Human character changed: the Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 and the revolution in the arts immediately preceding World War One

The text that follows is an edited version of a lecture I gave some years ago to introduce a series of Ferens Fine Art lectures at the University of Hull on the topic of Post-Impressionism. The initial focus was on the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1910, what it contained, and how the reaction to it was symptomatic of what was going on generally in the arts at this time. I have always thought that the period between roughly 1910 and 1914 was one of the most remarkable periods of creativity in the arts ever, and it was to be the topic of my PhD, but a book on Billy Wilder intervened; the thesis was never finished; and my career took a very different direction.

To begin with the quotation that provides the title of this essay, a famous quote from Virginia Woolf in an essay entitled ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ published in 1924. “In or about December 1910,” she wrote, “human character changed.” Virginia Woolf was often deliberately playful and provocative in her artistic pronouncements; she was never, however, frivolous. The date she cited was carefully chosen: a conscious allusion to the first Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London, which was the first extensive viewing that the public in England had been given of the work of artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso. The change in human character that Virginia Woolf was suggesting was not so much of a change of personality per se but a way of perceiving personality (1910 was also the year when Freud was giving a famous lecture on the origins and development of psychoanalysis) and also of the way of portraying character, in paint and in print. In the early years of the 20th century, artists in different fields were seeking a new language or mode of expression to render what the art critic Roger Fry called “the sensibilities of the modern outlook”.

It was Roger Fry who had organised the Exhibition, which had actually been opened to the press on November 5th (Virginia Woolf had allowed a little time for its impact to be felt). Needless to say, some critics seized on the date of bonfire night as symbolically significant, Robert Ross, for example, immediately suggesting that what these painters were up to was roughly analogous to what Guy Fawkes had planned for the Houses of Parliament, revealing the existence, as he put it, “of a widespread plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting.” The Exhibition attracted huge publicity, and was widely denounced as being pornographic, degenerate and evil.

Whether Fry had anticipated such a response is difficult to say. The Exhibition had been organised in something of a rush. Desmond McCarthy wrote the introduction to the catalogue and he was terrified that, because of the last-minute changes, the numbers of his entries would get mixed up, and a portrait of a nude, say, would be catalogued as ‘station master at Arles’. Even the title was opportunistic rather than any carefully considered artistic statement. When they were stuck for a title, Roger Fry said: “Let’s call them Post-Impressionists – at any rate they came after the Impressionists.” It is worth recalling that, although the Exhibition was widely greeted as the latest outrage of the new century, most of it was taken up with works by painters already dead and with paintings that had been done in the 1880s and 1890s. It is also worth bearing in mind the identity of some of the paintings put on show which caused such an outcry – Cezanne’s ‘Madame Cezanne in Armchair’, Matisse’s ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, Gauguin’s ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’, Picasso’s ‘Nude Girl with a Basket of Flowers’: i.e. some of the paintings that were to become amongst the most popular, and priceless, of the century. So why the outrage? Why did the Exhibition strike the critic of The Times as “the equivalent of anarchism in politics […] the rejection of all that civilisation had done?” Why did the critic Wake Crook say “the whole show was made to look like the outpouring of a lunatic asylum”? To account for this, the Exhibition must be characterised in a little more detail, indicating how far what the painters were doing seemed to differ from convention and expectation.

One characteristic, evident particularly in the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin, was an unrestrained, un-Edwardian emotionalism, expressed in striking, often lurid, colours, that were themselves expressive of the painters’ emotional intensity and suffering. Their contemporary equivalent in music would have been Gustav Mahler, who was to die in 1911 and whom, even as late as the 1930s, the critic Basil Maine was dismissing as a composer “totally foreign to our English temperament – it is as likely that we would take up Mahler in England as the French would take up Elgar”. (Times have changed: nowadays there is barely a major symphony orchestra in the land that has not performed the whole cycle of Mahler’s nine symphonies; he is performed as often as Beethoven.) Their equivalent in literature would be a novelist like Dostoyevsky, who in 1910 (nearly thirty years after his death) was virtually unknown in England, although in two years time, his novel The Brothers Karamazov is to be translated into English for the first time and is to be rapturously acclaimed. (It is tempting to speculate whether the acclaim would have been quite that intense if English sensibilities had not been stirred up, as it were, by the Post-Impressionists.) In 1910, though, emotional expressiveness in art of that extremity was still often viewed with alarm. For example, Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ – now one of his most famous and admired works – was looked on at the Exhibition with considerable puzzlement and even downright hostility. Robert Ross described it as “the visualised ravings of an adult maniac” (which is true, up to a point, though the sentiment could have been expressed with a little more artistic sensitivity and human compassion). Other interpretations of it ranged from its being a representation of a prairie fire or that of a smoking ham omelette. A clue to interpretation might have been given by the credo of Paul Gauguin who complained about “nobody being astonished anymore” and who sought in his art an increasing subjectivity. “Before the easel the artist,” he said, “is slave neither to the past, the present, nature nor even his neighbour. Himself, always himself…. I am content to search my own self and not nature.” Such art frequently portrays a mind on the rack, a personality with Freudian symptoms of psychological abnormality or hypersensitivity: only recall Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh as he painted sunflowers and how Gauguin got behind the physical surface. “It’s me, Paul,” Van Gogh is said to have observed when he saw it. “But it’s me already gone insane.”

Another controversial feature of contemporary art highlighted by the Post-Impressionist exhibition was its non-representational nature. “What is one to think of Paul Gauguin’s idea of oxen?” queried one critic who was reviewing modern French art at an exhibition in Brighton that had preceded the more famous one at the Grafton gallery. “They are wooden-looking beasts akin to those of the nursery Noah’s ark variety, and their landscape environment is innocent of any attempt at perspective.” The poet Wilfrid Blunt wrote in a very similar vein about the Post-Impressionist exhibition in a diary entry of 15 November 1910: “The drawing is on the level of that of an untaught child of seven or eight years old, the sense of colour that of a tea-tray painter, the method that of a schoolboy who wipes his fingers on a slate after spitting on them…” Implicit in those comments was the assumption that the artists were aiming for naturalistic representation but failing through poor technique. On the contrary, as Roger Fry was later to argue, the Post-Impressionists were in the process of re-considering the very purpose and aim as well as the methods of pictorial art. As Fry wrote: “Where once representation had been pushed to the point where further development was impossible, it was inevitable that artists should turn round and question the fundamental assumption that art aimed at representation.” It might well be that the achievement of the Impressionist painters had been so great as to leave the modern artist feeling impotent, and believing that the future could only be a search for an alternative mode of expression rather than a continuation along a trail which these masters had effectively exhausted. It was a problem facing other early 20th century artists in different fields: where could musical Romanticism and tonality possibly go after the titanic operas of Wagner and the epic symphonies of Mahler? Where could narrative realism go after Middlemarch and Anna Karenina?

It might well be too that a different philosophical cast of mind was also present. As John Rothenstein said in his book The Moderns and their World (1957): “Yet there would seem to be other deeper and non-painterly causes at work. Whereas once it was taken for granted that an unremitting scrutiny of appearances might enhance both understanding and delight…in our own time it is the opposite that is taken for granted…. The radiance of human beauty and the majesty of the oak…are but constructions of the human mind…. What the eye sees is not what our forbears confidently thought that they saw.” One might link that with something that Picasso was saying at the time: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them…. If a painter asks me what was the first step for painting a table, I would say measure it.”

What one is seeing, then, is a shift towards an inner rather than outer landscape in painting, a more symbolic and private form of representation. Picasso’s picture of 1910, ‘Girl with a Mandolin’ was more accessible and shapely than most Cubist paintings of the time but it still had that harsh geometric edge characteristic of Cubism- in an age which was felt to be becoming increasingly mechanised, technological, industrialised, regulated, and the individual increasingly dominated by machinery (the novels of D. H. Lawrence during the second decade of the century are to pursue that idea with a passionate urgency). If Van Gogh’s musical parallel, in terms of tortured extreme romanticism, was Mahler, Picasso’s analogous musical counterpart, in terms of a kind of steely harshness, was Stravinsky – whom Picasso was later to draw.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Picasso was to be as controversial a figure during this period as any other of the Post-Impressionists. When his picture ‘Mandolin, Wine Glass and Table’ was reproduced in the New Age magazine of 23 November 1911, there was a storm of protest. G. K. Chesterton, for example, dismissed it as “sodden blotting paper” and chastised critics who sought to defend Picasso after the artist “has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried it to dry it with his boots.” On the other hand, Middleton Murry, who confessed he did not ‘understand’ Picasso, was more prepared to be open to the experience, approvingly quoting the response of a woman friend to Picasso: “I don’t know what it is – I feel as though my brain has been sandpapered.” Once again it was Roger Fry who most eloquently responded to the spirit of what the artist was attempting, recognising that such art gave up all resemblance to natural form in favour of a purely abstract language of form – in Fry’s phrase, ‘a visual music’. “Such a picture as Picasso’s ‘Head of a Man’”, Fry wrote, “would undoubtedly be ridiculous if, having set out to make a direct imitation of the actual model, he had been incapable of getting a better likeness. But Picasso did nothing of the sort.” The critic of The Times in 1912 interpreted Picasso’s method as essentially a reaction against the limits of photography. Why should an artist attempt to duplicate what a photograph can do now – and the film camera?

The impact of the Post-Impressionist exhibition was not only immediate and powerful but also wide-ranging. It touched creative artists in fields other than painting. For example, when Katharine Mansfield saw Van Gogh’s paintings at the Exhibition, she told a friend that “they taught her something about writing…a kind of freedom, a shaking free.” Similarly, amid the derision of fellow writers like Chesterton, Arnold Bennett saw what these contemporary painters were doing as profoundly significant, with enormous implications for the future of literature. “Suppose some writer were to come along and do in words what these men have done in paint,” he wrote, “I might conceivably be disgusted with the whole of modern fiction and I might have to begin again….Supposing a young writer turned up and forced me and some of my contemporaries to admit that we had been concerning ourselves with inessentials, had been worrying ourselves to achieve infantile realisms? Well, that day would be a great and disturbing day for us.” Ironically, it is precisely on those grounds that Bennett is later going to be attacked by Virginia Woolf in the essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ – that he, and writers like him, such as H. G .Wells and John Galsworthy, had indeed been concerning themselves with “inessentials” and “infantile realisms”. Bennett’s observation is a premonition of the direction modernist writing is about to take. Between 1910 and 1914, we have the publication of the first novels and stories of arguably the three most original writers of the century – James Joyce, Marcel Proust and D. H. Lawrence – all of whom are, to a different degree, experimentalists, who turn away from the novel of externally observed reality to the subtle dissection of mental states, who eschew the novel of plot in favour of a more overt preoccupation with language and form. In her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Virginia Woolf defined a new era, and area, for fiction: what was needed, she argued, was a form that reflected the uniqueness of the individual mind and found a way of articulating the previously unexpressed and inexpressible. It was a call for a new kind of novel driven not by plot and the progress of man in society but by psychological experience, by sensory association, and driven less by prosaic incident than by poetic impulse and imagery.

The four years prior to the Great War are a golden period for literary discovery, experiment and achievement. As I mentioned, one of the discoveries was Dostoyevsky, interest in whom was fuelled by Constance Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov in 1912, the novel which Freud was subsequently to call “the greatest novel ever written” and whose intense psychological analysis and spiritual torment would find a readier reception in a world where Freud’s ideas were starting to take root. Appearing in 1913 was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, inspired by the death of Gustav Mahler two years earlier: that extraordinarily potent, prophetic story of a decaying Europe heading for imminent disaster, symbolised through a dying artist and a plague-ridden Venice, both of whose inner diseases are not to be discovered until they are beyond cure.

Conversely, though equally significantly, it’s also the period of the English Nature poet, celebrated particularly in the runaway success of Edward Marsh’s anthology, Georgian Poetry, published in 1912 and which, as W. H. Davies was to put it, “performed a wonder – it made poetry pay!” D. H. Lawrence is said to have earned as much for his one poem included in the anthology, ‘Snapdragon’ as he earned from some of his novels. It is the era of Rupert Brooke, of Walter de la Mare, of John Masefield. George Orwell was to attribute a certain social accuracy to the Georgian phenomenon – as he put it:

Most middle-class boys grew up within sight of a farm and naturally it was the picturesque side of farm-life that appealed to them- the ploughing, harvesting, and so forth…. Just before the war was the great age of the ‘Nature poet’: Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’, the star-poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of ‘country’ sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem, ‘Grantchester’ is something worse than worthless, but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of that period felt it is a valuable document.

Allowing for the fact that Orwell under-rates Brooke’s comedy and irony in the poem, one can agree that he puts his finger on a notable aspect of that poem’s appeal and that of Georgian poetry generally at that time: namely, its nostalgia. As the critic V. de S. Pinto commented: “Nobody would guess from Georgian poetry that there had been a Russian Revolution or that Germany was preparing to dominate Europe.” Closer to home, nobody would guess either from the poetry, or from Marsh’s subsequent anthologies, that the nation was experiencing an unstable period politically (an absence all the more remarkable since Marsh was Winston Churchill’s private secretary for the best part of 20 years). It is a period when the suffragettes were on the march; and when there was trouble in Ireland, almost boiling over into civil war at the beginning of 1914. In 1912, even the Titanic had sunk, for some artists an event of considerable symbolic significance, most memorably in Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ which seemed to see the event as perverse Divine intervention to undercut modern Man’s technological arrogance. However, the Georgian poets are still writing of a tranquil leisurely England in which W. H. Davies, in his 1911 poem, ‘Leisure’ can muse, ‘What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare’; and where Rupert Brooke, at the end of ‘Grantchester’ can be asking: ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three;/ and is there honey still for tea?’ Not exactly a dynamic, forward-looking image, but it is possible to sense an underlying unease about all this, almost a desire for time to stand still out of a fear of what the future holds. Brooke’s image of wanting time to stand still and of the motionless clock-face, incidentally, is brilliantly picked up in a film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, not the famous 1935 Hitchcock version but the 1978 version starring Robert Powell – a story which is set on the eve of World War One (Buchan had begun writing the story in 1914) and where, at the film’s climax, the hero is clinging to the hands of Big Ben and trying to prevent the hands moving forward to noon, because there is a bomb planted there that will go off if the clock strikes and plunge Europe into chaos. Nevertheless, in a period of social and political uncertainty, the idyllic platitudes of Georgian poetry were probably so popular because they were profoundly reassuring. After all, as George Orwell said in a different context, if you were fighting in the First World War, which poetry would you prefer to read – that of Owen and Sassoon, say, which agonisingly evokes the awfulness of your situation, or a poem like T. S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’, which does at least take you away from the battle-field and remind you of some of the more commonplace anxieties of modern living?

What is intriguing about the Georgians in this regard is that their pastoral, paradisal vision is shared by others from a quite different artistic background. A number of artists at this time are preoccupied with the theme of the search for the lost paradise. You find it in Alain-Fournier’s great, one-and only novel of 1913, Le Grand Meaulnes, a heart-breaking tale of lost innocence and the search for the land of lost content (the author was tragically to be killed in the early years of the war); also in the contemporaneous and exquisite ‘Enchanted Garden’ movement that concludes the orchestral ‘Mother Goose Suite’ by Ravel, who coincidentally was once planning to set Le Grand Meaulnes to music. 1912 is also the year of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It is almost as if they sense there is some mighty convulsion about to take place and they are trying to assert enduring values or find some private escape before the crunch comes. This sense of apprehension has been delicately caught in Edmund Blunden’s poem, ‘The Sunlit Vale’, a gentle rebuke to what one might call the ‘Greensleeves’ sentiment in the English temperament (and even Vaughan Williams had done a famous arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’ in 1912):

I saw the sunlit vale and the pastoral fairy-tale
The sweet and bitter scent of the may drifted by;
And never have I seen such a bright bewildering green,
But it looked like a lie,
Like a kindly meant lie.

We are also entering the film age. Between 1910 and 1914, an area of California called Hollywood will establish itself as the centre of the American film industry. The cinema is still in an age of innocence, being taken to its hearts by the masses but frowned on by some (not all) of the intelligentsia not simply because it is a popular mass art but also because it is a mechanical one, the product of a developing technology. Yet for artists in the Futurist movement, for example, with their embrace of modern apparatus, their love of speed and industrialisation and their rejection of tradition, this is all to the good: the cinema is a new art that has the potential of fulfilling their aims, and also the potential, as the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio declared, of surpassing all other art forms in terms of spectacle and fantastic visions. Indeed in 1916 the Italian film theorist, Ricciotto Canudo will refer to film as “the seventh art”, joining dance, poetry, music, sculpture, architecture and painting. And while some deplore film’s mass appeal, and feel it represents the contamination of art by crude commercial obligations and constraints, a great writer like Tolstoy, for example, is completely unfazed by the cinema’s connection with industry and commerce and indeed has a wonderful little parable about it. “In the reeds of film art,” wrote Tolstoy, “sits the toad, the businessman. Above him hovers the insect – the artist. The jaws of the businessman devour the artist. But that doesn’t mean destruction. It is only one of the methods of procreation. In the belly of the businessman is carried on the process of impregnation and the development of the seeds of the future…which will begin their brilliant, beautiful lives all over again.” Even a century later, there has been no more positive account given of the fruitful tension between art and commerce which has given us some of our greatest films.

In fact, a lot of artists will grow to love cinema’s earliest manifestations and its spirit of adventure, admiring the pluckiness of Chaplin, the mania of the Keystone Kops, the trials and tribulations of Pearl White, early silent Italian epics such as Quo Vadis (1912), which so inspired D. W. Griffith ,and Cabiria (1913), whose inter-titles were written by D’Annunzio. Like Post-Impressionist art, film will cause some writers to re-evaluate how they write. Innovative writers like Joyce and Virginia Woolf express interest in the cinema, perhaps for oblique reasons i.e. the novel’s reliance on narrative and representational realism, neither of which is of primary concern to Joyce and Woolf, can be taken over by film, which will displace the novel as the primary narrative form of the century, leaving the novelist free to explore new and different aspects of the form. Yet the opening chapter of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is dazzlingly cinematic in its manipulation of time without traditional transitions and its use of literary equivalents of flashback, flash-forward, parallel sequences, jump cuts, subliminal cuts etc. No wonder that a decade later, the master of Soviet montage, Sergei Eisenstein will be going round waving a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses under the noses of his film-making colleagues and declaring, “This is the Bible of modern cinema!”

The same tensions felt in painting and literature immediately before 1914 were also apparent in the music of the period – what one might cautiously characterise as a breakdown of order leading towards either new forms or disintegration. This is felt most strongly in the last-gasp Romanticism, early Modernism of Gustav Mahler, particularly his last completed work, the Ninth Symphony (“the most important symphony of the century”, as the critic Richard Osborne has called it, a judgment with which many great conductors would agree); and also in the work of Mahler’s pupil, Arnold Schoenberg, whose dissonances might come out of a reaction against an exhausted nineteenth century tonality or out of a response to a society on the verge of breakdown. How could a sensitive artist, he might ask, be expected to write romantic, harmonious music in such a situation? Nevertheless, even Richard Strauss, who was regarded as a modernist at that time, found Schoenberg a bit extreme: after looking at the score of Schoenberg’s ‘Five Orchestral Pieces’ of 1912, Strauss had written to Mahler’s widow, Alma that “only a psychiatrist could help poor Schoenberg now…he’d do better shovelling snow.” Still, like Mahler, Schoenberg was very conscious of his historical moment. When someone criticised him for writing such ugly and atonal music, he replied: “Somebody had to be Schoenberg, and no one else volunteered, so I was.” In 1908, in the vocal finale of his second String Quartet, a soprano voice sings the words of Stefan Georg: “I feel air from another planet…” The observation could be both musical and social, in the same way as Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question’, composed in the same year, poses similar questions: whither tonality? whither harmony? whither humanity?

The most striking musical event during the period – and the most notorious premiere in musical history – was the premiere in Paris on 29 May, 1913 of Stavinsky’s ballet score, The Rite of Spring, which provoked a riot. Indeed ‘striking’ might be the operative word: one observer has written that he felt an incredible throbbing in his temples which he thought must have been the effect of the score but then realised that the man behind him had stood up and started pounding out the rhythm of the music on the top of his head. According to Stravinsky’s own account, protests against the music were underway even before the curtain had risen and they exploded into uproar when the ballet started, the dancers being described by Stravinsky in his autobiography as “a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”. He had stormed backstage to deal with the choreographer Nijinsky but then had to restrain him from running onto the stage to remonstrate with the audience. The scandal had the effect of validating the newness of the work and the authenticity of Stravinsky’s modernist credentials, and converting it into an instant classic. Indeed for a while afterwards, people would turn up for a performance in anticipation of a riot and were most put out when it failed to materialise. Siegfried Sassoon expressed his disappointment at this in his poem, ‘Concert Interpretation’:

No tremor bodes eruption and alarms.
They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity
As though it were by someone dead- like Brahms.

However one interprets the subject of the Rite of Spring (as the sound of the cracking of the Russian spring, or the necessity of conflict, or the primitivism within us all, which would link it with other key texts of modernism, like Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or however one interprets its mood – brutal, barbarous, mechanical, destructive, vital, joyous – it remains one of the landmarks of twentieth century art, being musically to the 20th century what Beethoven’s 9th was to the 19th. T. S. Eliot was to say that he heard in it the sounds of the new century – the motor horn, the beating of metal, the roar of engines – but felt that Stravinsky had “transformed those despairing noises into music”. There will be something Stravinskian about Eliot’s great poem of 1922, The Waste Land, with its rigorous objectivity and anti-romanticism and its underlying theme of sacrifice and rebirth. I also think of Stravinsky when I read D. H. Lawrence’s great novel of 1915, The Rainbow and that remarkable scene of the pregnant Anna’s naked dance, as if she is seeking some kind of mystical experience or release – a desire to feel life in the body more than the mind. It’s a sort of Stravinskian dance of life. Her husband looks on, bemused and appalled, rather like the audience on Stravinsky’s opening night, but from another perspective, it could appear beautiful, different, liberating. Stravinsky always claimed the music came to him in a dream, hearing it in his head even before he had any precise idea of how to write it down in conventional musical notation. “I didn’t compose ‘The Rite’,” he would say, “I was the vessel through which it passed.”

These, then, are some (not all) of the most famous artistic highlights of the pre-First World War period; and, in conclusion. I would like to emphasise two points about them. One of the features of the arts at this time is its interconnectedness. A writer was as much likely to be influenced in his work by a painter or composer as by another writer, and this was true of artists in other fields. It is an extraordinary period of artistic cross-fertilisation. I have already noted the impact on the writer Arnold Bennett of the Post-Impressionist Exhibition. The composer Schoenberg had close connections with The Blue Rider school of artists and was no mean painter. Vaughan Williams said that the magical epilogue that concluded his ‘London Symphony’ of 1914 was inspired by a passage describing the Thames from H. G. Wells’s great Condition of England novel of 1909, Tono-Bungay. Rupert Brook’s poem ‘Grantchester’ will be set to music by Charles Ives. The impact of the composer Mahler on Thomas Mann was the main inspiration behind his novella Death in Venice. Kandinsky talked in musical terms about his painting, talking of the “silencing” or the “sounding” of one colour by another; and in the catalogue for the second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912, Clive Bell claimed that “we now expect a work of art to have more in common with a piece of music than with a coloured photograph.” In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky will write that “music, poetry, painting, architecture are all able in their different way to reach the essential soul, and the coming era will see them brought together, mutually striving to the great attainment.” That interconnectedness is one of the most distinctive and exciting aspects of the arts of that period and possibly one of the reasons why I love it, because I have always been deeply affected by something that Leonard Bernstein said in the first of his marvellous Harvard lectures of 1973 called The Unanswered Question about the importance of inter-disciplinary values and his belief that “the best way to “know” a thing is in the context of another discipline.”

My final point has to do with context. It is surely impossible to respond to the literature, music, painting of the period without being aware in each of a sense of crisis, collapse and a corresponding need for innovation and an affirmation of the new. The reasons for this could be artistic (the perceived exhaustion of Romanticism in music, realism in fiction, Impressionism in painting); or they could be social (the widespread political turbulence, or a premonition of impending crisis, as in that ominous second sentence of Death in Venice when Thomas Mann refers to “a spring afternoon in that year of grace 19-, when Europe sat upon the anxious seat beneath a menace that hung over its head for months.”) The Australian painter Sidney Nolan thought that Art sometimes acted as an Early Warning System, that one of the things that distinguished great artists was the gift of being able to sense something in the air. Van Gogh wrote of what he called “the miraculous regularity with which art is always the first to indicate the direction life is taking.” Leonard Bernstein thought Mahler’s 9th Symphony was the greatest of the twentieth century because of its prophetic quality; it saw into the future and, in Bernstein’s words, “in that foretelling, it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since.” In their book entitled Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1996), the authors Allan Janil and Stephen Toulmin posed the following question: “Was it an absolute coincidence that the beginnings of twelve-tone music, ‘modern’ architecture…non-representational art and psychoanalysis were all taking place simultaneously?” There is a danger that, with the benefit of hindsight, one can impose a schematic and convenient pattern on a period and give it a coherence that might have been far from clear at the time. Nevertheless, I continue to contend that what was happening across the arts in that period – the strains, the tensions, the rejection or revision of tradition, the sense of a breakdown of order into chaos – was not coincidence but confluence. If there is a phrase for the whole experience, I would cite something that D. H. Lawrence said was the theme of The Rainbow and it could almost come from a Futurist manifesto: “The old world is done for, crumbling on top of us: there must be a new world.”

