Friday, 19 March 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Nine

The Body Snatcher - Part Six

The pleasures of home and hearth
We hear Gray’s voice as the camera gazes at the fire burning in the hearth. We could almost be seeing the prelude to a flashback, a glimpse into a past alluded to on previous occasions. He tells Meg not to worry about MacFarlane since ‘he’s been drunk before’, a reassurance which implies an easy intimacy between all three of them. The camera pans around to find the Gray with which we are familiar, very much a presence in the here and now. He grasps a tankard with a casually proprietorial air and leans back expansively in his chair before the fire, making himself at home whilst Meg sits with alert tension, focussing intently on her knitting. It is a scene of domestic quietude which might almost be a reverie on Gray’s part, a depiction of the warm acceptance and companionship which he craves. Meg’s openly dismissive response to his assurance that he’ll keep her company in MacFarlane’s absence (‘I’d call that no good fortune’) dispels the illusion of congeniality. Gray’s open recognition of Meg’s relationship with MacFarlane creates something of a co-conspiratorial air, however. Gray creates his own fantasy of companionship whilst Meg’s genuine relationship is concealed beneath a pretence of servitude in the name of social propriety. An uneasy balance between the two is thereby struck. Meg’s rejection of Gray’s friendly airs sends him into a wistful remembrance of a past for whose loss he mourns; a past in which he was viewed without the disgust which he now reflexively invites. ‘There was a time, lass’ he reminds her, ‘when you weren’t so uncommon cold to your old friend’. This nostalgic ache suggests a yearning for what he considers a golden age, an era in which he felt a sense of belonging. It is a time whose remaining fragments he still tries to gather together and reassemble, even though they are now hopelessly tattered and torn.

Making a connection with these remembrances of intimacies past which Gray is trying to rekindle, Meg makes a direct appeal to him. Still partly caught in his dream of acceptance, she senses that his self-defensive verbal armour may have been laid to one side, allowing for a response which will eschew his usual guarded and carefully calculating circumlocution. ‘Why must you be at him all the time?’ she asks. Gray replies ‘he’s my friend. I like to see my friends. I like to visit ‘em’. It is both veiled threat, appeal and assertion of his stake to a position in the household, to a seat beside the fire in the front room. He would seek to resurrect the past (giving a further meaning to his role as resurrection man), insisting on a fidelity with the origins which it encompasses. He is the friend who refuses to be unceremoniously discarded when it becomes politic or socially expedient to do so. When the sound of the front door shutting alerts her to MacFarlane’s return, Meg immediately puts down her knitting, telling Gray with a blunt frankness ‘you’ve no excuse now to bear me company’. Gray’s illusion of a domestic haven to which he can retreat is definitively dispelled.

Gray catches MacFarlane’s glance and pause of recognition and takes an ostentatious swig of his tankard. His use of this tankard brings an air of the inn to the doctor’s front room, and his relaxed sprawl before the fire brings to mind the similar blaze before which he entertained the company of MacFarlane and Fettes in the open ‘commonality’ of its public space. His gestures here make it clear that he is quite prepared to become as familiar a presence at the doctor’s home and hearth as he is at the inn. MacFarlane makes no pretence at hospitality, and his aggressive enquiry into the reason for Gray’s visit draws a mock-innocent response. ‘Would you grudge me a glass with me old crony, Meg?’ he asks, his use of words as ever weighted with hidden meaning. His claiming of Meg for a crony implies a companionship based on shared social background. He thus draws attention to the fact that MacFarlane considers both of them to be his social inferiors, and would disavow each of their acquaintances in public. Meg immediately shrugs off the implied fellow feeling (‘crony indeed!’) but there is more of a connection between the two of them than she would like to admit. Both, in their different ways, suffer from MacFarlane’s cold indifference and rejection.

Being heavy-handed
Gray announces ‘I’ve brought you a little present, MacFarlane’, his use of the surname introducing a theatrical element of solemn formality. Joseph’s body becomes a ritualistic offering, a sacrifice offered to gain access to the sacred domestic paradise upstairs. Gray rebuffs Macfarlane’s attempts to command him to leave with a steely insistence on the acceptance of his offering. He returns to the use of the familiar diminutive Toddy, a more intimate and more intimidating mode of address. MacFarlane strides over and grabs his arm, prepared to use force where words have failed. Physical contact, which has previously been used to draw people in, to create a sense of intimacy and shared purpose, is now used to cast out. This attempt at physical repulsion causes Gray’s tone of lulling insistence to modulate downwards into direct threat. ‘I wouldn’t do it, Toddy’, he glowers. ‘I wouldn’t be heavy handed’. MacFarlane is given pause not only by Gray’s greater physical strength, but by the sense of defiant purpose in his voice. Something has changed in his spirit which makes it clear that he’s no longer content to merely score a few points and leave in the afterglow of a cutting final word. This is Gray with a new determination, fuelled by desperation, which drives him to go further than he has before and which gives him a conspicuously dangerous edge. MacFarlane looks fearful and immediately drops his aggressive stance, his attempt to impose mastery within his own house. Gray’s gaining of the upper hand within the doctor’s own front room (and at night, outside of the time when social visits might be expected) marks a significant shift in the continually fluctuating balance of power between the two. He has staked a claim to new territory. The camera moves in to a close up of the two of them, facing up to each other in intimate, sparring detail. There is a palpable feeling of violence held in tenuous suspension. The balance of power is caught as it shifts on its fulcrum once more, with both antagonists aware of its transference. Gray presses his advantage by making explicit his threat where previously he might have left it implicit, hanging in the air after his tactically timed departure. ‘It might become known’, he suggestively hints, ‘that when the great Doctor MacFarlane finds his anatomy school without subjects, he provides them himself, and from the midst of his own household’. This is the knowledge which has imbued him with the boldness to venture into the upstairs world. He tells MacFarlane to look downstairs, a symbolic exertion of power; sending him to the world below from which he has just ascended.

