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Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens last completed novel (he would die before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood), serialized in 1864-65. My first introduction to the story came with the 1998 BBC adaptation, which is excellent, and it has remained one of Dickens’ novels that I enjoy the most.

Some critics have said that the River Thames (always just called “the river” in the story) is the true main character of the book. Filthy and polluted, the river is a source of both life and death. People earn their living on the river, drown and are resurrected in the river, follow the river towards their destination. It seems to contain all that is both good and horrible in England and much of the story and characters are connected to it in one way or another.

On the death of the old miser John Harmon, who made a fortune with dust mounds (he basically collected, removed and recycled rubbish), his long-banished son, also called John Harmon, must return to collect his fortune. But in order to inherit, the will indicates that he must marry a young lady called Bella Wilfer, whom he has never met. But a body is found in the river and it is believed to be his body. The money then passes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, good and unpretentious servants to Harmon.

As in all Dickens novels, it’s difficult to summarize his books because there are so many characters, whose plots weave in and out of each other’s. The body in the river is found by Gaffer Hexam, who earns a living stealing from the bodies he finds in the river. His daughter is Lizzie, who attracts the interest of the usually bored gentleman, Eugene Wrayburn. Lizzie also attracts the interest of her brother’s “decent” headmaster, a man who has been called the Norman Bates of Victorian literature: Bradley Headstone. Everything about him is described as decent, yet nearly everyone who comes into contact with him can palpably sense that something is off.

Mr. Boffin soon acquires a mysterious secretory named John Rokesmith, who falls in love with Bella Wilfer. Rogue Riderhood, who claims to be “a[n] honest man as gets my living by the sweat of my brow” working on the river, in reality lives up to his name of Rogue. The Jewish Mr. Riah is Dickens’ attempt to atone for creating the evil Jewish Fagin. Riah is kind and sympathetic and becomes the surrogate father to Jenny Wren, a friend of Lizzie’s. Mrs. Higden is the poor woman who possesses a horror of the workhouse. Con artists, villains, innocents, and unforgettable characters abound.

Gaffer Hexam and Lizzie look for bodies in the river – illustrated by Marcus Stone

Besides the river, another theme that seems to be consistent throughout the entire story is that of stalking. Everyone seems to be stalking someone, whether for good or ill. Stalking them, watching them, loving them from a distance, resenting them, searching for them, testing them. At one point Bradley Headstone is stalking Eugene Wrayburn, who is looking for Lizzie. The line between love and obsession seems a thin one at times.

Another theme, of course, is that of greed and the corrosive effect of it on people. Greed and lust for money – miserliness once one has money. Not to mention murder, jealousy, lust, greed, hatred, obsession, indifference…

Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the novel is this quote from Mr. Twemlow, an insignificant member of Society (Society being an entity that requires capitalization) who startles everyone by bursting forth at the end of the book after spending eight hundred pages being passed over and ignored and used more as a useful appendage at Society gatherings. I like this quote because it provides a more expansive definition of love. Love is a word used so often that it becomes nearly meaningless, but Mr. Twemlow inadvertently provides a beautiful description of love’s varied facets (which I will put in bold letters). Mr. Twemlow is referring to a marriage contracted by a gentleman to a woman from the bottom of society that has turned Society aghast (operating like a sort of hollow Greek chorus providing commentary on the events of the story, but woefully out of touch and bound by their rules and self-congratulations).

‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual, ‘I don’t agree with you. If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady–‘

‘This lady!’ echoes Podsnap.

‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘YOU repeat the word; I repeat the word. This lady. What else would you call her, if the gentleman were present?’

This being something in the nature of a poser for Podsnap, he merely waves it away with a speechless wave.

‘I say,’ resumes Twemlow, ‘if such feelings on the part of this gentleman, induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady. I beg to say, that when I use the word, gentleman, I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man. The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred, and I confess I am not comfortable when they are made the subject of sport or general discussion.’

Gratitude, respect, admiration, and affection live on, though Society is too blinkered to notice.

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Posted by on March 20, 2017 in Books

 

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Garden of Evil (1954)

6547587_origOn first viewing, Garden of Evil seemed a talky and world-be-philosophic mess of a western with gorgeous cinematography, a good cast and a fantastic score by Bernard Herrmann. But I still enjoyed it and after discussing it with my sister, we concluded that although the screenplay is still a bit confused, much of what the characters say is really a smokescreen and should be discounted. As Gary Cooper says in the film, “after all a man says, it’s what he does that counts.” The second time we viewed it, we tried to ignore most of the dialogue and focus mostly on what the characters did.

Three men – Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark), and Daly (Cameron Mitchell) are stranded in a small Mexican village for three weeks. While they are having a few drinks and wondering what they are going to do with themselves in such a sleepy town for twenty-one days, excitement suddenly comes through the barroom doors when Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) bursts in and offers to pay gold to any man who will accompany her to rescue her husband, who is trapped in their fallen gold mine shaft.

