How long does it take us to know we have a connection with someone? True connections are rare, but we’re cognizant of them within minutes. Seconds. Scrooge and Marley have the rapport of connection, but the limitations of both men precluded true friendship. In the flashback sequence that happens later in the film with Young Scrooge (Cole) and Young Marley (Macnee), the two burgeoning lions of business agree that the world is a cruel place, and the best way to cope is to be unrelenting and unsympathetic. To arrive first at the position of command and dominance.
The younger version of Scrooge feels a puckering of his heart as he watches the sign come down from the front of Old Fezziwig’s, his former employer put of business by these-friends-who-are-not-true friends. Bullies act this way, because bullies harbor fear. Thus, they go on the offensive. Scrooge has lived his life as a scared human. Marley’s ghost no longer has fear, because it’s been replaced with anguish. We fear for Marley, because he’s doing Scrooge a nice turn—his goal is to help him—and Marley’s anguish will last, as he says, for eternity.
I think we can agree this is harsh, but there it is—them’s the rules. They may be arbitrary and disproportionate, but if you can’t argue with city hall, how do you argue with the presiding forces and forms of the universe and life itself? Marley’s soul is cooked like a Christmas goose, though he has a redeemer-by-proxy function. He’s sent on missions. What he offers to Scrooge is a Faustian bargain in reverse, not that Scrooge has a say whether the ghosts will visit him. Rather than a crossroads of the Mississippi Delta that we get in American blues lore, the crossroads in question is the place Scrooge has come to in his own life.
Marley’s punishment—the chains, the wandering of the earth, an inability to intercede on behalf of others (save in cases like this)—has the mephitic whiff of Dante’s Inferno and its concept of the Contrapasso, in which the everlasting brand of meted out justice matches whatever the dominant brand of sin had been. A thief might have his hands cut off on the quarter hour mark throughout the day, for instance. Marley circumscribed his own life. He fettered himself. Consequently, he’s ballasted with his coil of chain, which Scrooge’s would be longer than, if he up and died on this given night.
Amidst its attendant fears, grave warnings—not to the curious, as in the realm of M.R. James, but to the incurious—the scene breaks my heart. The two men have a natural flow to their conversation, and clear détente. One thinks about what they’ve both missed out on, alone and together. Scrooge and Marley are each sexless beings in this Hurst treatment, which is more notable because we see them as handsome lads. Deep-dyed bachelors, made old before their time.
At parties Nathaniel Hawthorne would relate a story about an older gentleman at the Boston Athenaeum who read his favorite paper by the fire each day, and continued to do so, in ghost form, after he had died. The gentleman is older, what was called “a confirmed bachelor” in fiction and art up through the Edwardian era. The kind of man who cares but for cognac, duck hunts, vellum-bound books and the comfortable chair in which to read it deep into the night. They are older, these men, and they enjoy their interests. Marley and Scrooge belong to that category, though without the willingness or the pleasure. Fear serves as motivator. To avoid pain. Loss. To have the leg up on anyone who might bring on pain or loss. Intercourse—in the sexual or societal sense—is not their interest. They are—or were—each other’s lone familiar, and it has come to this, a macabre, warning/haggle session on Christmas Eve.
Hands are important in Scrooge. They symbolize decision and choice. Marley makes his key points with a flourish of a hand. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to come famously points with a bony finger. Hordern’s Shakespearean background serves him well; his gestures befit a lamenting Lear, thinking himself betrayed by his daughters. The calculus of Marley’s argument to Scrooge is that he betrayed himself, as Scrooge is also betraying himself. The hand represents culpability. Hordern’s hand will be flat, extended. Conversely, Sim folds his over his ears, his eyes, cups his head.
In the margins of another poem he would not complete, John Keats, at the end of 1819—when Young Scrooge and Young Marley were shutting down the enterprises of Old Fezziwig—wrote what would be his final work. He composed it understanding it wouldn’t be read until he was dead, if ever. The lines reach out from a beyond. Reach with the hand of human connectivity, of direction underwritten with purpose.
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And though be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
There is a vampiric quality to the poem, but this vampire is one who self-feeds. Not the way you want to go. Keats waves us away from that outcome, just as Marley tries to do for Scrooge. Conscience is a gift. A blessing. Not a curse. Sometimes we need a friend to help us realize this, be it a dead Keats, or a dead Jacob Marley.
