if to bring past associations to the surface, and claim a shared set of interests which would further reduce the social separation so essential to MacFarlane’s view of himself as a man of importance, Gray prompts them to talk of medical matters. In MacFarlane’s view, ‘men like Gray’ are mere suppliers, functionaries to be paid off and dismissed. For them to actually take an interest in the uses to which their specimens are put, to give purpose to their labours, is unthinkable. Gray’s reference to medical matters here is obviously also a threat, an allusion to past dealings and thus a nudge to remind the doctor of the leverage which lends him this power which he is so merrily exerting over him. MacFarlane tries to wrest back some sort of advantage by denying Gray the use of his familiar name (‘I will not have you call me by that name’). Gray realises the power inherent in the mode of address, however, and leans back, comfortable in his ascendancy. ‘You will not have it?’ he rhetorically replies in a voice which says you’ll have it and like it. The two engage in a duel of challenging stares before MacFarlane looks down, defeated.

When Fettes brings up the subject of Mrs Marsh with MacFarlane, Gray immediately intervenes, goading him with the suggestion that he’s afraid of failure. Fettes has unwittingly (or perhaps not) chosen the best tactical moment to pitch his intervention on Mrs Marsh’s behalf, introducing it as a new element into the ongoing power play. Making inroads into the doctor’s professional life, the aspect which defines his sense of self, of vocation, as well as his social standing, Gray says ‘I’d like for you to do the operation, Toddy’. This intrusion rallies MacFarlane into an attempt to regain a shade of his indignant authority. ‘Since when have you become the protector of little children?’, he asks with bitter sarcasm. We have seen Gray’s kindness towards Georgina, of course, and perhaps there is a side to him which genuinely wants to see the little girl cured. If this is so, he’s not about to admit it. This is about the assertion of his power within the sacred circle of MacFarlane’s professional practice. To succeed in manipulating the doctor’s actions at such an elevated level is to extend his control over him to new heights. As such, hints at past misadventures (‘some long-lost friends’) are used as blackmail. The incidental fact that such base motivations can lead to a beneficent outcome gives another ironical variant in the weighing up of the balance between ends and means. MacFarlane tries to cast his concession of defeat into terms which turn into a detached intellectual challenge, as if it is one which he has taken on himself (‘it might be an interesting case’). Gray has a look of grinning triumph on his face which belies the belief that this anything other than a retreat, however.

Enacting violent fantasies
Gray wears a nearly constant smile which has a sharp, vulpine edge which suggests it may be drawn back to reveal devouring teeth. It is a smile which acts as a shield, a defensive prelude to an attack. This rictus grin is an effortfully sustained mask which conceals and, through conscious suppression, channels the poisonous emotional waters which swill underneath. Without dropping this mask of patently false affability, Gray reveals the true basis of his relationship with MacFarlane, the nature of which they are both fully aware. ‘Toddy hates me’, he says, a comment of blank self-evidence whose statement is nevertheless a further victory thrust on his part in that it makes it plain that this hatred avails him of nothing. MacFarlane’s response is a by now reflexive and weakly futile ‘don’t call me by that name’. Each use of the name and disregard of demands not to use it has further drained the doctor of power and authority. Driving the point home, Gray plunges a knife into a hunk of bread, saying ‘Toddy’d like to do that all over my body’, another line taken from Stevenson’s source story.

Noticing the gooseberry
Fettes, intervenes at this point, having thus far been sidelined. He attempts a jest about ‘medicos’ getting rid of a ‘friend’ they dislike by dissecting him. Perhaps significantly (maybe Fettes is less naïve than he appears) Gray has just referred to him as ‘my friend’. The remark causes a temporary cessation of the verbal sparring as Gray and MacFarlane turn and look at him sharply. He has evidently stumbled upon an awkward truth. Fettes is now the awkward and gauche student, making bumblingly embarrassing attempts at humour which bring opprobrium down upon his head. He is wholly divested of any traces of the authority with which he attempted to dress himself in the dissection room. His throwaway comment is greeted with as much amusement as that of the unfortunate student who came out with the off-colour crack about Burke and Hare. Fettes first tentative steps towards ascendancy in the Darwinian dance of eminence and status are made to look utterly insignificant in the face of the intense intimacy into which the attraction of hatred and enmity draws these two. It’s almost like he’s playing gooseberry, his presence an awkward intrusion made worse when he actually draws attention to himself. Gray and MacFarlane are locked together like the two prize-fighting skeletons, and this analogy with the aggressively posed memento mori leads to a feeling that neither can (or perhaps cares to) break free from a relationship which is, in a strange way, the closest either will ever experience. We have already seen MacFarlane extricate himself from Meg’s embrace with a precipitate gesture betokening an underlying indifference. But we sense that only death can separate these two. Gray leans in to MacFarlane in a way which acknowledges this terrible intimacy and whispers ‘you’ll never get rid of me that way, Toddy’ with a viciousness which perhaps disguises his horror of the fate which he fears most of all.

The look of hatred
Gray now comes out with the centrally important dialogue in the film which spells out the symbolic heart of the relationship between him and MacFarlane. It’s a statement of the film’s predominant theme, and indeed that of much of Robert Louis Stevenson’s fiction. It is a divided soul speech which could equally have been addressed by Mr Hyde to Doctor Jekyll, had it been possible for the two ever to meet. ‘You and I have two bodies. Aye, very different sorts of bodies. But we’re closer than if we were in the same skin’. MacFarlane throws him a look of hatred which tells that he knows this to be true, and that his assiduous observance of his social status and professional bearing is an attempt to evade the acknowledgement of this unpalatable truth. Gray elaborates on his vague intimations of secrets buried in the shallow soil of the past, blankly stating ‘for I saved that skin of yours once, and you’ll not forget it’. Gray is seeming more and more like that psychosomatically generated tumour which MacFarlane diagnosed in Georgina, a manifestation of past deeds whose wake is still traced out across his later life; In short, a conscience, an awkward appendage he thought long since excised. Gray is the very physical spectre of past memory which refuses to fade away in consequence-free forgetfulness. He is a constant reminder for MacFarlane of the brutal and messy means through which his pure and abstract intellectual ends are achieved. The body to his mind, they are split along Cartesian faultlines. These are echoed in the dualities of place which are also observed throughout the film. The split in Edinburgh between the elegant Georgian new town of the Scottish enlightenment and the dark streets of the old lower city around the castle; the upstairs/downstairs divide in MacFarlane’s house; the contrast between that house and Gray’s Spartan dwelling; the divisions between gentlemen and commonality in the inn; and, reflected in the figures of Meg and the street singer, between Highland and Lowland. The divided soul which is Gray and MacFarlane is thus further reflected on a wider social level. Just as Gray is an essential but despised component of MacFarlane’s nature and work which he tries unsuccessfully to distance himself from, so this early modern society is seen to be built on divisive foundations, separated into compartments whose partition is maintained by custom, etiquette and law.

The scene fades out once more on the perplexed features of Fettes. This is becoming a repeated pattern. It is as if we are witnessing the incremental stages through which he is being disabused of his innocent belief in a morally coherent world. He wants to believe in MacFarlane as a great man into whose authority he can trust his intellectual and practical education. But it may be that he is beginning to realise that he should also pay attention to Gray, MacFarlane’s other, if not better half.


James said...

Bravo! This was such an enthralling read - so well written and researched. Great blog you have here.

Jez Winship said...

Thanks, James. I really appreciate the encouraging words. Interesting to read your comments on Behind the Couch on Wise's Audrey Rose from the other end of his career. Not a classic, maybe, but I'll give it a viewing should it ever turn up on the telly.