Friday, 8 April 2011

The Films of Val Lewton Part Thirty Five

Bedlam - Part Five

Lord Mortimer's new pet

From the brutal force-feeding of hard currency to Nell in the squalid, straw-strewn surrounds of Bedlam, we dissolve to a close up of Poll the parrot being fed a nut. It’s a pointedly comparative juxtaposition of images, switching disconcertingly from brutality to indulgence. The camera pulls back to reveal that Poll is sitting on Varney’s arm and the provider of the tasty nuggets he is snapping up in his horny beak is Lord Mortimer. The link between people and pets is once more made. Nell has been separated from her alter ego and symbolic emanation, and from the man who used to provide for her. The contrast between the stone floor of the central hall of Bedlam upon which she now crouches and the gilded furnishings of his lordship’s bedroom is an indication of the huge gulf between the opposite poles of society. Poll is now the familiar of Varney, who had until recently enjoyed the protection of Nell, one step down in the hierarchy of favour from Lord Mortimer. Her patronage was benevolent and based on friendship, but he has now been forced to find an alternative, and the parrot on his arm (a variant of the monkey on the back) is the token of his new position as Lord Mortimer’s pet dandy. It may just as well be him who is being fed the nuts. Varney has sold himself at the same time that Poll has been taken off the market and thereby silenced. He is unlikely to repeat such insubordinate behaviour as Nell indulged in, particularly given his knowledge of her fate. Varney’s employment as the ‘new Nell’ means that Sims’ niece Kitty finds herself displaced, a fact which she immediately recognises and accepts with the equanimity of worldy-wise experience. She wears an extra ‘beauty spot’ now, a souvenir of her brief relationship, perhaps. Such spots were commonly used to cover syphilitic scars (so hers would more likely be a gift from a former lover) and thus provided a neat metaphor for the deceptive divide between appearance and reality, the cosmetic veneer of beauty disguising mortal and moral decay. The features of characters in Hogarth’s narrative sequences of prints such as The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress are positively dotted with irregularly sized patches, which chart their steady and inevitable decline into physical and moral ruin.

Kitty - resigned acceptance
Varney looks on with an expression of dreaminess mixed with mild chagrin as Lord Mortimer explains to Kitty that they will be going to the country ‘to rusticate’, and that her presence will not be required. It’s to be a ‘bachelor affair’ involving ‘manly things’. ‘Sports, you know’. Kitty does indeed know. The script indicates that she eyes Lord Mortimer’s tight trousers in a knowing fashion. These two feminised men have found their ideal mirrored partners, but must remove themselves from society in order to enjoy each other’s company. There was a degree of tacit tolerance of homosexuality in the mid to late eighteenth century. This was partly a reaction to the excesses of crusading organisations such as the that for the Reformation of Manners, who had engineered a spate of sodomy trials in 1726 which resulted in the execution of four men. Such zealotry, far from reforming manners, turned the public against the attempts, using dishonest methods of entrapment and deception, to persecute people for failing to observe a narrowly defined and censorious morality. They probably realised that this kind of puritanical intolerance was only liable to widen its sights if given the chance. Prosecution for the catch-all offence of ‘sodomy’ could still bring with it the death penalty in 1761, the year in which the film is set, or a spell in the pillory, which might entail the same result should the mob be in a vindictive mood. It would certainly be wise, therefore, for Lord Mortimer and Varney to retire to more discreet surroundings. Kitty sighs and says ‘I see’, gracefully acknowledging that ‘all good things must end’. She is wiser than her appearance and manner might suggest. She may not have the bright, sophisticated wit of other courtiers, but the very fact that she is not concentrating all her mental energies on composing the next bon mot leads her to see things with simple clarity. As she knocks back a consolatory gin or two, she mentions that there is a Quaker out in the corridor waiting to see his lordship. Varney instantly becomes alert.

