Summary of Discussion on Cast a Dark Shadow

Our discussion on the film covered: its melodramatic aspects and the horror genre; related matters of the gothic: the house and the film’s women in peril; Margaret Lockwood’s screen image; Dirk Bogarde’s screen image; Bogarde’s wider role in the film’s production.

We began by considering Cast a Dark Shadow’s relationship to melodrama, a label it was assigned in some contemporary reviews. It is the only genre mentioned in British fan magazine Picture Show’s brief review (8th October 1955, p. 10). Picturegoer magazine provided more detail, assessing that the film had ‘little mystery, some suspense, but plenty of spirited melodrama’ (17th September 1955, p. 21). We agreed that the fact that Teddy Bare’s (Dirk Bogarde’s) villainy was evident from almost the outset meant that mystery and suspense were subjugated to melodrama. This melodrama mostly takes the form of changing rhythm: less exciting scenes are punctuated by moments of action. Confounding expectations of horror also occurs.  The film opens with a piercing scream from, and a look of terror on the face of, Molly Bare (Mona Washbourne). This is soon revealed to be in response to a ghost train ride, rather than a real terror threat, and is followed by Molly and Teddy’s quiet discussion in a quaint seaside tea room.

We noticed that the film did not rely on coincidence to the same extent as many melodramas we’ve screened. In fact, melodrama was supplied in the realistic and psychologically well-motivated relationships between the characters. Our consideration of characters led us to contrast Teddy (the irredeemable villain) to his wives, and other women, in the film (his potential victims).  Viewing these women as women in peril connects it to the Gothic – a matter the melodrama research group has an interest in (see the blog’s gothic tag: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/tag/gothic/ ).

This was supported by another key theme of the Gothic – the old dark house – being present. Much of the action takes place in the Bares’ large isolated house. This is perhaps unsurprising as the film is Janet Green’s adaptation her own stage play which ran in London from 1952-1953. The filming adds other important details. The house’s location is visually connected to peril by a sign noting the ‘dangerous’ hill which foreshadows the film’s later action. Furthermore, Bare’s first wife, Molly, is killed by her husband in this house, and he makes use of a domestic appliance (a gas fire) to this end. The cinematography of this scene is particularly atmospheric.  Molly is pictured drunkenly dozing in a chair in the foreground of the shot while Teddy enters through the patio doors in the shadowy background.

It is also revealed that the house was the reason Molly and Teddy first met. He worked for the estate agent who came to value the house, and indeed the house the only item Molly left him in her first will. Teddy also acts as his own letting agent. He uses the house as a reason for the woman he has lined up to be the next Mrs Bare, Freda (Margaret Lockwood), to visit. When Molly’s sister Dora arrives, incognito as Charlotte Young (Kay Walsh), Teddy takes it upon himself to show her local houses she may be interested in buying.  The extended scene of Teddy being confronted by ‘Charlotte’ also occurs in the house. ‘Charlotte’ realises that counter-intuitively she is safer in the house: because of what happened to her sister, Teddy would find it very difficult to explain away another dead woman in his house.

A direct reference to Bluebeard’s chamber reinforces the film’s gothic connections. Freda (Margaret Lockwood) persuades the housemaid Emmie (Kathleen Harrison) to give her access to Molly’s bedroom which has been kept locked since her death. As she enters the room, Freda says it’s a ‘regular Bluebeard’s chamber’, and quips that if Teddy had ‘any more wives I’d have had to sleep in the bathroom’. This points to Freda as surprisingly well-informed about the gothic for a gothic heroine. We also noted that there was no real reason for Teddy to keep Molly’s bedroom locked; unlike the original Bluebeard he was not hiding his late wife’s body there. This led us to ponder whether it was through guilt or regret. Teddy seemed fond of Molly, but the fact that he still blamed her for misleading him about her will – for thinking the change would benefit Dora and not him – suggests that the room is perhaps sealed precisely so that connection to the gothic Bluebeard tale can be remarked upon.

It is significant, however, that Freda does not suspect her husband of killing his first wife or of plotting to kill her. This is unusual when compared to most gothic film narratives. For example, in both versions of Gaslight (1940, UK, Thorold Dickinson and 1944, US, George Cukor) as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941) the heroine increasingly comes to suspect her husband. Cast a Dark Shadow diverges from Rebecca and Suspicion since Teddy’s murderous intentions are clear to the audience from nearly the beginning.

It is also worth considering the age-gap couples of the older Maxim and the young second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca and Teddy and Molly in Cast a Dark Shadow. Teddy is by many years Molly’s junior, and at first we thought that perhaps he was her doting son or nephew. As often happens with older husbands in gothic films, Molly takes on a teaching role in regard to the younger Teddy.  Teddy’s speech and lack of social graces are corrected by his wife. ‘‘Ome’ should be ‘home’, Teddy should not speak with his mouth full or lounge on the sofa with his feet up, and he ought to get up when a visitor departs. Furthermore, in contrast to other gothic narratives, it is Molly’s resistance rather than her acquiescence that causes her to be killed. Teddy is unaware that Molly made a will after their marriage. He therefore mistakenly believes that the new will she insists on drawing up cuts him out in favour of her sister, Dora.

