Blue Blood: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

postRevenge is a beautiful thing. Or so Western Civilization would on the whole suggest.

If there is only one evergreen subject in entertainment for the past, oh, thousand or so years, it’s the pursuit of vengeance, from The Bible to The Oresteia to The Spanish Tragedy to… well, I’d know if I ever went to the movies these days.

I’ve been wronged. I’m hurting. I plan. I kill. Happy ending optional. Why do audiences never tire of this pattern?

Fortunately, I shan’t essay the burning question at length, though I surmise that we prefer to identify ourselves as victims (not victimizers) when we fantasize about eliminating our enemies. I will likewise note that hundreds, probably thousands, of successful plays, films, and television shows have cribbed this paradigm. Some have been insightful. Most have been bloody. Nearly all of them have been as dark as Hamlet’s pantaloons.

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Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is far too well-bred for any of that. Airy, genteel, and soothing as tea in a summerhouse, this witty foray into Edwardian vengeance illustrates the truth of Thomas De Quicey’s argument in  “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”:

People begin to see that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. 

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The puckish style of this black comedy from Ealing Studios would seem at odds with the Golgotha ambiance that we tend to associate with acts of revenge. Yet, far from declawing the horror of murder, this little movie, cherished as quaint and so veddy British, deserves praise for its pervasively tense and acidic comedy. It manages to sustain its satirical tone—but never falls into out-and-out parody—over two hours of joyful wickedness.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. The plot, such as it is, does not require much explanation. Our sociopathic protagonist, Louis Mazzini (a lethally seductive Dennis Price) was raised by his disgraced aristocratic mother—exiled by her family for marrying an Italian opera singer—who taught her son to dream of reclaiming his birthright.

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Once grown, Mazzini does exactly that, variously dispatching the relatives, the D’Ascoynes, who stand between him and the Duchy of Chalfont. Alec Guinness, equipped with his spirit gum, kit of mustaches, and genius for mimicry, gives life to each of these stodgy eccentrics.

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The plot structure does not differ greatly from your average slasher film, in which, one by one, victims are bumped off in far-fetched and occasionally humorous ways. The film performs a delicate high-wire act between absurdity and genuine drama in a frilly parallel universe where, for instance, a pot of caviar might be loaded with explosives and a hot air balloon bearing a militant suffragette might hover precariously over London.

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Yet, I would argue that Kind Hearts and Coronets is so unreal and refined that it paradoxically achieves one of the most calculated and disturbing portrayals of violence ever captured on film. Virtually every encounter we have with celluloid gore and viscera leaves us that much more jaded, inoculated by aesthetic violence against the real thing. And the closer the illusion comes to the real thing, the more the real thing has been betrayed.

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By contrast, Kind Hearts and Coronets refines murder into an artful hobby, as fussy and picturesque as a doily on a parlor grand piano, to reveal how a killer can dissociate himself from the moral ramifications of his actions. We recognize how easily a ruthless mind can turn human lives into secondary concerns and seek refuge in “the alibi of art,” in the words of Roger Shattuck.

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After all, the vast majority of the film takes place inside Louis Mazzini’s head, as he puts pen to paper and writes his memoirs on the eve of his execution. Director Hamer and cinematographer Roger Slocombe endow almost each frame of the movie with the compositional harmony and attention to detail of a quintessential period lithograph or sketch. This gracious, elliptical carnage represents not necessarily what happened, but rather how Louis chooses to portray his succession of killings.

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That Renoir-esque boat, carrying two lovers, gliding past the camera towards a watery grave. That funny cloud of smoke coming over the garden wall which announces to Louis—and to the audience—that Henry D’Ascoyne has developed his last picture. That flurry of harp notes as Lady Agatha falls to earth from her balloon. All of these artistic touches romanticize Louis’s crimes, widening the gap between the beauty of what we see and the ugliness of revenge.

