Mixing Memory and Desire
Meditations on Three Movies with Masks
By Bill Trevarthen (i)
The movie was called The Mask, and it was a horror film.
It was also in 3-D.
3-D in 1961, the year of the movie’s release, was not what 3-D is today. The glasses they handed us as we entered the theatre’s darkened, popcorn-perfumed world, were disposable and cheap: thin cardboard with cellophane lenses, one red, one green. But however crude the technology, it worked. The 3-D images popped; they could sometimes scare you out of your seat.
This is what I remember of that film. There was a minimal amount of plot. Even at eleven, I think, I had some sense of the story’s silliness. Someone, somewhere had found a mask. It had great, malevolent powers. The discoverer of the mask died (due, no doubt, to the mask’s pernicious effects), and someone else (a psychiatrist, I think) inherited the mask. For a reason unclear to the audience and maybe to the character himself, (and against all his own better judgment and that of the audience, too—we yelled “Don’t do it!! Don’t put it on!” at the screen) the psychiatrist put the mask on. And when he did this he descended into hell. As the psychiatrist lifted the mask to his face, a sinister voice in the movie told us in the audience to put our own masks (our glasses) on, too, and when we did, we joined him on his journey to a three-dimensional nightmare.
Some of the images have stayed with me for all these years. The sequence from the film I remember most vividly was a slow-motion glide, the protagonist in a boat on the river Styx, souls in torment on the river’s banks. Their bodies were sometimes in attitudes of intense sensation that were, like the pose of Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy, a fusion (or maybe confusion is the more appropriate term) of ecstasy and agony. It was nightmarish but also hypnotic, maybe even, in some strange sense, elegant. I remember the slowness of it, a willingness on the filmmakers’ part to let the images accumulate gradually. And sometimes there was an undercurrent of eroticism that a teenager could register but almost certainly not explain.
That is what I remembered.
The internet can connect us to almost any fantasy or reunite us with many of our memories. When I took what was surely my imperfect remembrance of The Mask to the realities offered by Google, I found my recollections and appreciations of the movie both reinforced and contradicted. In seconds, I was watching footage from the movie on You-Tube: the trailer and several long (5-7minute) passages from the hallucinatory 3-D sequences. (Wikipedia’s entry on this movie reports that there are only four 3-D sequences in all in the film, each lasting only four minutes, although, judging from what I saw, the sequences are actually longer than that). One of the passages available on You-Tube includes a portion of the River Styx boat ride (the boat is actually a coffin) but not the entire sequence and not the imagery I recalled most vividly.
I don’t remember that I had nightmares after seeing The Mask, but watching these You-Tube offerings, I certainly think I should have. Many images are quite disturbing, as they were intended to be. But were they, as I recalled, elegant? I think I would need to see the entire movie again to determine if there is anything resembling elegance in the 3-D segments. The fragments available online I would instead call grotesque, sometimes primitively and predictably so (in the sense that many are typical of low budget horror films from this time). But they are also sometimes startling and inventive; the film’s makers were perhaps aiming for or influenced by the surrealism of Un Chien Andalou or the unsettling expressionism of films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. No descriptions or reviews I found online made any reference to the film’s aspirations in that regard or for that matter treated it seriously at all. In fact, some critics dismissed the film simply as “cheesy.” I don’t think that’s an entirely fair assessment either. I think there was a considerable amount of imagination and creativity at work in the movie.
Was there eroticism as I remembered? Based on the limited amount of 3-D footage available, I would say, yes, of a sort. It’s of the sort that was common in film noir, in sword and sandal movies, in pulp fiction, and in the now extinct genre of periodical known as “the men’s adventure magazine”. Chief among the characteristics of this brand of eroticism is its reliance on the damsel-in-distress-theme: the well endowed beauty, usually bound, at the mercy of every variety of sinister man: mad scientists, Nazis, sorcerers, torturers. There were variations that reversed the gender roles, as well. Heroes, warriors, handsome and muscular, at the mercy of sadistic men or sometimes of sadistic women (as, for example, in “Blood for the Harlots of Horror” from the adventure magazine Rugged Man, October 1960). These magazines, by the way, were easily found on newsstand shelves in their heyday after WWII and were a staple in men’s barber shops in the 50s and early 60s. A collection of their covers (from Rich Oberg’s collection) has been assembled in Men’s Adventure Magazines in Postwar America (Max Allan Collins and George Hagenauer, Taschen, 2008).
