Lovers of British cinema owe a debt of gratitude to Network Distributors, whose DVD and blu-ray releases of British films have offered a fascinating mixture of acknowledged classics; worthy programme fillers that are revealing about the tastes and social attitudes of the time; and obscure or neglected works that, in some cases, never found an audience and, in most cases, deserve to be much more widely known. It is this third category that I wish to highlight in the following notes on six recent Network releases of films from the mid 1960s and early 1970s.
These six films are directed by film makers whom critics would be disinclined to view as auteurs, though all have their distinctive directorial personalities; and, anyway (and for better or worse), auteurs are relatively thin on the ground in British cinema. It is also true that, if some of the directors here failed to live up to their early potential, the reason might have as much to do with lack of opportunity as with lack of talent in a national cinema that has always struggled for stability and continuity. None of the films has achieved canonical status (some do not even get a mention in some published histories of British film); none of them has been widely shown since first release, even on television; and none of them is easy to classify, which is a tribute to their originality. Four out of the six deal with the subject of childhood, a theme at which the national cinema, for various reasons, has excelled. Carol Reed, Alexander Mackendrick and Jack Clayton are amongst the best directors of children in the history of the cinema. And so to the six films:
This sprightly satire was well received at the time but seems since to have been lost in the margin between the end of the British New Wave and the start of ‘Swinging Britain’. A slightly miscast Alan Bates (he never seems quite ruthless enough for the role) plays a working-class clerk in a real estate office who is determined to enter the upper echelons of society. Like the hero of Kind Hearts and Coronets, he is not beyond committing murder if it will further his goal. Like the hero of Room at the Top, part of his strategy involves marrying the boss’s daughter (Millicent Martin); but unlike Joe Lampton, his planned ascent up the social ladder is not so much through ability and ambition as through a studied imitation of the manners, views and values of the ruling classes.
Janet Moat astutely thought the hero ‘eerily prescient of the Thatcher years’, which certainly gives the film an additional retrospective resonance. At the time it seemed very much in the iconoclastic spirit of the hugely successful BBC TV programme That Was the Week That Was (1962-63), which launched the career of David Frost, and which regularly featured Millicent Martin, Willie Rushton and Bernard Levin, all of whom are to make an appearance in the film. The glittering screenplay is by the Cambridge-educated American, Fredric Raphael, who catches the social nuances with all the observation and skill of the intelligent outsider. He was to go on from this to win an Oscar for Darling (1965) as was Julie Christie, who apparently had been tested for the leading female role but had lost out, astonishingly, to Millicent Martin.
As directed by Donner and photographed by Nicolas Roeg, the film has great visual panache. Donner has a way of wrong-footing you to suggest the deceptiveness of appearance: what looks like the establishing shot of a stately home, for example, turns out to be the design on a biscuit tin; what seems to be a wedding scene turns out to be only its rehearsal, and so on. Donner had learnt his trade as an editor of films such as Genevieve (1953), and, on becoming a director, he was one of the few British film-makers tolerated by the young critics of Movie magazine, who tended to share Truffaut’s view that there was some incompatibility between the notions of ‘British’ and ‘cinema’. He went to Hollywood and directed the Woody Allen screenplay, What’s New Pussycat? (1965), which Allen disliked but which Andrew Sarris at the time preferred to Some Like It Hot. His next Hollywood film, however, Luv (1967) was a disaster, despite a cast of Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and Elaine May; and he returned to the UK to make Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967), a youth sex comedy that does not hold up too well. His later career never matched his work of the early 60s (I should mention his exceptional 1963 version of Pinter’s The Caretaker, also photographed by Roeg), although I retain a regard for his TV movie, Rogue Male (1976), starring Peter O’Toole, and two estimable Dickens adaptations for television in the early 1980s, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, both starring the great George C. Scott in formidable form.
If Nothing But the Best deserves remembering today, it is particularly for the performance of Denholm Elliott as the seedy aristocrat to whom Bates turns for advice and tutoring on the art of one-upmanship and on how to acquire the requisite upper-class style. So long cast as the soppy second romantic lead in British film, Elliott suddenly delivered a magnificent character performance that was to transform his career. There had been earlier intimations of his untapped talent in Seth Holt’s Station Six Sahara (1962), but that film had sunk without trace (and would be worth resurrecting). Graham Greene had spotted his potential a decade earlier when Elliott played a weak colonial officer in The Heart of the Matter; and, with typical shrewdness, Raymond Durgnat was to compare Elliott’s role in Nothing But the Best with that of the hero of Greene’s novel, England Made Me, another public-school loser who thinks his background gives him a passport to idle prosperity; but who will wind up (metaphorically in Greene, literally in Nothing But the Best) throttled by his old school tie.
Having championed Desmond Davis’s first feature, Girl with Green Eyes (1963), the magazine Films and Filming made a particular fuss about the virtual disappearance of his next film, The Uncle, which, to the best of my recollection, never did get a circuit release in the UK. Thoughtful films about childhood that are not really aimed at children sometimes have difficulty in finding an audience, seeming to slip between both the adult and youth market. The Uncle is a particularly notable example because it is actually about a child in an adult situation and feeling completely lost and disorientated as a result.
Gus (Robert Duncan) is a seven-year-old uncle by virtue of the fact that he is the child of elderly parents but has a much older sister who has a young son. This state of affairs gives Gus a rather cockeyed view of the world and the film replicates this with often witty distortions of visual scale. At one moment the world can be looking down upon Gus; then some complicity is visually suggested between child and adult; but then occasionally the two worlds come into disturbing collision, where Gus seems at one and the same time older than his friends but also more naive and innocent. When he is first taunted by his playmates with the chant, ‘Gus is an uncle!’, he is dressed up in a Charlie Chaplin disguise, and the association is suddenly apposite and poignant, with Gus looking a bit freakish and clown-like but also giving the impression of being, like the young Chaplin, old before his time, or at least feeling something of the cruelty of life before fully understanding its cause. Behind the children’s games is a vision of childhood that also encompasses loneliness and pain, and an awareness of sarcasms and insinuations being whispered behind one’s back. To counter this Gus has discovered a hideaway in a deserted house and in it he tries to teach his pet budgie how to say ‘Bloody damn!’ in a way that will give vent to his own feelings of frustration. It takes the death of a kindly shopkeeper (the infallible Maurice Denham) to give him a new insight into time and age and prompt him to effect a tender reconciliation with his rather remote father, finely played by that splendid actor (and television’s definitive Inspector Maigret), Rupert Davies.
The child performances, particularly that of Robert Duncan, are all excellent, with John Moulder-Brown making a welcome appearance several years before his memorable roles in Skolimowski’s Deep End and Visconti’s Ludwig. Manny Wynn’s photography has the kind of vivacity that one associated at the time with the Nouvelle Vague. The film has its awkward moments and winds up a little more cosily than at first seemed likely, but even so, it is a delight overall, and another example of a promise not quite delivered.