Teddy’s second wife, Freda, even more so than Molly, is not the unsuspecting innocent heroine of most gothic narratives. Not only has she worked (as a barmaid) but she has sexual experience: she has been married and widowed. Freda’s prompt quashing of Teddy’s suggestion of separate bedrooms (‘I didn’t marry you for companionship’) reinforces this. Teddy himself describes her as ‘vulgar’ in one of the several conversations he holds with his late wife. (His speaking to Molly’s empty chair, and her role as teacher/mother to Teddy reminded us of Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock) – both Teddy and Norman Bates are unhinged killers.)

Freda has a firm grip on the reason for men’s interest in her: in the past they have cared more about her ‘moneybags’ than the ‘old bag’. She also wishes to keep a firm grip on her finances as she insists that she and Teddy are equal in terms of partnership – they must match each other ‘pound for pound’. Freda fails to check Molly’s will deposited at Somerset House, however, and is subsequently pestered by Teddy to invest in a business deal. This scene takes place next to a quarry with a prominent ‘danger’ sign. Teddy has ostensibly encouraged Freda to climb over the safety fence in order to pick flowers. In addition to the location, Freda seems further to be in peril as he raises his hand to her when she refuses to go along with his plan. She threatens that ‘I’ll hit you back’, and the authority with which Lockwood invests the line makes Teddy, and the audience, believe her.

Freda is therefore aware of Teddy’s faults. As well as witnessing his threatening behaviour, she was unsurprised much earlier on when she learned that he had tricked Emmie working for him for free by ‘paying’ her with the £200 legacy Molly left her. Later, when complaining about ‘Charlotte’ and Teddy’s closeness, Freda says she would support Teddy in fleecing her. In some ways they are kindred spirits: she also married above her class, to a publican, and gives the impression of having cared little for her husband. (While Teddy does profess to have cared for Molly, he still killed her.) Nonetheless, Freda disbelieves ‘Charlotte’s’ accusation against Teddy, insisting that: ‘he’s a bad boy but he’s not that bad’. Freda’s blinkered attitude is perhaps explained by her earlier response to Teddy’s admission that he has no money: rather than railing against him she tells him ‘So help me I love you’.  This is reinforced by Freda’s acknowledgment at the film’s close that this was ‘the one time I let my heart rule my head’.

Emmie and ‘Charlotte’ are also women in peril. Of all the women in the film, Emmie is the most vulnerable to Teddy’s manipulation. Teddy is well aware of the type of woman he can target. When Teddy tells ‘Charlotte’ that he knew she was not keen on him, he explains that ‘I know who I appeal to and who I don’t’. He says that Freda was susceptible as they belong to the same class, and Molly because of her advanced age. Emmie qualifies on both counts. She is shown to occupy a lower class than even the ‘vulgar’ Freda. When they are introduced, Emmie seems unsure of how to address Freda, advising her to ‘come this way, lady’. Furthermore, as an employee, she is dependent on the Bares for the roof over her head. When Teddy learns he has not been left money in Molly’s will he tells Emmie she will have to find another home. Her reply ‘but this is my home’ touchingly underlines her helpless situation.

Teddy proceeds to further outline Emmie’s difficulties: she is too old to find another job. Despite her advanced age, Emmie has a childlike innocence.  Both Molly and Teddy when asking her to leave the room, or to get on with a job she has been given, tell her to ‘toddle’.  She is not only easily manipulated by Teddy in terms of her legacy, but is persuaded by him to tell Freda of his and Molly’s previous happiness – to give the recent widow hope.  Both Freda and Molly’s lawyer Phillip Mortimer (Robert Flemyng) comment on the fact that Emmie seems ‘simple’. Emmie’s trusting nature means that she is a risk to Teddy since while she is loyal to him, she may give away information without realising it. She has already guilelessly praised Teddy in Phillip’s presence for helping her to practice the evidence she later gave at Molly’s inquest.  Indeed, Phillip says that he hopes he will get the truth about Teddy’s guilt through Emmie since she has lived in the Bares’ house throughout. In turn this places Emmie at risk from Teddy.

In fact, it is another woman who causes for the truth to be revealed. Towards the end of the film ‘Charlotte’ unwittingly places herself in danger when she visits what she thinks is the Bares’ empty house in her quest for evidence. She enters the shadowy hall as the clock strikes. This invokes a sense that ‘Charlotte’ has come to mete out justice and it is a time of reckoning for Teddy. She is certainly a determined woman. When Teddy reveals that he knows ‘Charlotte’s’ true identity (partly because she was familiar with the house’s layout and idiosyncrasies), and admits to murdering her sister, her concern is for Freda. She stands up to Teddy, refusing to leave, and only departing when Freda returns and asks her to go.  ‘Charlotte’ even risks her life again, coming back to the house to make sure others know of his guilt. From here, ‘Charlotte’ witnesses Teddy’s escape and hears him crash her car: his tampering with her brakes has backfired.

