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.

Raptor
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

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Kinoteka in Exeter

Exeter Polish Film Festival 2010 - trailer from Tomek Adamski on Vimeo.

Exeter is hosting a Polish film festival from March to May under the title Kinoteka, with events across various venues in the city. There seem to be some real delights on offer here, with films spanning several genres and styles. It opens with a free screening up at the University of the documentary The Runaway, the remarkable story of an escape from Auschwitz, as told by the last surviving participant. The director Marek Pawlowski and producer Malgorzarta Walczak will both be present to discuss the film afterwards. There is a programme of animation exploring the dark and sinister worlds of the fantastic, with the kind of sepulchral atmosphere with which fairy tales seem to be wreathed in Eastern Europe. Tomek Baginski’s Cathedral looks beautiful in a grotesque HR Giger fashion, and Piotr Dumala captures the spirit of Kafka and Dostoevsky in his black and white and sepia worlds. The latter’s work looks like it might be somewhat reminiscent of Alexander Alexeieff’s animated interludes in Orson Welles film of The Trial, and his Freedom of the Leg has the feel of some of Odilon Redon’s charcoal works and lithographs (which always seem ripe for animation). There’s also a thematic resonance with Jan Svankmajer’s plasticene animation Dark/Lightness/Dark, in which limbs and body parts also take on a life of their own.



There are some examples of classic Polish cinema, including two by its most famous wayward son, Roman Polanski. Knife In the Water is the only feature length film he actually made in Poland, whilst Rosemary’s Baby takes Kafka-esue paranoia and his sense of relationships as shifting balances of power over to the New World. Both are being promoted as part of the Vibraphonic Festival on the strength of their Krzysztof Komeda scores and Rosemary’s Baby has an introduction by Professor Stephen Neale from the University. Komeda is surely the only film composer to have a pop band named after him (and a good one at that) - unless Hermann’s Hermits were really paying tribute to Bernard, of course. Mother Joan of the Angels is from the ‘new wave’ era of Eastern European cinema and anticpates Ken Russell’s The Devils in its depiction of mass possession in a 17th century nunnery. Much more restrained in style than Russell’s screamingly hysterical film, it nevertheless has contains images which live on in memory and in dreams, and has some stunning black and white compositions. I’d be surprised if Derek Jarman hadn’t seen the film and been influenced to some degree in his designs for Russell by the sets of Mother Joan. Jan Jakub Kolski’s Jasminum, by contrast, is set in a monastery, and looks like an intriguingly offbeat modern fairy tale based around the mysteries of intoxicating scents. There is also a film by another of Poland’s best known directors, Andrzej Wajda, his 1974 historical epic of industrial revolution set in Lodz, later the centre of the Polish film industry and home to its famous film school. Sexmission, from 1983, is a piece of role reversal science fiction in which two men find themselves in a female dominated future. The Aurum Encyclpaedia of Science Fiction Film finds itself at a loss as to how to define this one. Uncertain as to whether it is a veiled attack on totalitarian government and deceit, a feminist satire or a knockabout Carry On sex farce, it concludes that it is ‘a decidedly odd film’. Recommendation enough. Perhaps it is an example of cultural confusion granting an ambiguity which denies an easy reading – which may be all to the good. There are two modern films set against historical backdrops, The Reverse (the 50s) and Little Moscow (the 60s) both of which look good, and several other films from recent years which have probably never received a screening in cinemas in this country.

In addition, there is an exhibition of Polish film posters. These are always fantastic, and stand out in the books of posters I’ve seen for there striking originality and graphic imagination. They often take a non-literal approach to interpreting the film and sometimes avoid using images from it altogether (the poster for Knife in the Water, with its human ‘fishes’ being a striking example). The poster for Planet of the Apes is also particularly memorable, and looks like something Max Ernst might have come up with. Indeed, surrealism is an influence behind many of these poster images.

The whole thing is part of the Kinoteka On Tour package put together Polish Cultural Institute in London, and I’m glad such a rich cinematic programme has reached this far corner of the country. We often seem to be a little off the cultural map here in Exeter (and beyond), as if there is some invisible barrier which rebuffs artist’s tours (filmic, musical or otherwise) from reaching beyond Bristol. So let’s hope it’s a big success (and help make it so) and encourages more such events in the future.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

70s Children's TV Fantasy - Part Two

Sky (1975)


Sky, like Catweazle, is a children’s fantasy series whose title comes from the name of its central character who, again like Catweazle, is a visitor from another time who falls inadvertently into the present era, although Sky’s trajectory is from some ill-defined space beyond time rather from the past. The setting is, once again, rural, with a farming background, although this time with a West Country locale. The series was produced by HTV West and written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who had met and now worked in Bristol, where Baker was born and raised. There is a definite sense that they have a feel for the area, and this grounds the more fantastical elements of the story. The countryside is here painted in a very different light from that in Catweazle. We are no longer in a summer idyll. It is winter, and the trees are bare, the skies overcast and the tracks and fields churned and muddy (the children wear wellies throughout).

Roy, Jane and Arby, with Landy at the ready
The story begins with a pheasant shoot, which is observed in almost documentary style. There is a clear division established between the young protagonists, with the brother and sister Arby and Jane (a variant on Darby and Joan?), the former of whom acts as a beater and fetcher of the shot pheasants, seen as being on a lower social scale than their friend Roy, who participates in the shooting. Arby is something of an outsider and is considered to be an untrustworthy delinquent by those on the shoot. Suspicion is cast on him by default when things go slightly awry, and it is assumed that he is bagging the odd pheasant for himself and his family. Roy is the son of the retired army man Major Briggs, who runs the shoot from his manor house. The Major is another single parent bringing up his son on his own. But unlike Carrot’s father in Catweazle, who was a well-meaning if somewhat dazed and bemused man doing his best to keep his life and business afloat, the Major is seen as a pompous military buffoon. With his African masks on the wall suggestive of old school colonialism and his pom-pom-pomming of marching tunes while he pours himself another solitary gin, he seems lost in his own world. Actor Jack Watson’s familiar granite features help to physically convey the sense of a man who won’t listen to anything which falls outside of his narrowly defined view of the world and its workings. Roy seems only too happy to hop onto his trailbike and join his friends in their escapades alongside their dad’s landrover.