Power in inverse proportion to stature
Outside we see Hannay conversing with Pompey, their height differential strikingly apparent as he leans forward, the wide brim of his hat shading the boy’s tiny turbaned form. Pompey is dissimulating, denying that he has ever heard of someone called Nell Bowen. Despite his lesser physical stature, he is the one with the authority here, a power bestowed upon him by his master. Nell has effectively been erased from existence within this circle. Having left no physical trace (her possessions were loaned and have been reclaimed) she remains only in memory, from which her recent presence can easily be denied, the past disremembered and reconfigured to suit. Hannay is dismissed. Pompey starts munching on a snack. Like Poll, he is also a pet fed by Lord Mortimer. His denial of the truth stems from a base level of self-interest, which simply looks to where the next meal will come from. Moral compromise and lowering of principles are a matter of survival at the lower end of society. You’ve got to eat somehow, haven’t you?

Basking in approval - Varney and Hannay
Varney bursts through the door and interrupts him mid-bite, asking where the Quaker has gone, and runs out to catch up with him. His new position may prevent him from acting directly himself, but he can still provide the inside knowledge which will enable Hannay to come to Nell’s aid. Out in the street he breathlessly accosts him and says ‘I’ll tell you where she is, they put her in Bedlam’. He refuses to go with him to the asylum, pointing out that he’s employed by ‘milord’. He seeks to justify himself, stating ‘I have to live. You yourself said I didn’t have enough muscle for honest work’. Honest work is seen as physical or productive labour. The kind of ‘work’ to which Varney and Nell have dedicated themselves is more self-serving and produces nothing, not even the literary works to which Sims aspires. It is all simply a matter of social advancement. But Varney is still prepared to help his friends, even at the risk of losing his own tenuous position upon the social ladder. Hannay recognises this quality of loyalty and tells him ‘it’s enough that thee is an honest man’. Varney beams at this approval and understanding. Even though he is weak, and ready to admit it, he has a keen conscience and a steadfast moral core.

Paired statues - Nell and the 'madonna'
We return to Bedlam where we are presented with a tableau featuring a man sitting at a desk and writing, another leaning against a pillar reading, and Nell in the background, still pressed defensively against the wall. It’s a strangely civilised scene, one evoking an almost languorous air of contemplative leisure. From another angle we see Nell in the foreground with the catatonic ‘madonna’ parallel to her in the background, also pressed against the wall. This visual mirroring serves to offer a presentiment of the state to which Nell might in time descend in such surroundings. A retreat inwards which neutralises all-consuming fear by shutting out external stimuli. An echoing cry of ‘Nell Bowen’ is thrown around the hall by its inhabitants, and the reader, clearly an educated man from the manner of his speech, tells her it may be a name called from the street which they have picked up and repeated in this strange hocketing fashion. The inhabitants of Bedlam have become depersonalised, a homogenous and generically defined group – the mad. There are many Nell Bowens here amongst whom her individual identity will eventually be lost. She runs to the window, pushing her way past tow wild-haired women, and looks with wide-eyed desperation through the bars. There is no one to be seen. The camera views her through the bars. Already she is beginning to appear like a frantic animal, contained within a cage, halfway towards becoming like the women behind her.

Hannay, meanwhile, has gone to the entrance hall where he attempts to pay his tuppence to take a tour. He is refused entrance, but insists upon his right to visit. Sims comes in to deal with him, and agrees that he does indeed have the legal right to go in, and accepts his coins. He then notes that ‘it is a rule of our institute that all who enter the main hall must hang their arms up on that rack’. Since Hannay has none, he can’t go in. It’s a piece of bureaucratic absurdity which demonstrates the power of language to act as a shield, protecting against sense and reason. It is a version of the deflecting wit employed in Lord Mortimer’s circles, which serves to evade direct expression and opinion. In this domain, walled off from the world at large and until now free from its scrutiny, Sims is in charge, and it is his word which counts. He is the Lord of the ‘loonies’, and as such his cruel, sharp intelligence can be given full reign. As he says to Hannay ‘I break no rules’. He is far too clever for such crude displays of extra-legal power.

