And so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Walk (2015) – Robert Zemeckis’s attempt to turn thirty-five million dollars, the full cutting-edge apparatus of digital and 3D filmmaking, a talented cast and a thrilling story of a daring Gallic tightrope-walker who is also something of a dick, into a tin-eared, lumbering hodgepodge of edge-of-the-seat thrills and ballyhoo-dressed-up-as-self-reflexivity – is not the conjuration of a lost Paris that aims for the joyfulness of early Godard, would settle for the psychotic whimsy of Amélie (2001), falls short of Bertolucci’s genuinely godawful The Dreamers (2003) but just about achieves Team America: World Police (2004), nor is it the fabulously ridiculous haircut the as-always adorable Joseph Gordon-Levitt is forced to sport, nor is it the ominous appearance of The Dread Red-Eyed Seagull of Doom, here manifesting as a badly drawn cartoon, no, the best thing about The Walk is the way it distracts from the otherwise and as-always excellent JGL’s woeful French accent by the cunning – nay, bravura – casting of Ben Kingsley, who can do neither a Czech nor a French accent, as a Czech with a French accent…
[This is one of several pieces written for a book on adaptations that has never appeared]
Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac/The Hands of Orlac (1920), adapted as Orlacs Hände (Robert Wiene 1924), Mad Love (Karl Freund 1935) and The Hands of Orlac aka Hands of the Strangler (Edmond T. Gréville 1960)
A mad scientist replaces the badly injured hands of a concert pianist with those of a recently executed murderer, but the hands possess the pianist, turning him into a killer. As this typical, but inaccurate, synopsis suggests, The Hands of Orlac is one of those stories that everyone thinks they know but few actually do. This is not inappropriate, since Renard’s novel, and to a lesser extent its adaptations, are structured around the (mis)interpretation of events and the actions that flow from partial or mistaken knowledge.
The novel is the most difficult of the variants to synopsise. This is not because it is necessarily more intricate and nuanced than any of the adaptations – which would be hard to judge anyway. Maurice Renard is an infrequently and poorly translated author, and neither of the translations of Les Mains d’Orlac (Florence Crewe-Jones (1929), Iain White (1981)) have a particularly good reputation. Orlacs Hände exists only in a truncated version, about 150 metres (two minutes) having been lost. After Mad Love’s initial release, MGM cut fifteen minutes of footage, including Isabel Jewell’s entire performance, which seems to have been lost. According to most sources, The Hands of Orlac, was released in France with a runtime of 104 minutes and in the UK of 95 minutes; there is also a US cut of 84 minutes, from which Donald Pleasance’s single scene as a sculptor is absent, although his name appears in the credits, and in which the admittedly brief performance of Sir Donald Wolfit as Orlac’s surgeon is reduced to a single line of dialogue. (I will discuss the English cut, but make some reference to a slightly longer French-language version which appears on the Spanish DVD and whose existence casts some doubt on whether there was ever a version as long as 104 minutes).
The difficulty of synopsising the novel arises from the nature of its composition and initial publication as a feuilleton in 58 daily instalments in the mass-circulation Parisian evening newspaper, L’Intransigeant (May 15–July 12, 1920). It was not uncommon for feuilletonists to write at great speed, and for instalments to appear within days or even hours. This often produced an improvisational style of fiction into which characters, events and ideas were mixed without the consequences necessarily being fully worked out, generating contradictions to be reconciled and loose ends to be tied up (or not). The Surrealists considered such frequently dreamlike fiction as a kind of automatic writing, especially when it was bizarre, fantastic or mysterious, or evoked Freudian themes (although there seems to be no connection between Mad Love and André Breton’s L’Amour fou (1937)).
Renard is little known to Anglophone readers, but ‘most European and French-Canadian sf scholars hold’ his work ‘in very high esteem’, and he has been described as the most important French sf writer of the first third of the twentieth century (Evans 380). Despite its pulpiness, Les Mains d’Orlac – with its play on perception and perspective, its self-reflexiveness about mass media and its shock-of-modernity concern with industrial catastrophe, dismemberment, somnambulism, automatism and the externalisation of the self through such semiotic technologies as handwriting, fingerprinting, typewriters and gramophones – should be considered alongside works by Daniel Paul Schreber, Winsor McCay, Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz in terms of its ability to capture something of the phantasmagorical nature of life in capitalist-industrial modernity. Indeed, it is unsurprising to find Friedrich A. Kittler fascinated by Renard’s ‘Death and the Shell’ (1907), which he describes as a ‘constellation’ of ‘phonography, notation, and a new eroticism’ (51) and as the first in ‘a long series of literary phantasms that rewrite eroticism itself under the conditions of gramophony and telephony’ (56).
Les Mains d’Orlac opens with a preamble in which the narrator excuses the novel’s artless construction, although the limited perspective – it is mostly told from Madame Rosine Orlac’s viewpoint and in strict chronological order – is absolutely essential to the effectiveness with which the reader is placed in a position of uncertainty about the nature of the events described. Are they supernatural or the product of sinister human agents? Is Rosine hallucinating, her reason becoming unhinged?
Awaiting her husband’s return from a concert in Nice, Rosine is filled with foreboding. His train crashes, killing many. Rosine finally finds him, buried beneath a corpse in the wreckage, with a fractured skull and other injuries. She races him back to Paris so that he can be treated by the famous Doctor Cerral. Athough she is warned that there is something unsavoury about Cerral, he appears to her as a kind of superhuman figure, saving Stephen’s life and apparently restoring his mangled hands. However, as Stephen convalesces, Rosine grows increasingly troubled. Since the night of the crash she has been haunted by a phantasm, whom she dubs Spectropheles. Anxious about Stephen’s restless sleep, she enters his room and sees one of his nightmares externalised, a montage of images floating in the air: Stephen’s hands are poised over a piano from which he draws a knife with an X carved in its handle; blood drips from the blade; the blade becomes that of a guillotine hanging over his head…
Stephen became a pianist against his father’s wishes. Subsequently, Edouard Orlac has refused to have anything to do with him and has fallen increasingly under the sway of his servants, Crépin and Hermance. His obsession with spiritualism is shared with Monsieur de Crochans, an impoverished artist who once had the potential to become a successful portraitist but instead turned to decadence, impressionism, and now ‘“psychic painting’ … ‘“portraits of souls” and “mental landscapes”’ (Renard 1981, 44). de Crochans, who has slowly been effecting a reconciliation between father and son, becomes Rosine’s confidant, explaining away the externalised nightmare as ‘Ideoplasty! … a fragmentary apparition of his astral body, that phantasm of the living’ (74).
When Stephen is finally well enough to be brought home, they arrive to find an X-handled knife stuck in their apartment door (Rosine also sees Spectropheles). Already distraught, Stephen becomes increasingly depressed at his inability to play the piano. Cerral recommends courses of ‘massage, gymnastics, electrotherapy’ (90), as much for their psychological effect as for any likely success in making Stephen’s hands sufficiently flexible and dextrous to return to his career. Stephen adopts such treatments with a mania, and Rosine keeps to herself how deeply he is digging into their limited finances. It soon reaches the point when she must sell her jewels, but when she opens her locked jewel-box, they are missing, replaced by the calling card of La Bande Infra-Rouge. Is there a connection with Spectropheles? Does the X on the knife handles signal X-Rays? Is the Infra-red gang somehow using an invisible part of the spectrum to move through solids and get past locks? Rosine doubts her fevered hypotheses, but becomes increasingly anxious about their share certificates, whose value is plummeting due to a market slump. One night she intrudes upon a burglar (who cannot possibly be in their apartment), only to find that certificates safe and the jewels returned.
Rosine discovers that Stephen has found more X-handled knives (which, when distressed, he throws into his studio door) and been receiving notes from La Bande Infra-Rouge, telling him that ‘The TEN … require blood’ (164). Does the X stand for ten? Are there ten members of the gang? Rosine conspires with de Crochans to speed Stephen and Edouard’s reconciliation by getting him to take an interest in spiritualism, and de Crochans decides to try to work a kind of psychoanalytical cure, using the tricks of fake mediums to dig into Stephen’s subconscious mind. On the eve of what he feels will be his certain success, de Crochans is murdered, apparently strangled by a life-size artist’s dummy into which he and Stephen had been summoning the spirits of murderers. The crime-reporter, Gaston Breteuil, who ostensibly narrates the novel, becomes Rosine’s new confidant.