Like Donner, Davis had come up through the ranks and had been camera operator on films such as Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey and Tom Jones before Richardson had given him a chance to direct Girl with Green Eyes. During the 1960s he was to make a film of another Edna O’Brien story, I was Happy Here (1966), a slight but moving tale and beautifully acted by Sarah Miles and Julian Glover; and George Melly scripted Smashing Time (1967) for him, a sequel to Girl with Green Eyes with the same actresses, Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave but cut from a coarser cloth than the original. After that, and apart from an intriguing noir-ish take on an Agatha Christie tale, Ordeal by Innocence (1985), which featured Donald Sutherland and a memorable jazz score by Dave Brubeck, Davis’s main work has been for television; and even the best of that is hard to track down. I count his adaptation for the BBC of L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy as being one of the very finest television dramas of the 1970s, but it is currently unavailable, and not even listed on his CV on some movie databases.1
This was to prove Basil Dearden’s last film and a grimly ironic finale in that the film will end with a fatal car accident and Dearden himself was to be killed in a crash on the M1 only a year later. It is based on a short story by Anthony Armstrong, ‘The Case of Mr Pelham’ (though the idea goes back to Dostoyevsky) about a businessman who finds his identity being taken over by a mysterious doppelganger. Hitchcock directed a version of the story for his TV series in 1958, with Tom Ewell as Pelham. In Dearden’s film, Pelham is played by Roger Moore, shortly before he was to become the new James Bond. It is a challenging dual role, because, rather like Dirk Bogarde in Anthony Asquith’s Libel (a challenge Bogarde seemed to undertake with great relish), he is required virtually to parody his own screen image. In one guise he is the uptight respectable English gentleman and a pillar of probity and propriety; in the other he is a risk-taking ruthless opportunist, both commercially and romantically. A debate over whether a business deal is a ‘merger’ or amounts to a ‘takeover’ connects with the film’s psychological themes. Hildegarde Neil and Olga Georges-Pinot are the contrasting women in Pelham’s life (or lives); and Freddie Jones gives an exuberant performance as an eccentric psychiatrist whom one suspects is more unbalanced than his patients. The finale is a visual tour-de-force.
The film is about the duality of human nature (a very Hitchcockian theme) and about trying to shed an imprisoning repression for emotional liberation. In this sense it could be seen as a very personal film, in which Dearden himself is trying to break out of his comfort zone and plunge into riskier thematic territory. I’ve always been moved by the recollection of Dirk Bogarde (whose career owed a lot to Dearden) of an occasion when, at a party to celebrate the rave reviews for Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Dearden had literally knelt at Losey’s feet and asked him, ‘How can I make a film like this?’ (Not an easy question to answer: very few films are as good as The Servant.) Behind the sincere homage, one can sense the insecurity of a man who rarely received – nor, one suspects, gave himself – the credit he deserved. Although he made several films that, for different reasons, could be regarded as milestones of British cinema – The Blue Lamp, Sapphire, Victim – he was treated with contemptuous disdain by Movie; and even Charles Barr acknowledged that he had underestimated Dearden in his book on Ealing Studios. He was a fine craftsman whose films (one thinks particularly of underrated works like Frieda, All Night Long and Life for Ruth) often revealed a strong social conscience. Moreover, in thinking again about The Man Who Haunted Himself, I was reminded that a number of his films are about people leading double lives, wishing or attempting to adopt (or occasionally suppress) a different persona or personality: films such as The Captive Heart, Sapphire, Victim and The Mind Benders. His reputation has risen in recent years, thankfully; but who knows what The Man Who Haunted Himself might have portended about Dearden’s later career development, had his life not been so brutally terminated in that car crash?
The Special Features on the disc are interesting. They include a 2005 commentary by Roger Moore and Bryan Forbes; and an isolated soundtrack of the score by Michael J. Lewis, who, for my money, is up there with William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold and Clifton Parker (not to mention Vaughan Williams and William Walton) as one of the great British film composers. His score for Jack Gold’s marvellous thriller, The Medusa Touch (also available on Network) is an absolute classic.
This is Michael Winner’s art movie: an intriguing proposition. Michael Hastings’ screenplay is a prequel to Henry James’s Victorian ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, venturing an interpretation of what really happened between the servant Peter Quint and the former governess Miss Jessel that has so affected the children in their charge. In the James story they will return as ghosts seemingly to possess the souls of these children; or are the ghosts a figment of the new governess’s overwrought, over-active imagination, as she contemplates the horrors (primarily sexual) the children might have seen? Whereas James’s story conveys its horror obliquely and ambiguously (something magnificently realised in Jack Clayton’s classic film version of the story, The Innocents), this prequel is all explicit exposure: bondage, voyeurism, sadomasochism and ultimately murder, as the children are drawn ever further into the adults’ decadent and dangerous pursuits.
The film’s main fascination was, and is, the performance of Marlon Brando as Quint, which came at the end of a dismal run of box-office and critical duds for the actor but which was to be followed by his Don Corleone in The Godfather, the film that rejuvenated his career. Brando plays Quint with a curious Irish accent, which might not be as bizarre as it sounds: I was reminded of a critical essay I had once read, arguing that James’s description of Quint’s physical appearance was inspired by that of the young George Bernard Shaw. It’s an appropriately unsettling performance, with a sinister charm that oscillates between naughtiness and downright nastiness. He is well supported by Stephanie Beacham as the hapless Miss Jessel, head over heels in a relationship beyond her understanding or control; and by Thora Hird, no less, as the beleaguered, outraged housekeeper, Mrs Grose. The other remarkable feature of the film is the baroque-style score by Jerry Fielding, who was to write a number of scores for Winner as well as collaborating regularly with Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. It was a labour of love, apparently, and it is worth quoting what Fielding said about the score in an interview with Tony Thomas in Film Score: The View from the Podium (1979), as it gives a real sense of the ambience of the film. ‘It was beautifully filmed in winter landscapes in England, largely in and around a country manor,’ he told Thomas. ‘The task, as I saw it, was to deal with the period… and that peculiar scent which must brush the ear ever so gently to remind us that all is not quite right and that we are dealing with two sweet children, who have become depraved killers in all their honest, naive sweetness. For the most part, the score is tonal, classical, pastoral, …but with intimations of tragedy. Of all my output through the years, it is among the film scores of which I am most proud.’
Before his directing career was capsized by disastrous encounters with Wombles and Water Babies, that grand character actor, Lionel Jeffries had made three impressive and quite distinctive films. They had all focused on childhood anxiety, dysfunctional families, and absent fathers; and although generally upbeat in mood, they had shown great empathy with the fears of children as they negotiate their way through an often treacherous adult world. The Railway Children and The Amazing Mr Blunden are rightly recognised as gems of family entertainment, but Baxter!, arguably the most audacious of the three and the only one to be set in modern times, is hardly known, which makes this release all the more welcome.
The title might be off-putting, but it is meaningful. It is the surname of a maladjusted 12-year-old boy, and the exclamation mark signifies exasperation more than assertiveness. He is in the habit of referring to himself by his last name, because a speech impediment makes his first name ‘Roger’ impossible for him to pronounce properly. This is only one symptom of the boy’s all-round feelings of alienation: as an American in London; as a misfit at school; and as an irritant in a broken marriage. His extrovert manner only thinly masks a deep sadness and desperation that will spill over into a catatonic nervous breakdown.
It is invariably the mark of a good film that, however long ago you last saw it (a good 40 years in my case here), there are scenes and feelings associated with it that have remained with you. I could still remember Scott Jacoby’s remarkably sensitive performance in the title role; the maternal anguish and exasperation of Lynn Carlin; Patricia Neal’s powerful contribution as Baxter’s speech therapist, made doubly poignant when one remembers Neal’s own recovery from a near-fatal stroke that had robbed her of speech. Most of all, I could recall the scenes with Jean-Pierre Cassel and Britt Ekland, the neighbours who befriend Baxter and who become a kind of second family to him. These are the trickiest scenes of all, because they could have become dangerously cloying and sentimental, and yet they are crucial to the film’s impact. All credit, then, to actors and the director that they work. Perhaps Jeffries wears his heart a little closely to his sleeve in some scenes, but nothing seriously deflects the film’s compassionate look at a youngster in emotional turmoil. There is a lot in the film about names and identity; bold mood changes; and a final scene that, because it has been so skilfully prepared, is overwhelmingly moving.
Incidentally, the film’s trailer, which is featured on the DVD, is a real collector’s item, an absolute travesty that gives a completely misleading impression of the film’s mood and themes; shows not an inkling of understanding of what the film is about; and generally offers no compelling reason why audiences should not stay away from this film in droves. Who on earth can have approved it?