Sky is a mysterious stranger from another time who is almost literally unearthed by Arby during the pheasant shoot. It’s as if he himself has been shot down in a hunt in some parallel dimension. He is the boy who fell to Earth, his Icarus-like crash an accidental visitation, as opposed to David Bowie’s Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who arrives with deliberate purpose. Marc Harrison, who plays Sky, has many of Bowie’s vocal mannerisms and does in many ways seem like a junior version of his Starman. The Man Who Fell To Earth seems an obvious model, but Nicholas Roeg’s film was in fact released a year later in 1976. Sky appears a nature boy, buried beneath a drift of leaves and naked to the elements save for a covering of cottony fibrous matter such as might be found packing a seed case. This would seem to make literal his own later metaphorical account of his arrival as being akin to a seed landing in a medium in which it cannot germinate. His eyes are an unbroken blue, all iris, which adds to his air of unearthly detachment and inscrutability. He possesses supernatural, or in the context of his possible origins in a fundamentally different universe, perhaps supranatural powers. When he speaks, it is with an echo of aural shimmer, as if it is not a physical sound at all but a direct communication with the mind. Indeed, he is able to communicate telepathically with Arby, the outsider, and through patterns of colour with the mentally disturbed hospital in-patient Tom, whose madness is perhaps a result of his sensitivity to such processes.

Like Catweazle, Sky is in many ways an unsympathetic character who does nothing to disguise his feelings of superiority to those around him. The idea which he suggest at the beginning that he is like an as-yet ungerminated seed whose undiscovered powers are still growing makes him vulnerable and in need of help from those upon whom he calls, but such help is taken almost as a matter of course, the obeisance of acolytes. Unlike Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, he is not remotely seduced by the temptations of the consumer society or the technological pleasures of the present, all of which he considers and declares to be the product of a primitive culture which has chosen the wrong path. He brings a message of impending doom, issuing a curt jeremiad which condemns humanity for its disconnection from and destruction of the natural world. Whilst Catwazle is overawed by the differences between his world and this one, Sky observes everything with an overarching knowledge and draws his conclusions with a studied and emotionless neutrality.

Tor skies and prophet robes
Sky’s overview of the pre-determined pattern of time suggests a semi-divine omniscience. He resembles a Blakean figure from one of the artist/poet’s prophetic poem. The link with Blake is explicitly made by the episode titles which are derived from his verse: ‘Burning Bright’, ‘What Dread Hand’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’. During a quiet moment of refuge in a church hall, he notices a copy of Holman Hunt’s ‘Light of the World’, his depiction of Christ, the original of which hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘Is this the lord God?’ he asks. Arby equivocates, trying to tell him that this is the son of God, to which he immediately replies ‘which God?’ and ‘when did he arrive?’ Sky’s suggestion that he is one of a series of travellers who come to impart wisdom to mankind, and is therefore in the lineage of Christ and other religious prophets, takes us towards Erich von Daniken territory. Such ideas were very much in the air at the time, promulgated through mass market paperbacks which exhibited little regard for the basics of science, history and archaeology. Here, however, they are part of a fiction, and are not dressing themselves in the shabby garments of ‘hidden’ or occult knowledge. Having likened himself to Christ, Sky goes on to berate his helpers and by extension humanity (it is an all-inclusive ‘you’ to which he refers) for their repeated failure to live by the wisdom which has been granted them time and time again. His authority is enhanced by the fact that he is by now wearing a white robe very much like Christ’s in the painting. Sky does in fact go through an evolution of costume, which seems to transform after he has undergone several deaths and resurrections. These reflect his growing power and his bridging of various religious traditions. At first, he is covered only in the leaf matter of the wood, a pagan cloak. From his white, Christ-like robes he graduates to a vaguely Indian fashion of dress, a modern manifestation of Hindu deities or gurus appropriate to an era which tended to look eastward for mystical inspiration.

Accessing megalithic technology

Sky is not a particular compassionate or empathetic aspect of whatever godhead he claims kinship with, however. He uses the three children whom he calls upon for help, leaving them with nothing in return (the ‘healing’ of Arby and Jane’s mother aside). Even their memories are taken from them. He exploits his connection with the intuitively sensitive mind of Tom, a mentally disturbed patient in the hospital in which he is stranded, driving him beyond the routines which have become the stable centre of his life to possibly harmful long-term effect. Arby is left to disconsolately remind him ‘we did a lot for you’ as they are unceremoniously abandoned at Stonehenge. It is a moment of religious doubt, the realisation of a false messiah.