The walls have arms - in the dark corridor
Hannay walks back through the stonemason’s yard where he stops to talk with some of the people working there. He is comfortable and relaxed in their presence, even though they gently mock him for his beliefs, and he helps them in their work. He wryly observes that it was work for which he bid, and they tell him that he didn’t get it because of his principles. He helps them with their work, taking his hat off to do so. Such productive work is carried out in the presence of God. Together, they carry a building stone into Bedlam, and the men point out the corridor leading into the main hall to him. Physical labour, which has been seen as a hallmark of honesty within the context of the film’s superficial worlds of merry wit and glittering appearance, offers him the means of entrance which Sims linguistic sophistry has denied him. The corridor has the same inky blackness which confronted the detective in The Seventh Victim, and is lined on either side with the barred doors of the inmates’ ‘cages’. Hannay now slowly embarks on the Lewton ‘night walk’, familiar from so many of his films, from Cat People’s Central Park scene onward. There’s no deceptive ‘bus’ shock this time, just a sudden thrusting forward of a wavering thicket of grasping arms accompanied by a burst of gibbering, demented laughter. It’s a scene which has great visual power, representing the intrusion of the uncanny, or the unbidden manifestations of the subconscious, smashing through into the rational world to shocking effect. It is echoed in similar images in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and George Romero’s Day of the Dead (and to more dreamily surreal effect in the disembodied arms which serve Beauty and her father in Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete), in both cases as a subjective indication of the protagonist’s declining mental state, the erosion of the walls between conscious and subconscious levels of experience. Hannay makes it to the end of the corridor unscathed and looks into the main hall, where he soon picks out Nell, sitting by her stretch of the wall.

A house is not a home - Nell's new dwelling place
Nell sits beneath a childish drawing of a house graffitied onto the wall, which now serves as the roof over her head. It’s a play school representation with door, cross-paned windows and pointed roof. It’s a symbol of all that she’s lost, and of the similar sense of displacement felt by whichever lost had scrawled it there. Her shelter is now communal, and she must stake out whatever small corner she can for herself. The hall of Bedlam is an interior space which is really an exterior, the street relocated beneath its roof. The relayed polyphony of voices calling her name, cued by Hannay’s stage whisper from the wings, at first sends her in the wrong direction. She walks towards a madman whose hands are clasped in fervent outward sign of intense, internal prayer before she is called back by Hannay. We see him from the perspective of the interior, behind the bars of the back entrance door. He is placed as if it is he who is confined, a religious maniac like the other towards whom Nell had been drifting. His face is pressed against the bars, his arms reaching through to attract Nell’s attention, leaving him in much the same position as the mad prisoners whose grasping hands he has just evaded. The divide between madness and sanity is ill-defined, a fluid boundary whose limits are determined according to the dictates of current convention. Hannay’s dissenting religious views could easily be seen as tantamount to insanity. In Roberto Rossellini’s film Europa 51, Ingrid Bergman’s selfless acts, which would once have had her categorised as a saint, lead in the modern day to her being declared insane and confined to a mental hospital.

Wild-eyed and desperate
Nell runs to Hannay and asks in a declarative voice ‘you’ve come to take me away’. She displays the kind of desperation and fear whose persistence will lead to madness. Hannay has to tell that this is not the case. Like Sims, he breaks no rules. He is a strange kind of hero, cautious and pedantic, but persistent and indefatigable at the same time. Nell immediately thinks of Wilkes as an alternative saviour, someone with more power and influence. To Hannay’s plea for patience, she replies ‘I’m terrified…these people are like beasts’. Already she is beginning to distinguish herself from the others, fear making her view them as less than human. ‘The same thought as Sims’, Hannay points out. ‘They’re dirty, savage, mindless, disgusting’, Nell continues, an adjectival outpouring which expresses her horror through logorrhoeic excess. She still wants to help them, ‘but I cannot here, not here where they’re all about me’, she asserts. Philanthropical and charitable acts are more easily achieved from a distance, from where they involve no direct contact with the unseen objects of conspicuous generosity. ‘Thee has thy kindness and courage’, Hannay insists, but Nell is after something more material than such moral and spiritual values. ‘I want better weapons’, she responds, harshly. She notices the mason’s trowel which hangs from Hannay’s belt, and asks him to hand it to her. He objects, saying ‘that is to build with’. Tools intended for constructive and creative purposes are turned to destructive use throughout Lewton’s films, particularly in Ghost Ship. The trowel here is also a symbol of secret, Masonic power, the routes of advancement and favour blocked off to the wider populace. For Hannay, it simply represents honest labour, the production of something worthwhile which benefits society, as well as a symbolic means with which to build the shining celestial city of Heaven on Earth.