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Plus, much of the film’s hilarity comes from the fact that Louis has to kill off not merely a half-dozen different people, but rather half-dozen people played by the same actor. As much as Guinness invests each of these portraits with a specific set of uncannily apt foibles, it’s still the same guy. We know this. That’s why we laugh. As eight D’Ascoynes die, we realize that there’s just one person behind it all. This comic effect, however, exposes another feature of Louis’s derangement: by his own admission, he has dehumanized his victims. They do not appear to him as individuals, but as embodiments of the family that wronged him, as different variations on the same target. In this light, the decision to have Guinness play eight roles seems a lot less like a gimmick and a good deal more like an astute psychological statement.

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Indeed, Robert Hamer couches several important visual clues in the film’s opening that suggest the extent to which the humor and elegance of the murders are products of Louis’s warped intelligence and perceptions.

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The beginning shots of the film, as a paunchy executioner approaches the prison doors and waddles with a warden to catch a glimpse of his “client” who will be hanged by a silken rope tomorrow. These shots, with their stark lighting and sparse mise-en-scene stand out from the light-dappled beauty and eye-catching richness of the rest of the film, the parts controlled by Louis’s recollections.

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The executioner’s (and our) first peek at the mysterious murderer comes through a peep hole into his cell. There’s Louis Mazzini, sitting calmly at his desk, framed like a picture by a circular window. Then something strange happens—a jump cut without warning to a tight shot of the back of Louis’s head, straightening up, as though he intuited that he’s being watched.

Now, the first shot of Louis is a pretty clear point-of-view shot, but what are we to make of that second one, that puts us practically on top of Louis? In the cell with him? It might be a gruesome joke, a close shot of Louis’s neck, soon to be bound by a noose. I suspect that there’s more to it, though: an intimation of how the viewer will progressively enter Louis’s world and come to root for a multiple murderer.

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Louis’s edifice of rationalizations lulls us into interpreting his life story as just that—a story, an adventure, a personal narrative. Even his imminent death for a crime he didn’t commit fails to shake us out of our intoxication with his vision of lyrical revenge. Only at the last moment of the film do we fully comprehend that we were listening to a confession. The unresolvable cliffhanger conclusion snaps us back to reality. Louis took the lives of six of his kin, and a few bystanders to boot, with absolutely no compunction. Those are the bare facts, as anyone who discovered that manuscript would read them. Our anxiety on Louis’s behalf confronts us with our complicity in his crimes.

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Nowadays, a sympathetic multiple murderer may fail to shock our blunted moral sensibilities (au contraire, it actually seems to be the key ingredient for a hit television show). However, in 1949, let us remember, a hero as villainous as Louis would not have been common onscreen, despite his distinguished literary antecedents, particularly in England due to the strength of censorship.

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Our voyage through the sunny consciousness of a psychopath proves so enchanting largely because of Dennis Price’s astonishing charm. Price, an underrated actor if ever there was one, grew up in an upper class family and invests Louis with an almost supernatural poise. He need only blink his impossibly long eyelashes at the audience and we know exactly what dastardly ironic thoughts are circulating in that superior brain of his. Consider the sly glance Louis barely avoids giving the camera when his employer, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, pulls out the family tree and proceeds to give him a lesson—when Louis could draw the whole thing from memory. In this movie, Price’s face is like a Paganini caprice played on a Stradivarius: dazzlingly, diabolically complex.

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In his own way, Louis Mazzini is a true aristocrat, more of a D’Ascoyne than all of the other D’Ascoynes put together. Traditional noblemen were not cuddly people. Today’s royals may warm our hearts with their stiffly magnanimous little waves and conspicuous displays of largesse, but the axe-wielding chieftains who won these privileges for them would hardly recognize their descendants. Kind Hearts and Coronets playfully hints at this discrepancy between past and present aristos in the scene where the Duke gives Louis a tour through the antique instruments of war that line the walls of Chalfont. Louis can hardly lift one grisly iron broadsword.