The series shares with much children’s TV fantasy of the early to mid-70s a fascination with the ancient landscapes of the West Country, and the idea of a latent power manifested through their megalithic structures and chalk hill figures. English science fiction writers exhibited a similar preoccupation at the time, as typified by such books as Keith Roberts’ Pavane and The Chalk Giants, Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex and Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay, part of his White Bird of Kinship trilogy in which the West Country has been transformed into an archipelago by rising sea levels. Programmes such as Children of the Stones, The Moon Stallion and Raven drew on the potent magic of such sites as Avebury, the White Horse of Uffington and Wayland’s Smithy. Nigel Kneale’s wearily apocalyptic Quatermass, a belated return to his famous creation, seemed to be an emblematic end to the cycle as the 70s drew to a close. It was a drama originally written during the hippie 60s, casting a sour shadow over its euphoric mysticism, and ended up as a belated marker stone to its dissolution into violent chaos. Kneale invented his own megalithic site, Ringstone Round, which had its own local mythologies and folk rhymes attached. Quatermass was a pessimistic piece of adult SF which may have rung a bell in the minds of those who’d grown up watching children’s TV earlier in the decade, and Sky in particular. In Sky, the young protagonists drive their enigmatic charge to both Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge. The latter, unfortunately, features in one of the two episodes which have had to be sourced from off-air recordings, although these are of sufficient quality to render them perfectly watchable. It’s evident that one of these sites will be the all-important ‘Juganet’ about which Sky makes urgent enquiry as soon as he first encounters his helpers, and which will serve as the gateway through to the time in which he was intended to arrive. These megalithic circles and earthworks are markers, as they are in Kneale’s Quatermass, bearing witness to long silent alien technologies.

Disillusioned hippies
As for those who are drawn to the mystery of these places, their fumbling towards whatever truth they may reveal is blankly dismissed. The hippie couple living in a caravan in a field by the Tor, who await the return of a grail king figure foretold in ‘The Green Book of Myrddin’ (a made up tome, I assume) see him embodied in Sky. But he tells them in no uncertain terms that they are misguided, although it is good that they are seeking. He unwittingly draws the onslaught of the destructive powers of nature down on them and leaves them abandoning the physical, emotional and philosophical debris of their lives. They are seen walking along the road like refugees, with their meagre possessions on the chassis of a pram, the books which had previously inspired them left behind, their glimpse of transcendent truths now merely reminding of years of hollow hopes and wasted time. Not all revelation is welcome.

Dark force of nature
The cause of Sky’s crashing into the wrong time is never fully explained, but his presence is like a viral infection in the body of the world, and its natural forces gather themselves to reject and eliminate his unnatural presence. These forces are embodied and made manifest in the implacably malevolent form of a man who refers to himself as Goodchild. As played in an appropriate monotone performance of unnerving stillness by Robert Eddison, he is like a black-cloaked anthropomorphised raven, with pointed beard and piercing, fixed stare. Just as Catweazle is a creature of the woodlands, Sky is physically repulsed by it, pushed away. He is attacked by earth, root, leaf and branch, and the story becomes a pursuit narrative in which the children must help him get away from the Earth before it and its chthonic agents swallow him up. His violent treatment by these Gaian gangsters is somewhat ironic given the ecological messages which he brings. It’s as if his presence is an emblematic demonstration of the fate which awaits man. At one point, Roy is seen leafing briefly through a copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalogue. The Whole Earth Catalogues were the essential manuals and ‘how to’ guides of the early ecology movement. The symbolism of this being the last one would seem to affirm Sky’s gloomy prognosis. It is alarmingly prescient of our growing state of pessimistic despair and sense of personal powerlessness in the face of ecological catastrophe some 35 years later.

Post-catastrophe swamp dwellers
The future time which was Sky’s originally intended destination is briefly visited by a hapless Arby, who, unwilling to be just left by Sky without any further explanations, passes through the juganet gateway with him. The pattern of the previous episodes is inverted as he becomes the reviled stranger in a strange land, telepathically hounded and threatened with ritualistic sacrifice. The inhabitants of this future are first encountered huddling around fires in the mire of a woodland hollow, a cheerless locale which reminds us of the swamp from which Sky claimed his fellow travellers had raised humanity in the past. Sky hails these people for having regained a simple way of living and direct connection with nature that the society of Arby’s time had lost through its over-reliance on technology. And yet, their world is a depressingly grey place. They are organised around a primitive cult which worships before the shrine of a ramshackle mock-up of a rocket capsule, to which their priest intones nonsense words devolved from the language of the Apollo moon missions, which were reaching their golf-drives on the craters fag-end at this point. The chant with which all join in is a monotonously repeated NASA, with its sibilant S turned into a buzzing z, a transformation which pushes it half-way towards nazi-fication. This is perhaps appropriate given that one of the chief architects of the Saturn V launcher was Werner von Braun, who cut his teeth on German V-2 rockets before graduating to IRBMs in the USA. These scenes are reminiscent of those in Beneath the Planet of the Apes in which the mutants who live in the subterranean ruins of New York worship the atomic bomb, the progenitor of their fallen state. Sky is the demi-god of this post-catastrophe world, pledged to lead its people into a brighter future. ‘They will follow my prophecies’, he predicts. He is like a Gnostic deity whose ultimate aim is to encourage the rejection of the idea of gaining control of the world of matter, rather to transcend it altogether. Moving outwards to the stars without the use of rockets, as he puts it.

hippie facist of the future
Sky is essentially a harsh, unsparing angel, although mad Tom points out that he is ‘not on fire’ in the traditional sense, as the angel in the picture to which he points is. His visitation brings no comfort or consolation, however, no annunciation of immanent salvation. His is an unpitying insight into the final days of humanity, for whom he offers no hope. It is a vision to which those who meet him may wish they had never been exposed, and the forgetfulness which he grants them is a mercy, the bliss of continued ignorance. Only Arby is given the possibility of remembering after he has followed Sky into the future, inviting him to become his John the Baptist in the face of the coming storm. Perhaps understandably, he seems to shy away from this burden, for the time being at least. He agrees to join Roy and his sister Jane on the next pheasant shoot. Like the game hunt in Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu, this now seems to be a symbolic precursor to a wider catastrophe. The memory of his encounter with Sky remains latent, but the possibility of it being re-awakened is there.