The trouble is that the mine is deep in Apache territory and few people are willing to risk the danger, even for thousands of dollars of gold. But Hooker, Fiske and Daly, along with a local villager, Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza), agree to come with her, presumably for the gold. As the men follow Leah to the mine, they begin to react to her in various ways while she single-mindedly pursues her goal. Daly is panting over Leah , Fiske simply watches her and makes ironic comments about the condition of humankind, while Hooker tries to keep the peace and Vicente leaves marks behind so that he can find his way back to the mine. Things boil over when Daly attempts to rape Leah and then picks a fight with Hooker. Fiske has by this time concluded that Leah is a siren who is deliberately using her sex appeal to tie the men up in knots.

When they finally do arrive at the mine, her husband (Hugh Marlowe) is still alive, but has a broken leg and the days spent in the mine haven’t done his mind any good, either. Instead of being grateful that his wife went to all the trouble she did for him, he lashes out in anger at her. It’s all her fault, he says, that he’s in this mess in the first place. And like Fiske, he considers her a siren who has all the men in thrall to her. All the while, Leah keeps doing her thing, keeps trying to save him, nurse him. She never stops to apologize, never explains herself, never defends herself. She’s like the laconic, taciturn male leads that so often populate westerns. It’s the men who are actually chatty in this one. Even Gary Cooper has more to say than she does.

Garden of Evil, 1954The dialogue is often cited as a weakness in the film. People talk in a stylized, oblique way that rarely seems to further the story. All the men seem to be able to do initially is talk while Leah leads them on. Fiske, in particular, likes to make pronouncements about people and their motivations. Sometimes he’s right, but other times he’s wrong. He’s looking for deep motivations while most people are exactly as they seem, especially Leah Fuller. Their nature just gets magnified by the journey, the pressure, the danger and the gold.

Two men die for love, two die for gold, and two people live (the reader can probably guess which two). Daly is the posturing young coward who lusts for gold and women. Vicente is interesting, because his primary motivation appears to be the gold (he’s already got a woman back home – Rita Moreno), but he also is the steady one Hooker calls on when he wants help, like setting a broken leg. He’s exactly the kind of man you want on a venture like this.

Fiske, on the other hand, never shuts up. He presents himself as a cynical gambler and sits around watching people. People who talk a lot are often not taken seriously and Fiske is not taken seriously, until he shows he does have a noble heart at the end. But not until after he’s deflected his own attraction to Leah by accusing her of being an insincere vamp to her face. Fuller does the same thing.

The irony is that she’s really not as scheming as everyone makes her out to be…except Hooker. He seems to be the only one who understands. The trouble seems to be partially that she’s such a strong-willed, driven woman (and few do strong-willed and driven quite like Susan Hayward) that she outdoes Fiske and Fuller (though not Hooker, who seems pretty comfortable with himself). The way she makes her horse leap over a huge precipice without blinking and waits expectantly for the men to follow, who definitely do blink. She seems to have been the driving force behind Fuller’s search for gold and now he resents her because her drive is so much stronger than his and he feels she used him to get the gold. I think she makes them feel slightly weak. But despite it all, Fiske and Fuller still love her and still manage noble sacrifices. And despite all they say, she keeps on trying to save Fuller (perhaps because of guilt, because she did use him? gratitude for his love? former love for him?)

gardenofevilGary Cooper as Hooker seems to have the least to do of anyone. It’s not even clear if he went on the journey for the gold or if he would have done it anyway. But he’s one of those actors whose presence so quiet, I don’t think we realize how much we would miss him if he was not in the film. He holds everything together: the characters, the story, the movie. He’s the moral compass.

But for being a movie about people “scraped from the bottom of the barrel,” as Fiske calls the group, there is a remarkable amount of nobility. My grandmother commented that despite being people who have clearly been dealt a poor hand in life, there is still a lot of nobility of character. Leah is willing to sacrifice everything for her husband and Hooker, Fiske and Fuller are equally willing to sacrifice their lives for hers.

It’s a film in conflict with itself. Filmed on location in Mexico, it is a beautiful film with craggy and perilous cliffs, sunsets and plains. It’s breathtaking and the music by Herrmann complements it perfectly. Just taking into account the score and cinematography, one would expect the story to be a grand epic. Perhaps it could be interpreted as more grand than greedy (though the dialogue fights against this somewhat). Scrappy people doing their best in the face of fear, temptation, desire, greed and death.

Less noble is the film’s use of the Apache as a plot device (almost a force of nature). They show up whooping (wearing Mohawks) and play the most dangerous game with the characters by hunting them and killing them in locations of their own choosing. But for all that, the film remains an interesting one. Not one of the best westerns, but it is extremely fascinating and a visual and aural pleasure.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in Movies

 

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