Saturday, 9 August 2008

L' Orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock / The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock / The Terror of Dr Hichcock / The Secret of Dr Hichcock / Raptus

The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock is, of course, that he is a necrophile.

It's a theme which showcases the boldness of Freda and other Italian gothic specialists of this time, if we consider that Hitchcock himself – the difference between the two spellings explicable for legal reasons, that Freda and screenwriter Gastaldi were thus not referring to any actual person, living or dead – had declined to make explicit the horrible secret of Vertigo, that “it's about a man who is in love with a dead woman,” except in interview, and the circumspection with which he approached the motives underlying Norman Bates' taxidermy in Psycho given the character's derivation from Ed Gein.

At the same time, hoever, the film obviously isn't as explicit as the likes of Beyond the Darkness, Nekromantic and Aftermath in terms of its depiction of Hichcock's practices, just as The Whip and the Body was less explicit in its depictions of sado-masochism than a Punishment of Anne or Glissements progressifs du plaisir: there were still strict limits in what could be depicted in the early 1960s within a popular / vernacular / genre context.

Another Hitchockian image, recalling Foreign Correspondent

Nonetheless, there is no question that, like Bava's film, The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock remains one of the Italian, and indeed world, cinema's supreme depictions of amour fou, and an absolute must for anyone interested in the capacity of cinema to present perverse, sublime and subversive images and ideas.

Indeed, given that the two films were often censored on their initial release, it's clear that they were pushing the envelope for their time, daring to go where most other popular filmmakers had feared to tread, not only in shock-value exploitation content but also for their surprisingly adult, romantic and non-judgemental approach to their subject matter.

This is evident in the early scenes between Hichcock (Robert Flemyng) and his first wife, Margaret (Teresa Fitzgerald / Maria Teresa Vianello). Rather than being a victim, Margaret is presented an equal participant in what we might term their sadomasochistic edge play. If the active / passive, sadist / masochist positions assigned Hichcock and Margaret here appear conventional, such that the mainstream feminist critic might accuse Freda and Gastaldi of being male sadists presenting a woman suffering from a kind of “false consciousness” in her masochistic identification, this remains an unsatifactory critique in a number of fairly transparent ways.

Indeed the filmmakers actually bring broadly psychoanalytic discourses like these into the film itself, with one of Hichcock's students, Dr Kurt (Montomery Glenn / Silvano Tranquilli) later indicating his engagement with the ideas of a certain Freud from Vienna, whilst in discussing the film in interviews Freda also often made reference to Kraft Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis and case studies therein.

Likewise, Hitchcock is not so much the conventional mad scientist as a dedicated medical professional whose experiments with anaesthesia have proven of benefit in both his personal and private lives. We do not know which came first, whether he discovered that anaesthetising his patients provoked a sexual response, or whether his sexual adventures with Margaret had unexpected benefit for others in the public rather than the private sphere.

Rather than presenting binary oppositions, the filmmakers thus seem more concerned with challenging them, and with exploring those undecidable areas in between, the slippage between poison and cure in Hichcock's use of anaesthetics perhaps even having something of the quality of the Derridean “pharmakon,” to invoke a theoretical term that comes to mind.

Poison was the cure?

Of course, one could have things another way and suggest that the life-saving operations Hichcock performs on his patients are but sadism by proxy, that a man becomes a surgeon because it gives him a way of legitimately cutting up women. While I have no doubt that there was an element of this to Victorian medicine when unnecessary surgeries such as the removal of the ovaries as a means of controlling 'unruly' or 'hysterical' women are considered, to make such a reading of the film appears an interepretive step too far.

Hitchcock, after all, is genuinely distraught when Margaret dies as a result of an overdose, leaving his home immediately after the funeral and being unable to face returning for twelve years: while he may take pleasure in necrophiliac activities, actually precipitating death through his own actions or inactions is a source of considerable distress.