So, when Virginia Woolf wrote that “in or about December 1910, human character changed,” she might have been outrageous, eccentric, deliberately provocative: but she also had a point.

Neil Sinyard

For anyone wishing to explore the topic further, I have attached a list of some Key Artistic events between 1910 and 1914.
As introductory reading, I can recommend the following:
J. B. Bullen (ed.), Post-Impressionists in England: The Critical Reception (1988)
Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe, 1900-18 (1994)
Ian Dunlop, The Shock of the New (1972)
Nigel Gosling, Paris 1900-1914 (1978)
Peter Nicholls, Modernisms (1995)
Paul Poplawski (ed.), Encyclopedia of Literary Modernisms (2003)
Alan Rich, Music: Mirror of the Arts (1969)
Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (1998)
S. K. Tillyard, The Impact of Modernism 1900-1920 (1988)
Peter Vergo, Art in Vienna 1900-1918 (1975)


Art: First Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London; Picasso, Portrait of a Young Girl with Mandolin
Literature: E. M. Forster, Howards End; W. B. Yeats, The Green Helmet; death of Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain.
Music: Stravinsky, The Firebird; Elgar, Violin Concerto; Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; London premiere of Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Salome.
Film: D. W. Griffith moves his film operation to California in an area called Hollywood.

Art: Kandinsky and Franz Mark set up ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ exhibition in Munich.
Literature: Rupert Brooke poems first published; Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes; H. G. Wells, Ann Veronica; D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock.
Music: Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier; Stravinsky, Petrushka; Elgar, Symphony No.2; Sibelius, Symphony No.4; Ravel, Daphnis and Chloe; Bartok, Bluebeard’s Castle; Debussy, Jeux; death of Gustav Mahler.
Film: The birth of the fan magazines and revealing of the identity of the Biograph girl, Florence Lawrence.

Art: 2nd Post-Impressionist in London; Kandinsky writes On the Spiritual in Art; Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
Literature: First English translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past; Edward Marsh’s anthology Georgian Poetry; Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. Death of August Strindberg.
Music: World premieres of Mahler’s Symphony No.9 and Das Lied von der Erde; Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire; Ravel’s Orchestral Suite Mother Goose.
Film: D. W. Griffith, The Massacre; Enrico Guazzani’s Quo Vadis; legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt is filmed in Queen Elizabeth and declares to producer Adolph Zukor ‘You have preserved the best of me in pickle for all time.’

Art: The Armory Exhibition of Post-Impressionist Art in New York; Kokoschka’s Die Windsbraut (portrait of turbulent relationship with Mahler’s widow); Emil Nolde’s The Prophet.
Literature: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes; D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; May Sinclair, The Three Sisters.
Music: Stravinsky, Rite of Spring; Charles Ives, Fourth of July; Webern, 6 Pieces for Orchestra; Magnard’s 4th Symphony; first gramophone recording of a complete symphony (Artur Nikisch conducts Beethoven’s 5th).
Film: Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria; Victor Sjostrom’s Ingeborg Holm; Cecil B. DeMille’s Squaw Man; Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas; Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline.

Literature: James Joyce, Dubliners and serialisation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion; Wyndham Lewis, Blast; John Buchan begins The 39 Steps.
Music: Holst, The Planets; Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony; Prokofiev, Scythian Suite.
Film: Sennett Tillie’s Punctured Romance.

Power Without Glory: some reflections on the character of the Lieutenant in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and on his relationship with the whisky priest

Graham Greene’s epigraphs to his novels were always intended as an important pointer to their meaning; and the epigraph to The Power and the Glory is particularly resonant. It comes from the seventeenth century English poet, John Dryden, a political satirist and also, like Greene, a later convert to Catholicism:

Th’ inclosure narrow’d; the sagacious power
Of hounds and death drew nearer every hour.

The entire atmosphere of the novel is conjured up in that single couplet: of time and space running out; of the situation of someone being hounded unto death. Also the phrase ‘sagacious power’ – that is, power used wisely – touches on many areas, both political and religious, in the novel. Put simply, one could say that the Lieutenant represents power without glory; and the priest attains glory even though powerless. The relationship has sometimes been represented as a collision of opposites, and Greene himself implied that when, in an introduction to an edition of the novel published in 1963, he described the Lieutenant as ‘a counter to the failed priest; the idealistic police officer who stifled life from the best possible motives; the drunken priest who continued to pass life on.’1 As dramatised in the novel, the relationship between Lieutenant and priest seems to me more complex than that; and by way of contextualisation – and in the spirit of suggesting that hardly anything in Greene is as straightforward as it appears – I would like to comment on two of the most puzzling incidents of Greene’s early life, in neither of which does he behave predictably or as one might have expected given his declared beliefs and apparent political sympathies. The first touches on his attitude to the police; the second relates to his attitude to politics and religion.

At the age of 21, Graham Greene had for a short time become a special constable, helping to uphold the law at the time of the General Strike in England of 1926. It was an act that in retrospect seemed so out of character that in later life he was sometimes asked about it. To Marie-Francois Allain, for example, he explained that it arose out of an incident where the strikers had fire-bombed the premises of The Times newspaper where Greene was at that time employed as a sub-editor and which was, incidentally, the only newspaper which managed to publish uninterrupted throughout the duration of the strike.2 Greene said he felt an obligation to defend his place of work, but there may have been family and domestic pressures too. His brother, Raymond (always a public-spirited fellow who was later to become a distinguished physician) had also become a special constable; and Greene by this time was engaged to his future wife, Vivien, a staunch Conservative, and it is unlikely he would have risked her disapproval by siding with the strikers.

According to Greene, the job did not amount to much. ‘I used to parade of a morning with a genuine policeman the length of Vauxhall Bridge,’ he was to write in his autobiography, A Sort of Life:

There was a wonderful absence of traffic, it was a beautiful hushed London that we were not to know again until the blitz, and there was the exciting sense of living on a frontier, close to violence…. Our two-man patrol always ceased at the south end of Vauxhall Bridge, for beyond lay the enemy streets where groups of strikers stood outside the public houses. A few years later my sympathies would have lain with them, but the great depression was still some years away: the middle class had not yet been educated by the hunger marchers.3

That is a very interesting passage. The phrase ‘the exciting sense of living on a frontier, close to violence’ is a clear anticipation of the kind of novel Greene would be priming himself in the future to write (at that time he had not begun to write novels) where the image of a ‘frontier close to violence’ will be a pervasive one in his fiction. It might also be seen as an anticipation of the kind of life he was due to lead at the dangerous edge of things. Also he recognises that this incident really precedes his political education and awareness.

What are we to make of this episode in his life, particularly when it seems so much against the grain? His less sympathetic commentators, like Michael Shelden, have picked up on this moment and argued that it is another example of his slipperiness and moral deviousness: a man practised in the art of deception. Is it really an aberration or is it a revelation of the real Greene as secret policeman, which he discloses to us as a double-bluff to keep us off the scent? My inclination is to see it as the former and to view Greene’s commitment to law enforcement at that time as being about as serious as his membership of the Communist Party in the 1920s, which stemmed not from conviction but seemed mainly to be a ruse to secure some free foreign travel and lasted all of four weeks. I incline to think it was sincere at the time as Greene’s political radicalisation came later; and to see it as an example of that tendency so nicely described by the great American poet Robert Frost in his poem ‘Precaution’ of 1936:

I never dared be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.4

Nevertheless, it is the one incident in his early life that does seem to run quite counter to his later proclamation of the writer’s ‘virtue of disloyalty’ to the State: here he is a pillar of State authority, and I just wonder whether that background fact throws a slightly different light on his portrayal of the Lieutenant: he might recognise in him something of his younger, more conservative, self.

The second out-of-character incident occurred shortly before the writing of The Power and the Glory, by which time his political sympathies had moved substantially to the Left. In June 1937, at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the British periodical Left Review sent a questionnaire to writers and poets with the following question: ‘Are you for, or against, the legal government and the people of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, France and Fascism?’ The results were published in a booklet entitled Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War (1937) and, unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the writers listed (127 out of 149) favoured the Spanish Republic over Franco. To many people’s surprise, however, Greene professed neutrality. He definitely favoured the Republicans against Franco; but, as W.H. Auden, for example, was later to feel, he was horrified by the devastation of the churches and the murder of priests and nuns. Greene’s novel, The Confidential Agent (1939), which he was writing at the same time as The Power and the Glory, touches on the Spanish situation without being very explicit; and his travel book about Mexico, The Lawless Roads (1939) is generally regarded as the catalyst for the novel. Yet, I have always thought that, in a surrogate way, The Power and the Glory is about Spain as well as Mexico: it could be seen as Greene’s displaced apologia for his response to the Left Review‘s question about the Spanish War by dramatising the plight of a Catholic priest in a context of danger, intolerance and persecution. In other words, what Greene brings to this central relationship between policeman and priest in The Power and the Glory is a more complicated personal, political and religious baggage than he himself acknowledged, and the relationship is much richer in characterisation as a result.

The policeman and the priest are prototypes of characters which recur in Greene: the hunter and the hunted. The hunted man at the end of his tether is a familiar Greene protagonist (one sees him, for example, in a powerful short story Greene wrote about this time in 1938, ‘Across the Bridge’, memorably filmed by Ken Annakin in 1957 with Rod Steiger in the leading role) and Greene’s sympathies are instinctively drawn to the underdog, the anti-hero, the oppressed, those who lie outside the boundaries of State approval. It is not surprising perhaps that the really memorable characters in Greene – Pinkie in Brighton Rock (1938), the whisky priest, Harry Lime in The Third Man – are on the wrong side of the law, clinging to their own morality or amorality in defiance of that of the society in which they move. Greene has sometimes been accused of ideological inconsistency in the distribution of his sympathies. For example, in a review of the famous 1956 Paul Scofield/Peter Brook stage production of The Power and the Glory, the great British drama critic Kenneth Tynan grumbled about this. ‘At this stage of Mr Greene’s development,’ he wrote, referring to the late 1930s period when The Power and the Glory was written, ‘Satan had a Communist face. Now’ – and here Tynan is alluding to the recent publication of Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) – ‘he has an American one. Students of double-think will recognise the process.’5 But there is no inconsistency: Greene was writing on behalf of the victims of any form of State pressure or persecution, whether they be Communist or capitalist, and, as he said, the victims change. One could counter in a similar way another argument in Tynan’s review that has often been made of Greene’s novels: that he is indulging in a kind of special pleading for Catholics that would either alienate or be of no interest to those who were non-Catholics. As a non-Catholic myself, I can say that this is not the case and that, even if I might miss some of the nuances of the religious debate in the novel, I can still relate to what seems to me its core theme: the courageous way an individual will cling to his personal beliefs in opposition to a State power intent on ruthlessly enforcing conformity, and will insist on the freedom – even at the cost of danger to his own life – to make his own moral decisions. That theme is not Catholic but universal, and still capable of inspiring artists of our own day.

In contrast to the priest in The Power and the Glory, one could scarcely imagine a policeman to be a central Greene protagonist. (The exception would be Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, but there I think his Catholicism is more important than his profession and he is too flawed and tormented to be really representative.) In fact, one could hardly expect a representative of the law to be sympathetic or even interesting in a Greene novel, because he would ostensibly symbolise everything with which the author has little sympathy: a willing submission of personality in obeisance to an unthinking loyalty to the law, to the State, and to the dominant order. This does not mean that such people are bad, of course; it just means they are very dull – types whom Bernard Bergonzi calls ‘admirable examples of unimaginative integrity.’6 He is thinking of characters like the Assistant Commissioner in It’s a Battlefield (1934) and Mather in A Gun for Sale (1936), but, interestingly, the Lieutenant in The Power and the Glory does not quite fit that description: certainly a man of ‘integrity’ but ‘unimaginative’? Unimaginative characters in novels do not generally dream (they don’t have enough imagination) but the Lieutenant here has a very significant final dream.

Given the nature of the material Greene invents – metaphysical quests under the guise of pursuit thrillers – it would be inevitable that policemen play a pivotal role as the pursuers, or agents of punishment and/or justice. They are sometimes the disreputable arm of a corrupt regime, most notably in The Comedians (1966), set in Haiti in the reign of Papa Doc who hated the novel so much that he authorised a pamphlet in response to it entitled ‘Graham Greene Unmasked’ which accused Greene as being, among other things, a sadist, a spy, a torturer and a drug addict. (Greene was puzzled by ‘torturer’ but otherwise flattered; it demonstrated, he thought, that his novel had ‘drawn blood.’) Sometimes the police are just decent men negotiating their way sensitively through a legal, judicial, political and moral minefield, as exemplified by the character of Major Calloway in The Third Man so wonderfully played by Trevor Howard – Greene’s favourite performance in a gallery of great performances in that film. The policeman will often strike up a relationship with the main character, have philosophical conversations, even play games, as happens in The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Honorary Consul (1973) as they cagily try to probe the hero’s motives (and alibi) under the guise of friendship. Sometimes there is the discovery of an unexpected bond. As Bergonzi has noted, a recurrent situation in Greene is one in which two male characters – and they are always male – engage in intense discussion or argument in a confined space and in near or complete darkness: he mentions The Honorary Consul,7 but it also occurs in, for example, The Quiet American, The Comedians, Monsignor Quixote (1982) and in The Power and the Glory. The darkness not only seems to facilitate communication but foster self-disclosure, so that the two characters almost become as one, in communion with their shadow sides, as it were. It is this I want to explore now with reference to the Lieutenant: whether the priest is his opposite or, to some extent, his double.

In his comments on the novel in the 1963 edition, Greene writes that his Lieutenant was untypical of the revolutionaries he had encountered in Mexico when writing The Lawless Roads. ‘As for the idealism of my lieutenant, ‘he writes, ‘it was sadly lacking among these shabby revolutionaries’.8 He is a counter to the priest, he says; and this idea of contrast is perhaps reinforced structurally in an almost cinematic way by the manner in which Greene crosscuts between the two of them and even brings them together in the same frame, as it were, when the Lieutenant misses a possibility of arrest because of a failure of recognition. ‘If only, he thought, we had a proper photograph – he wanted to know the features of his enemy,’ Greene writes;9 and that always strikes me as a curious detail, because he has a photograph – admittedly of a much earlier occasion, but his insistence that he does not have a photograph seems to draw attention to the fact that he has one but cannot decipher it properly. ‘He wanted to know the features of his enemy’: by the end they will have ceased to be ‘enemies’, the Lieutenant conceding to the priest that ‘you are not a bad fellow’, the priest calling the Lieutenant ‘a good man’ on three different occasions, including one occasion when the policeman inadvertently gives him precisely the sum (a five peso piece) needed for a Mass. In describing the Lieutenant as a counter to the priest, Greene is doing less than justice perhaps to the subtle way he suggests connections and a duality in both men. To illustrate this, I want to concentrate on two sections of the novel: our introduction to the Lieutenant in Part One, Chapter 2 entitled ‘The Capital’; and the final part of the novel after the arrest.

This is how the lieutenant is first described:

The lieutenant walked in front of the men with an air of bitter distaste. He might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape. His gaiters were polished, and his pistol holster: his buttons were all sewn on. He had a sharp crooked nose jutting out of a lean dancer’s face; his neatness gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city.10

That description seems to me unusually dense and suggestive. Ostensibly what Greene is doing is simply dramatising the point that he made in his introduction: the contrast between the lieutenant and the other revolutionaries, with the ‘idealism’ that Greene talked of reflected perhaps in his immaculate appearance and his obvious pride in the accoutrements of office – the polished gaiters and holster, the sewn buttons. And yet there is an undercurrent of disquiet. This is not the introduction of a man at peace with himself or possessed of an inner certainty. He walks in front of his men with ‘a bitter distaste’: they do not really fulfil his ideal; the impression is of a leader with some decidedly dispiriting disciples. ‘He might have been chained to them unwillingly’: no sense there of a shared effort or belief in what they are doing, or of a pulling together for the collective good, or of the Lieutenant as an inspirational leader of men. Indeed, I am struck by the fact that the image seems almost the wrong way round: if he is the leader, should not they be chained to him ‘unwillingly’ and he, as it were, dragging them forward? The image here almost suggests the opposite: he is chained to them and they are, metaphorically speaking, pulling him back. (As a metaphor for what they stand for – a new Marxist millennium in Mexico – it is hardly very affirmative.) And there is an odd ironic joke tied to this: ‘he might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape.’ It is a strange comment, lightly ironical, speculating that the lieutenant might perhaps have tried to escape from this motley crew and that scar on his jaw was the result. Greene never does explain that scar, but it intriguingly links the Lieutenant with other scarred characters in Greene in his fiction at that time, the gangster Pinkie in Brighton Rock and the gunman Raven in A Gun for Sale whose facial scars are the external sign of an inner emotional wound. Does the Lieutenant have an inner emotional wound, then, and if so, what could it be? Religion?

‘His neatness,’ writes Greene, ‘gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city’. It seems a bit incongruous, overly conspicuous, as if ostentatiously announcing his difference. His ‘neatness’ is actually quite important. The Lieutenant shines – think of the polished holster and gaiters – which not only sets him apart from the ‘shabby city’ but also contrasts him to the shabby priest he is trying to capture. Still, there is a certain irony there: isn’t cleanliness, as the saying goes, supposed to be next to godliness? He seems almost too clean, to the point of sterility – an ascetic untouched and uncontaminated by life or human contact, and refusing to allow life to touch him. He has no need of women, we are told, and no tolerance for the weakness of human flesh; he seems celibate and his living quarters are described as ‘comfortless as a prison or a monastic cell’.11 The conclusion we are invited to draw from this is an intriguing and paradoxical one: he seems more priest-like than the priest. And if we miss the irony of this, Greene draws attention to it in a comment he makes just two pages later: ‘there was something of a priest in his intent observant walk – a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again’.12

‘Errors of the past’ is an interesting phrase: in the context in which it is used, Greene is not referring to anything specific – it is just part of the extended conceit. Nevertheless, in this section we learn something of the Lieutenant’s past, significantly when he is looking at that photograph of the early communion dinner which is the only visual clue he has to the priest’s identity. ‘Something you could almost have called horror moved him when he looked at the white muslin dresses,’ Greene writes, ‘he remembered the smell of incense in the churches of his boyhood, the candles and the laciness and the self-esteem, the immense demands made from the altar steps by men who didn’t know the meaning of sacrifice’.13 Was he brought up as a Catholic, then? Is the reaction of horror less that of a non-believer than a spurned lover, who has been let down by the object of his adoration? From a man who prides himself on being almost antiseptic, there is something strangely and faintly sensual about the way he evokes these things: ‘the smell of incense…the candles, the laciness…’; they are images which belong to his childhood but which he clearly can still vividly remember. A little later we learn: ‘It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the State who believed in a loving and merciful God.’14 It is doubtful whether even the priest believes in a ‘loving and merciful’ God, but what intrigues me there is the Lieutenant’s fury at people who believe this, because it hints at a question that Greene, in a very different context, is going to pursue in a later Catholic novel of his, The End of the Affair (1951): how can you hate something that does not exist? ‘I hate You, God,’ says the narrator-hero Bendrix at the end of The End of the Affair, ‘ I hate You as though You existed’, and the capitalisation of ‘You’ gives him away, for Bendrix’s hatred – perhaps like the Lieutenant’s fury – brings God’s existence into being: if He did not exist, what would there be to hate?

There is another revealing moment in this early section when the Lieutenant puts the photo of the bank robber and homicide, James Calver, next to that newspaper photo of the first communion party years ago which shows the priest as a young man. ‘A man like that,’ thinks the Lieutenant of the robber and homicide, ‘does no real harm. A few men dead. We all have to die….We do more good when we catch one of these’, meaning the priest in the photograph.15 This is rather perverse logic from a policeman, you might think – a robber and a murderer ‘does no real harm’ – but it goes on: ‘he had the dignity of an idea, standing in the little whitewashed room with his polished boots and his venom.’ Again there is the emphasis on ‘whitewashed’ and ‘polished’ – the scrubbing out of imperfection – and a reference to ‘venom’ which suggests again that poisonous fury in him. But I like the irony in the Lieutenant’s having ‘the dignity of an idea’. Curiously enough, this moment reminds me of a dialogue exchange in that great Hollywood biblical epic of 1959, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (Greene was invited to do some script doctoring on that film, incidentally, because, as the producer told him, ‘There’s a bit of an anti-climax after the Crucifixion’). Early on in the film, the new Roman commander Messala is being told of the insurrection in Judea and how they’ve got religion, and Messala says ‘Punish them, crush all rebellion’ to which his predecessor replies: ‘But how? How do you fight an idea?’ It’s a similar perception to the Lieutenant’s: you can fight the bandit because his criminality is obvious, but how do you fight what is in people’s heads and in their hearts? How do you fight an idea? Much later in the novel, when the priest has been arrested, he returns to this point. ‘You’re a danger,’ he tells the priest. ‘That’s why we kill you. I have nothing against you, you understand, as a man….It’s your ideas.’16 The Lieutenant is not afraid of other people’s ideas, he insists to the priest,17 but there is one detail that might contradict that: this immaculate, icily controlled man – and this is the only time in the novel where this happens – is visibly sweating.

I want to move now to the final part of the novel after the priest’s arrest and deal with the conversations and relationship shared between the policeman and the priest up to the latter’s execution. I am not so much concerned with the substance of the argument as the curious kinship tentatively formed between them as they talk. In a broad sense, it is an argument about the conflict between materialism and spiritualism, which in turn is implicitly here about the conflict between a Communist outlook and a Catholic one. In a strange way it anticipates the book-length conversation between the Communist mayor and Monsignor Quixote in one of Greene’s final works, Monsignor Quixote, where the disagreements are still there but now accommodated and explored in friendship, as if Greene is trying to dissolve the divisions at this latter stage of his life and find a union between Communism and Catholicism.

Critics have seen the significance of this final section of The Power and the Glory in fascinatingly different ways. For Greene’s official biographer, Norman Sherry, the relationship between priest and Lieutenant here is in some ways analogous to that of Greene’s relationship with the boy who bullied him at school, Carter, who appears in different guises throughout Greene’s fiction (beware of any character called ‘Carter’ in a Greene novel or story – there are quite a few and they are invariably suspect) and is apparently one of the reasons that Greene had a genuine superstition against giving any of his major characters a name beginning with the letter ‘C’. Sherry sees the understanding between policeman and priest as something similar to the Greene/Carter encounter and quotes the following passage from Greene’s autobiography, A Sort of Life to support his theory: ‘There was an element of reluctant admiration on both sides. I admired his ruthlessness and in an odd way he admired what he wounded in me. Between the torturer and the tortured arises a kind of relationship’.18 One might reinforce that connection by citing that curious moment in the conversation when the priest is asked why he stayed in Mexico when all the other priests had gone, including one who had always disapproved of him. ‘It felt – you’ll laugh at this,’ he explains to the Lieutenant, who does not strike one as a character who laughs much at anything, ‘just as it did at school when a bully I had been afraid of – for years – got too old for any more teaching and was turned out. You see, I didn’t have to think about anyone’s opinion any more.’19

Cedric Watts sees this section somewhat differently. ‘At the ideological climax of The Power and the Glory,’ Watts writes, ‘the Marxist lieutenant is drawn to friendship with the Catholic priest who is his captive: the lieutenant is, in some respects, a priest manqué’.20 I agree with that: it ties in with all the business I mentioned earlier about his monastic more than Marxist lifestyle and surroundings. I think it might even explain why he can never seem to get a good enough look at the photograph of the priest to recognise him: he is afraid he might see something of himself. Because there is another mysterious connection between policeman and priest: neither of them is given a name (the half-caste is not given a name either, but he does not need one: we know exactly who he is; he is Judas). There has been much critical speculation on the significance of that namelessness in relation to the priest: that he is basically allegorical; that, in the demands of the story, he has to remain anonymous and conceal his identity; that he symbolises the struggle of all individuals fighting for the right to self-assertion in a society brutally enforcing obedience to State authority. But why is the Lieutenant given no name? Does it not reinforce the connection between them? These men are not opposites but twin potentials of the same personality, representing the kind of duality that you often get in the novels of Dostoyevsky. It is odd that Dostoyevsky is not talked about much in relation to Greene, yet there is a very affecting moment in a 1993 documentary about Greene that has footage of his visiting the Dostoyevsky museum in Moscow during his visit in the 1980s and being moved to tears by the occasion. The Power and the Glory is undoubtedly Greene’s most Dostoyevskian novel, full of the Russian’s similar perceptions of the duality of human nature, of the contrasts and tensions between sainthood and sensuality, the demands of politics conflicting with the pull of personality: it is like Crime and Punishment in the way it leads inexorably to confession and a Christian conclusion. For all his uprightness, a breach of humanity is made in the rigidity of the Lieutenant through his contact with the priest. This strictest of men breaks two rules on the priest’s behalf: he tries to persuade Padre Jose to hear his confession; and he brings the priest some brandy. And his shiny spotless surface – which is so much an expression of his austere outlook – is at the end tarnished a little by the tainted breath of humanity, as the boy’s blob of spittle lands on the butt of his revolver.

