Summary of Discussion on The Devil’s Vice

Our discussion on The Devil’s Vice included comments on: its Gothic elements; references to other Gothic films; Richard’s ‘Gaslighting’ of Susan; the audience’s genre expectations; the audience’s alignment with Susan; Richard and Susan’s relationship in terms of control and isolation and Susan’s realisation that Richard is her abuser; the role of technology; the film’s contemporary setting; the film’s purpose of the promotion of awareness of domestic abuse and the relation of this to the Gothic.

Like last session’s The Diary of Sophronia Winters, The Devil’s Vice contained a checklist of gothic elements. The opening shots of Susan, as a woman-in-peril, falling through the space from the top of the stairs onto the hard floor beneath emphasises the importance of the house. This is where much of the film’s events take place (the only other settings are a hospital, a  local library, a coffee shop and a police station), with its two staircases also playing prominent roles. Other aspects of the house are significant: there is a mirror on the stairs, several locked doors, focus on a keyhole, creepy portraits (specifically an old black and white formal photograph of a group of children and their schoolteacher, nicknamed ‘Smiler’ by Susan and Richard and seen as a demon), bats in the attic (and later in reference to this a comparison to Dracula’s house) and a disturbing doll in the no-longer needed nursery. In addition to Susan’s status as woman-in-peril she, like many other gothic heroines, is an active investigator who is seeking an answer to what is happening – and engages in the often-present action of walking down the stairs in her nightwear. In keeping with the contemporary setting, Susan is clad in pyjamas rather than a nightdress, and lacks a candlestick to light her way.

More specific references to gothic and horror films abound. The spiral staircase invokes memory of Robert Siodmak’s 1945 film. Susan’s research into the possible presence of a poltergeist summons up thoughts of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), and her misleading suggestion that they call in a catholic priest brought to mind William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Other points of plot similarity to gothic films include the pain of child loss (in J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, 2007) and concern for Susan expressed by her husband Richard to his wife’s friend (Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love, 1948). Aspects of The Devil’s Vice’s style also appeared to be referencing other films: the black and white footage of Richard’s attack on Susan was likened to scenes in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009).

Smaller moments also inspired comparisons. The appearance of the sunglass and strange oculist equipment-wearing medium, Madam Barbara, reminded us of Insidious (James Wan, 2010). Shots of Susan painfully and slowly crawling across the floor after being attacked in the kitchen were similar to Michelle Pfeiffer’s attempts to escape her husband in Robert Zemecki’s What Lies Beneath (2000)Richard’s sing-song taunting while addressing Susan by her name as she’s attempting to find proof of his attacks echoed that in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The colour red also gains significance when Richard is about to repaint the no longer needed nursery in a blood red hue; when combined with The Devil’s Vice’s concern with children and the occult, this made us think of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

We also brought in our own knowledge of other gothic texts and films. Particular attention was paid to Susan’s moment of realisation that her husband is her attacker. This occurs in the office as she watches footage form the cameras she has placed in the kitchen. It was noted that this pivot is in some ways is akin to Bluebeard’s eight wife entering the secret room which contains the bodies of his previous wives.  Such a device was also used in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1947) when Celia (Joan Bennett) uncovers her husband’s secret.

The film’s self-aware drawing on of other gothic texts is probably most obvious in its use of Gaslighting.  The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight (notably filmed in the UK by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the US by George Cukor in 1944) in which a husband attempts to make his wife think  she is going mad and thus gain control of her fortune. In The Devil’s Vice, Richard engages in such behaviour by placing the creepy photograph in their home. Susan later doubts herself when she remembers that the schoolteacher’s eyes in the photographs have always been closed while Richard insists the opposite is the case.  (He has presumably used digital alteration to support his position, since the audience agrees with Susan.)  Not all Richard’s manipulations are as clear-cut. His suggestion that Susan research the history of the house seems less than helpful, while his subtle undermining of Susan to her friend Helen and the hospital doctor includes him planting the idea that Susan harms herself.  We even wondered if the anti-depressants in Susan’s system were only present because Richard was drugging her in order to undermine her at this point.

Much of this is only seen in retrospect, once it is revealed that Richard is an abuser. This is also true of the way in which Madam Barbara’s ambiguous warning to Susan that ‘he’ will kill her, and that she should leave the house, becomes reframed as a clear denouncement of Richard. Similarly, Susan’s friend Helen asking Susan if she has received the messages she gave to Richard, and indeed her straight forward question of whether Richard is hurting Susan, are afforded extra significance. The oddness of the latter was made more apparent when we considered it later – Helen would hardly have asked this unless she was already concerned.  Some of us suspected Richard early on; he seemed too perfect and his ever-ready smile caused us to make connections with ‘Smiler’ in the photograph. In addition, we are familiar with Gothic tropes, and in the gothic the husband is often the perpetrator. Yet like Susan, who is clearly also aware of some of the horror tropes present (she researches the Occult, knows about poltergeists and considers calling in a catholic priest for an exorcism) others in the group, despite their awareness of the related matter of the gothic, only realised later.  It was knowledge of horror films which led to this. It occurred just after Richard claimed he had been attacked by the demon – while the woman often sees the demon in horror films, this is far less true of the man.