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The founders of great families acquired their power through unimaginable brutality or sickening crimes against their own flesh and blood. The film’s alternate title “Noblesse Oblige,” a phrase that encapsulates the duties and burdens of nobility, not only refers to Louis’s blue-blooded mien, but also obliquely alludes to the barbaric duties of this perfect gentleman.

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Free Friday Film: Bluebeard (1944)

Rather like the whole universe (or so I’ve heard), Bluebeard was made in six days. Well, to be fair, it took a bit longer than that, since the film was only shot in six days, but still, even Roger Corman thinks that’s quick!

This serial killer drama with horror overtones emerged from PRC, Producers’ Releasing Corporation, one of classic Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios which churned out B-minus movies on shoestring budgets for the second half of double bills.  Ironically, these trashy studios often allowed greater artistic freedom to directors than more prestigious studios—if those directors could handle extreme budgetary constraints.

Edgar G. Ulmer negotiated those limitations better than any other director. A frighteningly creative set designer, Ulmer knew how to make a little money go a long way. Shadows are cheap, so he often staged action against sparsely decorated walls, using an expressive play of light and dark to substitute for fancy sets. If you watch Bluebeard, and I hope that you will, keep an eye out for the shadows of Gaston’s suspended collection of puppets. They dangle like an obscure gallows that both reminds Gaston of the victims that he strangled—and looms over his head like the threat of his own hanging. Powerfully creepy stuff for a shabby shocker.

The lead role provides a tour-de-force vehicle for the saturnine, long-faced John Carradine who considered it his favorite performance. It’s not hard to see why since, in place of the crazy, cardboard serial killer we’ve come to expect from modern movies, the script crafts a multi-faceted, albeit unhinged, gentleman. Unlike the brutish or mercenary conceptions of Bluebeard in folktales or true crime stories, Carradine’s 19th century romantic, Gaston Morel,  is a tortured lover of beauty. He’s a puppeteer, a gifted painter, and a brooding connoisseur of women’s charms… who moonlights as a murderer. In this character, we see love, art, and death bleed into each other. He kills the things he loves and must also kill in order to paint—it’s all interdependent.

Art, in various forms, abounds in Bluebeard. Gaston’s secret profession as a snuff painter treats us to a gallery of spooky canvases. His avocation as a puppet master shines when we watch his guignol production of Gounod’s opera of Faust—taking place in miniature. Most pervasively, Bluebeard’s painterly visuals glow with a canted, misty splendor that does remind me of the real Paris, thanks to the crack camerawork of émigré Eugen Schüfftan (Quai des Brumes, Yeux Sans Visage). I also wonder how much of himself Ulmer put into Gaston—a morbid genius, enslaved by poverty, ideals, and passion alike. Art is an addiction for Gaston, like it was for Ulmer the auteur. Just as Gaston’s obsessions force him into an underground existence, Ulmer preferred to work for PRC rather than “be ground up in the Hollywood hash machine” of the big studios.

As additional boni for watching this film, gorgeous ex-star Nils Asther doesn’t get much to do as a Inspector Lefevre, but still looks awfully pretty, and Jean Parker turns in a fine performance as Lucile—the only woman who can live up to Bluebeard’s ideal, but despises his true self.

Watch Bluebeard, drink in the atmosphere, and marvel that it all happened in six days.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

Eyes of Another: Perspective in the Films of Val Lewton

Stunning camerawork. Noirish lighting. Deep psychological insight. Moments of elliptical, primal terror. All of these qualities fuse to form the meteoric legacy of Val Lewton, a powerhouse of the horror genre. But, for me, there’s one essential element missing from the list above: complexity of perspective.

When you watch a Val Lewton film, you’re often plunged into the tortured psyche of not just one character, but of several. Some movies, especially horror films, resort to a fixed point-of-view, linked to a model of absorption and identification with the main character. Lewton’s horror films, however, jump into the minds and souls of different people, creatures, and even, I would argue, cultures.

From voice-over narration to framing to subtle changes of mise-en-scène, Lewton and his collaborators employed many techniques to shade and shape nuanced points-of-view. In so doing, the auteur pioneered the “psychological realism” that was to become a hallmark of later European art cinema. Except that Lewton’s movies are a lot more fun, frankly.