The final execution is recounted as if seen in long shot. It is the Lieutenant who has to administer the final bullet – in Roger Lewis’s description of that moment in his discussion of the Laurence Olivier/George C. Scott television movie version of the novel, it is ‘like a matador who has respect – even love – for his foe.’21 It seems almost a mercy killing, like Holly Martins administering the final bullet as he shoots his best friend, Harry Lime, with Lime’s acquiescence, at the end of The Third Man (and if that sounds a far-fetched comparison, remember one thing that Lime and the whisky priest have in common: they both teach their closest companions – who will be their executioners – the three-card trick). There is another relevant comparison that comes to my mind at this point: the ending of a Greene story written in 1940 shortly after the publication of the novel, entitled ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’ (which was to be made into the 1942 film, Went the Day Well?), which ends with the shooting of a German lieutenant who has been part of a German invasion force in England at the beginning of World War Two. His killer, an English poacher, is sure he has done the right thing, but when he searches the dead man’s wallet, he discovers the photograph of a baby on a mat and it makes him feel bad, guilty, as if sensing a sudden surge of common humanity with the man he has just killed. It is a similar feeling to the one contained in that line in Wilfred Owen’s great anti-war poem, ‘Strange Meeting’: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ The final encounter between the priest and the Lieutenant has been a strange meeting, ending in the death of an ‘enemy’ who has become also a ‘friend’.

During the night before the execution, both the priest and the Lieutenant have a dream. The priest’s ends on a feeling of hope; the Lieutenant’s does not. ‘He sat at his desk,’ Greene says, ‘and fell asleep with utter weariness. He couldn’t remember anything afterwards of his dreams except laughter, laughter all the time, and a long passage in which he could find no door.’22 That striking final image – there is a similar one in A Sort of Life to evoke an unhappy childhood, which Greene likens to a tunnel with no exit23 – is for a character who might still be searching for the door that will let in the future; it is a curiously dark and irresolute image for a moment where the lieutenant has supposedly succeeded at last in what he set out to do at the beginning. This should be a moment of triumph, of resolution, one would have thought, yet his mental picture in his dream state is that of a long passage with no exit. And there is the laughter, ‘laughter all the time’, which might seem celebratory were it not for the fact that everything else seems so sombre, so claustrophobic, as if the laugh is on him. And whose laughter is it; who is having the last laugh? Funnily enough, the reference to laughter reminds one of the priest: ‘You’ll laugh at this’, he has said to the Lieutenant. Is it the priest’s? Or God’s? Has the encounter with the priest awoken in him, I wonder, a memory of a lost childhood, of a road not taken? Thinking of the Lieutenant’s state of mind in the night before the execution – and thinking back to his boyhood, his memories of the church, his fascination with that photograph of the communion party that he can never quite decipher, maybe, like the priest, having a ghostly sense of having missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place – I am drawn again to a couplet of the poet Robert Frost. This is from his poem, ‘Cluster of Faith’ of 1962 and might be the kind of thing running through the mind of the Lieutenant – this priest manqué – at the end of this extraordinary physical and psychological quest:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee,
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.

Neil Sinyard

This is the text of a lecture given at the Sorbonne in October, 2007.

drupal stats

  1. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, p. ix. This essay references the 1962 Penguin edition; also the 1963 Heinemann Educational Edition. 

  2. Marie-Francois Allain, The Other Man (London: The Bodley Head, 1983). 

  3. Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (London: The Bodley Head, 1971), pp.174-5. 

  4. Robert Frost, ‘Precaution’ (1936). 

  5. Kenneth Tynan, Curtains (London: Longmans, 1961), pp. 124-5. 

  6. Bernard Bergonzi, Studies in Greene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 118. 

  7. Bergonzi, p. 180. 

  8. Greene, The Power and the Glory, 1963 Heinemann Educational Edition, p. ix. 

  9. p. 57. 

  10. Penguin edition, p. 20. 

  11. p. 24. 

  12. p. 26. 

  13. p. 22. 

  14. p. 24. 

  15. p. 23. 

  16. pp.193-4. 

  17. p. 197. 

  18. Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene: Volume One (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989), p. 80. 

  19. p. 196. 

  20. Cedric Watts, A Preface to Greene (London: Pearson Education, 1997), p. 112. 

  21. Roger Lewis, The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (London: Arrow Books, 1997), p. 110. 

  22. p. 207. 

  23. p. 78. 

Aspects of Innocence and Experience: some reflections on literature and film analogy, with particular reference to Henry James and Billy Wilder

One of the finest and most influential books of film theory, Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) has, I think, one particularly fine but not very influential sentence. At the end of his chapter on the auteur theory, he writes: ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts: Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, or Hawks with Faulkner.’1 I used that observation as the starting point of one of the chapters in my book, Filming Literature (which is itself nearly 30 years old now) and it was always my favourite chapter of the book. I called it ‘Kindred Spirits’; and the kindred spirits I compared were Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and John Ford, Joseph Conrad and Orson Welles, and Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock.2

Such comparisons have continued to interest me; and certainly in those particular cases I’ve discovered many more points of contact than I realised at the time. In the case of Dickens and Chaplin, I’d no idea at that time that Chaplin had actually given a talk to the Dickens Fellowship in London in 1955, attracting a record attendance of over 300 members and calling his talk ‘The Immortal Memory of Charles Dickens’; or that, during the last year of his life in 1977, Chaplin had obsessively read and re-read Oliver Twist, obviously because it reminded him so sharply of his own appalling childhood and experience in the workhouse. In the case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, at time of writing that chapter and comparing Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I had no idea that Hitchcock had tried to buy the rights of Our Man in Havana nor that he had once approached Greene to write the screenplay of his most overtly Catholic film, I Confess (a fact, incidentally, that is still surprisingly omitted from most Greene biographies). I was later to expand on this comparison in my book on Graham Greene;3 and, in fact, the writer-director Neil Jordan has commented on the connection between these two and wondered about what he called Greene’s ‘strange miasma about the work of Alfred Hitchcock’, without doubt Greene’s biggest blind-spot as an otherwise exceptional film critic, which he never corrected and which Jordan rightly thought seemed a little suspect: ‘And there must be another book to be written,’ as he put it, ‘about the lack of contact between these two poets of English criminality and bad conscience’.4

Strangely, though, comparative books between literary authors and film auteurs have not happened, perhaps because the whole notion of authorship – what constitutes an author – has become more complicated, in both literary and filmic terms, since Wollen wrote his book. In revisiting this territory, particularly in relation to Henry James and Billy Wilder, I thought at the outset I should revisit the personal question of why this continues to interest me, and the motives and strategy behind the comparison. I was, and remain, fascinated by what J. Dudley Andrew, in the context of adaptation, referred to as ‘the dialectical interplay between the artistic forms of one period and the cinematic forms of our own period.’5 I like the notion of ‘dialectical interplay’ as a way of discussing connections between literature and film and between the literary artist and the film artist: it permits a broader, more open-minded perspective than had often gone on before. It offered the prospect of going beyond the ‘film of the book’ strategy, with that tired tactic of scoring points between the two, generally at the expense of the newer medium; at going beyond qualitative comparisons that became a form of cultural elitism, with the critics either using the aesthetic and cultural capital of literature to attack film for simplification or sentimentalising the original, or of being accused of surreptitiously trying to raise the prestige of film through comparison with literature or the older arts. Robin Wood was attacked for the latter, I remember, when he had the audacity to compare Vertigo with Keats in his first book on Hitchcock, but I always thought it was a very suggestive comparison, and if it has occurred to him and he can justify it, why shouldn’t he articulate it?6

I am heartened to think that critical attitudes towards adaptation have become much flexible. The touchstone of so-called ‘fidelity’ to the original is invoked much less often; adaptation is seen not as simple ‘visual reconstruction’ but much more imaginatively as, among other things, translation, transformation, re-location; and the idea of the text itself has become much more fluid, implying a recognition that any text is made up of a lot of pre-existing texts and that, as readers and viewers, we ourselves bring to it a multitude of texts from our own experience – an interaction which becomes then a form of renewal and enrichment.

In my own experience, one of the things I’ve always loved about the cinema (and maybe this accounts for my fascination with adaptation) is its multi-disciplinarity, its capacity to draw on and synthesise features of the other arts whilst still producing something uniquely cinematic. Film has elements of drama (e.g. the power of performance), the novel (its momentum of narrative), painting (its visual composition), music (its integration of image with soundtrack, use of rhythm and counterpoint). That great film critic, Raymond Durgnat had a phrase for this aspect of cinema: ‘the mongrel muse’ he called it.7 That multi-dimensional aspect of film has always had an enormous appeal for me, partly because it chimes in with something that Leonard Bernstein said at the opening of his marvellous series of Harvard lectures on music in 1973 called ‘The Unanswered Question’ and which has since become something of a critical mantra of mine: that one of the best ways to get to know a thing is in the context of another discipline. It’s sometimes said rather patronisingly of the directors of the Nouvelle Vague that they discovered Shakespeare through Orson Welles: well, what a wonderful way to discover Shakespeare. This isn’t, in the awful phrase, ‘dumbing down’ (which is often said about film adaptations) but ‘opening up’ and indeed opening vistas of artistic possibilities, journeys and adventures.

I want to undertake one such journey now by exploring connections between two great artists in their respective fields – the novelist Henry James and the film writer-director Billy Wilder – who might at first glance not seem to have that much in common. Indeed one could hardly imagine two more disparate artistic personalities on the surface: Henry James, the refined literary aesthete; Billy Wilder, the uproarious cinematic satirist. They both had elder brothers called William, though that seems at best a tenuous connection, particularly when you recall Henry’s brother William was a brilliant psychologist (often credited with the invention of the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’) whereas Billy’s brother, Wilhelm was a B-movie director, W. Lee Wilder whom even Billy described as ‘a dull son of a bitch’. Unlike Wilder, you cannot really imagine Henry James writing a part for Marilyn Monroe (unless it be Daisy Miller?). So at first you might think that this is just a case of two very different artists in different eras and media expressing themselves by very different means and whom, coincidentally, you just happen to admire and who have the occasional thing in common: you might think that, and you’d be absolutely right. But why is it, then, that when I think of one, I invariably think of the other? It’s that strange connection that I want to say more about now; and I should at the outset say that I’m in not in any way talking about conscious influence – there’s no evidence I know of to indicate Wilder had read any Henry James let alone was deeply affected by his work.

Initially one might list incidental aspects of their personal and artistic character that they (along with other artists) had in common. They were both great raconteurs. Wilder was a famously good interviewee, full of waspish witticisms about Hollywood and stars, notably on Marilyn Monroe (‘My God, there’ve been as many books on Marilyn Monroe as on World War Two – and there’s a great similarity…. She had a brain like Swiss cheese, full of holes – and she was never on time: mind you, my Aunt Ida is always on time, but I wouldn’t pay to see her in a movie’). James was noted as an inveterate one-way conversationalist, whom a young Virginia Woolf remembered as a frequent and loquacious visitor to their house, sounding forth as he leaned back in his chair and apparently on one occasion leaning back so far that he actually fell off, though, as Virginia Woolf recalled it, still continuing to declaim even as he sailed backwards through the air.

On artistic matters, there were two characteristics they shared which I just want to comment on briefly here. They were both perfectionists and absolutely meticulous in their attention to the written word. James’s Prefaces to his novels constitute an extraordinary document of the thought and care that went into the construction and articulation of his work. T. S. Eliot called this quality in James ‘an integrity so great, a vision so exacting that it was forced to the extreme of care and punctiliousness for exact expression.’8 It would not be an exaggeration to make the same claims for Billy Wilder, who went into direction essentially to protect his scripts and who, when he was filming, would ensure that his co-writer from the mid-1950s, I. A. L. Diamond was seated on the set, ensuring that the actors had not deviated from the script by a single syllable: if they had, the scene would have to be done again. Both of them were sticklers about form and structure. I remember once trying to count the recurrent motifs and leitmotifs in Wilder’s The Apartment that bind the whole thing together in this beautiful structure – I counted 28. Too schematic? ‘Maybe construction is frowned upon these days,’ Wilder would say in the 1970s, ‘but that’s the way we’ve been doing it and that’s the way we’re going to do it until they take the cameras away’.9 In the case of Henry James, one thinks of his reply to Hugh Walpole who’d just been reading Dostoyevsky and was suggesting that surely the most important thing was what the artist was actually saying and that form was secondary to substance. In strenuously disagreeing, James countered: ‘Don’t let anyone persuade you that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds, and preserves, substance.’ His objection to Dostoyevsky and to Tolstoy was that they created, in his famous phrase, ‘loose, baggy monsters’, with a leakage of substance caused by an inadequacy of form.

Another thing the two men had in common: they were both art connoisseurs. James was an art critic of great discrimination, and Wilder had one of the finest art collections of anyone in Hollywood: when he came to sell it towards the end of his life, it fetched more than $30 million. Because of his insistence on the primacy of his scripts and his hostility to overt visual effects, Wilder has been underrated as a visual stylist, but he had a very precise eye and just occasionally one can see the influence of his artistic tastes in his own compositions (for example, in The Apartment, there’s a conscious and thematically significant allusion to Henri Rousseau’s ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ in one of the shots after the Shirley MacLaine character has attempted suicide). Similarly, although James was the most densely verbal of novelists, he was very sensitive to visual detail, and some of the greatest moments of revelation in his novels are essentially pictorial. For example, in The Portrait of a Lady, the first inkling that the young heroine, Isabel Archer has that her husband Gilbert has had a former intimate relationship with Madame Merle is an occasion when she comes upon them unexpectedly and there is just something in their posture – nothing as flagrant or obvious as an embrace – that strikes her as disquieting in Chapter 40:

She perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends, in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected.10

It’s an image that will later trigger her tormented self-communing across the whole of that wonderful Chapter 42, as she sits alone in front of the fire, mentally analysing the agonies of her marriage, a scene that will build to that devastating last sentence when, at 4 in the morning, she exhaustedly starts to go to bed: ‘But even then she stopped again in the middle of the room and stood there gazing at a remembered vision – that of her husband and Madame Merle unconsciously and familiarly associated’.11

One more comparative example of their visual astuteness: in one of James’s late great novels, The Ambassadors, where his style has become very tortuous and elaborated (I always remember reading a volume of Alec Guinness’s memoirs where he said he’d started to read James’s The Wings of the Dove and after the first page, he’d gone so dizzy with the exhaustion of trying to follow the sentences that he had to lie down). Nevertheless, as in Portrait of a Lady, the key moment of revelation is visual not verbal: an act of seeing, when its hero, a middle-aged American in Paris, Lambert Strether catches sight of what seems like a courting couple in a boat on a lake, recognises them as two people he has idealised on coming to know them, and suddenly realises they are engaged in a furtive and ignoble affair. As in Portrait of a Lady, the vision is not only a moment of revelation but a moment of self-revelation, where the watcher becomes aware of his naïve gullibility as well as the others’ worldly corruption. An equivalent moment in Billy Wilder would be that astonishing moment in The Apartment, when Jack Lemmon’s clerk, on the path to promotion in his job through blithely lending his apartment key to his superiors so they can pursue their extra-marital affairs, learns that the woman he loves, Shirley Maclaine’s elevator operator, is having an affair with his boss (Fred MacMurray). Again it’s an exquisitely planned moment of seeing. She lends him her compact case to check his executive bowler hat in its mirror and the mirror is broken; and he suddenly recognises it as something he has found in his apartment and returned to his boss to whom he has lent his key. The shot of his fractured reflection- which is the moment of recognition – not only signifies the shattering of his illusions about her but also is the moment when he is compelled to see himself and the dual role he has been playing. Like the Jamesian moments I’ve described, it’s a moment of maximum disillusionment – what James in the Preface of The Ambassadors calls the ‘terrible fluidity of self-revelation’ – and they are moments prepared for and delivered by two consummate masters of dramatic structure.

There are numerous other points in common that I could mention – their social comedy, their sophisticated use of often unreliable narrators, their desire for popular success mingled with the tasting of the bitterest failure – in James’s case, his play, Guy Domville, where, coming to take his author’s bow at the end, he was booed off the stage; or in Wilder’s case, Kiss me, Stupid, which was critically reviled – but I want to come now what seems to me the core connection between them. Let me state it as a blunt proposition: that Billy Wilder could be seen as Henry James in reverse, a sort of mirror image, distorted by different perspectives of personality, time and artistic form, but at the same time and in an odd way strikingly reminiscent of each other.

To sketch this out a bit: Henry James is an American, a New Yorker of the 19th century who travels to Europe and eventually settles there, becoming in a way more European than the Europeans, though never, as it were, shaking off his American accent. He never desires to return to America – as he put it in a letter to his sister-in-law Mrs William James,12 ‘I could go back to America to die, but never, never to live’ (he will, in fact, die in London); and yet he never loses his American perspective; and the contrast and conflict between America and Europe becomes a key theme of his work (I’m thinking of novels like Roderick Hudson, The Europeans, The American, The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady – a far from exhaustive list). By contrast, Billy Wilder is a 20th century European, born in Sucha which is now in Poland but which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who emigrates to America from Berlin when the Nazis come to power (as he put it when he left in 1933, ‘Berlin was not a place for a nice Jewish boy to be’) and settles there. He becomes more American than the Americans – he develops a legendary passion for baseball and a compendious knowledge of American popular songs that will find its way into his films – but he never loses his European perspective and, like James, the America/Europe conflict and contrast is at the core of many of his films (The Emperor Waltz, A Foreign Affair, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, One, Two, Three, Avanti!). For all his nearly seventy years in America, he literally never loses his European accent, about which he is to the end of his life very sensitive. His accent apparently became particularly pronounced at moments of stress, like the first day of shooting a new film; and there’s a famous occasion when he begins shooting The Fortune Cookie and starts barking out heavily accented instructions: Jack Lemmon, who by that time has worked with Wilder on three previous films, is unfazed, but Walter Matthau, who has never worked with him before, is at first baffled and then intrigued. ‘Say,’ he says to Wilder, ‘You’re from outta town, aren’t you?’

To put this comparison in another way: Henry James is a supreme American master of the great artistic form of the 19th century, the novel, a century that could be called the ‘European century’; Wilder is a supreme European-born master of the great artistic form of the 20th century, the cinema, a century that could be called the ‘American century’. ‘One day the world will be yours,’ says Emperor Franz Joseph in Wilder’s fin-de-siecle musical comedy, The Emperor Waltz to Bing Crosby’s American phonograph salesman in Vienna, to which Crosby replies without batting an eyelid, ‘You bet it will.’ This cultural, social and artistic contrast between America and Europe will give both of them their big theme: what James would call the ‘International theme’ and what Wilder might call ‘A Foreign Affair’. To put it in James’s words at the beginning of his book, William Wetmore Story and his Friends (1903): ‘The social, personal, aesthetic relation of the American world to the European made as charming a subject as the student of manners, morals, personal adventures, the history of taste, the development, need wish to take up.’ Wilder’s work would also completely confirm that.

In James’s case, he will become enthralled by, and will work infinite variations on, the situation of American ‘innocence’ coming up against European ‘experience’ and watching the interaction. There is a very funny passage early on in James’s study of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1879) where he writes:

One might enumerate the items of high civilisation, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it would become a wonder to know what was left… No sovereign, no court… no aristocracy, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles… nor old country houses, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; nor little Norman churches; no great universities nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; … no museums, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom nor Ascot! The natural remark in the almost lurid light of such an indictment would be that, if these things are left out, everything is left out.

This [heavily edited] evocation of the then emptiness of American culture and heritage, as James saw it, always reminds me of that moment in Citizen Kane when Kane is off to Europe for a break and Bernstein is pulling his leg about the pictures and statues he hasn’t bought yet: ‘You can’t blame me, Mr Bernstein,’ Kane replies, ‘They’ve been making statues for 2,000 years and I’ve only been buying for five.’ In other words, if we Americans can’t acquire culture and heritage through experience, maybe we can buy it, turn it into a commodity. Money, acquisitiveness and greed will become key themes in James, as they are in Wilder, but at that stage, I think, the conflict is between American innocence (which can connote idealism but also ingenuousness) coming up against European experience (which can connote culture and civilisation but also corruption and decadence). Behind it all, I think, are two crucial things for James, as they will be equally crucial for Wilder: firstly, a vision of an ideal society, which is something he sketches in The American Scene (1907) and which would combine the best of American vitality and enterprise with European culture and sophistication; and, secondly, an exploration of his own identity as a Europeanised American.

Wilder’s 20th century equivalent to that outburst of James against the shallowness of 19th century America might be something that Marilyn Monroe’s character says in The Seven-Year Itch when she’s talking about her appearance on a tv commercial: ‘Every time I show my teeth on television, more people see me than ever saw Sarah Bernhardt. It’s something to think about, isn’t it?’ It certainly is; and the critic Stephen Farber in a fine Film Comment article on Wilder, made a potent observation on this: ‘That line crystallises Wilder’s disenchanted vision of today’s world, Americans with “kissing sweet” toothpaste grins, who haven’t the slightest shred of culture, refinement or elegance.’13 Up to a point that’s true, but I also think that part of Wilder loves that kind of vitality and indeed vulgarity: it might not be that refined, but it’s close to real life. If Henry James is the 19th century American who has gone to Europe and been completely seduced by its culture and refinement, Wilder is the 20th century European who has gone to America and been bowled over by its energy and drive (one can see that particularly in a film like Some like it Hot). He falls in love with the country (according to his first major screenwriting collaborator, Charles Brackett: ‘in love with America as I have seen few people in love with it’), yet he also sees the flaws more bitingly than any other director of his generation and seems to hanker occasionally for an injection of ameliorating European civilisation and humanity, which I think he also recognises has probably gone. Like James, he evokes a lost ideal more than a prospective reality or aspiration. In James, the America/Europe theme will culminate in The Ambassadors; in Wilder, it will culminate in his 1972 film, Avanti!, ostensibly a light romantic comedy with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, actually an epic personal contemplation, lasting around two-and-a-half-hours, of America/Europe interaction and his own identity as an Americanised European. As it is in James, the European landscape is felt as a moral as well as a physical presence. Indeed you can not only feel and see this America/Europe interaction, conflict and contrast in Wilder; you can also hear it over his soundtracks which often counterpoint American popular idioms with European classics: e.g. the popular song ‘Fascination’ with a Haydn symphony in Love in the Afternoon; the song ‘Tangerine’ with Schubert in Double Indemnity; Bing Crosby warbling sentimental lyrics to Johann Strauss waltzes in The Emperor Waltz.

This kind of duality – between high culture/ popular culture, America/Europe, Innocence/Experience – set me thinking about something that Graham Greene wrote in an essay on James in 1936: that

to render the highest justice to corruption, you must retain your innocence; you have to be conscious all the time within yourself of treachery to something valuable. If Peter Quint is to be rooted in you, so must the child his ghost corrupts; if Osmond, Isabel Archer… These are the points of purity in the dark picture.

You do get these figures in Wilder as well as James: there are the predators, like the William Holden heroes or Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, but there are also the more pure in heart, like the Audrey Hepburn heroines of Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon – and this is the essence of the tension. James is constantly drawn to the theme of Innocence in danger, or lost, or betrayed, in works like Washington Square, What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw, The Spoils of Poynton – and that activates Wilder too, as he contrives situations where there are very rarely two completely innocent lovers in Wilder who meet on equal terms: one is invariably deceiving the other in some way or is more worldly-wise, and that might be precisely the attraction. Innocence is attracted to experience and vice-versa- experience is attracted to innocence, perhaps in order to corrupt it, but perhaps also as a reminder of what has been lost. In one of his early stories, The Last of the Valerii, James will divide people into two categories: people who were, or who were not, as he put it, ‘susceptible of the moral life’. Wilder has a similar division in mind, but usually puts it a bit more bluntly: in The Apartment, he divides people into those who take and those who get took; and in The Fortune Cookie, he divides people into those who will do anything for money and those who will do almost anything for money (and there are characters like that in James too, notably in Washington Square and The Aspern Papers). In both cases, all this adds up to a world-view that is very much connected to their feelings as artists, outsiders and exiles, and bringing, in James’s case, an American perspective to the European scene and in Wilder’s case, a European perspective to an American scene, which will translate into rich and complex reflections on innocence, experience and morality.