The delayed realisation reveals the success of the film’s attempt to align us with Susan. We spend most of our time with Susan, with Richard’s life away from the house little commented on – we just see him in his pinstripe shirt and suit, setting off for an undemanding day at work. Our alignment is not just in terms of sympathy, but in point of view. This is not strictly literal, but significantly we, like Susan do not physically see her attacker until the camera footage is screened. This means the revelation is indeed a plot twist for some of the audience.

We further pondered Susan and Richard’s relationship, speculating on how long they had been together and when the abuse started. Susan seems highly conditioned to her situation, accepting Richard’s control and her isolation without question. Oddly many of us also accepted Susan’s isolation until considering it more after the screening. In addition to the earlier mention that Richard has isolated Susan from Helen, we found it troubling that she had no friends or family to turn to – even by telephone. The house, in which Susan spends the majority of her time, is also physically isolated – with Richard using the couple’s one car to go to work every day. Some of us even credited Richard with more control than he possessed by wondering if he planted the card for Madam Barbara in the library book on the Occult. What happened during her visit discounted this theory, since Madam Barbara does not reinforce Richard’s ideas on the presence of demons. While Richard has not arranged the Madam Barbara’s appearance, she nonetheless seems frightened of him too since she leaves after giving only an ambiguous warning to Susan, and does not return to check on Susan.

Instead, Susan takes the matter into her own hands. She escalates the situation with Richard by goading the ‘demon’ until he attacks her – in full view of the cameras in the kitchen. Susan is prompted to take this action after ‘Smiler’ has apparently attacked Richard. The couple sits in the car, with Susan at the wheel, ready to drive them both away from the danger in the house. She is stopped by Richard, who asserts that Susan will never be able to escape from the demon, who he claims is feeding off the guilt she feels at losing her unborn children. This argument is illogical since Susan’s miscarriage occurred when she was attacked (seemingly by the demon). Susan does not question Richard’s logic.  It is only after Susan sees the visual evidence from the cameras that the two parts of her brain which have previously been dissociated, join together, and she sees Richard as her abuser.

The consequences of this realisation are grim for Susan. Richard hits her over the head with the laptop on which she has been viewing the camera footage. We wondered if perhaps a similar realisation had prompted the attack at the start of the film. It is also possible that Richard deliberately timed it so that causing the loss of her babies would further punish Susan, make her more vulnerable, and place her more fully in his control. Sadly it is the case that an abuser never needs a reason to abuse. The morning after Susan’s discovery, Richard seems a little wary of her. Susan is especially forceful in her squashing of sausages in the frying pan, perhaps causing him, like us, to wonder if he was about to be attacked with this most domestic of weapons. He is right to be concerned. Although Richard foolishly takes at face value Susan’s suggestion they consult a catholic priest, she finally finds proof of his abuse (courtesy of the camera she placed in the fruit bowl which she has previously overlooked)  and leaves him.

Symbolically Susan leaves behind her rather ostentatious engagement/wedding ring. Susan and Richard are obviously comfortably off; they rent or own a large house, have a four wheel drive car, neither is overworked, and Susan can spend several hundred pounds on her investigations without blinking. The ring is another sign of this wealth. It is also indicative of something else though. A member of the group was reminded of the Adrienne Rich poem ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’. This discusses the ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ on Aunt Jennifer’s hand and references imperialism and the oppression of women by men. (You can find the full poem here: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/rich-jennifer-tiger.html)  As with The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters, patriarchy is signalled to be damaging, and women are advised to avoid marriage.

Susan, with the help of technology, manages to extricate herself from her situation. Seeing film footage of Richard attacking her is what makes Susan see the truth, and also provides proof for the police. Susan was also able to access this technology via other technology – she orders the cameras over the internet she perhaps surprisingly has some access to. Technology is not wholly positive, however, since Richard uses it to physically attack Susan.

Such instances of technology clearly place the film in the modern day. The modern is also reflected in the decoration of the central aspect of the house. While it has Gothic elements (an almost church-like appearance, especially evident in its windows) the interior is stylish and modern. The fact it is largely functional also suggests emptiness. There seem to be few personal items, with the main photograph that of a group of children and their schoolteacher. While some Gothic films are set in contemporary times (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Secret Beyond the Door, and Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975)), more often they take place in the past (Gaslight, The Spiral Staircase, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).

Setting films in the past provides the audience with distance from the narrative, to allow them to deny the relevance of the gothic (and its disturbing overtones) to the present day. By contrast, The Devil’s Vice is set in contemporary times since social documentary and feature film maker Peter Watkins-Hughes’ main remit was to raise awareness of domestic abuse and to encourage people to seek help.  It was released at the time Clare’s Law –the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme was rolled out across the UK. The law allows people with concerns to make enquiries about a partner. You can find out more on the film’s website: http://www.thedevilsvice.org.uk/