So, for this special occasion, the 2012 Halloween Val Lewton Blogathon, I’d like to take a look at three Lewton films that transcend horror as a genre through their manipulation of perspective. Instead of mere thrills and chills, these movies become bridges between good and evil, between fantasy and reality, between innocence and experience.

The Ghost Ship (1943) – Sounds of Silence

Directed by Mark Robson.

Even though Tom Merriam (the guy being threatened with a knife below) serves as our clean-cut, likable protagonist, he’s really just part of the stakes of this self-consciously allegoric struggle between good and evil.

 After all, we never get an ounce of Merriam’s subjectivity—at least not as we do for Captain Stone and for the deaf-mute Finn. At different times in the film, voice-over narration allows us to hear their thoughts or delusions. For instance, when Stone is worried that his crew will mutiny, he hears the doubtful statement, “Maybe the boy is right” evolve into “The boy is right!” as it loops over and over on the soundtrack.

A POV shot from Stone’s perspective sets up his psychotic break, as we begin to hear his obsessive thoughts.

The audience is privileged to even more of Finn’s thoughts. We meet him just a few minutes into the film—Merriam bumps into him and we expect to stay with Merriam. However, the camera stops and tracks in on Finn’s rough, stirring face as he “speaks” to us through the film medium—something he couldn’t do with his voice, being unable to talk.

Throughout The Ghost Ship, the camera repeats this almost spiritual, creeping, reverent track-in. When Robson focuses on Finn, he freezes the action and emphasizes the kind of telepathic link the viewer possesses with this character, thanks to the voice-over.

In fact, Finn’s voice-over narration concludes the film, after he’s slain the tyrannical captain and restored Merriam’s faith in human nature. Like an omniscient angel, he affirms, “All is well,” to end this searing morality tale, as he stands by the wheel to guide our gentle hero.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) – Cinematic Fantasy

Directed by Gunther von Fristch and Robert Wise.

People have written books about perspective and subjectivity in The Curse of the Cat People. Rightly so. I’ll restrain myself to noting that Amy’s giftedly artistic, flamboyant perspective motivates all of the film’s beauty. Her quicksilver, low-key lit fantasies, as the trees darken and dance around her and Irena sings to her in the snow, endow her make-believe scenes with a poetry that the camera can enunciate.

In contrast to the clean lines of the Reed home, Amy’s fantasies dwell in forest lands which she infuses and populates with her feverish imagination.

She also brings legends to life. Both she and we hear the sound of passing wheels transform the clip-clop of the Headless Horseman.

To Amy’s eyes, an old woman telling stories turns into a glowing wellspring of entertainment.

Most importantly, her fantasy saves her life as she projects Irena onto the potentially homicidal Barbara. Amy’s innocence and conviction forces Barbara to realize that she should be Amy’s friend, instead of her killer!

When we fantasize, Lewton shows us, the world ascends to its highest level of enchantment. Why, oh, why would we ever want to throw that away and “grow up?” We shouldn’t, which is why, in the end, Oliver embraces Amy’s fantasy and “sees” Irena in the garden. The lost are never lost, so long as we keep them in our mind’s eye. Through the make-believe of movies, Lewton encourages us all to see what might be there and cherish it. The joy that illusions furnish us with, that glee more than compensates for being a little, well… deluded.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – From Jane Eyre to Greek Chorus

Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

The voice-over which opens this film conforms to a long tradition of plucky female protagonists who reveal their struggles to the audience. It’s film’s inheritance from the 19thcentury novel. The narrator reassures us and suggests that we will be guided through the plot by a sensitive, caring woman who will both relate and reflect on events. And so she does.

Betsy Connell, a nurse, tells us about how she feels about the tropic night sky—and we see it.

She describes the stillness of the Holland house—and we see it.

She broods over her love for Holland—and we see her brooding by the ocean.