The housekeeper, Martha, dominated by the image of Margaret; note that on the Italian dub their names, Margaretha and Martha, are even closer than in the English subtitles.

Indeed, we might wonder how much simpler his life would have been were he a stock psychotic killer type whom we, as viewers, could then place at a safe distance, as something and someone apart from ourselves; think here of Flesh for Frankenstein with the connotations of the Warhol and Morrisey names and their camp approach actually lessening the extent to which their film really challenges. Put another way, you – i.e. the implied art cinema elite – watch Warhol to show how superior you are, even if the joke may well be just as much on you.

Yes, I like that film's jokes about “fuck[ing] death in the gall bladder” and on the distinctive nasum of the ideal typical member of the Serbian master race as much as the next person, but also find it hard to get away from the sense that Morrisey didn't really have as much genuine feel for a popular form as, say, Polanksi with Dance of the Vampires.

On Hichcock's return he has a new wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele) to whom his devoted housekeeper Martha, who had remained in the house during his years of absence, appears to take an immediate dislike, recalling the character of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca; we also soon after learn that Cynthia's marriage was preceded by a breakdown following the death of her father, hinting that Hichcock represents something of a substitute father for her.

The Woman at the Window, seeing the woman in the garden

Before long strange things start to happen in and around the house. Cynthia sees a female figure in a shroud in the garden near Margaret's crypt. A phantom or just an overactive imagination or trick of the light given the ferocious tempest outside? Later that night she hears what footsteps in the passage outside her room and sees the handle turning, though her husband, whose room is adjacent, professes to have heard nothing.

Martha frequently appears as if out of nowhere, like a phantom

Later, exploring the house, Cynthia finds a locked room that Martha seems rather overly protective of and, returning alone after a visit to the opera when her husband is called away to the hospital, hears a figure calling to her from the fog, proclaiming that “death will catch you as you sleep” to foregrounding another of the film's major themes, the slippage between different states of unconscious being in that to die / to sleep / to sleep perchance to dream manner.

Memento mori

Maybe the voice was that Martha's insane sister, mentioned in passing earlier as yet another ingredient in the gothic stew, but the servant claims to have taken her to the asylum earlier in the day.

Something is clearly going on, however, as testified to by Cynthia then discovering a skull in her bed, a shock moment that allows the filmmakers to reference yet another Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn, just as later a glass of milk will allude to Notorious as it becomes the pivotal element in the mise en scène and the unfolding drama.

The glass of milk

Meanwhile, one of Hichcock's patients has just died in surgery, primarily because he declined to use his anaesthetic: “I shall never use that aneasthetic again. It isn't perfected yet. It can be fatal.”

As the woman's body, covered by a sheet, is led away, Hichcock looks ambiguously at it, a cut to him at home where he then attempts to drown his sorrows once more indicates the lasting consequences of Margaret's traumatic death.

Yet, as Robert Flemyng's wonderful facial tics suggest as Hichcock drinks, he is also desperately trying to suppress the thought of the woman's corpse in the morgue, as yet more memories flood back in a near Proustian manner. Or, as his student's mentor Freud argued, the repressed will return one way or another...

Taken in its own terms as a work of delirious romantic excess, where everything is about overwrought emotion and atmospherics, The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock is an unqualified success, even a masterpiece, in which every element contributes to the whole.

Thus, for instance, though we might quibble about the Italianate appearance of Hichcock's house and the near absense of any other real locations apart from the hospital, the former and the mix of location and studio work also serve to give a suitably uncanny cast to the proceedings and the lack of much sense of the wider metropolis to emphasise Hichcock's growing obsession and the concomitant isolation of his new wife.

Indeed, the one exception to this general pattern, which sees the Hichcock's attend a concert and thus meet other members of society and his colleagues, is itself a pivotal moment in the film by confirming the doctor's inability to really rejoin this world, his wife's concomitant isolation cum encagement and generally setting everything else that follows in motion.