We thought that the film was very effective in using its small cast of fewer than ten, limited running time and few locations. These all added to the sense of constraint. However, the tone was occasionally uneven (especially in Helen’s visit to the house seemingly being played for a little comedy), and we found Susan’s desire to return to home a bit unbelievable. Regardless of how much Susan is being controlled, she has suffered not just terrible physical trauma but the emotional effect of losing her unborn babies. This is dealt with quickly. While the focus on extreme physical violence is understandable in terms of seeing what is already in plain sight, it underplays the significance of the more subtle ways people abuse others. Since the film’s release, the matter of coercive control has also been more discussed, and indeed in March 2015  was included in the Serious Crime Act https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf)

But the film did raise our awareness in making the connection between Gothic heroines and domestic abuse – whether physical, emotional, or both. This crystallised for us the continuing relevance of the Gothic, especially in a world that continues to be unequal.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Barbe Bleue and Bluebeard

Watching these two very different films gave us much food for thought. In addition to tracing elements of the Gothic and Bluebeard fable across two texts, it afforded the opportunity to compare silent and sound films, as well as French and Hollywood productions.

Barbe Bleue’s treatment of the Bluebeard fable was fairly in keeping with Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the traditional folktale. At only 9 minutes long, we were surprised that some of the scenes were so lengthy. In particular, the long wedding banquet scene added little to the tension of the woman in peril. Neither did it match some of the comedy scenes in the film – notably the proposed wife’s clear disdain for Bluebeard in the opening scene, or the ‘below stairs’ hijinks of the servants.

The scenes where the latest wife was encouraged by the devil to enter the forbidden room and submitted to this temptation were more successfully realised. Both gave Melies an opportunity to show off his special effects. The discovery of the previous wives’ hanging bodies was suitably striking.

bluebeard-wives

We were surprised by the fact this was undercut in the next few scenes as, after a short period of panic and struggle with her husband, the rescue occurred quickly and all Bluebeard’s wives were brought back to life.  While this last action fitted Melies’ reputation for screening the fantastical, it affects the film’s impact, especially as all the women are given a final scene happy ending in which they marry noblemen.

bluebeard-poster

Despite this non-traditional ending to the story, Ulmer’s film was even less true the traditional Bluebeard tale than Melies’. The film focuses on puppet-maker and painter Gaston Morrell – a serial killer of women in Paris. In a warning poster the killer is referred to as a ‘Bluebeard’.  But Morrell is not married to these women, which made us ponder the use of the term – especially as the film’s title.  It certainly draws on the horror so important to the Bluebeard tale, however, potentially signalling that this was important to audiences of the time.

Ulmer’s film contained more horror than Melies’ – as befits the director of spine-chilling The Black Cat (1934) starring horror stalwarts Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. There wasbluebeard-warning-poster little suspense in terms of the killer though.  After initial scenes of melodramatic moral panic, and the lengthy puppet opera, the confirmation of the identity of ‘Bluebeard’ was fairly swift.  This was first implied by Gaston Morrell’s (John Carradine) emergence from the fog to make acquaintance with the heroine of the story – Lucille (Jean Parker). As well as echoing similar scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), the detail of the framing was significant: the meeting occurred in front of the warning poster. Not long after, Morrell’s murder of his lover, Renee (Sonia Sorel), takes place on screen.

Ulmer was especially known for his talent for mise en scene – indeed American film critic Andrew Sarris assessed that this was the one notable aspect of his work (Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, New York, Dutton, 1968, p. 143).  We were struck by bluebeard-dangling-puppetssome of the backgrounds of Morrell’s paintings. We were also impressed by Ulmer’s use of chiaroscuro to emphasise the gothic spaces of Morrell’s apartment as well as the scenes in the sewers below. Despite the latter being somewhat derivative of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1909), elsewhere another echo – this time of Melies’ film when the most recent wife discovered the previous ones– proved especially effective as dangling shadowy puppets eerily appear on the walls of Morrell’s apartment.  It is also notable that the film uses Killer point-of-view as bluebeard-killer-povshots of Morrell’s eyes spying through a hole prior to the puppet show as he searches for Lucille. We’ve previously discussed Killer POV in relation to The Spiral Staircase (1945, Robert Siodmak: see https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2015/12/02/summary-of-discussion-on-the-spiral-staircase/), and it is interesting that Ulmer’s use occurred first and that he had previously worked with Siodmak.

Our definition of the Gothic involving the Woman in Peril had obviously played an important part in Melies’ film though, as mentioned earlier, this was relatively short-lived in the silent. Here the tension is ratcheted up, as Lucille continually places herself in danger. Firstly, she declares herself not to be scared of Bluebeard, then she visits Morrell alone in his apartment, later confronting him here, again alone, even once she suspects the truth.

There is another Woman in Peril – Lucille’s sister Francine (Teala Loring) – who appears part-way through the film. It is suggested that she is an undercover agent, bluebeard-francine-and-lucilleworking with the police, though this is not made clear. She too places herself in danger (presumably often a part of her job), by luring Morrell into a trap – both are women who actively investigate. When Francine appeared it almost seemed she had usurped Lucille, but with former’s death at hands of Morrell, Lucille was once more the heroine.  While both women investigate, only Francine – who is actually employed as a detective (especially surprising in the 19th century) is punished by death though.