In the online footage from The Mask a beautiful blonde woman is carried to a stone altar where she is then stretched out and where the protagonist, attracted to her and wanting to save her, sees her morph from young and beautiful into a skeleton and then back again. When she returns to “normal,” she has a mask on her face. There seems to be an implication in this sequence that she is now beyond his reach, passed over into the realm of the damned and so also beyond saving, although the mask on her face makes her appear oddly benign.
A couple of asides that might give a little insight into the zeitgeist and the sources of the imagery that fed horror movies of the early 60s. Larry McMurtry writes in Books (Simon and Schuster, 2008), his memoir of reading, writing, and trading in books, “This (the late forties and early fifties) was the heyday of the Republic Pictures serials, many of them involving jungle queens or damsels otherwise in distress.” About wartime and post-wartime comic books from this period, he writes, “I wanted stronger stuff, and stronger stuff did soon arrive in the form of the many violent propaganda comics published by the Fiction House group: Fight, Rangers, Wings, even Sheena, Queen of the Jungle—all these comics were violently racist and very sadistic.” “I read these comics with shock.” (Nothing I remember of The Mask was in any way racist, and the currents of sadism (which is, let’s face it, a staple of horror movies) were very mild.)
The idea of portraying the torments of hell in an erotic fashion, if that’s what the makers of The Mask intended, was not new. Fox Film Corporation’s 1935 blockbuster Dante’s Inferno “featured a loving recreation of the famous Gustave Dore engravings. The anatomy of hundreds of glistening sinners was obscured by airbrushed steam only in the still photographs.” (From Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-code Hollywood by Mark Vieira, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999.)
The Mask (also known as The Eyes of Hell) was noteworthy in several other respects. According to one report online, it was the first Canadian horror film ever made and the first Canadian film widely released in the U.S. Produced by Warner Brothers, it was directed by Julian Roffman and starred Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins (who went on to star in many U.S. television series) and Bill Walker. The 3-D sequences were designed by Slavko Vorkapich (at one time dean of the film school at USC and a prominent artist and cinematographer), although one website claims his original plans for those sequences were too expensive to produce and that Roffman actually produced the sequences himself.
The poster for the movie bears the headline: Three-D Terror That Crawls up Your Spine! The 3-D glasses that were handed out were designed to look more like masks than like the ordinary glasses used for most 3-D movies during that period.
The Mask is available now on DVD from Amazon. Information about the film can be found at IMDb.com and Wikipedia. There are links to several reviews on the IMDb website (they’re mostly negative). The Amazon page for The Mask contains a number of user reviews, some quite positive, and a few of these indicate that the user first saw this movie as I did, in a movie theatre in 1961. Apparently it was for them, as it was for me, a very affecting experience.
I don’t remember how soon it was after seeing The Mask that I came home one night and joined my parents as they watched the Claude Rains’ version of The Phantom of the Opera on late night TV. I had seen a newer version of The Phantom not long before this in the movie theatre and remember that it was in color, quite glamorous and entertaining, but not very memorable. By contrast, the Phantom I watched with my parents had a profound effect on me. It was the scene in which a woman throws acid in Rains’ face that affected me most: the animal sounds he made in his agony, his disfigurement, his ruined life.
Up until this time violence in movies had not really registered. Like every boy my age, I had seen thousands of men die in war movies and westerns but these people died more or less bloodlessly. There was sometimes a moment when pain crossed their faces, sometimes a clutch at the heart, and always there was a collapse and instant death. Never prolonged suffering. Nothing that was truly meant to disturb.
The phantom’s suffering was real to me. I realized for the first time in my life watching that movie that I was not some sort of spirit moving freely and safely through the world. I was not a cartoon character who, if I were incinerated or injured, would feel what was more akin to silliness than pain and then recover, miraculously whole again in a second or two. I was a physical being in a physical world, a specific set of molecules subject to “all the natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. I was vulnerable in the same way that all people are vulnerable except that my own vulnerability was, as each person’s is, finally and inescapably mine alone.
This point was even more dramatically and cruelly made by a movie I saw two years later. The Ceremony (1963) starred Sarah Miles, Laurence Harvey, and Robert Walker, Jr. At the end of this movie, Walker, Jr. is burned beyond recognition when his car explodes after crashing into a tree. He had been fleeing the Moroccan police (the movie takes place in Tangier) trying to lead them away from his brother whom he had helped escape from prison. Not able to identify him, the police believe he is the escaped brother, take him (still alive) back to the station, refuse to give him morphine until he confesses or tells them where some stolen money is hidden, and finally put him in front of a firing squad and shoot him. It was, in a word, hideous. Here everything was meant to disturb, and, in my case, it succeeded.
