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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Warning Signals: The Leopard Man and Uncanny Signs

“Il s’agit de faits qui peuvent être de l’ordre de la constatation pure mais qui présentent chaque fois toutes les apparences d’un signal, sans qu’on puisse dire au juste de quel signal, qui font qu’en pleine solitude je jouis encore d’invraisemblables complicités, qui me convainquent de mon illusion…”

—André Breton, Nadja

(“Sometimes things happen, things which could be on level of facts, of mere observations, but which in each occurrence present all the appearances of  signals, though of what, we can’t exactly say, signals which make me rejoice in the unrealistic complicities of my deep solitude, which convince me of my illusion…”)

Do note that this post contains spoilers.

The Leopard Man teems with signals of all kinds. This horror-mystery-thriller tosses so many signs, details, symbols, and recurrent images at us that we, as audience members, cannot escape the impression that we have fallen through the hatch to some kind of dream world—where everything means something, we just don’t know what. The very richness of these signs—from a fortune-telling cards to a ball whirling on top of a fountain—makes them uncanny.

Just as one piece of information in the absence of all others makes us convinced of its importance a surge of information forces us to look at everything—it floods our senses and encourages us to skip to the kinds of tangential but powerful conclusions which Breton describes in the quote above.

Coincidences are uncanny, Freud argued, because they whisper to us of some grander order that may tick away under the sleek surface of life. The coincidences, formal echoes, and signals that The Leopard Man sows through its unconventional plot together produce this uncanny delirium that makes everything scary, from a young boy making shadow puppets to a lady giving a flower away. Every detail weighs heavy with “the appearance of being a signal.”

Even the characters make these kinds of symbolic, transductive inferences. According to Kiki and her friend the cigarette girl, the film’s setting, a New Mexico town, is “a bad town for blondes”—even though the only three women to be killed there are brunettes! We make the same kind of unsound inferences. For instance, watch the movie and tell me who the Leopard Man of the title is. Duh, it’s the killer. But wait! Nope. The only unambiguous Leopard Man is Charlie How-Come, the native keeper of the leopard, as we learn from the sign on his truck. In other words, signs are always misleading us and creating anxiety.

To this end, Tourneur carefully crafted the film in the baroque, lush, (what I call noir extrême) style that we’ve come to associate with him as an auteur. Many curling shadows, many striking plays of light that call attention to themselves. However, he takes this visual business and coup-de-théâtre flair even farther here to rattle us.

In the first five minutes of the movie, three women, two of them performers in adjacent dressing rooms, appear reflected in mirrors. Clo-clo, the castanet dancer…

Kiki, Clo-Clo’s rival performer at the nightclub…

bang

…And Eloise, the starstruck cigarette girl.

Directly afterwards, in a sweeping camera tilt and pan, we see first a fountain, then a woman reflected in it, then the dancer herself.

This balletic camera cascade over the fountain hypnotized me the first time I saw this film, as did the opening tracking shot. Conspicuously poetic shots like these inscribe these reflection images on the mind. One bathes in this sensation which Breton describes. The intention of the camera movement coupled with the intense visual stimuli provoke a presentiment, a premonition that what we are seeing will become vital.

Tourneur and Lewton populate the rest of the film with reflections as well. Two examples:

I mean, you don’t need to be a film major to pick up on this. The reflections persist so much that we begin to wonder what do they mean? 

It’s a good question! And one for which the answers multiply in my mind without any one explanation satisfying me. I would argue that these mirrors and reflective surfaces exist in the diegesis not as symbols but as signals, in Breton’s sense, as things planted to raise our awareness of what we are seeing, of the fact that we are seeing. I’m not calling the motif a red herring, but I do maintain that the ambiguity of the reflections call up that surrealist part of our brain that notices without understanding.

The light on Clo-Clo’s legs.