We also briefly considered the film in relation to Margaret Lockwood’s screen image. Her appearances in Gainsborough melodramas in the 1940s (such as the aristocratic and adventurous Barbara in Leslie Arliss’ 1945 film The Wicked Lady) helped to ensure her status as a top box office draw during the decade. (You can see a summary of our discussion on The Wicked Lady here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/02/03/summary-of-discussion-on-the-wicked-lady/) Lockwood’s 1950s films were less successful, as Cast a Dark Shadow director Lewis Gilbert commented in later years (Brian McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, An Autobiography of British Cinema, 1997, p. 221). Lockwood is still afforded a star entrance in Cast a Dark Shadow, however. She enters the film about a third of the way in, sweeping down the stairs at the tearoom in which Teddy is lying in wait. Post-production publicity downplayed Lockwood’s involvement though.  Bogarde later noted that he was initially placed under Lockwood in the film’s billing, until it was realised that ‘her name had killed it’ (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70). Gilbert echoes these sentiments, noting that the attachment of Lockwood’s name was ‘counter-productive’ (McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). Both Bogarde and Gilbert opined it a shame that Lockwood’s ‘great’ performance was not appreciated by audiences (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). Lockwood did not appear in another feature film for over twenty years, though she stated in a 1973 interview that she was ‘glad’ to have played the role. (McFarlane, p. 374, quoting from Eric Braun ‘The Indestructibles’, Films and Filming, September 1973, p. 38.) This is supported by the fact that the next year Lockwood repeated her role in a now-believed lost TV version, co-starring Derek Farr the originator of the role of Teddy on stage.

Due to our Bogarde-focus we also discussed Bogarde’s role in the film – both on and off.  As noted in previous blog posts on the films we have screened, Bogarde’s character in Cast a Dark Shadow is repulsive and also coded as of the working classes (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/11/21/summary-of-discussion-on-libel/_) Chronologically the film can be placed between previously screened films Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton) and Libel (1959, Anthony Asquith). Both of these films afforded Bogarde the opportunity to be simultaneously villainous and vulnerable. Cast a Dark Shadow in fact returns him to his smaller earlier role as a low-class criminal who kills George Dixon (of Dock Green fame) in The Blue Lamp (1950, Basil Dearden).

The film should also be placed in the context of Bogarde’s other films released in 1955. Simba (Brian Desmond Hurst) was an adventure story, and Doctor at Sea (Ralph Thomas) the second in a comedy series. The latter is an especially important part of Bogarde’s screen image which the melodrama research group has had little chance to explore. The significance of the series to Bogarde’s screen image at the time is implied by a letter from a member of the public published in the 24th September 1955 issue of UK fan magazine Picturegoer. Miss E Smyth asked ‘Can’t Dirk Bogarde have a really dramatic role to prove himself an actor as well as a much-admired star?’ (p. 30). While we cannot be sure this was from a real person, it comments on an awareness of Bogarde’s increasingly frequent appearances in comedies and ties kudos for acting to dramatic performances. Picturegoer’s response is also instructive: ‘But picturegoers used to complain that Bogarde had too many dramatic, hunted-by-police roles…’  Cast a Dark Shadow therefore supplies a useful contrast to both comedies (the Doctor series) and man-on-the run films like Hunted.

We also noted that Bogarde’s later screen image (his role in Basil Dearden’s Victim, 1961), as well as his star image (knowledge of his personal life) influenced a specific aspect our reading of his character in Cast a Dark Shadow. When Teddy is waiting for Freda at the seaside tearoom he is reading a men’s health magazine which has a semi-naked man on its cover. Perusing such a publication might be thought to indicate a preference for men. Given Teddy’s first marriage to a woman much older than himself, his somewhat camp eyebrow-raising, and revelations later in the film about some of his earlier behaviour, we contemplated his sexuality. This is not clear-cut. Teddy’s pursuit of Freda is for business rather than pleasure, though he seems gratified when she refuses separate bedrooms and points out that she has not married him for companionship. His narcissism leaves little room for anyone other than himself.

As well as considering where Cast a Dark Shadow fits with Bogarde’s screen and star images we pondered how much he contributed to the role.  Bogarde was apparently approached by Janet Green to appear in her original play (McFarlane, Gilbert Interview, p. 221). This suggests that the character was written with Bogarde in mind for both stage and screen. He has stated that the ‘unwholesomeness’ of the character was appealed to him and made it fun (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70) even though we might think it allowed for less nuance. Lockwood was persuaded to undertake her role by Bogarde (McFarlane, Bogarde Interview, p. 70; McFarlane, p. 374, quoting Lockwood in Braun, ‘The Indestructibles’, p. 38). This therefore reveals Bogarde’s wider influence in the production of the film, cautioning us not to assume passivity on the part of a star and to acknowledge the many people are involved in realising a director’s vision.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.

Summary of Discussion on Number 13

Our discussion of Number 13 ranged from the character of the protagonist, Professor Anderson (Greg Wise), his standing in society and how the episode tackled the issue of class, the MR James original short story, both texts’ effectiveness as examples of the ghost story, the male and female gothic, and related texts.

