Friday, 19 March 2010

the Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirty

The Body Snatcher - Part Seven

Unexpected house guest
Gray arrives back at home in his dark room and greets his cat as he takes off his hat and scarf. Using a spill to catch a flame from his meagre fire to light a candle, he reveals, by its feeble glow, MacFarlane sitting in the corner waiting for him. Gray is now stripped of his coachman’s armour and is once more diminished in bulk, cutting an unimposing and rather humble figure. He appears tired and worn as he wearily says ‘this is unexpected, Toddy’. His voice is empty of any of its usual rhetorical guile, drained of the energy required for verbal sparring. MacFarlane gets straight to the point of his visit (which is tantamount to a break in). He elaborates on the analogy of Gray as disease, as a cancerous outgrowth of conscience which was given visual representation in the mirror at the inn, and which has been foreshadowed by Georgina’s memory tumour. Referring to him as ‘a malignant, evil cancer, rotting my mind’, MacFarlane makes an apparent admission of the inseparable double nature which he and Gray share as divided halves of the same persona. Gray looks genuinely hurt at being reduced to such an unpleasant metaphor, sighing ‘so you’ve made a disease of me, eh, Toddy’. It’s a sigh of disappointment, as much as anything, at a lesson which remains unlearned. MacFarlane continues to evade self-knowledge, the recognition of his true nature, of which Gray is a part. At the notion of being surgically excised, Gray feigns shock, asking ‘surely you’re not threatening an old friend’, to which MacFarlane snaps back ‘we’ve never been friends’. As if such implacable hostility and denial of the past is a sign, a trigger for a certain course of action, Gray offers him a drink. It is a gesture of hospitality which is the overture to a murderous routine which Gray has already successfully rehearsed with Joseph.

Sorrowful countenance - the human disease
MacFarlane offers Gray an unsparing reflective portrait (the equivalent of Gray’s confrontation of the doctor with his true self in the mirror at the inn) of his declining years and the increasingly hard labour and poverty which will be attendant upon them. It is a bleak outlook which he offers to leaven with the offer of a ‘neat little house’ at Leith. He makes allusion to the fact that ‘new laws may come’, which will eliminate his extra source of income. This is an anticipation of the Anatomy Act, and indicates Lewton’s awareness of its importance in the context of the story, giving further credence to the probability that the year in which the film is set was very consciously and deliberately chosen. In tune with the candid nature of this meeting, in which all barriers are being lowered, and which is already gathering the air of finality about it, Gray boils this offer down to a bald précis (‘would you bribe me to let you be’). MacFarlane brightly responds ‘I’d make you rich’, a materialist’s solution to a more metaphysical problem, one which involves tangled issues of moral responsibility and the nature and context of evil. Gray continues to fill MacFarlane’s glass all the while, an outpouring of hospitality apportioned with deadly generosity.

MacFarlane having made his play, Gray gives his response, his voice, in contrast with the doctor’s excitable tones, even and almost gentle. Gray rejects the material solution, saying ‘that wouldn’t be half so much fun for me as to have you come here and beg’. MacFarlane reflexively spits out a contemptuous response (‘beg of you, you crawling graveyard rat!’) which is reminiscent of the way he used to treat Joseph – as an animal. It is a response which indicates an overweening and unsuppressible sense of superiority and entitlement, for such expressions of revulsion are entirely counterproductive in this context. Gray replies in a calm, almost seductive voice which, in its refusal to rise to ire, shows a sense of control, of the release of feeling able, at this end point, to be utterly open. ‘Aye, that is my pleasure’, he says, unashamed at this unearthing of his emotional substructure. When MacFarlane does resort to begging, Gray carefully and slowly explains to him why he must refuse he entreaties, since then ‘I would lose the fun of having you come back and beg again’. There is no malice here, just a cool and considered laying out of the facts. The spartan setting of Gray’s home has become and emotional dissection room.

