From the first, Karl ‘Papa’ Freund’s 1932 The Mummy almost slaps you across the face with its audacity.
It’s actually so bold that I daresay a lot of people (me, for about 21 years, included) mistake its stylistic flourishes for primitiveness. In terms of the sheer patience that the film assumes on the part of the audience, it equals Hitchcock, in my humble opinion. After all, Frankenstein opens with a grave robbing and Dracula quickly gets to ghostly coachmen and bats. The Mummy, instead, aligns the viewer with the overly eager British archeologist Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) whose cavalier spirit dispairs over the “bits of broken pottery” he has to catalog before getting to the fun stuff, like the unopened blasphemous casket containing a necromantic scroll and the preserved dead guy. Although, in all fairness, who can blame him on that?
So, the senior archeologists leave the young assistant alone with the loot (I’m an intern—believe me, this is never a good idea). We know what’s going to happen. Casket opened. Ancient curse called down. It’s ALIVE!
But it’s amazing how long Freund toys with us. Norton looks at his work. Gets up. Walks to the casket. Sits back down. Gets up again. Slowly, slowly opens the casket, pulls out the scroll. I can’t stress this enough: it’s a really long time, although it doesn’t feel heavy. It feels leisurely, but taut, I think. When I last watched it with an eye towards this, though, I almost couldn’t fathom how long it is. It reminds me a lot of the famous scene in North by Northwest before the cropduster comes, when Cary Grant is waiting by a bus stop for about six minutes and we’re still riveted.
But the key to the suspense of this opening sequence resides in the way it’s filmed. I lost track of the jump cuts. The camera leaps back and forth from different sides of the young archeologist. These cuts mostly don’t threaten to disorient the viewer since we know the layout of the small hut. Instead, the editing aims to perturb the audience, just slightly. They make you uneasy without you totally understanding why. (Seriously, Jean-Luc Godard, Papa Freund called and he wants his technique back.)
And then the key shift comes after this shot, when the young man finally opens the casket.
And then there’s a cut to this.
WTF is THAT, do I hear you ask? The entire audience has no idea. It’s almost totally abstracted. Cutting to something completely out of scale in order to shock, confuse, and to suggest a seismic shift. The universe is out of balance. It’s a formalistic uh-oh. (Now you, Michelangelo Antonioni, Papa Freund called, he wants his technique back.)
Then, slowly, the head of the archaeologist bobs back into the frame and the camera tilts quickly down to the breeched casket and to Norton’s hands poised over the scroll.
It’s a vertiginous shot, full of bravado and discreet discomfort (on the part of the audience members). It bears the hallmarks of genius for me. And the mummy hasn’t even come to life yet.
Once Norton starts to read, Imhotep does promptly reanimate. Again, you have to appreciate how minimalistic and patient this moment seems in contrast to the theatrics of the other Universal pictures. No histrionic music wailing over the soundtrack (Freund didn’t care for the score that was written for the movie, something I learned via Richard Freeman’s article “The Mummy in Context”). We just hear the faint whisper of a chant as the mummy awakens.
Cliff Alberti’s Immortal Ephemera blog also does a nice job of explaining the admirable restraint of the trailing bandages and the off-screen monster, so I won’t repeat it, but I would like to give a shout-out (pun intended) to Bramwell Fletcher’s terrific shriek, perhaps the best non-female scream in the classic horror pantheon.
I’d also like to express my admiration for the first sight of the risen mummy. The camera pans from the working archeologist to the hand of the undead thing, reaching for the scroll.
Suddenly, the living and the dead, two things that should always be separate, are joined together by a simple turn of the camera. Shudder, shudder. A masterful opener.
A scene later, Karloff’s terrific entrance as the Ardath Bey is also troubled with jumpy cuts. These shots occur in rapid succession.
First, I imagine that Freund was having a little in-joke here. Frankenstein’s monster’s first entrance in Whale’s 1931 film resembles this one very much, with a flurry of jump cuts following the monster’s appearance in a door. However, here again, the cuts serve a pattern. They disturb the default continuity of time and space that we’ve come to expect as viewers. What you think you know about everything—Freund seems to say—forget it all. The dead are walking. And I’m going to show you a thing or two…
Bazin and his Mummy
“For the first time, the image of a thing is bound up with its duration, like a mummy of change.”
These are the words, or rather my translation of the words, which André Bazin, the insanely influential French film theorist, used to describe motion pictures. Like a death mask or a fingerprint, movies are existentially tethered to the things they portray.
