Is he in hell?

16 July 2010

I'm rather a fan of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and the reasons are largely to be found within about 8 ½ of its 97 minutes. I offer those 8 ½ minutes here in a clip. The excerpt can be understood without being set-up; all the essentials can be inferred as one watches. So you may want to skip ahead to watch the video. But, for those of you more comfortable with more context, I'll provide some:

La Révolution française is cutting-off heads by scores daily. (There is some confusion in the movie over the year in which la Terreur began.)

Percy Blakeney had married Marguerite St. Just about a year earlier. Some time after the marriage, he learned that Marguerite had been instrumental in bringing-about the execution of a French aristocrat and his family. Not knowing that she had been tricked into providing the information that had led to that execution, Percy asked her about it. Marguerite, given to impetuosity, did not explain, but angrily admitted that she had. Percy began paying for the fact that he loved — that he still loved — Marguerite, by adopting the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel (the red pimpernel being a wildflower) and forming a team, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, who enter France in disguise, to steal political prisoners from la guillotine. The identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is unknown to all but members of the League. Blakeney further secures his secret — and pushes away his wife — by adopting the persona of a fop.

Marguerite's brother, Armand, part of the League, has been taken prisoner in France. Chauvelin, an agent of the French, has offered to surrender a key piece of evidence against Armand if she will reveal to Chauvelin the true identity of the Pimpernel. Unaware that the Scarlet Pimpernel is Percy, she has done what she could. Last night, she learned and reported to Chauvelin that the Scarlet Pimpernel would at mid-night be in the library of an estate where a party was being held.

When Chauvelin went to the library, Percy was there, pretending to sleep on a love-seat. Chauvelin eyed him suspiciously, but then adopted a derisive expression. Shortly after mid-night, Chauvelin himself briefly fell asleep, then awoke to find a mocking note from the Pimpernel, with Percy still apparently asleep. Chauvelin glanced at Percy as if dismissively, and then left. Percy arose, and wondered how Chauvelin had come to be there and whether his dismissal were sincere.

As the clip begins, Lord and Lady Blakeney are returning home.

There's all kinds of things right with the scenes in this clip.

When Marguerite comes to speak with Percy, we see that his affectation of effeminacy is, as much as anything, a very bitter way of rejecting her. Harry Stack Sullivan once wrote Hate is love turned angry, and when Marguerite says You … hate me. she's not far from the truth. However, Percy's question in reply isn't merely rhetorical; he truly wants to know why she denounced the Marquis de St. Cyr. At the least Percy wants to see what sort of person she really is, but what he really wants is some vindication for her actions, so that his love for her will not have been — will not be — wrong.

After he hears her explanation of what really happened with respect to the Marquis and his family, there remains the issue of Marguerite's trade with Chauvelin. Note the desperation in Percy's voice. He doesn't just need the information qua Scarlet Pimpernel; he wants to know whether, after all, she's still done something dreadful. He want to feel free to love her. When he learns what she gave to Chauvelin (a report that the Pimpernel would be in the library at mid-night), Percy is almost ready to laugh aloud from relief. And watch Leslie Howard's left hand, as he raises it up, partly into frame, almost to his heart, his fingers flexing; his character wants to reach out and take hold of Marguerite.

When Marguerite says that the Pimpernel might be going to his death, and Percy says Well, that's all the fellow lives for, he's really now talking of how he has been living. That demmed, elusive Pimpernel has not been in Heaven. But now he's climbing out of Hell.

The subsequent meaning of Percy's body language is obvious to the audience. The rest of their interaction is, of course, two people speaking of their love one for another, with one of them almost oblivious to what is being said, as she doesn't recognize the relationship amongst referents. Almost oblivious, but as Percy leaves the room, Marguerite knows that there's something that she isn't seeing clearly.

The principal reason that the story-telling in this clip stays with me is because it has a moment [Marguerite, suddenly reälizing who the Scarlet Pimpernel is] where pieces all click together in the mind of one of the characters, revealing something important.

For this sort of moment to work, it's important that the character not have been positioned for the reälization before hand. Rather than having some twit finally see something that he or she should have seen all along, the story needs to put that character in possession of a new datum (preferably no more than one) and then have the character's mind move with fair intelligence towards the reälization.

I love the way that Merle Oberon presents Marguerite's reäctions, all within a matter of seconds. She questions her reasoning. [Marguerite, overtly reäcting to the reälization] As she looks again at the painting, her mouth is asymmetrical as she moves towards laughter [Marguerite, almost laughing] at the deception Percy has effected. But the joke is displaced in her mind and her expression moves towards a different, symmetric sort of smile [Marguerite, almost smiling] as she starts to think that her Percy is a better man than she had come to think him, and indeed a better man than she had thought him when they married. She doesn't get very far with that thought, as it hits her [Marguerite, seized with fear and with grief] that Percy has sailed off not only into danger but into danger that she has caused to be greatly increased.

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2 Responses to Is he in hell?

  • Vicky Hernandez says:

    Wow! What an incisive observation of these scenes. It makes me even appreciate this film of The Scarlet Pimpernel [IMHO the best film version so far] even more. But more than anything is the acting from the two principal leads that shine out. Not only in their delivery of the script, but as you point out, their mannerisms and facial expressions. Ah, yes. Their facial expressions.

    Howard is magnificent controlling himself. One can just feel how badly he wants to take his wife into his arms... but doesn't. Another bright spot is when he quotes from Richard II. His love of country quietly shines through and is no less powerful.

    Oberon, was perfect. There are parts where she might've made the mistake of verging on breaking down, but she simply shows a dignified urgency. It's like she is saying, "Yes , yes, I know things are bad. But, what can I do about it. And yesterday!?" And frankly, she is simply glorious.

    I never get tired of this film. I wish it were digitally remastered. Complete and uncut.

    Thanks alot.

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