Lighting the way to the Underworld
MacFarlane’s voice takes on a tone of fearful concern as he inquires as to the whereabouts of Fettes. He walks briskly off and we see him descending into the deep shadowy blackness of the anatomy room, Fettes appearing at the head of the stairs with a candle to cast light into darkness. This is a descent into the pit, a confrontation with fears which have long been held at bay but are now gathering force. The source lies behind the curtains, which MacFarlane sweeps back, allowing us to see beyond the veil for the first time. Joseph is revealed, flesh waxen in the candlelight, stripped of clothing and humanity. His body is not buried or burned but submerged, stored in a barrel for future use; an inert commodity. ‘A member of the household’, MacFarlane says with palpable relief and an underlying contempt which recoils at the very idea that Joseph might be thus regarded. Any trace of concern has drained from his voice, and there is no trace of pity. MacFarlane immediately becomes efficient and businesslike, intent on fabricating a surface appearance of propriety, much as he does in his social life. ‘The more things are wrong, the more we must act as if everything were right’, he declares, a statement which could serve as a personal motto. He orders Fettes to make the necessary entry in the book before carrying out a complete dissection. Such meticulous accounting further reduces Joseph to a depersonalised commodity, a body valued on the scales of economic exchange (ten pounds) much as it was in life. He becomes the embodiment of the anatomy charts before which we first saw him emerge from the dissection room. With their traceries of exposed nerves and veins, these served as augurs of his own fate.

Silent witness
Fettes puts up what by now seems a feebly token resistance which MacFarlane knocks aside with no attempt at the morally persuasive arguments with which he has won him over before. Meg descends and pauses on the stairs at this point, playing her characteristic role as mute witness to MacFarlane’s moral degradation and his gradual corruption of Fettes. She hears him openly threaten Fettes, telling him ‘because the entry of the girl’s body is in your writing, you’ll do as I say’. It was Gray who pushed Fettes into making these entries, so MacFarlane is effectively enforcing the process which he had instigated. This chain of coercion links him directly with Gray and further confuses the vectors of moral causation, of the degree of culpability both for the deaths and for Fettes’ entanglement in the bureaucracy which enshrouds them. Just as Gray threatened MacFarlane upstairs, so he passes on the threat to Fettes downstairs. The lines of division between the two are becoming less distinctly delineated, the parallel more clearly outlined. As Meg attempts to stop him from going to ‘attend’ to Gray, he pushes her aside with not a little violence. It is a gesture which echoes his shrugging off of her affections earlier. His few moments of contact are no longer a means of drawing people in to his way of seeing things, or of expressing fondness, but a physical repulsion, pushing them away. In doing so, he becomes more and more isolated. There is only one person he can really turn to, and to whom he can bare his soul, and he goes to him now.

Meg is left with Fettes, who immediately presumes to a masculine assumption of proprietorial authority, of a superior wisdom and worldliness which he patently doesn’t possess. Meg ignores his stance and his attempts to usher her away from the grim underbelly which is the foundation of the house. She exhibits her own authority in her brisk undercutting of his attempts to play substitute master of the house. She takes hold of his lapels, making contact in order to lend power to her pleas for him to leave. This use of contact to draw him in, to hold him in place so that he listens to her comes directly after MacFarlane has pushed her away, and stands in contrast to this rejection. If she can’t save him, then at least she can pull Fettes back from the brink before he is dragged down in his wake. Stevenson’s original story is told within a retrospective narrative framework. Fettes is observed by the storyteller, a fellow habitué of the George Inn at Debenham, with open contempt, and is an anonymously dissolute character about whom little is initially known. He’s ‘an old drunken Scotsman’ with ‘old, crapulous vices’, who ‘by a mere continuance of living had grown to be an adopted townsman’. Stevenson makes Fettes’ eventual corruption evident from the start. Meg implores him to evade such a fate, telling him ‘save yourself’, and to ‘look at MacFarlane’ as a negative example of what he is in danger of becoming. Fettes sticks up for him, claiming him as ‘a great doctor – a great man’. The two definitions of greatness are co-determinant in his mind. The professional prefix is the badge of self-definition, and the status which it confers is a de facto indication of worthiness in Fettes’ mind.