Financial ruin looms. Stephen goes to beg for Edouard’s help, only to find him murdered with an X-handled knife. Inspector Cointre recognises the X-shaped wounds, made by plunging the knife in twice, as the work of Vasseur, a recently guillotined multiple murderer whose fingerprints are on the knife. Apparently, when Vasseur had been summoned during a séance, his luminous, knife-wielding hand killed Edouard, but Cointre suspects the fingerprints were planted there from a moulding on a rubber glove. Mysteriously, the calling card of La Bande Infra-Rouge is found in Edouard’s strongbox.
A stranger accosts Stephen, describing how Cerral had obtained the body of Vasseur fresh from the guillotine and transplanted his hands onto Stephen (who has known this for some time). The stranger describes how he has been manipulating Stephen: the externalised nightmare was a cinematographic projection; the Orlacs’ maid, Régina, has been planting the knives and messages, as well as using Stephen’s typewriter to produce notes that will incriminate him in his father’s murder. The stranger wants a million francs from Stephen’s inheritance to not reveal his ‘guilt’ – and as a payment for his hands. He claims to be Vasseur, his head reattached by Cerral’s assistant and his hands replaced with the crude metal prosthetics that crushed the life from de Crochans. Stephen agrees to pay up in exchange for the gloves with Vasseur’s moulded fingerprints.
Stephen tells Rosine everything, and between them they manage to explain away all the mysterious goings on – for example, Stephen took the jewels so that he could secretly get his rings enlarged to fit his new hands – except for the appearances of Spectropheles (who she finally decides is an intermittently appearing form of scotomy, the image left on the retina after staring at a bright object). Rosine insists that they inform the police so that Vasseur can be recaptured, but when he is, he is revealed to be the criminal Eusebio Nera. Cointre realises that the rubber glove is at least two years old, which means that Vasseur was executed for murders he did not commit and that Stephen’s ‘hands are undefiled’ (301).
Even such a lengthy synopsis omits much of the concatenated material that gives the novel its distinctive texture – as do the adaptations. Orlacs Hände shifts the narrative focus away from Yvonne (as Rosine is renamed) and onto Paul (as Stephen is renamed). However, it does not do so until after she has recovered his mangled body from the train wreck. Wolfgang Schivelbusch describes the train crash as the exemplary experience of an industrial modernity that frequently renders the human body vulnerable by placing it in an environment of mass and speed. David J. Skal argues that the obsession with mutilation and amputation in horror movies of the 1920s and 1930s articulates the increased incidence, presence and visibility of such damaged bodies after World War One. The extraordinary first section of Renard’s novel – with its emphasis on speed, collision, dismemberment, agglomeration, confusion, the desubjectivation of corpses, the intermingling of the living and the dead – conjoins the battlefield with the everyday experience of modernity. Although Wiene’s film simplifies the action, it achieves a similar effect: Yvonne’s car races through a pitch-black night, its headlights making little impression on the darkness pooled around it, while the flaring of other lights add to the apocalyptic depiction of the wreckage, obscured by night, clouds of steam and milling crowds, which culminates in a diegetic spotlight that scans back and forth across the devastation becoming eye-like when pointing directly at the camera.
The shift of focus onto Paul transforms the film into a star vehicle for Conrad Veidt (Wiene had already directed him in two remarkable performances as a gaunt Indian priest and the somnambulist Cesare in, respectively, the little-remembered Furcht (1917) and the Expressionist masterpiece, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)). Consequently, numerous incidents, including all the business with spiritualism and La Bande Infra-Rouge, and certain characters, including de Crochans, Hermance and Breteuil, were dropped, while Cerral becomes a genial, middle-aged man and the treachery of the maid, now called Regine, is revealed earlier and partially redeemed. The relationship between Paul and his father is reduced to a scene in which Yvonne begs from an aloof and monstrous figure who utterly rejects her pleas. Key incidents are reworked into single shots: rather than the jewel-theft shenanigans, Paul merely tries to put on his now-too-small wedding ring; the scene in which Rosine thinks she hears Stephen playing the piano, only to find him listening to a recording of an earlier performance, is replaced by one in which Paul briefly torments himself with the recording before smashing it. The externalised nightmare, retained so as to take advantage of its eerie spectacle, takes a rather different form. When Yvonne is trying to comfort Paul, he has a vision in which a head seems to be floating in mid-air – although it might just be someone looking in through the transom – but she sees nothing. Later, he has a nightmare about it. In a side-on long-shot, his bed is positioned in the lower left corner of the frame, suggesting the isolation and diminution of this once impressive figure. In the top right quadrant of the screen a cloud coalesces into the same disembodied head, giant-sized, and an enormous clenched fist reaches down diagonally across the screen towards the sleeping Paul, who wakes up screaming and finds a note telling him that he has been given the ‘hands of the executed robber and murderer Vasseur!’ (underlining in the original). The nightmare is externalised, but only for the audience, and as in the novel, it is done so through cinematic trickery.
Renard makes a couple of references to sleepwalking and frequently evokes the idea of automata, including a single-paragraph ‘mnemonic mirage’ (215) which alludes to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (1816), Prosper Mérimée’s ‘La Vénus d’Ille’ (1837), Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève future (1886), Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911) and real-life automata-makers Jacques de Vaucanson and Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. For Renard, the image of mechanized being is part of a broader critique of capitalist-industrial modernity which, to paraphrase Marx, makes subjects out of things and things out of subjects. This is emphasised when, on the morning after the crash, a broker arrives for an appointment to insure Stephen’s hands, just a few hours too late to do any good. In a similarly ironic vein, the Orlacs’ money always runs out at a slightly faster rate than Stephen’s hands recover, and a temporary slump in the market randomly devalues their property. Furthermore, in a proto-Frankfurt School critique of the culture industry, characters repeatedly compare their own actions and responses to those characters in fiction and film – at one point de Crochans begins to pat Rosine’s shoulder to comfort her, but just in time ‘he recalled that cinema actors never neglect the realistic detail … and, out of bashfulness, he ceased’ (60) – and at moments of heightened tension Rosine is often at least half-aware that she is struggling not to interpret fantastical events in the terms provided by pulp fictions and cinematic thrillers. Against a backdrop of such overdetermining powers, the living seem little different to the broken dead; and the hysterical pitch of Rosine’s narrative comes across as a frantic denial of such a reduction of human agency. Orlacs Hände displaces much of this critical potential onto its Expressionist aesthetics. Wiene utilises cavernous sets, often in long-shot, that are pooled in darkness and almost devoid of furniture apart from the occasional oddly diminished item. Other sets, dominated by statues or giant urns, resemble sketches of generic places, as if greater verisimilitude would distract from the inner turmoil of the characters. Indeed, some close-ups and medium shots eschew any background at all, the actor’s faces and torsos appearing against black backdrops. In one notable shot, Yvonne sits on a chair facing the camera, while standing behind her in a row are four more-or-less indistinguishable creditors, motionless apart from choreographed shakes of the head which refuse her requests for more time. Wiene’s paring down of mimetic places to abstract spaces dotted with signifiers creates a sense of puppet theatre, at the centre of which is Veidt’s performance.
While some of his close-ups and medium-shots might seem overwrought by more contemporary conventions, Veidt remains compelling as a physical actor. When Paul wakes from his nightmare, his hands seem to take on a life of their own; and later, when he is agitated and impatient, they spasm and begin to play on tabletops as if they were keyboards, apparently without him commanding or even noticing them. When Paul goes to confront Serral (as Cerral is renamed), Veidt holds his arms extended, fingers splayed, his slightly shortened sleeves exposing hands that he is either pushing away from himself or being towed behind. His carriage often embodies the novel’s idea of a mannequin possessed by the spirit of a dead man. At several points, his body shrinks into a hollow inertia, an enfeebled appendage to his determined hands, which drag him around as if they are the only part of a puppet still held up by strings. Lotte H. Eisner describes his performance as ‘a kind of Expressionist ballet, bending and twisting extravagantly, [in which he is] simultaneously drawn and repelled by the murderous dagger held by hands which do not seem to belong to him’ (145), and as if to confirm its Expressionist credentials, in one shot, while the police investigate the scene of Orlac’s father’s murder, Veidt raises his hands to either side of his contorted face, the very image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893–1910).