I could not free myself from this movie for days, actually felt physically sick. I remember that it was shot in a grainy, almost sepia-toned black and white that amplified its horror. I have never seen it again and don’t ever intend to. It remains the most disturbing movie I have seen in my life. The one review I was able to find online, from Variety, called The Ceremony “a depressingly dark film”. An understatement.
It’s ironic in a way that it was movies, The Phantom and The Ceremony, that brought home for me this grim lesson of life. Movies are a special brand of unreality (or can be—or used to be), and movies had been my escape, always safe, and the principal pleasure of my young life. I had actually been attracted to The Ceremony because its trailer featured moments of what looked like a very sexy scene between Walker, Jr., and Sarah Miles (a favorite of mine). The night I saw The Ceremony it was paired with (actually, the unlikely second feature to) I’ll Take Sweden, an innocuous and not very sexy sex-farce starring Bob Hope. Instead of being allowed finally that night to gain a glimpse or two into the world of sex that had taken my imagination by storm, I was betrayed. And because I loved movies so much, it felt like betrayal by a very dear friend.
In the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera, only the man’s face is burned but it has a kind of terminal effect. Horribly disfigured, he must withdraw from life. He must mask his face literally, and he must mask metaphorically all his hopes for his own happiness and his desire for the woman he has fallen in love with. His condition is as permanent as it is painful.
Since that night in the early 60s, I have seen other versions of The Phantom of the Opera: the Lon Chaney silent film, which is considered much finer than the Claude Rains version by most critics, some newer versions of the story, and, of course, the elaborate Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. I enjoyed the musical Phantom of the Opera. I was impressed by its sets and its stunning effects, was moved by its ending. But the half mask worn by the musical’s star says something about the guts and soul of this play. This is not the mask worn by Claude Rains or Lon Chaney. The stylish half mask of the musical signals that the phantom is only minimally disfigured. His disfigurement is not enough to render him unattractive. The real pain that Claude Rains’ character feels from the acid and from the endless isolation it causes him is drained out of the musical so that it won’t really disturb us. There’s only enough discomfort suggested to intensify the poignancy of the romance.
Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains also starred Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster. It was released in 1943, directed by Arthur Lubin, and filmed in Technicolor. I saw it on television in 1962 in black and white. My family did not buy a color television set until 1967.
Movies that I had gone to seeking titillation and revelation turned out to be more about the dangers of being alive and about retribution for sin. Masks in these movies had been associated with hell, nightmares, disfigurement, pain, and madness. And then I saw Tony Richardson’s film, Tom Jones.
Masks are not central to the story or theme of this movie, as they are in The Mask and The Phantom of the Opera, but masks play an important role at an important point in Fielding’s novel and in Richardson’s film of the novel. (Richardson, by the way, is surprisingly faithful to Fielding’s book, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, although as the film critic Pauline Kael points out in her review, his movie “races through” it. He sheds, of course, the many digressions and side stories of the novel, but he does capture its tone and its spirit, and he lifts sometimes whole passages of dialogue from Fielding’s Tom Jones with all their marvelous 18th century flavor intact.)
The masked ball occurs about two-thirds of the way through both Fielding’s novel and Richardson’s film. Tom Jones, having been expelled from the home of his adoptive father, Squire Allworthy, for filling the house “with riot and debauchery,” has finally made his way to London. On his long and episodic journey, Tom has encountered Mr. Partridge, the man reputed to be his birth father (he is not), and Mrs. Waters, the woman reputed to be his birth mother (she is not, thank God—he sleeps with her in Upton). He has also been on constant lookout for his love, Sophie (Sophia in the novel), the daughter of Allworthy’s neighbor, Squire Western. Sophie has herself fled her home and her repressive father to travel to London. Squire Western is in hot pursuit of his daughter, and Partridge, Waters, and other characters are either in hot pursuit of still other characters or fleeing from other characters. All the elements of 18th century farce (mistaken identities, “clandestine amours,” and general confusion) are ready to make their appearances on the stage. It’s the perfect occasion for a masquerade.
In London Tom finds lodging with Mrs. Miller, a friend to Squire Allworthy, and it is here one morning that he receives a package containing a domino, a mask, and an invitation to a masquerade (“the Queen of the Fairies sends you this; treat her favors not amiss”). He attends thinking he will have some news there of his beloved Sophie.