In other words, the film’s construction allows us to feel aligned with her perspective. And then, like, halfway through the film, the voice-over drops out, right about the time when Betsy visits the voodoo grounds. From then on, the soundtrack vibrates with the maddening drums. This shift gives the impression that the film has been subsumed by a consciousness greater and deeper than Betsy’s, a consciousness linked to the film’s most powerful symbol—the slave ship statue of Black Saint Sebastian. The Voodoo, Afro-Caribbean sounds and sights have commandeered the film, reclaimed it from the linear 19thcentury trajectory, to share woe, passion, hate, violence, and finally, peace.

Just as the ceremony seems to take over Jessica’s burnt-out consciousness, so too does the island culture seem to permeate and influence the conclusion of the film, taking it away from the white, optimistic female protagonist. It’s a very modernist take on Jane Eyre… slipping from a relatively straight-forward narration to something deeper and more mythic. After all, the key ending scene, in which Carrefour frightens Wesley into the sea, doesn’t even involve Betsy! Even the images could be interpreted in several different ways: is Carrefour trying to save the sinners as he reaches for them… or push them into the sea?

In the concluding sequence, the coda of the movie, a soulful native voice speaks the moral of the story and intones a prayer that binds together the Voodoo and Christian traditions.

Ti-Joseph’s voice-over explains that Jessica, the white zombie, was always a zombie, even while alive, because of her sinful desire to wound others:

Oh, Lord God most holy, deliver them from the bitter pains of eternal death. The woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life. Yea lord, dead in the selfishness of her spirit. And the man followed her. Her steps led him down to evil, her feet took hold on death. Forgive him oh Lord, who knowest the secret of all hearts. Yea Lord, pity them who are dead, and give peace and happiness to the living.

As the Black natives bring the bodies from the ocean, past the Saint Sebastian statue, Betsy no longer stands out as the moral center of the film.

Betsy’s sweet, sincere, but ultimately limited perspective has succumbed to a broader, more resonant point-of-view, one which echoes through time to deliver a message of transgression, pain, and forgiveness.

Portrait of the Artist as a Madman

“My professor as a painter drives me to look attentively at the faces, the physiognomies, that present themselves in my path, and you know what a pleasure we draw from this ability which makes life more living and more meaningful to our eyes than to those of other men.”

                                                                                        Charles Baudelaire,

“La Corde”

 

 

 

[Abandon hope of spoiler-free reading all ye who enter here!]

A man hangs, his arms twisted over his head which lolls backwards. We cannot see all of him and it takes a moment to discern what we’re actually looking at.

The image crackles in distressed shades of sepia, sometimes overexposed and light, sometimes darker, but always fizzling, grainy, unstable. The figure, just shoulders and a jaw, bob in slow motion. It reads as a shot from a hand-cranked silent film.

And then the man screams. Thus begins Pupi Avati’s La Casa Dalle Finistre Che Ridono (The House of the Laughing Windows), a movie that opened up hitherto unsuspected realms of subtleness in the giallo canon for me.

The trauma of hearing that image—redolent of 1920s silent era textures—howl in agony shocks the viewer on a truly primal level. It’s as though you could hear a painting or smell a sound. Avati makes us feel like the image were extending across another dimension. The warped, distant sound of the scream heightens the impression not so much of hearing the man moan, but of hearing it in our minds. If you look at Edvard Munch’s The Scream long enough, you start to be able to hear it. Avati simulates this kind of artistic mind-meld that the most profound and morbid of paintings can produce.

Protracted, lyrical, and reminiscent of other times—the Renaissance as well as the 1920s—this opening credits sequence slaps us across the face with one of the key questions at the heart of horror as a genre. Should horror be beautiful? In other words, what are the moral implications of aestheticizing violence and death? It’s a tour-de-force introduction even before the obsessive, rumbling voice, that we later learn is the mad artist Legnani, begins to rant about his colors, the colors in his veins, the living colors…

The buoyant, undulating movements of this torture victim remind me of the surrealist short films, like Un Chien Andalou. The mismatch of beauty and brutality, visual lushness and moral ugliness generate a conflict collision in the mind of the spectator before we even dip a toe into the plot of the film. The dying man’s cries are also spaced out so that the spectator is allowed to linger in contemplation of the various shots of the body in agony before being brought back to the pain.