Through its relative displacement of the economic and social determinants evident in the novel, Orlacs Hände emphasises – and radically transforms – Orlac’s psychosexual compulsions. Bubbling away in Les Mains d’Orlac is an anxiety about masturbation every bit as strong as that of the Dr. Seuss-scripted The 5,0000 Fingers of Dr. T (Rowland 1953). Rosine, who is sleeping in the room next to the convalescing Stephen, is ‘awakened by an agonised gasp’, listens ‘to the sleeper tossing and turning; and groaning … an unpleasant sound’, feels ‘a hateful sensation of wretchedness and defeat’ as she hears him ‘uttering muffled cries; and then … a hoarse, headlong, agitated breathing’ and then finds him ‘kneeling on his bed in an attitude of prostration’ (70–71). Once they are back at their apartment, he spends hours alone in his room, poring in secret over imported literature, obsessing over his hands with mysterious unguents and mechanisms, even sneaking out to snatch his wife’s jewels from her locked box. Orlacs Hände is less concerned with autoeroticism than with the intimacy of human contact, connections between sex and violence and fears of class pollution. As Yvonne waits for Paul’s return from Nice, she lingers over a note from him – ‘I will embrace you … my hands will glide over you … and I will feel your body beneath my hands’ (ellipses in original) – which perhaps lends a slightly different urgency to her demand that Serral perform surgical miracles. After surgery, she tells Paul that she loves his hair and his tender hands, but her heavy-lidded gaze seems to be directed as much at his crotch. Whenever Yvonne reaches out to comfort him, he cannot bring himself to touch her with the hands of a killer. However, Nera commands Regine to ‘seduce’ Paul’s hands, and in a peculiar scene, she crawls up to her nervously distracted employer and kisses his hand; he withdraws it, but then reaches down to caress and hold her head, as if her class difference renders such contact less offensive to him. She responds, though, by crying out, ‘Don’t touch me … your hands hurt … like the hands of a killer’ (ellipses in original). Devastated by how much Vasseur’s hands must be polluting him if even the maid can sense it, and already convinced that their influence is seeping into him – ‘along the arms … until it reaches the soul … cold, terrible, relentless’ (ellipses in original) – Paul demands, without success, that Serral amputate them.
In Mad Love, these sexual undercurrents become more explicitly Freudian. Produced by MGM, it is rather less well-known than the Universal cycle of horror movies from the 1930s, and like MGM’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941), it does suffer from a certain stuffiness as its potentially tawdry material collides with a glamorous house style which – along with Gregg Toland and Chester Lyons’s luminous cinematography – makes it the most sumptuous of the three adaptations (the expressionist design of Doctor Gogol’s house and the sequence in which his mirror versions compel him to treachery are also visually impressive). The studio’s middlebrow norms are apparent in the reworking of the narrative into an admittedly rather peculiar drawing-room love-triangle, in which Colin Clive’s Stephen is all quivering stiff-upper lip chipperness in the face of the disaster that has befallen him. Even in his more demented scenes, he is closer to the tormented Captain Stanhope Clive played in James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930) than the shrill hysteric Whale unleashed in Frankenstein (1931). But his role is less central than was Veidt’s, since the film was designed as a vehicle for recent Austro-Hungarian émigré Peter Lorre. Already known in the US for his performance as Hans Beckert, the serial child-killer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), this was his first Hollywood film, and his presence required the transformation of the superhuman Cerral and the genial Serral into Doctor Gogol, whose sexual obsession with Yvonne Orlac drives the narrative. Lorre’s performance, switching effortlessly from compassionate and authoritative doctor to infant desiring approval, from passivity to anger, from melancholy to cackling madness, is every bit as potent as Veidt’s, and his disguise as Vasseur surpasses anything the other adaptations can offer.
The film opens at Le Théatre des Horreurs, where Yvonne is starring in a one-act Grand Guignol, which Gogol – who ‘cures deformed children and mutilated soldiers’ – has attended every night of its run. His fixation is obvious when, contemplating the life-like waxwork of Yvonne in the lobby, he reprimands a drunken patron for speaking to it in an overly familiar manner, but its full extent only becomes clear as the play reaches its climax. Bound and stretched backwards over a torture wheel by a husband who suspects her of infidelity, Yvonne’s character refuses to name her lover, but as a red hot fork is applied to her flesh – somewhere below the bottom edge of the mid-shot – and the smoke of burning flesh rises before her, she screams, ‘Yes! Yes! It was your brother!’ Her ecstatic performance is clearly intended to be sexual, and should we be in any doubt, it is framed by two shots of Gogol, watching from between his box’s partially drawn curtains, his face half in shadow: ‘The first shot tracks in on his … face as the torture begins, his one clearly visible eye focused with startling intensity on the woman stretched on the torturer’s frame. The second shot, at the performance’s end, shows us that same eye closing in a kind of orgasmic satisfaction as her screams of pain reverberate around the theatre’ (Tudor 189).
Backstage, Gogol discovers that Yvonne is not only married but is quitting the theatre for good to be with her husband, beginning with their postponed English honeymoon. She evades the agitated doctor, who later seizes an opportunity to try to overwhelm her with his passion. On leaving the theatre, he buys the waxwork, proposing to be Pygmalion to its Galatea. Meanwhile, Stephen’s train stops to pick up Rollo, an American circus knife-thrower convicted of murder. Rosset, the chief of police, invites an American journalist, Reagan, to witness Rollo’s arrival and execution, so that it can all be played down for the American press. The presence of Ted Healy’s Reagan, the kind of fast-talking character played so brilliantly by Roscoe Karns in the 1930s, and May Beatty’s turn as Gogol’s drunken housekeeper, Françoise, along with roles for such character actors as William Brophy, Billy Gilbert, Sara Haden, Henry Kolker and Ian Wolfe, suggest the extent to which Mad Love attempts to emulate the model provided by James Whale’s horror films, which were packed with eccentric types. However, unlike Whale, Freund is unable successfully to weave their idiosyncracies into a more general delirium. Brophy’s Rollo is undoubtedly the most endearing murderer the Production Code Administration (PCA) ever allowed, and the tone of the comedy is mild, except for the business between Reagan and Françoise, which is simultaneously the most Whale-like in its excesses and the least effective.
Rosset, Reagan and Yvonne travel together to the scene of the crash, which despite being elaborately mounted lacks Wiene’s sense of apocalyptic disorientation. While Wiene’s editing of the sequence produced a sense of instability, Freund’s scene is subject to Hollywood’s standardised continuity editing – spatial relations are clearly established, and Yvonne’s discovery of Stephen in the wreckage is brisk, to say the least. Rollo also survives the crash, only to be guillotined. When Yvonne begs Gogol to save rather than amputate Stephen’s hand, he arranges with Rosset to obtain the corpse and secretly performs the transplant. This time it is Yvonne who has a troubling dream – a keyboard Stephen is playing becomes a railway track, along which a train rushes, its spinning wheel becoming Gogol’s face. The doctor himself retires to his study, where he plays an organ while watching Yvonne’s mannequin in a mirror, wishing it would come to life. He leafs through Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portugese (1850), reading passages aloud.
Six months later, it is time to unbandage Orlac’s hands, which Gogol massages and probes in a shot which Reynold Humphrey’s suggests is more than merely an image of masturbation but of ‘the son lovingly masturbating his father’ (92). Certainly, the scene in the theatre can be interpreted as a primal scene fantasy, in which Gogol simultaneously ‘identifies with the position of the victim as a mother figure’ and ‘with the sadistic husband deriving intense pleasure from having his unfaithful wife branded’ and is positioned so that he can ‘occupy the absent place of the wife’s lover’ – the husband’s presumably younger brother (92). Arrested in his Oedipal trajectory – Gogol later asks Yvonne is she cannot even find ‘pity for a man who has never know the love of a woman’ – he frequently becomes childlike in her presence, casting her as the mother he desires and Stephen as the father whom he must do away with in order to become her lover. In the masturbation scene, then, Orlac struggles with his libidinal desires while trying to identify with and placate the father he is challenging.
