Archive for May, 2019

A Visit to the Prado, or, What I did on my Holidays

There are, next to each other, two fridge magnets, on our fridge (as one might expect), of Rembrandt’s painting “The Jewish Bride”, and of Velazquez’ painting “Las Meninas”. And I used to say that one was the greatest painting I have seen, and the other the greatest painting I haven’t. Well, I have finally remedied that. Heaven knows why it has taken so long. We finally made that trip to Madrid, and spent a day at the Prado – one day was never going to be enough, but it will have to do for now – and so, yes, I have now seen “Las Meninas” as well.

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Visiting the Prado is a dizzying experience. There is far too much to take in in a single visit. After a while, one finds oneself walking past paintings one knows to be masterpieces, but feeling too saturated with what one has already seen to try to absorb anything more. And what about all those other paintings that deserve the time I did not have, and the attention that had already drained away? Well, another visit, perhaps, some other time. Maybe a longer stay in Madrid, and more than a mere day. My mind these days is too small to absorb too many things within so short a space of time. (This, incidentally, applies to my reading also, but let us not get side-tracked.)

Not that I responded to everything. I can make nothing at all of Hieronymus Bosch for instance, and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, so often cited as one of the gallery’s highlights, left me cold. And what is one to make of Rubens? Now, there are a great many paintings by Rubens that I admire – some immensely – but he did churn them out, didn’t he? And yes, I love flamboyance: if anything, my tastes run towards the flamboyant rather than towards the restrained. But there were times I stood in front of some of those canvases, and thought to myself, “This is just silly!” Standing in front of “The Adoration of the Magi”, I actually found myself laughing: not quite, perhaps, the most appropriate response. And yes, this is a comment on me, not on Rubens. But, much though I love the dramatic and the colourful, certain things are beyond even my threshold.

And El Greco. There was a strange one. There was a time when the paintings of El Greco fascinated me, with those colours, at once vibrant and austere, and those forms curiously elongated, but I can see little in them these days except a sort of mystic terror. I don’t think I am so earthbound as to reject anything that may be termed “spiritual” (I use inverted commas there as an admission of defeat: “spiritual” seems far too vague a term to describe what I would like to convey, but neither can I think of a suitable alternative). But, whatever “spirituality” I may profess, an artistic vision that appears to me to offer little other than terror is not one that speaks to me. Not these days, at least: perhaps my receptivity had been broader in my younger days.

But let us not dwell on all that I failed to respond to. What is the point, when there was so much that transported me? Merely to list all the paintings that I loved would be tedious, certainly for myself, and even more certainly, I think, for the reader. So let me highlight just a few paintings that made a particular impression on me. Please indulge me as I choose my personal choices – five paintings that I would take with me from this gallery for my own imaginary private collection.

But choosing merely a few highlights is not very easy in a gallery such as this, where, after having been held transfixed for God knows how long by Velazquez’ “Las Meninas”, I turned round to see through an open doorway Titian’s magnificent equestrian portrait of Carlos V. And this would be my first choice.

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“Carlos V” by Titian, courtesy Prado Museum

Of course, I suppose I should pick “Las Meninas” too – perhaps the most famous painting in a gallery bursting at the seams with famous paintings. But no – for Velazquez, I will pick his portrait of Sebastian de Morra. He was a dwarf, and was in the court merely to amuse the courtiers with his short stature. But Velazquez paints him as a he would an emperor. He doesn’t hide his physique – quite the opposite – but gives this man, the purpose of whose very existence was merely to provoke mirth, a dignity and a nobility that is nothing short of majestic.

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“Sebastian de Morra” by Velazquez, courtesy Prado Museum

My next choice is not so well-known. It is a still life by Francisco de Zurbarán, and at first glance, it is simplicity itself: four vessels, one of metal, the other three of earthenware, arranged in a straight line parallel to the plane of vision, none of them touching or overlapping with each other. Other than these vessels, and the ledge on which they are placed, all is dark. What could be simpler, or, one might think, less remarkable? And yet, the painting projects a sense of stillness, of utter silence, that seems almost sacred. I had said earlier that I do not reject the “spiritual”, and, given my sensibilities, I must say that I find greater spirituality here than in all the mystic visions of El Greco. (Once again, this is not a comment on El Greco … etc. etc. …)

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“Four Vessels” by Zurbaran, courtesy Prado Museum

It was towards the end of my visit of the gallery, after many hours’ wandering, and as I was nearing the end of my attention span, that I found myself face to face with Rogier van der Weiden’s “Descent from the Cross”. And it’s one of those occasions where I wish I were more skilled at this ekpharsis business. I wish I could explain why it is that I find myself so unutterably moved by the fact of Christ’s right hand and the Virgin’s left hand being parallel to each other. But I can’t. I can’t explain anything at all about this wondrous painting. Perhaps I had best resort to that old cliché of certain matters transcending analysis, and leave it there.