Nell confronts him with the possibility that her appearance, which he evidently finds so pleasing, will be ruined, digging into her inner verbal thesaurus to ask ‘would you have me maimed, scratched, scarred?’ She pauses for a beat before adding ‘my face’, in a tone which suggests that she has shocked herself at the mere contemplation of the prospect of its disfiguration. Her beauty had provided a major portion of her currency in the world of appearance in which she had managed to negotiate her not inconsiderable value. She has not been above using it to achieve her ends, both in attracting the support of Wilkes and in deflecting Hannay’s judgemental opprobrium. Her awareness of her beauty has also been flaunted in order to show her contempt for Sims, who she described with disgust as ‘an ugly thing in a pretty world’. Now the world has been turned upside down and she is a pretty thing in an ugly world. Sims was unable to make himself pretty enough to fit into her world, but this world is likely to work its accelerated entropic effect on her in the natural course of time. ‘The Lord will not let it happen’, Hannay assures her. ‘Give me the trowel and I’ll not let it happen’, she instantly snaps back. She is, as ever, eager to take an active rather than passive role, taking control and turning this tool into a weapon. Faith is balanced against pragmatism, and she favours the latter. She uses her charms on Hannay, consciously softening the tone of her delivery, filtering out the harsh frequencies of violence and desperation. ‘Look at my face again’, she coos, ‘shall it be scarred?’ Hannay immediately hands over the weapon, unable to contemplate such a desecration. Nell manipulates him in the same way that Sims manipulates Lord Mortimer, both using their sharply observant insight into the desires and values (or lack of them) which define these men’s essential natures. Hannay’s pacifism has been momentarily relinquished, even if it is at one remove. Knowingly providing the means through which violence can be committed is effectively allowing for that violence to take place. Nell has convinced him in this instance of the need for defensive action as opposed to relying solely on faith in the protection of God. Having got her way, Nell swiftly switches her tone to one of command, ordering Hannay to ‘get to Master Wilkes. Wilkes will have me out of here’. She puts her faith in politics, not religion, the material rather than the spiritual. She looks triumphant at the prospect of release which she is sure that Wilkes will duly offer. But wariness soon eclipses her old self-assurance as she looks behind her. The ‘tiger’ rattles his chains in his cage and makes a grab for her. Until Wilkes comes through, she must focus her energies on surviving from moment to moment.

Invitation to the table
Nell’s faith turns out to be ill-founded. Hannay enquires after Wilkes at the printers only to be told that he’s on the road electioneering and won’t be back for some indeterminate time. Wilkes’ concern is for the populace at large, and in particular their votes, and the individual and immediate attention which Nell requires is impossible for a politician such as he. She is one amongst many, and he deals with collective masses and broad issues rather than particular people and their specific problems. Hannay is the one who is interested in her as an individual in and of herself rather than for what she represents or the value which she might provide. He is aware of and concerned about her current state. In short, he is there for her. Back in Bedlam, we see the shadows of bars on the walls and hear the tolling of a bell. The shadows of windows and bars are common throughout Lewton’s films, and hint at a level of existence beyond the limits of everyday perception, at a right angle to the daylight world. The tolling of the bell is a reminder in this essentially timeless place, in which the days are indistinguishable one from the other, of the normal passage of time and the quotidian progress of events in the outside world. We see the writer and the reader from the earlier scene sitting at a table adjacent to a pillar, playing cards. There is a triangle sketched onto the pillar’s surface, its ideal geometrical form a hopeful symbol of rationality, of the ordered mind. The reader, whom we had first encountered lost in the pages of his book whilst leaning against this pillar, seems, along with the writer, to embody this rationality. He invites Nell with exaggerated formality to join them in their card game. She seems calm and collected now, an appearance which prompts this approach. Appearance remains important in here. With the addition of a young man sitting on the floor nearby, he brightly suggests ‘we can play paroli’. The civility and gentile manners of this corner seem to create a small oasis of order amongst the surrounding madness. The reader points out that they don’t play for money, ‘we play on our word’. This little bit of word play, with its implied sense of a code of honour, makes Nell realise that these are people to whom she can talk. ‘I have a wealth of words’, she replies. It is like the old exchanges of witty phrases which she used to enjoy, but the extraction of the monetary element removes the underlying competitiveness which charged them with a vicious energy. Here, they betoken an unaffected offer of friendly company.