Ultimately, Sky leaves many questions unanswered, but its air of ambiguity, of mysteries left unpenetrated, and of free-floating pessimism are strengths rather than weaknesses. It is the kind of intelligent, challenging (but also exciting and scary) children’s TV fantasy with which the 70s seemed to be so richly strewn. Eric Wetherell’s score is notable too, and also indicative of the way in which these series provided and introduction for young ears to modern classical and electronic branches of music. His Bartokian theme and his harsh electronic evocations of the wintry outdoor environment both add much to the atmosphere. The electronic sounds seem to come from the EMS synthesiser, the same variety which was nicknamed the Delaware at the Radiophonic Workshop HQ, and from which Malcolm Clarke had wrenched alien sounds of the deep in the Doctor Who serial The Sea Devils. The opening scenes of the first episode, with the swaying branches of bare trees and the wind-like wash of synthesiser noise reminded me of the Julian House film Winter Sun Wavelengths as soundtracked by Broadcast on their recent tour. The duo have indeed talked about the series as an influence in recent interviews. The young amateur cast is a bit awkward at times, but this creates a hesitancy which fits in with the natural wariness of their characters towards the events which are unfolding. It’s nice to see characters with West Country accents as protagonists, too, rather than providing background yokelry signifying rural backwardness and village idiocy. Again, Bob Baker’s Bristol childhood probably ensured that such stereotypes were given a wide berth. Baker and his writing partner Dave Martin would leave the countryside for their next non-Who fantasy, heading for the city where they would plunge their troubled young protagonist into the symbol-strewn corridors of inner space in their piece of ‘Kafka for kids’, King of the Castle.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Seven

The Body Snatcher - Part Four


We find ourselves outside on a balustrade, by a wall which overlooks the city below. Georgina is sitting alone in her chair with only her doll for company as we hear Fettes’ voice in the background telling Mrs Marsh of MacFarlane’s decision to take on the operation. Georgina’s isolation is reminiscent of Amy’s in Curse of the Cat People, and as in that film, there is a sense of the danger of retreating too fully into one’s own world; the chair becomes symbolic of a withdrawal from company and friendship as much as an indicator of physical immobility. We will find Gray, confined by economic contingency to his own, larger cab, in similar lonely isolation later. Fettes emphasises the ‘great pain and shock’ which will be attendant upon the operation, but encourages Mrs Marsh in her doubts with a paean of praise for MacFarlane (‘I think he’s the greatest man in medicine’) and a striking affirmation of his continuing advocacy of the belief in divine agency within the world with which he was brought up (‘God would not have given him such gifts if they were not meant for Georgina’s cure’). Such a view would be roundly dismissed by MacFarlane himself, of course, for whom such gifts are the result of a superior intellect, and brought forth by hard work and study.

Solitary play
Georgina meanwhile hears the sound of horse’s hooves on the cobbles below, and the sound for her is the daytime harbinger of hope rather than the dread sound of death in the night. It causes her to look up from her doll, breaking out of the closed, monastic walls of her imagination and reconnecting with the world around her. The horse creates an empathic connection between her and Gray, both locked into their own very different forms of loneliness and social isolation. Fettes lifts her up to see, indicating a by now unspoken level of intimacy which edges him towards the responsibilities of a surrogate father. It’s not the horse she was hoping for and Fettes is prompted to ask why this is so important for her. In gently suggesting that it may be because she doesn’t have any friends, he displays a degree of insight which suggests a certain fellow feeling. This is, after all, someone whom we first encounter eating his lunch alone in a graveyard. When Georgina says that she tries to get used to it, he replies ‘one shouldn’t get used to the wrong things’, as much a statement of personal resolution as a piece of advice. In emphasising to her the importance of will in the effecting of a cure, and of the necessary endurance of physical pain, Fettes is effectively administering to her soul before MacFarlane takes care of the body. He is making it clear that the operation is more of a collaborative undertaking, in which he too plays his part. After she has pledged the strength of her own desire, he declares ‘then Doctor MacFarlane will make you well’.

Displaced violence - striking Gray's head
Doctor MacFarlane himself seems far from the reliably calm healer, however, as we come across him in front of his fire at home, wrapped in his dressing gown, his hair in disarray. The tableau visually rhymes with the fireside in the inn, but MacFarlane’s buttoned-up and dapper appearance in that scene is now undone. He roughly pushes a large lump of coal towards the fire with a poker, his gestures imbued with a violence which ensures that nothing comes of his efforts. There is an obvious parallel with Gray’s plunging of the knife into the loaf of bread, so that Gray’s gleeful assessment of what he would like ‘to do all over my body’ is borne out. Meg, who enters and gives a mocking yet understanding and sympathetic laugh, underlines this (and at the same time indicates her perceptive empathy) by saying ‘Gray’s head. Is that it, Toddy’. The use of the familiar diminutive name which MacFarlane has so strongly objected to coming from Gray is here used with affection rather than aggression. It is an example of the power invested in the different names attached to one person, and the way in which their use can be granted as permission for closeness or as a sign of trust, or used contemptuously to assert power.

Fey enchantments
Meg’s use of the name Toddy also intimates a shared past between her, MacFarlane and Gray, and of a friendship cast aside and poisoned with bitterness and hate. MacFarlane looks dejected and hopeless, arousing Meg’s pity. She embraces him and tries to soothe him with soft condolences; ‘My poor, poor lad that can never be free of him’. MacFarlane shrugs off her comforts and attempts to do the same for his relationship with Gray, reducing it to a material level of economic exchange, divested of any emotional or moral connections with the past. ‘He’s only a man from whom I buy what I need when I need it. The rest is forgotten’. Meg firmly rejects this repudiation of Gray, recognising it for the evasion it is. Such a determinedly conscious attempt to disconnect himself from the past puts her own position in doubt. MacFarlane tells her ‘you’re a fey creature, Meg, with mad ideas. And you have a wildness that holds me to you, my lass’. By reducing her to a figure of magic, much as he has reduced Gray to a depersonalised element of his business transactions, he avoids the need to answer her concerns. His attraction to her is cast as an enchantment, with the underlying implication that this is the only way she could have laid any claim over him. But spells of enchantment wear off, and Meg’s pointed reply shows an acute awareness of this possibility. ‘No great lady can ever take my place?’ she prompts him. The mysterious enchantments associated with the magic and romance of the Highlands are all the glamour which she has to counter her lack of social status and maintain her position in MacFarlane’s domestic hierarchy. For now, he accepts her embrace.