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“Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weiden, courtesy Prado Museum

My last choice is a Goya. Not one of those horrific “black paintings” – but one he painted at the end of that series: “The Milkmaid of Bordeaux”. I may be completely wrong in this, but standing in front of that painting, I get a sense of serenity. Through that web of silvers and blues and greens, there seems, to me at least, a sense of having, as it were, come through: after all the horrors, after a journey through Hell itself, Goya presents us with a vision of radiance in a simple figure of a milkmaid. But it is also the vision of someone who knows what he has gone through, and hasn’t forgotten. It is a vision of serenity despite all the terrors. All this is no doubt very fanciful, and I do not possess the skill to explain why I feel this way. I can only report on that fact that I do.

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“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

Another trip beckons. I don’t know when: it has taken many, many years just to make my first visit. But I know I have to return. I can’t just leave it here.

 

“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter opens dramatically with a scene of startling vividness, but Hawthorne makes us wait for it. For he had added a very long chapter titled “The Custom-House”, and subtitled “Introductory to The Scarlet Letter”. I suppose it is up to the individual reader whether or not to treat this “introductory” as an integral part of the novel: looking through various online comments, many readers seem to find this boring, and skip it. I, however, am something of a completist in these matters, and it did not seem to me boring at all: quite the contrary. Written in a most eloquent and musical prose style, it consists, for the most part, of a delightfully diverting account, leisurely narrated, of the custom house in which Hawthorne had worked, with pictures of various colourful characters associated with the place. Hawthorne presents himself as friendly, open, and companionable, and, reading this chapter, I could not imagine to myself a more convivial presence by the fireside. But it wasn’t entirely clear in what way this “introductory” is related to the rest of the novel: for all his apparent openness, Hawthorne leaves this something of a mystery.

In this introductory chapter, which Hawthorne tells us right away will be autobiographical, he tells of his own dreary travails at the custom-house, in order, seemingly, to placate the stern ghosts of his Puritan forefathers with remunerative toil; and he tells also of the apparent drying-up of his literary imagination during his three years spent here. And, towards the end of this chapter, he moves seamlessly from what he had till that point presented as fact, to what, we may surmise, is fiction, by telling us of his discovery of the Scarlet Letter itself – a small piece of cloth with the capital letter A embroidered in scarlet – and of the manuscripts he had found with it, telling the story of Hester Prynne. What follows, he tells us, is his re-writing of the story, “imagining the motive and modes of passion that influenced the characters who figure in it”. “I have allowed myself,” Hawthorne continues, “nearly or altogether as much licence as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention. What I contend for is the authenticity of the outline.”

Of course, there are many other examples of fictions that claim to be derived from authentic documents, with the claim itself implicitly understood to be part of the fiction. What is more puzzling is why Hawthorne should pen so long an introductory chapter merely to make this not very remarkable point, when a mere paragraph or two would have done just as well.

Hawthorne goes further:

While thus perplexed,—and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of Indians,—I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

Here, Hawthorne explicitly identifies himself with Hester Prynne, the wearer of the Scarlet Letter, and more than intimates some mysterious connection between himself and the Letter, and, indeed, with Hester Prynne herself.

And only now do we come to the first chapter. The opening is rightly famous. The setting is the prison house in Boston, in the Puritan society of the late 17th century.

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.

Symbols abound. There is the heavily timbered prison door, studded with iron spikes; the prison itself, “the black flower of civilised society”; and, next to the prison door, Nature’s counterpart to this “black flower”, a wild rose bush. And there’s the scaffold, upon which the adulteress Hester Prynne stands to public gaze and scorn, holding to her breast her illegitimate child; and, of course, the embroidered Scarlet Letter upon her breast. These are very explicitly symbols, and are often referred to as such throughout the narrative. But what precisely they are symbols of is not always clear. Indeed, they are often as vaguely glimpsed and as obscure as that most famous literary symbol of all, the white whale dreamt up by Hawthorne’s friend Melville.