On the commentary track for the film, which I recommend listening to, William Friedkin (yes, director of The Exorcist—it’s a damn good commentary!) notes that when a little boy shines a light on Clo-Clo the castanet dancer’s legs, he seemingly marks her for death. Tourneur’s vivid attachment to virtuoso contrasts of light and dark and patterns of duplication enhance the ambiance of presentiment that renders The Leopard Man so tense and intense. The enhanced visuality created by flamboyant, recurrent camera movements and low-key lighting etch details upon the mind and confer importance to them.

I must confess, I felt impelled to write this post after hearing Friedkin say, “Coherence is the enemy of the horror film.”

I agree. The cloud of possible meanings that looms over The Leopard Man teems with electricity, just as a sky about to be ripped apart by lightening makes you tingle. The ambiguity of all the signs in The Leopard Man conjure up the uncanniness of Breton’s signal. We feel like they mean something, but what that something is, we know not what.

The symbols that should scare us most, however, are not the mysterious signs around us, but rather those signals are those whose meaning cannot be negotiated. Significance, in its absolute form, entails a kind of death. After all, one achieves one’s truest being in death—you can never be anything more than what you are once you’ve ceased to live. That sounds morbid, but, whatever you believe, it’s hard to deny that death is final.

For each of the three female deaths in The Leopard Man, Lewton and Tourneur use unmistakable signals of death (or the bringer of death) that nevertheless avoid showing the thing in itself.

Blood under the door, on the other side of which Teresa’s being attacked…

The cemetery tree bending and then springing as the killer pounces on Consuelo…

…And Clo-clo’s cigarette butt burning out.

These signs frighten us because they hold no ambiguity. We know what happened. The decision not to show this horror makes us ponder that thing that can never really be shown—death, since, really, none of us knows for sure what death is.

Signals live. They take on a life because because play with them, negotiate with them, recycle them. When you cannot negotiate with a signal, it turns into the emblem of the finality which we all fear. Which is why I personally find The Leopard Man a difficult film to “analyze” since the movie questions the value of interpreting any sign. Isn’t it the signal and not the significance which breathes and dances? Much of the fun of the movies originates in our tender complicity with signals.

After all, it’s only madmen who see direction, purpose, meaning in everything. Well, scholars and madmen. It’s no coincidence, though, that the mentally unstable killer Galbraith is both a scholar and a madman. He brings together those parallel needs for significance, for explanation—yet he can ultimately offer no rationalization for his desire to kill.

It’s also Galbraith who enunciates the fountain-as-Fate metaphor. (Side note: there’s also a significant fountain in Breton’s Nadja. Could the eminently literate Lewton and the French Tourneur have been making an allusion to the father of surrealism, perhaps?) Too many people take Galbraith’s word as gospel on that, though.

Come on, would you give serious credence to a guy who mauled two women to death because he felt like it? Galbraith wants to hammer down significance, fix the meaning of the fountain, strangle it with a noose of interpretation when he’s completely ignored its fluidity, the very qualities which allow the fountain to serve as a metaphor. What I’m trying to say (badly) is that a fountain on film is never Fate. It’s first and foremost a fountain! When you reduce something to a symbol, you’ve killed it.

In the dark: Galbraith and his compulsion remain mysterious.

I adore the conclusion of this film, with Galbraith running through the procession of mourners, remembering the massacre of natives in the village. When his pursuers catch up to him, they fall in and march with the procession as they start to make him confess.

This chase tempts you to brand it with big words like Atonement and Sin and Religion. But the drama pulls you back in and denies you the corpse-like refuge of significance. As the worshippers in the scene know, the only way to keep a memory alive is not with symbols, but with movement and noise. To quote another Breton chestnut, from his L’Amour Fou, “Beauty must be convulsive—or must not be.”

Convulsive beauty, à la Breton: Clo-Clo rushes at the leopard with castanets.

The moment you pledge yourself to abstractions like Fate and Death, you run the risk of losing the quickness and movement of signals and all the uneasiness they inspire in us.

Warning signal: the leopard’s eyes as two points of light.