We noted that the film was rather odd tonally. This includes its shaky grasp of its historical and geographic setting – not all that unusual in Hollywood productions. While the costumes (women’s dresses with bustles) broadly suggest the 19th century, the amount of ankle on show was deemed inaccurate.  Although set in Paris, the only European accent was contributed by Swedish actor Nils Asther as Police Inspector Lefevre.

The uneven tone is especially notable in the film’s mix of comedy and horror. When in court trying to ascertain the painter of a particular picture, the questioning of artists’ models – one of whom replies in a thick Brooklyn accent – leads to responses of hilarity carry-on-screamingby those attending. Much of this revolved around suggestions of prostitution – references also found elsewhere in the film, including as Morrell’s justification of his crimes. In addition, the killing scenes, whether an eye-bulging arms-raised action or a protracted and ineffective fight, were a bit comical. We noted these comedy elements in a horror film contrasted to Carry on Screaming’s (1966, Gerald Thomas) mostly comic, but occasionally, frightening tone.

The pacing of the film was also patchy. We especially wondered why so much time was spent on the enacting of the puppet opera near the film’s beginning. This does, however, give the film audience time to ponder the significance of the fact that Morrell is playing (and singing) the part of Faust in the production, while an older man plays the film’s hero.  This disjuncture further helps suggest the fact Morrell is the serial killer at large. Non-diegetic music was also effectively used to punctuate melodramatic moments.

The extended musical scenes also caused us to further compare Ulmer’s sound and Melies’ silent films. In both, the killer got his comeuppance, with Morrell in the later film throwing himself into the Seine. Happy endings are also suggested in both.  This occurs more forcefully in the earlier production when all the previously dead wives come back to life and are married off. In Ulmer’s film the relationship between Lucille and the Police Inspector appears to grow.

You can find an English translation of Perrault’s tale here:  http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault03.html

Both films are viewable on archive.org:

https://archive.org/details/Barbe-bleue

https://archive.org/details/Bluebeard

 

Do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Spiral Staircase

Comments on Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946) included the film’s temporal and geographical settings; its use of early cinema entertainment; the film’s plot; its heroine; the source novel; feminism and the film’s characters; the couple; the melodrama genre and more specifically gothic tropes such as the staircase.

spiral credits

Our discussion began with appreciation for the film’s opening. This occurs just after the shadowy shot of a woman descending a spiral staircase over which the credits roll. After establishing a suitably creepy atmosphere, the film proceeds to communicate the film’s time and place. Small town America is conveyed by wide streets and the date narrowed to sometime in the 1910s judging by the dirt road, horses and carts,  and characters’ costumes. The date is further pinned down by the screening of a modern attraction – a short silent motion picture, The Kiss. (This might be an extract from Ulysses Davis’ 1914 version starring William Desmond Taylor, although several shorts with the same name were produced in the 1910s.)

The heroine of the film, young mute Helen spiral old film(Dorothy McGuire), is attending the screening and this aligns us with her as film goers.  It also creates a certain expectation of romance within the film – once more for both us and Helen. We especially liked this depiction of film history within a film text, and were impressed by the inclusion of a woman playing live piano accompaniment. Soon the murder of a disabled young woman is committed in her rooms above the theatre. The masterly fluid use of space between the lower and higher levels contrasts to the disjuncture inherent in our viewing of those enjoying an entertainment and the serious crime taking place upstairs. Even the dramatic nature of the short overtaken by ‘real’ events.

some-must-watchWhile the alignment of us with Helen, and the other film goers, draws us into the action the dissonance between audience experiences (silent vs sound) separates us. This led us to ponder some key differences between the source material (Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch 1933) and the film. The action has moved from rural UK to small-town America (despite the inclusion of recognisable British actors Elsa Lanchester and Sara Allgood). The heroine is now a mute which places her in the path of the serial killer murdering disabled women. These women begin 10 years earlier with a woman with learning difficulties, and more recently one with a scarred face (a strong comment on the linking of women and beauty), another woman with learning difficulties, a woman with mobility issues, one who refused to love the murderer (presumably this is seen to show a lack of judgement, though of course we know differently), and lastly possibly Helen, who is mute.  More significantly the film is placed around twenty years earlier than the novel.  Instances of feminism in the film are therefore displaced onto earlier times and the fact that the heroine literally, and not just metaphorically, has no voice is also connected to the time of women’s suffrage. We also noted that conduct literature of the time advocated all women being quiet – raising her hat to get attention rather than shouting.

We discussed the instances spiral high angle Eb gunof feminism in the film at some length. The heroine is not saved by a man, but a woman. Specifically Helen’s saviour is her elderly, seemingly bed-ridden and cranky employer Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore).  Not only does Mrs Warren urge Helen to leave the house for her own safety but she shoots her stepson, Professor Warren (George O’Brien), when she realises he has committed these heinous crimes.   Although this action might seem surprising – especially in terms of the character’s limited mobility – several important factors have been established earlier. We see Mrs Warren with a gun which she then manages to somehow hide and her hunting past is evidenced by the various animal trophies in her room which include several stuffed birds, tusks and a prominently placed tiger rug. The latter is focuses on when Helen almost trips over it. Mrs Warren  explicitly claims it as her ‘kill’ and notes that her husband said she was ‘not as beautiful’ as his first wife but that she was a much better ‘shot’ – a strength he greatly admired. As well as establishing Mrs Warren’s strong character the various stuffed animals add to the creepy setting by adding more watching pairs of eyes – death pervades not just the town, but the house too.