Making contact - Meg has her say
In the face of Fettes’ refusal to find fault in the doctor, Meg finally has her say, breaking her discrete silence. She questions MacFarlane’s claim to greatness, and portrays a man who is raddled with an all-pervasive sense of shame, and a determination to unmoor himself from his past. She reveals the demeaning performance which she has to maintain, a role for which MacFarlane has cast her, and in which she is trapped by her love for him. ‘Is it a great man’, she asks, ‘who for very shame dare not acknowledge his own wife, so that I must play maidservant for the world’s sake and his success?’ It is only at this moment when the truth is of paramount importance, when it might serve to save another soul from damnation that she steps out of her role and unveils the deception, with all that it reveals about MacFarlane’s nature. Meg expresses both contempt and sorrowful affection for MacFarlane, and her summation of his lost potential, the dissipation of what might have been genuine greatness, sounds, in its use of the past tense, like a painfully honest eulogy. He is anchored to a past which is at odds with his elevated view of himself, a past which doesn’t square with his own notion of greatness as being the realm of superior beings who somehow rise above the squalid concerns of the quotidian world. Meg notes (again using the past tense, as if she is already gone from her) that ‘there was always the shame of the old ways and old life to hold him back’. Meg is part of this shame, the dead weight of love with which he is morally and socially encumbered. Gray is the other part, the persistence of the past which will ‘hound him to his death’. Gray is the embodiment of the unpleasant foundations which underlie this noble pose of eminence, a pose which could be a rehearsal for a future statue. He is a constant reminder of the compromised means employed to gain lofty ends.

Taking a superior position
Fettes still favours an image of MacFarlane which fits in with his own aspirations and ideals. He greets Meg’s outpourings, her revelations of the hollow foundations her life MacFarlane’s outward respectability with a dismissive ‘you’re overexcited’, as if it is all the fevered fancy of her heated passions. ‘I’m as cold as ice’, she replies to the condescension of this upstart boy who is already beginning to show signs of MacFarlane’s influence. She begins to ascend the stairs, to return to the upper world where the charade of her life is played out. Fettes, who is desperately trying to cling on to the order of things as he had understood them, tries to place Gray (and thereby also MacFarlane) in an ordinary social context, someone acting in accordance with the everyday demands of economic necessity. ‘But Gray’s only a resurrection man who robs graves to make a bit of money now and again’, he speculatively states, an implied ‘isn’t he’ hanging silently at the end of the sentence. Meg turns to look him directly in the face, her elevated position giving her authority, an added power which she uses not to assert dominance (as in previous seating/standing encounters) but to force Fettes to face facts. ‘The man’s evil himself’, she dramatically declares, and goes on to describe how MacFarlane had met Gray through Doctor Knox. She highlights the lineage to which Fettes has become attached and now looks to continue, telling him ‘MacFarlane was to Knox as you are to him’. It’s a lineage which connects them all with the unholy trinity of Burke, Hare and Knox. Meg talks, with the cadences of a storyteller passing on traditional tales, of the trial at which Gray testified against Burke, and of how he ‘cried out that he was shielding a gentleman of consequence’. We get a glimpse of Gray as he might once have been. Someone with a sense of honour and even a certain innocence, who, whether out of friendship or social deference (or a mixture of the two) shielded this gentleman, perhaps in the expectation that he in his turn would be protected with the help of the greater resources and connections at this man’s disposal. Meg thus corroborates Gray’s own bitter recollections, through which we know that he never received that protection, and was thrown to the mercy of the mob. Meg also tells of how this man took the last of her money (her ‘paltry savings’) to hire Gray, suggesting that MacFarlane (for there is no doubt that it is he), despite his current social standing, did not come from a wealthy background. He and Gray may at one time have been on a much more equal footing, and perhaps it was Meg, who still bedecks herself in tartan, who may have been a representative of an aristocracy fallen on hard times. Fettes provides the name of this unnamed gentleman (it is, of course, MacFarlane), a moment of clarity and dawning awareness which Meg has subtly prompted. She grasps his lapels again, using the emphatic nature of contact to strengthen this moment of realisation, so that he might hold on to it and not let it fade as his natural tendency to believe in the doctor’s greatness, his acquiescence to his air of authority, reasserts itself. Claiming supernatural insight through her ‘fey’ side, she sees that the ‘pit yawns’ for Gray and MacGregor, and urges Fettes to avoid sharing their fate. Fettes is offered a different kind of knowledge and wisdom from Meg to that which has been offered to him by his male teachers, MacFarlane and Gray. If MacFarlane provides him with intellectual sustenance and Gray teaches him of the ways of the world, then Meg offers him emotional knowledge, an insight into the souls of men. It is this knowledge which might still save him, which might allow Lewton’s Fettes to avoid becoming Stevenson’s.

No comments: