Friday, 26 February 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Eight

The Body Snatcher - Part Five

Taking pleasure in one's work
We fade to a shot of the publican at the bar drawing out a tankard of ale, Gray leaning on the bar companionably in front of him. He is relaxed and at home in the company of his class, with the commonality. He says he’ll be going, as if signing off from a conversation, unless the barman has a fare for him. Economic necessity once more rears its head, with Gray always keeping alert to the possibility of furthering his income, even in a place where he has gone to enjoy a couple of drinks. There is a hint that he and the barman have an informal arrangement whereby the latter puts a little work his way. He mentions that the doctor is ‘in the other room, getting stiffer than the bodies he demonstrates’. He is clearly a well known local figure, at the inn at least. Gray instantly snaps into an alert posture, alive to the possibilities inherent in Macfarlane’s presence and condition.

Looking down on the desolate
The scene which follows is the centrepiece of the film in terms of laying out its underlying themes. Whereas they have been previously been suggested or symbolically depicted, here they are firmly and incontrovertibly stated. The fact that this key scene is a two-handed piece of conversational sparring which takes place in a small, dimly lit space highlights the literary nature of the script, which relies more than ever on dialogue and the nuances of its delivery to convey its meaning and its menace. It’s notable that the ‘action’ scenes in The Body Snatcher, whilst richly atmospheric in execution, are fairly perfunctory, and serve as interludes to the film’s main thrust, which consists of the encounters between the various characters and the language and tone which defines their shifting relationships. MacFarlane is found in one of the side rooms which is reserved for the gentry, a division which belies the promise of the inn’s sign, which suggested a dismantling of such social barriers. Gray greets him as ‘Toddy’, but in a tone devoid of its customary sardonic freight. This lack of protective verbal distancing marks a recognition of the vulnerable state into which MacFarlane has fallen. Gray looms over him as he sits slumped at the table, bottle to hand. This is the most striking use of the contrast of standing and seated figures to visually embody the shifting levels of power within relationships. And yet Gray does not push his advantage, adopting a softer mode of address than we have previously witnessed in his encounters with the doctor. His approach suggests that he is curious as to what has driven MacFarlane into this state, and perhaps even, on some level, feels concerned for him.

Old acquaintances renewed
MacFarlane invites him in to ‘have a glass with me’. This draws a direct parallel with the earlier scene in the inn, in which Gray had invited the doctor and Fettes to join him at his table in the ‘commonality’ area. This is a mirror scene to that earlier encounter (becoming literally reflective as the scene progresses), with Gray now in MacFarlane’s territory, although there is now no Fettes to intrude upon their intimacy. This relatively neutral space (class subdivisions notwithstanding) allows for the exploration and elucidation of the nature of their relationship, of the airing of home truths which the formalities, professional and domestic observances of their actual homes precludes. Gray comments that ‘it’s more like the old days’, hinting at some fondly remembered past of unguarded camaraderie. As MacFarlane’s defences have been lowered by his state of inebriation and the distress which has led to it, so Gray lays down his hat. With this and his sarcastic delivery, both part of his armour, laid to one side, he is acting as if he is at home and no longer in need of protective defences. His invitation into MacFarlane’s private room at the inn is as close as he’s likely to get to being invited into the upper rooms of his home. The doctor tells him ‘I want someone to talk to’, an admission of his sense of isolation. Gray is, in many ways, the only one he knows to whom he can talk in this intimate fashion, at least partly because of his open contempt for his professional hauteur. He is almost talking to him as an equal, a colleague. They are united in their solitude.