Like his fellow actor, Lionel Jeffries, David Hemmings was also an accomplished director who never quite seemed to have the opportunity to fulfil his full directing potential. (He was also the never-to-be-forgotten boy soloist in the first production of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera of The Turn of the Screw: I wonder what Hemmings would have made of The Nightcomers?) The 14 was his second feature film and tells the story of a family of fourteen children who try to stay together after the death of their mother. In some respects, it resembles Jack Clayton’s haunting film on a similar theme, Our Mother’s House (1967), except that here there are twice the number of children; also, whereas the children in Clayton’s film conceal their mother’s death from the outside world and try to create a private world of their own, in Hemmings’ film (which is based on a true story) the outside world cannot be held at arm’s length and is soon attempting to impose unwelcome solutions to the children’s desperate plight.
One of the most likeable aspects of the film is that there are no villains. Although the attempts of the Welfare Services and various institutions to socialise the children are generally (and sometimes hilariously) resisted, you do have the sense that the adults are genuinely trying to help and find a satisfactory solution to a complicated social situation. For their part, the children are keen to retain a spirit of rebellion for as long as they can before routine and regularity become the pattern of their lives. Rather in the manner of Michael Apted’s brilliant 1970s TV adaptation of the Graham Greene story, ‘The Destructors’,2 childhood here is seen more as a state of anarchy than a state of innocence. The performances of the children (who were mostly untrained juveniles) are pleasingly natural and, if nothing else, this release might stand as a memorial to Jack Wild, who is very poignant here as the eldest of the group; who was the definitive Artful Dodger in Carol Reed’s Oliver!; but whose tragic adult life was to become something of a cautionary tale. (The story goes that Wild wrote to Daniel Radcliffe warning him of the traps that can befall a child actor in his pursuit of an acting career.) Hemmings’ direction is lively, authoritative, and yet unobtrusive. Although the film is finally a celebration of home, family, and the resilience of childhood, it still has compelling and relevant questions to ask about society’s reactions and responsibilities towards those compelled by circumstances to live on its margins. The film was deservedly awarded a Silver Bear at the 1973 Berlin Film Festival.
Although the period from 1944 to 1949 is often cited as the Golden Age of British Film, for me the period between 1967 and 1974 is one of the richest eras of the national cinema. Not a Golden Age perhaps: the sense of crisis is too deep. But it includes an astonishing array of unusual and sometimes inspired films from artists of the calibre of Jack Clayton, Richard Lester and Joseph Losey; the best of Ken Russell; the early features of Nicolas Roeg, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Jack Gold, Mike Hodges, Peter Duffell; horror classics from Michael Reeves, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher and Roy Ward Baker; controversial masterworks from outsiders such as Polanski, Kubrick, and Peckinpah; the return of Alfred Hitchcock; and a lot, lot more besides. There is still much to reassess and discover about British cinema; and one awaits the future releases of Network with the keenest anticipation.
Eustace and Hilda (BBC2), three episodes: ‘The Shrimp and the Anemone’ (30 November 1977), ‘The Sixth Heaven’ (7 December 1977), (14 December 1977). Adapted by Alan Seymour, directed by Desmond Davis. ↩
Shades of Greene: ‘The Destructors’, ITV, tx. 21 October 1975. Dramatised by John Mortimer, directed by Michael Apted. ↩
I’ve always had a soft spot for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). It was the subject of the first film review I ever published, in a now-defunct magazine Films Illustrated which had a section that invited readers the right of reply if they felt a film had been under-rated (or over-rated, I suppose). The reviews I had read of Barry Lyndon when it had first opened described it as overlong, boring, indecipherable, embalmed, symptomatic of a tendency in modern cinema for directorial self-indulgence, so I had gone to the cinema with comparatively low expectations. Three hours later I had emerged in a daze, convinced I had seen a film of quite exceptional artistry.
I think one reason why critics at the time had been baffled was the choice of material. Kubrick’s three previous films (Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971)) had been futuristic fantasies whereas this was a leap back into the eighteenth century. Moreover, the film was based on a virtually unread novel by Thackeray, published in 1844, which the novelist had intended as a demystification of the lovable rogue hero which he felt had not been done since the time of Henry Fielding. (A number of critics of Kubrick’s film had alluded to Tony Richardson’s film version of Fielding’s Tom Jones (1963, book 1749), as if expecting a similarly jolly experience, but there’s a world of difference between the high spirits of that film and the ominous tread of Kubrick’s.) The story charts the rise of its hero, Redmond Barry, by virtue of a prosperous marriage, and Thackeray’s intention was satirical, a first-person narrative by a hero who fancies himself as an eighteenth century gentleman but who unwittingly reveals himself as an unscrupulous scoundrel. By contrast, Kubrick’s tone is sombre, and the rise and fall of Barry Lyndon is told mainly through a combination of images (Barry doesn’t do a lot of talking for himself) and an off-screen narration, suavely intoned by Michael Hordern, who sometimes sees into the future in a way that Barry cannot, giving a sense of fatalism to the hero’s progress and the flavour of a cautionary tale. The narrator will sometimes puncture Barry’s romantic illusions and draw attention to the indifference of history to the individual life. Of a battle in which the hero takes part, the narrator notes dryly: ‘Though this encounter is not recorded in any history books, it was memorable for those who took part.’ It is particularly memorable for Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) because he is killed, one of several father/protector figures Barry acquires in the first half of the film who fall away in the second half, leaving him isolated and vulnerable.
Typically, Kubrick’s style in the film, augmented by John Alcott’s magnificent photography, is daring and unusual. The beauty of the film – in my experience, only Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) can match it for visual splendour – is overwhelming to the point of oppressiveness, because décor and houses reflect the way the characters have become prisoners of their obsession for possession, prestige and position. Rather than standard scene setting, Kubrick often uses a reverse-zoom, so that we see the individual but then pull back to see him in relation to the tangled society of which he is part and which in turn is to entangle him. Some critics thought it a repetitive stylistic device, but I think it works, giving us a perspective denied to the character himself, wrapped up as he is in his own pursuits; it also has the effect of diminishing the character, making him look smaller in the tide of events than he realises and foreshadowing his receding fortunes. Kubrick felt that his story should not be told in the conventional way. ‘Barry Lyndon is a story which does not depend upon surprise,’ he said. ‘What is important is not what is going to happen but how it will happen.’ This will determine not only the narrative structure (the use of the narrator) but also the tempo, a feature of the film greatly admired by Martin Scorsese who loved the way it broke all Hollywood rules of pace.
There is a particularly fine stretch before the end of the first part of the film, which illustrates these facets of theme and style and prepares for developments in the second half. It is the moment when Barry has resolved, as the narrator tells us, to fix on an advantageous marriage as a way of advancing in society. It is then he sees Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) and starts his campaign. When he makes his move on her, it is very formal, rigid, calculated (and must have been fearfully difficult to act) but then these are people of rigid lives and Barry is a calculator: his approach feels as much like a chess move as a surge of emotion. ‘It’s very romantic,’ Kubrick said, ‘but at the same time I think it suggests the empty attraction they have for each other that is to disappear as quickly as it arose.’ An outraged Lord Lyndon (Frank Middlemass, in one of those splendidly over-the-top performances so beloved of the director) cries, ‘He wants to step into my shoes!’, bringing on a consumptive attack that will allow Barry to do just that. Mission accomplished: except that, in a favoured Kubrick tactic, the second part of the narrative is to be a dark reversal of the first. When Lord Lyndon’s son (Leon Vitale) disrupts a music recital by leading in Barry’s son Brian in the young lord’s shoes (‘Don’t you think he fits my shoes very well, your Ladyship?’), it will trigger a shockingly violent outburst that will forever deny Barry’s entrance into high society.