Mrs Warren also provides a vital insight into the motivations of the killer when she comments, early on, that her husband thought men could only be men if they were toting guns. This places the blame firmly at the feet of her dead husband and this is later confirmed by Professor Warren’s ‘justification’ to Helen. He specially states that his father would be proud he is ridding the world of the ‘afflicted’. (Notably not weak people – there are no male victims only those doubly ‘afflicted’ by disfigurement or disability and the being of the female gender.)

The_Spiral_Staircase SteveProfessor Warren’s half-brother Steve’s behaviour is also critiqued. His attentions are seen to bother his brother’s secretary, Blanche, with their final meeting including him telling her that he enjoys watching her cry. He considers this sadistic behaviour common to all men since women’s expressions of their emotions make the male gender feel ‘superior’. Specifically he cautions Blanche not to be ‘melodramatic’.

The film cannot be viewed as a straightforward criticism of patriarchy, however, as it switches between approaches. The romantic subplot with Doctor Parry expresses this most strongly. Helen and Doctor Parry’s status as a romantic couple is far more straightforward than either Rebecca or Sorry, Wrong Number. While Maxim de Winter and Lenore’s husband are killers (and significantly wife-killers) Doctor Parry is a decent man of conviction. He does not express his love for Helen other than a brief kiss, but it is commented on by Mrs Warren in front of the pair. Mrs Warren attempts to displace the responsibility for taking Helen away onto Doctor Parry, though this is unsuccessful.spiral couple This view of traditional gender roles is also held by Helen.  Her fantasy is of her wedding to Doctor Parry. She pictures this taking place at the house but this turns into a nightmare when she is unable to utter ‘I do’. It is also notable that Doctor Parry takes it upon himself to ‘cure’ Helen of her lack of speech becoming, albeit briefly, another threatening man in the narrative as she shouts at her. In fact Helen only regains her voice after the shock of Mrs Warren shooting her stepson.

We also spoke about the film’s effective creation and dissipation of suspense. As Helen walks home after the murder at the theatre she hears something. Arming herself with a heft tree branch she is relieved to discover the source of the sound was merely a rabbit. As Helen approaches the house she drops her door key and as she stoops to collect it we are afforded a glimpse of a man Helen does not see. Thankfully she reaches the front door and gains access to the house. This is not without a sense of foreboding though as Helen is being watched by various statutes and ‘faces’ in the furniture. Our concerns are made more concrete as it is soon revealed that someone has deliberately opened one of the windows whish the housekeeper Mrs Oates insists was earlier shut. Another moment of suspense is created as off-camera we hear Mrs Oates cry out as she walks out. The culprit – a bulldog- is soon revealed. Such switches (and those critiquing and supporting patriarchy) are part of the ‘rhythm’ of the film’s melodrama.

spiral DMMore specifically gothic tropes such as a woman carrying a candlestick exploring the space of the house also appear. While three women (Mrs Oates, Blanche and Helen) perform this action, only the heroine is actively investigating. Mrs Oates is seeking brandy in the cellar (which it is later revealed her employer Professor Warren has deliberately let her steal so that she will be incapacitated and  unable to interfere in his crimes)  and Blanche is simply retrieving her suitcase so she can leave. Helen alone is investigating by going looking for the missing Blanche. Shortly after Helen finds Blanche murdered, Steven appears on the scene and Helen is proactive in taking action – she utilises Mrs Oates’ candle trick to trick him into the cellar and lock the door. Interestingly other aspects of the heroine wearing a nightgown (see The Innocents 1961) is fulfilled by Blanche and later Mrs Warren who has places her house coat over her bedclothes when she shoots her stepson.

Staircases also play an important role. We noted the striking high angle shot which details Mrs Warren at the top of the staircase shooting her stepson several times. Her powerful position cats her as judge and executioner. More generally, character are often ascending and descending them. It is useful to bear in mind Mary Ann Doane’s comment on the staircase’s significance as a space of ‘transition’ (1987, pp. 135-6: https://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/melodrama-reading-doanes-paranoia-and-the-specular/) Wespiral mirror particularly noted the difference between the use of the huge front formal staircase (more usually used by the family) and the shadowy back stairs (for the servants). While the former were ascended a lot the back stairs were mostly descended. The fact the prominently placed mirror occupied liminal space by appearing half way up the formal staircase was also discussed. We found the killer POV shots occurring here especially tense, reminding us of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

 

You can find more information on Some Must Watch here: https://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/?s=some+must+watch)

 

As ever, do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion 30th November, 4.30-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the third of this term’s Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on Monday the 30th of November, 4.30-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing The Spiral Staircase (1945,Robert Siodmak, 83 mins)

spiral-staircase-dorothy-mcguireThe film is based on Ethel Lina White’s popular novel Some Must Watch (1933). The Gothic plot revolves around a young woman who has been recently employed at a large house. This occurs against the backdrop of a series of murders of local women.  Siodmak’s film  increases the vulnerability of these victims as they are all women with disabilities. Coincidentally our heroine  Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is a mute, unable, even, to scream in terror…

 

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on The Dark Mirror

Unsurprisingly quite a lot of our discussion on The Dark Mirror (1946) focused on the Doubling aspect. This was commented on in several ways:  in terms of psychology, technology, Olivia de Havilland’s –performance(s), costume, doubling in terms of our comparing to other films/narratives about the Double, and finally the fact that despite the centrality of the Double in terms of the twin sisters de Havilland plays, the power in the narrative rests with two authoritarian male characters: the police detective (Thomas Mitchell) and the psychologist (Lew Ayres).