I want to illustrate some of these points by showing and commenting on extracts from two Billy Wilder films. The first is his classic film noir of 1944, Double Indemnity. By now Wilder had lived in America for ten years; had established himself as a screenwriter (particularly for Ernst Lubitsch and Mitchell Leisen) and then as a director. This is his third film as director but the first to offer the kind of dark view of America with which, particularly over this and the next decade, he will be associated, Just to set the scene: an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) has plotted with an American-style femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband; fake it to look like an accident; and then claim the insurance. It seems at first like the perfect murder. But the claims investigator (Edward G. Robinson) is beginning to smell a rat; also Stanwyck’s stepdaughter, Lola has revealed to MacMurray that her mother also died in suspicious circumstances – and the nurse in charge of her was Barbara Stanwyck. The tale is being narrated in flashback by MacMurray, who is now mortally wounded.

These are not nice people, and because the characters were so unpleasant, nobody wanted to play them. Wilder had a lot of trouble casting the roles. He remained confident, however. ‘When George Raft turned it down,’ he said, ‘we knew we had a good picture.’ At this point in the film MacMurray has arranged a secret assignation with Stanwyck to warn her off claiming the insurance because Robinson is getting too suspicious:

The supermarket setting is, on one level, a nice use of dramatic counterpoint – an image of normality and order, set against a hushed discussion of the consequences of murder. On another level, it is an extension of the two protagonists: a cold and concentrated image of commerce, money, profit, precisely the forces that are driving them. There’s a sign in the shop that says ‘We Deliver- More for Less’. Meanwhile, the characterisation of the heroine is a kind of Americanised corruption of the European femme fatale: a figure allied, as Molly Haskell argued in her book, From Reverence to Rape, ‘not with the dark forces of nature, but with the green forces of the capitalist economy.’14 Yet the hold she has over the hero is still definitely sexual; and I would contend that, whereas it would be hard to imagine more indigenous American directors like Ford or Hawks, say, so convincingly creating such a devouring female siren, she could emerge from the darker cultural heritage of European émigrés like Wilder, Lang or Siodmak. There is one detail that is particularly relevant here: Wilder changes the surname of her character from Nirdlinger (in the James Cain novel) to Dietrichson – surely a conscious reference to Marlene Dietrich, the sexual siren of The Blue Angel tempting the previously upright hero to his downfall. Finally, the music drifting up from the Hollywood Bowl – as MacMurray prepares to quiz the daughter of the man he has murdered to find out how much she knows – is Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, its incomplete nature perhaps a wry analogy to a murder scheme that they are finding themselves unable to push through to a successful conclusion. More than that, though, it seems a poignant, almost subliminal memory of the European culture Wilder has left behind – and the war has now shattered- as he now begins to strip the New World of its innocence with a sardonic satirical savagery worthy of his Viennese idol, the writer Karl Krauss. It’s a wonderfully evocative and concentrated image of the Old World/New World conflict in Wilder – art and culture of the past in the dim background, a distant music, as it were: upfront grim venal greed.

I want to jump forward around 30 years to a film Wilder made towards the end of his career, Avanti!, made in 1972. The America/Europe contrast is now not only more overt but indeed the central theme of the film. Wilder’s favourite actor, Jack Lemmon plays a conservative American businessman called over to Italy to collect the body of his father, who has been killed in car crash while holidaying in Ischia. When he arrives, he is shocked to discover that not only has a woman been killed in the car along with his father, but that his father had been having a holiday affair with this woman for the last ten years. Juliet Mills plays the woman’s daughter, who has come over from England to arrange for her mother’s funeral.

The scene I want to show is the scene at the morgue where they go to identify their parents. Just two quick things by way of preface: I would argue that Avanti! is Wilder’s most Jamesian film in two respects at least: a) the Italian setting and the way it is used: it’s a kind of paradise in the film and it recalls James’s love of Italy above all other countries: as he says in his Preface to Roderick Hudson: ‘One fact about it indeed outlives all others; the fact that the loved Italy was the scene of my fiction- so much more loved than one has ever been able, even after fifty efforts, to say!’; and b) the other Jamesian touch here is the tempo. There’s a funny bit in James’s Portrait of a Lady where the brash American Caspar Goodwood grumbles that ‘Italian trains go at about the rate of American funerals’ and this scene seems almost a droll evocation of that: Jack Lemmon’s finger-snapping executive keeps trying to speed things up, but is compelled to adjust to a more leisurely tempo and to a less cynical, more romantic tone:

[Extract begins at 34:00]

Being Wilder, that scene is very funny. I love the characterisation of the coroner, this automaton who only knows one word of English (‘Okay’- rather like the Lemmon character, in fact, who only knows one word of Italian, ‘Ciao’), but who, towards the end of his appearance, with that sodden sponge in his pocket, shows a touching human fallibility; just as later, with the Jack Lemmon character, a little bit of humanity will start leaking through. I like the detail of Juliet Mills’s daffodils – which Lemmon doesn’t know the name of, in English, let alone Italian; they add colour and warmth to what could have been a chilly scene. I love the discreetness of the camerawork, which for the most part keeps a respectful distance from the action, only moving into close-up when Juliet Mills is identifying her mother and putting flowers next to her, a poignant shot that is cannily defused of sentimentality when Lemmon noses his way into the frame to sneak a curious peek at the corpse. (By contrast, she has had the discretion to look away when the corpse of Wendell’s mother has been uncovered.) I love Lemmon’s acting in this scene – overall, I think this is possibly his greatest screen performance, and that’s saying a great deal: his abashed expression when she tells him the name of the flowers; the way he can intimidate the coroner through that distinctive quizzical raising of the left eyebrow; his vocal skill to suggest how decorum is only just keeping the rein on his impatience; ‘Come on – just sign, please’/’May I make a suggestion?’/‘No’. All of this is building up to that excruciating moment when, as a casual afterthought when he is leaving and with unpardonable American brusqueness, he murmurs to Carlucci (Clive Revill): ‘Ask fat-ass if she wants a ride.’ It is a tiny detonation of exasperation and meant to be a private aside, but even Carlucci is taken aback by the rudeness; and she hears it in all its repulsiveness, replying with dignity: ‘Tell him, “No, thank you”.’ And then comes perhaps the most beautiful significant moment of all, when she goes over to the window and opens it, and suddenly the interior becomes suffused with warmth, radiance and sunlight, as if life has started up again.

Wilder aficionados might particularly sense the significance and even symbolism of that last gesture, which has occurred in Ninotchka, the famous 1939 film which Wilder co-scripted for Ernst Lubitsch; and also in Sabrina, when in both cases the heroines open the window to let in the air, a gesture of emotional and spiritual release. In both cases there the setting is Paris – ‘Paris is a place for changing your outlook, for throwing open the windows,’ says Audrey Hepburn to the jaded, plastic American executive played by Humphrey Bogart, who will indeed be heading for Paris at the end of the film. And in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, there is a comparable moment and sentiment in the open air of a spacious garden in Paris when, as if stirred by the atmosphere around him, the stuffy middle-aged American hero, Lambert Strether makes a similar plea to his young friend: ‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have had your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?’.15 It is exactly the same feeling in Wilder – a feeling of emotional release stimulated by the air the character breathes.

At one point in Avanti!, Jack Lemmon notices a 90-year-old man who is able to rise from his chair and dance with two beautiful young nurses. Musing ruefully that ‘this place must take years off your life’, Lemmon is told that the old man has been coming to the hotel ‘since before World War 1’ – in other words, before Europe tore itself apart. Although Wilder might be offering Europe as a source of spiritual rejuvenation in Avanti! to set against the materialist values of the American, the reference to the Great War signals an awareness of the way the war represented a watershed in terms of European identity and self-belief, politically and socially as well as emotionally and psychologically. For Henry James, the outbreak of war – and he did not live to see the end of it, for he died in 1916 – was a terrible shock: ‘an abyss of blood and darkness,’ he called it. To him it seemed both an awful premonition of what the new century was in for, but also a terrible betrayal of what he thought the 19th had stood for, with its promise of continual progress and betterment in which he had so fervently believed. T. S. Eliot characterised this outlook as James’s ‘Romanticism’ and he went on to elaborate on what he thought this meant:

His romanticism implied no defect in observation of the things he wanted to observe; it was not the romanticism of those who dream because they are too lazy or too fearful to face the facts; it issues rather from the imperative insistence of an ideal which tormented him. He was possessed by the vision of an ideal society; he saw (not fancied) the relations between the members of such a society. And no one, in the end, has ever been more aware – or with more benignity or less bitterness – of the disparity between possibility and fact.

In some ways I think Billy Wilder takes James’s romanticism to its next phase – now even more bruised and battered after World War Two. It might seem odd to use the term ‘Romantic’ about a film-maker so often associated – branded even – with the label ‘bad taste cynicism’, but even Andrew Sarris had to revise his assessment of Wilder in view of his later films and the light they shed on earlier works: so a director he had castigated in 1968 as ‘too cynical to believe even in his own cynicism’ was described thirty years or so later in a completely different way, when Sarris says that ‘critics [including himself?] failed to realise that his apparent cynicism was the only way he could make his raging romanticism palatable.’16 I’m not sure I would go so far as to call Wilder a ‘raging’ romantic, but I do think there’s a strong element of romanticism in classic early screenplays of his like Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939) and particularly, Hold Back the Dawn (1941), with its astonishing idealisation of an imagined America that will wash its hero – a corrupt European gigolo – clean, and which Wilder then has to adjust to the harsher realities he sees. Yet he never entirely loses this romanticism and which is connected to his European heritage, and indeed seems to flower in Europe: so that for every Double Indemnity there’s a Sabrina; for every Lost Weekend there’s a Love in the Afternoon; for every Ace in the Hole there’s an Avanti!

Remember that speech that Greta Garbo has to give towards the end of Ninotchka in 1939 when the world is on the brink of another war and where a mood of melancholy has overtaken the film. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘wars will wash over us… bombs will fall… all civilisation will crumble… but not yet, please… wait, wait… what’s the hurry? Let us be happy… give us our moment.’ Almost like the 1913 poem ‘Grantchester’ by Rupert Brooke (whom James so wildly admired), Garbo’s speech seems to be exhorting time to stand still in the hope that the drift towards war can be arrested and the world might come to its senses. It doesn’t, of course, and it’s disquieting to think about the films Wilder makes in the immediate aftermath of World War Two: editing a documentary on the concentration camps at Auschwitz, where a number of his family (including his mother and grandmother) had perished; a musical The Emperor Waltz (1947), set in the fin-de-siecle Vienna of Wilder’s youth, as if recollecting what has just been destroyed; and A Foreign Affair (1948), a black market comedy that, in the phrase of the critic Richard Winnington, ‘illuminates as well as stings’, about the American occupation of post-war Berlin, shot on location in a city that Wilder loved but had to escape from 15 years earlier and which was now little more than a heap of rubble. He will return to Berlin in One, Two, Three (1961) at the time of the erecting of the Berlin Wall, another dubious milestone of 20th century European history. But when he returns to Europe in his final films – like the Victorian London of Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or the idealised Italy of Avanti! – the vision is more mellow, nostalgic even, an affectionate evocation not only of a ‘visitable past’ (in James’s phrase in The Aspern Papers) but also of a vanished world. Even in his great penultimate film, Fedora (1978), whose setting is contemporary and which is mainly set in Corfu, the mood is more elegiac than bitter, and the situation rather Jamesian, notably the James of The Aspern Papers, with a duplicitous American hero who for his own career purposes tries to trick his way into the confidence of an old woman and her daughter, who have something he wants but are not what they seem; whose scheme will fail; but who will nevertheless find reconciliation of a kind at a funeral in Paris.

To summarise: looking at James and Wilder together, I have tried to sketch how a supreme novelist of the 19th century and a supreme film maker of the 20th have dealt with one of the big themes of their respective epochs: the contrast between America and Europe, its general significance, but also its personal meaning for them. The word ‘sketch’ is deliberately chosen: there are nuances of contrast and difference in terms of theme and style that would require much more detailed consideration. However, I would like to return to the point about the value of this kind of study and the way this value might touch on what we are doing when enthusing about adaptation.

I began by quoting from Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema about how more books were needed on film and the other arts as well as, he said, books that lead to greater clarification of debates in the context of film authorship, notably to do with the nature of collaboration, industrial and generic constraints etc. Wollen wrote this over 40 years and much of the things he asked for then have come to pass. ‘We need not two or three books on Hitchcock and Ford,’ he wrote, ‘but many, many more.’ Well, we have certainly had that, but when he went on, ‘We need comparisons with authors in the other arts, Ford with Fenimore Cooper, for example, Hawks with Faulkner’,17 that hasn’t happened, and I suggested early on why I thought this was so. But it also raises the question: why do we need this? Is it simply to see authorial similarity or influence in artists working in different artistic forms? To see where film fits in a wider artistic tradition? To see what it has in common with other arts and can learn from them- or vice-versa?

For myself, I like to think that it is another form of ‘throwing open the windows’ – of enlarging the artistic field. One of the ideas about adaptation that has always appealed to me has been, on the one hand, the idea of continuity – of a text being circulated and re-circulated amongst an evolving generation of recipients, who bring their own perspectives to it which generate and guarantee the text’s continual growth, renewal and transformation, The other great appeal for me has been the idea of the broadening community: that is, that to transform a text from one artistic form to another brings into play a whole new community that might not otherwise have encountered it. And, to take it closer to James and Wilder, it relates to the way artists across different media connect and- sometimes you feel almost by a process of osmosis- communicate with each other, discover an inter-relationship quite unconsciously.

One of the projects I was going to do a long time ago (my book on Billy Wilder intervened) was a study of the interrelationships between the arts and artists responding to something in the air in the period immediately before World War One: comparative essays that drew out connections between Picasso and Stravinsky; Kandinsky and Schoenberg; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes and the music of Ravel; Gustav Mahler and Thomas Mann, particularly the Mahler of the 9th Symphony and the Thomas Mann of Death in Venice; H.G.Wells’s novel, Tono-Bungay and its impact on Vaughan Williams’s ‘London’ Symphony; E.M.Forster’s Howards End and Elgar’s 2nd Symphony – all contemporaneous works that have an enormous amount in common: even though they cross different disciplines, they are responding to the same artistic, social and political currents, to similar themes and tensions of the times. When I find some free time during retirement, I might one day get back to that, as I might with another project that has preoccupied me over a number of years and is another film project that goes beyond film and would embrace the other arts – specifically, on the film, Vertigo and what it owes to, and throws light on, Romantic poetry, Impressionist painting, Gothic literature, Wagnerian opera, French Symbolism, and many other things beside. It’s almost like the feeling behind Alexander Sokurov’s single-shot tour of the Russian Hermitage in his film, Russian Ark (2002), which emphasises continuity and evolution in a single camera movement that travels through centuries and epochs and gives, as he put it, the feeling of ‘each artist sensing a whole civilisation of artists standing behind him.’ (It recalls for me too another quote from the French writer Anatole France about what critics did and indeed what they were for: ‘A good critic is one who relates the adventures of his [or her] soul amongst masterpieces.’) In a Sight and Sound piece on Sokurov and Russian Ark, Ian Christie contended that Eisenstein belonged to this same tradition, and that Eisenstein even saw it exemplified by the popular 1940s Hollywood movie, A Guy Named Joe (re-made by Steven Spielberg as Always), where dead pilots serve as guardians for the living and symbolise what Eisenstein called ‘the creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ In some ways, I like to think that is what we are doing when studying adaptation. From our own individual angles and perspectives, we are considering and discussing – even deconstructing- the ‘creative heritage that is transmitted down the generations.’ May I then just offer Henry James and Billy Wilder as my own eccentric example of this glorious transmission.

Neil Sinyard

A version of this talk was first given at an Adaptations Conference at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, and more recently at the University of Dundee. It is respectfully dedicated to my special American friend, Tom Leitch, and to the memory of the late Jim Welsh, founding editor of Literature/Film Quarterly and an exceptional scholar and gentleman who will be greatly missed.

drupal stats

  1. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 115. 

  2. Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature

  3. Neil Sinyard, Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 

  4. Foreword in Quentin Falk, Travels in Greeneland Third Edition, p.7. 

  5. Dudley Andrew, ‘Adaptation’, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (editors), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 454. 

  6. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (1965). 

  7. Raymond Durgnat, ‘The Mongrel Muse’, in F.H. Marcus (editor), Film and Literature: Contrasts in the Media (Seranton: Chandler, 1971, pp. 71-82. 

  8. T. S. Eliot, ‘A Prediction in Regard to Three English Authors: Henry James; J. G. Frazer; F. H. Bradley’, Vanity Fair, 1924. The James section of this piece is reproduced, for example, in Dorothea Krook, The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), pp. 1-2. 

  9. ‘Dialogue on Film’ in American Film, August 1976, p. 36. 

  10. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, Chapter 40. 

  11. Ibid, p. 435. 

  12. 1 April 1913. 

  13. Film Comment, Winter 1971, p. 11. 

  14. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, p. 197. 

  15. Book 5, Part 2, p. 173. 

  16. See Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, p. 326. 

  17. Wollen, p. 115. 

Pasternak and Shostakovich: From Turmoil to Triumph

In this talk I want to discuss the reception given to the novel Dr Zhivago in the Soviet Union. I also want to consider this in the context of the cultural and political climate of that time; link it with what the composer Dimitri Shostakovich was doing during this period against that same cultural/political background; outline how this reception fed into a general Cold War context that was having a significant impact on the career of the composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein in the United States; and how all this comes together in 1959 when Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in Moscow in the final concert of the orchestra’s tour of the Soviet union, with both Shostakovich and Pasternak in the audience. It’s a happy ending of sorts, triumph emerging out of adversity, a tale of a kind that the Soviets were fond of labelling as ‘optimistic tragedy.’

After working on his novel, Dr Zhivago for around 10 years, Pasternak had completed the manuscript in 1957 and submitted it for publication in the Soviet Union in the expectation, it seemed, that it would be published but in an abridged form. He was certainly aware that some parts of it might be deemed controversial, even inflammatory. Apparently when he gave it to his Italian publisher he said, ‘You’ve invited me to take part in my own execution’. ‘I have borne witness as an artist,’ he was to tell the New York Times, ‘I have written about the times I have lived through.’ As we know, it is at once a great love story and a great documentary of the Russian revolution. He knew it would be contentious because of its focus on the personal more than the political and the way it uses the Revolutionary experience almost as a backdrop to its theme of the maturation of a great Russian poet, Zhivago, who is a surrogate of Pasternak himself. Certainly there are passages which he could have predicted with some certainty would have raised the hackles of the Soviet authorities: e.g. Zhivago: ‘he understood that he was a pygmy before the monstrous machine of the future’;1 or: ‘he found he had only exchanged the old oppression of the tsarist state for the new, much harsher yoke of the revolutionary super-state’.2 And then there is Lara: ‘The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the bare, shivering human soul…’ –3 not to mention the terse, tragic description of her disappearance. But the novel offers no alternative to the Soviet system, no favourable Western model; and Pasternak thought it was more anti-political than anti-Communist. ‘Politics don’t appeal to me,’ he said, ‘I don’t like people who don’t care about the truth.’

It was undoubtedly Pasternak’s nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 that brought matters to a head. It is worth noting that the award was not only for Zhivago but also recognition of Paternak’s stature as a poet: the citation was ‘for his important achievement both in contemporary lyric poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.’ But it was immediately seen by the Soviet authorities as a deliberately provocative act by the West and, in the climate of Cold War, a political more than literary award. The Nobel Award had been announced on October 23rd. On October 26th, there was a long condemnation of the award published in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda under the heading ‘Ballyhoo of Reactionary Propaganda around a Literary Weed’ and written by a Soviet Party member, David Zaslasky, whom Shostakovich was to refer to in his memoirs as ‘that well-known bastard’. Pasternak’s book, Zaslasky said, ‘was the life-story of a malicious Philistine and enemy of the Revolution’ and, as the Nobel Prize proved, had been predictably seized on as ‘a weapon for stirring up the Cold War by the reactionary press.’4 A day later, Pasternak was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, despite an appeal from English writers such as J.B. Priestley and Graham Greene who argued for the novel’s aesthetic value and that it was ‘not a political document’. In his letter to the Soviet Writers Union, incidentally, which he knew would be scrutinised by Soviet authorities, Greene thought it would be a great propaganda coup for the Soviet Union if the novel were to be welcomed as a ‘constructive, not destructive book’; and there is some evidence that Soviet Premier Khrushchev was later to come to the same conclusion, but too late. (There is a passage in the novel where Zhivago describes his stylistic ideal – ‘a language so reserved, so unpretentious as to enable the reader to master the content without noticing the means by which it reached him’ –5 that Greene was to adopt as a personal mantra.) The political pressure on Pasternak was so ferocious, that on October 29th, less than a week after being given the Nobel Prize and in an unprecedented step, Pasternak sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy refusing the award. The campaign against him – and people close to him – was to continue, nevertheless. The novel was banned in the Soviet Union; and in the 1959 lyric, ‘The Nobel Prize’, Pasternak was to describe himself as ‘a hunted beast at bay in a dark wood’.

Pasternak’s experience raises the question of how other Soviet artists were faring during what was supposed to be a new era of liberalisation in the arts following the death of Stalin in 1953. Certainly Dr Zhivago came to be seen as an important landmark in the struggle of Soviet writers for freedom of expression, which was to be continued – and indeed, well-publicised – in the following decade by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others. There was a new vibrancy about Soviet cinema at this time, with some films, like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957), Grigori Chukrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1960), Joseph Heifetz’s Chekhov adaptation, The Lady with the Little Dog (1961), the early films of Andrei Tarkovsky, being highly acclaimed in the West and finding an international audience. But at this point I want to concentrate on the composer Dimitri Shostakovich because no one better exemplifies the trials and tribulations of the Soviet artist. He and Pasternak knew each other, though not particularly well. Shostakovich seemed to prefer Pasternak’s translations to his poetry, particularly his translations of Shakespeare. Apparently, Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 66 registered deeply with both of them, particularly line 9:

And art made tongue-tied by authority.

I’m not aware that Shostakovich made any public or private comment on Dr Zhivago, but there’s one passage in it that must have struck him with particular force, and it’s a moment late in the novel when Zhivago says: ‘The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike, and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune.’6 That is an extraordinary passage. In some ways, Shostakovich’s entire creative life could be explained in terms of that duality, and could be seen as a struggle to reconcile artistic integrity with the requirements of the State, and to be true to himself as an artist whilst appearing to toe a Party line that kept shifting beneath his feet. Two decades before Zhivago, in 1936, Shostakovich had also been vilified in Pravda and denounced for writing ‘leftist bedlam’, and ‘music of extreme modernism full of chaotic nonsensical sounds’. The article had been prompted by his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and instigated almost certainly by Stalin himself, who had attended a performance and had been seated quite near the bass section, apparently, and had left with a violent headache! But the headache was now Shostakovich’s: what to do next, recognising that his decision, if he got it wrong, could literally cost him his life. (And I do mean ‘literally’: this is the time of the Stalinist purges and is by no means an exaggeration.) So he withdrew his audacious and experimental 4th Symphony from performance (it was not be performed for another 25 years) and wrote a 5th Symphony that was more conservative in style and designed to conform to Soviet Party requirements. It was sub-titled (the actual provenance of this sub-title is somewhat obscure): A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.

One might have expected, then, a conventional, tentative, probably superficial work: what we got instead was an incredible masterpiece, a work that is certainly one of the most performed and recorded of all 20th century symphonies – there are many more modern recordings than of Beethoven’s 5th, even – and, for what it is worth, possibly my favourite work of art of all time. It would be hard to imagine a more difficult set of circumstances under which to compose – literally, a matter of life and death, for a man who has only just turned 30 – yet it fulfils the requirements of art whilst seeming to fulfil the requirements of the State as well. The finale is appropriately affirmative and triumphant: but what kind of triumph is it? In his memoirs entitled Testimony – and it must be pointed out that the authenticity of this memoir has been much disputed – Shostakovich has said about the ending of the Symphony: ‘It’s a hollow triumph- imagine somebody beating you over the head and repeating, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing”’.7 And yet; the Symphony is a triumph of artistic expression in the face of extraordinary political pressure, and it is possible to perform it perfectly straight as such a triumph. I want to return to this Symphony later.

