Dance of Death: Romantic Obsession in The Raven (1935)

The Raven, directed by Lew Landers,  isn’t the vehicle that any of us would hope for in a Lugosi-Karloff movie. Most of the script plays like a bad stage stock-company mystery-thriller and mentions of Poe within the framework of the story, which could perhaps have been effective, feel forced and trite. I mean, really—when a main character’s hobby happens to be reconstructing torture chambers from Poe stories, the artifice makes me want to stage a protest or at least yell at the screen. Even Roger Corman had the decency to refrain from such obvious tactics and at least let us know that Torquemada (or whoever) just happened to have left some age-old implements of pain around the castle.

I can’t help but watch this film and think, “What a colossal waste of two very fine, intense performances from Lugosi in his sharp-as-a-dagger prime and Karloff in all of his ambiguously sympathetic splendor!”

And yet.

Always this “and yet” haunts me, returns to me like the half-remembered refrain of a song. I find it very difficult to discredit a movie entirely. This “and yet” is a critic’s conscience, rapping away at my skull, like that damn black bird tapping on Poe’s (or rather the poem speaker’s) door.

Because The Raven contains at least a few sequences that I consider very fine and thought-provoking. So, Bela Lugosi is a brilliant surgeon (um, is this anyone else’s fantasy, too?) whom a prominent judge calls in to save the life of his daughter who’s been severely injured in a car crash.

Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) agrees only out of pride—because he gets a kick out of showing his colleagues that he can succeed where they’ve failed. Here I’d like to take a moment of pause to say how much I appreciate that kind of intellectual macho that Lugosi could bring to his roles. He hardly ever uses physical force in his parts and yet he conveys strength and commands respect. His laser-like, focused virility makes him the equal, in my mind, of such machismo icons as John Wayne and Clark Gable.

But back to the scene.  So, Lugosi gets into his surgery scrubs and then glances over and sees this unconscious girl, looking for all the world like a corpse—and a nun’s corpse, at that, with a surgical towel around her head. And he falls instantly in love with her.

We know this because the double shot-reverse-shot exchanges and the extreme close-ups tell us so. (Ah, editing—the language of love!) Every smart director who’s ever directed Lugosi knows to feature his peepers and these almost abstracted images of his eyes work even more powerfully when isolated from the rest of his face by a mask. He’s totally infatuated. The cold composure of his introduction melts away into these wild eyes that almost peer into the camera, as if asking, “What am I supposed to do?”

He masters himself and tells the anesthesiologist to put the girl under. And, instead of letting the audience watch this, the point-of-view lets us feel as though we’re being sedated. Blackness consumes the screen.

Then music plays and we see the inside of a house, a roaring fire, and the formerly comatose girl now sits attentively listening as Vollin plays the organ for her. Every time I watch this, I remark on the dreamlike atmosphere of this scene, coming, as it does, right after the administration of ether.

But whose dream is it? His or hers? Turns out that we’re meant to accept this scene as reality… but it’s the one time when the over-baked dialogue intertwines beautifully with the atmosphere of the piece. The transition from an operating room to a semi-love scene announces a surreal tonal switch and one which jolts the viewer into an enhanced awareness of the fact that we’re watching a movie.

As Jean (Irene Ware) sits there in a slinky 30s gown listening to Vollin play, she’s sort of an ideal woman—not just an adoring blank slate, but also a creature that Vollin can congratulate himself on bringing to life. She’s practically the bride of Frankenstein without the electroshock treatment hairdo. And he’s her Dr. Frankenstein. As she tells him, “You’re almost not a man…” For his part, Vollin does permeate the air with an Olympian confidence. Trim, angular, and so sure of himself that one could hardly imagine doubting him, he’s the perfect man to end up deluding himself and falling in love with a person that doesn’t really exist.

Like Dr. Gogol in Mad Love, who cherishes the idea of making his dream woman responsive to his desires, Vollin nurtures a love which is really a twisted version of the courtly love tradition. To offer a cynical interpretation: I love you… because I don’t know you. And frankly, I don’t want to. “Sois charmante et tais-toi!” if I permit  myself to quote that great admirer of Poe, Charles Baudelaire.

Another facet of Vollin’s love for Jean derives from the fact that her life is a testament to his power as a surgeon. She’s forever in his debt, so the equation even becomes, “I love you… because you have to love me.”

I also appreciate the unhealthy tactile quality of Vollin’s infatuation with Jean—and vice-versa. The moment when he feels the scar on the back of her neck suggests the strange physical connection that they shared before she knew his name.

 

Her feelings for him border on hero worship. She accepts him as a god. He completes her, he saved her from death. Which is why it’s so appropriate that she pretty much dresses up as his fantasy and performs her dance-interpretation of his favorite poem: “The Raven.” This mutual and rather noirish obsession could plunge two people right over the edge of madness.

Visually, the film associates Vollin’s profile and his sinister, predatory look with the shadow of the stuffed raven he keeps in his study.

 

So, I think it’s interesting that Jean tries to thank him by assuming the same dark avian aspect. It’s as though she is trying to become part of him as she ecstatically flits across the stage for the eyes of all… but really for the gaze of one. For Vollin, not for her dull, dependable fiancée.

Right, because my father would go ballistic if I brought home Dr. Bela Lugosi… Not.

The first fifteen minutes of The Raven rejoice in a real maze of psychological twists, surreal changes, and a dance, literal and metaphorical, of subtly subversive attraction. Which is a shame, because, in attempting to be a stagey revenge thriller rather than a sinister, gothic romance worthy of Poe (one thinks of Cat People or Son of Dracula)… the script throws it all away and turns Vollin into an embarrassingly obvious loony and Jean into every other bland, squealing horror heroine. What a waste.

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