Mad Love restores the novel’s reasons for the Stephen’s split with Edouard (who is renamed Henry and transformed from a notary into a jeweller and also, suggestively but without explanation, from a father into a step-father): Stephen’s decision to become a pianist – and marry Yvonne – rather than take over the family business. The sign above the shop, which reads ‘Orlac et fils Joailliers’, indicates the extent of Henry’s petit-bourgeois bitterness at Stephen for simultaneously rising above his station and marrying below it. He taunts Stephen – ‘being a tradesman wasn’t good enough for you … that actress you married … could supplement her earnings, eh?’ – who, enraged, throws a knife at his father, and races off to see Gogol, despairing that his hands ‘have a life of their own. They feel for knives. They want to throw them, and they know how to. … They want to kill’. The film’s self-consciousness about psychoanalysis becomes apparent when Gogol explains away Stephen’s behaviour: his ‘disturbed mind’ made susceptible by the twin shock of the accident and of his altered hands have brought into play an ‘arrested wish fulfilment’. He conjures up a hypothetical image of childhood playmates, one of whom threw a knife so ‘cleverly’ that Stephen’s inability to emulate it has ‘festered deep’ in his ‘subconscious’, and suggests that if Stephen could ‘bring that forgotten memory, whatever it is, into consciousness’ he ‘would be cured instantly’. The scene Gogol evokes is like a dream image of boys comparing their penises, although it is not clear that Gogol recognises this latent content. In the next scene, he tells Doctor Wong that he told Stephen ‘a lot of nonsense’ he himself does not believe, adding ‘I didn’t dare to tell him his hands are those of a murderer. That would probably drive him [pause] to commit murder himself’. This is the moment at which Gogol concocts his plot to steal Yvonne away from Stephen, but without realising that, given the role that knives will play in his scheme, he has become the infant envious of another’s phallic mastery.
Gogol kills Henry and, disguised, persuades Stephen that he is Rollo, whom Gogol has returned to life, sewing on his head and providing him with prosthetic hands. Stephen is arrested. Yvonne pushes her way into Gogol’s house and discovers the mannequin, which Gogol has dressed in a negligee (the PCA were particularly anxious about Gogol’s ownership of the mannequin, with Joseph Breen writing to warn against ‘any “suggestions of perversion” between Gogol and the wax figure’ (Humphreys 93)). Gogol returns home, dementedly gleeful over the success of his scheme. Yvonne poses as the mannequin, but a cut on her cheek gives her away. Gogol thinks his Galatea has come to life, but the image of the perfect woman – his mother – suddenly active and sexually accessible, complete with bleeding wound, is too much for him. Reciting Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (1836), Gogol coils Yvonne’s hair around her neck so as to strangle her. In doing so, he takes on the role of the Grand Guignol’s cuckolded husband, with Yvonne gasping in sexualised agony beneath his hands. Stephen, brought there by the police, takes on both Gogol’s role of spectator as, through a grille, he witnesses his wife’s attempted murder, and that of the absent lover Gogol could not play. While Gogol merely collapsed in orgasmic bliss, Stephen throws the knife that kills Gogol, defeating his Oedipal challenge. Although Stephen’s hands kill, this life-taking is sanctioned by the law, and the heterosexual couple are reunited.
The Hands of Orlac is the last and by any reasonable measure the least of the adaptations. Presumably intended in some way to cash in on the succèss de scandale of such films as Et Dieu…créa la femme (Vadim 1956) and Les Amants (Malle 1958) and the related perception of French cinema as possessing greater sexual frankness, it certainly features the most passionate embraces of the adaptations. Moreover, it is repeatedly made clear that Stephen (Mel Ferrer) and Louise (as Yvonne is renamed) are sexually active while only being engaged. Indeed, Louise’s uncle does not think twice about lending the unchaperoned couple his villa. The film also features a low-rent cabaret act, in which the Eurasian Li-Lang, performs a burlesque routine involving a spangly bikini and a long feather boa; and she is instructed to seduce Stephen. While a vague eroticism hovers over Stephen and Louise’s more intimate moments, especially when his attempt to strangle her during lovemaking fleetingly evokes asphyxiophilia, the film’s overtness robs it of the psychosexual potential that the other variants exploit so well. In its place, we are left with a thriller that is more incoherent than thrilling and wastes its most interesting potential innovation.
After his plane crash, the ambulance rushing Stephen to hospital is stopped by the police since the road is closed for the transportation of Vasseur to his place of execution. Louise pleads with the police to let them through, since Vasseur’s hands ‘will never strangle again but the hands of Orlac can still be saved’. Stephen, barely conscious overhears this exchange. Later, in a delirium, he sees the (animated) headlines on side-by-side newspaper stories become jumbled and transposed. The panned-and-scanned television format crops the ends of the headlines, but the sequence goes (roughly) like this: LOUIS VASSEUR PAIE SES CRIMES and STEPHEN ORLAC PERO SES MAINS, which become LOUIS VASSEUR LOSES HIS HEAD and STEPHEN ORLAC LOSES HIS HANDS, then LOUIS VASSEUR WILL STRANGLE NO MORE and STEPHEN ORLAC WILL HE PLAY AGAIN? and then LOUIS VASSEUR WILL HE PLAY NO MORE and STEPHEN ORLAC WILL STRANGLE AGAIN and then THE STRANGLER GETS THE KNIFE and THE STRANGLER STEPHEN ORLAC GETS NEW HANDS. Finally, the second headline fills the screen, becoming STEPHEN ORLAC GETS THE HANDS OF and then LOUIS VASSEUR THE STRANGLER. One of the least satisfactory aspects of the novel and first adaptation is the sudden revelation of Vasseur’s innocence. This jars because it resolves the tension between the two possible explanations – either Orlac is possessed by the transplanted hands of a killer or he is going mad – by abruptly introducing a third for which no adequate groundwork has been laid and which upsets any moral order concerning just rewards. Surely Orlac should be even more troubled that his hands are those of an innocent man wrongfully executed? Mad Love avoids this problem inasmuch as Rollo was actually a killer, but that instead leaves a shadow over Orlac’s future – he has the hands and skills of a killer! – which the film forestalls by ending as swiftly as possible. The Hands of Orlac’s headline sequence suggests that the film might overcome such clumsy conclusions by ultimately revealing that there has been no surgery, and that Stephen’s fears and actions are the product solely of his traumatised imagination. This possibility lingers for a while, lending effectiveness to the sequence of scenes that begin with Louise protesting that he will bruise her arms if he holds them so tightly when they kiss. Orlac then tries out a fairground strength machine, which shows his grip to be unnaturally strong. Returning home with his prize, he listens to a recording of an earlier concert but cannot play along with it on the piano. In quick succession, he discovers that a ring no longer fits, that his gloves are bursting at the seams and that his handwriting has changed. Distraught, he tries to telephone the surgeon, Volcheff, and the assistant who takes the call refers to Orlac’s ‘new hands’. His fingers, resting on a table edge, seem to take on a life of their own, playing along to the recording. Distracted and distressed, he unintentionally pulls the head off the doll he won at the fair. Sadly, however, the film soon loses interest in following this potentially intriguing revision (ultimately La Sûreté reveal to Scotland Yard that the real killer has confessed and Vasseur was innocent), and instead clumsily reworks the Nera/Gogol blackmail plot.
Although a pet cat shies away from his hands at Louise’s uncle’s villa (in the French version, Stephen, strangely troubled by a picture of a guillotine execution, wakes in the night and goes on to the balcony, where the cat again flees him), Stephen seems to be recovering, until the cat is found with its neck broken. The maid is quick to blame it on gypsies, but the gardener suspects Stephen, who, furious, attacks the old man. After nearly strangling Louise in a moment of passion, Stephen takes up pseudonymous residence in a seedy backstreet hotel in Marseilles (on the streets of which he encounters a prostitute, who recoils from the touch of his hands). Neron (Christopher Lee), a fellow guest and nightclub magician, calculates that this newcomer must be rich, and orders his assistant, Li-Lang, to seduce him, intending to burst in on them in a compromising position. She is less than willing – ‘You made me a slut’, she protests; ‘Made?’ Neron replies, ‘My dear, I couldn’t stop you. You were born a slut and will always be one. It is I who have lowered myself’ – but Neron compels her. (He is several times shown with a collection of marionettes, one of which, a skeleton used in his stageshow, alludes to a figure in de Crochans’ apartment, but despite giving insight into Neron’s perception of himself as a consummate puppet-master they lack the critical Expressionist effect of Veidt’s puppet-like movements.) However, before the honey-trap can be played out, Louise traces Stephen to the hotel. Overhearing Stephen explaining his fear that his hands are those of a killer, Neron drastically revises his scheme – to one which makes no discernible sense.