Pub scholarship
MacFarlane rhetorically states ‘you know something about the human body’, to which Gray looks up and drily replies ‘I’ve had some experience’. The use of this ambiguous word, which implies a secret knowledge shared, points to the corrosive effect of time, which has worn away any innocence which he might once have possessed. It’s also a modest autodidact’s claim to learning. Gray has learned from his years of manual labour, always observant, taking an intelligent interest in the uses to which his ‘finds’ have been put. MacFarlane explains the construction of the backbone to him as if he is lecturing one of his students, and Gray undermines his patronisation with a heavily underlined ‘I’ve never had it all explained by such a learned man’. His tone suggests that these are things which he knows, elementary level anatomy. He immediately understands to whom the doctor refers when he talks about the spinal operation he has completed. ‘It’s the bit of a girl Fettes was talking about’. He takes an active interest in their work, and puts a personal face onto MacFarlane’s nameless case study, giving human form to abstracted anatomy. It is perhaps a further indication of his own particular interest in Georgina’s case, his feelings towards animals and children a vestigial connection with that innocence which he has long since lost. MacFarlane takes to the age old practice of the pub tutor, using objects at hand to model complex matters (a technique most commonly applied to demonstrating off-side rules). He gathers his spent glasses to show how the blocks of the spine fit together. Gray knocks them aside with a contemptuous sweep of his arm. The violent rejection of a proffered glass, even when used as a prop in an anatomical demonstration indicates a refusal to abide by the niceties of polite hospitality, something which Fettes also made clear in slamming down his glass during his visit to Gray’s home.

Up close and personal
Gray eschews the passive role of listener which MacFarlane had played with gritted teeth in their earlier encounter in the inn. He leans in close, getting straight to the personal heart of the matter. At his level of proximity, all gestures, inadvertent or otherwise, are subject to scrutiny and the possibility of evasion or aloofness removed. Gray takes over the role of instructor, telling the doctor ‘you can’t build life the way you put blocks together, Toddy’, berating him for his mechanistic view of humanity. It is with undisguised anger, tinged perhaps with disappointment, that he declares ‘you’re a fool, Toddy, and no doctor. It’s only the dead ones you know’. He sounds as if he’s casting judgement on someone of former promise whose natural talents have been allowed to go astray, thereby forcing him to emblematically strip him of his title. MacFarlane tries to assert his status, the professional title and function through which he defines himself. ‘I am a doctor. I teach medicine’, he states, with a sense of entitlement gained through the learning which he has absorbed and now passes on. He is part of a lineage which seeks to promulgate a particular world-view, and whose exponents assume an elevated place for themselves within the new world they seek to create; an enlightenment world in which demonstrable knowledge becomes the highest value. It also becomes a token of superiority, creating a new class who regard the uneducated with contempt. Gray puts this lineage in context. MacFarlane, he suggests, is teaching his pupils ‘like Knox taught you. Like I taught you. In cellars and graveyards’. Such knowledge as MacFarlane lays claim to is incomplete without a concomitant familiarity with the human soul, a moral context in which to set it. Gray puts himself forward as a teacher of equal importance to Dr Knox in Gray’s education; An education which extended beyond the anatomy classroom to encompass the ways of the world beyond. Gray is putting himself and Knox forward as negative examples, of a miseducation. This raises the intriguing spectre of Gray’s contempt for and hatred of MacFarlane arising from the doctor’s inability to free himself from his influence and become his own man. Given his upcoming reminder of what he has done for him, Gray may feel that his sacrifice on behalf of his ‘superior’ was a vain gesture. The teaching partnership of Knox and Gray is now replicated, with MacFarlane taking over Knox’s role and Fettes replacing him as the pupil. The lineage is maintained.