The predatory perch
Gray has now taken up his predatory raptor posture, perched on the edge of the table and leaning forward over MacFarlane. This was the posture he adopted as he began to guide Joseph towards his death. The seating/standing power dynamic comes into play again, and MacFarlane is almost crying as he puts the fundamental question: ‘but why, Gray, why?’ A look of hatred takes possession of Gray’s face, or perhaps it’s disgust at MacFarlane’s weakness, or his lack of understanding. He explains how ‘it would be a hurt to me to see you no more, Toddy’. We feel that this a truthful articulation of his emotions, without the recourse to his customary verbal smokescreens. ‘You’re a pleasure to me’, he adds, regarding MacFarlane as if he were an object, an ornament with which to enliven daily existence, in much the same way as the doctor regards those around him. ‘A pleasure to torment me?’, MacFarlane petulantly prompts, as if Gray were akin to one of his cats, playing with a captured cat or bird. Gray carefully clarifies his feelings, telling MacFarlane that it’s ‘a pride to know that I can force you to my will’. He displays a remarkable level of emotional articulacy, expressing a self-awareness which reveals a reflective, even sensitive nature. This is in contrast with MacFarlane’s unwillingness to confront his own motivations and the murky moral underpinnings of his lofty self-image. Whilst Gray has hidden depths, MacFarlane has barely covered shallows.

I am a humble man
Gray goes on to reveal the very core of the conflict between the two from his perspective, displaying what amounts to an x-ray of his wounded soul. He suggests the role which his lowly social standing and its attendant economic hardships play in driving him to acts contrary to his nature. ‘I am a small man, a humble man’, he starts, with none of the heavily accented mock humility with which he would usually slather such comments. ‘And being poor, I have had to do much that I did not want to do’. Thus he explicitly elucidates the element of social and class division which is embodied in these two characters as well as in the city of Edinburgh itself, with its old and new town areas. ‘But so long as the great Doctor MacFarlane jumps to my whistle’, he continues, ‘that long am I a man’. The heart of the power play is the clash of two egos locked in struggle. One prospers in direct proportion to the other’s decline. Gray’s torment of MacFarlane arise not from an inherent evil, but from a need to survive. It’s a manifestation of the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest on the human level of self-definition, based on the need for self-aware creatures to feel a sense of purpose, of having a meaningful position within the order of things. This is a struggle played out not only on the social, but also on the psychological, and beyond that even the metaphysical stage. A struggle which embraces class, mind and soul. If MacFarlane defines himself through his professional prefix as a Doctor, a man of importance who pursues the great human endeavour of the furtherance of knowledge, then Gray defines himself, finds meaning, through a reflection of that sense of importance. ‘If I have not that’, he says, referring to his ability to manipulate the doctor, ‘I have nothing’. His speech has taken on a curiously poetic form of rhetoric, which makes his self-reflection seem at the same time both sad and self-conscious, as if he is listening to himself whilst he is voicing this sense of emptiness. Without this sense of self-worth parasitically derived from the torment of another he would be ‘only a cabman and a graverobber’, someone defined only through his trade, just as he is known as Cabman Gray. No-one seems likely to call him John. As a man defined through such trades, he’ll only ever be an object of MacFarlane’s contempt. And yet, again on both a social and psychological level, MacFarlane does need him. As Meg pointed out to Fettes, it was MacFarlane who used her money to hire Gray in the first place. On the metaphysical level, of course, they are two halves of the same divided soul, and whilst Gray’s concluding statement ‘you’ll never get rid of me, Toddy’ may be intended as a statement of intent for the here and now, it is on this level that it will resonate more truthfully.