Stephen and Louise reconcile (the French version extends this sequence) and marry. However, just before his first performance in a new tour, he receives a package containing a pair of gloves, with Vasseur’s name stamped inside. As he plays, he sees his hands transform into those of the gloved killer, causing him to flee the stage mid-concert. The following day, a sculptor, Graham Coates, asks if he can use Orlac’s hands as the model for those of Lazarus, stretching out from the tomb (in the French version, he also tries to hand a ball back to a young girl playing in the park, but she too is terrified of his hands). Soon after, Li-Lang, disguised as Vasseur’s widow, visits Louise and tells her that the spirit of her husband cannot rest until Stephen returns something that belongs to him. Suspecting that Volchett did indeed perform a hand transplant, Louise flies to Paris to question him, only to discover that he has just collapsed from a cerebral haemorrhage (in the novel Cerral died at sea just when his testimony was most needed). An increasingly paranoid Stephen discovers that Louise and her uncle have lied about her whereabouts. In the middle of the night, Stephen wakes to find the hook-handed and corpse-like Vasseur looming over him – but then, promptly and quite mystifyingly, Neron removes the disguise and warns Stephen that Louise and her uncle intend to have him committed. (It is impossible to work out how Neron intends to make money from this, but presumably it has something to do with the sample of Stephen’s handwriting that Li-Lang – for reasons that are never explained – stole from the Orlacs’ apartment.) Louise, her suspicions aroused, tracks down Li-Lang. Neron overhears his assistant telling her to bring the police to the club that night. Later, Stephen overhears a conversation between Louise and her uncle which seems to confirm their plan to commit him. That night, Neron murders Li-Lang during the course of their act. Stephen attacks him, delaying his escape until the police arrive. It is revealed that Vasseur was not a killer, leaving Stephen free to return to his wife and career.
Unfortunately, the incoherence of The Hands of Orlac – which seems as much a consequence of its screenplay and conditions of production as of its subsequent editings-down – never achieves the dreamlike or hysterical qualities of either the novel or the earlier adaptations. The most severely amputated of the variants, it fails to take on a life of its own.
 Since I wrote this, Brian Stableford has translated five volumes of Renard for Black Coat Press.
Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen, trans. Roger Greaves. London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1973.
Arthur B. Evans, ‘The Fantastic Science Fiction of Maurice Renard’, Science-Fiction Studies 64 (1994): 380–396.
Reynold Humphries, The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931–1941: Madness in a Social Landscape. New York: The Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Maurice Renard, The Hands of Orlac, trans. Iain White. London: Souvenir Press, 1981.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Through the monolith. Trippy.
Awful hotel, though.
Who’s that over there?
Looking at who? Older me?
Black slab just appeared.
Why are you so near my bed?
Aargh! Glow-y foetus!
Humans evolved. Became a
Great big space baby.
This week we turned from the American suburbs to futuristic (that is, 1960s) Paris, with Alphaville (Godard 1965). But first we took a trip through the history of representations of the city in sf cinema, guided largely by Vivian Sobchack’s ‘Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film’ (1999).
We returned briefly to Metropolis (Lang 1927), with its vision of a metrocosm – a city with with no apparent exterior – in which verticality dominates: skyscrapers, aerial roads and railways, aeroplanes, and above them all the incredible building from which Joh Fredersen, at the centre of a web of communications technology, governs it all. The bourgeoisie live above the ground; beneath them lie the machines upon which the city depends; and beneath the machines live the workers. Here, verticality figures an oppressive class structure (not unlike the glass slabs reaching into the skies of present-day financial centres). In Just Imagine (Butler 1930), however, Sobchack suggests that verticality implies something different because there is no subterranean world, no marginalised working class, just structures leaping into the sky. Here, she argues, the city as expresses that most American of values (or ideological sleight-of-hand): aspiration. Individual personal planes that can also hover weave among the skyscrapers. (But in longer shots, they all follow rigid grid patterns, like the orderly automobiles on the streets below; this tension between individualism and conformity is played out through the protagonists’ resistance to state control over who marries whom.)
We took a look at the opening of the film, which imagines nineteenth century, 1930s and future version of New York – the wry tone of the sequence indicates the film’s broader ambivalence about the notions of progress it also, at times, seems to espouse.
Detouring from Sobchack, we spent some time looking at the incredible montage sequence, scored by Arthur Bliss, from Things To Come (Menzies 1936) in which, following decades of war and plague and petty dictatorship, the new Everytown is constructed. I mentioned how masculinist the film’s notion of progress is at this point – the Earth is some kind of womb full of riches, waiting to be torn out – but had completely forgotten quite how phallic some of the machines are. The whole sequence can be seen as technoporn, an erotics of mechanism, one in which the future is built on the scorched Earth of the past. In Things to Come, decades of war cleared the ground, but in the real world this was done – and continues to be done – quite deliberately. For example, in the US, the urban renewal programme that ran from 1949 to 1973 bulldozed 2,5000 neighbourhoods in 93 cities, dispossessing at least one million people. Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums (2006) borrows the Filipino term ‘hot demolition’ to describe contemporary landlord arson of slums so as to clear land for redevelopments that are never intended to provide housing for the impoverished populations burned out of their homes.
Equally important for our purposes, though, is quite how abstract Things to Come’s the scientific manufacturing looks – we can see that proficient, technoscientific processes being signified while remaining more or less completely ignorant of what they are actually doing. This is important in thinking about the semiotic thinking of Alphaville.
The sequence ends with the revelation of the subterranean mall future, hints of mid-twentieth-century architecture’s International Style evident in buildings with set-back bases and non-supporting exterior walls. But before we get to the mall, there is a glimpse of a radiating landscape in the distance – of a Garden City.
The idea of the Garden City was espoused in Ebenezer Howard’s To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform (1898), significantly revised as Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), which was influenced by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). In it, he outlines the attractions and repulsions of two existing magnets – the town and the country – and outlines the attractions of the third, proposed magnet he calls ‘town-country’, or the Garden City. The idea was to build new towns from scratch that avoided urban poverty and squalor – overcrowding, poor drainage and ventilation, pollution, disease, lack of access to the natural world – by combining the pleasures/benefits of the country (nature, fresh air, low rent) with those of the city (opportunity, entertainment, good wages). The Garden Cities would be of limited size, preplanned, and owned by trustees on the behalf of the tenants – and thus also work to undermine private ownership and landlordism.
Letchworth Garden City commenced construction in 1903 and Welwyn Garden City in 1920. Howard’s ideas were taken up by Frederick Law Olmsted II in the US, influencing aspects of suburban development, and after WW2 also influenced British ‘New Town’ developments.
(Incidentally, and à propos of nothing relevant, Howard is the great-grandfather of Una Stubbs.)
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Disappearing City (1932) took pushed beyond Howard’s ideas even further, proposing the complete dispersal of urban centres into the countryside. Each family to be given an acre of land on which to build an ‘organic architecture’ homestead that used local materials, matched the contours of the land and opened up the interior of the building to the world outside. Unlike Howard, Wright prioritised private automobile ownership over public transport – though in illustrations, he also seems to imagine the car being replaced by varieties of helicopter. Wright ‘Broadacre City’ design was also an influence on US suburban developments.
Returning to American sf films, our next port of call was the short film showing of Norman Bel Geddes massive Futurama diorama, built for the General Motors exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It envisions an entire country organised around roads and automobiles – quel supris! – and urban centres that owe something to Le Corbusier’s ville contemporaine (1922), which emphasised orderliness, symmetry, space and vistas in a plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work (which, if divided out evenly, would 125,000 people per building and approximately 2,080 per floor).
Sobchack draws on Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, to describe ‘the fantasy’, evident in 1950s US sf films, ‘of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself’ (Sontag 44). In such films height and aspiration are brought low as tidal waves sweep through Manhattan (When Worlds Collide (Maté 1951)), when a reanimated dinosaur romps through New York (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Lourié 1953)), when flying saucers crash into the Capital’s neo-classical government buildings (Earth vs the Flying Saucers (Sears 1956)) – and, in Japan, when Godzilla smacks down Tokyo. This concession to non-US cinema is telling. Gojira (Honda 1954) is a bleak film, critical of nuclear war and Cold War atomic escalation; when recut for US release as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), all such material is carefully excised so as not to have to face up to it.