This kind of sequence practically traps us with the imminence of cinema. Even with letters of actors’ names appearing over these shots of stabbings and cries, we feel as though we are watching a man suffering before our eyes, at this instant. On the one hand, the look of the scene suggests that it occurred sometime in the past, but, on the other, the power of the image ensures that, on some level, it’s always happening now, right now.

This introduction etches itself so powerfully upon the brain that it takes a while to really concentrate on the plot, which concerns a young art historian, Stefano, called in to restore a mural of Saint Sebastian in a rural church in Italy.

Of course, the mural was painted by a deviant called Buono (should’ve been Cattivo, if you ask me…) Legnani, known as the “Painter of Agonia,” which means “death throes” not just agony in Italian. Along with his two sicko sisters, Legnani liked to be around dead people. However, his sisters actually like killing them, too, but I’ll get there soon.

Nevertheless, the mural will serve as a vital tourist attraction for the town—which is ironic, since so many shots in this movie look like they came right out of a 1970s tourist guidebook of Italy, only enhanced by slow pans and gliding shots from within classic cars. The film positively reeks of beauty and we, as audience members, have been trained to know that something evil lurks beneath that bucolic splendor—prepared by both giallo conventions and the indelible opener.

Don’t trust this travel-guide-worthy beauty!

We also recognize, in static form, the torment of the opening credits victim as soon as Avati shows us the mural. The director discloses the picture at the end of a long take which builds moment as a priest and Stefano walk down the nave of the church, when, with a graceful crane lift, the camera rises to focus on the picture.

We also get lingering, studious shots running over this mural, as a kind of visual imperative, “Look! See!”

Similarly, once the murders start (well, duh, it’s a giallo), Avati examines every hanging, bloody victim from multiple angles and shot lengths, cut together in a deliberate, pensive pace. He seems intent on giving us a class in anatomy—and in our own varied reactions to different parts of the same overall picture. The film resembles a painting, too, with its rich Rembrandt lighting, meticulous compositions, and abundance of frames within frames.

Art lives (and dies?) at the core of this film which forces us to become conscious of where our eyes travel and what they bring back. For instance, take the scene in which Stefano visits the town Mayor and surveys his collection of Legnani paintings, including one of the artist’s head on a woman’s body.

As the Mayor explains that the artist took to painting himself because no woman could satisfy him, we get a cut to a gauzy flashback (whose flashback, though, is not clear). The bare-chested artist smears paint on his arm, in a gesture reminiscent of a junkie shooting up heroine, and turns to a canvas.

I had to watch this sequence twice before I realized that we’re not actually looking at the artist, but at the artist’s reflection in a mirror. We see him looking at himself… looking at himself. It’s part of our own apprenticeship in looking.

Stefano, like many a hapless giallo protagonist, dies. I’m sorry, but I think pretty much anyone would see that coming. This likelihood allows the viewer to taste the bitter irony of every shot of Stefano restoring the mural. As he pulls away the plaster to reveal two wicked hags and adds life to the picture of Saint Sebastian’s death, he’s participating in his own demise as well. His act of restoration and creation engenders his destruction.

If art both gives life and takes it away, drawing from the subjectivity and the life force of a painter, what are we to make of recording, of mechanical ways of preserving life? It turns out that Legnani’s cuckoo sisters believe Norman Bates-style that they’re keeping their brother alive. Buono Legnani immolated himself in a final act of depravity and macabre fascination.

However, his elderly sisters keep his charred body preserved in formaldehyde and play his gravelly, heavy-breathing voice on a tape recorder.

In the top shock-horror scene of Laughing Windows, Stefano discovers the witchy sisters stabbing a victim to death when they proceed to show them their “brother,” the corpse and the recording.