The embroidered letter A is clearly the symbol, to begin with, of Hester Prynne’s sinfulness, of her transgression. But as we progress, it acquires various other layers of meaning that are not always obvious. The daughter Pearl is explicitly referred to at one point as a “symbol”: there is about her an element that Hawthorne describes as “pagan”: at one point, she is referred to as an “elf-child”. She is a child of Nature, seemingly unaffected by the stultifying moral codes that bind together this Puritan society. When out in the forest outside the reaches of the town – another symbol – Hester momentarily takes off her Scarlet Letter, but Pearl immediately protests, and Hester puts it back on again. What are we to make of this? And, in the epilogue, we are told that Hester, as an old woman, and no longer under any obligation to wear the Scarlet Letter, insists on keeping it on. We can, should we choose, invent all kinds of correspondences: the letter represents sin, humiliation, expiation, defiance, inner strength – whatever we want; but as with the white whale, the symbol, though resonating powerfully throughout, remains beyond the reach of any such facile explanation.

But whatever the symbolic underpinnings of the story, Hawthorne does not bind himself to them. Hawthorne promises us at the end of the first chapter “a tale of human frailty and sorrow”: not an allegory in which the humans embody abstract concepts, but a drama, played out in human terms. The various symbols certainly resonate, but our understanding of the drama does not depend upon correct interpretation of the symbols – even assuming that these symbols are capable of being interpreted “correctly”: rather, the nature of these symbols help us penetrate the minds of the three protagonists.

The first protagonist is, of course, Hester, publicly humiliated, living the rest of her life in poverty with her daughter Pearl, and shunned by the rest of society. The next is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl’s father, tormented by his awareness of his own sinfulness, which is known only to himself and to Hester. The third is a desiccated old man, Roger Chillingworth, who makes his first appearance in town on the very day of Hester’s public humiliation: he is, unknown to all except Hester herself, Hester’s husband, though long separated from her by circumstance. He soon discovers for himself the identity of his wife’s lover, and, his identity still secret, delights in tormenting him.

But the story is not really about “sin”, as such: it is, as Hawthorne clearly says, about “human frailty and sorrow”. The “sin” for which Hester – though not her lover, whose identity she refuses to divulge – is punished is adultery: in that society, it was considered a grievous transgression, and we are told that even the death penalty had been considered for Hester. In Hawthorne’s own times, this transgression would not have been so harshly judged, but nonetheless, it still bore a stigma: Hester would most certainly have been ostracised. In our own times, we would barely consider it a transgression at all, given especially that Hester had never really been close to her much older husband, had not heard from him for years, and that he was, in all probability, dead. Hester herself does not appear at any time to consider herself guilty: she stays on in the town, earning a meagre living as a seamstress, but at no point does she express remorse or penitence: on the contrary, she fights fiercely when it is suggested that Pearl be taken away from her; and, despite much pressure put upon her, she refuses to disclose Dimmesdale’s name, either to the authorities or to her husband. The letter A, embroidered upon her breast, and intended to be a humiliating mark of sinfulness, she wears almost as an act of defiance.

Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is torn with remorse and with guilt. But his guilt is not because he has let Hester alone bear that punishment and the public humiliation that he himself fears so much: it is for the act of adultery itself. And the Scarlet Letter that Hester wears so openly, Dimmesdale wears secretly in his heart. He has, indeed, every reason to feel guilty: but like all weak-willed men, the pain he feels is solely for his own self: at no point does he stop to consider what Hester Prynne may be going through. Nonetheless, the pain he feels is real enough, and what he thinks is sorrow for his sin of illicit sex may well be a displaced sorrow for a greater guilt – the lack of human empathy. But Hawthorne is not censorious: human frailty and sorrow are common to us all, after all.

