The Grand (Guignol) Finale: Mad Love and Film as Amputation

“He seemed to be present, and yet he did not seem to be present. No wonder a scientist the next day called it: ‘the nearest thing to a resurrection.’”

—Fitzhugh Green on the debut of synchronous sound in a short recorded speech by Will Hays

“Wonderful invention, the phonograph. Keeps a man alive long after he’s dead. Sometimes I feel that these records are all that’s left of Stephen Orlac.”

—Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) in Mad Love

To get us warmed up, it’s trivia time, people. Who is the father of modern intelligence testing?

Alfred Binet, the brain behind the Stanford-Binet IQ test? Yes! Correct.

Okay, now for the tough one: what was his hobby?

No takers? Alright then.

It gives me great pleasure to inform you this eminent psychologist spent his spare time cowriting ultra-violent thriller plays for that notorious Paris establishment, le Théâtre du Grand Guignol—a famous horror theater which served as the inspiration for the macabre theater in Karl Freund’s 1935 Mad Love.

Really, chew on that for a while. I mean, what if you found out that, say, B.F. Skinner wrote torture porn scripts in between experiments? You must admit, that little fact does rather re-contextualize psychology.

I offer this factoid in order to suggest how deep and scientific terror really is, and how closely fear (and the perverse fascination with things that scare us) intertwines with other facets and phenomena of human psychology—like intelligence, genius, love, and hate. There’s something to be said for works of horror that don’t rely upon the supernatural, but rather sets out to examine the infinite cruelties which the mind inflicts upon itself… and on others.

Mad Love breathes life into the essence of sadism and lurid erotic fixations. This grisly tale focuses on Dr. Gogol, a gifted surgeon who falls in love with a horror actress, Yvonne. He initially tries to win her love when he saves Stephen Orlac, Yvonne’s famous pianist husband, by grafting on the hands of a guillotined murderer. That fails to get him the girl, so Gogol changes tactics and decides to try to drive the aforementioned pianist hubby bat-shit insane. It’s a quirky movie, full of weird, silly diversions, but isn’t that just like the brain of a madman?

Oh, the beloved bizarreness of this movie!

As I watch and rewatch this movie, feeling slightly dirty, like the Daughter of Dr. Gogol, I’ve come to notice the abundance of clever, mordant parallels that stitch the film together.

For instance, the opening credits end not with a simply dissolve, but with a hand punching through the glass on which the cast members’ names are written. Before Orlac even loses his hands, we get a terrific backstage scene where we see a prop severed arm in the foreground…

And then there’s this marvelous foreshadowing shot of Orlac using his fingers to wipe away the frost from his train window. It’s the moment he catches the first glimpse of the man whose hands he’ll soon be wearing…

Hands recur again and again, like hallucinatory iterations of a fevered ideé fixe.

Another sick joke: the knife-throwing murderer whose hands Orlac inherits gets guillotined… and Yvonne’s wedding cake bears a quaint toy version of this infernal contraption.

All of these gleeful patterns pop up as though reality were submitting to the delirious reasoning of a lunatic. When a man grows obsessed, he sees the object of his obsession, his mad love, everywhere. These neat visual echoes weave in this sense of inescapable fixation.

Mad Love was really decades ahead of its time. You see, it makes us conscious from the first that we the viewers are watching a horror show. The film begins with the spooky, caricatured façade of the Grand Guignol-esque Théâtre des Horreurs where Yvonne works. The camera pans from a hanged man dummy (rather reminiscent of Frankenstein, which Karl Freund shot) to a ghoulish arch, then goes to one of the costumed goblins that runs the box office.

It’s not only welcoming us into a place where people go to get scared within the film, but also knowingly beckoning us into the realm of terrors that is the cinema.

The camera then follows a young couple on a date. The girl balks at the idea of a horror show, implying that any man who wants to watch such things must be a pervert. (Well, I bet that didn’t go over too well for all of the 1930s guys who brought their dames to the movie palace for some low-impact snuggling!)

Really, although I’ve articulated my dislike for the coy term “meta” elsewhere, I’m forever impressed by how Mad Love serves up a horror show within a horror show, a Grand Guignol play within a Grand Guignol movie.

As for that play within the movie, the horror show that Yvonne stars in, it’s a Grand Guignol period drama about infidelity and torture that would deliver the requisite thrills on any stage.

But Karl Freund makes us see how the camera can actually enhance the horror. Especially a camera in the hands of brilliant cinematographer Gregg Toland, who shot this agonizingly beautiful and shadowy film.

(Digression: Pauline Kael has theorized that director and legendary cameraman Karl Freund’s expressionist influence on Toland came into full bloom with the noirish deep focus look of Citizen Kane, made just a few years later. So, in a way, Mad Love helped to shape one of the most influential films of all time. Think about that as you look at these gorgeously lit screencaps.)

