Freud Vs Marx in the World Series of Love

THE LOCKET is best-remembered for its Russian dolls structure, with a flashback embedded in a flashback inside another flashback. Like INCEPTION, we go in, and in, and in, then out and out and out. But there are more pleasures than that, as any decent marital guide could tell you.

Director John Brahm was great at what animators call “extremes” — he could frame shots in such a way that the composition alone created a skewed, intense emotion — see this shot of Larraine Day, filmed from INSIDE her wedding veil. The ending of his version of THE LODGER seems composed almost entirely of extremes — Laird Cregar brought out the be(a)st in him.

Screenwriter Sheridan Gibney told Patrick McGilligan about writing this one, and being forced to compromise the ending by the Production Code. He wanted it to end with Larraine Day walking down the aisle with new hubbie Gene Raymond. The censors said she couldn’t, as she was a thief who had driven one man to madness and another to suicide. Gibney’s argument was that we didn’t know this — we have only Brian Aherne’s word for it, and he’s maybe mad… An interesting test case: the censor decided that crime must not pay, even when it’s only maybe crime and maybe never happened.

The IMDb lists blacklistee Norma Barzman as co-writer — Gibney didn’t mention her. But it’s tempting to see the two writers as embodying warring stances, the Freudian and Marxist influences on the script. Larraine Day is crazy, afflicted with kleptomaniacal compulsions caused by a traumatic incident in her childhood when she was unjustly accused of theft by nasty rich lady Katherine Emery (maybe the film’s best performance, and a character who’s horribly convincing because she’s so certain she’s in the right). This sequence is buried in the deepest flashback of the set, the primal scene/inciting incident at the heart of Day’s, and the film’s, psychosis.

The Figure in the Carpet is Mitch!

Surrounding this traumatic memory is the Robert Mitchum section, and he plays an artist with a chip on his shoulder about rich folks, so the theme is continued, but kind of reversed, since in this story the rich people are nice and Mitchum is wrong to mistrust them. Mitchum’s story ends with one of the film’s periodic plunges into delirium and hysteria, and this sets up a similar freak-out in the Brian Aherne narrative (do keep up). Aherne’s story is less obviously about class, though he does continued to insist he has no money. He’s a psychiatrist who goes off his trolley as his doubts about his spouse — Day again — eat away at his nerves. At the climax of his breakdown, the art theme from the Mitchum storyline and the madness one from Aherne’s collide, in the movie’s most psychedelic image —

Mitchum’s crap Dali knock-off of an eyeless Cassandra suddenly acquires eyes — Larraine Day’s eyes!

Whew! And then we emerge, gasping, back into the present tense, where Day is about to marry the wealthy Raymond, completing a climb up the social ladder, and it turns out she’s marrying into nasty Katherine Emery’s family. The “stolen” locket that started the whole thing off is now hers by right. But this triggers a mental collapse, signified by flashbacks appearing in the carpet — the film has been so overstuffed with embedded narratives that they’ve spilled out and are now seeping into the furniture. Having swithered* between a cod-Freudian view of the problem, a superstitious one — Day’s madness infects Aherne — and the class-centred argument that social injustice screws us all up — the film now finds mercy for its demoness, with Raymond deciding to stick by her until she can be cured, despite Emery’s aghast reaction (good to see she really is the horrible person she appeared as in Day’s own flashback — but with this beat, the movie closes the door on the possibility of any of our various narrators being unreliable).

The above probably doesn’t make a lick of sense to you if you haven’t seen the movie. So see the movie! What am I, your mother?

*Your lovely Scots word for the day.

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7 Responses to “Freud Vs Marx in the World Series of Love”

  1. I was wondering for a while if the multiple flashback structure of Film Noir and baroque plots, and use of narrators, was a way of subverting the code. That bit about the screenwriters trying to have a potential villain rewarded by citing unreliable narrator is good proof of that.

  2. It could be. And, at the end of the story, nobody seems inclined to have Day prosecuted for the murder she committed, which another man was executed for… and that’s the version the censor PREFERRED — Gibney and Barzman having effectively befuddled them. It’s really just like Inception, the subversive idea is planted deep enough so it can’t be detected…

  3. Robert Siodmak had flashbacks in a number of his films in the 40s. The Killers is most famous, but also Criss Cross (which is my favorite) and that film is even more cold and brutal especially for the finale where Yvonne DeCarlo abandons Burt Lancaster to die, and tells her she values money more than love. And while she dies and gets shot down by Dan Duryea, the way thes scene is staged makes a mockery of the hero…and leaves nothing redemptive there. Heck even if you hear police sirens coming for Duryea we don’t see him getting caught. Then of course, there’s Christmas Holiday by Herrmann J. Mankiewicz (and this is a film he did fully write rather than co-write as he did on Kane).

    You know I don’t like the word inception, because within that movie, it amounts to a corporate euphemism for brainwashing. And that’s what that movie is about, and it’s the one thing there’s no ethical hand-wringing whatsoever about in that film. It’s kind of weird nobody called it out for that. Believe me nobody would think that movie was cool if it was called Brainwashing. The Marx vs. Freud is interesting because flashbacks by their nature are about something repressed in the past. And in film terms, it stops the movie we are watching up to that point and cuts to a second film that happened in the past. So I wonder if that repression and angst about the past and so on is what this is about.

    It’s actually interesting that modern screenwriting bibles and their imitators and followers, which we see on TV insist on avoiding flashbacks, and voiceovers and so on.

  4. Mad Men had both flashbacks and voiceovers though, so phew!

  5. Yes, it’s also interesting that nobody seems to pay attention to Robert McKee etc on the subject of flashbacks.

    Inception is dumb in a lot of ways, and creepy in its enthusiasm for brainwashing, though it doesn’t work out too well for DiCaprio’s character. Since it sets Ellen Page up as the audience’s stand-in to ask questions on our behalf, having her show some slight scruples might have been useful. “Why do we think this is OK, or do we just not care?”

    The Batman films also display authoritarian tendencies, of course.

  6. It really struck me by the time I watched Interstellar how much every Nolan hero probably *adores* Ayn Rand. I give the Prestige boys a pass though because a) there’s all manner of comeuppance, and b) showbiz.

  7. I actually think Nolan is generally incurious about that. He’s like Ridley Scott, who is intellectually pretty shallow and not very bright about a bunch of stuff, but who has an interest in weird stylistic quirks and aesthetic fetishes. He’s purely amoral even when he makes those childish superhero films with preachy messages.

    About flashbacks I was thinking about some recent stuff. Like that Game of Thrones TV Show, I saw an interview with the producer David Benioff (who wrote the book that Spike Lee made 25th HOUR from) where he called it a lazy storytelling gimmick. And I keep reading a bunch of other stuff about narrator voices and other stuff also being lazy. And I don’t get the logic of some stuff being “lazy”. What matters is how people write it. I mean there’s nothing lazier than “three-act-structure” and yet everyone does that to the exclusion of everything.

    Flashbacks I think complicate the conventional breaking of films into acts, and it’s a real movie gimmick whenever it is used, so that might be why people dislike it. And why stuff like The Locket and other films noir pushed it to the max.

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