Some of our first comments concerned the initial pomposity of Professor Anderson (Greg Wise). We noted his insistence that his proper title be used, especially when introducing himself at the city hotel in which he stays while researching some old manuscripts. Anderson would have been privileged compared to many in society, most likely attending public school if he later went to an Oxbridge college. It is significant that the only title he has is an academic – and indeed professional – one. He has earned this, rather than inherited it from previous generations.

The fact that when strange occurrences start to happen to him Anderson accuses others of playing tricks also raises the matter of class. He is sure of himself and, rather than doubting his sanity, assumes that others are persecuting him. We thought this spoke to class anxiety – the worry that those of the new middle classes did not know their place. The theorists Anthony Vidler and Terry Castle’s ideas on the uncanniness of the middle classes were discussed by the group.

Indeed, class played a large part in the adaptation, with Anderson compared to some of the other characters. Anderson is clearly higher status than the hotel landlord, Gunton (David Burke), since he is a customer. He is also distrustful of the silent porter, Thomas (Anton Saunders), appearing rude to him on occasion. The character of Jenkins (Tom Burke), a lawyer, was especially drawn in class terms. We hear and then see him slurping his soup and his easy manner with one of the female guests, Alice (Charlotte Comer) causes Anderson jealousy – especially when we have the impression that Anderson is unhappy that such an inferior male has proved popular with a woman he seems to have romantic interest in.

Anderson’s desire is further expressed through a brief dream sequence. Alice is seen lingering near Anderson’s bed chamber, intercut shots of the bed hangings and paintings depicting naked men and women and various flora and fauna. We thought this conveyed Anderson’s repression well. The very brief appearance of Alice in his dream is probably the most interaction he has with her during the episode. In addition, he lacks the imagination to picture her in a nightgown – she wears the dress and earrings she appeared in earlier in the night when her flirting between with Jenkins seemed so distasteful to Anderson.  But there is another possible reading. The two men wake up together in a double bed, apparently for safety’s sake, after they and the landlord experience terrifying happenings. We wondered if this was a queering of the text, since Anderson has gained not just homosocial knowledge (the next morning he seems more human, his pomposity punctured he is able to joke with Jenkins), but also perhaps experienced and been the object of homosexual desire. Perhaps Anderson’s earlier jealousy was directed towards Jenkins and not Alice. Both Anderson and Jenkins were inordinately interested in what they thought was going on in the other’s room.

The presence of female characters in the TV version (though it removed mention of Jenkins’ wife and family) was a departure from MR James’ original short story. In addition to this expansion, moving the setting of the story from Denmark to a class-conscious English city seems to draw out this issue far more. The character in the episode seems far more pompous than in MR James’ short story, and has indeed been gifted the title of Professor, so that he can insist on others using it. There were also some particularly visual elements which conveyed Anderson’s class which were less obvious on the page. Anderson was often seen in his professorial pince nez, and we especially noted his impeccable dinner suit.

There was much discussion about the character of the cathedral archivist, Mr Harrington (Paul Freeman). While he is a minor character in the short story, his role is expanded in the TV version. In this, Anderson researches the ‘Bishop’s House’ at which witchcraft was said to have been committed by a man called Nicolas Francken, and which is revealed to be the hotel in which Anderson is staying. We thought that Harrington had far more knowledge of the Bishop’s House and Francken than he revealed to Anderson. We remembered that Anderson had told Harrington that he was staying in a hotel which was so superstitious it did not include a room 13. However, when Anderson met Harrington in town and discovered from Harrington that the Bishop’s House was still standing, Harrington did not tell him that it was the hotel in which Anderson was staying. It is suspicious that Anderson finds a sealed letter in the archive which he steals, but later replaces, only to not find it again. We also thought there was possibly a portal between the hotel and the library. Furthermore, we saw a resemblance between Harrington, the shadowy figure who appears on the wall of Anderson’s room, and the ghostly figure of room 13. The latter was especially effectively conveyed, with flickering of the sound and the image recalling older technology (the pre-digital ‘snowy’ reception of some televisions). This poor signal transmission also prompted us to think of spiritualist séances.

We commented on the effectiveness of the TV episode. We thought it (and especially the shadowy figure and the flickering ghost in room 13) was good and scary. We were especially impressed by David Burke’s moving performance when he learned of the horrible fate suffered by an earlier ‘Cambridge man’ he believed had skipped out on his bill. However, the foreshadowing of this ‘revelation’ and the over-explanation on finding the man’s belongings seemed a little heavy-handed. This is far less the case in the short story. Conversely, we found that the changing of room 13’s physical dimensions was, surprisingly, subtler in the TV version, with the explanation for Anderson’s disappearing case (it had been subsumed into the newly appearing room 13) not obvious.