Sobchack also adds the category of films in which we are shown deserted cities. Five (Oboler 1951) shows us not destruction but the emptiness of all that aspiration (and is mostly filmed around a desert home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). The remarkable The World, the Flesh and the Devil (MacDougall 1959) not only casts Manhattan’s skyscrapers as the tombstones of civilisation, but also, like Five, tries to discuss racial politics. Both films show that one of the few legacies of American civilisation that will endure into the post-apocalypse is the colour line – suggesting that it is not just an issue of individuals who are racist, but of the deepest structures of American society. Ultimately, both flinch away from their full implications, but they are among the relatively few films of the period trying to say something important about it.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the underground returns in THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), replacing aspiration with oppression; fullness becomes overcrowding in Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973); and in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), the ‘brutalist’ architecture of postwar British developments – evoked here by the Thamesmead estate – becomes brutalising, or is at least blamed for brutalisation.
In the 1980s, white flight from the centre to the suburbs has given way to white flight to the off-world colonies. In films such as Blade Runner (Scott 1982), the urban core has been junked rather than redeveloped, and then exoticised and made cool by punks and ethnic others. The exhausted, colourful downtown seems to go on for ever – remember how improbable the flight to the countryside seemed at the end of the original cinema cut – and the city seems to have become all run-down centre. In contrast, the blast LA landscape of Repo Man (Cox 1984) is all exhausted, quirky margins, as if any kind of centre is impossible. Also, in films such as RoboCop (Verhoeven 1987), Darkman (Raimi 1990) and They Live (Carpenter 1988), it becomes clear that property developers – and the financial interests they serve – are grasping, criminal, inhuman.
In the 1990s, Sobchack argues, the decentredness of the city gives way to the ungrounded or groundless city. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on pastiche in films such as Independence Day (Emmerich 1996) and Pleasantville (Ross 1998), in which very familiar sf images are repeated – flying saucers destroying the Whitehouse, a conformist smalltown invaded by alien others – but have no real connection to the cultures in which they are produced and consumed. And on the other hand, thanks largely to the development of CGI and other digital production technologies, there are films in which the city becomes a vertiginous, boundless space across which impossible trajectories are traced (The Fifth Element (Besson 1997), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (Lucas 2002)) and, perhaps more interestingly, a space to be endlessly reshaped – and human identities along with it – by far from benevolent powers, as in Dark City (Proyas 1999).
Since Sobchack wrote her essay, the city in sf film since the 1990s has become primarily a post-9/11 space. It is subject to:
- inexplicable alien attacks in Cloverfield (Reeves 2008), War of the Worlds (Speilberg 2005), Attack the Block (Cornish 2011)
- terrorist attack in Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams 2013)
- emptying out in 28 Days Later… (Boyle 2002) and I am Legend (Lawrence 2007)
- military occupation in 28 Weeks Later… (Fresnadillo 2007)
In Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), the city is reduced to an endless camp for remantn populations and dislocated people.
In Mad Max Fury Road (Miller 2015), the city as such has completely disappeared, leaving nothing but a brute vertical structure of violent oppression.
Turning to Alphaville, we began by outlining the dystopian elements of the future it depicts, some of which clearly develop ideas and themes we had already encountered last week in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These included:
- centralised and totalitarian control (the extent to which the Alpha 60 computer and Alphaville are co-extensive is ambiguous, but arguably the inhabitants of Alphaville effectively also live inside the computer)
- loss of emotion and flattening of affect
- state-organised spectacle (swimming pool executions replacing books burnings) which is not so much about punishing perpetrators as reminding the rest of the population of the state’s potential to use disciplinary force
- the ubiquity of modern commodities, which replace art, live music, poetry, etc
- the degradation of language – if you remove words from the dictionary, people cannot feel or express the emotions/ideas they signify
- the reduction of humans to the status of commodities (which, in Alphaville’s treatment of all(?) women as sex-workers does at least demystify the economics of normative heterosexual exchange)
- the imminence of nuclear war
- an architecture – here all cold reflective glass and marble – that establishes barriers between people
- an emphasis on abstraction – signs and graphics, diegetic and otherwise – rather than on embodied human interconnection
This last point extends into the film’s emphasis on semiotics – how meanings are created and circulated. This is most obvious in the way in which, in Alphaville, nodding your head means ‘no’, and shaking it means ‘yes’ – semiotic signs, remember, are arbitrary and conventional.
The film foregrounds an array of intertextual connections – references to characters from pulps, comics and films (Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Nosferatu, Heckel and Jeckel), to scientists and related institutions (von Braun, Fermi, Einstein, Heisenberg, Los Alamos, IBM), but does little if anything to explain them, leaving the viewer to fathom their presence, their signification – perhaps as a kind of pop culture primer to help us read the poetry of surrealist Paul Eluard that might save us.
The film plays with genre, casting Eddie Constantine, already familiar to French audiences from the actual Lemmy Caution films in which he has starred, and going out of its way to make the sex and violence and melodramatic music of crime thrillers awkward and absurd (as if desperate to find a way to both have the pleasures of mass culture and to distance itself from them). Such elements signify a genre to which the film using them arguably does not belong – at least not in any straightforward way.
Finally, the film levers open the gap between sound and image that conventional continuity editing tries to close down. Not only do we not know where Alpha 60’s voice actually comes from in the world of the film, we also often do not know its status in relation to the footage: can it be heard by the characters? is it a voiceover address to the viewer?
Next week, we turn in more detail to the International Style, the influence of Le Corbusier on British postwar developments, to brutalist architecture and its decline – and to the first half of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975), accompanied by The Model Couple (Klein 1977).
Core critical reading: Utterson, Andrew. “Tarzan vs. IBM: Humans and Computers in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.” Film Criticism 33.1 (2008): 45–63.
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See Chapter 5, “From Postmodern Condition to Cinematic City.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Duarte, Fábio, Rodrigo Firmino and Andrei Crestani. “Urban Phantasmagorias: Cinema and the Immanent Future of Cities.” Space and Culture 18.2 (2015): 132–42.
Easthope, Anthony. “Cinécities of the Sixties.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 129–139.
Hilliker, Lee. “The History of the Future in Paris: Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s.” Film Criticism 24.3 (2000): 1 – 22.
–. “In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape.” The French Review 76.2 (2002): 318–29.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 6, “Utopia and Dystopia: Fantastic and Virtual Cities.”
Shaw, Debra Benita. “Systems, Architecture and the Digital Body: From Alphaville to The Matrix.” Parallax 14.3 (2008): 74–87.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.
Utterson, Andrew. From IBM to MGM: Cinema at the Dawn of the Digital Age. London: BFI, 2011.
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), Yegeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) are key dystopias concerned with modern built environments. Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) is an ambivalent take on life in an arcology.
The design of the future city in Things to Come (Menzies 1936) draws on contemporary architectural debates.
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971) and Logan’s Run (Anderson 1976) are set in dystopian arcologies. World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johson 1984) looks at the future city designed by corporations for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Jacques Tati’s mechanised suburbia of Mon Oncle (1958) is matched by a hyper-modern Paris in Playtime (1967).
This week we continued our exploration of the US postwar suburbs (see week 13), reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and watching Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956). Both texts were framed in relation to the period’s culture of affluence and anxiety.
But first we began by placing Bradbury’s novel in relation to genre – specifically the interweaving traditions of utopia/anti-utopia, utopia/dystopia and US magazine sf.
Thomas More coined ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago this year. When spoken aloud, the first syllable is a Latin pun on ou which means no and eu which means good (and topos means place) – so utopia means ‘no place’ but also suggests ‘good place’. Utopia has come to be understood as a description of an imaginary world organised according to a better principle than our own, and to frequently involve not-always-gripping systematic descriptions of economic, social and technical arrangements. We discussed the efflorescence of utopian fiction in the wake of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and mentioned such key utopian authors as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. We also noted the relative scarcity of utopian worlds in cinema – Just Imagine (Butler 1930), Things to Come (Menzies 1936) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979) being potential examples, but all of them also demonstrating potentially negative elements and being susceptible to against-the-grain readings.