The conceit that this story is Hathorne’s own retelling of an old tale he had found in his manuscript allows his both to be realistic, as he is in the psychological depictions of courage and of guilt, and also unrealistic, as he can bring into his narrative elements of folklore and of the supernatural, claiming that these elements were in the manuscript he had found, but, as a modern man, expressing scepticism about them. At one point, Hester is met by Mistress Hibbins, an actual historical character who had been hanged for witchcraft, but who, at the time of this drama, had been very much alive; and Mistress Hibbins tempts Hester to join her in the woods at night to meet with the Devil. Hester turns down the invitation: despite the Scarlet Letter upon her breast, she is no sinner. But the supernatural is introduced here quite unobtrusively, without ruffling the realistic surface of the story.

The drama plays itself out to its superb climactic scene set during a public holiday, and here, the Scarlet Letter that had burned secretly within the Reverend Dimmesdale’s breast is finally revealed. Once again, Hawthorne gives us the option either of accepting the supernatural, or preferring, in line with what we perhaps unthinkingly expect from nineteenth century novels, a more realistic interpretation. Neither diminishes the extraordinary dramatic culmination of this “tale of human frailty and sorrow”.

All of which still leaves open the enigma of that introductory chapter. Why does Hawthorne align himself so unmistakably with Hester Prynne? Normally, I try to consider a work independently of the author’s biography, but since the author has introduced autobiographical elements so explicitly into the work, that becomes impossible here. Hawthorne had, he tells us, worked at the custom-house because he felt that he owed it to his ancestors to be more than a mere storyteller, but that, during his time there, his imaginative faculties had dried up; and only after he had stopped working there could he return to the art of storytelling. Could it be that he saw his return to his literary vocation as a defiance of his Puritan forebears, much as Hester’s proud display of her Scarlet Letter was similarly a defiance of the Puritan ethos? I honestly do not know. It’s the only explanation I can think of, but it seems to me frankly far-fetched. But leaving aside that introductory chapter – which, though wonderfully diverting, remains for me something of a mystery – what Hawthorne has given us is a wonderfully moving tale, narrated in the most exquisite prose, and drawn with clear precise lines that belie the complexity of its underlying symbols, of human frailty, of human sorrow, and also, I think, of human courage, and resilience, and love.

Jekyll & Hyde

When Nabokov gave a series of lectures on European literature in Cornell University (which he later published under the title Lectures on Literature), he raised many eyebrows by choosing, alongside the likes of Austen and Flaubert and Proust and Kafka, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The choice continues to raise literary eyebrows, and is generally regarded as one of the great man’s eccentricities. Stevenson is still widely regarded as not quite a hack as such, but nonetheless, as Edmund Wilson described him, as a “second-rater” – a purveyor of adventure stories who had, it is true, penned a few children’s classics, but who was hardly a writer to be taken too seriously.

To argue against this contention would involve engaging with the vexed question of what constitutes literary quality – a question to which it is impossible to provide a definitive answer. In the end, we have little alternative but to fall back on Nabokov’s own criterion of literary greatness – the tingle in the spine. Which is, of course, entirely subjective, in a way that literary criticism ideally should not be. But clearly, Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde gave the normally fastidious Nabokov such a tingle. As it does me. I realise that a mere assertion hardly qualifies as an argument, but, going by that tingle I most certainly feel, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of the great myths of modern times, among the most resonant of fables, and fully worthy of inclusion in Nabokov’s list. However, making the case for this may be more than slightly tricky.

Before trying to describe what Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, let us briefly consider what it isn’t. It is not a depiction of a “split personality” struggling between Good and Evil. This may seem a somewhat odd thing to say, as a split personality, and the Manichean dichotomy within a single human breast of Good impulses and Evil, are, in the popular imagination, the very themes conveyed by the names “Jekyll and Hyde”.  But whatever we may derive from the countless adaptations of Stevenson’s story (many of them, incidentally, very fine works in their own right), this is not what Stevenson had written. For at the centre of Stevenson’s story is the issue not so much of a split personality, but of a suppressed personality.

Dr Jekyll himself, in his testament (which forms the final chapter of his narrative), describes himself thus:

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

There is a certain coyness in this: “impatient gaiety of disposition” seems rather mild and innocuous, and it is hard to see how something so apparently innocent, mere “irregularities”, could lead to “an almost morbid sense of shame”. The word “shame” occurs again a few lines later:

Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.

This “plung[ing] in shame” does seem to imply something more than mere “impatient gaiety of disposition”, and it is hard to not get the impression that Dr Jekyll is not telling us the entire truth about himself.