During World War Two, Shostakovich will write three more Symphonies. Symphony No.7, the so-called Leningrad Symphony, is an overtly, or ostensibly, propagandist piece (though there is a sub-text to it) extolling Soviet resistance against Nazi barbarity and ending with the ‘Victory’ motif hammered out against a battery of percussion and brass, an ‘optimistic tragedy’ if ever there was one (victory – but at a terrible price). However his 8th Symphony written in 1943 – and Pasternak attended a rehearsal of this – is a tragic work, dark, brooding, occasionally brutal, and ending quietly, equivocally, enigmatically. His 9th Symphony, written at the end of the war and which is expected to be a sort of Ode to Joy, a large-scale celebratory piece, turns out to be a anything but: modest in scale, and quirky, satiric, anti-heroic. He is about to run into trouble with the State authorities again. In 1948, along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian and other prominent Russian composers, his music will be denounced by the Culture Minister Andrei Zhdanov for ‘its formalistic perversions’ and its ‘anti-democratic tendencies’: again he finds himself cast as an Enemy of the State. He is supported at this stage by Pasternak, who was incidentally a very keen and talented musician, who writes to him: ‘In these days I consider it my duty to press your hand, and to say that we must be true to ourselves.’8 But Shostakovich publicly recants, again seeming to acknowledge the error of his ways (‘If only they would keep silent,’ Pasternak lamented): he withdraws his formally complex 1st Violin Concerto from public performance until after Stalin’s death in 1953. In that year Shostakovich writes his Tenth Symphony, which many consider his finest, with a ferocious Scherzo which he will say later is a musical portrait of Stalin (‘it’s like a wind, flattening everything in its path’), and a finale which includes a little motto theme which is to amount to a coded personal signature – it’s built around the Russian musical notation, DSCH (i.e. Dimitri Shostakovich) – and it occurs in the first Violin Concerto, his later 8th String Quartet of 1960 (his most autobiographical composition) and blazes out in the finale of the 10th Symphony as, I always think, a shout of defiance: ‘I’m still here’.

So what was Shostakovich up to in 1957, the year when Pasternak had delivered his manuscript of Zhivago to his publishers? Well, coincidentally, he was also completing a work about the Russian Revolution, his 11th Symphony, ostensibly (a word you find yourself using a lot when talking about Shostakovich) to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of its success. Actually, though, the Symphony is sub-titled ‘The Year 1905’, and is a musical depiction of the events that precipitated the first abortive Revolution, notably the Bloody Sunday of January 9th of that year when Cossack troops opened fire on peaceful protesters in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and hundreds were killed. The Symphony is full of quotations from revolutionary songs of the period and wins the Lenin Prize in 1958 as a mark of official approval. It seems to tick all the correct ideological boxes, though Solzhenitsyn will explicitly criticise the composer in his novel Gulag Archipelago: how can Shostakovich quote these songs with approval, he asks, when political prisoners are singing them now in grim irony and being tortured by this same party?

Yet is the Symphony quite what it seems? Even Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, during the work’s dress rehearsal, was heard to say: ‘Papa, what if they hang you for this?’ A friend of the composer, Lev Lebedinsky, said: ‘What we heard in this music was not the police firing on the crowd in front of the Winter Palace in 1905 but the Soviet tanks roaring into the streets of Budapest [in 1956]’9. As for the revolutionary songs, as the poet Anna Akhmatova put it: ‘Those songs were like white birds flying against a terrible black sky.’ Akhmatova, another great emblematic Soviet artist, was to dedicate her poem ‘Music’ to Shostakovich: it goes:

It shines with a miraculous light…
It alone speaks to me
When others are too scared to come near
When the last friend turned his back
It was with me in my grave
As if a thunderstorm sang
Or all the flowers spoke.10

At first dismissed as Party propaganda or glorified film music, the 11th Symphony is now more commonly regarded as one of his most important works, a musical depiction of violence and resistance that goes way beyond its immediate context to become almost a document of the age. We have seen more than one Bloody Sunday, after all, and if you’ve heard Rostropovich’s epic performance of it with the London Symphony Orchestra, you feel by the end as if you’ve lived through the whole century. ‘I wrote it in 1957,’ said Shostakovich, ‘and it deals with contemporary events even though it’s called 1905….Can music attack evil? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to various vile acts to which he has grown accustomed? …It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.’ As the great Soviet film-maker and long-time Shostakovich collaborator Grigori Kozintsev said: ‘In Shostakovich’s music, I hear a virulent hatred of cruelty, of the cult of power, of the persecution of truth.’11

In 1959 there occurred an event which was to bring Shostakovich and Pasternak together: the final concert in its tour of the Soviet Union by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the Moscow conservatory. It was conducted by the Philharmonic’s new principal conductor, Leonard Bernstein, the youngest person ever to hold that post in the orchestra’s history and also the first American. Bernstein’s ascent to this position has most often been presented as the meteoric progress of a musical superstar. He had become a national celebrity overnight in 1943 when at short notice he substituted for Bruno Walter as conductor in a New York concert and his rise thereafter had seemed unstoppable, with one success after another as conductor and as Broadway composer, most recently with the classic West Side Story. An all-American success story, in fact. The truth is somewhat different from that. Under FBI surveillance since 1939 as a suspected Red and progressive liberal, Bernstein’s career had been in danger of stalling completely during the Cold War, McCarthyist years. During this period he was on a list of suspect people to be interned in the event of national emergency; he was blacklisted; and then forced to sign an affidavit – ‘a ghastly and humiliating experience,’ he was to call it – which was a disavowal of his beliefs in order to regain his passport which had been confiscated. This is not dissimilar to Shostakovich’s apologies to the authorities for unwitting sins against the system; or dissimilar to the situation that Zhivago spoke of: saying the opposite of what you feel, grovelling before what you dislike. In 1957, Bernstein had written a comic operetta based on Voltaire’s Candide, in part collaboration with the blacklisted Lillian Hellman; and, almost like a work of Shostakovich, the sub-text belied the sparkling surface – something which Bernstein made absolutely explicit, incidentally, in his very last London performance in 1989, a year before his death, when he conducted a concert performance of Candide and addressed the audience from the stage and referred to his political persecution. So Bernstein’s route towards becoming Principal Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, far from being uncomplicated, was troubled and even perilous. I haven’t time here to relate the circumstances which enabled him to succeed, but he was certainly no stranger to the situation of the artist threatened with suppression or persecution because of his political ideas when he and his orchestra undertook the Soviet tour, the cornerstone of their repertoire being Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony.

On arriving in Russia, Bernstein immediately invited Pasternak to the opening concert, an invitation which didn’t reach him in time because the author was now living in virtual exile in a small village about 15 miles outside of Moscow. Undeterred, Bernstein obtained his address and wired an urgent invitation to attend the final concert in Moscow. Rather endearingly Pasternak sent 3 notes in reply, at first accepting and inviting Bernstein to visit him, then taking the invitation back, then restoring it: if you want to come, come; or as Pasternak put it in his lovely Russian English: ‘Come, as it were, unawaitedly’.12 And he signed off: ‘I wish you the renewal of your habitual triumphs I know of from hearsay’. However, they’d still not received these replies as the concert date approached and one day, when Bernstein was deep into rehearsal, his wife Felicia just said, ‘I’m going to look for him’, took a Russian-speaking member of the orchestra, hopped into a cab and headed for the address they’d been given. She thought they might have been misdirected, but then she saw him walking in the forest and was so excited that she ran towards him and started babbling in French, Italian and Spanish before remembering that he actually spoke good English. Pasternak invited them back to his home that evening where they enjoyed a meal, apparently, of cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, pickled mushrooms, and a roast, washed down with Georgian wine. Bernstein was to describe him as ‘a man of enormous warmth and great humour…he conveyed the impression of a Tolstoyan Christian, a worshipper of nature and the divine spark in man…he is the most complete artist I ever met.’

And so to that concert in Moscow, which Pasternak did attend – his first public appearance since his exclusion from the Writers Union – and which concluded with Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It was all the more memorable because Bernstein’s interpretation was quite unlike what Soviet audiences and musicians were used to. And I’d like to play you 2 interpretations of the very end of the Symphony: one in the style of what the audience would have been used to, and then Bernstein’s interpretation as they would have heard it that night, and then attempt to characterise the difference:

The first is by Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, the same team who’d performed the work at its premiere in 1937. Mravinsky was a fearsome disciplinarian who was to be the chief conductor of that orchestra for 50 years: the orchestra’s nickname for him was ‘Stalin’, though not to his face: he was also a fabulous musician; And I think you’ll sense, even in this brief extract, something very grand, powerful, militaristic, martial, music of the parade ground, with Mravinsky as the drill sergeant:

Now this is Bernstein: It’s much faster – nobody’s going to be able to march to that- and it’s not just power but energy: exultant, it lifts you off your feet, as if to say: this Symphony is a triumph, a personal triumph. [Seeing them doing it makes the contrast in interpretation even more striking, of course: Mravinsky, when he conducted, absolutely still, ramrod-straight, erect, conducting with hawk-like eyes, concentrated expression; Bernstein, by contrast, all movement, extrovert, energised, pointing, jumping around, acting out – no, living – the music in all its glory.]

Well, Soviet musicians were taken aback, but Shostakovich loved it. Unknown to the orchestra, he was at the performance, at the end coming on stage with tears of emotion streaming down his face (he was later to describe Bernstein as his favourite American conductor of his work). In the dressing room afterwards (there’s documentary footage of this by Richard Leacock) Pasternak said to Bernstein: ‘I’ve never felt so close to the artistic truth. When I hear you I know why you were born.’ Bernstein, who was not exactly a shrinking violet, blushed at that. ‘You have taken us up to heaven,’ Pasternak said, ‘now we must return to earth’ – and, as we know, he was to die the following year.

A brief coda: one of Zhivago’s greatest poems, quoted at the end of the novel, is called ‘Hamlet’:

The noise is stilled. I come out on the stage
Leaning against the door post
I try to guess from the distant echo
What is to happen in my lifetime.

And it concludes:

To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field.

Hamlet was a great favourite of both Pasternak and Shostakovich; and the great cinematic event of Shakespeare’s Quatercentenary in 1964 was Grigori Kozintsev’s magnificent film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from the Pasternak translation, with music by Shostakovich; fittingly his greatest film score (and the first Shostakovich I ever heard, which got me hooked on his music). In this interpretation, unlike Olivier’s, say, Hamlet is no prevaricator, but a poet-warrior in an oppressive society who uses thought and contemplation as his main weapons. Shostakovich once said: ‘An artist on stage is a soldier in combat. No matter how hard it is, you can’t retreat.’ In his superb book on the making of the film, Shakespeare, Time and Conscience, Kozintsev has a wonderful image of Hamlet: it is also, I think, applicable to both Pasternak and Shostakovich:

‘He sticks in the perfected pace of the wheels of government mechanism. They grind him up. Yet he all but broke the machine.’13

[This piece is a paper given at the University of East Anglia on 27 May 2010 as part of a Day Conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Boris Pasternak’s death. It is dedicated, with love, to Melanie Williams.]

Neil Sinyard

A brief note on sources:

The following texts were consulted in the preparation for this talk: Robert Conquest’s The Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (1961); Grigori Kozintsev’s Shakespeare, Time and Conscience (1967); Ronald Hingley’s Russian Writers and Soviet Society, 1917-1978 (1979); Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, edited by Solomon Volkov (1979); Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994); Humphrey Burton’s Leonard Bernstein: A Biography (1994); and Barry Seldes’s Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician (2009).

Yevgeny Mravinsky (with the Leningrad Philharmonic) and Leonard Bernstein (with the New York Philharmonic) both recorded Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony on a number of occasions. Mravinsky’s finest recorded performance was one of his last in 1984, almost half a century after he had premiered the work; Bernstein’s finest is his 1959 recording, made shortly after he and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra had returned from Moscow. In 2011, the BBC issued a dvd of Bernstein performing the 5th Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1966: not great sound, but a great performance.

A recording of Shostakovich’s complete score for Kozintsev’s Hamlet, with the Russian Philharmonic orchestra conducted by Dmitri Yablonsky, is available on the Naxos label. A Suite from the score was memorably recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann and is still available.

drupal stats

  1. Dr Zhivago, p. 168. 

  2. Ibid, p. 202. 

  3. Ibid, p. 362. 

  4. Conquest, p. 129. 

  5. Dr Zhivago, p. 394. 

  6. Ibid, p. 432. 

  7. Shostakovich, Testimony

  8. Wilson, p. 321. 

  9. Wilson, p. 317 

  10. Anna Akhmatova, ‘Music’. 

  11. Wilson, p. 371. 

  12. Burton, p. 309 

  13. Kozintsev, p. 248. 

Chaplin and Dickens: some reflections on the influence of Charles Dickens on the cinematic artistry of Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography was one of the publishing sensations of the decade when it appeared in 1964. He had been encouraged to write it by Graham Greene and some of the story was already well known; yet critics were taken aback by the quality of the writing and particularly by the painful and powerful evocation of his childhood, which made such an impression that just the childhood section of the book was later published as a separate work in its own right. Alistair Cooke spoke for many when he noted what he called ‘an eerie similarity between the first sixty pages of Chaplin’s Autobiography and Oliver Twist.’ And he went on: ‘As a reincarnation of everything spry and inquisitive and Cockney shrewd and invincibly alive and cunning, Chaplin was the young Dickens in the flesh’.1

Chaplin as the reincarnation of Dickens is an interesting thought. There is no doubt in my mind that Dickens was the most pronounced artistic influence on Chaplin’s career. He had discovered Dickens before he could even read and even the origins of his showbiz career owed a lot to Dickens. Growing up in London, Chaplin had seen the actor Bransby Williams imitating Dickens characters like Uriah Heep, Bill Sykes and the old man in The Old Curiosity Shop and it had ignited a love of the theatre and a fascination with literature. ‘I wanted to know what was this immured mystery that lay hidden in books,’ he wrote, ‘these sepia Dickens characters that moved in such a strange Cruickshankian world. Although I could hardly read, I eventually bought a copy of Oliver Twist.’2 He was so enthralled with these Dickens characters that he began imitating Bransby Williams imitating them; and it was then that he was discovered and invited to make his stage debut. What is particularly intriguing about this is that Dickens as a boy used to console himself in the same way by impersonating favourite characters from novels he had read (particularly those of Fielding) and that his early ambition was a career on stage. To the end of his life he was a frustrated actor, liking nothing better than giving public readings of his description of the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist and then enquiring politely how many women in the audience had fainted.

In my view, Chaplin was to the 20th century what Dickens was to the 19th: both centuries unthinkable without them; both men comic/poetic dramatists of quite unparalleled popularity who used satire, caricature and suspense to assault injustice. They were both artistic giants in their respective fields, but fascinatingly, giants in remarkably similar ways and for remarkably similar reasons. The parallels between their lives and personalities as well as their work are quite uncanny:

Physically they were quite similar: both small and wiry.

Temperamentally they were very alike: as a close friend of Chaplin’s, Thomas Burke remarked, they were both ‘querulous, self-centred, moody insecure men who, with all their success, remained vaguely dissatisfied with life.’3 In both cases, this dissatisfaction lay rooted in a traumatic childhood never entirely exorcised but which permeated every aspect of their life and art. ‘Even now,’ said Dickens in his later years, ‘famous and caressed and happy, I forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life’.4 Chaplin too: ‘I’ve known humiliation,’ he said, ‘and humiliation is a thing you never forget. Poverty- the degradation and helplessness of it! I can’t feel myself any different, at heart, from the unhappy and defeated men, the failures.’5

Perhaps because of their similarly traumatic childhoods (Dickens haunted by family debts, the threat of prison and his period in the blacking factory, Chaplin buffeted between workhouse and orphanage because of an absent father and a mentally unstable mother) they are made precociously aware of life’s misfortunes, and, in response to this, they are similarly drawn to images of innocence in their work and lives, an innocence that they themselves have missed. One thinks of Dickens, in his work, with those child-women heroines, like Dora in his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, or Little Dorrit, who seems to stay little, however old she gets, and, in his life, his association with Ellen Ternan when he’s 45 and she’s 18 which leads to his separation from his wife. Chaplin too, with his four marriages to teenage brides, culminating in his marriage to Oona O’Neill (daughter of the great playwright Eugene O’Neill), when he’s 54 and she’s 18, a marriage that actually turned out to be an extremely happy one. Their attitudes to women and their depiction of heroines seem to be a mixture of adoration and misogyny, deriving from mother figures whom they loved but by whom they also felt in some way betrayed. For example, in Dickens’s case, when all the debts had been repaid and the family reunited, his mother had suggested that perhaps young Charles could remain at the blacking factory which he so hated rather than find some schooling; it is said that Dickens never quite forgave her for that. Similarly, Chaplin’s love for his mother was always mixed with a frustration and anger at her mental illness, an anguish that she’d not been able to protect him from a premature awareness of the harshness of the world (his father had abandoned the family when Charlie was seven).

Similarly their popularity was quite unprecedented and it’s interesting that when Chaplin’s popularity was being discussed in the 1920s and 30s, Dickens was often invoked as a comparison. I always loved the story concerning Dickens’ popularity which extended to a situation where, when British ships were coming into New York harbour, they were receiving frantic signals from the shore saying ‘How is little Nell?’ When Chaplin visited London in February,1931 for the premiere of City Lights, The Times wrote: ‘Dickens knew something of popular enthusiasm, but could he have beheld the press of people gathered…in honour of Mr Chaplin, he might have rubbed his eyes in astonishment.’6 It is said that, during one visit to London, Chaplin received 73,000 fan letters from the capital alone. His popularity was such that it became something of a psychopathological phenomenon, notably on an occasion on 12 November 1916 when Chaplin was allegedly spotted in 800 places at the same time.

Their popularity cut across cultures, countries and class, and it might have delayed proper critical recognition of their stature, for in both cases their artistic reputations plummeted for a while after their deaths. Henry James thought Dickens superficial as later did F.R. Leavis (though he changed his mind in time for the centenary of Dickens’s death): and George Henry Lewes was moved to observe that there probably never was a writer of so vast a popularity whose genius was so little appreciated by the critics. Still if the critics had their reservations about Dickens, they weren’t shared by his peers and fellow novelists, such as Thackeray, Joyce, Conrad, Kafka and Dostoyevsky, who said that what kept him sane during his exile in Siberia was reading Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield. Similarly, if the critics really went for Chaplin after his death, calling his films old-fashioned, technically unadventurous and woefully sentimental, their reservations weren’t shared by his peers and successors, such as Buster Keaton, Jean Renoir, Woody Allen, Francois Truffaut, Jean-luc Godard, and Federico Fellini, for whom Chaplin was ‘the Adam from we’re all descended’. There was a nice comment from Sean French when he heard Barry Norman claim that Chaplin was over-rated: ‘I felt as if a molehill had said that Mount Everest’s reputation for height was undeserved.’

There are couple of extracts from Chaplin’s movies that I now wish to examine for what I see as their Dickensian characteristics. The first is an extract from Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times, and the Dickens comparison I have in mind is his novel, Hard Times. It was published in 1851 and is one of his most terse, polemical works, particularly its savage critique of a Utilitarian approach to education, which prioritises Fact over Imagination and which sees children as potential economic units rather than as individuals whose innate creativity also needs to be nurtured and encouraged. (This might strike you as rather topical.) But another great theme of the novel is Industrialisation and the relation of men and women to machines and how this industrial drive, unless harnessed to some kind of humanity, could result in the depersonalisation/mechanisation of the individual. The industrial town in Hard Times is appropriately called Coketown, as if it is smothering and suffocating its inhabitants; and there is a great passage in the novel (the opening of Chapter X1 entitled ‘No Way Out’) about the industrial workplace and the relation of man to the machine, written in a style that wonderfully parodies the educational system he is also attacking: it’s satirically statistical:


So many hundred hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these, its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, for ever.-

I think that’s one of the great passages in Dickens. He’s not idealising humanity (he’s careful to balance ‘good’ OR ‘evil’, ‘love’ OR ‘hatred’ etc.) but he’s still recognising and cherishing the rich complexity of humanity, even in – perhaps especially in – what he calls the ‘soul… of its quiet servants’. He goes on: ‘There is no mystery in it [i.e. the engine, the machine]; there is a mystery in the meanest of them, for ever.’ I’m sure Chaplin would have responded to that. When his silent features were re-released during the sound era and he added a commentary, he would refer to the Tramp as ‘The Little Fellow’- and was heavily attacked for his so-called ‘condescension’- but what he was thinking of, I believe, in that phrase was precisely the equivalent of Dickens’s ‘the meanest of them’, those people who are up against it, whom society marginalizes and whom governments sometimes do not even acknowledge as a statistic, but in whom (both Dickens and Chaplin would insist) there is still a mystery and depth that deserve recognition. The Tramp is the kind of figure Society would ignore or even disdain, but, as James Agee asserted in his classic essay on silent film comedy, ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’, the Tramp character in Chaplin’s hands was ‘as centrally representative of humanity, and as many-sided and mysterious as Hamlet’.7 In Modern Times, the Tramp is an assembly-line worker who is being driven progressively mad by the repetitive routine of his job. In an early sequence in the film, an inventor has visited the plant with his revolutionary contraption: an automatic feeding-machine that will eliminate the lunch-hour (and hence accelerate production and maximise worker efficiency) by feeding the worker whilst he continues to work at his job. The manager is impressed but insists that the machine be tried out on one of the workers. Inevitably the Tramp is chosen for the demonstration, and chaos ensues, with the contraption attacking the man before self-destructing.

Reviewing the film at the time, Graham Greene thought that that was the best scene Chaplin had ever done; and, with typical scrupulousness, he described it as ‘horrifyingly funny’. Greene rarely used adverbs so his use of ‘horrifyingly’ there is doubly striking: he recognises the human horror behind the comic conceit. The scene is essentially about the depersonalisation of the individual; and whereas the breakdown of the machine is comical, the kind of managerial strategy it exemplifies is not, and could lead to human breakdown – which in the film it does.

I think you’ll see from what I’ve said about Hard Times and Modern Times that another similarity that Dickens and Chaplin shared was their social and political outlook; and indeed it has been discussed in very similar terms by the critics. Both of them have been described and even derided as sentimental radicals who were not great political thinkers or men of ideas and who advocated a change of heart more than a change of system. Carlyle was quite disdainful about Dickens’s political ideas: ‘He thinks men ought to be buttered up, and the world made soft and accommodating for them, and all sorts of fellows have turkey for their Christmas dinner.’ Curiously, when Modern Times was re-released in 1972, George Melly in The Observer wrote about Chaplin in very similar terms: ‘He’s always been appalled by inhumanity but has nothing to propose beyond mere kindness. His dream is petit-bourgeois: a chicken in the pot, grapes against the wall.’ Still, in an unjust, intolerant and oppressive society, even basic decency can sound menacing. Lenin might have been appalled by what he called Dickens’s bourgeois sentiment, but Tolstoy wasn’t; and George Bernard Shaw said that Little Dorrit alone had converted him to Socialism. George Melly might have found Chaplin’s social ideas ‘petit-bourgeois’, but they were deemed sufficiently subversive to prompt the FBI to open a file on him in 1922 that eventually ran for around 2,000 pages and which subsequently led to his exile from America for 20 years.

When discussing the social ideas of Dickens, George Orwell was critical of those kindly benefactor figures, like Brownlow in Oliver Twist or Jarndyce in Bleak House, who help without dirtying their fingernails, as it were, or without doing anything to question the basic fabric of their society. As Orwell said, ‘Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place.’ But clearly Dickens did reflect on this: there’s that sardonic comment in Hard Times, when Gradgrind’s mean-spiritedness is encapsulated by his thought that ‘the Good Samaritan was a bad economist’: and in Great Expectations, Dickens will take the whole idea of the legacy and the benefactor to grotesque tragic-comic extremes. Similarly Chaplin, in one of his greatest films, City Lights, does his own brilliant variation on the benefactor theme when the Tramp, who has rescued a millionaire from drowning and is showered with money by the man when he’s drunk but treated with contempt when the man is sober, uses the money to finance the eye operation of a blind flower-seller, with whom he has fallen in love but who has deduced he is a gentleman. Like Magwitch in Great Expectations, he will wind up in prison (the millionaire will accuse him of theft); but when he comes out and passes the flower-shop in utter destitution he notices that the flower-girl can now see; and she, intrigued by this tramp figure who seems so interested in her, invites him in. It’s when they touch that she realises who her benefactor is; and it really is like the moment when Pip slowly recognises that his benefactor is the convict Magwitch and can barely conceal his dismay. If you know City Lights, you will never have forgotten the ending: when the flower-girl says, ‘You?’, and the film closes on one of the greatest close-ups in film history: the Tramp’s face at the point of recognition- apologetic, apprehensive, smiling his delight that she can see, but, unnervingly, through her reaction, also seeing himself.

So how do you change or improve society so that children are properly housed and fed and all people have the chance to fulfil their potential? Both Dickens and Chaplin were preoccupied with this question. Both of them shrank from the thought of Revolution. When the Tramp finds himself at the head of a Communist rally in Modern Times, he is so entirely by accident (though it is an ominous foretaste of the political accusations that were to be made against him in the following decades). And if you think of the Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities and his ambivalence about the French Revolution and the violent overthrow of tyranny: it was the best of times but it was also the worst of times. As he put it, ‘the aristocrats deserved all they got but the passion engendered in the people by misery and starvation replaced one set of oppressors by another.’