Despondence in unguarded solitude
A knock at the door causes them to part with reflexive alacrity, however, a clear indication of the fragility of their attachment in the face of the requirements of social propriety which MacFarlane is keen to uphold. Meg exits and Fettes enters, the elements of the domestic order kept separate. MacFarlane attempts a bit of laddish banter about how much they drank the previous night, reducing the evident import of what happened to an offhand reference to the ‘bad company’ which they kept. When Fettes mentions the operation, he shows no inclination to follow up on his promise, however. Without the presence of Gray to goad him on, he sinks into a disinterested lassitude once more. He claims the need to study ‘the spinal column and its intricacies’ before embarking on such a delicate operation. Since the last specimen has been used up, this is ‘entirely out of the question’. He must by now be aware of Fettes’ personal investment in the case, so he is effectively driving him out to find a new specimen. He is setting up a moral dilemma for him as a further stage in his education. By indirectly guiding him towards Gray, he is drawing him further into his world, creating him in his own image. This is the process of corruption which Meg feared. Fettes is being placed as an intermediary between MacFarlane and Gray, who the doctor can thereby deal with at a distance.

Ballads by gaslight
The next scene follows on in causative fashion as we find Fettes in a back alley at night. The sound of the ballad singer’s voice alerts us to the fact that we are in the world of the streets of the old town, the poor district. As ever, she acts as an intersticial character, serving as a recurrent symbolic figure bridging scenes in the customary Lewton fashion. But this positioning on the margins of the film is also an indication of her own position, a woman who has fallen between the cracks of history and society and who gradually blends into the background until she becomes effectively invisible. Fettes passes her standing beneath a gas lamp by the castle wall. The flickering, inconstant light and dark, damp stone are classic elements of the Victorian gaslight romance or tale of terror, more familiarly encountered in the world of Sherlock Holmes or in the streets of Whitechapel, through the dim and narrow passages of which the caped and top-hatted form of Jack the Ripper sweeps. Jack the Ripper, as Christopher Frayling outlines in his TV series and book Nightmare:The Birth of Horror, is a direct descendent in his mythologised form of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. The latter in turn were recast in their stage and film guises through the influence of the Ripper murders and their sensationalised reporting. Brian Clemens entertaining recasting of the Jekyll and Hyde story for Hammer, the self-explanatorily titled Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, directly combines the two by including Burke and Hare, who’ve evidently also made their way down south, as incidental characters. The labyrinth of Edinburgh old town is overlaid onto the map of Whitechapel.

Transitory signs
Fettes asks the singer if she knows where to find Gray, and she shakes her head without breaking the flow of her unceasing verse. She is an outsider here, without local street knowledge; a reminder of other times, other places, a recent past which is rapidly receding into the ghost existence of song and story. They smile at each other, she with the politeness of the performer before her audience, he with awkward sympathy and recognition (and with the drop of a coin). It is a small moment of connection, nonetheless. The orchestrated score fades in to shadow her song as Fettes continues to search through the night streets. He comes across a sign which reads, in ephemeral chalk upon a board, ‘John Gray, Cabman’. Gray has been given a first name, and therefore some of his suggestive glamour, the sense that he is an archetypal being (or monster) rather than an individual, is dulled. He is not the devil which Meg cast him as after all. He is just a man with an ordinary Christian name and therefore an existence beyond the trade which has given him his name up until now.

Stableyard gothic
Fettes goes through the entrance and finds the cab safely stowed in a bay of a stable. There is a ladder in the foreground, covered with spider’s webs, which leads into darkness above and which reminds us of the upstairs/downstairs divide in MacFarlane’s house. Here, the divide is between man and animal, and they both live on the same level. The spider’s web suggests a domestic gothic atmosphere, with the stable giving a hint of the rural finding a hold in the cold stone heart of the city. The gothic staple of household neglect is here more a sign of poverty and lack of time than the ennui in the face of eternity of the living dead. We get our ‘bus’ moment of mechanical shock when the horse suddenly raises its head and snickers in Fettes earhole. This is an appropriate period variant on the original shock moment of misdirection in Cat People, with its suddenly arriving bus. Here, the bus is a cab (or at least the horse which pulls it). Fettes knocks on the inner door which marks the divide between workspace (or storage space) and living quarters. A voice calls ‘come in’ in a familiar and welcoming tone, which suggests that Gray is used to such night-time intrusions.

