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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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Contraband (1940)

Contraband is a comic romantic spy thriller in the vein of The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It also marks the second time that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked together. Not as well known as their later films, or as Hitchcock’s early spy thrillers, Contraband nevertheless is an unexpectedly fun film.

Though the film was released in 1940, the story is set in 1939, before Britain was at war with Germany. Captain Hans Andersen (Conrad Veidt) is the captain of a Danish freighter bringing supplies to his homeland. But his ship is stopped by the British Navy. Though not yet at war, the British are in a state of military preparedness and are stopping all ships to check for contraband intended for the Germans. But while his ship is moored near London, Captain Andersen is drawn into the intrigues of several of his passengers, including the mysterious Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson).

When Contraband was released in America, it was titled Blackout, which Michael Powell later admitted was a more appropriate title. Nearly all of the story occurs during one night, with London subject to a blackout (nightly blackouts which would last for the entire war). All outdoor lights are off, windows are blocked with heavy curtains, cars drive without lights, air raid wardens roam the city looking for any light peeping through windows and warning people not to light matches, traffic signals are a pale fraction of their size, and pedestrians must grope their way through the city. It’s a fascinating look at London during the war, as well as a great setting for a story about German and British spies.

It is also fascinating to see Conrad Veidt – the king of silent German expressionist horror – in a heroic and lightly comic role. He even looks rather dapper and shares an unexpected, zesty chemistry with Valerie Hobson as two people who get a kick out of excitement and danger.

There is comedy in the story, verbal wit (several Nazis responds to Captain Hans Andersen’s introducing himself by saying they are the Brothers Grimm). Captain Andersen’s first mate, Axel (Hay Petrie), has a favorite brother who owns a restaurant in London, which is staffed by a number of Danes ready for a good scrap against the Nazis. The film presents Denmark and Britain as natural allies against the Nazis. Sadly, only a month after Contraband was released in Britain, the Nazis invaded Denmark.

Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson

Both Conrad Veidt and Emeric Pressburger were refugees from Nazi Germany. Veidt left with his Jewish wife in 1933, not long after they were married and Jews were banned from working in the film industry. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew, though working in Berlin when Hitler came to power, and also left Germany. He would later become a British citizen and would form the extraordinarily creative The Archers production company with Michael Powell.

The plot of Contraband is fairly inconsequential. Like many of Hitchcock’s films, the journey and thrills are what count. It’s a fun film and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are a fan of The Lady VanishesNight Train to Munich, Conrad Veidt, or Powell and Pressburger. And who isn’t a fan of at least one of those?

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Lodger (1944)

220px-Thelodger1944Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel The Lodger is about a man suspected of being Jack the Ripper and has been turned into film multiple times, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. I haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s silent film or read the book, though I know that in the book the identity of the lodger is left ambiguous and in Hitchcock’s film the lodger turns out to be innocent. However, in Brahm’s 1944 film – starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon and George Sanders – there is little question that the lodger is indeed the murderer.

Ellen (Sara Allgood) and Robert Bonting (Cedric Hardwicke) are a financially strapped middle-class family obliged to let rooms to a mysterious man (Laird Cregar) who claims to be a pathologist. He needs a room in the attic to conduct his experiments, keeps irregular hours, and is out most nights. His name, he says, is Mr. Slade, which ironically is the name of the street near the Bonting’s house.

Meanwhile, there is mass panic in London. There has been a series of murders by an unknown assailant, who the papers are calling Jack the Ripper. Police are practically blanketing London and still the murders continue. Scotland Yard, lead by Inspector John Warwick (George Sanders), have noticed that all the victims have so far been women who have been on the stage at one point or other. And troublingly, the Bontings have a niece living with them who is on the stage, Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon). Kitty is working her way up the ranks from cabaret to musical theater.

Mr. Slade is a soft spoken man, but he is definitely a bit odd. He expresses dislike of actresses – calling them women  who are “subtle of heart,” which is a reference in Proverbs to harlots – and is besotted by his deceased, sensitive artist brother. He is polite and Kitty thinks he must be a very lonely man, but he also radiates mystery and menace (and Laird Cregar is a huge man who towers over everybody, including George Sanders, who is over six feet tall). Mr. and Mrs. Bonting (especially Mrs. Bonting) begin to suspect that Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper. Mr. Bonting initially pooh-poohs his wife’s suspicions as irrationally founded without facts, but gradually begins to join her in her suspicions. In fact, Mr. Bonting is a bit of an armchair detective, absolutely fascinated by the mystery, reading the morning papers and the evening papers in an attempt to stay always current.

Laird Cregar

Laird Cregar

There is a lot of newspaper reading in The Lodger: early in the morning, in the evening, always catching the very latest news the moment it hits the streets in the kind of sensationalist immediacy found today.

It’s not exactly a mystery that Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper and the plot is not particularly well-developed. What it does have and one of the reasons I like it so much, is atmosphere. There is fog everywhere on the cobblestones of London. It’s not quite like the fog described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House, which is almost a living substance, thick, murky, and polluting. However, it is still all-pervasive and would give the film a cozy feeling if there wasn’t so much menace. There are the buskers singing their songs while people wait to enter the theater where Kitty Langley is performing, the warm pub where people sing and drink with the fog outside, making the inside look all the more inviting. Policemen are reassuringly positioned on every corner of every street, giving the appearance of safety and solidity. But it doesn’t do any good and somehow Jack the Ripper continues to find his victims, practically under the noses of the police.

What also makes the film stand out is Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade. He is the ultimate alienated anti-hero. He reeks of alienation, with his puppy-dog eyes that can also threaten with a fanatical light. As DVD Savant describes the film and Cregar’s performance: “Once again teamed with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Brahm’s camera cranes over shiny cobble-stoned back lots and isolates characters in dingy rooms. Cregar’s alienation and weirdness is accentuated by dramatic accent lighting on his tortured eyes.”

PHOTO_17381111_66470_9229404_apThere is also a Phantom of the Opera-like ending, with a confrontation in the theater dressing room and a chase backstage on the catwalks.

George Sanders seems a bit under-used as the solid Scotland Yard inspector, much taken with Kitty, and solidly groping his way towards solving the mystery and trying to protect Kitty. Still, one never objects to the presence of George Sanders in a film, even when he doesn’t have much to do.

Kitty is actually a rather unique character, though not a complex one. She has just returned from Paris, where she learned the new Parisian dances, and has brought a company of French girls back with her to London, making her way in a very calm, business-like manner, like she was running a business and not a “saucy” show. She practically makes the cancan respectable. Even her respectable aunt and uncle seem to have no qualms about her chosen profession. She’s such a sympathetic person that it doesn’t seem to click for her how odd Mr. Slade really is. Perhaps it’s because, as my sister suggested, she’s used to meeting odd people in the theater or simply because she’s so busy recognizing the loneliness in him that it doesn’t register how dangerous he is or that he is in fact threatening her.

The Lodger can currently be found on youtube.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2015 in Movies

 

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