Paintings glimpsed in movies are often fascinating, and invariably so when they exhibit modernist tendencies. Take a look at the painting below that is granted just two seconds or so in the British Gothic melodrama Madness of the Heart, 1949 (a detail of the poster is featured above). On the left there is what is clearly meant to be a Picasso-like young woman, and to the right is a flower that, along with the lower realm of the picture, we might imagine as refugees from a Matisse canvas of the 1920s. The centre is a good deal more indistinct, blurry even, but that’s most certainly an eye right in the middle.
In the plot of the film the painting is entirely marginal. In a seaside French town our heroine Lydia (Margaret Lockwood) has just visited the local doctor, for a reason that we don’t yet know. Her wealthy and impossibly romantic husband Paul (Paul Dupuis) is away on business and she is invited to have a drink with slacker Max (David Hutcheson), a painter and an almost entirely peripheral character. Lydia asks Max what he’s been working on, and he holds up the painting to the camera as he says, ‘It’s a view of the harbour.’ There’s a beat before he continues with a chuckle, ‘At least, I think it’s a view of the harbour.’ All of which means nothing to Lydia, since a rare and apparently incurable disease has robbed her of her sight.
I want to argue that the painting, which makes no other appearance, opens up fascinatingly complex aspects of a film that has almost no place in conventional histories of British cinema. Robert Murphy, for example, in his authoritative Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in British Cinema, 1939-1948 dismisses Madness of the Heart in a single phrase as a ‘soggy melodrama’. But as I hope to show it’s a great deal more interesting than that.
Madness of the Heart is currently free to stream on BFIPlayer in a pin-sharp monochrome print restored thanks to the Mohamed S. Farsi Foundation. I came to it after last week watching (and writing about) The White Unicorn, 1947, another British melodrama starring Margaret Lockwood that was also adapted from a novel by Flora Sandstrom. In this case the script and direction are by Charles Bennett, who is best known for his collaborations during the 1930s with Alfred Hitchcock – and Madness… has distinct echoes of Hitch’s film of Rebecca, 1940. The sets and costumes are sumptuous, as it was made towards the close of the period when Rank were pushing to break into the American market with high-end production values.
The genteel Lydia has lost her sight but – after a period in a convent (which was rather bemusing to me) – has gained a husband, who happens to be a French aristocrat with a glorious chateau and a deeply jealous neighbour, Veritée (Kathleen Byron). Veritée believes she should have married Paul, as indeed does Paul’s father, the Comte de Vandiere (Raymond Lovell). In time-honoured fashion, Veritée plots to convince Paul and his family of Lydia’s inadequacies, and when this doesn’t quite pan out, she tries more directly to murder Lydia. Unbeknownst to Veritée, however, by this point Lydia’s sight has been restored by an operation, and along with vision has come strength and (crucially) knowledge – and soon after, thanks to a touch of kismet, Paul’s undying love. The film ends with the couple in a very public clinch being looked at admiringly by a crowd in an airline terminal.
The Dark Galleries is a wonderful if little-known book by Steven Jacobs and Lisa Colpaert with the subtitle ‘A Museum Guide to Painter Portraits in Film Nor, Gothic Melodramas, and Ghost Stories of the 1940s and 1950s’. Although Madness of the Heart doesn’t make it into their gallery, Jacobs and Colpaert spin a richly allusive and scholarly study of portraits and other paintings in Hollywood films of the postwar period. They begin their study with a scene in Hitchcock’s Suspicion, 1941 (illustrated and discussed by R.C. Baker here) in which a police inspector is brought up short by a Picasso still life in a hallway. It’s the eccentricity of the scene that attracts their attention, as it has for other critics (including Stephen Heath):
there seems to be no psychological connection between the character and the Picasso painting, which also evokes a spatial realm completely at odds with the classical perspective of the film camera. In addition, there seems to be no symbolical correlation between the painting and the characters or the situation.
All of which could equally apply to our ‘view of the harbour’ in Madness of the Heart. Ditto, Jacobs and Colpaert’s observation that ‘modern art is frequently ridiculed in films’, since even the painter, Max, is unsure what his canvas depicts. There’s often a connection, too, between crime and modern art, with modernist canvases frequently found hanging in the homes of master criminals, as with Picasso, Klee and Morandi paintings glimpsed in Kiss Me Deadly, 1955, and a Milton Avery in the apartment in Rope, 1948. That’s not the case with Max, although as in Rope, modernism is associated with a certain quality of decadence and a stereotyped sense of ‘homosexual’.
The Picasso in Suspicion is echoed in Hitchcock’s film by a conventional patriarchal portrait of General McLaidlaw, and there is a similar doubling at work in Madness of the Heart. Early on in their spiky relationship, the Comte takes Lydia on a tour of the chateau and they end up in the ancestral portrait gallery.
The Comte speaks about and shows – to a blind woman – family wives from previous centuries as he and Lydia spar about whether or not she is the right woman for Paul. The second portrait in front of which they stop is of the admirable second wife of one of the Comte’s ancestors, and he explains that little is known of the first wife who must in some way have been unsuitable. (Lydia of course is Paul’s first wife, while Veritée aspires to be the second.) This second wife, we can see, had at least one child, which is ominous given what is to happen to Lydia when – and this is the reason for the visit to the doctor – she is pregnant.
They then pause before a male portrait, the earliest in the gallery. The Comte explains, as a cut favours with painting with a close-up, that it is of a crusader who cut off his withered hand rather than suffer from a deformity.
Just as she is meant to, Lydia takes this as an attack on her blindness, and she challenges the Comte. By the end of the film, and once her sight has been restored, the Comte sides with her against Veritée, and this conversation is a turning point towards that. Max’s harbour scene is a similar turning point, since his and Lydia’s overheard conversation sets in train Veritée’s most audacious attack, and the one that eventually undoes her.
That blurriness at the centre of Max’s painting rhymes with the out-of-focus effect that, earlier in the film, the camera shows as Lydia’s point-of-view when her blindness begins to take hold. Hence, too, that central eye. And these are only two aspects of a richly patterned net of verbal and visual allusions to sight that is laid across the whole film. Paul twice asks Lydia whether she believes in love at first sight. The doctor who finally operates on Lydia’s eyes, which is marked an expressionistic montage of fearsome looking medical instruments, says afterwards that now, ‘She can go back to the chateau and perhaps see the answer to her problems.’ And moments before Veritée plunges to her death in a car accident, she cries ‘Look out!’
The visuals too play expertly with the viewer’s gaze, cleverly and elegantly exploiting the potential of mirrors to trick and deceive.(The Director of Photography is Desmond Dickinson who the year before Madness of the Heart shot Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.) Sight, both that of the characters and our own, is throughout equated with knowledge, as it so often is in western culture, and blindness with ignorance. Max’s harbour scene reinforces our superior knowledge over both himself (all too obviously it’s not a seascape) and over Lydia at that point in the story. But at the same time this enhances our empathy for our heroine. As does her resistance to the patriarchal portraits displayed to us, but not to her, in the gallery.
There are parallel games throughout involving voices and whispers and public announcements, and especially a particular piece of music, that all contribute to a delightfully intellectual game of a film. Given its sophistication, I have no idea why Madness of the Heart is not seen as far more central than it is in the history of postwar British cinema.