During the theater sequence, close-ups and intercuts between a frightened audience and Yvonne’s torments revise and reframe stage horror as cinematic horror.

Staged horror: a static long shot

Movie horror: dynamic editing and the power of closer shots

The power of the camera and editing can intensify the rhythm of fear, kneading it into suspense or whipping it into a frenzy. It’s a great and awful power, and Freund wants us to recognize it—and examine the pleasure we derive from horror, from sadism and voyeurism, even as we experience those pleasures.

The villain of the piece, Dr. Gogol, comes across as the forefather of the modern-day “crazed fan” type—although Lorre’s performance trumps any imitations with his substance and subtlety.

Gogol consumes horror. He loves it. He’s creepy as hell in that audience, as he solemnly watches his muse Yvonne squeal in agony. His spooky half-moon face forces us as spectators to think, “Oh, dear God, I hope that’s not me…”

The dark side: track-in + stark shadows = movie stalker material.

After all, less than 10 years before Mad Love was made, a young man in London strangled his girlfriend in Hyde Park, and based his defense (in part) on the fact that he’d just seen Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, which had, he claimed, deranged his mind and spurred him to violence. As much as horror seeks to capitalize on hidden fears and fantasies that lurk in all of us, many people working in the genre had become aware by 1935 that the reactions unleashed by watching horror are a liability.

Indeed, this film both creates and breaks down illusions, as if to say, “Enjoy yourself, dear viewer… but not too much.” I love the introduction of Yvonne, with a dissolve from her screaming portrait on a poster, to her real, smiling, normal face. What a joyful demystification of the scream queen!

And yet, we feel the seductive force of images, too. Gogol falls in love with an image, not a real woman, as shown by the affection he devotes to her wax effigy. Freund simulates Gogol’s obsession, since, all close-ups of the wax figure actually are close-ups of actress Frances Drake. For us, the viewers, as well as for Gogol, Galatea comes alive.

Mad Love explores this idea of replacements, parallelism, and swapping: Gogol confuses the real Yvonne with his schema of her. A stage play transforms into a cinematic event. Freund cuts between a “high art” performance of Chopin at Fontainbleau to a “low art” cheap thrill show in Montmartre.

Amputation and then grafting presents the purest expression of this paradigm: something lost and something introduced in its place. It’s acquiring something foreign and taking it into oneself. It’s unremittingly weird to have something on you that’s not quite yours or, even if it is, doesn’t “live” where it’s supposed to, almost like a doppleganger you can wear. It’s always an “it,” an entity, an integrated other.

Sort of like a film of yourself? It’s you, but then again, it’s not.

Now, I’m about to go out on a limb here, but cinema is a violent art, it’s an art of scarring and replacement. You shoot it, you cut it, you take the skin off reality, chop it up, then put it back together. Even the whole negative-positive aspect of cinema recalls the concept of amputation and grafting. I think that the makers of horror movies in the 1920s and 1930s understood the uncanny nature of the cinema better, on average, than any other genre filmmakers. Rather than just trappings of terror, amputations, stitched-up beings, walking digests of other parts serve as the centerpieces of their films—driving the plots and evoking pathos.

And, no, I don’t think that every film coils up on itself to probe the nature of the cinema. I just happen to believe that, at the dawn of talkies, horror films and the people who produced them, like James Whale and Karl Freund, were highly attuned to the aspects of all and any cinema that shocked, scared, and moved people like nothing else ever had before.

These visionaries decided not only to use the disquieting resemblance of film to reality to spook us, but also to jolt us into consciousness of the death and fragmentation that nags at man in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Film is a monster of transplants. This spliced-up juggernaut can augment fear and it can seduce. It can conjure false visions then dash them to pieces. But it also confers eternal life. Remember the moment when Colin Clive as Orlac listens to one of his recordings and remarks on what amazing things they are—“keeps a man alive long after he’s dead.” If you know anything about the brief, tragic life of Clive, this moment resonates far beyond the framework of the diegesis.

Yvonne and we hear music playing… but we see that piano remains ghostly still. The recording makes possible this eerie juxtaposition.

Now, this film was made in 1935. Clive was dead less than two years later and, if I believe what I read (Frances Drake told a story about him practically passing out in her garden), pretty much anyone could’ve seen that coming. In a way, this film could serve as an elegy for him and for that ghostly life that he forever possesses.

He, by the way, was horribly creeped out by his fake hands, “almost a quarter larger than normal size,” and lamented in an interview: “All day and everyday I felt that I would give almost anything to be able to wash away the whole ghoulish mess and forget the rest of the picture.”

He claimed that looking down at the crude, bulky, built-up makeup made him “quite sick,” which certainly contributed to his rattled, haunted performance. He hated horror and he hated acting in film—perhaps because both of them abide in the realm of the uncanny.