Welcome to my humble home
Gray lives in a very humble single room dwelling, which serves as living, cooking, dining and sleeping quarters combined. He holds a small skillet over a tiny fire set within bare brick walls. This comfortless hearth is in stark contrast to the warm centrepieces which are the focal points of the front rooms of MacFarlane’s house and the inn. These provide a sense of refuge from the outer cold and darkness. Here, they seem only barely and through sustained effort to be kept at bay. For the first time we see Gray without his hat and coat, and he appears much diminished, His hair is pasted in a side parting across his forehead. An inexpertly self-administered attempt at grooming, it serves as a contrast to the state of disarray in which we left MacFarlane. It embodies his attempt to make the best of what he has got, also reflected in the careful and prideful order maintained in his room. Gray is very solicitous of ‘the young doctor’, granting him a title which he has yet to earn, whilst possibly also hinting at his status as MacFarlane’s protégé. After declaring himself to be honoured he uncovers ‘the most comfortable chair’ for him to sit at, a luxury which he seems to deny himself. This humility and consideration within his own home extends to a new tact in the use of names and titles. Fettes suddenly becomes ‘sir’ and Toddy gains the respectful ‘Doctor MacFarlane’ he would wish for. At home, Gray has put aside his social mask and the performance which he uses in conducting business at the same time as he has hung his protective carapace of cape, scarf and hat at the door. The disparity between this house and the one in which Fettes is becoming accustomed to living is evident to both. The Spartan nature of his room with its functional furnishings makes Gray aware of his lowly position, and his attempt to observe the niceties of welcoming a guest asserts a defiant pride in his home and the meagre comforts he is able to offer. This contrasts with the indifference bordering on hostility with which MacFarlane greets unwelcome callers, despite the far greater means at his disposal.

Fettes is oblivious to these efforts on Gray’s part, and comes straight to the point, to the request for the provision of a further specimen. He is bringing business into Gray’s house despite the obvious divide between the worlds of work and domesticity. Gray tries to point out the prevailing circumstances surrounding the outrage at Robbie’s death which makes the prospect of further disinterments a dangerous proposition. ‘People are so concerned about dogs’, he muses. More so than about human beings, the unspoken clause of the sentence implies. Gray has a cat as a companion, which perhaps explains his indifference to dogs and his casual despatch of Robbie, which displays a rather extreme form of the traditional dog/cat lovers divide. The betrayal of Gray’s loyalties which are later revealed would certainly leave him disdainful of a dog’s fidelity and the sentimentality which attaches itself to it. A cat’s more calculating affections suits him better. It’s presence is also another touch which suggests an attempt to create a homely environment. It further demonstrates his liking for animals, an uncomplicated relationship of mutual needs met which reflects a misanthropic distrust of human contact. Fettes has no time for Gray’s worries over exposing himself to the mob and rudely exclaims ‘how soon, man’, his commanding tone and impersonal form of address making it clear that he regards Gray as no more than a functionary, a servant who doesn’t deserve the effort of social pleasantry. We are reminded of the contemptuous way in which MacFarlane treats Joseph. The propitiatory deference with which Gray has established a carefully modulated social context in which Fettes can place whatever request or proposition he has come with is summarily brushed aside. Gray won’t commit, being far more aware of the sensitivities his previous ‘job’ has aroused and the danger he will expose himself to, offering a terse ‘I’ll do the best I can’. ‘After all’, he adds, I am financially interested’, reducing the exchange to the base level at which Fettes intends to conduct it. This financial interest, for which he is prepared to undertake work which makes him hateful in the eyes of all, even those for whom it is invaluable and who pay him to do it, must be acute, with ends evidently only just being met.

Standing to leave - an assertive departure
As Fettes gets up, re-establishing the standing/seated assertion of dominance through superior elevation and putting an end to Gray’s attempts to set a diplomatic context for their meeting, the latter discards any attempt at social grace or nuance and responds in kind, getting in his last word. ‘You may tell Toddy I’ll do what I can, when I can’, he says, reverting to the barbed use of the diminutive. He now treats Fettes as the intermediary which he is, adding ‘as he knows I will’, to emphasise that he is dealing with MacFarlane and not his go-between. As if suspecting that this change in mode of address may not be obvious enough for one who doesn’t regard him highly enough to listen out for such subtleties, he leaves him with a remark of such openly contemptuous disregard that he can’t but fail to absorb it. ‘He must wait and see, like the children do’. Knowing that he is the child alluded to, Fettes slams down his cup and strides out in a childish huff, making Gray’s point for him. Hospitality has been rejected utterly.

Hospitality rejected
Alone, Gray’s protective smirk of a smile transmutes into a grimace, from which it is always only a muscular spasm away. All sense of triumph is gone, as it has been made evident to him that he inspires the same hatred and repugnance in Fettes as he does in MacFarlane. As he gets wearily up and goes to the door, we hear the song of the balladeer once more, the voice of the street which lies only a short, faltering step away for Gray. This proximity is visually suggested by the POV shot which looks out over his shoulder to the street beyond. From his perspective, we see Fettes pull up his collar against the cold and walk off one way, whilst the balladeer passes the other. One to return home to the comfort of home and bed, the other to continue her endless circling of the streets. The words of the song state ‘your heart will break in two, should he ne’er come again’. Gray feels MacFarlane’s rejection, which he reads into the attitude of contempt which he has evidently passed on to Fettes. The two are locked into a circling orbit of mutual need, which extends beyond the economic, although Gray needs MacFarlane’s business on this level too. The camera focuses on Gray’s face, grimly calculating, as the singer passes. It is the look of a predator sizing up its prey. As she sings ‘will ye no come back again’, he closes the door decisively. The line from the ballad will take on a darkly ironic twist of meaning, becoming an invocation of her fate, her death, rather than a lament for a lost sweetheart. The proximity of love and death, of l’amour and la mort, which Lewton has already dwelt upon in Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Seventh Victim and Isle of the Dead, draws in once more.

Prospect of the streets
Gray goes into the stable to talk to his horse. We are reminded of Fettes’ words to Georgina, prompted by eagerness to see the passing horse which might greet her, about her lack of real friends. He doesn’t know that is Gray’s horse which she is looking out for, nor that it was Gray who brought her and Mrs Marsh to Doctor MacFarlane’s door, and thereby into his life. The horse forms a connection between Gray and Georgina, a kind of companionship of solitude. Gray’s remarks about waiting ‘like the children do’ and his prodding of MacFarlane into performing the operation may be an unconscious admission of a sense of fellow feeling. His kindness to animals and children, Robbie notwithstanding, also connects him with Fettes, although he has thus far had more of a direct effect on the little girl and her prospects for being cured. MacFarlane, of course, cares for neither animals nor children. ‘There’s bad news, boy’, he apologetically tells the horse. ‘We have to go out again’. This is not something he relishes doing. He is not a monster in that sense. It is the harsh reality of economic hardship which drives him to such a bitter end.