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.

But what are these two natures? Are they merely the duality of Good and Evil? Perhaps. But how should we understand these terms in such a context? Jekyll had, he said, “plunged in shame” when he had “laid aside restraint”. So if we insist on seeing this duality in terms of Good and Evil (and Jekyll himself does not use those terms), then Evil is what Jekyll had euphemistically called “a certain impatient gaiety of disposition”, and Good is merely that which impels us to restrain it. In short, Evil is the seeking of pleasure, impatient of other considerations; and Good merely the restraint we apply to this. In such terms, Good is not so much a quality that exists independently, but, rather, merely a means of restraint. Far from Good and Evil striving for supremacy in the human breast, humanity is engaged in no more than suppressing as best he can the Evil within.

Since we tend to think of Evil as something more than mere impatient seeking of pleasure, and Good as something more than merely a restraint on pleasure-seeking, these terms are perhaps, in this context, somewhat misleading. But the existence of both within a single human breast certainly creates a duality.

 I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…

Jekyll tells us that he dreamt of separating these two elements:

 If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence …

But which of the two does Jekyll aspire towards? The “just”, who finds pleasure in doing good things rather than things that would plunge him into shame? Or the “unjust”, who could be delivered from “aspiration and remorse”? Rather tantalisingly, Jekyll does not tell us. But his potion turns him towards the “unjust” rather than towards the “just”, and the unmistakable pleasure he takes in this – so much so that, even when back in the form of Dr Jekyll, he is keen to repeat the experience – inclines me think that it is the latter, the “unjust”, towards which Dr Jekyll had aspired; and that, far from the experiment being a calamitous failure, it had succeeded even better than Dr Jekyll may have hoped for: he could now enjoy his pleasures without any shame to accompany it. What Dr Jekyll had perhaps under-estimated were the sheer depths of depravity of which we are capable once moral restraints are lifted. And for these depths of depravity, the term “Evil” is not misapplied.

This seems to indicate a rather bleak vision on Stevenson’s part: mankind is essentially depraved, and that which we term “Good” no more than restraints on our depravity. And once the restraint is off, what remains is pure Evil. Of course, we need not see this is a universal condition: there is no reason to see Dr Jekyll as Everyman. But the vision is nonetheless of a darkness at the heart of our beings.

The narration itself takes the form of a detective story. And here, the impact this novel must have made on Stevenson’s contemporary is inevitably diminished, for only in the final two chapters of the novel are Jekyll and Hyde revealed to be a single person – a revelation that should, nowadays, come as a surprise to no-one. That the novel can be enjoyed even when this twist is known is testament, I think, to its literary qualities. For the fictional world it presents, in prose of often startling vividness, is an uneasy, unsettling world. It is also a very male world: the only female characters are the maid who witnesses the murder of Danvers Carew from her window, and the little girl in Mr Enfield’s story in the opening chapter. Mr Utterson the lawyer, Mr Enfield his cousin, Dr Lanyon, and Dr Jekyll himself, all appear to be bachelors. The feminine aspects of humanity seem conspicuous by their absence.

In the opening pages, Mr Enfield tells Mr Utterson of a recent experience of his: at three o’clock of a “black winter morning”, he had seen a hideous-looking small man, who answered to the name of Mr Hyde, quite deliberately trample upon a little girl he had accidentally bumped into and knocked over. The story rather raises the question of what the little girl was doing out at that time of the night. Of course, she might have been one of the many homeless out on the streets, but the question is something Mr Enfield does not dwell upon. Neither does he tell us what he himself was doing out at that time of the night: “I was coming home from some place at the end of the world,” he says rather airily to Mr Utterson, who does not ask him to expand. The fog and the murk of the city are straight out of Dickens, and they seem more than merely physical; and the various questions implicitly posed but left unanswered, and, for that matter, unenquired into, may not be entirely unrelated to the “impatient gaiety of disposition” that Dr Jekyll refers to – those “irregularities” that lead to “an almost morbid sense of shame”.

Mr Utterson decides to seek out Mr Hyde, who, he is convinced, is blackmailing Dr Jekyll. Once again, he does not care to enquire into what precisely he thinks Jekyll is being blackmailed for: as he says himself, he lets his “brother go to the devil in his own way”. Private vices – “irregularities” – are best left private.