Gray now becomes like MacFarlane’s tutor, firing questions at him as if guiding him through an exam, prompting reflexive, autonomic responses. ‘Did Knox teach you what makes the blood flow?’ ‘The blood pumps it’. ‘Did he tell you how thoughts come and how they go? And why things are remembered and forgot?’ ‘The nerve centres, the brain’. MacFarlane’s reductive world view is exposed by this examination, the instantaneous, unthinking nature of his responses indicative of his fixed ideas and disinclination to question them. If events fail to conform to his rigidly defined paradigm of life as machine, he rejects them as being impossible rather than readjusting his scientific model accordingly. Like a good teacher, Gray continues to push him, refusing to allow him to settle into preset answers, guiding him ever further into metaphysical waters. ‘What makes a thought start?’ draws a testily assertive ‘in the brain, I tell you’. As Gray raises issues of the spirit and the nature of human consciousness, pushing beyond the boundaries of the empirically quantifiable, MacFarlane reveals his need to encompass and and formulate all experience within a materialistic framework. His responses raise Gray’s ire, partly because his questions are on another level inviting MacFarlane to understand the mysterious forces which drive Gray to plague him. His attitude to MacFarlane’s stubbornly inflexible philosophy is akin to the contempt which the doctor himself feels for those who stand in the way of his ideas of progress. Gray’s anger is also a response to his assumption of intellectual superiority, and the assumption that this will naturally be acknowledged and paid due deference. Failing him in his impromptu exam, Gray snarls ‘you don’t know and you’ll never know or understand, Toddy’. This open anger is all the more startling for having erupted through Gray’s usually carefully controlled and modulated manner of address. It’s an exposure of the strong feelings which his habitual performance serves to disguise.

Confronting the divided self
Having thus demonstrated the hollow nature of the knowledge which forms the basis of his life, Gray turns MacFarlane’s gaze to the large mirror which hangs from the wall, forcing him to face himself. The natural tilt of the mirror casts the image aslant, creating the sense of a world shifted off balance often conveyed by a disruption of the horizontal frame in cinema. The mirror takes up most of the screen frame, effectively becoming a screen contained within a screen. Gray and MacFarlane look at their images within its glass, which are in turn reflected back at us, the spectators. There is a sense that we are glimpsing some essence of the characters’ true natures in this double reversal. As MacFarlane looks up at himself, leaning down vertiginously from the glass as if the very ground beneath his feet is throwing him off balance, Gray leans in at his side, hunchbacked in his high-collared coat. He resembles the malignant growth which MacFarlane will later accuse him of being (reminding us also of the growth which he has removed from Georgina’s spine, but whose effects still linger on). This is the face which will always be there when he confronts himself in the mirror, whether Gray is physically present or not. It is the emanation of his divided soul.

Forcing MacFarlane to confront himself, Gray asks him ‘could you be a doctor, a healing man with the things those eyes have seen’. In directing him to look into his own eyes, he tries to shake him from his habitual world view, to make him see himself from a more objective, distanced perspective, an externalised vision. He questions what it means to be a doctor, what qualifies one to lay claim to the title beyond its initial bestowal by academic authorities. By what right does he continue to use it as a descriptive (and prescriptive) title for what he does? The price of knowledge and the means through which it is acquired may be a diminution in the ability or desire as well as the moral authority to put it to use. MacFarlane still insists that he is a good doctor, but this is beginning to sound like an increasingly desperate assertion, an attempt to shore up the listing superstructure of his ego. Gray pours another glass and talks gently to him again, modulating his tone to manipulate the doctor’s responses. He addresses him as if he were a child, offering to take him home. He is drawing to its close an encounter over which he has established control, summing it up with the conclusion ‘now that you know that you’re Knox’s man and my friend’. In making him aware of his part in the lineage of medical tutelage, he underlines his subservient position, and asserts his own ascendancy in the shifting balance of power. The addendum of the satisfied sigh ‘aye, forever’ proves too much, however, and MacFarlane’s head snaps up from its stupefied, mesmerised state. The camera changes angle so that the two men are shown in profile, head to head, facing one another in parallel, confrontational eyeline. Gray’s face becomes suddenly set as the habitual state of conflict is once more renewed. In relaxing his usual control of language and perhaps allowing himself the luxury of believing a return to past relationships might be possible he has said the wrong thing, and failed to part with his customary final word.

Hatred unmasked
MacFarlane reclaims his ego, firmly stating ‘I’m my own man and I’ll have no more to do with you, Gray’. He then asks the questions which we’ve been asking ourselves, as if he is putting them on our behalf. ‘Why should I be afraid of you? What are you holding over me?’ It seems he has to put these questions blankly to Gray in order to receive a direct, unveiled response, and he duly obliges. There is a close up on Gray’s face as he says ‘I’ll tell you what’. The source of the bitter hatred between them is revealed, and Gray’s role as the voice of MacFarlane’s stunted conscience is further affirmed. ‘I stood up in the witness box and took what should have been coming to you’. He took the consequences, the social opprobrium too. ‘I ran through the streets with the mud and the stones around my ears and the mob yelling for my blood because you were afraid to face it’. Gray acted as a scapegoat, a role with holy precedent an which puts him in a position of moral superiority over MacFarlane despite what he has subsequently done. But if MacFarlane simply refuses to recognise any moral indebtedness, or to accept the burden of guilt, then this counts for nothing and any power with which it might have imbued him disappears into the aether. In this sense, MacFarlane’s attempts to rid himself of Gray and his influence represent his desire to be free of conventional morality altogether, to attain Nietzsche’s exalted state of being beyond good and evil. To this end, he reasserts his socially elevated position, the brute fact of the power granted to him by the class status allied with his profession. ‘Remember this’, he tells Gray. ‘They hanged Burke, they mobbed Hare. But Doctor Knox is living like a gentleman in London’. Gray concedes this inescapable truth, being all too aware of his lowly social standing. He admits, with a look of wise resignation, ‘there’s something in what you say, Toddy’. His standing down in the face of this threat represents a realisation of his failure to get MacFarlane to truthfully confront his nature. He has shied away from recognising the divided state of his soul, and also from the resultant recognition of Gray’s congruent nature, his essential humanity, flawed though it might be. MacFarlane continues to deny his lineage, the philosophical ancestry of which he is the inheritor. He shuts out any admission of the role Gray has played in his moral education, both positive and negative, up to and including his willingness to sacrifice his own freedom and subject himself to the opprobrium of the masses for his sake. It is as much to force him into such an admission as to torment him that Gray refuses to leave him alone. He demands recognition.

reasserting social status
MacFarlane reasserts his dominance in the shifting power dynamic by standing, assuming a physically elevated position above the seated Gray. His ensuing threats (‘if you have any regard for your neck, you’ll leave now’) contrast with the pointed refusal of Gray to push his advantage when he encountered the dejected and vulnerable MacFarlane at the start of the scene. Gray looks up for a moment with a look of desolation, like a lost child, before once more donning his hardened carapace of sardonic armour. Glances are cast up and down, the moment in which the exchange of power occurs captured somewhere in between. Gray leaves, with a scornful inflection and downward glance on the utterance of the word ‘doctor’. He expresses his moral contempt, but this no longer gains him any leverage in the power struggle. MacFarlane, in reducing him to the level of the debased, refusing to recognise his humanity, relegates his concerns to the status of the irritating objections of those who stand in the way of his notion of progress. This is the ultimate goal towards the achievement of which end all means become acceptable. Comfortable in the protective fortress provided by wealth and class, he sits down and pours himself another drink.

There is a dissolve which links inn with stable, suggesting that MacFarlane still keeps company with the bottle whilst Gray retreats to his home and feeds his horse. The companionship of animals assuages his loneliness and provides a less complicated form of relationship than he finds within human society, with its continuous struggle for predominance. Gray treats his animals well and with kindness. We see Joseph enter his house and slam the door with a lumbering lack of subtlety, and Gray further suggests his affinity with the animal world by ushering him in with ‘you’re welcome to my little nest’. He picks up a cat who he refers to as ‘brother’ and gently strokes as he prepares to listen to what Joseph has to say. Gray is definitely a cat person, solitary and self-contained, dispensing his pleasantries and proffering favours in a calculatedly tactical fashion. As we have seen, he has no time for household pets who offer dogged loyalty.