Crossing the threshold
The ballad singer walks below a stone archway into consuming darkness, trailing her song in her wake. The slow and steady echo of horse’s hooves on cobbles accompanies Gray’s cab into the darkness after her. Death is in no hurry. The two signature sounds of the film meet, their sources invisible. The cessation of one is the precursor to the snuffing out of the other, the song cut off abruptly mid-verse, leaving a heavy silence behind. The darkness beneath the arch has become a gateway to the beyond, a threshold through which both the singer and Gray have passed. If Gray has an archetypal aspect, it is less the devil than an overworked, proletarian Death, reluctantly fulfilling his duties with the weariness of a labourer dragging himself to work in the morning. The murder of the ballad singer is more totemistic trampling on the tartan, the silencing of the voice of tradition and romance. The fact that we’ve seen him crossing paths with her after he leaves Gray’s home underlines Fettes culpability for the singer’s death. She has remained anonymous, unnamed, her identity granted only through her songs, which give melancholy voice to her exile and displacement through their tales of loss and parting. She is one of the socially marginal and vulnerable, invisible to the likes of MacFarlane who pass her by, who are the natural and nearby targets for deperate men like Gray, one step away from their destitute state, as they were for Burke and Hare before him.

From the darkness beyond the archway we dissolve to Fettes studying with a pen in hand. He works by the light of two candles, as opposed to the single candle with which Gray lit his room. This is another dissolve which creates a causative link with the scene which preceded it; Murder connected with study and the furtherance of knowledge. It is an echo of the dissolve from Gray’s killing of the dog and disinterment of its master to Doctor MacFarlane studying and measuring the bone. Fettes smiles at the sound of hooves on cobbles and immediately rises to meet the delivery which he has ordered. The immediate response of Gray to his visit suggests to him that his commanding manner has borne fruit, and that he is gaining in authority. He has exercised his power and asserted his position in the hierarchy, moving a few steps upward on the stairs which lead to the upper level, to the status that he will enjoy as a doctor. He actively and willingly helps Gray in carrying in the body and laying it on the table. He is addressed deferentially as Master Fettes by Gray, affirming him in his belief that he has achieved mastery over the cabman. Gray is companionable in the shared physical labour of laying out the corpse, and they both take pleasure in their common purpose. ‘Sooner than we thought’, Gray says of the delivery. ‘A stroke of luck, you might say’, at which they both smile in friendly agreement. This is the satisfied exchange of mutually beneficial business satisfactorily carried out.

Self-defensive reaction
But then the face of the singer is uncovered, although it is hidden from our view. Fettes smile instantly disappears, followed by Gray’s as he is subjected to interrogation. Robert Louis Stevenson’s lines are once more directly lifted from the source story to provide Fettes’ shocked anger at his recognition of the body. ‘I know her, I tell you! She was alive and hearty only this evening. It’s impossible she can be dead’. Stevenson himself may have been influenced by the tales attached to the Burke and Hare case, including the suggestion that one or more of the victims, being prostitutes, were intimately familiar to some of the students. Another of their victims, a simple-minded children’s entertainer known as ‘Daft Jamie’, was a well known local figure, which led to Dr Knox swiftly starting the dissection with his face. Gray responds to Fettes’ accusatory questioning with threatening earnestness. ‘You are entirely mistaken’, he tells him, and demands that he give him his fee and make the proper entry in the books. When Fettes does so, Gray’s smile and mastery of the situation returns. The handing over of the cash is like a handshake which concludes a deal, a decision to accept the transaction. Fettes feeling of ascendancy has been quickly overturned. He has now been safely incorporated into the murderous transaction, becoming a new version of the young MacFarlane, with the Doctor himself as his Knox and Gray as a singular embodiment of Burke and Hare. Gray bids him goodnight and calls him Doctor Fettes, with an emphasis on the title. His promotion from Master to Doctor marks a further stage in his corruption, of his loss of innocence. Gray has conferred his graduation upon him. The scene fades once more upon Fettes’ face as he looks at the body of the street balladeer, the echo of her song heard in the score as the sound of hooves on cobblestones recedes into the distance. Death has carried out his orders and the price has been paid.

Accepting the value of murder
The ghost of the balladeer’s mournful song morphs into the whistling of a merry tune as the next scene fades in. Life and death are juxtaposed once more. Doctor MacFarlane descends from the world above to be immediately confronted by Fettes with the death of the street singer. He refers to her as ‘a wild lassie from the Highlands’, a description which echoes MacFarlane’s romanticised idea of Meg, and suggests a parallel fate for her had she not found a place in the Doctor’s heart and his household. MacFarlane’s ‘oh, this girl’ marks an offhand and disinterested recognition, with no trace of sorrow at the premature end of a life still in its youth. He loses his air of insouciance and becomes alert when Fettes tells him, the horror of disbelief still in this voice, that she was murdered and that he intends to report it, thus reneging on the deal implicitly concluded with Gray the previous night. When he declares ‘it’s like Burke and Hare all over again’, MacFarlane touches his arm and gently says his name with an imploring air. This doubling of intimate gestures increases the power with which he had previously drawn Fettes into the conspiratorial world of professional secrets, of the acceptance of body snatching as a necessary means to a noble end. His alternative rationalisations of the singer’s death are rejected, but he advises, with the worldly pragmatism of experience, that ‘believe it or not, it’s best that you pretend you do’. He views idealism and truth as a luxury and an impediment to progress. Once more we hear a trace of the singer’s song in the background like an aural haunting. MacFarlane spells out what Gray has made sure, in his fastidious insistence on doing things by the book, has been accounted for. ‘You ordered this subject. Received it here and payed for it. That makes you a party to murder’. Fettes words at the inn are then cast back at him, as MacFarlane outlines their course of action. ‘We should do what we always do. Dissection’. He tells Fettes that he will take the spine, ‘you know why’. A ghost of a smile returns to Fettes’ countenance. The relative value of lives has been weighed up on the scales of his unconscious, and the murder victim found to possess sufficient compensatory value. An intensification of the acceptable extremity of means towards a desired end has been incorporated into his moral universe. He has passed the next stage of his educational progress.