This led us to anti-utopias – texts that are in more or less explicit dialogue with someone else’s utopian vision, exposing its darker, oppressive elements. William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, which we read last semester, is a kind of compendium anti-utopia, while novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are – among other things – direct responses to the utopian vision of HG Wells, drawing out its more totalitarian elements, as does Metropolis (Lang 1927).
During the 20th century, however, the explicit anti-utopia has given way to the proliferation of dystopias (dys + topia = bad place), dark, often satirical exaggerations of the worst aspects of our world. The dystopia emphasises bad aspects of our own world so as to make them more obvious (in this, they parallel the suburban world of All That Heaven Allows). The dystopia is not an explicit critique of the utopia, but a depiction of a world worse than our own – usually totalitarian, bureaucratic, brutal, dehumanising, and sometimes post-apocalyptic. Between us, we concocted a list of novels and films, including:
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)
Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962), filmed as Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971)
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) filmed as Blade Runner (Scott 1982)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966), filmed as Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973)
Punishment Park (Watkins 1971)
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Mad Max (Miller 1979)
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Brazil (Gilliam 1985)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), film (Schlöndorff 1990)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (1988–9), film: (McTeigue 2006)
Robocop (Verhoeven 1987)
PD James, The Children of Men (1992), filmed: (Cuarón 2006)
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), filmed: (Romanek 2010)
Gamer (Neveldine+Taylor 2009)
Moon (Jones 2009)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games novels (2008-2010), filmed: Ross and Lawrence 2012-15)
Dredd (Travis 2012), based on Judge Dredd strip (1979–)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)
The widespread usage of dystopia and the relative decline of the utopia/anti-utopia tradition has led to an increased use of the eutopia (a term which makes linguistic sense as the opposite of dystopia) to describe imagined worlds that in some ways are better than ours, if still far from perfect. The eutopia imagines a better world, using its differences to indicate the shortcomings of our own world.
Both eutopia and dystopia are, in different ways, about the possibility of change.
We then turned to consider Ray Bradbury in the context of American sf in the 1950s. From the late 1930s, American magazine sf had been dominated by Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. It was not the best-paying venue, but thanks to the galvanising effect Campbell – and his key authors, such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – had had on the field, it was the most respected and prestigious. That situation began to change after the war, particularly with the launch of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, both of which could be characterised as being more literary, as being more interested such things as characterisation, atmosphere, slicker prose and satirical humour. Bradbury could not sell to Campbell, but published in wide range of sf magazines as well as in prestigious non-genre venues, such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.
The reason for his failure with Campbell and success elsewhere has been attributed – by Brian Aldiss? – to him writing science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (which we might more generously describe as writing non-Campbellian science fiction). Bradbury was championed by critics such as Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis who, although they occasionally wrote and edited sf, were not sf writers per se. Within the genre community, such writers/editors/critics as James Blish and Damon Knight tended to be more ambivalent – caught between what they saw as Bradbury’ ‘poetic’ writing/ higher literary standards and his apparently blissful ignorance of science.
This ambivalence was mirrored by a number of the class, who found aspects of the novel quite compelling while also being frustrated by the ‘vagueness’ of its world-building. (I am not sure ‘vagueness’ is quite the right term, since it implies there is something that Bradbury should be doing rather than thinking about his preference for imagery over concrete images – and it might also indicate a relative lack of familiarity with sf’s specific reading protocols, which often require the reader to collaborate in building the world from the smallest of hints.)
In considering Fahrenheit 451 as an exaggerated dystopian version of the suburbs it is perhaps useful briefly to put aside its most obvious and striking feature – firemen now burn books – and instead think about the other features of its imagined world, all of which resonate strongly with the affluence and anxieties outlined last week:
- the overwhelming impact of mass media, on everything from the design of houses (no front porches, replace windows with TV screens, etc) to the fabric of domestic life, which is organised around consumption and pseudo-participation, and dominates social occasions
- the alienation from other human beings, from nature, from meaningful labour
- the reliance on tranquillisers, sleeping and other medication
- the frequency of divorces and the virtual exile of children
- women’s rejection of pregnancy and natural childbirth (cast as a negative, although Shulamith Firestone and others would see this as a positive)
- juvenile delinquents racing cars around night-time streets, dying in crashes and aiming for pedestrians
- how commonplace deliberate suicides and accidental overdoses have become
- the absence of an urban centre (there is one, but the emphasis throughout is on seemingly endless suburbs)
- really long billboards because everyone drives so fast
- the degradation of language
- the constant sound of military jets and the ultimate outbreak of the fourth nuclear war since the 1960s
- the near-universal and – it is made clear – willing abandonment of books and reading
- the only very occasional spectacle of state power when books are burned
We also thought about the ways in which Bradbury’s prose and imagery are ‘simple’ or ‘child-like’ – the way the novel seems to be the product of a pre-pubertal imagination. This led us in two directions.
First, there are the distinctly Oedipal elements of the novel. While its depiction of women is broadly misogynistic, this is especially focused on Mildred Montag. Cast as a simple-minded and anxious nag, she also comes across as a cold and distant mother figure to her husband, who often seems like a boy in quest of a father figure (Granger replacing Faber replacing Beatty). Mildred is early on associated with the kind of marble figure you might find on a mausoleum – remember the suburban fireplace in All that Heaven Allows – and when Montag turns the flamethrower on their twin beds (after all, there is no reason for mummy and daddy to share a bed, is there?), they ‘went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain’ (151).
There is also something just a little bit queer about Montag’s relationship with Faber, the older, educated man who first picked Montag up in a public park, slipping him his phone number even though he knew it would put him in the fireman’s power. Faber maintains this role of mentor, and shares a strange intimacy with the Montag through the earbug the younger man wears so they can always be together.
The second direction in which this sense of Bradbury’s simplicity went was thinking about the imagery he uses. The opening page introduces, among other images, the series of oppositions between black and white: firemen are always associated with blackness, and sometimes Bradbury seems almost to recognise a racial dimension; readers and women are associated with whiteness, although sometimes this whiteness is sepulchral (Mildred) or diseased (Faber). There is also animal and other nature imagery. Sparks become fireflies, books become pigeons. Later, books will rain down around Montag like pigeons, and he will be infected, losing control over his impulses, his hands becoming like ferrets whose antics he can only observe (this sense of alienation from his self culminates in him watching his own pursuit on television, which ends with his capture being faked). As with the bizarre fantasy about the barn in the final section of the novel, there is a nostalgic current underpinning the animal imagery – making manifest the natural world that the suburban sprawl roots up, tears down, eradicates. The imagery haunts the denatured suburb, reminding us of what has been lost and is constantly being thrown away.
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers shares many of these concerns. While its mood of paranoia might lend credence to the commonplace notion that the film is somehow about fears of communist infiltration, there is in fact little in the film to support reading it that way (just a few years earlier the emotionless nature of the pods would have been projected onto Nazis rather than Commies, primarily as a denial of the profound conformism in American life and in a consumer culture). Similarly, it is not especially easy to read the film as being about fears of racial passing or queer passing, although they too might be argued – the film is certainly about ensuring difference does not intrude onto this white suburban small town. This difference takes the form of two childless, sexually active recent divorcees – former sweethearts and possibly lovers – finding themselves thrown together, and everyone around them assuming they will become involved with each other again (while elsewhere, Oedipal anxieties take the form of children thinking there parents are not their parents). It is a film obsessed with sex – Miles makes constant innuendoes and hits on women all the time; he races over to Becky’s house in his pyjamas (don’t ask what her house is doing in his pyjamas) in the middle of the night and sweeps her off to his house, where the next morning she is wearing some of his clothes and cooking him breakfast, and Jack Belicec seems to assume this is post-coital. There is Becky’s summer dress, which miraculously stays up while emphasising her breasts, and Miles’s ultimate declaration that he did not know the real meaning of fear until he kissed her. Against all this sex is cast not only the asexual reproduction of the pod people but also the mechanical reproduction of commodities and the replacement of culture (a live band) by its simulacrum (the juke box).
And, as that penultimate hurried paragraph suggests, we ran out of time. Next week, Alphaville (Godard 1965).