Richardson takes a few liberties with Fielding’s narrative of the masquerade. He includes Squire Western (wisely, I think, and wearing a terrific elephant mask) and his sister in the proceedings. He also moves the ball from its indoor setting in the book outdoors to Vauxhall gardens. (It was apparently very cold on the day of the shoot; if you look carefully you can see people’s breath.) And rather than having the conversation between the “Queen of the Fairies” and Tom Jones occur as they are seating or standing, he films it during their participation in a formal, stately dance. It’s a scene of seduction, and, done this way, it’s very effective, indeed, both for the Fairy Queen and for Richardson’s audience. At its conclusion, Tom follows the elegant masked woman home only to learn that she is not, as he expected, Sophie’s cousin, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, but instead Lady Bellaston, the “notorious Lady Bellaston,” the film’s narrator informs us.
In the first chapter of his novel, his “Bill of Fare”, Fielding promises his readers that, after first offering them fare in the “plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country,” he will later “hash and ragout it with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford.” With the seduction of Tom Jones by Lady Bellaston, we have now reached the “hash and ragout” point in the meal.
Tom is plunged into an affair with this wealthy and influential woman, who “showers him with affection and gifts”. He is now introduced to a world dramatically more luxurious and indulgent than anything he has known, even as the relatively privileged son of a prosperous country aristocrat.
The sexually aggressive Lady Bellaston was the Mrs. Robinson of her day. Pauline Kael and other reviewers of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate have contended that Mrs. Robinson is an almost revolutionary female character in film. In her relationship with Benjamin she has no interest in love or commitment or even in conversations of any kind, especially those about Fords or art. She is interested in Benjamin purely for the sex. In that regard, her character is uncommon in the history of movies, but not, as these reviewers believe, new or unique. Lady Bellaston has no interest in Tom beyond her sexual interest in him, and her appearance in Richardson’s film predates The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson by nearly five years. Her appearance in Fielding’s novel predates Mrs. Robinson by nearly two hundred.
Tom Jones might more accurately have been called The Education of Tom Jones. Our hero is transformed as he travels. He grows as he meets the novel’s or the film’s many characters; one way or another, they educate him. What he learns from Lady Bellaston is the emptiness of this type of relationship, and the recognition of this emptiness prepares him ultimately for the fulfillment of marriage to his Sophie.
When Tom Jones was released in 1963, it was marketed and heralded as a bawdy, ribald comedy, almost groundbreaking in its openness about sex. Today it seems almost prudish when compared to, say, daytime soap operas or many of the programs airing during the major networks’ primetime hours. Neither Fielding’s novel nor Richardson’s film is ultimately about the sexual exploits of its hero. It’s about reaching a point of balance in life. At the novel’s end, Tom is made whole “by his union with the lovely and virtuous Sophia. He hath also, by reflection on his past follies, acquired a discretion and prudence very uncommon in one of his lively parts.” (All quotes from The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling are from the 1964 Random House edition of the work.)
For his lively part, Richardson has made a film that is a labor of love. Tom Jones is full of the love of life, of literature, and of filmmaking. I find it as enjoyable today as I did when I first saw it in 1963.
Tom Jones starred (among many others) Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, and Joan Greenwood. It was an enormous box office success and won four Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Direction, Tony Richardson; Best Music Score, John Addison; and Best Screenplay, John Osborne). It was nominated for six other Oscars that year.
The mask in The Phantom of the Opera signaled a retreat from the world. The mask in the movie The Mask was a gateway to hell. The mask in Tom Jones was an entrance into a world of privilege, wealth, and sex, into a world of physical indulgence.
I saw all three of these movies between 1961 and 1963, so when I was 11, 12, and 13 years old. These are impressionable years and years of transition. The books one reads, the movies ones sees are likely to be felt with more power than they might actually possess or deserve to be credited with. The newly minted teenager, even in today’s accelerated world, is awakening to self and sex and identity and therefore especially alive to the potency of imagery.
These three very different films, related, yes, by their use of masks as narrative devices, really had for me only this one other theme in common: they are about being flesh and blood, with all the risk and danger that that entails and also, especially in the case of Tom Jones, with all the pleasures and possibilities that that entails. Looking back at that period of my life and at the power these three films had on me, I like to think that the optimism, exuberance, and what I might call the balance of Tom Jones were the strongest influences of all.
To underscore the dichotomy presented to us as living, feeling human beings, Richardson borrows from Dryden for his film’s closing voiceover:
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He, who can call today his own;
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.