We pondered more the fact that Anderson never questions his own sanity in the face of such happenings, and especially contrasted this to the ‘usual’ doubting gothic heroines. Number 13 is comparable in some ways to Miss Christina (2013, Alexandru Mafeti). In our discussion of this film (which you can find here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2017/10/04/summary-of-discussion-on-miss-christina/) we noted that film’s couple, Egor (Tudor Aaron Istodor) and Sanda (Ioana Anastasia Anton), both occupied the position of heroine at various points in the narrative. Despite Number 13’s introduction of a female character, she remains minor, and the focus is on one character, Anderson. Anderson is very different to Egor in Miss Christina. While the former is a prissy and inexperienced scholar, the latter is a passionate, engaged painter. However, similarities to Miss Christina also occur. Anderson’s experiencing of the supernatural is shared by two other men – the landlord Gunton and the lawyer Jenkins. In Miss Christina, the painter Egor is also validated by two men, in his case a medical doctor and a professor of archaeology.

We commented that the equivalent of such fraternal confirmation is usually unavailable to a gothic heroine, since there are often fewer other women in gothic narratives.  Furthermore, women in gothic-set narratives (often taking place in the past) rarely have professions. The exceptions are the domestic roles of governess (The Innocents, 1961, Jack Clayton), housekeeper or companion (The Spiral Staircase, 1946, Robert Siodmak). Instead, heroines often enter the space of the gothic house through marriage, as new brides – in Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock), Gaslight (1940, Thorold Dickinson, 1944 George Cukor) etc.  Anderson, however, enters the gothic space of the hotel temporarily, as a man on academic business, which is less likely to be open to a woman travelling alone. Such a situation also occurs in The Woman in Black (2012, James Watkins), in which a lawyer (male, obviously, but also like Professor Anderson, middle-class), gains access to the gothic house for a short period because he is working on legal issues.

This clearly shows the separation existing between the male and female gothics. While the former centres on a man and uses horror and explanations for what occurs, the latter focuses on a woman and employs terror to invoke and convey a supposedly hysterical response to a woman’s situation.   Both Miss Christina and Number 13, focusing more on men, over-explain the cause of the supernatural. We weren’t sure if we approved of a man being the centre of a gothic story, as it is one of the few areas women occupy. While some may view them as passive heroines, it is significant that in our discussion of various films we have focused on the ways in which they take action.

Other texts we mentioned in relation to Number 13 were Ex Machina (2015, Alex Garland) (where the man is also the heroine). Aspects of film style were also referenced as we noted the whispering behind the walls reminded us of The Innocents, and the shadow on the wall of Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer).  Although we discussed class at length, we also picked up on the opposition between city and rural evinced in Number 13. Anderson is not only dismissive of the local superstition against the number 13, but seems to feel at risk when walking in the country, seeing local people gathered around burning bins. This particularly reminded us of  the sacrifice of the virgin outsider in The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy),  and of Shirley Jackson’s unsettling 1948 short story The Lottery.

If you would like to see some more MR James adaptations, and learn more about the man himself, BBC 4 is devoting Christmas Eve night to the author and his works. You can (re)view Number 13 at 10.40pm.

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

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.

Summary of Discussion on Black Book

Posted by Sarah

The discussion on Black Book ranged widely and encompassed: the film’s relationship to melodrama; the trope of the suffering woman; the family in melodrama; rhythm in melodrama and the film’s unending revelations of betrayals; the film’s characters Akkermans and Muntze; moral ambiguity; costume; women’s fluid identity/ies); melodrama and real life.

Black book Rachel Ellis sufferingWe began by isolating some of the elements which coincided with our understanding of melodrama. The continuous suffering of the main female character Rachel/Ellis (played by Carice van Houten) was especially noted. The group has commented on the suffering female(s) present in previous, and varied, screenings, including:  D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson 1940, George Cukor 1944), Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Twin Peaks (TV 1990-1991), and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Black Book RachelEllis bombingThe film begins in 1950s Israel but soon a triggered memory causes it to flash back to Nazi-occupied Holland in 1944. At his time Jewish Rachel Stein is separated from her real family and finds shelter with a Christian family.  Her relatively quiet existence is soon shattered as her hiding place is bombed when she is out, presumably along with its inhabitants. Rachel’s real family has been hiding elsewhere but soon they are reunited. This might at first appear coincidental (another important melodramatic trope which is also present elsewhere in the film) but is in fact explained away by a mutual acquaintance (her father’s solicitor Smaal) being aware of Rachel’s plans and informing her family.  Almost immediately after the family reunion Rachel witnesses the slaughter of her mother, father and brother just when they, and other Jewish families, seemed on the road to freedom. After losing her surrogate family and home then, Rachel’s suffering is heightened, indeed overtaken, by the loss of her real family.

The family is often central to melodrama, and it is also the case here since it prompts Rachel’s later action, and she relives this particularly traumatic scene. On the first occasion this is implicit. In Rachel’s new, non-Jewish, identity of Ellis de Vries she has joined the Dutch resistance. These defend themselves against Nazi soldiers, gunning them down, and then stripping their bodies of useful uniforms. This reminds the viewer of the earlier scene since after the slaughter of the Jewish families the Nazi soldiers divest them of their jewellery.  The connection is reinforced as Rachel/Ellis can only stand by as a mute witness as both events occur.  Later on, a powerful reaction to again Black Book RachelEllisrelivingseeing the man who was responsible for Rachel/Ellis’ family’s slaughter is indicated not just physically (Rachel/Ellis runs to the cloakroom to vomit) but psychologically: the film provides a flashback of the earlier scene, from Rachel’s point of view.