A key issue in both Dickens and Chaplin is essentially: how do you prevent power from being abused? The ferocity of their social attack is directed not so much at the law-breakers as the law administrators. In Oliver Twist, for example, Fagin and Co. are certainly crooks but Dickens shows them more sympathy than he shows for the workhouse authorities. (Fagin was actually named after Dickens’s best friend at the blacking-factory, Bob Fagin, which suggests that in Dickens’s eyes, for all his villainy and corruption, there are some redeeming features in that character. Incidentally, David Lean’s film catches this brilliantly in just one detail after Oliver has been taken into Fagin’s lair by the Artful Dodger and Fagin is jokily demonstrating how to pick pockets, and Oliver starts to laugh: and it’s a really strange high-pitched sound and it startles even him- and you suddenly realise that this must be the first time the little lad will have laughed in his entire life.) Fagin and Co are criminals but they’re not hypocrites. Dickens reserves his most savage indignation and irony for those who perpetuate cruelty and injustice in the name of fairness and good: Bumble in Oliver Twist; the superficially self-made man Bounderby in Hard Times, of whom Dickens says ‘there was a moral infection of claptrap in him’; or the law in Bleak House, whose primary interest, says Dickens, is not in justice but in lining its own pockets or, to use his specific phrase, in ‘making business for itself.’ Chaplin’s Tramp also finds that his most persistent enemies are policemen, magistrates, the courts. There is no identification in Dickens and Chaplin between the forces of law and the forces of good: indeed in Great Expectations, Pip’s growing maturity is mainly signalled through his increasing sympathy with the ex-convict Magwitch, whom the law regards as an irredeemable criminal deserving to be hanged. In Chaplin too, the poor must, in every sense, help themselves. In Modern Times, which is a comedy but also a gruelling look at the effects of the Depression in 30s America (unemployment, followed by strikes, riots, police brutality, imprisonment – a not unfamiliar sequence of events) there’s a moment when the Tramp, who’s got a job at a department store as a night watchman, disturbs some robbers and recognises one of them as a friend he met when both were in prison. ‘We ain’t burglars,’ the friend says to him. ‘We’re hungry.’ In Chaplin’s eyes- and he would have learnt this as a child – theft is preferable to starvation. The crime is not in the act of stealing but in the cause of that necessity. And still on the subject of theft, starvation and justice, this is a diary entry of Dickens in May 1852: ‘Two little children whose heads scarcely reached the top of the desk were charged at Bow Street on the seventh with stealing a loaf out of a baker’s shop. They said in defence that they were starving, and their appearance showed that they were speaking the truth. They were sentenced to be whipped in the House of Correction. To be whipped! Woe, Woe! can the State devise no better sentence for its little children?’ And he underlines the following: ‘will it never sentence them to be taught?’ I have no doubt Chaplin would have cheered that sentiment. He was self-taught, and, in his autobiography, he writes: ‘I wanted to know, not for the love of knowledge but as a defence against the world’s contempt for the ignorant.’8

In the second film extract for discussion, I want to draw some connections between Chaplin’s film, The Kid, made in 1921 and Dickens’s Oliver Twist. It’s a film full of overt autobiography, and full of parallels to the Dickens novel. As mentioned earlier, Oliver Twist was the first book Chaplin ever read and it remained his favourite novel throughout his life. He would read it to his children, and it was the novel he was reading and re-reading, apparently, during the last year of his life, young Oliver’s experience in the orphanage approximating and reminding him of his childhood.

The Kid was Chaplin’s biggest artistic risk at that time. It was three times longer than any film he had previously made; it was expensive to make, the ratio of used film (i.e. that which is seen in the completed film) to unused film being 1:53, which was high even by Chaplin’s perfectionist standards. It also had two ingredients that had not been so overt before – pathos (the opening title reads, ‘a picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear’) and social criticism, directed at the way society treats its unfortunates, here an unmarried mother, a tramp who stumbles across an abandoned baby and after initial reluctance looks after it, and a kid with no socially sanctioned parents. Like Oliver Twist, it begins with the tragedy of the unmarried mother and the child abandoned to its fate. As it develops, the relationship between the Tramp and the kid becomes a genial variation on that between Fagin and the Artful Dodger as they go into business together: the kid will break people’s windows and five minutes later the Tramp will innocently come along to offer his services as a glazier. Also, in both The Kid and Oliver Twist, the big set-pieces are roof-top chases – in Dickens, to trap Bill Sikes after the murder of Nancy; and in Chaplin, the Tramp’s endeavour to rescue the little boy when he has been taken from him by the authorities. Prior to the sequence the little boy, played by Jackie Coogan, has been ill and the Tramp has sent for the doctor, which is when the trouble starts. As we will see, the authorities attempt to take the boy from the Tramp, who is roused to desperate measures to rescue the boy from a tragic fate.

[Extract starts at 31:42]

In David Robinson’s superb biography of Chaplin, he writes that the attic setting might be ‘an illustration to Oliver Twist, with its sloping ceiling, peeling walls, bare boards, maimed furniture…’but adds that is also an autobiographical recollection of the attic in Pownall terrace where Chaplin lived as a child and where he remembered that every time he sat up in bed, he bumped his head on the ceiling.’9 There are a number of significant points about that sequence:

I would argue that even Chaplin’s use of the intertitles there is very Dickensian: that is, when a sequence is introduced with the title ‘The Proper Care and Attention’, it is fundamentally ironic and critical, because what we are about to see is anything but; and I think he picked that up from Dickens and Oliver Twist, for Dickens’ critique of the workhouse authorities very often takes that same sarcastic form: for example, when he refers to ‘juvenile offenders without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing’; or when he refers to Oliver’s ‘auspicious and comfortable surroundings’ when the boy has been thrown into a small dark room after being flogged for asking for ‘more’. What Dickens is doing is parodying the workhouse authorities’ own language, their own justification for their actions, and irony and parody can be particularly effective tools for exposing and emphasising hypocrisy. This is exactly what Chaplin does in The Kid. ‘Proper care and attention’ is the Doctor’s phrase and we see in reality what that means. The brusque music and the pompous manner of the authorities emphasise that they are acting out of simple officiousness rather than out of any sense of care. This was a very painful scene for Chaplin to film because it brought back all his childhood terror of officials like welfare workers, doctors, the police, as well as a specific incident when he was seven years old and brutally separated from his mother who was forced to move to Lambeth Workhouse whilst Chaplin and his half-brother Sydney were carted off to the Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children.

The roof-top chase would have struck audiences at the time as an unusual sequence in a Chaplin movie. Chaplin as a rule didn’t like chase sequences and this was one of the reasons why he left the Mack Sennett organisation: ‘does everything have to end in a chase?’ he moaned. But this is a chase scene with a difference: the emphasis is not on slapstick but on suspense. Audiences would have recognised that sending the kid to the orphanage was a potential death sentence, and that’s emphasised by the way the kid is thrown into the back of the truck as if he were an animal on the way to the slaughterhouse.

"THE KID" First National, 1921, Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan
When the Tramp and the kid are re-united, it is noticeable that they are both crying; and, as Jackie Coogan was later to say, ‘for audiences at the time, to see this great clown, this mischievous tramp really crying was a considerable shock.’ There was a tangle of emotions at play here. Prior to making this film, Chaplin’s first child, a boy, had been born malformed and died within three days; and the boy’s mother, Chaplin’s first wife, said later that one of the few things she remembered about their disastrous marriage was that ‘Charlie cried when the child died.’ During the making of The Kid, Chaplin had become very fond of little Jackie Coogan and, when preparing this scene, dreaded having to make the lad cry and called in the parents for help. ‘Leave it to me,’ said the dad, and apparently, said to the boy: ‘Look, you little runt, you do what Mr Chaplin wants or I’ll send you to the orphanage myself!’ In fact, Coogan was the best co-star Chaplin ever had, for two reasons: firstly, he worshipped Chaplin, which always helped; and also he was a brilliant mimic. As Coogan was to say later, the problem for Chaplin was always that he wanted to play all the parts himself and could probably play them all better than anyone else, so his idea of direction was to demonstrate to the actor what he wanted, in order for the actor then to imitate what he had demonstrated. That worked a treat with the five-year-old Coogan but it didn’t go down so well with, say, Marlon Brando (in Chaplin’s last film, The Countess of Hong Kong). The Kid was to make Coogan a big star, and the search was on for a vehicle that would exploit his talents. One might have guessed what would turn out to be his first big starring role: Oliver Twist.

The final thing I want to pick up on The Kid and its Dickensian quality is its mood, particularly evident in that scene: the pathos, the sentiment. Both Dickens and Chaplin have been likewise criticised for what has been described as their gross sentimentality. When he wants to wring your heart, Dickens assaults you with an armoury of Biblical effusions, most notoriously when describing the death of little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, about which Oscar Wilde famously said: ‘Only a heart of stone could read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ Chaplin pours on his own music, which is tender or treacly according to taste: e.g. ‘Smile, though your heart is breaking’ in Modern Times. How you respond to all this is very personal, but I always think that what’s behind it, the subconscious source of it, in both cases, is a kind of social revenge: they want to make society weep for having made them weep. And, in both cases, I don’t think the sentiment is ever cynically or externally applied: it’s fundamentally rooted in who they are. They can be maudlin and self-indulgent, but I would contend that they are never insincere. They are, after all, dealing upfront with the primary human emotions- hunger, fear, joy, envy, love, sadness- and I’m not sure understatement would be a lot of help there and might even induce complacency; and the thing I like most about their irony is not its wit but its anger. They were sophisticated in their art, but feeling was always as important as intellect, and sentiment as important as sophistication. The advice that Billy Wilder used to give to aspiring young screenwriters was: ‘Make the subtleties obvious’. That’s something I love in Dickens and Chaplin: they make their subtleties obvious. And I think what popular audiences responded to instinctively in both was that they sensed the authenticity behind the artistry: that Dickens’s social indignation is not manufactured, it arises out of bitter memory of early first-hand experience of social deprivation; and Chaplin’s Tramp, similarly, whilst a creation of his imagination, is also the sum of his observation as a child walking the streets of London and taking everything in. He always said that the Tramp’s walk was inspired by a beggar he saw who was walking in shoes too small for him but who couldn’t afford a new pair; and there’s a wonderful phrase by a local reporter in Chicago, Gene Morgan, who described interviewing Chaplin in his Tramp’s costume and said: ‘You can’t keep your eyes off his feet. Those big shoes are buttoned with 50 million eyes….’10

As they grew older, their work grew darker, to the dismay of many of their critics. In the case of Dickens, one Victorian critic, E.B. Hamley was representative of many when he wailed: ‘In the wilderness of Little Dorrit we sit down and weep when we remember thee, O Pickwick!’ Why aim to be profound when you can just be funny? And, of course, exactly the same criticism was levelled at Chaplin when he finally opened his mouth in the Talkies in The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947), for me two of his greatest films. So many critics complained: who wants to hear your political opinions when you have the gift of laughter? Yet a young François Truffaut, in his notoriously combative days as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, had the answer to that when he reviewed a reissue of The Great Dictator in 1957: ‘I despise the set mind that rejects the ambitious from someone who’s supposed to be a comic….If Chaplin has been told that he is a poet or a philosopher, it’s because it’s true and he was right to believe what he heard. Without willing it or knowing it, he helped men live; later, when he became aware of it, would it not have been criminal to stop trying to help them even more?’11 Up until the middle of the last century, Dickens was always being accused of exaggeration, but the critic Lionel Trilling was one who thought that people who said that had no eyes or ears. ‘We who have seen Hitler, Goering, Goebbels on the stage of history,’ he wrote, ‘are in no position to suppose that Dickens exaggerated in the least the extravagance of madness, absurdity, malevolence in the world- or, conversely, when we consider the resistance to those qualities, the goodness.’12 And, of course, it was the Nazi threat in Europe which persuaded Chaplin finally to break his silence in the Talkies era and to make his anti-Fascist satire, The Great Dictator, exploiting surely the most bizarre resemblance of modern history (even to the extent of almost the same birth-date): that between Chaplin and Hitler. The great French critic André Bazin called it a settling of accounts: Chaplin’s revenge, he said, on Hitler’s double crime of elevating himself to a god and stealing Charlie’s moustache. The film is a funny but ferocious attack on totalitarianism, holding it up to ridicule in the noble, if perhaps forlorn, hope that the ensuing laughter would make it impossible for such a political philosophy ever to be taken seriously again. It did not work contemporaneously, but Milos Forman has since commented how spiritually liberating he found the film when he was allowed to see it after the end of the war.

Let me conclude on a note of speculation. What did Chaplin think Dickens would have made of the 20th century? And, if he had known him, what kind of moving death-bed scene might Dickens have contrived for Chaplin? Actually I can give the answer to the first question. A Birthday Dinner was given by the Dickens Fellowship at the Café Royal in London in 1955 in which Chaplin was Guest of Honour. Their choice of principal guest was very deliberate. Members of the Fellowship had asked themselves which great artist would best pay tribute to Dickens, and indeed who might Dickens himself have chosen for such an occasion. They came to the conclusion that the ideal person was Charlie Chaplin who, as the President of the Fellowship said, ‘was a great artist who, like Dickens, has shown a great interest in his fellow man and a profound concern at the direction in which the world was going.’ In his response, Chaplin ventured to suggest that, if he were alive today, Dickens would have been dismayed by many aspects of our western democracy: its hypocrisy and double-talk about peace and armaments; the paranoia of the cold war; by scientific irresponsibility about nuclear weapons; and would have called for a better balance between cleverness and kindness, intellect and feeling.13

If that was Chaplin’s tribute to Dickens, what might Dickens have reciprocated for Chaplin? Surely an emotional death-bed scene, in which a revered old man, surrounded by his devoted family, dies peacefully in his sleep. Oh yes, and as an extra touch: make it Christmas Day. And, of course, that is precisely what happened: Chaplin died on the Christmas Day of 1977. As well as the sentiment, though, Dickens, with his love of the macabre, might even have provided the slightly grotesque epilogue to this event: namely, that Chaplin’s coffin was later stolen by two pathetically incompetent kidnappers who demanded a ransom for its return but who were quickly caught and the coffin recovered.

Dickens and Chaplin – both artists of genius who preserved an unquenchable sympathy for society’s victims, and an equally unquenchable suspicion of society’s administrators and leaders, whom they fearlessly assailed with an inimitable blend of mockery and indignation in a ceaseless endeavour to reverse and rectify abuse and injustice. Both found and maintained their own equilibrium through a combination of comic and character observation so piercing that it forever embedded itself in the popular consciousness. They made singular contributions towards a recognition of their respective popular forms- the novel, the cinema- as genuine art forms, but both transcended even that, belonging not simply to literature and to film, but to history and to the air we all breathe. What Jacques Tati said of Chaplin is equally true of Dickens: ‘his work is always contemporary, yet always eternal.’

Neil Sinyard

This is a slightly expanded version of a lecture given at the ‘Adapting Dickens’ Conference at de Montfort University on 27 February 2013.

drupal stats

  1. Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (2009), p. 94. 

  2. Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964), p. 48. 

  3. Robinson, p. 443. 

  4. Quoted in James Wood’s review of Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Guardian, 6 September 1990. 

  5. Louis Giannetti, Masters of the American Cinema (1981), p. 80. 

  6. Simon Louvish, Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey (2009), p. 245. 

  7. James Agee, Agee on Film, p. 9. 

  8. Chaplin, p. 134. 

  9. David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985), pp. 253-4. 

  10. Robinson, p. 136. 

  11. François Truffaut, The Films in My Life (1978), p. 55. 

  12. Quoted by Angus Calder in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Great Expectations. 

  13. The occasion is described in detail in The Dickensian, Summer,1955. 

Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock

I was tempted to sub-title this talk ‘The Mistress of Romance meets The Master of Suspense’, except that there’s more to Daphne du Maurier than Romance and more to Alfred Hitchcock than Suspense. Actually, to the best of my knowledge, they never did meet, certainly not socially, and there are slightly unusual aspects to this. For example, Hitchcock was actually a friend of Daphne’s father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, who appeared in one of his films, Waltzes from Vienna (1933) and whom Hitchcock described to François Truffaut as ‘in my opinion, the best actor anywhere’. He did want to make a film of one of the Bulldog Drummond stories with Gerald du Maurier; and it is sometimes said that the main character of one of Hitchcock’s early talkies, Murder (1930) – about a distinguished actor who is on a jury that finds a young woman guilty of murder but who then begins to suspect that there may have been a miscarriage of justice – was actually modelled on Gerald du Maurier. (The part is played in the film by Herbert Marshall.) Both of them, incidentally, were great practical jokers and Hitchcock’s most successful one played on Sir Gerald was an occasion when he invited him to a fancy dress party. Sir Gerald turned up in greasepaint and wearing a kilt, only to discover that it was a formal black tie and tails affair, and he had to bid a hasty retreat.

The fact that Hitchcock knew father Sir Gerald much better than daughter Daphne is also striking because Hitchcock was to adapt three of Daphne du Maurier’s works for the screen. Of the 50-odd feature films Hitchcock made, most of which are adaptations of novels, short stories or plays, there is no other writer I can think of offhand whom Hitchcock adapts more than once, and yet there are three du Maurier adaptations. One of them, Jamaica Inn, which was the last film he made in England before his departure to America in 1939, is self-confessedly one of his lesser works. Hitchcock himself described it as ‘an absurd thing to undertake’, and one of the best critics of Hitchcock’s English period, Charles Barr has said that ‘it is almost alone among Hitchcock’s films in containing no felicitous scene or line or detail that gets remembered and quoted, or that deserves to be’. The other two, however, Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963) are two of Hitchcock’s most important films, and two particularly fascinating examples of du Maurier adaptations for the screen, because they could not be further apart: one, a novel, the other a short story, so one requires compression whilst the other requires expansion; and one that sticks fairly close to the original text, whereas the other departs almost completely from the original apart from retaining the basic situation. Not surprising perhaps that the author herself was said to be delighted with the first and horrified by the second.

Still, it does prompt the question: what was it about Daphne du Maurier’s work that stimulated Hitchcock’s interest and encouraged him to adapt her more than any other author? I think there were two things that Hitchcock particularly responded to:

The thing he seems to have admired most in writers is what one might call good craftsmanship, a fascinating story well told within a solid structure. He wasn’t a fan of florid writing, of a literary style that drew attention to itself, or of modernist experimentation, or of Art for Art’s Sake. This, I think, derives from his theatre-going as a young man around the early 1920s where he was a great admirer of the so-called well-made play, the kind of literature that unobtrusively held your attention and where all the parts were seen to fit together. (Hitchcock’s admiration for John Russell Taylor’s book on the subject of the well-made play is thought to have encouraged him to invite Taylor to write his authorised biography.) There might be a lot of subtler things going on under the surface in these plays, but these could be uncovered later. The immediate thing is that your attention is held by a good yarn and interesting characters. I think he saw Daphne du Maurier in that same tradition of writers like John Buchan, Marie Belloc Lowndes, J.M. Barrie, J.B. Priestley, John Galsworthy: i.e. writers who tended to become unfashionable in the middle of the last century and to be downgraded in academic circles for being middlebrow, conventional, technically unadventurous etc, but who wrote accessibly, entertainingly and successfully for a mass readership.

The second thing that might have attracted him is something that du Maurier says in her introduction to one of her short story anthologies: ‘I’ve always been fascinated by the unexplained, the darker side of life, the macabre.’ That would certainly appeal to a director who, when criticised for the illogicality of his plots, would reply, ‘I have a saying to myself: logic is dull’; and who once said, ‘I have brought murder back into the home, where it belongs’. He was certainly fascinated by the darker side of life, by the extremities of violent passion, and, according to some biographers, he had his own dark side, so there’s definitely a kinship between the two there.

So: to move onto Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s novel, which had been published to huge popular success in 1938 and I believe has never been out of print since. It was Hitchcock’s first American film (a bit ironic, this, since it was a very British subject, and most of the main cast were British) and produced by the mercurial mogul, David Selznick, who had just had a colossal success with Gone with the Wind. He was the man who had lured Hitchcock to America and put him under contract; and, for a while, they had discussed making a film about the Titanic before fixing on Rebecca for their first collaboration. Immediately conflict arose. Hitchcock wanted to open out the novel a bit and also introduce a lot more comedy. He invariably felt a bit uneasy if he couldn’t inject some humour into his material: even when he came to make Psycho, he thought of it as a fun film. Selznick was horrified by what he was proposing and insisted that they stick to the story, because that was what lovers of the novel would expect and would pay to see. Over and above that conflict of approach, there was inevitably the usual adaptation problem of how you condense a 400 page novel into a two hour film. As David Lean said when discussing his classic film adaptations of Dickens, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist: ‘The thing not to do is try a put a little bit of every scene of the novel into your film, because it’s going to end up a mess. Choose what you want to do in the novel, and do it proud.’ The challenge remains the same: how to turn words, even thoughts, into images. But, of course, what you choose to include- and exclude- will be very revealing not simply about how you are, as it were, illustrating the novel but how you are interpreting it. There was another important issue with regard to the adaptation of Rebecca for the screen, and that was the issue of censorship. The hero might have been allowed to get away with murder in the novel, but, given the Hollywood Production Code at the time, this was certainly not permissible in the film so the adaptation had to contrive another set of circumstances whereby Maxim could plausibly feel a sense of guilt over Rebecca’s death without actually having killed her.

In a moment I want to discuss an extract from the film but just to set the context for you. Many of you will know the plot of Rebecca at least as well as I do, but there are some differences from the novel in the film. A young unnamed heroine (played in the film by Joan Fontaine) is accompanying her employer, Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates) as a paid companion on holiday in Monte Carlo. She meets the mysterious Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who in the film we first meet standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff, staring down into the sea below, and looking for all the world as if he’s about to jump: the young woman cries out to him in alarm and breaks the spell. We learn that he’s the owner of one of the grandest country houses in England, Manderley, and that he was married to Rebecca, who died in a boating accident a year before and whom, so they say, he adored. To the young woman’s astonishment- and we never do learn her name (when Hitchcock suggested calling her Daphne, Selznick was appalled)- Maxim begins paying her attention; and when it seems as if she might have to go to New York with her employer, he proposes marriage. She’s astounded- how can someone like him be interested in someone like her?- but accepts, of course, because by this time she’s madly in love with him.

When they arrive at Manderley, she’s completely overawed by her surroundings, seeming (and looking) a bit like a commoner in a palace surrounded by royalty. More than that, though, there are reminders of Rebecca everywhere- initialled pillowcases, stationery, monogrammed handkerchiefs etc.- and incessant talk of Rebecca’s brains, beauty, breeding, which only serve to make her feel even more insecure and inadequate and feel that Maxim only married her out of loneliness. Above all, the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) seems to hate her, because she adored Rebecca and resents anyone taking her place. Just before we join the extract, the heroine has had a particularly upsetting encounter with Mrs Danvers who has shown her Rebecca’s room in the West Wing and all of Rebecca’s elegant clothes and ornaments in a way that underlines the heroine’s feelings of inadequacy and inferiority in such a setting. She has run out of the room, crying- but now decides it’s time to assert her authority and behave in the manner expected of the new Mrs de Winter, mistress of Manderley. What better way than to organise one of those grand costume balls that Manderley was famous for?

[Extract starts at 3:05]

Just to make a few comments on the sequence of the Costume Ball, its preparation and its immediate aftermath:

I like the little scene between the heroine and Maxim at the beginning, when she is asking his permission to hold the Ball. It captures in miniature their relationship: her adoration, his indulgent condescension; it could almost be father and daughter more than husband and wife and it’s certainly noticeable in the film that she talks a lot more about her father than her mother. Her childishness is emphasised by her gestures (obedient hands behind her back); and I’m always struck by the moment at the Costume Ball when Maxim’s sister, Beatrice (Gladys Cooper) arrives and she doesn’t say ‘Where’s so-and-so’ or ‘Where’s your wife?’ she says, ‘Where’s the child?’ And Maxim’s first suggestion of what she might go as is ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Her reply is, ‘I’ll give you the surprise of your life.’ Well, she certainly succeeds in that. Another line I really like in that scene happens when she says to Maxim, ‘I’ve been thinking…’ and he retorts: ‘What have you been doing that for?’ The implication is: no need for that sort of thing for a woman in this household, this society. Indeed, that was surely one of Rebecca’s problems. And might have been her undoing.