Everything will build finally to a ritualised duel, accompanied over the soundtrack by music by Handel so menacingly orchestrated that it sounds like a march to the scaffold, and probably the most suspenseful sequence Kubrick ever directed. His casting of Ryan O’Neal in the title role was much criticised, but I think O’Neal brings exactly the combination of selfishness and softness to the role that the director required as the upstart hero swindles and seduces his way into the palaces of privilege, only to pay a heavy price for gentlemanly aspiration as he discovers that class rigidity, snobbery, and cruelty lurk behind this society’s mask of elegance.
With every film of his later career, Kubrick took audiences and critics out of their comfort zone and, over ten years after his death, we are still coming to terms with that achievement. ‘Real is good,’ he would say, ‘but interesting is better’. He never made a genre film without elevating and transforming it; the performances in his films look increasingly extraordinary as he encouraged his actors to search beyond naturalism; even his use of music is provocative and challenging. For me, Barry Lyndon is the jewel of his career, a melancholy and majestic masterpiece which, on its own, would justify Orson Welles’s description of Kubrick as ‘a giant’.
Written on behalf of the Keswick Film Society, February, 2010.
Book review: Maria Pramaggiore, Making Time in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: Art, History, and Empire (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015), £16.99, 216pp.
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) was a modern adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Victorian novel about the rise and fall of an 18th century scoundrel. To put it another way, it was an adaptation by an American film-maker of an English novel set in Ireland. The significance of these temporal and national disjunctions are at the heart of the argument behind this stimulating new book on what has long seemed to me Kubrick’s greatest movie. In America, it was the most commercially unsuccessful film of his career and was memorably lampooned by MAD magazine under the title of Borey Lyndon. In the final chapter, assessing the place of the film in the context of 1970s cinema, Maria Pramaggiore suggests that its failure with American audiences was to do with its ‘non-Americanness and its non-manliness’.1 This book sets itself the task of examining the highly original way ‘emotion and thought find a place in the rhythms of the film’.2
Kubrick’s modernist sensibility was often expressed through the complicated time-structures of his films, which rarely followed conventional chronology. This was as pronounced in early films like Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Lolita (1961) as it was in later works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980). ‘In Kubrick’s universe,’ Pramaggiore writes, ‘the past and the future are never far apart.’3 She is alert to the fact that the way time passes is very important in a Kubrick film, and also very important for the way an audience responds. Certainly many critics at the time found Barry Lyndon cold and slow-moving (which has always been the exact opposite of my experience), and thought that whatever drama the tale contained tended to collapse into a series of pretty pictures. Whilst Pramaggiore is very good at illustrating and discussing the portraits and paintings that might have inspired Kubrick’s compositions, she appreciates more importantly what is behind these civilised surfaces, and how Kubrick, like Thackeray in his novel, is delivering a lethal critique of social hierarchy and hypocrisy. In a succinct sentence she summarises the entire thrust of the film when she characterises Kubrick’s understanding of his hero as ‘a hot-headed Irishman with a proclivity towards violence, who has become trapped within an artfully arranged picturesque landscape, a land to which he has no claims and a place where he does not belong.’4 She is right, I think, to suggest that, by the end, Kubrick is more sympathetic to the hero than Thackeray was, a sympathy perhaps deriving from his American perspective that traditionally values iconoclasm and independence and also from his perception of the difficulties of an outsider Irishman trying to progress through the forbidding corridors of British military and aristocratic power. In the novel, the hero is a rogue and a hypocrite who gets his deserved comeuppance. In the film, he is a more complex figure, at times brutal and unscrupulous, at other times pathetic and vulnerable, and finally undone when playing by the rules of a society whose acceptance he covets but which fundamentally despises him.
There is an interesting account of the production background of the film; and we are usefully reminded that its genesis might have arisen out of Kubrick’s now legendary aborted Napoleon project. (The narrative of Barry Lyndon ends quite pointedly in 1789.) Among a host of thought-provoking insights, the author makes a suggestive comparison between Kubrick and Max Ophuls (a director Kubrick much admired), but this time in terms of music and characterisation more than visual style, which is how the comparison is usually conducted. If Barry Lyndon is sometimes seen as being something of an anomaly in this director’s work, Pramaggiore shows convincingly that it abounds with familiar traits, such as his fascination with the military, which links the film with Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Dr Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), and with authority figures ‘who find an obscene enjoyment in their roles.’5 She is attentive to the ominous symmetry of the film’s construction, noting, for example, how the loss of Barry’s father in literally the first shot of the film foretells the sorry fate of father figures throughout, with Barry himself ending up as the sorriest father figure of them all. (I had not noticed before the significant role that horses play in Barry’s gathering misfortune, culminating in a duel in a stable that will literally cripple his future.) In contrast to what seems, for the most part, a statically composed film, she notes that there are two outbursts of violence filmed with a handheld camera that emphasise the shift in Barry’s fortunes. The first shows his victorious fist-fight against a fellow soldier, which momentarily seems to lift his prospects; the second shows his disastrous uncontrolled attack on his stepson during a music recital, a savage violation of decorum which will bring his upward social mobility to an abrupt end. Deadly duels open and close the film, both predicated on gentlemanly codes of honour but whose outcomes will prove traumatic.
In her opening page, Pramaggiore picks up a telling parallel between Kubrick’s film and The Sopranos, and the violence in both which lurks beneath the civilised conduct. Forty years on, Barry Lyndon, she proposes, ‘still has something important to say about image-making, culture and power.’6 Over the book’s succeeding pages, she proceeds to demonstrate that importance with eloquence and authority. When I was contacted by Sight and Sound in 2012 for my choice of films in its ten-yearly round-up to find the All-Time Greatest Movies, I put Barry Lyndon in my Top Ten. After reading this book, I have not had second thoughts.
Maria Pramaggiore, Making Time in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (Bloomsbury Press, 2015), p. 187. ↩
Book review: Anthony Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (New York: Columbia University Press, December 2014), £23. 95.
After a brief spell at RKO, Charles Brackett became a staff writer then producer at Paramount from 1934 to 1949; and his journals covering that period provide a riveting perspective on the daily routine of a Hollywood studio in its prime. Brackett also became half of the most celebrated screenwriting partnership in Hollywood history. In just over ten years he and Billy Wilder collaborated on thirteen screenplays, most of them critical and commercial successes, some of them enduring classics of the screen. They wrote two of the greatest screen comedies of the late 1930s, Midnight for Mitchell Leisen and Ninotchka for Ernst Lubitsch (both 1939). After scripting Ball of Fire (1941) for Howard Hawks, they became a producer-director as well as writing team, with Brackett as producer and Wilder as director; and proceeded to make audacious trailblazing dramas such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). As most film buffs will know, the title of this book is a famous line from Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden’s down-at-heel screenwriter has recognised a former star of the silent screen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and said: ‘You used to be big.’ ‘I am big,’ she has retorted imperiously, ‘It’s the pictures that got small.’ Less well known is the fact that it was Charles Brackett who was savvy enough to see the importance of that moment and recommend that the line be re-shot in close-up, probably also sensing how it foretold the devastating final close-up of that magnificent film.
Sunset Boulevard was the culminating triumph of the Brackett-Wilder collaboration and it begs the question: why then did they split up? Shortly before his death in 1969, Brackett was asked that very question by the writer and biographer, Garson Kanin and, according to Kanin, he replied as follows: ‘I never understood it….it was such an unexpected blow, I thought I’d never recover from it….I loved working with him. It was so stimulating and pleasant.’1 Whether this is verbatim what Brackett said, or whether Kanin was creatively glossing the gist of what he thought he meant, or whether he was just giving his own spin on what he thought was the truth, has never been fully established. What is beyond dispute is that Kanin’s account of the break-up’s being sudden and unexpected could not have been wider of the mark. From Maurice Zolotov onwards, Wilder’s biographers have plotted in detail the persistent strains of the collaboration, but this is the first time that we have been told the tale entirely from Brackett’s point of view. From this account, the surprising thing is not that they split up but that they managed to stay together for so long.