Black Book RachelEllis and Muntze at stationRachel/Ellis’ suffering is not confined to these awful events, however. She suffers more as she witnesses some of her new friends being caught by the secret police. Rachel/Ellis also suffers conflict by falling in love with the high-ranking Nazi official, Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch), she has been sent to spy on after meeting him, by chance, on a train and charming him. Tellingly the first scene of their lovemaking is accompanied not by a lush romantic score, but one more indicative of danger, danger Rachel/Ellis (and to an extent) Muntze, cannot for a moment disregard.  Rachel/Ellis later suffers as Muntze is arrested and sentenced to death, and she is imprisoned after a botched attempt to rescue him. Another Nazi official, Gunther Franken (played by Waldemar Kobus), inflicts further suffering as he leads stages a scene within the hearing  of a ‘secret’ microphone Ellis previously hid. This leads Rachel/Ellis’ friends to think she has betrayed them, and is a further level of suffering: others’ belief in her good character is taken from her.  Rachel/Ellis and Muntze later escape together, enjoy a few moments of rare  domestic bliss on a boat, but are captured after confronting Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal with suspicions of corruption. Franken’s destruction of Ellis’ good name has practical consequences too.  After peace has been declared she is rounded up with other traitors and detained, beaten and humiliated.  Finally she hears that her lover Muntze has been killed. This is tellingly the moment at which she actually lets her emotions out, collapsing to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably and rhetorically asking ‘when does it end?’ Even the film’s conclusion, which returns to a time in the 1950s just after Rachel’s flashback has begun, follows the pattern of a momentary respite before suffering again intrudes. After a brief happy moment with her husband and children we can see that another war rages around them.

We thought that Rachel/Ellis’ continual suffering fitted Matt Buckley’s description of melodrama’s often relentless ‘rhythm’ when he gave a research talk the other week. Further relation to earlier theatrical melodrama, specifically Victorian, was suggested as the ‘Jerries’  were a force outside of the characters’ control, much like fate.  The film’s numerous false reveals of the person who betrayed the whereabouts of the Jewish families can also be seen to be connected to the notion of rhythm. First the ‘friendly’ secret policeman Van Gein is suspected. While he is indeed revealed to be working with the Nazis, he is not the traitor.  Next Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal is accused. He and his wife are immediately killed however, with Muntze chasing after the offender, but only Black Book Rachel Ellis collapsesucceeding in being caught himself. Finally Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a Doctor and key resistance figure, is unmasked as the man responsible. He foolishly does this himself after attempting to kill Rachel/Ellis with an injection of insulin, but not waiting for it to take full effect.

The scene ends when Black Book RachelEllis crowd surfingRachel/Ellis manages to grasp some chocolate which rather ironically Akkermans had earlier given her and is able to reverse the effects of the insulin. She then, somewhat implausibly, escapes by rushing past Akkermans who is addressing the crowd from his balcony, and throwing herself into the mob below. (On a side note we also found the ambiguity of Rachel/Ellis’ motives here intriguing: was she bent on survival or destruction?) Nearer the film’s beginning Rachel/Ellis had told Akkermans that a friend of hers used to eat chocolate when he had over-injected with insulin. This is an example of the film’s fairly-heavy handed use of foreshadowing. Another key example occurs in relation to Akkermans. Earlier in the film Akkermans, to the delight of his resistance colleagues, mocks Hitler by donning a makeshift toothbrush moustache and speaking in a mock-German accent. Now he is indeed corrupted by power, with a very high opinion of himself, and is addressing the crowd as a leader might.

Akkermans is certainly a complex character. Some of  this is linked to narrative necessity –  he must appear one thing while actually being another, and do so convincingly as the film works its way through unmasking its variety of different ‘villains’.  This leads to perceived emotional complexity – has he always been corrupt, or been made corrupt through necessity and/or power? We found the character of Muntze more interesting, however. Although a high-ranking Nazi official he is even less the wholly bad villain of melodrama. Muntze is redeemed by the film in several ways. The first of these, which ties him closely to Rachel/Ellis, is that he too has been affected by the loss of his family. His wife and children were bombed by the British. The film also shows Muntze attempting to institute a ceasefire with the resistance. Furthermore, he does not betray Rachel/Ellis to the authorities when she confesses her true identity and purpose.

