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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...

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


The other two FINAGLING essays, here and here, have concerned the ways in which focal presences may include illusory phantasms that have been conjured up out of a character's mind, whether for the purpose of deceiving someone else, as with Washington Irving's story SLEEPY HOLLOW, or as a by-product of the character's strong identification with someone else, as with Mario Bava's film THE WHIP AND THE BODY. Some qualifications of this general rule are necessary, though.

In Part Two I mentioned that the character of Nevenka had become subsumed in her idea of her ex-lover Kurt, to the extent that she believed she had become Kurt and was killing as he would have killed people-- though he was already dead by Nevenka's hand before her serial-killing career begins. I also remarked that Nevenka was "no Norman Bates," by which I meant that Norman was a more well-rounded character, both in the novel and the 1960 film. But it also applies to the degree to which Norman's character is subsumed by the character of his mother, Norma Bates. The pattern may be the same, but Norma does not take over the narrative of PSYCHO the way Kurt takes over the narrative of WHIP & BODY. Not until 2013, with the premiere of the BATES MOTEL teleseries, did some raconteur develop the Norma character. Yet although Norma overrides Norman's character in the story proper, extrinsically Norman is still more important than Norma, even in BATES MOTEL.

Something similar to Norman Bates's transcendence of his role model appears in the 1964 film STRAIT-JACKET As I state in the review, this film was a case of scripter Bloch aping his own PSYCHO-success. This time, however, the situation is somewhere between that of SLEEPY HOLLOW and WHIP AND BODY. Years before the main story, Lucy Harbin has committed the axe-murder of her husband and her husband's lover, but though her legend gives her a repute along the lines of Lizzie Borden, Lucy doesn't get away with giving her victims "forty whacks," and she goes away to an asylum for twenty years. The main story opens as Lucy, rehabilitated at last, is released to rejoin normal society, and to re-connect with her daughter Carol. Carol, three years old at the time of the murders, witnessed the killings but now, twenty years later, seems entirely normal-- which ought to suggest to any viewers the most likely suspect when some new axe-murders commence.

Carol commits the new murders to frame her mother, whom she despises, and so in many regards she's doing the same Brom Bones (probably) did in SLEEPY HOLLOW: creating the illusion of a mad killer. At the same time, the film's conclusion suggests that she's more than a little nuts, which allies her more with Nevenka of WHIP AND BODY. Still, the focal presence of STRAIT-JACKET is not the illusion of Lucy Harbin Axe-Murderer. Rather, Carol is the imaginative center of the movie; the new psycho-bitch in town.

Age plays a role in this shift in the film's focal presence, for although Lucy briefly tries to camouflage her true age-- star Joan Crawford was roughly sixty-four at the time-- it's plain to the viewer that she no longer possesses the "mojo" to be an axe-murderer.

And yet, age can also lend a given character more gravity. The Classic Trek episode "The Conscience of the King" is, like all such episodes, focused on the adventures of Captain Kirk and his ensemble. However, it occurred to me to ask: if the story had focused only upon the opposition-characters, who would have been the focal presence? The actor Karidian, like Lucy Harbin, is guilty of murders committed long ago under the name "Kodos the Executioner." However, within the sphere of the existing narrative Kodos as a character has ceased to exist, subsumed by the regrets of Karidian. However, although Karidian's daughter Lenore has lost her mind due to finding out about her father's past, and has sought to kill off all witnesses to Kodos' crime, I would say that Lenore, unlike Carol Harbin, never has a shot at being the focal presence. She exists to provide Karidian with yet another torment in his life of regrets, and so a retelling of the story, sans the Trek-regulars, would have been focused upon the tragic figure of the aged criminal.

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