Freda's direction is superb, his camera movements and choice of set ups always telling. He uses close-ups and zooms sparingly and thus more effectively than in some of his later works. Besides the customarily excellent use of light and shadow, fog, and flashes of lightning to momentarily (overly) illuminate a scene, he and his collaborators also make excellent use of colour and production design more generally.

An almost irridescent image of a phantom like Steele

More images of Margaret dominating over Hichcock and her replacement, Cynthia

The Hichcock house is dominated by heavy, subdued colours and a number of portraits of Margaret, the hospital by a sterile whiteness, thus allowing the more obviously stylised, expressive and poetic uses of colour at key points to really stand out. Here we might note, for instance, the flashes of red as Hichcock passion builds or the sickly Vertigo-esque green of the secret passages investigated by Cynthia.

The red of Hichcock's rising passion

The performances are also note perfect, a fact that is all the more vital considering that there are only really five characters in total, two major and three minor.

La signora in verde

Though he might have expressed misgivings about the subject matter, British actor Robert Flemyng's portrayal of Hichcock is genuinely powerful, not so much stiff upper lip as quivering and bitten lower one, as he fights, again and again, against the weight of his past and emerging future...

Whilst Steele is here limited to portraying the light / victim side of her persona and perhaps doesn't do anything we hadn't seen before or wouldn't see again in her other Italian gothic roles, that ineffable facilty for these roles that she possessed again, that inimatable something, again comes through even as at times Cynthia's propensity to faint at the merest provocation foregrounds the character's stock origins.

Here, it's also an interesting thought experiment to try to imagine what the film would have been like had Steele played both Margaret and Cynthia: if the Hichcockian transference motif would have been then stronger, this would have been at the expense of subtlety elsewhere, that we would then have known from the outset why Hichcock had remarried after all these years and that he was not over Margaret but had rather at last found her reincarnation and / or someone who could be refashioned in her image a la Vertigo.

Freda and Gastaldi are engaging with the Hitchcockian in their own terms, rather than merely imitating. Or, to note a neat coincidence, given the importance of anesthesia in their film, it's worth mentioning in passing that Hitchcock's first published piece of writing, a short sensation narrative, was itself an account of an anaesthesia inspired nightmare, in the style of Poe. There is really nothing new under the sun – or the moon for that matter...

An image of premature burial, after Poe

Harriet White was making a career out of playing sinister governesses and housekeepers at this time, and as such has the withering glance and the curt delivery down to an art.

Teresa Fitzgerald beautifully conveys the secret life of her Victorian lady through gestures and expressions that are initially enigmatic – what are her smiles anticipating – and then convey a sublime bliss followed by “the tempestuous loveliness of terror” as the games goes wrong.

Montgomery Glenn rounds things off with a fine, if necessarily somewhat bland by comparison performance as the dashing romantic lead, a figure who represents one of the film's few concessions to convention.

Yet, if the eventual resolution is not as perverse as some might wished, there is little question that the film is a triumph, the whole being topped off by Roman Vlad's lush, romantic score with a lyrical passage or sweeping crescendo to complement each and every image, pushing the whole from melodramatic to operatic intensity.

In a word, unmissable.

[Having previously only seen The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock through a washed out print – though I retrospectively realise that part of this washing out was a reflection of the film's distinctive use of colour – and a somewhat fuzzy VHS source, both in English, this AVI in Italian with custom-made English subtitles came as something of a revelation. It is available from Cinemageddon.]


Mirko di Wallenberg said...

Although Barbara Steel is regarded as one of the Queens of Italian horror I never could appreciate her like other Gialli queens! I do not know why but is so!

Lisa said...

Here, it's also an interesting thought experiment to try to imagine what the film would have been like had Steele played both Margaret and Cynthia: if the Hichcockian transference motif would have been then stronger, this would have been at the expense of subtlety elsewhere, that we would then have known from the outset why Hichcock had remarried after all these years and that he was not over Margaret but had rather at last found her reincarnation and / or someone who could be refashioned in her image a la Vertigo.