 We commented that the psychological theme of the film was established very early on – during the opening credits which played over a background of different Rorschach tests, or ink blot, pictures. This particular test, which is also present in the film’s narrative, especially commented on the theme of the double in terms of its owndark Mirror opening mirroring. It was noted that the particular pictures chosen also seemed to particularly relate to the twin theme central to the film’s narrative since some of the blots appeared to resemble wombs. The doubling theme is elaborated on in relation to the Rorschach test when both Ruth and Terry (both played by de Havilland) are seen to undergo this psychological test soon after one another, but with very different results.

The film’s use of technology while the two characters de Havilland plays appear simultaneously on the screen was praised, with only a few lighting differences obviously discernible. De Havilland’s performance(s) also aided the seamlessness. It was almost possible to forget that the actress played both parts, despite the fact the twins are identical.  Character differences were evident from the start – Ruth’s timidity was contrasted to Terry’s confidence. De Havilland’s playing of these early scenes was nuanced enough to indicate Ruth and Terry’s distinct personalities, without exaggerating them. As time progressed and Terry’s ‘evil’ nature was revealed de Havilland’s facial expressions in particular became more manic. It is impressive that de Havilland also managed to convey Ruth’s apparent descent into madness with a different touch. Terry was tricking her sister into believing she herself had gone insane. ruth going madDe Havilland’s performance as Ruth therefore included expressions of bewilderment and fear in contrast to Terry’s planned and controlled scheming.

Costume also played an interesting role in aiding the audience’s attempt to differentiate the twins. The fact that no-one in the narrative is meant to know that there is more than one twin (the twins share a job selling magazines at a stand) explains some of their identical outfits.  It seems unlikely, however, that they would necessarily need to wear identical clothes at the same time. We also wondered why the twins shared a job.  Perhaps this has a practical application since one twin has, after all, we presume,Ruth and Terry identical clothes but different characters committed murder and might need to be fairly closely observed by the other.  Perhaps it also comments on a deeper psychological attachment. It is also the case that the twins wore the same clothes outside of work, even donning identical nightgowns. The identical costumes tailed off as the film progressed and by end evil Terry is seen all in black and innocent Ruth in a white top.

It is telling that one of the few physical ways the twins can be differentiated is by the use of jewellery. Both own a necklace with their name featured prominently, as well as initial brooches. When Terry is impersonating Ruth, it is even seen that Ruth (and presumably Terry) owns a compact mirror with her initial engraved on it. This was particularly noticed by the group as Terry removed it from her handbag after the Doctor had started to make clear he knew her real identity.  This was a very suspenseful moment – signalled, as was the case throughout the film – with dramatic music. In fact some of us thought Terry was about to brandish a gun. The necklaces, brooches and compact mirrors are items which can all be grouped under the term ‘women’s accoutrements’. Such accessories are sometimes sold, at times in connection with film stars, as ways of individuating oneself. The fact that this ‘female’ item, particularly one used to reflect on one’s appearance, is very significant. This is in terms of commenting on the theme of the double, but also because it is a replacement for the expected item – the arguably ‘male’ gun.

We noted a couple of aspects which we have previously discussed in terms of melodrama. The film’s dramatic music – and the fact that Terry uses a concealed music box to convince Ruth that the latter is going mad with auditory hallucinations – was noted. We also expressed views on the comic elements present in the film. These, usually related to the detective, seemed to sit uncomfortably with the seriousness of the film’s subject matter. They can be related to the presence of the comic subplot in some theatrical dramas – Gaslight UKas evidenced in our read-through of the Melville Brothers’  A Girl’s Cross Roads (1903). More specifically, a connection can be made between Mitchell’s detective and the one played by Frank Pettingell in Thorold Dickinson’s British film version of Gaslight (1940). Interestingly this is another narrative about a relative (a husband in this case) trying to send a woman mad.

Finally we discussed the fact that while the film provided a great showcase for de Havilland and her dual performances, the men in the narrative were afforded far more power. This is seen in the ‘active’ occupations of both the detective and the psychologist. Furthermore this is directed towards proving the guilt of the twin who has killed, Terry, the least passive of the twins. By the end of the film we presume Terry will be institutionalised, while Ruth has been safely domesticated in a romance with the psychologist.

Dark Mirror Mitchell Ayres

Do, as ever,  log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk, to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 26th of January, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the first screening of the New Year, which will take place on the 26th of January, from 5-7pm,  in Jarman 7. We will start this term’s focus on the Gothic notion of The Double by showing The Dark Mirror (1946, Robert Siodmak, 85mins).