It was also commented upon that the actor playing the ‘nice’ Nazi Muntze (Sebastian Koch) was attractive, while the actor playing the ‘nasty’ Nazi Franken (Waldemar Kobus) was less easy on the eye. This led to further discussion about the ambiguity of the film’s, and its characters’, morality. The way in which those thought to have betrayed their country by collaborating with the Nazis were treated – Rachel/Ellis’ and others’ humiliation – was lingered on by the film, rather than evaded. Some in the group wanted Rachel/Ellis and Gerben Kuipers (a resistance man who had lost his son because of Akkermans’ betrayal) to take the moral high ground after they had tracked him down. Instead, Rachel/Ellis used the point of her locket containing family pictures to screw down his coffin lid in order to suffocate him – a poetic revenge. Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers discuss the fact that they should let Akkermans live. Neither does, despiteBlack Book RachelEllis and Kuipers Rachel/Ellis’ earlier agreement with Smaal that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. One of them notes that Hans has gone quiet and we might presume he has died. It was thought that some uncertainty, however, allowed Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers some moral leeway.

Black Book RachelEllis red dressCostume also featured in our discussion. We questioned the historical accuracy of some of the outfits, especially the women’s.  However of more concern to us was the symbolism of the costumes. The floor-length leather coasts and jack boots which singled out the most high-ranking officers are especially iconic and were easy to identify. In most cases their presence immediately signalled a character’s loyalties and standing, though Muntze was an exception. Rachel/Ellis’s costumes were of particular interest. It was telling that a few in the group who had seen the film before had misremembered the colour of a dress Rachel/Ellis wears at one point. Rachel/Ellis leaves a party she is attending to crawl though the coal store and allow her comrades access to the Nazi’s underground prison. The dress she wears was remembered by some as being white, though it was in fact red. It was thought that this was because white is linked to notions of innocence and that is how we view Rachel/Ellis. The red dress of course has other connotations – to do with passion, desire and sex. This led to further discussion of women’s costumes. We especially noted that Rachel/Ellis and her fellow worker Ronnie use clothing as part of the wiles they rely on to survive from day to day. Rachel/Ellis’ decision to wear to work a see-through blouse which revealed her underwear highlighted this. We further noted the fluid identity of these two main female characters – they have to morph and adapt. Ronnie was very interesting in this regardBlack Book RachelEllis and Ronnie dance as she was revealed to be more scheming than we might have been anticipated: she affects Rachel/Ellis’ and Muntze’s joint escape from prison. We wanted to know more about her, especially as her presence in Israel and recognition of Rachel/Ellis sparked the film’s extended flash back. What was Ronnie’s story?

Whose story is the film based on?’ was another question we asked. The opening credits assert that it is ‘based on a true story’. The film’s many coincidences and revelations may make this seem unlikely. But it chimes again with Matt Buckley’s recent talk. In this he emphasised the increasing relevance of melodrama not just to art, but to lived modern experience.

Many thanks to Tamar for choosing this rich film, especially apt due to the School of Arts upcoming trip to Amsterdam.

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

Gaslight (1940) Showing at the Gulbenkian Cinema on 9th of Feb

Posted by Sarah

The third film in the Gulbenkian Cinema’s Gothic Season – Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight (1940) – will screen on Sunday the 9th of Feb at 3pm.

Gaslight UK

The Gulbenkian Cinema’s description of the film:

Thorold Dickinson | UK | 1940 | 82mins | Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard, Frank  Pettingell, Robert Newton

A powerful Gothic melodrama of domestic sadism and  psychological suspense, now presented in a sparkling digital restoration. Not  to be confused with George Cukor’s film of the same name – the second  adaptation of novelist/dramatist Patrick Hamilton’s play, and more well-known  until now, as MGM famously tried to suppress the competition – this suspenseful,  stylish classic from Thorold Dickinson (The  Queen of Spades) is an absolute treat.

Diana Wynyard  and Anton Walbrook are Bella and Paul, the young couple settling into a new  house when Bella begins to lose things and becomes fearful when the gaslights  go dim in the middle of the night and she hears footsteps above her head. Fer  husband begins to question her judgement, and Bella herself begins to feel that  her sanity is slipping away. But there is a deception in play – and the key is  in the history of the house itself.

“Walbrook [gives] a brilliant, seething performance” David Thomson, The Guardian

“Sadism propels Thorold Dickinson’s exquisite Victorian  thriller of 1940” Graham Fuller, Artsdesk.com

For more information and to book your ticket please go to:

http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/events/cinema/2014/February/2014-02-gaslight.html

Posts on the Melodrama Research Group’s discussion on this film and the Hollywood remake:

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/14/melodrama-screening-20th-march-jarman-7-5-7-pm/

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/26/melodrama-screening-and-discussion-3rd-april-jarman-7-5-7pm/

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/04/05/summary-of-discussion-on-gaslight/

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/04/05/gaslight-links/

Reflections on the Last Academic Year

Posted by Sarah

It would be useful to draw together some of our group’s activities and discussion on melodrama over the last 9 months. I’ve added my own thoughts below which ended up being far more fulsome than originally intended!), but do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to include your ideas. It would be great if people provided their own overviews, or a detailed focus on an element (such as the definition of melodrama or a specific film) which especially interested them.