Observing human savagery
The two pounce as one and lock into a struggle from the animal savagery of which even the cat shies away. Gray’s suffocating tombstone of a hand comes into play again. He is forceful yet at the same time tender, trying to ease their conflict away from this deathly physical plane and re-establish it on the psychological level where it can continue to feed him. ‘Don’t force me to kill you, Toddy’, he says. ‘My pride has need of you’. The death of one will diminish the other. They will be killing a part of themselves. MacFarlane pretends to acquiescence before renewing his attack with redoubled fury and desperation. The remainder of the struggle is seen in the form of a shadow play projected upon the wall, watched by Gray’s cat, who flinches from the violence it witnesses directly. The shadow world is one which we have encountered numerous times throughout Lewton’s films. It implies a world at one remove from the surface appearance of mundane reality, one which lies beyond death. The cat perching on the shelf sits halfway between the two, able to perceive this tenebrous dimension. The shadows of the two men on the wall merge together as they wrestle with each other, identities blurring until we can no longer tell who is who. One bludgeons the other repeatedly until he falls lifelessly to the floor and fetches the sack to carry him out in. We hear the hooves echoing on cobbles and see a shot of the anatomy room, by now short-cut indicators of death’s delivery routine.

Becoming Gray
It is MacFarlane who comes through the anatomy room door and deposits his cadaver upon the table. He is following in Gray’s footsteps, taking on his work routines. Meg runs down to meet him and tells him that she’s sent Fettes away. As MacFarlane is taking on Gray’s duties, so she is taking control of the household, putting things in order. She has long observed the moral ruination into which MacFarlane has fallen, but she is not prepared to see its corrosive effects passed on. If Gray was seen as a disease, then she recognises MacFarlane as the vector through which its infection is spread. ‘I’ll not see another boy made miserable like you, Toddy’, she says, the name echoing the sorrowful affection with which it was used by Gray as he was smothering him. MacFarlane shows her who it is he has brought in and declares ‘I’m rid of him forever. Now he’ll serve a good purpose’. Ends and means are once more invoked. ‘Tomorrow, when the last bit of him is dissected, demonstrated and entered in the students’ notebooks, then at last there’s an end to him’, he concludes with satisfaction. By getting rid of the physical remains, and also of Gray’s horse and cab, he believes he will be putting an end to the matter. But this is just a destruction of matter, a disposal on the material plane. It does nothing to exorcise all that Gray has represented within MacFarlane’s own persona, all the aspects of himself and his past that he continues to suppress. As Gray himself said in response to Fettes’ ill-advised quip about doctor’s getting rid of their enemies by dissecting them, ‘you’ll never get rid of me that way, Toddy’. Meg agrees. There is a close up on her face as she pauses in her ascent of the stairs. ‘No, Toddy’, she says, ‘you’re not rid of him’. The use of MacFarlane’s affectionate diminutive is added from the script. This has always been a name which represents his human side, the aspect which exists outside of the honorifics of profession or class. Its use here bears the tender hallmarks of a final farewell. As she turns to walk upstairs, she knows this may be the last time she ever sees him.

A farewell
The next scene finds Fettes and Mrs Marsh with Georgina at their usual meeting place on the balustrade overlooking the city. Fettes tells her that he has left ‘the school’, and she draws him aside to speak with him alone. She addresses him as Donald for the first time, a familiar use of his first name which implies a new level of intimacy. Assuring her that his decision has nothing to do with her, he says he ‘feels he learned nothing’ and that ‘he taught me the mechanics of anatomy but he couldn’t teach me the poetry of medicine’, words which echo Gray’s insistence on the limitations of MacFarlane’s knowledge at the inn. Meg’s intervention the previous night has clearly had its effect. Fettes’ salvation lies in the influence of these two women; the human intimacy which Mrs Marsh offers (as well as the example which Georgina provides of the human ends which guide medicine) and the emotional and experiential wisdom which he gains from Meg. Whilst he and Mrs Marsh are talking, Georgina hears the sounds of hooves approaching below and, unable to attract their attention, is motivated to get up from her chair and take a few tentative steps to see over the balcony and greet the white horse. It is Gray’s kindness and concern which has provided this impetus, the ‘poetic’ side of the healing process which completes the mechanical repair. Ironically, of course, if this is Gray’s horse and cart (Georgina never gets to see over the balcony wall) it is being driven away by MacFarlane to be sold. Once more, innocence abuts the world of experience and in this instance remains unscathed. Upon seeing her first steps towards recovery, Fettes determines to go and tell MacFarlane of his triumph. He is greeted at the door by ‘Mistress Cameron’, who no longer wears tartan and appears to have shed her subservient role to become a genuine mistress of the house. It seems she may have come to a decision to put the past behind her. She tells Fettes where MacFarlane has gone and tries to dissuade him from following him, concluding when he ignores her intuitive warnings that ‘there’s no standing between a fool and his folly’.