Cat lover
Joseph speaks in a blunt and crudely direct manner, with no trace of the nuanced language and carefully weighted delivery which Gray employs. There is perhaps an element of cruel commentary on the diverging fortunes of the two horror stars in the relationship depicted here, with Lugosi’s star definitely on the wane, prey as he was to his own addictions. Nevertheless, he gives a fine performance here as an abject figure reduced to basic appetites. He comes straight out with the reason for his visit, saying ‘I know you kill people to sell bodies’ in a nervous rush. Gray’s smile barely falters, and he pauses but briefly in his lulling, steadily rhythmic stroking of the cat. This is a pitiful adversary who has been instantly sized up and found to lack any real threat. He inquires as to whether Joseph came here on his own account, seeking to make it clear that ‘no one knows that you are here’. Joseph is too stupid to hear the implied threat, and issues an idiot’s reductive blackmail demand: ‘Give me money or I tell the police’. Gray puts down the cat and stands up, establishing his dominance of the situation. He disarms Joseph by immediately and solicitously acceding to his demand, making lulling use of his name all the while. He finds tactical common ground in a resentment of MacFarlane’s social superiority and implied meanness (‘I don’t suppose the great Doctor MacFarlane is over-lavish with his pay’). But Gray has no intention of sinking to Joseph’s level of pitiful abjection. Joseph’s servile state has led to Gray’s door because the idea of standing up to MacFarlane and blackmailing him, with his far greater wealth, is simply inconceivable. Joseph represents a condition of defeat which Gray is determined to rise above with a combination of wit, guile and ruthlessness. Joseph is someone he can look down on with the same contempt with which MacFarlane affects to look down on him, although unlike the doctor, he keeps his feelings disguised, the better to leave the relationship open to manipulative use.

Feeding the animals - naked appetite
Joseph is reduced to basic appetites, which Gray fulfils with repeated offers of money, incrementally doled out, and drink, which is eagerly gulped down, all the time lulling him with soft and soothing tones. He is far too simple to see the danger in this deceptive and calculating display of friendliness and hospitality, the (metaphorical) poison in to proffered glass. Gray’s friendly manner confuses him, since he takes his instant capitulation at face value (‘I have made you give me money, and yet you smile’). He certainly doesn’t notice the increasing element of mockery in Gray’s approach as he becomes assured that Joseph is completely taken in by his act. His steady feeding of Joseph’s appetites, which he is unable to resist, is like the feeding of his animals, on which level of existence Gray now locates him. Dumb and compliant.

Gray sits on the table, leaning over as if in confidence, but with the predatory alertness of a raptor, head tilted forward in readiness for attack. Holding out the possibility of a lucrative partnership to Joseph, he says ‘we will, so to speak, Burke them’. Gray has to explain the nature of the neoligism, a piece of popular vernacular arising from the body snatcher’s folkloric infamy. Joseph, through his ignorance of the most common cultural currency, reveals that he is only a recent arrival, having travelled from Lisbon. He is an immigrant worker, in other words, alone and far from home in a cold and alien culture. At this further evidence of his susceptibility and social marginality, Gray opens up and starts to really enjoy himself. He begins a theatrical performance for his captive audience, both out of self-delight and to bedazzle Joseph and throw him further off his guard. He gives a prelude to the impromptu raree-show he’s about to put on, a scene setter before the curtain rises. ‘You may have heard the chapbook singers and peddlers of verse cry their names down the street’. He sings in rhyming couplets, lending the story, as well as his own performance, a gaily ghoulish air (‘the ruffian dogs, the hellish pair/the villain Burke, the meagre Hare’). Joseph obligingly prompts him to fill in details, which conveniently allows the audience to receive a crash course in historical detail of which they may have been ignorant. In explaining their activities, Gray mentions the price of the bodies in combining with the tally of their victims, leaving the net profit from murder uncalculated, but adding ‘that’s good business, Joseph’. He gives him a back-handed pat on the lapel, much as he did upon first meeting Fettes, another example of contact being used to gain advantage over someone, to include them in a sense of conspiratorial camaraderie (or in the case of Mrs Marsh, to hold out the promise of future intimacies in return for assistance rendered). It is human contract as mutual contract.