A relaxed game of paroli
The reader introduces himself and the others. The writer is Oliver Todd, a mute. The young man is Dan, who ‘sometimes…fancies himself a dog’. Another instance of the comparison between people and animals, in this case of the harmless domestic variety (like Nell and Varney), and therefore not in need of being locked up in a cage. His adoption of a canine nature is an instance of acting according to the manner in which you are treated, becoming what others determine you to be. The reader introduces himself, with occasional darting looks to the side, as Sidney Long, ‘the crown solicitor whose enemies will not let him practise at the bar’. His voice shifts into a rhetorical stage register, accompanied by a proud theatrical pose as he declares ‘I, the most skilled of them all’, a statement which we will come to recognise as his signature catchphrase. Climbing down off his imaginary podium, he apologetically mutters ‘I have many, many enemies’, voicing a rather bashful paranoia. Nell looks at them with a kindly smile, and says ‘I understand’. Her perspective has shifted from its instinctively reactive attitude of fearful shock, and her natural compassion and empathy has come to the surface once more. These people are not to be feared. Their madness is an exaggerated extension of their former position or vocation. The writer’s inwardness, the solicitor, used to judging others, developing the sense that it is he who is now being judged, and the young man whose poor treatment has led him to identify with the creature which so often bears the brunt of otherwise unexpressed household hostilities. Sidney explains that ‘we who are near the pillar are the safe ones…the good ones, the wisest’, and warns her about the rest. There is social stratification within Bedlam, too, a hierarchical ranking which generates its own ‘us and them’ divisions and disparaging references to a homogenous ‘other’. Bedlam is a skewed model of the world beyond the walls, with its customs and values magnified, their inherent absurdities made apparent. The card-playing clique are allowed a candle at this upper end of the hall. Its illumination is representative of the light of reason, knowledge and empathetic understanding which comes with education and literacy, and the freedom from constant labour which allows time for their cultivation.

Enjoying the game - Sidney and Nell
Nell is enjoying the game, and winning, too. The stakes are imaginary, a reflection of the notional nature of currency as a whole, be it in the form of money or some other token of exchange. An element of trust is implied, an agreement to take whatever token of value is currently used seriously. Here, the exchange is in the mind only, and a real element of carefree playfulness is therefore possible, with Dan using different types of dog as his stake. It’s another form of wit, of amusing sport and wordplay. Everything is becoming rather civilised. But Nell is repeatedly distracted by groans emanating from the darkness beyond, the gothic ambient of night shadow. They are the sounds of a man in pain, she is told, of someone to whom Sims has administered a ‘dose of iron’. When she asks why none of them help alleviate his audibly evident suffering, Sidney blandly replies ‘why should we help? We are the people of the pillar’. In this model world within the world, she has found herself in the social circle analogous to that of Lord Mortimer and his ilk. It evinces a similar blank indifference to the injustices and inequalities from which it seeks to distance itself, preferring to maintain a state of willed ignorance. Nell takes up the candle, the light of illumination and knowledge which the people of the pillar have chosen to horde, to keep solely for themselves. She takes it out into the darkness, spreading its light and the promise which it bears, casting distorted noir shadows on the walls . She looks like a saintly Florence Nightingale figure, the lady of the lamp, albeit a lady with a sharp edged trowel clutched at the ready in her good right hand. She passes the catatonic Madonna. Her rejection of a fearful retreat into self-defensive passivity in favour of outward engagement and positive action has removed the visual parallel drawn earlier between her and this motionless statue, who appears to be a physical outcropping of the wall to which she is permanently attached. Now she is just a haunting figure whom Nell heedlessly glides past.