Avant Glam: Hollywood Portraits and Surrealism

      

Which of these does not belong? From left to right: Joan Crawford by George Hurrell, Katie Holmes (apparently with a migrane) by Solve Sundsbo from the 2008 Holiday Issue of T Magazine, Hedy Lamarr also by Hurrell.

Today, whenever a magazine wants to channel the “classic Hollywood” vibe, the editorial staff thinks best to conjure up the era with an imitation of the Hurrell chiaroscuro paired up with a current celebrity, be it Angelina Jolie or Britney Spears, and act like they’ve captured the essence of the archetypal glam shot.

But something’s always missing. What exactly? Well, it does relate to the fact that they’re just not photographing stars with one iota of the charisma and untouchability they had in the olden days. “They had faces then,” declares Norma Desmond and she was right. Nevertheless, in my mind, it’s not just the they-don’t-make-stars-like-they-used-to attitude that accounts for why the homage so often falls short of the original.

No: there’s a subtle quality that makes many real old Hollywood glam shots so much more engaging, hypnotic and…for lack of a better word, trippythan their modern counterparts.

A subtly surreal texture infuses these images, beyond even the fetishist focus on the face or body that seems to exist in some kind glamorous limbo. Strange details, odd, angles, and inexplicable, looming shadows that call forth an uneasy tension between the star and something grim, dead, dizzily abstract, or just plain weird.

Now, please do note that I am not trying to say that surrealism influenced the photographers who sustained the Dream Machine with pictures like you’ll see below. That would be 1) obvious; 2) beyond the scope of this blog; and 3) pretty boring. Instead, I hope that the series of images I’ve put together will encourage you to reflect on the way of seeing and looking that classic Hollywood produced, which even I can sometimes take for granted but which I consider every bit as provocative, modern, and unsettling as avant-garde art. I used a lot of Hurrell shots because he was one of the most instrumental photographers in “branding” and perfecting the unique feel of the Hollywood glam shot, but I also threw in a few less-than-famous shots just to show how pervasive the aesthetic was.

These pictures seduce us, but don’t always ask us to realize how and why we’ve been seduced. They efface their own charm and wit. I think they deserve credit not just for their beauty but also for these visionary traits.

I went about coming up with this blog post by following a method that I’d describe as somewhat surrealist: I saw a few images of old time movie stars that slapped me across the face with their exoticism and eccentricity so I started searching for more and collecting files of the portraits that exuded that same surreal aura. I warn you: it’s an idiosyncratic collection more than anything else. A collage.

So, rather than write too much (too late!), I’ll let the pictures give you their thousand-words-worth.

Masklike

Clara Bow

(c. 1920s ? I chanced across this photo—such is the surreal nature of the Internet—and cannot find anything about it in any language I speak. The strangest thing, though, is that the star’s face serves as all the provenance I need. I believe that the mask is a commedia dell’arte copy, but am no expert.)

“Noire et Blanche”

(Man Ray, 1926; the woman is Kiki de Montparnasse who “starred” in Ballet Méchanique)

Handled

Carole Lombard

(I’d say very early 1930s, just by the Crawford-ish look that Carole had in that period, but I have no clue what the hands have to do with anything.)

Dora Maar

(By Man Ray. N.B. Dora Maar also did at least one surreal hand photo herself that’s worth looking at.)

Rapunzel meets Ophelia: Floating Hair

Veronica Lake

(George Hurrell, 1941)

“Woman with Long Hair”

(Man Ray, 1929)

Fur-Bearing Curiosities

Joan Crawford

(Also by Hurrell, 1932)

“Le Déjeuner en Fourrure”

(Object by Meret Oppenheim, 1936)

Stop the Clocks

Adele Mara as a human sundial

(c. early 1940s. Again, details are not forthcoming. Mara, though, is quite an interesting dame—sort of a poor man’s Rita Hayworth—about whom you might like to read.)