In the section where the heroine chooses the costume of one of Maxim’s ancestors, at the suggestion of Mrs Danvers, there are several interesting details:
a) the portrait that displays the costume dominates the shot, as if the heroine still is overwhelmed by what she has moved into, its glamour, its opulence, its grace;
b) the portrait is also the nearest we get to actually seeing Rebecca. It isn’t her, of course, but, as we’ll discover, the portrait features something that she’s worn. Hitchcock and Selznick did debate whether the film should show Rebecca in flashback (there was talk of Vivien Leigh playing the role) but I think they agreed eventually that part of the power of the character in the film is precisely that we never see her: we imagine her through other people’s descriptions of her beauty and brains and through visual details like the flourish of her signature. It’s an appeal to our imagination, but it’s more than that: it’s this feeling that the heroine is dealing with a ghost, a phantom, which makes it all the more difficult for her.

Then there’s Mrs Danvers, so superbly played by Judith Anderson. She’s the one who has set up this situation. She’s sinister not simply because she’s dressed in black, as if in permanent mourning for Rebecca, but she moves noiselessly, and in dead straight lines. The heroine is frightened of her partly because she often doesn’t hear her entrances, she’s suddenly there, making her jump. You’ll have noticed in this scene that she’s not aware that she’s gone: her silent exit is marked by a large dark shadow of her across the portrait, as if her malign influence is lingering on it; and the camera at that point closes in on the portrait as it seems to be looking at us, as if in possession of a great secret that we don’t as yet know.

The introduction to the Costume Ball does at least allow Hitchcock a bit of room for humour, with the brother-in-law (Nigel Bruce, probably most famous as the screen’s Dr Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes) as this strong man figure with a rubber weight; and Maxim’s estate manager, Frank (Reginald Denny) who, even in costume, looks hardly different from the boring practical man he is in everyday clothes.

The heroine’s approach is a very good example of Hitchcock’s use of subjective camerawork to approximate both the heroine’s point of view and the novel’s first-person narration: that is, he focuses his camera on the heroine, so that we empathise with her excitement and delight. When she passes the portrait, she looks at it fleetingly and, for the first time, you think, she feels she can stand comparison with Manderley magnificence rather than always feeling in its shadow. She’s found a new identity and when she comes down the stairs, we have the subjective use of the camera, as it were, reflecting her point of view as it moves towards the back of Maxim’s head to suggest the heroine’s approach and to prolong the sense of anticipation and suspense. How does Hitchcock get maximum dramatic power from what is to happen and from her excruciating embarrassment? I would suggest there are 3 things here:

1) She’s smiling, anticipating Maxim’s approval, and that was very deliberate direction on Hitchcock’s part: the effect works better, he thought, ‘if you don’t put a dramatic expression into a face, but already have the face in a contrasting condition, say smiling. then, to get a reaction, you allow that smile to drain away from her face. The power comes not simply from the expression itself but from the contrast.’

2) The choreography: a waltz is playing in the background, and she seems to float down the stairs, almost in time to the music. But as she nears Maxim, the music stops, so that there’s this momentary sinking feeling, of anti-climax, and of course, the brief silence at that point seems to maximise the shock and embarrassment. Maxim’s anger can’t be covered up by the music and seems to resound even more resonantly as a result.

3) the use of close-up, which has been saved just for this moment to enlarge the sense of shock, embarrassment, horror.

Rebecca has often been seen as a sort of fairy-tale, but this is a dark variation: Cinderella arrives at the ball in her finest garments to see her Prince Charming, but his first reaction is to say, in so many words, ‘God, you look awful, get out of those clothes immediately, I don’t care what you put on.’ Olivier is particularly good here, pressing his hands to his temple as if his brain is about to explode; his flash of temper and the intensity of it certainly could suggest someone of a potentially murderous disposition.

The remainder of the sequence is particularly intriguing from an adaptation point of view, because Hitchcock and his screenwriters have very effectively telescoped two scenes from the novel into one and compressed the element of time. (They will do something similar in a later scene when they transfer Maxim’s confession about his hatred of Rebecca, which in the novel takes place in the library, to the boathouse where the ‘accident’ took place, which in turn allows Hitchcock to simulate a re-enactment of Maxim’s ‘crime’ through some cleverly suggestive camerawork.) Whereas in the novel she now goes back to her room, spends most of the night sobbing her eyes out and only confronts Mrs Danvers the next day, in the film the confrontation takes place immediately after the heroine’s humiliation, so that the mood is carried directly from one scene to the next. There’s an emotional continuity to the heroine’s despair, so that the moment when Mrs Danvers seems to be tempting her into committing suicide is one of hypnotic power. We have two figures in close proximity, one dressed in white, the other in black, almost like good and evil side by side, or like a snake hypnotising a rabbit. The close-ups and the music contribute to the feeling of romantic heartbreak and of wanting to end the agony; we are given the subjective shots of the mist into which the distraught heroine could temptingly disappear; the camera pulls away as if beckoning her to her doom, inviting her to let go- and then suddenly, the spell is broken by the explosion that signals a boat has run aground on the rocks.

All of that seems typical Hitchcock, so it’s a curious thing that he felt that Rebecca wasn’t really a Hitchcock picture. He felt constrained by having to follow the novel so closely, he felt a bit bullied by the producer, it wasn’t really his cup of tea, he would say. It was François Truffaut who pointed out to him very astutely that actually it was more characteristic and personal than he might have realised. ‘The novel itself was rather an unlikely one for you,’ Truffaut said to him. ‘It wasn’t a thriller: there was no suspense. It was simply a psychological story, into which you introduced the element of suspense around the conflict of personalities. The experience, I think, had repercussions on the films that came later.’ I think that’s spot on: the suspense in later Hitchcock will come as much from the psychology as from the situation. A number of his later films- like Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964), for example, and in the same way as Rebecca– only turn into murder mysteries two-thirds of the way through: before that the emphasis and suspense are all on the mystery of personality.

As in Rebecca, there are a number of later films in which the heroines have to measure themselves against an ideal of femininity. In Vertigo, for example, there’s a scene not unlike the one we’ve just seen where a woman’s attempt to impress a man she loves by, as it were, ‘disguising’ herself as a feminine ideal she thinks he will admire goes disastrously wrong. (I am thinking of that almost unbearably painful scene when Midge does a parody portrait of herself as the beautiful Carlotta in an endeavour to shake Scottie out of his romantic trance and back into reality, but it only alienates and enrages him and underlines how deeply he is in the grip of obsession.) For all the director’s disclaimers about Rebecca, Hitchcock scholars, and particularly feminist critics, have seen all kinds of precursors of his future work: his empathy with the suffering heroine; the theme of romantic obsession; the overpowering house which is filled with the spirit of someone dead and which the heroine first approaches in pouring rain (that’s a bit like Marion Crane arriving at the Bates motel in Psycho); and a forerunner of what I think is Hitchcock’s greatest film, Vertigo, which also begins with its hero hovering over a precipice and also deals with an obsession with a dead woman and how the dead come back to haunt the living. Without consciously realising it, it seems, Hitchcock was responding to the material on quite a deep level, giving it a very personal slant. He’s offering an interpretation of the original which enlarges on and illuminates it in very interesting ways; and the material brings out something in him that was not at all apparent before he filmed Rebecca but was to become much more apparent afterwards: romantic anguish. So it’s one of those fascinating adaptations that brings something fresh to the novel and discloses something fresh about the director’s own artistic personality: a mutual enrichment.

I want now to move on to The Birds, which was released in 1963 and which was Hitchcock’s first film after his huge success with Psycho in 1960, so he was hoping to top that. Significantly, unlike in Rebecca, he didn’t have an interfering producer to contend with. By now he was his own producer and, to all intents and purposes, the star of the picture, internationally known through his cameo appearances in his films; through his hugely successful television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents which he always introduced and concluded himself; and through his complete identification with the genre of suspense thriller. He was the one director in the industry where you could sell a film on his name alone; and when you went to see an Alfred Hitchcock picture, you went with certain expectations of thrills and suspense. As he liked to put it, ‘If I made Cinderella, people would be looking for the body in the coach.’

So, when he came to make The Birds, he had much more freedom to do with the basic material what he wanted- for good or ill. Accordingly, he takes the basic situation, but he will put it in a completely different milieu with a completely different set of characters.

In a moment I will discuss a couple of extracts from the film as examples of the way Hitchcock creates suspense, but a word about Daphne du Maurier’s short story, which had first been published in 1952. ‘The idea for it,’ she said, ‘was born on my daily walks across the cliffs in Cornwall. I would see the farmer ploughing his fields, his tractor followed by a flock of gulls screaming and crying. As they dived for worms and insects, I thought, “Suppose they stop being interested in worms?”’ An example of her macabre imagination in action. Hitchcock had read the story when it first came out and indeed included it in one of those paperback anthologies Alfred Hitchcock Presents that featured short stories of a macabre or suspenseful nature. He claimed only to have read the story once and very quickly at that, so, unlike in Rebecca, there was to be no attempt at ‘fidelity’ to the original (though there are details from the story that will crop up in the film); and in these circumstances, it is interesting to consider why he turned to this story at this particular time or what attracted him to it. There is a lot of bird imagery in his previous film, Psycho: Norman Bates, with his stuffed birds on the wall seemingly watching him; even some the names in the film- Marion Crane, from Phoenix, Arizona- but Hitchcock said that was entirely coincidental. I think he felt the material offered the possibility of a new departure for him: it was experimental, enigmatic, technically challenging, even a bit arty in its lack of resolution.

The brief sequence I’m about to discuss is a bit gruesome, but this is Daphne du Maurier’s fault as much as Alfred Hitchcock’s, because the gruesome bit is a visual detail that is suggested in the original story. The setting now is not Cornwall but California, and the characterisation is not a farming community but consists of a socialite heroine, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) who, having met this lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a bird shop in San Francisco when he’s buying a present of love birds for his younger sister, on a whim of romantic attraction decides to follow him to his home in Bodega Bay. She thus immediately incurs the hostility of the local schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who is clearly in love with Mitch, and Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy), who seems to disapprove of Melanie and her life-style. Most significantly, as soon as Melanie arrives, the birds start behaving strangely. A gull swoops down and pecks Melanie on the forehead; a bird crashes into Annie’s front door; a flock of birds disrupt a children’s party, flying around, knocking things over, bursting balloons; and then a flock of sparrows comes down the chimney in the Brenners’ dining room and fly around, smashing teacups and china. What’s going on? The next morning Mitch’s mother goes to visit a friend, a local farmer, Dan Fawcett. She’s having some problems with some feed for her animals and needs some advice. She will find that the birds have got there before her:

The gruesome detail of the farmer with his eyes pecked out is suggested in the original story: Hitchcock might have remembered more of it than he thought. Another moment that’s always interested me about that sequence is just a point about Hitchcock’s direction. Apparently, when they were filming it, Hitchcock suddenly felt there was something not quite right about the scene as it was written. When Lydia says ‘Dan, Dan, are you home?’ and there’s no answer, why didn’t she just leave? Hitchcock felt that he had to come up with something visual that would be unnerving enough to sustain the mood of tension, but not so frightening that she would leave anyway. So when she receives no answer to her call, she’s looking around and her eyes light upon something very strange, almost unaccountable: a row of cups hanging by their handles on the hooks by the sink, and the cups all broken, as if something has just flown along them in a destructive sweep. In the previous scene, the mother has been associated with china, trying to piece it together after the bird attack in their dining room (like her, it’s outwardly elegant but also brittle, and the metaphorical association between her and broken china seems to be hinting at her imminent breakdown). The image of the broken cups is just enough visually to tweak her interest into going further, but maintain the level of suspense, anxiety and apprehension: what is she going to find? I love that moment: it is a classic example of Hitchcock finding a visual solution to a dramatic and structural problem. To convey her distress and agitation, he even took care over the truck she drives away in and the dust that follows it: he wanted to suggest an anxious truck, an angry truck to keep up the emotional intensity.

Moving on to another scene from The Birds: again it’s a scene that shows the primacy of the image over the word, though the soundtrack here is also very interesting. This scene occurs not long after the one I’ve just discussed, which particularly demonstrated the harm the birds can inflict: they can smash windows, they can kill. It follows a dialogue scene between Melanie and the mother where the latter’s fears- of the birds, of being left alone, for her daughter Cathy at the school- have surfaced. To reassure her, Melanie offers to go and collect Cathy from the school at the end of the school day, and this is what happens:

This is a classic suspense sequence, because suspense is about waiting and here we have: Melanie waiting for Cathy; the birds waiting for the children; and the audience waiting for what happens next, the director having given us just enough information to allow our imagination to work:

There is a characteristic use of setting. Hitchcock liked staging his most suspenseful scenes in settings of normality, places where one would usually feel safe (the shower, even the United Nations building) because it completely undermines any sense of security. His contribution to universal paranoia has been immense. Here a school playground becomes a territory of terror, tension rising against the background of a nursery rhyme which, like the film, seems part rational, part irrational, nonsense verse.

Hitchcock knows by now that, if he’s done his job properly, then the very sight of a bird will be enough to make us jumpy, uneasy, particularly as, like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, they seem to have the capacity to creep up on you unaware. So, as Melanie sits down and lights a cigarette, one bird lands on the climbing frame, behind her and immediately hops over, as if expecting company (a brilliant eerie detail). Again classic suspense technique: the audience now knows more than the character and feels anxious on her behalf and powerless to warn her: when/how will she find out? And how will she react? And while we’re taking that in, Hitchcock cuts to a slightly wider angle, allowing us to see that, in the space of a few seconds, a few more birds have arrived silently, adding to our apprehension. Then, in a particularly telling moment, Hitchcock keeps the camera on Melanie, so we cannot see and have to imagine what is happening behind her, and the suspense now comes not from what the director shows but from what he withholds. She smokes anxiously; the nursery-rhyme seems endless.

And then Melanie notices something and looks up: a solitary bird is flying across the sky, usually a harmless enough sight, but not here. She follows its flight, the moment being stretched as her nerves are being stretched, until its descent; and she turns to see (and Hitchcock, in planning the scene, felt he could hear an audible gasp from the audience at this point) the climbing frame which is now full of birds. Whilst she has been finishing her cigarette, gathering behind her has been her worst nightmare. Tippi Hedren’s reaction is marvellous; a silent scream, for she dare not make a noise for fear it will set them off. The image is like something out of Edvard Munch.

The shock comes from the speed and silence with which the birds have gathered, but it comes from something else as well, which Hitchcock and his writer Evan Hunter might have picked up from the original story: the irrational sense of an implied intelligence and intention behind the birds’ behaviour. After all, why don’t they attack Melanie? It’s almost as if they’re saying: we’ll get to you later (which they do). At that moment that doesn’t seem part of their plan, they’re waiting for the children; and somehow seem to know what time school is out. There’s an intriguing shot just before the children run from the school, when Hitchcock cuts to a shot of the birds; it looks almost as if they’re chatting amongst themselves. Then we hear the sound of running; the birds fly out in a mass at the camera; and in long shot we see the blue sky seeming to turn black as the birds swoop down on their young prey.

Why do the birds attack? The film has been sometimes criticised for offering no definitive answer to this question. Hitchcock was accused of being pretentious and trying to imitate the ambiguities and complexities of European art cinema; but he was simply being true to the original story, for Daphne du Maurier doesn’t offer any explanation either. He always said the theme of the film was complacency, and an attack on human complacency; and to have provided a comfortable explanation at the end for what had happened would have undermined his whole strategy. I’ve sometimes felt that both he and du Maurier were picking up on a kind of post-war anxiety about threats from the air: in du Maurier, an imaginative response to a post-World War Two environment in which humanity is still coming to terms with the dropping of the atom bomb and the realisation that, for the first time in the world’s history, war can become synonymous with global annihilation; in Hitchcock, a similar response to a Cold War environment in which humanity, in the Cuban missile crisis of the year before, had been taken to the brink of nuclear devastation. Both are apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenarios for an era that seemed bent on self-destruction.

Inevitably the film has prompted many different interpretations: maybe the birds are an enactment of the caged passions the humans are trying to conceal- hostility, jealousy, rage … or: more generally and symbolically, the birds represent the forces of chaos, or natural disaster, that can erupt with shocking suddenness into people’s lives and turn their values upside down, forcing them to re-evaluate their priorities.

One of the questions that the film raises is: is the heroine, Melanie Daniels, the cause of it all? The attacks only start when she arrives in Bodega Bay. Her ‘teasing’ of the other characters (Mitch, his mother, the schoolteacher Annie) unleashes a chaos of human emotion that has previously been caged or contained: the mother’s possessiveness and her terror at being left alone; Annie’s unrequited love for Mitch. There’s also a curious sub-text of family dysfunctionality, where Mitch has a possessive mother and absent father whose portrait is still prominent in the house; Melanie is close to her father but reveals she’s been abandoned by her mother when she was 11, which might be why she’s drawn to Mitch’s younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) who’s also 11. There’s this tangled knot of interconnecting relationships, with emotions swirling between passion, possessiveness, jealousy, anger, and which are going nowhere until the bird attacks force the characters to rip apart the evasions and face the fears that confront them.

Yet when Melanie is accused of being the cause of it all by a hysterical woman in the café, the woman is looking straight into the camera and thus directly at us, the audience. ‘They say when you came, the whole thing started,’ she says: well, that’s certainly true, the film couldn’t start without the audience. ‘I think you’re the cause of all this,’ she goes on, ‘I think you’re evil, EVIL!’ Is it, then, an accusation implicitly directed at all of us: a sort of Day of Judgment, an ecological horror story in which Nature strikes back in vengeance at the violations of Nature by mankind? The film incidentally has sometimes been seen as more analogous to a poem than to a short story. It works through rhythm and intensity of imagery rather than through narrative coherence and rounded characters, and is comparable particularly to a poem like Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, another Revenge of Nature tale against man’s heedless inhumanity.

OR: another reading of that line, spoken directly at the camera, ‘I think you’re the cause of all this, I think you’re evil’: is it, like a number of Hitchcock’s films, and particularly a film like Rear Window (1954), in some regards about the film audience, where very often the structure seems to encourage an audience to indulge its impure emotions (when I saw The Birds for the first time, someone behind me in the audience was getting very impatient with the film’s slow opening, and murmuring, ‘When are the birds going to attack, when are the birds going to attack?’) and then being compelled to live through the consequences of these emotions- i.e. when they’re turned back on you and you’re terrified. This could be the reason that Hitchcock’s films have such cathartic power and which one could say is the moral imperative behind his use of suspense. Robin Wood has particularly examined this aspect of Hitchcock’s use of suspense and its therapeutic effect and value.

OR: more specifically, when that hysterical character says, ‘I think you’re the cause of all this’ directly at the camera, she is, in a literal sense, absolutely right: the camera is the cause of all this. This would take us back to the basic premise of Hitchcock’s work as a film director: namely, that the camera tells the story, not the dialogue, not the characters, but the camera. I think that one of the things that most appealed to him about The Birds as basic material- and I’m not sure it would have occurred or appealed to Daphne du Maurier, or any writer for that matter- is that on one level it’s about the futility of language. Words are of little use in the film and often evasive and misleading; indeed, in the early part of the film the characters spend an inordinate amount of time verbally sparring with each other in increasingly frustrating games of ego and undisclosed desire (as Robin Wood once speculated: what would have happened to these people and these relationships if the birds hadn’t attacked?). There’s a scene in a café which must be one of the longest dialogue scenes in the whole of Hitchcock where a crisis debate about why this is happening and what to do about it leads absolutely nowhere, at which point the birds attack, and reduce them all to silence anyway. Critics have tried to rationalise the film, or attacked it for being irrational- but it’s not an illogical film, it’s an anti-logic film that undercuts humanity’s sense of rational superiority. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, as Hamlet says to Horatio (and even Annie asks Melanie at one stage: ‘what do you think of our little hamlet?’) Film should be stronger than reason, Hitchcock thought, and the fact that this film’s basic premise- Birds attack people- is fantastical is precisely the point. The basic premise was the thing that François Truffaut admired above all about it. ‘I am convinced that the cinema was invented so that such a film could be made,’ he said.

Daphne du Maurier was understandably miffed that Hitchcock continued to get credit for an idea that was originally hers; and she certainly didn’t like the liberties he took with the setting and the characterisation. And yet it does intrigue me that, in two widely different adaptations of du Maurier’s work- one intentionally faithful to the text, the other flying off in its own direction- Hitchcock reveals in both something absolutely fundamental about himself and about his cinema. With Rebecca we get the unexpected revelation of a romantic yearning in Hitchcock which was hitherto unsuspected and which will come to the fore in some of the greatest of his later works; and also an empathy for feminine feeling which is also new in his work and which critics have argued anticipates his later exploration of ‘feminine’ regions of his own personality- the sensitivity, the passivity, the anger. With The Birds, we get Hitchcock the ultimate cineaste, a film which as much as any other demonstrates film’s difference from literature; almost his revenge on a literature-dominated film culture in the form of a film adaptation that words cannot ultimately explain. ‘I don’t care about the subject-matter;’ he told Truffaut, ‘I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all the technical ingredients that make an audience scream. It’s tremendously satisfying to able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion, where audiences are not stirred by the message, or great performances, or enjoyment of the original novel, but by pure film.’ By imagining and creating source material that penetrated to the roots of a great film-maker’s personality and his technique, Daphne du Maurier will always have a special place in the heart of all lovers of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Neil Sinyard

This is the text of a public lecture at the Daphne Du Maurier Festival in May 2012.

drupal stats

Hitchcock vs Herrmann: the story behind the break-up of cinema’s finest director/composer partnership

I have called this talk ‘Hitchcock versus Herrmann’ because I want to tell the story behind the break-up of what to me is the cinema’s finest director/composer collaboration. But first I’d like to show two short extracts by way of introduction. The first represents the highpoint of their collaboration and is very famous:

The second is undoubtedly the partnership’s low-point and I guarantee that no one will have seen this sequence in this precise form in the cinema:

[Please note that, although Neil’s text describes the version of the Torn Curtain opening scored by Bernard Herrmann, the extract on this webpage is currently the version with John Addison’s music. The Herrmann version is, however, available on the DVD release of Torn Curtain.]

The first extract was, of course, the famous shower-murder in Psycho, made in 1960, the murder accentuated by perhaps the most celebrated musical cue in film history, Herrmann’s famous screaming violins that highlight the heroine’s screams but also the stabbing knife. The second extract was the credit sequence of Torn Curtain, made in 1966, and some of you might have noticed that it says ‘Music by John Addison’. Actually the music you heard was by Bernard Herrmann, arguably the most notorious piece of film music ever written because it brought to an end – and an abrupt and hostile end – this great director/composer partnership. The orchestra liked it: indeed, after they’d played it, they burst into spontaneous applause, so it came as something of a surprise to them that, when Hitchcock heard it, he was angry and upset, cancelled the remainder of the session, and severed a partnership that had served him well – nay, brilliantly – over 11 years and 9 films. My talk then is centrally concerned with what happened on that fateful day in March 1966 (surely the most dramatic recording session in Hollywood history) and why it happened. It is a complex and even mysterious story with some still unanswered questions, but very revealing about the individual personalities of two extraordinary artists and of two competing egos and insecurities. I also want to assess different accounts of what happened, offering my own interpretation but basing this too on what people who were close to the event have told me. But to understand it fully, one needs to contextualise it a bit; and in this regard, I want to say a few things about the partnership of Hitchcock and Herrmann in its prime.


On the face of it, it might seem an odd pairing: Hitchcock a droll Cockney Catholic, who after a string of brilliant English thrillers such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes had gone to Hollywood at the invitation of producer David Selznick in 1939 to make Rebecca and who had settled in America; Herrmann a volatile Jewish New Yorker of prodigious musical talent as conductor as well as composer, and for the concert-hall as well as the movie screen and incidentally a great Anglophile: he loved English music and English literature. They came together, though, through a colossal mutual professional respect; a shared sense of humour (Herrmann’s widow, Norma, told me that when I asked her what she thought was the secret behind their successful partnership: ‘They had a very similar sense of humour,’ she told me, ‘quite dark and mischievous’); a certain similarity of outlook (both nurturing under defensive exteriors a deeply romantic sensibility); and similar aesthetic goals. Herrmann thought that the key to good film music was the ability of the composer to seek out and intensify the inner emotions of the characters, not just to illustrate and accompany the drama but to get inside it (if you can’t do that, he thought, then you shouldn’t be writing music for films in the first place); and that corresponded to Hitchcock’s aesthetic of conveying psychological intensity not through histrionic display but through cinematic means of composition and montage.

When they teamed up in the mid 1950s, both were on a career high. Having been in Hollywood for 15 years, Hitchcock was now established as a major player. He had just made one of his greatest films, Rear Window (1954); had launched his hugely successful television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents which, through his witty introductions and conclusions, had made him a star in his own right, which undoubtedly enabled him to make controversial films like Psycho on the basis of his name alone; and, significantly, was being hailed not simply as the ‘Master of Suspense’ but a major artist- an auteur, indeed- by the young critics and budding film-makers of the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, who were soon to form the nucleus of the French Nouvelle Vague: Francois Truffaut, Jean-luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol.