The Lady with the Lamp
Nell finds the man uttering the pitiful sounds of pain, a pain which arises from the bands and chains within which Sims has confined him; His ‘dose of iron’, as Sidney had described it. The script memorably describes his encumbrance as consisting of ‘a curious and frightening contraption of steel plate and chain, a terrifying travesty of chivalrous armour’. It’s a nice reference to the source of many a gothic chill, the groans in the night in the castle or baronial hall which seem to originate from a suit of armour, whose hollow human form appears to move slightly in the peripheral vision. It’s a convention which dates right back to the origins of the gothic novel, with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and its deadly, crashing, oversized antique helmet. Here, the shadowy fears of the gothic are confronted and dispersed, along with the terror of madness which they also trail with them. This spectre is a human figure, and his groans stem from physical pain and discomfort rather than any supernatural torments. The evaporation of her fear upon confronting the reality of the inmates’ pitiful condition, her dispersal of the shadows, is represented by the fact that she drops her weapon, the trowel. She concentrates instead on trying to help this suffering soul, placing bandaging cloth between metal and flesh. A hand moves into the frame and draws the discarded trowel away. Nell may have put aside the idea of violence, but the means of its perpetration which Hannay has provided are taken up by another. His pacifism is still compromised, even at a second remove. When Nell notices it’s gone she scrabbles around for it, but soon abandons her search. She doesn’t seem overly concerned at its loss, certainly no longer exhibiting the desperation with which she pleaded with Hannay for its protection. The shadows of fear and their encumbent suspiciousness and mistrust have been diminished by the illumination of direct experience and compassion. Hannay was right all along in seeking to deny her arms. She had her kindness and her courage, and that was enough.

Back at the pillar, she makes light of her actions. ‘I don’t care for sad music with my game of paroli’, she jests. She is no longer full of the self-satisfaction at her ordering of good deeds which she exhibited in the company of Sims and Lord Mortimer, and is not any more interested in using them to entrench or further her own position. It was a deed done directly and for its own sake, without undue reflection or calculation. She is no longer practicing philanthropy from a distance and has actively begun to play her part in helping in situ, ‘here, where they’re all about me’, as she had negatively put it to Hannay. Meanwhile, Sims approaches silently from behind the pillar. He pats the cheek of the catatonic Madonna with a smile of pleasure which mixes recallection and anticipation. It’s a loathsome gesture which implies a history of abuse. Hearing the stakes being cheerfully called out from the table, he approaches. Dan the dog instinctively cowers, presumably in remembrance of past blows received. Sims introduces a note of sardonic insincerity to what had previously been an innocent gathering, recalling the guarded, calculating manners of the world of the Lord Mortimers beyond. ‘So nice to find you here amongst the upper classes, Mistress Bowen’, he mocks her. ‘I see you’ve joined what little we have of society’. Its narrow compass is in keeping with the proportion of ‘society’ in relation to the wider majority of the working populace in the world beyond the walls.

Mocking ideology
He suggests that she’s forgotten her reforming ideals, given that she’s been here a week and her only friends are ‘our nobility’. He feels the need to best her on ideological grounds. She maybe confined within his domain, under his suzerainty, but her ideas and ideals are still potent. They offer a challenge to his power, and on a more personal level, to his own worldview. Idealism is an affront to him, a personal insult. He speaks in mocking tones of ‘the brotherhood of man’, a refutation of the very notion of spiritual or moral values affecting the way in which the world is run or structured. She tells him that if he gives her the means (straw, soap and water) she will work for them to realise the egalitarian state embodied in the words. A model for the world beyond. She is seeking the kind of physical labour the very idea of which she and Varney had shied away from in the stonemason’s yard. The surroundings and company of Bedlam are having a transformative effect on her, but rather than dragging her down into madness, as Sims might have hoped, it is lifting her up and giving her emergent morality greater force and determination. It is imbuing her with an ideology grounded in direct experience. Sims departs, saying ‘I’ll leave you to dream of these Augean labours’. This is a reference to one of the labours of Hercules. (number five on his list) in which he was obliged to clean out the stables of King Augeas, which housed 3,000 oxen. Their immortality meant that they were able to produce a copious quantity of dung. This task was designed not to allow Hercules to display prodigious feats of strength or endurance, but to humble him through lowly and dirty physical labour. It didn’t achieve such a potentially beneficial end, since he cheated and rerouted the courses of a couple of nearby rivers. The use of such an analogy indicates once more Sims’ regard for his inmates as no more than filthy animals. Sims doesn’t believe that Nell will prove to have the character for such physical endeavour, which is well beyond what she has been used to in courtly circles, in which all such effort is provided for. The social provision which she envisages in this model world will go begging not due to lack of resources so much as a deficiency in reforming will. It is up to her to prove his cynicism unfounded, to rise to his challenge. The duel has recommenced.

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