8 Events Magnificent ObsessionWe were very fortunate to begin the academic year with a Research Seminar at which Birmingham School of Media’s Dr John Mercer (co-author, with Martin Shingler, of Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility, 2004) presented. John’s talk ‘Acting and Behaving Like a Man: Rock Hudson’s Performance Style’ focused on Hudson’s ‘behaving’ in several Douglas Sirk melodramas:  Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956). This provided us with some great insights into probably the most referenced Hollywood director of film melodramas as well as underlining the close relationship between melodrama and performance.

11 Events Tea & Sympathy Beach

 

Nottingham Trent University’s Dr Gary Needham also presented at a fascinating Research Seminar. In ‘Revisiting Tea and Sympathy (1956): Minnelli, Hollywood, Homosexuality’. Gary, like John, explored the work of specific Hollywood director associated with melodrama: in this case Vincente Minnelli. Gary’s work interestingly opened up debate on gender relations and sexuality with a sensitive re-reading of Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy.

In our fortnightly meetings since January we have broadened out from this focus on 1950s Hollywood melodrama. We have screened a surprisingly wide variety of films with connections to melodrama, which hailed from France, Britain, the US, and Hong Kong and stretched from the silent cinema of the 1900s to contemporary film of the 2000s. We have also organised a very enjoyable and useful read through of a play.

We started with debate on the male melodrama by referencing Steve Neale’s reconsideration of melodrama in ‘Melo Talk’.  Neale argued that unlike the 1970s The Narrow Marginfeminists who wrote on melodrama in relation to the ‘women’s film’, trade press from Hollywood’s Studio Era was more likely to attach the term ‘melodrama’ to films with male-focused themes, such as film noir. Viewing Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) which was hailed at its time of release as a ‘Suspense Melodrama’ allowed us to engage with Neale’s argument in a practical as well as theoretical way.

son of the SheikBut melodrama is more usually thought of as being related to suffering.  The American Film Institute defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm). In keeping with this, we screened George Melford’s The Sheik (1921). The Sheik and the next film, Robert Z. Leonard’s The The DivorceeDivorcee (1930), were more closely related to traditional notions of melodrama focused on by feminists in the 1970s. Both of these centred on melodramatic plots and had suffering women at their hearts. Though the earlier film presented events in a more melodramatic way, partly due to the type of acting which is thought to predominate in the silent era.

Our screening of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) opened out our discussion to animation. Once more the melodramatic plot was in place, though we did note that the use of comedy tempered the melodramatic elements.

snow white 1

 

Gaslight UKShowing two versions of Gaslight – the British film directed1 Welcome Gaslight by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the Hollywood remake helmed by Gorge Cukor in 1944 – allowed us to compare examples from two major film industries. In terms of melodrama the same, or at least a similar, story being told in different ways was especially illuminating. The plot underpinning both is melodramatic, but the polished approach of Hollywood was strikingly different to the ‘blood and thunder’ uppermost in Dickinson’s film. The Gothic subgenre of these films also provided much discussion.

Love on the Dole 2Weekly activities in the Summer Term provided us with scope to show more, and some longer, films. We began with John Baxter’s Love on the Dole (1941) which fascinatingly combined a melodramatic plot with the aesthetics of social realism. Its unusual, downbeat, approach was highlighted by the films we screened the following week: George Melies’ Barbe-Bleu (1901), D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913) and Lois Weber’s The Mothering HeartSuspense (1913). Showing some very early short melodramas by French and American film pioneers George enabled us to directly compare films from cinema’s earlier days, afforded us the opportunity of watching the work of a female director which seems apt given melodrama’s usual focus on the female, and provoked thoughts regarding the use of suspense and restraint.

Poltergeist 2The screening of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) turned the group’s attention to horror. This provided us with an opportunity to assess the way melodrama works with, and amongst, other related genres. Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Happy Together tangoTogether (1997) proved to be another surprising, but interesting choice for discussion. The clearly melodramatic plot concerning two young lovers’ trials was presented, at times, in a documentary style. This was thought to be revealing of melodrama’s inherent variety.

A read-through of Frederick and Walter Melville’s 1903 play A Girl’s Cross Roads returned us to more traditional notions of melodrama. The plot and the performances (at least when ‘performed’ by us!) were certainly over the top, with suffering central to the play.

16 Links The Girl who Lost her Character

Our most recent screening of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) proved very useful as it was a thoughtful meditation on melodrama especially in its parodying of the genre and Hollywood films of the 1950s.

In addition to our screenings and the read through we have been contacted by the BFI who are staging an event about melodrama in 2015. They intend to screen 50 unmissable melodramas. We compiled our own list of 50 unmissable melodramas (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/03/the-bfi-and-50-unmissable-melodramas/) which we had reduced from the longer list of 225 titles (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/03/unmissable-melodramas-the-long-list/) We are currently working through (and adding to!) these. We also plan to widen out further from film melodrama by engaging with theatre, television and radio(see the next post on Summer Activities for more information).

The Melodrama Research Group is busy working on several events: a screening of Midnight Lace (1960) in September, a forthcoming Symposium, a Festival, a Trip and is looking into Publishing Opportunities.