“The Persistence of Memory”

(Salvador Dalí, 1931)

Space-Age Glampots

Clara Bow

(George P. Hommel, 1929)

Lee Miller

(Man Ray , c. 1930)

Subtle Distortions

For this final comparison, I will need to wade again into the muddy waters of analysis so I will revert to my old wordy ways. No, please, please don’t close the tab! Don’t touch the keypad! Okay, take a long look at these images:

Betty Grable

(Frank Powolny, 1943)

La Fourchette

(André Ketesz, 1928)

Unlike the other pairs, the link between these two images doesn’t slap you across the face. So why did I put them together?

The essence of surrealism, for me, is looking at an ordinary thing and seeing how extraordinarily strange it is, how perverse and ironic its very existence. That fork that you may unthinkingly use to shovel food into your mouth acquires a melancholy poignancy, an alien mutilated grace, that you may have never suspected when you really focus on its ponderous shape, purpose, invention—its personality, its soul. Kertesz can’t be pigeonholed as a surrealist, but this photo certainly is surreal in my mind and in my eye.

Like the fork, Betty Grable is, in many ways, an ordinary object. When asked, in 1958, about the perks and travails of making movies, she replied, “It pays better than slinging hash, but it’s a lot harder.” Perhaps the word most frequently used to describe her was and is “wholesome.” She is not Rita Hayworth, whose beauty was almost supernatural to begin with. Apart from her shapely gams, she’s so unremarkable that putting her before the lens automatically de-contextualizes her small-town charm to a certain degree. She is the unexamined small-town girl suddenly stripped of her veil of blandness to become something wildly sensual and weird. Any attention paid to her strikes me as paradoxical.

Then there’s the fact that we must consider this picture as more than a two-dimensional abstraction, and rather as a common physical object. Its meaning is bound up with its conception as a cherished, but quotidian possession: probably the number one pin-up photo of World War II, it must have peered out from the walls of heaven knows how many bunkers, submarines, and shanties. Pretty trippy, huh? A fork is something that we all experience individually, but consider to be basically nondescript. (A few tines and a handle, c’mon people, you don’t sit around giving much reflection to the anatomy of a fork. I hope not, at least.) Similarly, the same ordinary image of Betty Grable took on thousands of fantasy existences in men’s… minds.

And, the crazy part is, the subtle distortions of these images hint at the many askew, divergent lives of what they portray. Both Betty and the fork cast shadows that differ from the forms that we know and love. The pointy tines on the dish and the long stem underneath, on the table, are split from each other in the Kertesz photo, creating a sense of divided or bent space. Betty’s shadow (the darker one, to the right), though, reminds me of something from the movie Freaks. Her famous gams meld into one grotesque limb. There’s even another lighter shadow to the left so that she, like the fork, has been fragmented.

The oddly distorted shadows, in both cases, stand out against mostly white remainder of the images: white plate, white tablecloth, white bathing suit… The sum effect, on me at least, renders the form of the photographed object distorted. Betty’s legs appear too long and her torso is made to seem disproportionate by the famous over-the-shoulder glance, like the fork stands out as too long and lean. A woman’s body. A fork. Both awaken when scrutinized with a gaze that provokes as much, if not more, as it is provoked. When slanted slightly, tilted, pushed askew, the commodified star, the universal fetish serves as a vehicle not for looking, but for seeing.

That is what Hollywood glam shots managed to do with almost uncanny frequency: open our eyes to a beauty that wriggles out of definition but manages to be instantly recognizable. How do we pin down this specific glamour, this religion of visual textures that mutates, shocks, and frightens with its ability to transform perpetually and refresh our vision and concept of attractiveness?

Not to push the “open eyes” metaphor to far, but that notable surrealist Buñuel cut open an eye onscreen in Un Chien Andalou to prove to us how easily images could take hold of us with brutal, warped fantasies. Often considered prosaic or repetitive, old Hollywood glamour shots, and instances of classic glamour in general, do more or less the same thing. Only, if I may say so, they’re way easier on the eyes.

Simone Mareuil with Buñuel’s hand

(From Un Chien Andalou, 1929)

Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson

(In a still for Rain, 1932)