[Please note that the video of Herrmann extracts above was not part of Neil’s presentation but is included here as illustration.]

Similarly with Herrmann. Having begun his professional career as a staff musician for CBS radio and collaborated with a boy wonder by the name of Orson Welles, he had accompanied Welles to Hollywood and begun his film music career in spectacular style with his score for Citizen Kane, which was a musical milestone as well as a movie masterpiece, because it broke away from the lush Europeanised romanticism of composers such as Korngold and Max Steiner that had dominated Hollywood soundtracks in the 1930s and created a much starker sound that often involved an innovative use of the orchestra: in Howard Goodall’s phrase, he replaced sentiment with anxiety. Straight after Kane, he won an Oscar for his score for The Devil and Daniel Webster; and one of his typically Gothic scores of the mid-1940s, Hangover Square even prompted a fan letter from a 15-year-old Stephen Sondheim. During the 1940s he was trying to divide his time between his concert and cinema engagements and between composing and conducting but was now in such demand by the studios that the concert and conducting ambitions were having to take a back seat. This frustrated him in some way because he was a formidable musician whose real love was conducting (he never quite forgave André Previn for landing the post of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra – he would have loved that job). Which career path should he choose? His widow Norma Herrmann once showed me a copy of the score he had of Stravinsky’s Symphony in 3 Movements which he had asked Stravinsky to sign, and the inscription reads: ‘To the excellent musician and conductor, Bernard Herrmann. Cordially, I. Stravinsky.’ For a 20th century musician, an inscription such as that from Stravinsky would be like a reference from God: I doubt whether Stravinsky would have done that for Herbert von Karajan.

Herrmann completed his opera based on Wuthering Heights in 1951, but by the mid 1950s, he was in such demand as a film composer that his path had been chosen for him. When Hitchcock came along, the partnership ‘jelled’ immediately, with Herrmann catching the tone of Hitchcock’s macabre comedy thriller, The Trouble with Harry to perfection with a witty, alternately playful and portentous score that really added to the fun; then scored The Man who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man with an appropriately menacing tread, sometimes flamboyant, sometimes eerie and troubled; and then the Golden Period, between 1958 and 1960, when we had three masterpieces of film direction and film scoring one after the other- Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960), the latter being perhaps their ultimate collaboration in terms of success and impact: it’s noticeable that Herrmann’s name comes up second on the credits just before Hitchcock’s, as if emphasising his importance.

BUT: with hindsight, it’s possible to see that the Psycho collaboration contained hints of future discord, areas of disagreement that here had been successfully resolved but might have left niggling feelings of disquiet. For example, it is well known that Hitchcock had originally not wanted music for the shower murder whilst recognising that the whole film depended on the effectiveness of that scene – everything leads up to it and everything that follows is dependent on its impact, so if that sequence didn’t work, then the whole film would go down the drain, as it were. Herrmann came up with those screaming violins, perhaps the most immediately effective cue in film music, and in essence proved Hitchcock wrong, which generally was not a wise thing to do. Still, to give Hitchcock his due, he deserves credit for giving way on this point (when Herrmann with typical mischief reminded him that he’d said he didn’t want music for this scene, Hitchcock replied, ‘Improper suggestion.’); and, in fact, I was once on a radio programme with writer/director Peter Bogdanovich who’d attended the New York premiere of Psycho when little was known about the film and he said the audience was screaming so loudly during the shower murder that he never heard the music, so maybe Hitchcock was right after all. At one point Hitchcock was getting cold feet about the film and was thinking of cutting it down to an hour to show as one of his television specials and it was Herrmann particularly who persuaded him not to do that and that it was one of his major films; and what particularly persuaded him was seeing the complete film with the score. In short, Herrmann was becoming very important, the danger of that being that he might be stealing some of his thunder (and Hitchcock was notoriously loath to give credit to his collaborators). In the end, with Psycho, everything worked out triumphantly, but his next film The Birds had a mixed critical and commercial reception (Herrmann on that film being more of a technical consultant as it didn’t have a conventional score); and then when Marnie, which had one of Herrmann’s full-blown romantic scores, flopped with critics and public, being regarded as clumsy and old-fashioned (it has been re-evaluated since), the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership was put under stress as never before. Things came to a head over Torn Curtain.

There is no doubt that Hitchcock was under considerable pressure from the heads of Universal Studios to commission a score for his new film that was commercially exploitable, which was becoming a feature of films at that time. They had seen how Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ had boosted the popularity of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Maurice Jarre’s ‘Lara’s Theme’ had added to the appeal of Dr Zhivago; and there was the widespread feeling in the industry in the mid-1960s that the conventional symphonic score of Hollywood’s heyday was now a bit old-hat. The pressure on Hitchcock would have been intensified by his terror, as Herrmann’s widow has described it to me, of what he called ‘the whizzkids’ and of being thought old-fashioned and out of touch with the tastes of the contemporary audience. Before he’d always seemed ahead of the game, particularly with Psycho, which had been enormously popular and ahead of its time and had confounded the critics, many of whom had condemned the film at the time and had been compelled to eat their words. Was he losing his touch? Was a new strategy required?

So initially Hitchcock’s decision to keep faith with Herrmann could be seen as being commendably loyal, particularly as Herrmann was a notoriously cantankerous character who made no secret of his contempt for the studio’s attitude to, and ignorance of, film music. Conversely, I think it would be wrong to suggest, as the critic of The Times did when reviewing a concert of Herrmann’s film music in 2006, that the relationship foundered during Torn Curtain because ‘Hitch’s lordly ways had, it seems, been gnawing way at Herrmann for some time.’ I don’t think that is so- if anything, it’s more true the other way round. Whatever the niggles over the Psycho experience, the swiftness and finality of their falling-out over Torn Curtain seems to have taken Herrmann completely by surprise. Another misconception (reiterated by Howard Goodall in an otherwise splendid programme he did on Herrmann’s music for Channel 4) has been the suggestion that, after the Torn Curtain debacle, Herrmann was seized on by Francois Truffaut to write the score for Fahrenheit 451 (1966). In fact, Herrmann had been commissioned for the Truffaut film before the Hitchcock; and indeed there is a letter by Truffaut to Hitchcock (18 November, 1965) which deepens the mystery of their subsequent split. ‘In London,’ Truffaut wrote, ‘I met Bernard Herrmann who will be writing the score for Fahrenheit 451. We had a long talk together about you and I feel that, in him, you have a great and genuine friend.’ It is a reminder that the break-up was not simply a professional blow but, for both men, a devastating personal loss. Herrmann was undoubtedly one of Hitchcock’s closest friends in the film community, and vice-versa. They went shopping together, apparently; would wash up together after meals; and crucially, would confide in each other and exchange confidences about their private lives- and at that particular time, both of them had quite a lot to exchange. During the filming of Marnie, Hitchcock had become infatuated with his leading lady, Tippi Hedren, and although accounts might differ as to how far this infatuation went, it certainly ended unhappily (‘She said something that no one is ever allowed to me,’ he told his authorised biographer, John Russell Taylor, ‘she referred to my weight’). At the same time Herrmann was experiencing the collapse of his second marriage and going through a very painful divorce. So I’ve no doubt Truffaut was right: there was a great bond and friendship there, which makes the break-up all the more extraordinary.

The exchange of telegrams between them about the upcoming score make interesting reading. Although remaining loyal at this stage to Herrmann, Hitchcock had expressed his disappointment at the composer’s most recent score for the film Joy in the Morning (1965), which he’d found repetitive and derivative, and demanded a different approach that recognised, as had European film makers, a new audience that was, in his words, ‘young, vigorous and demanding’ and required a score that had ‘a beat and a rhythm.’ ‘If you cannot do this,’ he concluded, ‘then I am the loser’ (words that, one could say, would come back to haunt him). Herrmann seemed unfazed by this and responded with enthusiasm: ‘Delighted to Compose Beat Score for Torn Curtain. Always Pleased to Have your Views.’ Hitchcock immediately got a production assistant to cable back: ‘These are not views: these are requirements.’ Whether Herrmann quite understood what Hitchcock was getting at is a moot point; directors are not always good at conveying to composers what it is they’re after. (Anecdotally, I can remember interviewing the director Fred Zinnemann during the making of his last film, the mountaineering drama, Five Days One Summer when he’d had a falling-out with his composer, Carl Davis: he’d wanted a small intimate score, he said, and Davis had composed for an orchestra of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony proportions, and I remember thinking: how could they have misunderstood each other so completely?) It’s not clear to me whether Herrmann did think he was delivering what Hitchcock wanted or went away and did his own thing, thinking that that this was the fix the film needed. (As he used to put it: ‘You expect a doctor to make you well: you don’t expect him also to make you rich.’) Were Hitchcock’s requirements specific enough? He told Herrmann that the score should be modern, that he had very definite ideas about where the music should go, and that there shouldn’t be too much of it. Herrmann had simply responded: ‘Please send script indicating where you desire music- can then begin composing.’ Hitchcock had told him that ‘the main title should be exciting, arresting and rhythmic’. One could certainly argue that Herrmann’s main title music was all of those things: what it was not, however, was melodically memorable or obviously commercial. Herrmann went away and wrote the score. In March 1966, the Goldwyn studios in Los Angeles were booked for two days for the recording of the score, with Herrmann conducting. And then all hell broke loose.

Versions of precisely what happened that day have tended to differ. In broad terms, Herrmann started recording the score with the orchestra and the session was going well. Indeed, after the playback of the title music, the musicians had burst into spontaneous applause, a rare tribute from seasoned Hollywood musicians, who would have been accustomed to André Previn’s cryptic summary of the film composer’s perennial dilemma: ‘Do you want it good or do you want it Thursday?’ However, as soon as Hitchcock appeared on the scene, the atmosphere changed. His first sight of Herrmann’s orchestra would have startled him, because it was typically unconventional: 12 flutes, 16 horns, 9 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets of tympani, 8 celli, 8 double basses, and no violins – he must have wondered where his hit song would have materialised out of that combination.

But there is question: why was he there in the first place? Was it his usual practice of attending recording sessions? (I’ve been told that he wasn’t at the recording sessions of Psycho, for example.) In his biography of Hitchcock, Patrick McGilligan writes that ‘Hitchcock kept an appointment with Herrmann in late March to listen to the first recording of the music’. However, an article on the Bernard Herrmann website by Steve Verlieb in 2002 states that: ‘Hitchcock who must have been warned by his spies about the performance, arrived unannounced on the stage accompanied by his assistant Peggy Robertson to listen to the newly recorded cues.’ If I incline towards this second interpretation rather than the first, it’s for two reasons: 1) Norma Herrmann told me that Herrmann as a rule didn’t like directors turning up at his recording sessions, for he thought they had no business there (they’d done their job, leave him to do his); his ideal was someone like Truffaut, who would just arrive, wish everybody good luck, and then disappear; and 2) if Hitchcock had been invited, why wasn’t he there at the start of the session, particularly as he’d made specific requirements about the main title music? Also, if he’d been invited, would Herrmann have started without him? These are not conclusive arguments, but they do tend to suggest to me that Hitchcock’s arrival was unexpected.

Well, whether Herrmann was expecting him or not, he seemed unperturbed and asked the engineer to play back what they had recorded, at which point, according to McGilligan, ‘the director didn’t get very far before shutting the recording off’. A row broke out between director and composer in front of the other musicians, in which Hitchcock declared that the score was exactly the kind of score he hadn’t wanted and cancelled the session on the spot. ‘Where’s the theme song?’ Hitchcock apparently demanded of Herrmann: not love music or romantic music, as has sometimes been suggested, but a hit song, a ‘number one’, as he put it, and he kept demanding. ‘Where’s the theme song?’ ‘I know this,’ Norma Herrmann told me, ‘as Benny used to say in later years with the greatest contempt in his voice, ‘Theme song! Theme song!’ Hitchcock then walked out (though the principal horn player Alan Robertson told Norma Herrmann that it was Herrmann who had stormed out first) and went over to Head Office, apologising for what had happened, confirming the cancellation of the next day’s recording session and offering to pay Herrmann’s salary out of his own pocket to atone for his mistaken loyalty in hiring him in the first place. What has always struck me as extraordinary about that chain of events is that, for Hitchcock, it seems so out of character. Everyone who knew Hitchcock- and it’s confirmed by every interview about him I’ve ever seen or every book on him I’ve read- agreed that he was a man who hated confrontations (it was one of Ingrid Bergman’s grouses; ‘You can never have an argument with that man, he just walks out of the room’); and yet, in this instance, according to some accounts, he seems to have gone our of his way to provoke a confrontation and to cause maximum embarrassment in the process.

No music for Gromek's killing: Torn Curtain

No music for Gromek’s killing: Torn Curtain

Later that day Hitchcock rang Herrmann, who was still in the recording studio in a state of shock. They resumed their argument, Hitchcock furious with Herrmann for disobeying instructions and Herrmann angry with Hitchcock for capitulating to the wishes of studio bosses. Hitchcock would have been particularly cross also because the composer had written music for a brutal murder scene when the director had expressly told him not to: this was a sensitive matter when one recalls that Hitchcock had not wanted music for the shower murder in Psycho – clearly he did not want to be proved wrong twice. To prove him wrong once might be a misfortune; to prove him wrong twice looks like carelessness. And incidentally there’s an odd sub-text to this: the music Herrmann used for this was music he’d used years before for the Hitchcock TV episode ‘Behind the Locked Door’: whether Hitchcock recognised this is unknown, but if he had, it would certainly have made even madder, because it would have confirmed his belief that Herrmann was beginning to repeat himself. Herrmann, though, would have probably said, as he had of the Psycho incident: ‘If you don’t like it, don’t use it.’ In any event, according to Herrmann’s biographer, Steven Smith: ‘Both voices were rising; and the conversation quickly ended. It was Hitchcock and Herrmann’s last.’ That last statement, incidentally, is not strictly accurate, as I will shortly explain.

So: how to interpret what happened? Had Herrmann betrayed Hitchcock’s trust by ignoring his requirements and going along with his own instincts rather than those of the director? Or had Hitchcock behaved with rudeness and insensitivity towards one of his most loyal and prestigious collaborators? It has never been entirely clear whether Herrmann quit or was fired; and there are other mysteries connected with the event that seem to go way beyond simply the question of creative differences, and I’ll just mention three things:

(1) If Hitchcock was so insistent on requiring a commercially exploitable score, why had he commissioned Herrmann in the first place? Herrmann was not incapable of accomplishing this, but he wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice. The positive reading of Hitchcock’s motive would stress loyalty to, and confidence in, his composer-friend. The negative – indeed paranoid – reading of his motive would suggest that he was deliberately setting up a confrontation. If so, why? I’ll return to that in a moment.

(2) Also, even thrown by the sight of Herrmann’s orchestra and disliking what he had heard, why did he not at least listen to the score in its entirety? This was Herrmann’s own argument: the sessions have been booked, the musicians will still need to be paid, why don’t we just carry on and finish, and if you still don’t like it, then throw it out? (He might have added that, after all, audiences didn’t exactly go out of the theatre whistling the theme from Psycho but no one would dispute the importance of the music to that film’s success.) Hitchcock wouldn’t hear of it. Again defenders of Hitchcock might say that, having expressed his displeasure so forcefully, he could hardly be expected to go back on it: he’d look a bit of a fool if he said at the end of it all ‘Actually I quite like it now’. But to me this detail highlights the most extraordinary aspect of the affair: not the fact that the score was rejected but the way it was rejected, which in my view was-and still is- unprecedented. After all, umpteen scores have been thrown out in different circumstances and replaced, but this is something else. There is no other occasion I can recall where a director has halted a recording session in mid-flow after hearing only one section; berated the composer, who is not some newcomer but the finest in the business, in front of the other musicians; and essentially rejected the complete score without hearing it. And this coming from one of the foremost of all director/composer partnerships and involving two great artists who had previously been great friends. I honestly can’t think of anything quite like this in the annals of movie history.

The on-screen composer credit for Torn Curtain

The on-screen composer credit for Torn Curtain

(3) After ditching Herrmann, why did he replace him with John Addison, a perfectly competent film composer but who was no more likely to come up with a ‘popular’ film score than Herrmann? There were certainly more obvious choices, and we do know that, for example, Dimitri Tiomkin, who had worked with Hitchcock before and had a good track record of popular hits (High Noon, High and the Mighty, Friendly Persuasion, Green Leaves of Summer amongst them) agitated for the job. The obvious choice, if available, would have been Henry Mancini, not only one of the most popular composers of the day but extremely adept at writing music for thrillers (The Grip of Fear, Charade). The irony here is that Hitchcock was later to commission Mancini to write the score for his 1972 film, Frenzy, but then rejected it because, he said, it sounded it sounded too much like Bernard Herrmann. Anyone who has heard some of Mancini’s score and compared it with Ron Goodwin’s replacement might feel, with me, that Hitchcock made the wrong choice – again.

In a television documentary entitled Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann, a number of the interviewees, like Claude Chabrol, for example, see the break-up between Hitchcock and Herrmann as entirely Hitchcock’s fault, and that indeed he may even have engineered the showdown, though personally I think that might be taking paranoia a little too far. However, I do believe that certain ingredients of potential conflict had been bubbling for some time and, on this fateful day, boiled over. In the documentary the great film musicologist and arranger, Christopher Palmer, who was very close to Herrmann, suggested that Herrmann was becoming too important and perhaps getting too big for his boots; and Hitchcock, feeling as insecure as only a man with a man with a massive ego can feel, was determined in this instance to demonstrate who was boss and in as public a manner as possible. The person most critical of Hitchcock in the documentary was the composer David Raksin (composer of great film scores for films such as Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful etc.) who also seemed to suspect a set-up. ‘He was determined to humiliate Benny’ he said, (Herrmann was known to his friends as ‘Benny’) and he described Hitchcock of having, as he put it, ‘the loyalty of an eel’, showing no gratitude towards the man whose music had so enriched his movies. As a film composer himself and a close personal friend of Herrmann’s, Raksin could be seen as a partial witness; but he was quite close to the event, Herrmann having showed him parts of the score prior to the recording (‘I was amazed at the quality’, Raksin told me). Raksin also saw Herrmann and the leader of the cello section on the day of the recording session, Edgar Lustgarten, on the day of the recording session after the argument had happened, when Herrmann was badly shaken. In a letter to me, Raksin told me how he, Lustgarten and their wives had invited Herrmann to dinner that evening and had tried to cheer him up, but when Herrmann started to offer ‘a kind of loopy defence of Hitchcock’, as Raksin put it to me, he lost his temper with him, feeling that he was wrongfully defending the director for an act of gross insensitivity, cruelty and ingratitude.

We might never know the full story of what happened that day. Who was in the right? Would Herrmann’s score have made a difference to the film’s reception and perception? (It got mixed reviews but was moderately successful at the box-office.) Typically Herrmann seemed musically to be seeking out the film’s darker sub-text and endeavouring to get behind these cardboard tv characters, as he called them. Would the film have been able to sustain that or would the score have proved too heavy for the material? The rejected score survives and has indeed been recorded in its entirety twice, which is more than the score that was actually used. One scene in the film interests me particularly as providing a clue as to what Herrmann thought the film was about. It’s near the end, where the hero, an American scientist played by Paul Newman, is on the run in East Berlin with his fiancée (Julie Andrews). He’s pretended to defect to East Berlin in order to steal a secret formula from a top East German scientist, not, it seems, out of any patriotic motive but for his own purposes: the film has an odd Faustian sub-text about a hero who might be selling his soul for ultimate knowledge. As we join the film, they are hiding in a theatre during a ballet performance prior to making good their escape to the West, but they have been spotted by the star-ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) in mid-pirouette. Until now, in a running joke in the film, she has always found herself upstaged at airport arrivals and news conferences by Newman’s defecting, defective scientist, and now is her chance for revenge. But what particularly interests me in the scene is the music:

[The extract discussed in Neil’s text, the theatre scene from Torn Curtain, is currently unavailable.]

Very Hitchcockian, that: when Paul Newman shouts ‘Fire!’ and causes panic in the auditorium, some of you might have been reminded of the Royal Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) when Doris Day’s scream halts a concert performance and foils an attempted political assassination. The music is very resonant, coming from Tchaikovsky’s tone-poem ‘Francesca da Rimini’, inspired by an episode from Dante’s Inferno in which the souls of two lovers are swept into the flames of hellfire. Whose choice was it? There’s no doubt in my mind that it was Bernard Herrmann’s and would have been made before the two fell out. My conviction about this point, incidentally, has been confirmed by correspondence with Norma Herrmann, who thought the same. ‘It makes sense anyway,’ she told me, ‘because on the wall of his study is an old engraving of Francesca….Benny bought it during the Depression as the music was a great favourite of his. He used to walk past it and stop and conduct in front of it, singing very badly.’ My feeling is that, just as Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde was Herrmann’s key to the mood and theme of his great score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, he sensed that Francesca da Rimini fitted the mood and theme of Torn Curtain, interpreting what Hitchcock had delivered not as a simplistic tale of heroism and democracy (which is how a number of critics disdainfully read it) but as a subversive tale of hellfire and damnation. Think of the credits of the film: fire and smoke billowing out on one side of the screen, faces writhing in agony on the other, as if they are souls in purgatory. Whether Hitchcock saw the material in quite that way is another matter.

It has often been asserted that the two never spoke to each other again after that disastrous day and that Hitchcock actually hid behind his office door when Herrmann once turned up unannounced. However Norma Herrmann (she married Herrmann in 1968) told me that she was actually present at an occasion when they met again, when Herrmann gave Hitchcock a recording of his opera of Wuthering Heights; and she also showed me an affectionate inscription by Hitchcock to Herrmann when Herrmann asked him to autograph his copy of Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview with Hitchcock, and that was dated 1967: i.e. after the Torn Curtain bust-up. Herrmann was to continue to speak admiringly of Hitchcock in interviews; by contrast, Hitchcock in public was never again to mention Herrmann’s name, if it could be avoided. When one interviewer was brave enough to ask him if he would work with Herrmann again, he replied: ‘Only if he did as he was told.’ In personal terms, the one who came off worst was definitely Herrmann. He was deeply wounded by the split; genuinely surprised it had happened; and hoped that his superb 1969 recording of orchestral suites from Hitchcock’s films, with its affectionate ‘Portrait of Hitch’ derived from themes from Trouble with Harry would serve as an olive-branch: but to no avail. But what about professionally?

The irony is that, although many believe it was Hitchcock more than Herrmann who was to blame for their falling-out, it was Hitchcock who suffered the most from their parting. He was never again to secure a film score remotely in Herrmann’s league (John Williams’s charming score for Family Plot was the nearest) and his films were diminished as a result. By contrast, after a few lean years, Herrmann was re-discovered in the early 1970s by the Movie Brats and particularly championed by Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese. He wrote a thunderously romantic score for De Palma’s Obsession, a virtual re-make of Vertigo when the Hitchcock film was out of circulation because of a prolonged copyright dispute and where Herrmann’s score seems almost like a passionate homage to himself and to his Hitchcock past. And poignantly, as another reference to his Hitchcock past, the very last notes of his final film score for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver quote the three-note madness motif of Psycho to suggest the continuing unresolved psychosis of the Robert De Niro character, ironically acclaimed as a hero after his rampage of righteous slaughter has almost inadvertently rescued a teenager from a life of prostitution but where the man is still clearly profoundly disturbed. (‘He’s gonna do it again,’ said Herrmann, explaining that musical touch at the end, ‘he’s gonna do it again.’) Completing the recording session for Taxi Driver on Christmas Eve 1975, Herrmann retired to his room in a Los Angeles hotel and died that same night. The film is dedicated to his memory.

Herrmann thought of film music as ‘the connecting tissue between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.’ That is very close to Hitchcock’s aesthetic of using all the elements of the film apparatus to envelop an audience in an emotional experience. ‘Ours not to reason why,’ he would say, ‘ours just to scare the hell out of people.’ And yet: he moves us, as well as terrifies us; and in this, particularly in masterpieces like Vertigo and Psycho, he is helped immeasurably by Herrmann’s music, which seemed so imaginatively and innovatively attuned to the fraught psychological landscape of Hitchcock’s world. What a pity it was that this quite remarkable partnership should have ended so abruptly and dramatically in rancour and regret, though, given two such powerful personalities, perhaps it was inevitable. At its finest, though, in my view, it was a director- composer relationship (and there have been many great ones) unmatched in film history for dramatic flair and cinematic symbiosis. Or, to put it more simply, they brought out the best in each other – and in their respective fields, that best is better than practically anyone else’s best.

Neil Sinyard

This piece is taken from Neil Sinyard’s keynote address at the conference Partners in Suspense – Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock that was held in York in 2011. That talk was entitled ”The Loyalty of an Eel’: some reflections on the incomparable partnership of Hitchcock and Herrmann and the reasons behind their falling-out over Torn Curtain‘.’

drupal stats