On August 17, 1936, Brackett writes that ‘I am to be teamed with Billy Wilder, a young Austrian I’ve seen about for a year and like very much… He has the face of a naughty cherub.’2 Brackett can help Wilder with his then imperfect English, but it is not long before he is becoming irritated by what he sees as the young man’s pedantry, his arrogance, and his tendency to claim credit for ideas that have originated from his partner. As early as September 1938, he is welcoming the possibility of a permanent severance from Wilder, and this will develop into an almost annual refrain. On August 2, 1942, he is ‘wondering whether our successful collaboration is over.’3 On March 18, 1943, he writes: ‘Gravely doubt that I can ever bring myself to work with Billy again. At the moment the idea of doing so takes all the joy out of life.’4 Even after their Oscar-winning success with The Lost Weekend, the tensions in their fraught relationship show no signs of abatement. On August 18, 1947, Brackett records that ‘I am gloriously sure I will never write with him again’;5 and a little later he writes that ‘to work with Billy again is a prospect that makes my innards curl.’6 Contrary to Garson Kanin’s interpretation, by the time Brackett and Wilder got round to their greatest collaboration, Sunset Boulevard (which Brackett’s friend Christopher Isherwood was justifiably to call ‘the best thing ever done about Hollywood’), neither they nor anyone close to them seemed to have any doubts that this would prove the parting of the ways.
In any long-standing collaboration, one can expect occasional differences and even passionate disagreements, but this particular partnership seemed unusually volatile. On one occasion, Brackett, who was generally a mild-mannered man, became so incensed that he pulled the flute Wilder was playing from out of his mouth and broke it over his knee. A principal reason behind the constant conflict was that, in almost every way, they were complete opposites: temperamentally, emotionally and politically. Brackett was quietly spoken, modest and reserved; Wilder was loud, egotistical and extrovert. Brackett kept details of his personal life very much to himself; Wilder was constantly bringing his personal life into the office. Brackett was a diehard Republican; Wilder was a left-leaning Democrat. Unusually for a writing team such as this, the relationship was conducted entirely within office hours, for they were so different that their social lives very rarely intersected.
However, the fact that their partnership was entirely professional might go some way towards explaining why it endured for over a decade. Success helped, of course; but there is also no doubt that a bond they did share was a mutual professional respect. For all that Wilder drove him crazy, Brackett never doubted his exceptional talent nor the fineness of his dramatic mind. At one point he does acknowledge in his Journals that ‘he is not as good without Billy’, though, significantly, he adds that he thinks he is still ‘pretty good – and more self-respecting’.7 Some critics have felt that Wilder also was not as good without Brackett, who, as well as being creative in his own right, was a valuable touchstone and restraining influence, curbing his partner’s wilder excesses, as it were. This view was supported when Wilder’s first film after his break with Brackett, Ace in the Hole (1951) was a resounding flop. Wilder always insisted it was one of his greatest films (and I agree with him), but some felt that, away from Brackett’s civilised script counselling, he went too far in his tough critique of journalistic exploitation and gullible humanity and only succeeded in alienating both critics and audiences.
The book would be worth acquiring alone for its disturbing yet dazzling portrait of Billy Wilder, an authentic Hollywood genius if ever there was one. But this is only a part of what it has to offer. There are few more compelling accounts of the reality behind the romance of the Dream Factory, the daily grind of working in a big Hollywood studio, hammering away at your own scripts; occasionally being required to doctor other people’s; having to re-write after unsuccessful previews; or being at the behest of temperamental stars and tempestuous studio heads. At one stage he writes: ‘I am actually filthy of hair and scraggy of finger nail and unbarbered, to try and get something done for Paramount.’8 He never loses that sense of dedication and professional pride amidst all the entanglements of finance and ego with which he has to contend. Yet, for all his conservative leanings, he is no blind respecter of authority. He describes the head of Paramount, Adolph Zukor as ‘a tiny, dim little man sitting in his enormous office, like a mouse in a cake-box.’9 He is contemptuous of the way Goldwyn and DeMille bully and berate junior employees. And there are no stars in his eyes (and indeed a notable absence of heroes or role-models in the whole text) when it comes to dealing with Hollywood royalty. He is effortlessly unfazed when Joan Fontaine is having a critical spasm over a perfectly grammatical sentence which she claims is ungrammatical. On Ginger Rogers, he will write: ‘It is the old trouble with Ginger: she hasn’t a very good brain but she insists on using it.’10 He is tactfulness personified when pacifying Jean Arthur, who feels she is being deliberately upstaged by Marlene Dietrich in the Brackett-Wilder collaboration, A Foreign Affair (1948). In his Journal he reports the encounter thus: ‘“I have sex appeal,” she said calmly, but inaccurately…’11
What steadily emerges from the Journals is not simply a picture of Wilder and of Hollywood but also an unwitting self-portrait. Brackett was forty years old when he first came to Hollywood in 1932. A Harvard Law School graduate and a former drama critic of The New Yorker, he was a fringe member of the Algonquin Circle and had published a handful of short stories and novels, which these days are largely unread and almost totally forgotten. Even his most famous novel, Entirely Surrounded (1934), satirising the Algonquin set and personalities such as Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott, was to be upstaged by the Moss Hart and George Kaufman Broadway hit, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), with its thinly disguised portrait of Woollcott possibly influenced by Brackett’s portrayal. He might have come to Hollywood in a disdainful frame of mind (in his excellent introduction, Anthony Slide does suggest that Brackett was something of a snob), but he also recognised that what he had achieved thus far in his career was unspectacular. ‘I have an interesting, scattered life,’ he wrote in 1942, ‘and have gotten nowhere, and I am getting nowhere.’12 Whatever else could be said about his time in Hollywood, he certainly got somewhere.
In his deeply sympathetic and loving Foreword to the book, his grandson, Jim Moore describes Brackett as ‘a lonely man, prone to deep introspection and self-loathing.’13 Certainly the impression given in the book is that of a serious, rather mysterious person who in Hollywood commanded respect more than affection. He does not give much of himself away. We learn next to nothing about his social life away from the movies or the kind of music he likes, say, or the kind of reading he enjoys in his spare time. He is discreet about his sexual life to the point where a number of commentators on the Hollywood scene have concluded, without any evidence other than conjecture, that he was a repressed homosexual. (Anthony Slide deals with this matter thoroughly in the Introduction; Jim Moore more or less says, ‘So what?’). His family life certainly seems to have been an unhappy one, involving the alcoholic depression of his first wife and the violent death of his elder daughter; but we must await Jim Moore’s promised biography to learn more of this.