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 9, “Exurban Postmodernity: Utopia, Simulacra and Hyper-reality.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 102–59.
Bould, Mark. “Burning Too: Consuming Fahrenheit 451.” Literature and the Visual Media. Ed. David Seed. Woodbridge: DS Brewer, 2005. 96–122.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. London: BFI, 2010.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “‘To build a mirror factory’: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 39.3 (1998): 282–7.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
–. “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias.” Journal of American Studies 28.2 (1994): 22–40.
Whalen, Tom. “The Consequences of Passivity: Re-evaluating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.” Literature/Film Quarterly 35.3 (2007): 181–90.
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) anticipates surburban consumerist isolation.
Suburbia became a regular setting for postwar sf: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) and “The Pedestrian” (1951), Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) and Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” (1967).
Examples of suburban horror include Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door (1978) and M. John Harrison’s subtler “The Incalling” (1978) and The Course of the Heart (1991).
Bradbury’s novel was filmed by French New Wave director François Truffaut as Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Other sf and fantasy films depicting the dissatisfactions of suburban living include Invaders from Mars (Menzies 1953), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), The Stepford Wives (Forbes 1975), E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial (Spielberg 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper 1982), Parents (Balaban 1989), Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), Pleasantville (Ross 1998), The Truman Show (Weir 1998) and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001).
This year, I watched 365 films (though I could not work up the energy to transcribe the incomplete-because-of-system-constraints list from my FB page this morning, so you will have to go dig around there if you really care). Anyways, here are my top nine films which had cinema releases or previews in the UK this year, and the top twenty-three I saw for the first time this year:
The top nine (in (current) order of preference)
Hard To Be A God (German 2013)
Crumbs (Llansó 2015)
High Rise (Wheatley 2016)
Mad Max Fury Road (Miller 2015)
White God (Mundruczó 2014)
Furious 7 (Wan 2015)
Bone Tomahawk (Zahler 2015)
The Signal (Eubank 2014)
Spy (Feig 2015)
The other top twenty-three (in alphabetical order, ‘cos decisions are too hard and I already made a bunch)
21 Jump Street (Lord/Miller 2012)
Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki 2007)
The Baader Meinhoff Complex (Edel 2008)
The Babadook (Kent 2014)
Babylon (Rosso 1981)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin 2012)
Black Joy (Simmons 1977)
The Drop (Roskam 2014)
Go For Sisters (Sayles 2013)
A Lonely Place to Die (Gilbey 2011)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Andersen 2003)
Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey 1937)
Piccadilly (Dupont 1929)
Pitch Perfect (Moore 2012)
The Rover (Michôd 2014)
The Shining (US cut) (Kubrick 1980)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Zeman 1978)
Stage Struck (Dwan 1925)
The Stolen Airship (Zeman 1967)
This Filthy World (Garlin 2006)
Tiger in the Smoke (Baker 1956)
Tusk (Smith 2014) – though I might be completely wrong about this
Yeelen (Cissé 1987)
This was a nice gentle week, beginning with watching Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius 1949) and then turning to other matters before discussing it.
First up was some general feedback on the student’s first essays. They all get extensive individual written feedback, but it is good to pool together some more general points, since individual feedback can sometimes feel very isolating – as if you alone are the only person making errors. Overall, though, the class has done pretty well, and we pretty much focused on essay structure, quoting and paraphrasing more effectively, and presentational conventions.
Second, I presented a broad strokes overview of what we have done this semester – it is good to remind students of quite how much ground they have covered, and to make more explicit the connections between weeks, especially if you can also not-so-subtly tailor it towards the upcoming exam in January.
Third, we took a look at the exam paper, ensuring that everyone understood what is required of them – and pointing out that it would be a good idea to ensure they had access to a copy of the film they were going to write about before they go home for the Xmas break.
Then, at last, we discussed Passport to Pimlico – which to my bemusement no-one much liked. So we spent some time off-topic digging into that:
- partly it was that it is more of a comic film than a comedy, genial rather than guffaw-inducing;
- partly it was the historical specificity of the film and thus of much of the humour;
- partly it was that the humour depends so heavily on types which are no longer commonplace, and on the casting of specific actors. For example, if you don’t know Margaret Rutherford, her character is probably quite mystifying, but if you do know her she is a delight to watch because she is up there on the screen being Margaret Rutherford; Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne are only quite so funny because of the way they turn up in yet another film as basically those guys from The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock 1938); and so on;
- partly it was a lack of someone to identify with – something I would have liked to have more time to talk about because I am never quite sure a) what it means, and b) why people feel it is necessary to find someone like themselves in a film in order to enjoy it (if that is what it means). It is, however, worth noting that this – whatever this is – is probably compounded by the film being sort of centred on Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway) but dispersing its narrative among an ensemble cast.
It must have all seemed even more baffling when I mentioned that one part of the film – when ordinary Londoners turn up to feed the besieged Burgundians – always chokes me up, the way those I-am- Spartacus moments tend to do (although oddly, not in Spartacus (Kubrick 1960)).
Thank goodness I didn’t get on to talking about the apparent influence of the film on late-60s/early-70s black power sf – Warren Miller’s The Siege of Harlem (1965) in particular seems to borrow a chunk of it – or to pointing out that when imdb trivia says ‘Some historians, for some reason, have considered this to be a borderline science-fiction film’ I think it is referring to something I once wrote.
So, alone in a room full of people who did not even remotely plain love the movie, I found myself thinking, ‘Blimey, I’m a furriner’. And no one airlifted me a pig for company…
Building on last week’s discussion of Bicycle Thieves, we considered the film in relation to postwar experience and to the emerging conflicted programmes of rebuilding bombed cities and slum clearance. The film opens with a lovely bit of contrast and misdirection: a dedication to the end of rationing (which would not end for another five years) cuts to a little bit of Latin nightlife, possibly in Havana – only it is not Havana at all, but Pimlico (actually Lambeth), and the music is only ‘Les Norman and his Bethnal Green Bambinos’ on the radio. So we cut from the exotic to the mundane, to a world not of languid plenty but to a period of austerity languishing in a heatwave. (This contrast is returned to throughout the film: when communal eating is instituted, but takes the form of sidewalk cafés, but they don’t like French cuisine; when Shirley Pemberton (Barbara Murray), out courting the impoverished duke (Paul Dupuis), dreams of the orange orchards where he lives, only for him to point our there is really only a cement factory there now; etc.
One of things I like about Passport to Pimlico and Ealing’s Hue and Cry (Charles Crichton 1947) is their willingness to show bomb-damaged London – unlike, say, The Perfect Woman (Knowles 1949), which opts for the rather fantastical London of a West End farce where it seems like there is not a trace of the war (although it too articulates a utopian vision of plenitude in the midst of austerity).
The Pimlico community, a mix of lower middle class shopkeepers and their more working class neighbours, also contrasts well with the working-class communities of Bicycle Thieves. The community is disjointed, primarily along class lines, as the council meeting demonstrates – Arthur presents his lovingly crafted plan to convert the bomb-site into a swimming pool and park so the neighbourhood kids have somewhere safer to play and the adults have somewhere to relax, but the proposal is outvoted by the local bank manager Mr Wix (Raymond Huntley) and others who wish merely to sell the land to the highest bidder. This kind of conflict between a community’s needs/wishes and the (apparently) easy money to be made off property developers forms a pretty constant current in postwar development, including things such as Lambeth councils recent dodgy campaign against the residents of Cressingham Gardens.
The community, however, is brought together by conflict – the film makes very pointed use of WWII imagery, evoking the already-mythologised spirit of the Blitz as much as it does the Berlin airlift. And the film positions us on the side of the community against Whitehall bureaucracy, against jobsworth coppers and customs agents – but also, a little problematically, other Londoners, conceived of as spivs and black-marketeers trespassing on the Burgundians new position of exceptionality and privilege, as too much chaos and disorder, as not-being-from-around-here. Sadly, the film never ceases to be timely in this regard. But on the bright side, a kind of border-defying, working-class internationalism based on sharing breaks out among Londoners (and chokes me up), countering wealth and power, and opening out the Burgundian community once more.
And then it was time for mid-year module evaluation forms, and holiday wishes, and then home for a nice cup of tea (except the central computer controlling the phasing of Bristol’s traffic lights had gone haywire and that nice cup of tea was a couple of hours away).