The Irene Dobson Papers
Candace Hilligoss, Carnival of Souls
In amongst the correspondence with distributors and print couriers, papers relating to the taxes and upkeep of the building, faded copies of program annotations, there were some random notes on individual films scribbled or typed up on lined foolscap paper. Irene Dobson was not a professional writer so her style was not particularly polished. Sometimes her enthusiasm got the better of her judgment. But her insights could be provocative and astute. She was a dedicated cinephile and, like the best cinephiliac writing, her prose fairly springs from the page when enthused by some overlooked and fugitive pleasure. I think the following observations, written at various times between 1975 and 1987, capture something of her unique sensibility and presence as a moviegoer.
When she strolls into the saloon, just by her presence Clementine Carter brings an end to all the rough talk, silently bidding good men live up to their destinies. In this role Cathy Downs, only 22 at the time, elicits a reverence usually reserved for much older, more experienced actresses. Silence falls as she enters the smoky back room to find Doc Holliday. Later there is a super profile shot of her with the desert dusk behind her little brunette head. A true American princess! Later she bides her time in the empty saloon and Wyatt Earp strolls in, unaware that she is there. For a brief moment, we see this grave upstanding man standing in the light from the doorway through the eyes of a young woman who is falling in love for perhaps the only time in her entire life, and all of a sudden she is home: “I love your town in the morning, Marshal, the air’s so clean and clear.”
“Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,” the townsfolk sing, luring this genteel pair to make their way to the church social. Hesitant, coltish, Wyatt shyly looks at Clementine standing beside him, debating with himself over whether to ask her to dance with him. He plucks up the courage, she removes her jacket as if she has been waiting for these words all her life. The final shot of Clem finds her, like he was in the saloon doorway, a clean upstanding figure amid a sea of shifting sand and sagebrush.
Why does Irena visit Alice at the pool? Does she like to look at her? To eat? Like a canary? “There are some things a woman doesn’t want other women to understand,” Irena tells Oliver. But I think there are some things Irena wants only Alice to understand. “Irena’s perfume…strong…sweet,” Alice says as she returns to the flat where the beastly psychiatrist has come to call.
Perhaps Alice likes the smell of Irena just as Irena likes the shape of Alice. And Alice is a good girl. Conscientious, always wanting to go to work, take down figures from Mr. Reed like a secretary, like Carol Richman, Hildy Johnson. I admire Alice!
Betsy Connell is drawn to Mr. Holland because there is “something clean, honest” about him. When she calculates how much Rand drinks because she is a nurse and used to measuring fluids from little bottles with her eyes, Betsy seems such a capable girl. But when she meets Mrs. Holland near the staircase at dead of night they are like wraiths meeting in Bauhaus.
Mrs. Holland is like Irena in Cat People living in limbo. Meanwhile, Betsy and Mr. Holland communicate on an unspoken spiritual level. The strange thing is that the film wants the black magic all around them to fight the rational voices of medicine. How much research went into the skull and circle of stones, the fetishes, Mr. Carrefour guarding the crossroads, when Betsy escorts Mrs. Holland to the voudoun ceremony at the ‘Home Fort’? How much of the ceremony is authentic from proper books? I keep thinking of Maya Deren. Did Jacques Tourneur know Deren’s films? During the ceremony Mrs. Holland looks like a Renaissance icon of the Madonna.
The shadows of the grillwork, then branches and leaves as Betsy is awoken by the strange man in her room and stumbles into the garden writes the strangeness on her body like a tattoo. Can any of us be the same after that night?
Miss Swallow is commendably dedicated to David’s career. “My future wife has always regarded me as a man of some dignity.” Then why is Miss Swallow wearing a pince nez when we last see her? She must have good eyesight. She is not very old. Miss Swallow is right — David is a butterfly! And that is why I don’t like Bringing Up Baby.
That the following notes were given a title suggests that Dobson had a fuller piece in mind:
In Carnival of Souls Mary drives her Chevrolet Impala through the night like Marion Crane, a cold fish in a graceful steel antelope who lets no man in. She manages to wrest her car from a ditch without help. Then there is a close-up of Mary in bed that reminded me of the somnambulist Mrs. Holland in I Walked with a Zombie. Then there is beastly Mr. Linden and the close-up of his piggy eye. (I wish I was Buñuel!)
Later on in the department store Mary changes in a cubicle. What a pretty little black dress! I love her mouth — like Sophia Loren, Monica Vitti — and did Candace Hilligoss have rhinoplasty? But then Dr. Samuels seizes her by the arm in the street, gripping her so hard it must have hurt! (I hate the way men assumed that they could just handle a woman in the old films.) “I’ve no desire for the close company of other people.” That’s telling Dr. Samuels! And Mr. Linden is so awful. And Harvey doesn’t let the actor court me or you. Mr. Linden’s prurience, his sexual aggressiveness and stupidity alienate us and that’s an end to it. The film seems to will M to go back to the old carnival in search of her ghostly dance partner in his nice black suit.
What is so lovely about the film is its odd mixture of the natural and the macabre. When the little bird starts singing as Mary returns to the living, and the sun glints through the leaves in the park, it is nothing short of springtime. And the light shimmering on the water before the zombie heads appear is so relaxing on the eyes. And the play of shadows beneath the slats of an arcade make such pleasant patterns against Mary’s face, bust and tummy. What M knows is precisely what we cannot know about ourselves; that she is going to die.
I am grateful to Eddie Biesel for bringing the writings of Irene Dobson to my attention.