If all this might suggest that the Journals are unexciting and unrevealing, this is certainly not the case, for although he might seem evasive on some personal issues, he is remarkably outspoken in his opinions and preferences where people are concerned. Indeed, in contrast to the way he seemed to present a façade of gentlemanly calm to his employers and peers, the Journals positively bristle with invective, as if they are letting something out of his system. Dr Johnson always professed to like a ‘good hater’ and Brackett was a very good hater; mere dislike never seemed sufficient. So he describes Charles Laughton as ‘the most repellent human being with whom I have ever had to share a table’,14 a dubious accolade he will transfer to Charlie Chaplin a decade later. ‘A day at Howard Hawks’s is always a day of hell’, he writes, as they confer on the screenplay for Ball of Fire.15 Anatole Litvak is described as ‘detestable’;16 and he dislikes Frank Capra ‘intensely’.17 He is equally rude about a whole range of actors and actresses. Some of these outbursts perhaps derive from a sense of personal frustration but many of them seem prompted by his antipathy to anyone belonging to the political Left. ‘He had no problem in dealing with, and maintaining a friendship with those fellow writers with a strong liberal slant,’ writes Anthony Slide in his Introduction.18 This is certainly not the impression one gets from the text, where Brackett loses no opportunity to disparage the views and even the dress sense of the likes of, for example, Clifford Odets, John Dos Passos, John Garfield, Elia Kazan, Orson Welles and Philip Dunne.19 Yet one always suspects that we are being made privy to private thoughts here rather than public utterances. He might have been steadfast in his views, but there is no record of his being dogmatic or discourteous: quite the contrary. Indeed, as a counterbalance, one should also note his horror at hearing over the radio Adolph Menjou’s despicable denunciation of all Democrats as Communists during the HUAC investigations of Hollywood.20 Solid Republican that he is, even Brackett balks at the extreme right-wing utterances of the appalling Hedda Hopper, feeling the need, after two meetings with her in one week, to be, as he put it, ‘disinfected… and to divide my goods and give them to the poor.’21 In January 1938, he wrote: ‘Wish I didn’t suspect in myself a nasty rightishness, and hope devoutly I never let it make me unfaithful to Democracy, who is really my lady.’22 This commitment will have been tested during the post-war political turmoil in Hollywood, but he appears never to have deviated from this fidelity. He was a man of conviction, but also a model of fairness and integrity, with an engaging streak of self-criticism and self-deprecation.
Will there be a second volume? One hopes so, for what happened to Brackett and Wilder after their split is equally fascinating. Wilder went on to even greater successes and discovered a writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond who was to prove completely compatible (or maybe Wilder had mellowed by then). It culminated with Wilder achieving a personal triple-Oscar triumph with The Apartment (1960), after which, like most directors of his generation, he found the going increasingly tough in a changing Hollywood. Although they were less prestigious, Brackett also had his fair share of successes post-Wilder: an Oscar for his contribution to the screenplay for the 1953 version of Titanic; the producer of solid and varied mainstream hits such as the thriller, Niagara (1953), the musical, The King and I (1956) and the fantasy adventure, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). His final years were dogged by ill-health; and his brutal (and unlawful) sacking by Twentieth Century Fox following the reinstatement of Darryl Zanuck could only have fuelled his disillusionment with the industry.
In a Journal entry of August 29, 1942, he records that he has been to see Holiday Inn, best remembered now as the film which first featured Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’. ‘It is the type of picture,’ he writes, ‘which, while not unpleasant in the least, makes one ashamed of being connected with the pictures.’23 Why? Throughout the Journals there is a sense that Brackett never really adjusted to the film world or respected or valued his contribution to it, and might even have had delusions of a more respectable and successful literary career that corresponded more closely to his idea of personal fulfilment. Yet he had no reason to be feel any disappointment with his achievement. His work with Wilder will endure for as long as cinema itself; and even without Wilder, his name on the credits invariably guaranteed a film of taste and integrity. This superbly edited and annotated book is a worthy testimony to a troubled individual in an industry he unjustly denigrated but which he undoubtedly enriched.
Ibid, p. 314. In fairness to Jean Arthur, she may have had a point. Andrew Sarris never quite forgave Wilder for what he called his ‘needless brutalisation of Jean Arthur in A Foreign Affair‘ – see Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film: History and Memory, 1927-1949, p. 327. Richard Corliss wrote that ‘she is made to wear what, after much morbid consideration, I can only describe as the ugliest dress in a forties movie’ – Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, p. 146. I would nominate Jeanne Craine’s dress in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) as a close runner-up. ↩
Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”, p. vxv. ↩
The writer (and later director) Philip Dunne was one of the most prominent liberals in the American film industry at this time, particularly admired for his screenplays for John Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green was my Valley (1941) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s romantic masterpiece, The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947). Whenever he appears within Brackett’s sights, he is disparaged as being at best ‘dull’ and at worst ‘the most unendurable young man I know, an absolutely stinker’ – Ibid, p. 379. Ironically, in Dunne’s own memoir, Take Two: Life in Movies and Politics, a superb account of politics and power in Hollywood, his references to Brackett are unfailingly respectful, even though he recognises they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. They were to work together in the 1950s, even though in his Journals, Brackett thought the prospect unimaginable. ↩
Slide (editor), “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”, p. 295. ↩
Book review: Murray Pomerance, BFI Film Classics: Marnie, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 96 pp., £12.99
Fifty years after the film’s release, the jury is still out on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 suspense melodrama, Marnie. It was widely condemned and even derided on its first release for its apparent technical incompetence, artificial sets, and dubious sexual politics, though it found an eloquent early champion in Robin Wood, who proclaimed it a masterpiece in his trailblazing monograph, Hitchcock’s Films (1965) and thereafter never wavered in that opinion.1 More recent accounts include a thoughtful and sympathetic book by Tony Lee Moral about the film’s production (2002),2 and Donald Spoto’s latest, increasingly disillusioned volume on Hitchcock, Spellbound By Beauty (2009), where the film’s aesthetic quality takes second place to Spoto’s allegations about the director’s sexual harassment of his leading actress.3 Inspired by Spoto’s book, the tv movie, The Girl (2012) dramatised the relationship between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren; and it prompted an article in The Guardian, which described Marnie as ‘a terrible movie and a cruel one: the idea that a woman sexually traumatised by her childhood can be saved by submitting to a controlling rapist, is offensive and plain wrong.’4 Yet might it not be the article, rather than the film, that is ‘offensive and plain wrong’? Reading it, one could almost hear Robin Wood turning in his grave.
In his stimulating new study of Marnie, Murray Pomerance, to his credit, does not spend time remonstrating with the film’s detractors, which could be a wearisome exercise; when he does quote a fellow critic, it is invariably in a positive spirit and with a view to augmenting his own argument. The film’s quality emerges quite naturally from his enthusiastic, intelligent and insightful commentary. He plunges the reader straight into the film’s opening (one of the cinema’s great opening sequences). The camera focuses on a bulging yellow handbag (already suggestive of money) being carried under her arm by a mysterious female whom the camera follows along a deserted train platform, then stops, then follows again briefly, then stops, as if exhausted by the pursuit: its quarry has escaped. As Pomerance emphasises, a dominant theme of the film is flight: at this stage from a crime (the heroine is quickly established as a thief); then from her surrounding stifling society (the following scene with the outraged employer from whom she has stolen suggests she may have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment); but crucially from herself and from her own identity. It is some time before we are allowed to see her face. It has been calculated that Tippi Hedren as Marnie has 32 costume changes in the film, which, as well as keeping Edith Head on her toes, is expressive not only of the character’s external fluidity of appearance but also of the internal fragility of her sense of self. Soon we are to become aware that she harbours secrets deeper than her criminal activities, or her dislike of men, or an unusually tense relationship with her mother. There is also an irrational fear of the colour red at moments of stress or distress, and nightmares triggered by storms that seem linked to some fearful event from her childhood. The film’s narrative trajectory is dedicated to closing off her successive retreat from these demons to the point when she must finally confront them: only then will she able to find herself.
When Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) comes onto the scene and falls in love with her, Marnie’s flight from self becomes increasingly difficult, particularly when he discovers her theft from his office and virtually blackmails her into marriage so as to escape prosecution or an inevitable later apprehension by a male victim who might be much less forgiving. Is Mark’s behaviour that of a ‘controlling rapist’ (to borrow the phrase in the Guardian article) or that of a potential saviour prepared to defy conventional morality to save the woman he has come to love? There have been many accounts of the central relationship in Marnie, and particularly of the motivation behind Rutland’s actions, but I know of none more sympathetically attuned to the tone of the film than the following account in Pomerance’s book:
Mark’s sole project in Marnie is to rescue this girl from her amnesia, help her locate the memories of ‘old times’ so she can live in the present. He must time-travel with no map. Clues not placed in the narrative so Mark can cut a path to Marnie’s rescue are there so that viewers can share willingly in his concern. We must come to love Marnie because of her blazing pride, her animality, the elemental warmth buried within the frozen sheath of her fear.5
One of the particular pleasures of the book is the attention to the numerous felicities and subtleties of vocal intonation and dialogue delivery of the two leading actors. It is refreshing to see Tippi Hedren’s performance so eloquently celebrated, when some of the mythology surrounding the film (partly encouraged by Hitchcock himself) has been the suggestion that Hedren was an inadequate substitute for Hitchcock’s preferred choice of Grace Kelly, who had regretfully decided that her royal responsibilities as Princess Grace of Monaco compelled her to decline the role. In fact, I have often wondered whether her eventual rejection of the part was her suspicion that it might be beyond her capabilities. She could certainly have conveyed Marnie’s frosty exterior, but could she have conveyed the vulnerability of a frightened child that Hedren so courageously and capably assays in the extraordinary revelation scene at the end, where the actress has to simulate the tormented state of mind of a five-year-old girl? I wonder.
With the aid of a detailed study of the film’s preparatory production notes, Pomerance has no difficulty in defending Hitchcock from the charges of technical sloppiness and demonstrating that the stylised artificial backdrops are part of the film’s aesthetic design. It is not as if Hitchcock has not done this sort of thing before. In the famous love scene in the hotel room in Vertigo, when James Stewart’s hero thinks he has brought his love-object (Kim Novak) back to life, Hitchcock has incorporated back projection of a livery stable from an earlier scene to suggest the depth of Stewart’s delusion, the sense that this re-creation of the past is a fantasy inside his own head. Hitchcock’s use of back projection during Marnie’s ride on her beloved horse, Forio has a similar expressive implication. The director wants simultaneously to convey both Marnie’s sense of release but also the sense that this is not a genuine release and that her feeling of freedom is illusory. As Pomerance points out, Tippi Hedren was an accomplished rider, so there would have been no need to use back projection unless it were at the service of some other expressive purpose.
The back-projection debate is familiar territory in Marnie criticism and can never be wholly conclusive (one can acknowledge the deliberate and valid intention behind Hitchcock’s aesthetic strategy without necessarily being convinced by the result). Less familiar in Marnie criticism is what the blurb at the back of the book describes as the author’s ‘sharp-eyed understanding of American society and mores’, which extends to a particularly illuminating discussion of the North/South divide in the film and even the symbolic significance of the pecan pie baked by Marnie’s mother.
There is also a particularly good analysis of the fox-hunting sequence, where he argues that Marnie’s trauma here is not simply due to the sudden sight of the colour red but also by what he calls her ‘profound identification with the victimised animal. All too plainly, Marnie can see how society is little more than a fox hunt, with the callous, brave, unforgiving, and desperate (Strutt and Co) ganging up on the weak, vulnerable, feelingful and innocent…. She is the fox, a race with the hounds behind.’6 That section of the text took me back to the film’s first scene after the opening, announced by Strutt’s ‘Robbed!’ and where, joined by Mark who is visiting the premises, Strutt (Martin Gabel) affirms his conviction that the robbery has been committed by his former employee Marion Holland (one of Marnie’s aliases). Simply the way he describes her to the police is very revealing about the male classification of women against which Marnie rebels. Strutt can describe her appearance and indeed measurements in great detail (the secretary’s reaction whilst he is doing so is a picture: she has clearly seen all this before). Mark also joins in with this callous classification, saying ‘Oh, that one’ and recalling her as ‘the brunette with the legs.’ Strutt particularly remembers her habit of ‘pulling her skirt down over her knees as if they were a national treasure’, and it is a gesture that will later give Marnie away when she comes to work at Rutland’s: Mark will remember Strutt’s description. What is being implied through all this is a motive behind Marnie’s kleptomania: namely, a form of revenge against the patriarchal world in which she lives and the sexist attitudes she has to endure. (Significantly, we will learn that she steals in order to win her mother’s love.) One of the most sympathetically observed themes in the film is that of the situation of the modern woman trying to operate in a man’s world and how difficult it is for someone like Marnie in this society to maintain her sexual and financial independence. It reminds me of that superb moment in Rear Window when Jeffries (James Stewart) is spying on Miss Torso in one of the apartments opposite as she entertains a number of gentleman acquaintances in what seems to be a formal cocktail party. Jeffries rather leeringly refers to her as a queen bee, but Lisa (Grace Kelly), a successful career woman, has a much clearer perception of the situation and puts Jeffries straight (and the animal imagery looks ahead to Marnie). ‘I’d say she’s doing a woman’s hardest job,’ she explains. ‘Juggling wolves’.
There is another key moment in Marnie where a comparison with Rear Window suggests itself, and it occurs in the revelation scene when Marnie finally recalls the incident in her childhood when she has killed the sailor. It is activated by her sight of a struggle between a white-shirted Mark and her mother, at which point the memory she has so long repressed takes over and is visually recalled. Pomerance valuably reminds us that Mark can see none of this recollection and ‘is experiencing a form of paralysis akin to what besets Jeff Jeffries in Rear Window when through his long focus lens he sees his beloved Lisa Fremont caught in a murderer’s grip and, hobbled in his wheelchair can do nothing to save her.’7 Similarly in Marnie: far from being controlling, Mark is at this key point in the story completely helpless. Pomerance describes this moment as ‘the paralysis of dramatic involvement’.8 I would take this further and suggest that it is the moment in both films when the hero is confronted with the full consequences of his obsession and where it has led; the perilous terrain into which his obsession might have plunged the person he most loves; and, perversely perhaps, the moment in the film more than any other when he recognises the intensity of that love.
Appropriately, the most contentious section of the book deals with the most contentious section of the film (it led to screenwriter Evan Hunter’s removal from the project): namely, the honeymoon sequence. Is the scene when Mark finally has intercourse with his wife a ‘rape’ scene? The screenwriter Evan Hunter thought it was, which is the reason he was removed. The new writer, Jay Presson Allen always thought the scene was dealing with a difficult marital situation, and the word ‘rape’ was never used in her discussions with Hitchcock. There is a lot of sensitive detail in Pomerance’s description of the whole sequence (the reference to Klimt is a particularly lovely observation), but there is also an element of tentativeness and imprecision not present elsewhere in the volume. ‘What precisely can Mark take her to mean when Marnie bellows “No!”?’ he asks.9 Well, precisely: ‘No’. It is difficult to see any ambiguity in Marnie’s response; the rejection could hardly be plainer. Pomerance posits the suggestion that Mark’s entry into her bedroom might have awakened another occasion in her past that she is trying to suppress rather than signifying a rejection of any form of sexual congress with Mark himself. He writes: ‘When Mark kissed her in his office during the thunderstorm, and again in the stables at Wykwyn, we saw her fondness for sex, at least with him.’10 Not exactly. In the scene in his office, Mark could be seen as taking advantage of Marnie’s obvious terror, certainly comforting her, but also using the opportunity to make a romantic advance. His line, ‘You’re safe… from the lightning’ has the undercurrent of ‘but not from me’. It always reminds me of that moment in Vertigo when Scottie is comforting a similarly distressed Madeleine, and says, ‘No one possesses you, you’re safe with me’, which, in the full context of the film, will become profoundly ironic. Similarly with the love scene in the stables: it concludes not happily, but with Marnie looking away from Mark and with an expression on her face of profound anxiety. Her robbery of Rutland’s safe directly follows that love scene in the stables and suggests a connection: the theft could almost be a kind of rebuke directed at Mark’s romantic presumption. It certainly indicates her intention to effect a closure of the relationship and her desire to flee from it.