Sir Danvers Carew, a pillar of the establishment, is beaten to death on the streets late at night. The scene is witnessed by a maidservant, but she witnesses it not from her employer’s house, but from her own. And a maidservant’s house is unlikely to have been in the more desirable localities of the city. So what was Sir Danvers Carew doing wandering the streets late at night in such localities? Once again, the question is not addressed.

All these tantalisingly unaddressed questions leave behind a sense of incompleteness, of matters not divulged because, perhaps, they are best left as they are: one’s brothers may go to the devil, each their own way. A world is created in which surfaces hide much that is best not looked into. And it is in the context of this world, a world in which that which lies under the surface is best left alone, that Stevenson looks at the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Here, we look under the surface, and we see what is released once the flimsy restraints we place upon ourselves are removed. And the vision we see of a moral chaos dwelling beneath the veneer of civilised refinement seems to me as vivid and as terrifying as in anything I think I’ve come across.

I do not wonder that Nabokov rated this novella so highly. To me, it ranks with James’ The Turn of the Screw and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – novellas written only a few years after Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – as the most unsettling depictions of the moral chaos that lies immediately under the surface of our human lives.

The darker films of Billy Wilder

Mention the Golden Age of Hollywood – the 30s, the 40s, and into the 50s (although the studio system that gave rise to that Golden Age was already collapsing by then) – and most people these days … well, let us be on the safe side and say “a great many people these days” … will have a mental picture of the “Dream Factory” – a pipeline churning out frothy escapism, undemanding entertainment that is best seen with one’s brains left safely at home. Of course, there’s no denying that much that came out of Hollywood back then was indeed light, frothy entertainment: no-one will be watching the Astaire-Rogers musicals, say, or screwball comedies, expecting anything too serious. Although it may be added that should anyone take their brains along to these films rather than leave them at home, those brains would not necessarily feel insulted by what they see: there are gradations even in light, frothy entertainment.

But there was far more to the Dream Factory than merely confecting sweet dreams. Even at the height of the Depression, when, heaven knows, escape from a bitter reality was very much needed, the focus was not always purely on “escapism”: even comedies such as the Laurel and Hardy films acknowledged the reality of the Depression (Stan and Ollie were frequently penniless vagrants), and Chaplin, in films such as The Kid or Modern Times, certainly didn’t hold back. Social criticism was very much an integral part of the gangster movie genre at Warner Brothers; and in 1940, barely a year after the Great Depression is reckoned to have ended, John Ford made a magnificent cinematic adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: those who reckon Hollywood films of that era were essentially frothy escapism can still let out an astonished gasp or two as one of the characters in that film describes in shockingly graphic detail how his children had starved to death.

The darkness Hollywood films of that Golden Era were prepared to depict was not necessarily merely the darkness of social evils, murky though they were: sometimes, the darkness was of the human heart. And here, Billy Wilder, especially, excelled. In some sixteen or so years – between 1944 and 1960, to be precise – Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed, amongst, it may be admitted, more light-hearted fare, five films that look very uncompromisingly indeed into the darkness of the human heart. These films are, in chronological order, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), and The Apartment. Each of these films features as protagonist a man who, through flaws and shortcomings in his character, finds himself morally compromised, and becomes, as a consequence, filled with self-disgust. (In Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, this protagonist shares the spotlight with a female character who, too, is very deeply flawed, though in very different ways.)

At this point, when the reader is, I’m aware, wondering what all this is leading to, and when I am eager to press ahead and satisfy the reader’s curiosity on that score, I have to issue one of those tiresome “spoiler alerts”. I know I have to, because when I don’t, I receive indignant e-mails. So here it is: If you have not seen these films – more particularly, if you have not seen The Lost Weekend and The Apartment – and plan to see them, and feel that the essence of good drama lies in finding out what happens next (at least on first viewing), and, in particular, in what happens at the end, then it is probably best that you read no further. For it is on the endings of The Lost Weekend and of The Apartment that I intend to focus.

With that out of the way, let us continue.

