From Chapter 4: House of Scrooge
We’ve seen Scrooge’s day in the life, the man going about his business, which we experience as a recounting of the norm—his norm. In the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper-closing song, “A Day in the Life,” the devil is in the mundane details. A man reads a newspaper about a death. He smokes. (Smokes what?) Falls asleep on a bus. Those quotidian scraps of info harbor a sense of dread, though, and they build to cacophonic, atonal release. They escalate to death the way life does. Or is it that they build to rebirth the way that life can? As we see, accept, grow. But within both the song, and Scrooge, through this portion of the movie, we’re swept from the garden variety day, with its notes of ill-portent, to what is essentially a gale of nightmare. We might not see it coming, but when it does, we feel as if we should have.
Another winter walk, from the restaurant to the rooms where Scrooge lives. There are no other residents as he advances towards us, no revelers straggling home, no caroling children. The camera is positioned with a full view of the lane to the left, the door to the right. The snow is cleaner than what we saw with the first outside scene on the steps of the trading exchange. We know there is less traffic in this area. The well-heeled live here. A quoined wall in the background looks like a furrowed brow, tilted off its angle. There’s depth to this shot, and all of it is in sharp enough focus to make Gregg Toland proud. I don’t think there’s a film that looks crisper than Scrooge. You can see every last hair, every puckering of skin, the last link in an extended ghostly chain.
Until this scene, Hurst has used a number of medium shots. Now he’s pulling back, opening matters up, taking a top off a box, allowing us the wider vista. Scrooge has actually been walking for a while before we can detect him, despite our vantage point. There’s a shadow along a fence, and it conceals his true form entirely until he steps clear of it. The effect is jarring. We’re unsettled, unsure how he crept up on us like that.
The notes of the contrabassoon melody become spaced further apart as Scrooge arrives at his door, and the camera moves in tight to him with the felicity of an F.W. Murnau shot. A wash of cymbals, but dubbed low in the sound mix, and then the voice of Michal Hordern, as the ghost of Jacob Marley, that voice pitched in the exact same register as the contrabassoon. Thus, Scrooge and his dead partner are auditorily linked. The door knocker has the face of a lion. Scrooge bends down to retrieve his key, and when he looks up, he sees the visage—in ghost form—of Marley superimposed over the knocker. The face is in anguish. Hurst cuts to Scrooge for a reaction shot, and his own countenance matches Marley’s. The two men—or entities—have this beat of recognition, where eyes meet and appear to gesture to each other in shared cognizance.
You won’t get this in other adaptations. Most directors think it’s enough to feature a form dissolve and show Marley’s mug in place of the knocker, a cheap scare out of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. There is no communion, which is what happens here. The feeling is not a comfortable one for any of us. Scrooge appears as if he’s beheld a killing or act of pederasty—total disgust on his face with what he has seen. His mouth hangs open, those teeth as ablated fence slats in full view, the scarf—which I think of as Scrooge’s version of a security blanket—now dropped down.
“Jacob Marley?” Scrooge asks, the words extending in dilatory fashion, unlike the rapid fire “No more bread” line we’d experienced mere minutes prior, in real time. The ghost visage melts back into the brass knocker, Scrooge twitches twice—like a person one who has been touched upon orgastic release and remains too sensitive—and opens his door.
The camera is waiting for us on the other side, so that we see Scrooge from the front, at the base of the baronial stairs, an inversion of Dwight Frye’s first glimpse as Renfield of Dracula—“I bid you welcome”—in Tod Browning’s 1931 picture. Scrooge casts a look behind him. Maybe he is checking to see if some pranksters had a sort of light box and threw a spooky shadow, or he’s uncertain that Marley, in one form or other, could be nipping at his heel. The stairs, the staircase spindles, a gate, throw a spider web of shadows. Pure German Expressionism. To enter this house is to become encased. You could edit this composition into Nosferatu, or a Jacques Tourneur film noir, the tendril textures of Stranger on the Third Floor, or one of the early cod-supernatural haunted house pictures like The Cat and the Canary or The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case so prevalent between 1920 and 1930.
Those American films of the 1920s had less-than-supernatural explanations in their final reel, a tradition that would linger with Browning’s 1935 film, Mark of the Vampire, itself a remake of a “See? There’s a perfectly logical explanation after all” film in Browning’s 1927 Lon Chaney vehicle, London After Midnight. They had to get you to buy in with the pacifying idea that the horror would be rinsed away in the end, and the horror itself was induced by the sets, the lighting, the ratcheting up of tension. Pragmatism prevailed. But I always felt like the viewer was being let down from their tenterhooks. Protected. So it went, too, with filmic adaptations of A Christmas Carol—you didn’t get horror because of glad tidings and all, a sort of cinematic well-wishing. I think that Brian Desmond Hurst would have considered this a disservice. Scrooge himself is not owed his haunting, but he is aided by it. The more real, the better. So, too, does it go for us, the viewers of Scrooge.
Scrooge comes to his own house seeking shelter, not unlike the stranded travelers in James Whale’s 1932 picture, The Old Dark House. Whale liked his wit, and Hurst likes his, too. Black humor enlivens terror; it’s not a depreciator. The home in the Whale picture always feels like some mud-encrusted hut that is just barely keeping out the rain, despite the otherwise airless Gothic design. We sit by a fire, but we’re conscious of the dripping water collected in the bucket a few paces away. Scrooge seeks his shelter on a dry night. The air is crisp, the snow packed, echoing the footfalls. But Scrooge might as well as have just been drenched by a gale. Now the shadows will enfold him, and lock him in their grip.
Scrooge has made these shadows. As Dickens’ narrator tells us—and tells us wonderfully well in the1938 radio play of A Christmas Carol with Orson Welles doing the narrating—Scrooge loved the dark, because the dark was cheap. He enters spaces he chooses to keep as lightless as possible, because Scrooge himself is shadow—human shadow. We’ve seen him move undetected in the radiant snow. Now he comes to burrow further into his world, as so many of us do, until he has to leave it again. We take to the room, the screen, the Netflix account, the phone, wrap up into a ball, sequester ourselves away, take on our shadow form, nix the identity, lose the identity. In the parlance of our day, we might say that Scrooge is settling in for a staycation. But that won’t recharge the batteries. Plus, a house guest is en route. It’s not a guest that is coming to dinner, but it will put in a post-prandial appearance, and in the realest way, that guest will never leave. Its host will have to absorb him.