Another Nietszchean turn
MacFarlane sits alone in a country inn as a circle of horse dealers celebrate their bargaining prowess around another fire. There are no divisions in this inn, which lies beyond the city and is more of a piece with the old Scotland. MacFarlane has come her to do business, and cheerfully accepts the hospitality of the dealer who clearly feels he has won a bargain from him. Fettes arrives and tells him of Georgina’s recovery, to which MacFarlane responds ‘I knew it, the moment I was rid of him’. He adopts an uncharacteristically superstitious view of Gray as a cursed presence, the removal of which has effected a miraculous cure, a sign perhaps that the rigid delineation of his rationalistic world view is beginning to fragment. We know, of course, that Gray has played a more beneficent part in Georgina’s cure. MacFarlane is less than honest about Gray’s departure from his life, claiming that he’s ‘been able to induce him to leave Edinburgh’. They both drink to a ‘good riddance’. MacFarlane pledges to be a good man and a better teacher. Gray’s death becomes an opportunity for his rebirth. A mourning party enters the inn, providing a sombre counterpoint to the jolly drinking songs which are being sung around the fire. The proximity of life and death are highlighted as they were in the graveyard scene at the start of the film. On hearing where they have just come from, MacFarlane muses ‘that’s a lonely cemetery, not a soul around for miles’, adding ‘it’s our own ends I’m thinking about’. His resolution is almost immediately forgotten, and he shows a lofty lack of compassion for the human suffering which is apparent directly before him. ‘I let no opportunity escape me’, he declares, and stands to deliver the latest of his Nietszchean diatribes, railing against ‘the stupidity of the people. The idiocy of their laws shall not stop me’. The humility of his resolution to become a better man is cast aside as he once more lays claim to a loftily superior perspective. This perspective is also voiced by MacFarlane in Stevenson’s short story. He draws the distinction between ‘the two squads of us – the lions and the lambs. If you’re a lamb, you’ll come to lie upon these tables like Gray…if you’re a lion, you’ll live and drive a horse like me…like all the world with any wit or courage’. It is a philosophy which locates mankind within the continuum of the animal kingdom, with its continual struggle for supremacy and survival.

MacFarlane determines to cut out the middle man so that he will no longer be forced ‘to deal with reptilian creatures like Gray’, instead taking on the role himself. He is becoming that which he affects to despise, internalising what was previously an externalised manifestation of a divided soul. There is every sign that, without Gray’s restraining influence, he is becoming transfigured, turning into a creature of true monstrosity. Fettes makes his usual token refusals, but he is clearly easily influenced by such forceful and commanding rhetoric. It is the persuasiveness of the psychopathic personality, affectless and free of the constraints of conventional morality. It is very much reminiscent of the hypnotic power which Captain Stone exerts over Tom in The Ghost Ship. Tom comes to realise the ease with which unquestioned authority shades into tyranny, and escapes from the thrall of the Captain’s influence. He is subjected to it once more through mishap rather than choice. Fettes, on the other hand, willingly follows MacFarlane through the door. He is a natural follower.