The camera, from Stefano’s perspective, looks shakily from the one to the other twice, as if to ask, “What insane person could call this anywhere near a representation of life? Or even of death?” This facsimile strikes me as a grotesque parody of a person—it’s skin and bones and it speaks, what more do you want? A repeated voice recording and a husk of a body. It also reminds me of some of the intensely gross medieval depictions of death as the utter defeat of the flesh. By preserving their brother, the sisters totally miss the point of his art—capturing fleeting glimpses of human life slipping away, not worshipping cadavers.

This corpse-revelation launches a deeply disturbing scene. It could’ve been played for humor, but it’s not. The sisters are hacking up another sacrifice in hopes of reviving their brother. A lot of very stirring horror films revolve around this idea of preserving something (The Mummy, DeToth’s House of Wax, Psycho, all come to mind) and I think in this way that they’re attempting to cope with the cinema as a form of embalmment. Laughing Windows pokes fun at hollow mechanical or technical means of merely preserving or even of reanimating a dead person. Avati instead hints that the only things that truly live forever are those which have been strained through the filter of human creativity. Legnani may have been a nutso great artist—his sisters are just nutso.

Stefano is too dizzy, judging by the waffling of the handheld camera, to protest when they urge him to take a look at the slaughter. He doesn’t resist and his somnambulist pliability in the situation gives the whole thing the fuzzy, unreal vertigo of a nightmare. And then a blade flashes into him. We could’ve seen it coming, but somehow, we just don’t expect it when it comes.

And so, to the final sequence.  Stefano manages to flee with his open chest wound to a local church where he hopes to ask for help from the kindly priest. Well, the priest turns around, smiles, and begins to speak in a female voice. “He” is actually one of the hooded sisters. Stefano stares wide-eyed, unable to respond as the other sister waddles in, ready to finish the job. Avati cuts back and forth to the painted hags torturing Saint Sebastian in the mural and the film comes full circle.

Stefano is about to meet the fate that was right under his nose the whole time. We brace ourselves for viscera and more struggling torture.

We get a cut away to the façade of the church. Is that cut merciful or cruel, though?

After all, we can still hear the Legnani sisters twitter and giggle as Stefani moans. We don’t see it, but it’s there for us on the soundtrack. Now, there are actual “laughing windows” in the film…

But the windows of the church really laugh at us, a laugh of complicity, because we know what they conceal.

Seriously, now, you can try and tell me that Martin Scorsese didn’t totally think of this ellipsis when he came up with that terse, horrifying last shot of the Lighthouse in Shutter Island, but I won’t believe you.

With the final shot of The House of Laughing Windows our apprenticeship in looking is complete. We, the spectators, now occupy the position of the painters of horror, having been trained to look at ugliness, beauty, surrealist spectacles, details, life, and death. And as those witchy cackles and cries punctuate the soundtrack, we can imagine, we can make the image in our minds, although we might not want to fill the ellipsis. We can conjure up the fuzzy tormented elegy of the beginning (since that credits sequence is an accurate depiction of what’s going to happen to Stefano) or we can mold a new vision.

We become the painting, we become the cinema. It’s not the first time I or anyone else has made this observation, but great movies often invite audiences to “remake” or to participate in them. They’re constructed as partnerships, kept fresh and living by the disgust, pleasure, and, above all, the creativity of the viewer.

Preservation is not art, Avati tells us. Nor is cinema mere preservation, capturing living things as they are—soon to be were. The cinema dwells in gaps, lacunae, death in life. Truly knowing how to look and how to fill in those gaps renders us capable of seeing things as alive. And something alive is always on the edge of death. Perhaps the greatest art always flirts with death, absence, non-meaning and needs something else to complete it.

When we learn not only to look, but also to see, we are art, which is the intersection of life and death. And that should scare the hell out of us. I give a lot of credit to La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono for pulling all these threads together in a giallo.

Under Wraps: The Mummy and His Complex

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.

Déjà vu?

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.