In discussing the actual ‘rape’ scene, Pomerance quotes William Rothman to the effect that ‘we have grounds for believing, as Mark does, that he is making love to her, not raping her. As Hitchcock films this moment, she even seems to move on her own accord to the bed, though backward, as if in a trance.’11 This rather glides over the fact that Marnie is to follow this sexual experience with an immediate attempt at suicide. To compound the impression of authorial unease, there is an odd misprint hereabouts in the text (along with the erroneous dating of Winston Graham’s novel as 1971, not 1961, it is the only such instance I spotted) when Pomerance writes; ‘There is no escape from the fact that he [Mark] is become the camera.’ I presume what is meant is ‘has become’, because the author then quotes Raymond Bellour as saying that ‘Hitchcock becomes a sort of double of Mark’. He then concludes that, like Mark, ‘we are all now very much wanting to go to bed with Marnie’ and being held back.12 On the contrary, it is equally possible, and arguably more plausible (because of the suicide attempt that follows) that Hitchcock is inviting us to identify with Marnie rather than Mark at this stage – the close up of Mark at the moment of intercourse looks more threatening than seductive – and share her feelings of desolation. As I have argued elsewhere, the character of Marnie (her repression, the private fears beneath the external calm, the sublimation and displacement of her sexuality) seems much closer to that of Hitchcock’s own personality than does the virile, self-confident hero played by Sean Connery. Ironically, much earlier in his book, Pomerance has made a very similar observation when he has claimed: ‘If ever he [i.e. Hitchcock] had a female alter ego….Marnie is her epitome.’13 Absolutely: and it is curious that he does not follow through this intuition in the film’s most controversial scene, because it could illuminate and even validate Hitchcock’s whole presentation.
Even in a detailed and rigorous study such as this, one cannot expect complete comprehensiveness in coverage of such a complex film. However, I was a little surprised by two omissions. There is no extended discussion of what has always seemed to me the key scene in the film: the ‘free association’ scene between Marnie and Mark, which brings together all the main elements of Marnie’s trauma; is the scene when she openly challenges Mark in suggesting that his obsession might be as ‘sick’ as her repression; where, for the first time, she is driven to concede that she needs and wants help; and where Mark’s genuine love for her is apparent in his gesture of protectiveness and concern. Hedren, Connery and Hitchcock are at their very best here. ‘It’s a very sad scene, isn’t it?’ Hedren said to Hitchcock at one of their script sessions. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but it comes out of anger,’ a remark I have always thought as being as revealing about Hitchcock as about Marnie. Perhaps Pomerance thought the scene had been analysed extensively elsewhere and that he had nothing to add. One would have welcomed his intuitions nonetheless.
The other striking omission – to me, at least – is the complete absence of any reference to Bernard Herrmann’s score. Over the years this has become almost as controversial as the film itself, because it foreshadows the calamitous falling out between composer and director over the score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain (1966). No one could dispute the importance of Herrmann’s contribution to Hitchcock’s films, from The Trouble with Harry (1955) to Marnie (1964), but a number of critics have suggested that Hitchcock felt that Herrmann was beginning to repeat himself. In Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores (2012), Gergely Hubai goes so far as to contend that ‘Hitchcock mostly blamed Herrmann for Marnie’s poor box-office showing, claiming that its old-fashioned style ruined his cutting edge “sex mystery”’.14 Memos at the time indicate that Hitchcock saw Marnie as a psychological suspense drama in the manner of Spellbound and that it should have a similar recurring musical theme, which Herrmann does indeed supply, though in his own distinctive style. It was actually quite unusual for Herrmann to highlight his main theme in that way. Although the theme itself is quite similar to one he composed for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (and indeed quite similar to Leonard Rosenman’s main theme for Rebel Without a Cause), he would have been entitled to quote Brahms when he was informed that a theme in the finale of his First Symphony was similar to a theme in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth: ‘Any donkey can see that.’ The important point is how the theme is deployed and developed. In this regard, I would think back to Pomerance’s fine visual analysis of the early hotel room scene when our mysterious heroine rinses the black dye out of her hair in the bathroom before facing the camera for the first time as the archetypal Hitchcock blonde. ‘In the explosion of that proud, beautiful face inside the wet ring of sparkling hair,’ Pomerance enthuses, ‘we already love her.’15 What is missing from that exultant description is an acknowledgement of the essential way Herrmann’s music swells, contributes to, and indeed completes that moment. In the words of musicologist Christopher Palmer (1990), ‘the burst of musical technicolor’ at that point ‘makes it one of the most memorable images in the film.’16 One could multiply instances of that kind. For me, Herrmann’s score, which appropriately combines rich romanticism with disturbing dissonance, has always been an inseparable part of Marnie’s greatness.
Let me end on the film’s finale, and on the book’s eerie cover illustration, which grows more haunting the more you look at it. It is an image of the children playing in the street, as seen by Marnie when she emerges into daylight after exorcising the childhood trauma that has paralysed her emotional development. One can also just see at the end of the street that disconcerting ship, a clue all along that Marnie’s mental blockage might have some connection with it (a sailor being at the centre of her forgotten nightmare). The children are very oddly arranged in the frame and look slightly alien: is there a potential future Marnie amongst them? When Mark emerges from the house, Marnie tells him she does not want to go to prison but would rather stay with him. Is that the nearest she can come to a declaration of love, or is it simply an expression of her preference for one kind of imprisonment over another? Mark replies: ‘Had you, love?’ Pomerance astutely picks up on the curious expression and grammar of that response: ‘had you’ rather than ‘would you’; ‘a delicious subjunctive’, as he puts it, ‘which invokes a potent “if”.’17 If Marnie is right that what has excited and attracted Mark to her is the mystery of her background, how stands the relationship now the mystery has been solved? Wonderfully appropriate that this most enigmatic of films should end on an Ivesian Unanswered Question.
Joseph Conrad once said that he would rather have the faults of Dickens’s Bleak House than most other novels’ virtues; and one can feel the same about Marnie. It is a film one can love irrespective of its flaws; after all, that is what Mark does with Marnie. Pomerance’s splendid monograph is a love letter that reads like a thriller. Hitchcock would surely have been delighted..
Neil Sinyard, November 2014
Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (Tantivy Press, 1965). ↩
Tony Lee Moral, Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie (Manchester University Press, 2002). ↩
Donald Spoto, Spellbound by Beauty: Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (Hutchinson, 2008). ↩
Alex von Tunzelman, ‘Do Hitchcock and The Girl reveal the horrible truth about Hitch?’, The Guardian, 11 January 2013, available here. ↩
Murray Pomerance, BFI Film Classics: Marnie (Palgrave Macmillan for British Film Institute, 2014), p. 48. ↩
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.
This is the text of a lecture given at the Sorbonne in October, 2007.
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, p. ix. This essay references the 1962 Penguin edition; also the 1963 Heinemann Educational Edition. ↩
Marie-Francois Allain, The Other Man (London: The Bodley Head, 1983). ↩
Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (London: The Bodley Head, 1971), pp.174-5. ↩
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.
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.
Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 115. ↩
Raymond Durgnat, ‘The Mongrel Muse’, in F.H. Marcus (editor), Film and Literature: Contrasts in the Media (Seranton: Chandler, 1971, pp. 71-82. ↩
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. ↩
‘Dialogue on Film’ in American Film, August 1976, p. 36. ↩
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.]
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.
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.
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.’
This is a slightly expanded version of a lecture given at the ‘Adapting Dickens’ Conference at de Montfort University on 27 February 2013.
Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (2009), p. 94. ↩
Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964), p. 48. ↩
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.
This is the text of a public lecture at the Daphne Du Maurier Festival in May 2012.