Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

[Automatonophobia] Dead of Night: The Ventriloquist's Dummy (1945)

DEAD OF NIGHT is a very well-respected British horror anthology film from 1945, notable for being among the first of its kind and setting the template for those that would follow. A group of guests at a country home recount their brushes with the supernatural, and although any one of their tales would be suitable for a write-up, for our purposes here, we are concerned only with the final segment of the film..."The Ventriloquist's Dummy".

Dead of Night - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster

Ventriloquist Maxwell Frere and his dummy Hugo are quite a popular duo. During their performances, they are not tied to the stage, but rather they move freely throughout the room, engaging with the audience and conversing with them as they enjoy their two-drink-minimum cocktails. During the performance that we are privy to, the duo spots Sylvester Kee, another ventriloquist, among the patrons. Hugo leaps into action and attempts to recruit Kee as his new partner. The audience finds it all quite amusing until Hugo calls Maxwell a "cheap ham", and Maxwell slaps his dummy with resounding aplomb. There are perhaps a few nervous chuckles around the room, but more than anything, this seems like a genuine falling out between performers, right in the public eye.

After the show, Kee arrives at Maxwell's dressing room, at Hugo's invitation. Kee is greatly impressed by Maxwell's skill, as the dummy is capable of holding a conversation even while the ventriloquist is away in the next room. Irritated by the intrusion and fearful that Hugo might really leave him, Maxwell gives Kee the boot.

Sometime later, Kee runs into Maxwell and Hugo again at a bar. Maxwell is obviously intoxicated, though Hugo speaks with the clarity of a sober mind. After Hugo insults a young lady, Maxwell finds himself on the receiving end of a beating, and Kee has to half-carry him to his hotel room. The camera is careful to show us that Kee leaves Hugo at the foot of Maxwell’s bed. And yet, the next morning, Maxwell awakens to find Hugo missing. Enraged, he storms Kee's room and finds his dummy hidden there. Maxwell accuses Kee of being a "dirty, thieving swine", pulls a gun, and shoots him twice.

Dead of Night - Hugo the Dummy
Hugo the Dummy
Maxwell is arrested for attempted murder and questioned about his crimes, but he insists that Hugo is just as guilty as he is. Psychiatrist Dr. Van Straaten is brought in to assess Maxwell's mental state, which is, to say the least, quite fragile. As Maxwell believes that Hugo is a separate entity, the doctor gives the dummy back to Maxwell so that they can get his side of the story. In a locked cell awaiting the next round of questioning, Hugo begins to goad his partner, stating that while Maxwell will be locked in an institution, he will team up with Sylvester Kee. This statement finally pushes Maxwell over the edge, and he smothers Hugo with a pillow before throwing him to the ground and stomping his head into sawdust. Dr. Van Straaten witnesses this through the barred windows of the holding cell and begins to panic, as if Maxwell were killing an actual witness. In a way, I suppose he was. It is a truly disturbing scene, probably one of the most haunting in the entire film.

After the "death" of Hugo, Maxwell is rendered catatonic. Lying in a hospital bed, he is shocked back into some semblance of life by the appearance of Sylvester Kee at his bedside; but when Maxwell speaks, it isn't with his own voice. It is with the voice of Hugo. It appears as if Hugo has returned from the dead, as it were, and is now using poor Maxwell as his dummy.

This is a tale of madness, yes, but it is also a tale of jealousy. Were you to replace the character of Hugo with a Vegas showgirl, nobody would have blinked an eye. Had Maxwell's beautiful assistant attempted to flee from him in the arms of another man, such as Sylvester Kee, the story would remain the same but our perceptions of the story would be quite altered. Furthermore, any sympathy that we may feel for Maxwell would simply melt away. No longer would he be the poor, unbalanced man who believes that his dummy is alive. He would be the raging lunatic who slapped a woman on stage, and drove her to his rival to seek comfort and protection.

Dead of Night - Maxwell & Hugo: Partners?
Maxwell & Hugo: Partners?
My point is that Maxwell does not behave like a man who is betrayed by his business partner. He behaves like a man who has been scorned by his lover. The only reason that we do not assume it is a romantic obsession that Maxwell has for Hugo is because they are both male...not because one of them is made of wood. If Hugo were portrayed by a female dummy, even if the dialog and all other aspects of the script remained completely unchanged, would there not at least be speculation about the relationship between the two? I do believe that there would be.

This excellent segment was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and written by John Baines, but it was based (uncredited) on the short story "The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy" by Gerald Kersh. Hartley Power and Frederick Valk did fine jobs at portraying Sylvester Kee and Dr. Van Straaten respectively, but both are outshined by Michael Redgrave turning in a fantastic performance as the tortured Maxwell Frere. He took this role because he was interested in portraying a schizophrenic character, opting to ignore any of the supernatural possibilities. In order to fully prepare for the role, he studied with famed ventriloquist Peter Brough, and became quite adept at throwing his voice.

Many viewers who saw this movie televised late at night during their childhood remember it primarily for this particular segment, though purists are quick to argue that at least one of the other segments is superior—"The Haunted Mirror". But in the mind of a child, whose bed-rooms are filled with dolls and other such playthings, the prospect of a living dummy is much more terrifying than a mirror whose reflection shows a different room, no matter what horrible event may have happened there.


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