Dance of death - enjoying the performance
Gray changes the tone of his performance, dropping the rhyming and telling the story of Hare as if it were personal reminiscence, speaking of him with a hushed awe and then beginning to play out the role himself. The changing nature of Gray’s act offers a glimpse of the different ways in which street performers might have told their stories or related news in a dramatic fashion. As he tells of the events leading up to the demise of ‘Madame Tosspot’, he is clearly relishing his performance, and delighting in Joseph’s ignorance of the fact that he is being given a step by step prelude to his own death. Joseph asks what they did then, mesmerised by Gray’s acting, little realising that he is himself being drawn into the performance, as the boundary between life and art becomes blurred. Prompting the next stage in the story, he is as good as inviting his own death. Gray resumes the rhyming ballad mode, its pre-determined patterns and driving rhythms propelling the story towards its conclusion. Gray is all but dancing around Joseph by now, as his stupefied guest professes ‘I don’t understand the song’. It is a dance of death in which he revels in the incomprehension of his victim at the foretelling of his own incipient fate which the story is unfolding. He plays with him as his cat might toy with a helpless mouse.

Sharing the kill
The show is brought to an end with a flourish, almost as if it were scripted, with Joseph offering the feed line ‘tell me plain how they did it’, allowing Gray to reply ‘I’ll show you how they did it, Joseph’. He then smothers him with one great workman’s hand, the same hand which wraps itself around the shovels which are the tools of his secondary trade. In previous films (The Ghost Ship in particular) we have seen how the tools and machinery of labour have been turned into instruments of death. Here it is the hand itself which serves that function. Joseph is pushed backwards out of the ‘comfortable’ chair and meets his end flat out on the floor. He has been killed by comfort, by allowing himself to sink into an easeful state of relaxed stupor, lulled by Gray’s deceptive hospitality into lowering his wary defences, leaving him vulnerable. There is a pitiless blankness and ruthless determination to Gray’s face as he murders Joseph. His cat wanders over to the body as if to share this kill, and Gray picks it up and strokes it once more. The two are fellow spirits, the cat like Gray’s familiar. He walks to the wardrobe and takes out the sack in which he carries his bodies, wearily returning to the lonely routines of his business. The performance is over and the stage must be cleared. Stripped of the masks and assumed identities which he has adopted, he is empty and hollowed out. As MacFarlane had done at the conclusion of the previous scene, he takes a glass.

The hollow soul
The sound of hooves on cobbles carries its by now familiar associations, and we follow Gray as carries the body through the door into MacFarlane’s anatomy room, taking pleasure in the return to old routines. He’s about to deposit it on the usual table when an impish look comes over his face and he takes it instead behind the curtains. This is the backstage area of this variant form of theatre; a linguistic analogy between different types of performance space (acting and operating theatres) which Gray bridges with his love of acting. We hear him humming a merry melody from behind the curtain, as if he is making final preparations before they rise. The pleasure he takes in setting up another, surprise show has brought him back to life. The curtain billows and he emerges. He glances upwards to the world ‘upstairs’ with a look of satisfaction, and with an air of childish naughtiness at the idea of what he’s done, begins to creep upstairs rather than leave by his customary exit. Whatever special surprise he has prepared, he feels that it entitles him to finally avail himself of MacFarlane’s hospitality. He now craves an audience, his performance in front of the dullard Joseph leaving him with a desire for a more refined appreciation of his talents. Gray’s wicked inner child has been released, revelling in its own ghoulish pranks just as Service did with his battling skeletons. Gray had treated MacFarlane as a child towards the end of their encounter at the inn. Now, subsequent to his rejection and exile from the MacFarlane household, he has become like a child himself. And neglected children can become wilful and dangerously unpredictable.

Preparing to ascend - with a jaunty cock of the hat

1 comment:

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