In terms of semiotics, the science of signs, fingerprints, death masks, and photographs are indexical signs because they refer back to their original, the thing that they’ve preserved. In other words, we don’t say, “Wow, that picture looks like Boris Karloff.” It is Boris Karloff we’re seeing and we know that the image is proof of his existence. (I’m totally indebted to another great critic, Peter Wollen, for this, BTW. I didn’t cook this up on my own!)
Back to Bazin and the mummy. Bazin believed that movies perfectly realized and attained what humans had always craved to do through art: to defeat death by preserving something forever through its appearance. This need for a “victory over time” is what Bazin called the “mummy complex.”
Holy Isis and Osiris! Doesn’t this sound familiar?
What is the monstrous Imhotep trying to do literally, if not defeat time by creating a copy, a very, very lifelike (or deathlike) representation of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon? Unlike Dracula, who basically wants nourishment (and sex), our Imhotep wants true, enduring, eternal love which he can only attain by mummifying the woman he loves. Reunion isn’t enough. It’s preservation he wants. He doesn’t just want companionship. He wants a companion of his own creation yet somehow representative of the woman he adores, lovingly embalmed.
To this end, let’s look at the introduction of Helen Grosvenor which includes another of Freund’s clever touches. One of the movie’s roving tracking shots trundles around the museum exhibit of the Princess’s belongings until we finally see Karloff, as Ardath Bey, looking down at the mummy of his dead lover.
The back-and-forth shot reverse shot stresses his need for a connection with the relics. He bitterly wants for this husk and this garish portrait to be the woman he loves, magically preserved by the customs of his culture in their attempts to cheat time and death. And they do come painfully close. She’s there, but really, she is elsewhere. And this is when the camera swish-pans to the right. This cut, in turn, brings on a strange scrolling panorama of Cairo, which whooshes by before stopping on a close-up of Helen by some ornamental palms (after another disguised cut).
Some special bond, transcending space and time, does connect the mummy case to this girl, we know at once, thanks to this elaborate “scrolling” panorama shot, which I consider a pretty creative visual manner of representing something like reincarnation. But, what a poor likeness! The crude sarcophagus portrait pales in comparison to the real thing, the human face that cinema can deliver to us: Zita Johann palpitating and forever alive.
The movies can embalm time, as Bazin would say. However, I suspect that Bazin would not have totally dug The Mummy as a film. It’s far too invested in expressionism and illusion, in clever tricks of make-up and fantasy, and in the Méliès school of cinema to win his unequivocal good graces. Yet, The Mummy does deal adroitly with the idea of cinema as the mummy, the preserved shell of time and space.
That long, long scene at the beginning makes you really feel time, just as the film’s many roving tracking shots force you to scan and explore the film’s diegetic space as a fully three-dimensional world. Cliff Alberti pointed out that Imhotep walking out of the hut takes place off-screen. So do several of the most crucial horror moments of the film (the murder of the museum guard, Helen’s dog being killed). These spatial ellipses enhance the all-encompassing atmosphere of Freund’s film. It is a total space, a place, a world unto itself, not just a set with a camera plunked down in it.
There are hints of what would come to be known as the Bazanian realism, respecting the integrity of space and time. In fact, Freund later worked with cinematographer Gregg Toland on Mad Love. According to Scott McGee at TCM, Pauline Kael attested that this later film was key in helping Toland develop the techniques he’d employ in Citizen Kane, which Bazin singled out for the intelligent ambiguity of its deep-focus shots. We’re really not all that far away.
Nevertheless, how The Mummy blends this kind of grounding in space and time with the occasional magical, unreal manipulation of these elements intrigues me most. Freund’s camera becomes almost like Imhotep, wiggling around in reality one moment, and, in the next instant, jumping to the past or into some mystical, symbolic abstraction of time or space, like the rolling city panorama or the sudden emptiness of the archeologist’s hut.
The classic example of this shift from real space to a fantasy space occurs during the famous gazing pool scene.
A stunning tracking shot swirls above the characters…
…and then plunges right into the pool, as a seamless dissolve transports us to the past.
And, from here, the flashback takes on the look and feel of both silent cinema and Egyptian scroll paintings (Hmm. Emulating the aesthetics of another era to intensify the philosophical implications of the work? Ingmar Bergman, your turn! Papa Freund called and he wants his technique back!)
People have remarked that this scene symbolizes the unconscious. That’s a slight stretch for me, but the sequence does subtly reveal that the past is never fully past. The tracking shot provides an ostensibly “continuous” movement into the past. Again, the camera is the bridge over time, slipping in and out between registers of reality.
Cinema is a mummy of change, reality embalmed, but it’s a mummy that can also call up quite a few incantations, too. Spells only become cheap tricks when they lose their impact and I think that this camera “trick” is still spellbinding. It makes me wonder what parts of the past are still haunting me—and all of us, on some level.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
The Mummy is a pretty kinky movie when you ponder it. The most warped moment, however, arrives not when the undead creature is present, but rather when Frank Whemple is flirting with the barely conscious Helen.