If this is irony, it’s the irony that comprises human life, where meaning is often sourced—when we rise to the level of seeing and grabbing it—from unlikely ledges, or in overlooked corners, or from people we had never conceived of proffering it.
Marley is nattily attired—discounting his ponderous fetters—and Scrooge is in sleeping attire. He’s vulnerable. When one must face a challenge in life, it’s easier when we’re dressed to do so. You don’t want to be in your ratty T-shirt and boxer shorts if the police knock on your door to ask if you witnessed anyone suspicious in the building earlier. I remember a football player in the NFL who’d keep his helmet on even during postgame interviews at his locker room stall. It was his defense mechanism. A barrier. Scrooge’s scarf has functioned in this capacity. We may be reminded of Linus’s security blanket from the Peanuts strips. Marley makes his take-it-or-leave it pitch to Scrooge, and to Scrooge’s credit, he’s willing.
His issue is his complete lack of confidence in himself, which is now out in the open. Withstanding these ghostly visitations is viewed as insuperable. He doesn’t have that in him. That strength. Courage. Character. In his own view. Marley is like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life—not a guardian angle, per se, but toting a dossier of knowledge about another person that said person does not have about themselves. This is life. Thoreau’s life was what it became because he understood the rarity of self-awareness, and made it his mission to discover some. Other people often know more about us than we know about ourselves. How does one present these truths without overreaching or causing offense? A small helping of honesty can produce a lifelong rift, especially in these twenty-first century times of maxed-out sensitivity and assertions of victim status. But Scrooge has no choice—Marley has him upon the point of a needle, with nowhere for Scrooge to go, save in the company of the ghosts. What that entails is a voyage into himself, who he has been, who he is, who he can be, if he faces the fears he’s sought to avoid his entire life. Scary concept. Would anything terrify you more personally? It’s up there, right?
I like to think that early on, when Brian Desmond Hurst and Noel Langley were storyboarding where they wished their film to go, that they knew they’d do what no one previously had with Marley’s departure. Normally, he fizzles out, dissolves back into the dimension from which he had come, an echo of his voice intoning one last warning. Michael Hordern’s Jacob Marley will not go into that good night without a jolt of horror bookending his original appearance and the daemonic caroling of bells and clocks. “Look to see me no more,” Marley states, having flung his chain back over his shoulder and making his way to the closed window of Scrooge’s room. His form blends with the glass as he advances, an effect of double-diaphany.
The window flies open on its own accord. Marley summons Scrooge—who has been sitting in a quasi-fetal position—and the shocking scene we are about to witness initially registers on Sim’s face. His eyes go wild. First they descend into his skull, then move forward, as do the eyes of crabs on their stalks. Hurst and the special effects team do not fail to deliver when we cut to the scene in the street below. Welcome to an orgy of anguish, a symphony of ululating ghosts crouched over a woman sitting in the snow, with no shelter, trying to warm her baby. The baby is a bundle. We don’t see its head. It’s suggestive of the baby in a cloth bag that Dracula throws as meat to his brides. Overlapping each other, stacked in layers—a ghostly palimpsest—the tortured beings resemble the etching that Gustave Dore did for the Inferno in which Charon herds sinners into a boat to cross the river Styx. They are rooted to their spots, and Charon is having a tough go of setting them on their way. They desire to remain, perhaps to make amends for transgressions, as do these ghosts in the snowy London street that Scrooge himself had walked down a portion of an hour ago. A lot has occurred in the interim.
The arms of the ghosts sway side to side, back and forth, calling to mind the hold of a slave ship, men and women tethered to oars. They create a sort of halo space around the woman and her child, a zone in which they cannot enter, as Marley tells us. Having learned what they have learned, they want to help, and are unable to help. They did not help anyone in life. The punishment is condign, another variant of the Contrapasso.
As if this wasn’t horrible enough, we get a medium shot of the woman’s face—it’s dirty, abraded—and then Marley disappears from Scrooge’s side, and takes up his place in the street below, rending, beseeching. Failing. The two men maintain eye contact, until Scrooge can take it no more. He closes the window, literally runs from the room into the bedroom where Jacob Marley died seven years ago, leaping atop the four-poster bed, and pulling the curtains shut. As if that will solve his problems.