Surgery as spectator sport
The operation follows on in causative fashion, the spine having been put to its educative uses, one life taken to heal another. MacFarlane is the star surgeon, performing for a rapt circle of intently observing students. He ends with a flourish and declares ‘the repair is effected’, as if he has just mended a broken chair. The body is treated as inert matter, and nature is left to ‘heal what is no longer a defect, merely a wound’. The patient is handed on to Fettes’ care, to deal with the more ill-defined psychological processes of recovery in the aftermath of physical shock following years of paralysis. The operation triumphantly concluded, we find MacFarlane later leafing pensively through a book. Joseph interrupts him and is instantly chided for ‘everlastingly creeping about’. He is entirely unaware that such ‘creeping’ has included his eavesdropping on the exchange over the singer’s body.

Leave them laughing
Gray is at the door, and after a futile effort at barring him entry, he admits defeat, saving face before Joseph by affecting indifference, shrugging ‘oh well. It seems that I shall have the pleasure of speaking to Mr Gray myself’. Gray swaggers in, his mask-like smile in place, poised for offense or defence, uncertain for the moment of which approach to take. This is a visit to feel out what direction his relationship with MacFarlane will take next. The doctor tells him that their business is at an end; ‘We’ve decided to do more lecturing and less dissection’. The smile fades from Gray’s face as he calculates where this leaves him. He refuses to be brushed off in such a perfunctory manner, and seeks to reassert his hold over the doctor, promising to continue to ‘stop by once in a while to see you and Meg. For auld lang syne’. MacFarlane weakly capitulates, repeating the words ‘for auld lang syne’, emphasising that it is the power of the past which holds him in thrall. He is reduced to bitter resignation once more, a state the observance of which restores Gray to his assured and cocky composure, the grin returning to his face. He leaves with an ominous ‘and don’t think you’re getting rid of me, Toddy’, exiting on a triumphant laugh. Gray is an expert at the tactical manipulation of encounters, and always ensures that he has a memorable parting line with will linger in the memory. Any hopes that MacFarlane may have entertained about ending his relationship with Gray by terminating his business with him have been exposed as being completely hollow.

Sarcastic salute
Outside, Joseph attempts to speak with Gray, alluding to his knowledge of the murder of the street singer. He is too abject to use this directly against MacFarlane himself, fearful that he’ll lose his position, menial and downtrodden as it may be. Their exchange is interrupted by Fettes, however, who receives a mockingly formal ‘good afternoon, Master Fettes’, and a flourished salute. Gray is back in the ascendant and leaves in high good cheer. Inside, when Fettes asks what he was laughing about, MacFarlane replies that ‘he has his own idea of a joke’. It is the gleeful humour attendant upon triumph and it indicates just what pleasure Gray takes in the assertion and exercise of his power over MacFarlane. Talking of the operation, Fettes tells him just what happiness he has brought. ‘That’s the way of it, Fettes’, MacFarlane smiles. A flicker of the idealism which may once have led him to the medical profession is momentarily revealed.

Imploring diagnostic verification
We fade in to the next scene with a close up of Georgina’s face in profile, looking in alarm at somebody offscreen. The operation has healed the defect in her body, but she still doesn’t walk. There is more to healing than mechanical repair. MacFarlane is impatient and angry. Her refusal to walk is an affront to the perfection of his work. Fettes tries to suggest the need to administer to her mind, to encourage her will to recover, but MacFarlane merely snaps back ‘confound it, the child’s a cripple. Of course she wants to walk’. The physician lays claim to a godlike mastery of the world of matter whilst neglecting its animating spirit, refusing to administer to the psychosomatic element of illness and disease. The subtleties of psychology are not for MacFarlane, and adopts a religiose, almost Christlike air of commandment as he thunders ‘child, I say to you, get up out of that chair and walk’. This having failed, he gets down on his knees and implores, as if begging her to recognise the success of his fine surgical work, the veracity of his diagnosis. When she continues to shrink fearfully from him, he makes a definitive statement of failure. ‘All my surgery is no good’, because there is ‘something I can’t define, can’t diagnose’. If it is undefinable, it is therefore beyond his comprehension. Georgina is a challenge to his whole ethos, to his certainty and assurance in an empirically constructed model of the human mechanism. ‘I can do nothing for her’, he states with fatalistic finality. He slouches off to Hobbs’, a place in which to lose oneself in defeat as well as celebration. He shows no resilience in confronting setbacks, which his medical worldview is too rigid to incorporate. We gain a sense of which he has opted to focus on teaching rather than put his knowledge to direct practical use. He has no fortitude, and his imaginative insight into the workings of humanity doesn’t extend beyond diagrammatic schema of the anatomy chart. He is a man divided, lacking a complementary half which will make him complete. He leaves for the inn to find solace and release at the bottom of a glass. A fateful and illuminating encounter beyond that with the bottle awaits him, however.
Defeatism and despondence