Made at a time when psychoanalysis found popularity in Hollywood films, The Dark Mirror tells the story of identical twins (both played by Olivia de Havilland) who are under suspicion of murder.

The Dark Mirror DV p 11 12

The above advertisement from Daily Variety (6th of November 1946) nicely sums up several ways in which the film references The Double.  Unsurprisingly it focuses on de Havilland’s dual role, increasing the already present doubling of actress and character. The left-side of the double-page advertisement comments on the perceived easy split in morality between good evil demonstrated in de Havilland’s contrasting facial expressions and the tagline: ‘Twins! One Loves…One Loves to Kill!’ Intriguingly the opposite page depicts the view from behind the mirror, invoking notions of spectatorship.

The film should prompt lots of discussion in these various areas, and more, with de Havilland’s acting providing a point of focus for comments on acting in melodrama.

Do join us if you can.

Summary of Discussion on Christmas Holiday

Posted by Sarah

The post-screening discussion focused on several areas:  suspense and the theme of concealment and revelation; matters of genre and cycles – especially film noir and melodrama; the main female character Jackie/Abigail; the star images of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly; costume; Somerset Maugham; a few specific scenes; other related films.

Christmas Holiday

We began by examining the film’s flashback structure. While the fractured approach to storytelling was not unusual for the time, especially in film noir, we found the way the film presented the narrative very odd. After the initial framing narrative of Charles Mason (Dean Harens), a Lieutenant on leave who ends up holidaying in New Orleans at Christmas, the main story begins. Jackie (formerly Abigail, played by Deanna Durbin) shares her life story with her new friend Lieutenant Mason.  She very quickly reveals the reason for her sadness, and her name change: her husband Robert Manette (played by Gene Kelly) is in prison, serving life for murder.

The fact that Jackie is explicit regarding her husband’s guilt and his crime (though not the motivation for it) so early in the film means that little suspense is created until the shoot-out at the film’s conclusion. Following the first flashback, which shows the consequences of Robert’s crime on family life, further flashbacks are provided. These detail Abigail and Robert’s first meeting, some of their subsequent dates, and Abigail’sChristmas Holiday guilt introduction to Robert’s omnipresent mother (played by Gale Sondergaard). Suspense would have been generated by just a slight reticence on Jackie’s part regarding the reason for her distressed state and a reordering of the flashbacks so that they occurred largely chronologically: the first date, subsequent dates, the revelation of Robert’s guilt etc.

While flashbacks and voice-over narration are key to film noir (whether we consider it to be a genre or a cycle) we noted that this lack of suspense did not relate to our experience of the genre/cycle. It also did not seem especially connected to melodrama’s often used theme of concealment and revelation. Of course, genre is often hybridised and any attempt to categorise a film as belonging to one genre or another based on whether certain elements are present is fairly restrictive. However we found it useful to relate other aspects of the film – mostly character – to genre.

It is fairly unusual for film noir to contain a female voice-over, to tell, and to show, the woman’s story. Jackie/Abigail is also treated sympathetically, partly because the rottenness of Robert is so evident. She is not a femme fatale. Robert’s mother is far more sinister. She is a malevolent presence throughout (even, or perhaps especially, whilst knitting in the background) despite welcoming Abigail as Robert’s last hope of salvation. However after the court case she provides one of the film’s most dramatic moments. She berates Abigail for her weakness, shouting ‘You killed him’ and Christmas Holiday knittingslapping her in the face. This is not just dramatic but inaccurate – Robert is soon to be sentenced to life imprisonment, but not to death. It also seems unfair on Abigail when it is clear that Robert’s life has been heavily influenced by his unhealthily close relationship to his mother. This point is also stated in the voice-over when Jackie reveals that it was described by a psychiatrist as ‘pathological’.

The focus on Jackie/Abigail is highlighted by the trailer’s promotion of   Durbin playing ‘The Screen’s Greatest Woman’s Role’. This confuses some of the usual (admittedly binary) gender distinctions of noir as being  ‘male’ oriented   and melodrama as ‘female’ focused – both in terms of character and audience. The melodrama research group has, of course, seen the sheer variety of melodrama over the last year which shows that the narrow view of melodrama as ‘woman’s weepies’ is highly reductive and unproductive.

Another aspect of the film seemed unusual – Deannafor both noir and melodrama. The film’s ending is rather hopeful. The recently widowed Jackie/Abigail looks to a sky in which the clouds are parting and there is a suggestion that she might find love with the supportive Lieutenant.  We related this optimism to Durbin’s star image. Given her hitherto fairly uncomplicated star image of a happy young girl who likes to sing it is noteworthy that this film allowed her to play two roles: the generally happy young wife and the woman ground down by life’s disappointments. Due to the flashback structure these were juxtaposed throughout the film, allowing for the foregrounding of Durbin’s performance. This means that after our first introduction to Jackie we are continually reminded of her ‘earlier’ self and of Durbin’s ‘earlier’ screen self – a happy young girl in love.