The overseer - division of labour
There is a dissolve to the interior of the small cemetery, leaves blowing through the open gates in the tempestuous night. The film opened in a graveyard, under more clement daytime conditions, and now draws to a close in a similar setting, but during a stormy night. It is a contrast which echoes the darkening of Fettes own experience. At the grave, he is doing the heavy spadework, already deep into the pit of his own digging. He is halfway to appointing himself MacFarlane’s new Gray. Is this how Gray himself began his downward descent? MacFarlane stands above him at the graveside, cloak flapping in the wind. The work almost done, he offers to take over and gives Fettes a hand up. The horse neighs outside as they lift the shrouded body from its coffin, another animal shying away from the savagery of the human world it co-habits. MacFarlane laughs mockingly, jeering ‘so we can’t do without Gray, eh? So I’ll never be rid of him?’ This is the equivalent of whistling past the graveyard, making light of your innermost fears. His emergence from the grave (the yawning pit which Meg envisaged?) is like a rebirth, but hardly the rediscovery of youthful idealism and noble purpose to which he briefly pledged himself at the inn. It is more like a transformation into the ‘crawling graveyard rat’ he characterised Gray as with undisguised revulsion. There is a hysterical edge to MacFarlane’s denial. The body is set on the seat between MacFarlane and Fettes, there being no room in the back, and they set off through the driving rain, the small gig rocking back and forth on the rough country road.

The final embrace
The camera observes MacFarlane’s face in close up, lit against the background darkness. The body keeps slumping forward against him, and he asks Fettes to move it. As they progress, Fettes nodding off beside him, MacFarlane looks increasingly agitated. He begins to hear a phantom voice whispering ‘Toddy’, and he tries to shake it off, as if it is falling with the rain. It becomes more insistent, but Fettes reassures him that it’s ‘nothing but the wind’. The voice starts up a repetetive refrain of ‘never get rid of me’ which fits in with the rhythmic beats of hooves and wheels. It reaches a crescendo with a cry of ‘never, never, never’ which finally becomes an unbearable shout. MacFarlane stops the carriage and asks Fettes ‘for mercy’s sake, let’s have a light’, a line taken from Stevenson’s story. As Fettes gets out to fetch the lamp, MacFarlane muses ‘it’s changed, I swear it’s changed’. Holding the light and lifting the sheet to see what’s beneath, he says ‘this is not a woman’, another Stevenson line. A flash of lightning reveals Gray’s corpse, and MacFarlane utters his name with a sense of resignation, of a recognition of the inevitable. Gray is now wholly denuded of his armour, even of his domestic garments. He is naked and bony, a gaunt, drawn figure. Yet he glows with a milky luminescence, as if he is burning with an inextinguishable inner radiance. He appears now to be possessed of an almost supernatural power, an avenging angel of implacable and terrible purpose. A fury unleashed from the depths of MacFarlane’s own troubled subconscious, the dying embers of his conscience. As Gray’s name is invoked, the panicked horse sets of in a headlong rush, a wild ride which carries the helpless MacFarlane towards his predestined fate. The motion of the gig jogs Gray’s corpse forward and with a mocking approximation of life his arm flops across and around MacFarlane’s shoulder. It is a possessive embrace marking a friendship which was sought but never reciprocated and which now lays claim to MacFarlane’s soul, guiding him towards the pit. This is the final, cold contact which is forced upon him, he having turned away from warmer embraces in life. It’s as if Gray is offering to accompany him into the next world, to be his companion in the dark lands beyond. MacFarlane lets fly a piercing scream of terror as the carriage plunges headlong down a steep bank. Fettes, following on behind, comes across his inert, dead form, and looks at the face of the corpse which they had dug up. It is that of the old woman who was mourned at the inn. The final image of the film is that of Fettes walking back along the rainsoaked road, his lamp lighting a way through the darkness. Having been denied Lewton’s customary opening quotation at the start of the film, we are offered one at its close. This quotation, which comes from Hippocrates of Cos, seems to hold out the hope that Fettes, something of a weak and easily led character throughout, may have learned the beginnings of wisdom: ‘it is through error that man tries and rises. It is through tragedy he learns. All the roads of learning begin in darkness and go out into the light’.

Next (and finally!) we find ourselves in BEDLAM.

Carrying the light

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