When you act in theater, the past is past. On to the next! With film, you get to see another version of yourself. Part of you no longer belongs to you, but to anyone who watches the movie. It’s as though an appendage has been chopped off and preserved in a vault. Every film performance confers a kind of “wax figure” double, an extraordinarily lifelike replica to posterity.

But, then, film also cuts into the time of our lives. For the space of an hour or so, the movie replaces our normal existence with another world. The movie is ours, for we “recut” it again in our heads, and not ours, for it might affect us in ways we do not expect.

And no movie I know does that better than Mad Love.

Rotten Blood: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

In all my years of watching old movies, only one film frightened me so much that I had to turn off the TV set.

And I was one little tough ginger snap when I faced off with Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was 8-years-old, but going on about 100 after a medical crisis that left me way more likely to identify with scarred-up bad guys than with menaced little girls.

I could crack up at some seriously raunchy R-rated comedies and was used to watching Psycho with my parents—frequently over a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce.

But even I, jaded little eight-year-old I was, couldn’t make it through Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I couldn’t even make it through the first third. I think I was, like, 18 before I actually stoked up enough courage to watch the film to its end.

And I’m glad I did because it practically seethes with innovation. Karl Freund’s camerawork paints a dense world of fog, crazy angles, shadows, and carnivalesque attractions. The heritage of Caligari rears its head, to be sure, but there’s an added realness to it all. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve walked through the perpetual party that the city is in the daytime… and through deserted streets at night. Frenchman Florey and expressionist genius Freund instilled a grainy, ever-moving texture to the film that aptly translates the darkly festive vibe of Paris.

Which brings me back to that scene that scared the Hell out me.

A woman being tortured on a big wooden frame, like a meat rack, as a man punctures her again and again with a syringe. Her shrieks. Her utter subjugation to a raving lunatic. These are not quaint relics of what the Pre-Code era thought spooky. They survive as every normal person’s worst nightmare and certain abnormal people’s most lurid fantasy.  The torture scene in Murders in the Rue Morgue, for better or for worse, sketched the blueprint for every filmic depiction of a sadistic killer to follow.

I am referring, of course, to the scene in which Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle abducts a prostitute, injects her with gorilla blood to see if she’s compatible for mating with Erik the Ape—and thus kills her.

This scene toys with you in that, beginning with the abduction scene, Florey orchestrates a perpetual crescendo of violence. We, the viewer, constantly think, “Well, it can’t get worse than this, right?” And then it does.

Let’s take a close look at this scene—so horrifying that it was cut by many regional censors.

Dr. Mirakle looks out of his carriage window.

A street lamp smashes. The camera tilts down to show a woman screaming then pans over to two men fighting. Not fist-fighting in the burly, entertaining fashion of the movies. Their choreography feels naturalistic, gritty, ugly.

A knife flashes into, then out of,  the frame. We know that its blade buries deep into another man’s flesh because he moans.

The woman is still screaming. The wounded man, in one lightening motion, sends something flying. We hear a throwing dagger slice through the air and bury itself into his opponent. They both fall.

 

This fight scene adds nothing to the plot. It’s pure gratuitous violence, although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, inserted into the structure of the film to wring our spirits of every last drop of comfort. This is not a horror movie that graces only four people or so with its interest. Oh no, this is a horror show that goes out of its way to suggest the gruesome things that cling to the skin of the city like leeches.

Even though the fuzzy, mist-filled look of this scene belongs to the silent era, sound facilitates an even higher degree of fear.

The streetwalker’s mixture of horror and hysterical laughter fills the soundtrack with perversity. Her cries and cackles are jarring because they don’t let us totally sympathize with her. Her shrill yelps and giggles provoke displeasure—they’re not only hard on the ears, they make us feel, well, kind of dirty for even watching this. Unlike the lyrical, gracefully stylized monster attacks in Frankenstein and Dracula, this sequence of human violence slaps us in the face with the luridness of horror, of the thrills and chills that sell the tickets.

Perceiving his window of opportunity, Mirakle steps from his carriage and walks right into the camera, as though it’s the viewer he were creeping up on. His silhouette floods the screen with darkness.

Suddenly, we’re on the other side of him, looking at the prostitute as he advances towards her through the whirling mists.

Like a phantom, Mirakle (right) advances…

The disorienting feeling of “passing through” Mirakle (or of him passing through us) not only amps up the surrealist quality of the scene, but also infuses the sequence with the unstoppable dread of a nightmare. We know that something awful is going to happen, but we’re powerless to stop it.

The iconography of the black cloak, prostitute, and streetlamp all spark associations with the popular image of the serial killer, best represented by Jack the Ripper. Florey and Freund press all the right buttons to taunt us with the imminent destruction of the helpless woman.