Three of these five films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole) end in tragedy: they could hardly have ended any other way. The other two films are also dark and tragic in content, although tragedy is averted at the end. In The Apartment, the last film of this unofficial series, the deeply flawed protagonist is, at long last, allowed to redeem himself morally. And there is a real sense of joy when this happens: there is a sense of release, a rare concession, amidst all the pessimism and all the cynicism and all the vitriol, that a way out, even given our profound human shortcomings, may be possible. It is possible not by the Grace of God – the presence of God is not particularly apparent in any of these films – but by a moral strength that even the most unremarkable of us may retain within ourselves. This ending moves us because it is so hard won, because we have, both earlier in this film and in the previous films, been shown the various red hells into which our sightless souls may stray. For, until that ending of that final film, we are, morally, in very murky waters indeed. We are far from the Dream Factory here.

All five of these films seem to me masterpieces, but speaking entirely subjectively (as I often do on this blog), it is The Lost Weekend that particularly intrigues me. Its protagonist (played by Ray Milland) is an alcoholic, but the film is not really about alcoholism, as such: at least, alcoholism is not its central theme. The central character, Don Birnam, seems to have everything going for him: he is handsome and charismatic, he is intelligent and cultured, and he is supremely articulate. But he is haunted by a sense of failure.  He had aspired, and aspires still, to be a writer, but all he has to show for it are a series of unfinished manuscripts. His tragedy is not merely that he is mediocre, or, worse, talentless; his tragedy is also that he recognises it, and that he cannot come to terms with what he recognises. And he takes refuge in drink, and exercising his supreme articulacy with the barman:

It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. Extremely competent! I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, moulding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat. The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra.

As the film progresses, we see Don Birnam travel through what seems like the circles of some Dantean inferno. Even now, some  seventy-five years after the film’s release, I doubt I have seen anything more horrific in a film than the sequence in the drying-out ward, or the horrific alcoholic hallucinations Don Birnam has back in his flat.

But the tragedy that seems inevitable is averted. His girlfriend Helen (played by Jane Wyman), persuades him to start writing again, and he sits down to pen a novel based on his experiences. We, the viewer, may be left unsatisfied by this. Don Birnam has had false starts before, we know; and, further, we know also that, despite all his qualities, he does not have whatever it takes to be a writer: what stirs his imagination is not what he is writing, but rather, the idea of being a writer. When I saw this film in my younger days, I had no doubt that he would return to his drinking, and that what we see on screen is not so much a new start, but, rather, tragedy deferred.

But in my latest viewing (last week), I thought differently. Shortly before the end, Don has redeemed his revolver from the pawnbroker, obviously planning to shoot himself, and Helen, knowing this, and not really knowing what to do about it, pours him a drink; and when he expresses puzzlement, she breaks down and says “I’d rather have you drunk than have you dead”. Now, call me sentimental (as you probably will), but I suddenly found myself rather moved by this. Helen has, after all, stayed by him even when she has been told, by Don himself amongst others, to get out while she still can. And if she would rather have him drunk than dead, then maybe she would rather have him talentless than dead too. Maybe she could reconcile him to his lack of talent. Maybe. The future, as the film ends, is still uncertain, but if Don is to redeem himself, it won’t be through discovering his talent (he doesn’t have any), but, through Helen’s love, by being reconciled to that fact. And if that sounds sentimental, I’d counter that perhaps, too often, we miss out on profound matters by our fear of being sentimental as much as we do by actually being sentimental. At any rate, this last viewing, the ending did not seem to me so inevitably dark as it used to seem.

It is only at the end of the last film of this series, The Apartment, that the protagonist (played here by Jack Lemmon) is allowed unambiguously to redeem himself. What he had been doing really was unspeakably sordid: in return for promotion, he would lend out his apartment to senior managers in his office for them to carry out their extra-marital affairs. But in this film, the protagonist is, at long last, allowed to rediscover his moral bearings. And yes, the driving force, once again, is love. Perhaps these Wilder films are not quite so cynical as they are so often made out to be: yes, morality is frequently flouted and love frequently slighted, but morality and love both exist, and they are both potent, redeeming forces.

By the time The Apartment was released, in 1960, what we think of as The Golden Age of Hollywood was finished. Perhaps The Apartment and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, released two years later, were the last remnants of that age. And while it did turn out the most glorious entertainment, it wasn’t blind to the darkness either. And no director, I think, peered into that darkness as insistently as did Billy Wilder. But it would be a mistake, I think, to see in even his darkest films merely undiluted pessimism and cynicism.