By talking to her about dead people. Smooth!
He goes on and on about how he dug up the Princess and handled all of her stuff and “her toilette things,” and how, upon unwrapping the lady mummy, he “sort of fell in love with her.”
The Princess’s Toilette Things.
Awfully fetishistic stuff, really.
Apparently, even affable, shaving-cream-ad-good-looking 1930s fellows like David Manners’s Frank harbor a secret necrophiliac bent! And we were condemning Imphotep as strange?
“Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” Helen wryly asks. This single line of dialogue makes us truly appreciate Helen as a person for the first time. The sassy comeback renders her modern and amusing—not just some brooding reincarnated chick who’s susceptible to hypnosis. I also consider it a very important line in terms of the movie’s meaning.
It’s a deceptively deep question. How and where do we look for love? And why do we fall in love with somebody? Well, a lot of psychoanalysts have suggested that it has very little to do with the person we love and a lot more to do with our own issues. To grossly under-sell the theories of the French analyst Jacques Lacan, we love a certain “something” in that other person that makes us feel complete, since we humans are constantly split-up and divided inside. We’re not so much interested in that other person as we are in the part of ourself that we feel is embedded in that other person.
Frank even admits that one of the reasons he loves Helen is because she reminds him of the dead Princess. His “pure” desire for Helen therefore translates into a need for a victory over death, again. Yes, I’m psychologizing, but he has a crush on a corpse, for crying out loud! By having the woman who reminds him of the Princess, he can feel as though he’s conquered death and time. Wait, isn’t that what Imhotep wants, too?
Of course, Imhotep takes it a little farther. He actually wants to kill her and make her a living mummy whereas Frank seems content with the fantasy. So, in at least two forms, one extreme, the other acceptable, love is inscribed in the mummy complex.
“Love and crime and death” blend together in the all-consuming yearning for immortality. Which is kind of ironic, since all of these actors are dead, yet also undead silver screen mummies, embalmed in celluloid and now in DVD plastic, who dance for us at will.
In closing, I’d just like to make one more observation. I’ve already touched on how cinema is like a fingerprint (courtesy Peter Wollen!). So, I find it significant that the only “proof” that Imhotep came to life when his mummy went missing… is his handprint.
The transcribed hieroglyphs on the paper at left are meaningless if you can’t read them, but the image, connected to the mummy’s physical being, instantly tells a tale.
This handprint motif returns when when Imhotep grabs Helen’s arm towards the end of the film.
Now, that’s creepy because clearly it’s hinting at what she’ll become: a hideously embalmed monster. The dusty, macabre handprint tells us that there is no such thing as eternal life, except if you’re willing to give up some of what we consider to be essential to “life.”
Another aspect of what makes the handprints so eerie consists in their uncanny contradiction: a dead thing isn’t supposed to be able to grab, to touch, or to leave its mark on the living… but this one can. Even the narrator of the original trailer for the film got caught up in this contradiction. “The mummy: is it alive or dead? Human or inhuman?”
At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll say it again: the film of The Mummy is itself a mummy. It’s the fingerprint of reality, keeping the players in a place between life and death. If Imhotep’s pool is a metaphor for the unconscious, it’s also a meta-phor for cinema. Freund troubles the gazing pool and sets before us strange dreams that are both real and unreal, both forever past and forever present. Both dead and alive.
As Bazin pointed out, every living thing put before the camera has become a mummy of change, a strip of time preserved forever intact. Now, that sounds pretentious when I write it, but it sure looks great when Freund shows it.
Sources and Resources:
Bazin, André. “Ontologie de l’Image Photographique.” Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Vol. 1. Ontologie et langage. Paris: Cerf, 1958.
McGee, Scott. “Pop Culture 101: Citizen Kane.” Read the article at TCM.
Mulvey, Laura. “Death 24x a Second.” Reaktion Books, 2006.
Wollen, Peter. “The Semiotics of the Cinema.” Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.
I did my thesis on Jacques Lacan, so what I say in this post is sort of a condensation of what I got from reading a lot of his essays, too many to cite in a blog, I think. However, if you’d like me to share some Lacan resources and point to a few essays, go ahead and contact me.
I’d also like to recommend Richard Freeman’s “The Mummy in Context,” an excellent review of the literary, cultural, and historical background of Universal’s The Mummy. This is chock full of great insights for anyone who loves this movie or movies in general!
I likewise definitely encourage you to read the Immortal Ephemera blog post on The Mummy, too, which is both personal and insightful and makes some very neat observations about the film. Eye-opening.