 “A lady… in distress?” The tight, extreme close-ups that follow increase our unease with their intensity. Lugosi’s ghoulish facial contortions contrast with the wide eyes of the young streetwalker (Arlene Francis, if you can believe it!).

She gets in the carriage. Fade to black.

Okay, so this is where a NORMAL Hollywood film would cut to the woman lying in the morgue and we could infer that Mirakle performed some failed experiment. Years of watching movies prepares you for a nice, refreshing ellipsis here.

No such luck.

Immediately the high-pitched screams of the prostitute startle us as we see the shadow of a woman squirm on a rack. Dr. Mirakle performs his tests on her and adds his yells to hers in a cacophony of cruelty as he tells her to calm down so that she can be “the Bride of Science!”

I’d also note Florey’s subversive use of synchronous sound in this scene. The streetwalker’s sobs and moans, however, infuse the scene with a weird… sexual vibe. After all, this victim didn’t need to be a prostitute. The screenwriter could’ve chosen to invent some innocent girl on her way home, but no, the credits tell us from the first to expect a “Woman of the Streets,” as she’s billed.

This suggestion of a sex crime disguised as an experiment returns when Mirakle capers over to his desk to check the blood sample. As he peers into the microscope, his cry of anticipation—and ultimately of disappointment—mingles with her sighs. There’s definitely a weird crossover here between this woman’s, ahem, profession and the warped excitement that Mirakle derives from her.

Mirakle rises and starts to scold his victim for her “rotten blood!” because she failed to give him what he wanted, until he realizes she’s dead. Then he flips into utter religious despair—something that reveals the deeply mixed-up, addled nature of Mirakle, the fanatical man of science. (Note that his stage, or perhaps real, name, Dr. Mirakle: Doctor plus “miracle” with a “k” already hints at this perverse irrationalism-medicine  link.)

The exaggerated shadows and Lugosi’s own melodramatic posture of prayer remind me of mannerist paintings and their bizarre mixture of fervor and distortion.

Now, I don’t like it when directors fall into the ugly trap of naïvely equating a character’s suffering with Christ’s martyrdom. It feels cheap—unless the director can bring an added nuance to the allusion. Which Florey does admirably, with the crucified prostitute here.

A moment ago Dr. Mirakle viewed this woman as human garbage. As soon as she dies, however, she becomes a fragile, holy thing for one fleeting instant. Then he chucks her into the Seine.

Mirakle kicks open a trap door and jettisons the prostitute into the Seine.

I’m not a forensic psychologist, but this behavior, these quicksilver changes from contempt to reverence (or vice-versa) characterize the warped minds of serial killers. Humans turn into throwaway objects without the slightest warning. Lugosi’s performance runs the gamut from passion to anger to remorse to self-pity to anticipation of the next attack … an emotional arc that, from what I’ve read, fuels the violence of many serial offenders.

(And, let’s face it, a prostitute, a fallen woman, would also have been a morally acceptable victim for censors of the 1930s. Because, according to the hidden logic there, they deserve to die more than ordinary good girls like the heroine of the film. So, in a way, the sociopathic reasoning that we witness is also shared by a larger social system of morality which deems some people worthless.)

In other words, I was right to recognize this as a very, very sick scene, one that force-feeds us a glimpse into an aesthetic simulation of real madness and torment, not a glamorized supernatural ballet.

Of all talkie genres, horror stands out, perhaps second only to the musical, as the most likely to call attention to its own construction. Consider the assortment of carnival barkers and mountebanks who populate the Universal Horror cycle. Consider how often some character recites or alludes to some legend or dismisses these legends as fictions. Or, indeed, consider how often the movies used prologues to refer to their own shock value as potentially lethal spectacles. I don’t like calling something so meta! because I think that cutsie, overused term has come to describe any questionable art form that winks at its patrons over how bad it is. I love certain bad movies, but I will still call them bad.

However, horror films of the 1930s cultivated a much darker strain of “meta,” forever hinting to the viewer that their status as attractions reflects back on the sordid tastes of the viewers.

How far do you want to go? For me, that’s the meta-question at the heart of the genre. How horrified do you really want to be? And… how much do you enjoy what you see?

The moment when we’re truly scared, we have to look at ourselves and realize that, gulp, we’ve been enjoying all the awful things up until that point. We’re accomplices in the grisly murders, silently abetting the progress of the monsters in a double bind of pleasure and revulsion.

Well, at 8-years-old, I’d reached my limit with Murders in the Rue Morgue. At 21, I can finally realize why I was so scared. I’m glad I was.

Here’s to the things that make us look away, to the things that make us turn off the television! May we never fully enjoy them. And may we turn to thought and self-reflection to process the trauma that is cinema.

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.