Gene Kelly dancerGene Kelly’s star image was also discussed. While today we primarily associate him with song-and-dance roles, contemporary audiences saw him in a variety of roles before Christmas Holiday. These included musicals (Du Barry Was a Lady 1943) and dramas (For Me and My Girl 1942, Pilot #5 1943, The Cross of Lorraine 1943).  (This information on the films’ genres is courtesy of the American Film Institute Catalog and notes some films as ‘with songs’ rather than as musicals: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/)

We talked quite a lot about the Christmas Holiday Durbin's first appearancefilm’s costumes, especially Durbin’s wardrobe. She begins the film wearing a very glamorous and grown-up evening dress. This is striking as it is our first view of Jackie – and indeed of the ‘new’ Durbin. This is delayed, first by the framing narrative and then by the fact that Jackie/Durbin is first glimpsed with her back to the camera, making her way to the stage to perform a song.  Her next outfit was especially memorable. As Jackie and the Lieutenant sit talking in a café she is dressed in a light coloured trench coat and coordinating hat. Perhaps because of the film’s noirish elements, this reminded us of the detective figure in many 1940s films, and specifically of Humphrey Bogart. It is an especially interesting costume choice as this relation to the male star who played the protagonist of several noirs also Christmas Holiday trenchcoat and hatseems to place Jackie centrally. The wisecracking comments made by both Robert and Jackie were commented on. They reminded us of another film pair at times – Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Though it was notable that they did not interact in this way with each other since only Jackie, and not Abigail, has been made cynical by her experience.

The extent of Jackie’s suffering – being forced to turn to prostitution – is unsurprisingly not made explicit in the film. Hollywood’s Production Code meant that reference to this would not have been allowed by the censors. Somerset Maugham’s novel provided more information and it would be interesting to know just how widely the novel circulated in the United States. The trailer certainly foregrounds Maugham’s involvement.  We found it fruitful to briefly compare the adaptation of Christmas Holiday with Of Human Bondage (1934) which we watched at the beginning Of Human Bondageof term. The earlier, pre-code film, was able to mention Mildred’s descent into prostitution.  There is a key similarity, however.  Both adaptations extract just a small part of the novel, notably the part which deals more with the couple – which often occupies a main position in Hollywood films during the Studio Era.

In terms of specific scenes we noted the connection between the lengthy scene detailing Jackie and Lieutenant Mason’s Christmas Holiday churchattendance at midnight mass and the Abigail’s earlier (though shown later in the film) first meeting with Robert in a cavernous concert hall. In the church Jackie is sobbing… we took this as a reference to her feelings of guilt. However she assures the Lieutenant that she is not crying for the reason that he (and perhaps we) think. The Concert hall scene later shows what Jackie had been crying about – her memory of Robert.

We also briefly discussed the director Robert Siodmak’s other films. Similarities in the plots of Christmas Holiday and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) were mentioned.

If you missed the screening, or would like to rewatch it, you can find it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UFSZay18go

After the discussion we watched a more festive Christmas film: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). Bunny Mattinson’s short film managed to squeeze Charles Dickens’ novel into 20 minutes, but also managed to explore the relation between melodrama and comedy.

Do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk, to add your thoughts.

Thanks to everyone – especially Tamar, Ann-Marie and Geoff – for this week’s entertainment and provisions. Many thanks also to the entire Group for such a productive and fun term. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 18th of December, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the eighth, and last, of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 18th of December in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Christmas Holiday (1944, Robert Siodmak, 93 mins).

Christmas Holiday 1944

The Hollywood adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel stars musical legends Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. The casting is misleading, however, as Universal studios was deliberately trying to insert some variation into Durbin’s hitherto relatively simple star image of a happy young girl who loved to sing. In Christmas Holiday Durbin plays a woman with a past (enough of one to need a new name), now working as a nightclub ‘hostess’.  We might compare Durbin’s change in role to the refreshing of Mary Pickford’s star image in Coquette (1929) which we screened a couple of weeks ago.

The film’s dark tone can be fruitfully related to its director as well as its stars.  Robert Siodmak later helmed the gothic-influenced The Spiral Staircase (1945) and The Dark Mirror (1946).

Christmas Holiday’s original trailer is available on youtube.com

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iOzpu5lMuU

The trailer’s central placement of the change in Durbin’s star image as well as the highlighting of the film’s noirish tone  are also seen in the print advertising. Below are some pages from the June issue of trade-oriented Box Office Magazine. (The date of the magazine also points to the fact the film might be somewhat misnamed-who releases a festive film in July?!)

To see the pages below in context please visit http://www.boxoffice.com/the_vault/issue_page?issue_id=1944-6-17&page_no=19#page_start

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 1 boxoffice_061744_19

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 2 boxoffice_061744_20

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 3 boxoffice_061744_21

Christmas Holiday Box Office Mag page 4 boxoffice_061744_22

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 5 boxoffice_061744_23

Christmas Holiday Box Office mag page 6 boxoffice_061744_24

The above pages (and lots of other useful material) can be found on the Box Office Magazine’s vault: http://www.boxoffice.com/the_vault

Do join us, if you can, for what promises to be an interesting discussion on the intersection of melodrama and noir. We also plan to screen a short bonus Christmas film (yet to be decided) afterwards, which will hopefully be more cheery!