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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, August 27, 2015

FINAGLING THE FOCAL PRESENCE PT. 2

Part One appeared way back in 2012, but it's once more relevant as I've been giving thought once more to the question of "illusory focal presences."  This means that I'll be revealing the endings of various narratives under discussion, so-- SPOILERS.

Literature is rife with stoties in which a narrator seems to interact with another human being, who may be his literal double, as with Poe's short story "William Wilson," or an ego-projection with its own apparently identity, as seen in Conrad's "Secret Sharer" and Palahniuk's FIGHT CLUB. The latter, dealing with projections that come to seem more real than the viewpoint character, may be seen as modern-day iterations of the Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship-- not least because, as I noted in this essay, Hyde is usually much more interesting than Jekyll.

Two more involved variations of this trope can be found in a pair of 1960s films I've reviewed on my cinema-review blog.

In its first hour, Mario Bava's 1963 work THE WHIP AND THE BODY seems like a set-up for a ghost story, particularly since Kurt, the black-sheep aristocrat who projects the greatest evil-- played by horror-icon Christopher Lee-- dies early in the story, and then seems to come back and prey upon the members of his family. It eventually comes out that Nevenka-- Kurt's former lover, who was married to his brother in Kurt's absence-- is guilty not only of killing Kurt but of committing murders as the persona of Kurt. She finally kills herself in the belief that she's killing Kurt.

But who's the focal presence? As I noted in the review, I've seen only the American release, which may have eliminated some key info about Nevenka's personality. However, though Nevenka follows a pattern that had been popularized three years previous by Hitchcock's PSYCHO, she's no Norman Bates. Hitchcock at least gives the viewer broad hints about how Norman became a monster, but I suspect that Bava didn't supply much for Nevenka. If the Italian version isn't any more elaborate than the American release, it may be that the true focal presence of the movie is not the confused masochist Nevenka, but her illusion of Kurt-- much as was the case with the two narratives discussed in Part One: 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and Irving's "Headless Horseman."

So WHIP would be another example where "Hyde," the forceful ego-image, is more real than the Jekyll-persona that creates him. On the other hand, 1964's THE BLACK TORMENT provides a rare example of the reverse tendency.

The viewpoint character of TORMENT is a "new wife" in the tradition of REBECCA and similar narratives, but it's the new wife's husband who seems to be the star of the show-- for TORMENT's conflict revolves around another Hyde-like problem-- is Sir Richard Fordyke, the lord of the manor, committing random murders, as witnesses attest?

The mere fact that I label the film's dominant trope to be that of the "phantasmal figuration" should be enough to signal that Sir Richard happens to be innocent. None of the plotters-- not even the "menacing doppelganger" who impersonates Sir Richard-- are very impressive, and though I mentioned that Sir Richard himself isn't very deep, the question of whether he is or is not sane seems to be the film's most central question. Thus, BLACK TORMENT would be, in essence, one of the few times that "Jekyll" doesn't just outshine "Hyde," his character-arc is, like that of REBECCA's saturnine husband, more significant to the narrative than either the viewpoint character or any of those who oppose him.


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