There’s a moment in Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) that seizes the eye. The film holds many small wonders of composition, but this one hides just beyond the shoulder of the actor holding the frame, and it suggests deep implications about the path Baron Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) pursues in his creation of life out of death.
This essay is a section of a book-length work in progress concerning the film, in which Frankenstein crafts his Creature with the reluctant help of his longtime tutor and friend Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), out of sight of his devoted but neglected fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court). “We’ve only just started — just opened the door,” Victor tells Paul at one point, urging their work on. “Now’s the time to go through that door, and find what lies beyond it.”
The scene in question begins about 34 minutes into the film, after Victor has horrified Paul by hinting at his plans to acquire a wise, experienced brain for his creation.
Victor and Elizabeth in formal clothes entertain the only character in this Swiss-set horror to boast a Germanic accent. Professor Bernstein (Paul Hardtmuth) reclines in Frankenstein’s parlor and chuckles along with his hosts as Victor decants brandy into a set of snifters. The central-casting little old man is delighted to be in such good company; he has no family of his own, although he holds the respect of natural philosophers throughout Europe.
For her part, Elizabeth is grateful to have Bernstein on hand, since it means Victor must join in the household gathering as well. It’s a push-pull between them as they each address the professor, spelling out their own discontents through the medium of polite conversation. Elizabeth curses Victor’s long and reclusive working hours; Victor resents any obligations that keep him from his work. “I, for one, think the world would be a far, far better place without research,” Elizabeth declares. “At least … my world would be.”
Bernstein, sucking wisely on a cigar, isn’t inclined to disagree. Pure science can erode a man’s joy, he says, “until one is too old to enjoy life.”
Elizabeth is delighted. She pictures herself telling Victor in future disputes, “On the authority of the greatest brain in Europe, you must leave your stuffy old laboratory, and come out into the sunshine with me.” Elizabeth’s costumes have gradually crept down off her shoulders with each subsequent scene. Tonight’s dress is a black gown highlighted with white, with a red flower pinned at the bosom to transfix the eye. Blood and darkness against ivory.
Victor uses the opportunity to take a sexist jab, but Bernstein wonders if true science is worth the trouble either for the scientists or the world at large. “There’s a great difference between knowing that a thing is so, and knowing how to use that knowledge for the good of mankind,” he says.
(Victor appears not to be listening, instead calculating the approximate dimensions of Bernstein’s skull.)
“We quickly tire of our discoveries,” Bernstein rattles on, setting down his brandy to gesture Freudianly with his cigar. “We hand them over to people who are not ready for them, while we go off again into the darkness of ignorance, searching for other discoveries — which will be mishandled in just the same way when the time comes.”
It’s a trope argument of Atom Age science-amok horror movies — that one can know too much, and unravel God’s creation in the process — but it’s more directly expressed here than in, say, a thriller like Them!. In Bernstein’s statement as constructed, the problem isn’t necessarily the scientist, but other people. If the scientist wants to accept the crushing burden of brilliance, that’s his decision. Bernstein implies that what’s lacking is stewardship — the willingness of the scientist to see his concept through to its proper ends. Certainly, Victor Frankenstein views himself as the very man for such a task.
Paul arrives, a wet blanket on Victor’s larger plans for the evening. “We didn’t expect you back until the morning, Paul,” Victor says. But Paul says he felt compelled to return (from wherever he went; we weren’t even told he was away), and he’s thrilled to meet the great thinker Bernstein. The Professor announces himself equally delighted, but it’s late, and he sets aside his cigar to be shown to his room. He kisses Elizabeth’s hand, nods cordially to Paul, and lets Victor escort him to the entry-hall stairwell.
Climbing the stairs slowly, he praises Victor’s hospitality and his manor. The Baron is pleased, and at the head of the stairs pauses to show Bernstein a Dutch masterpiece.“It was purchased by my father,” Victor explains, “and illustrates one of the early operations.” This is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, a Rembrandt oil.
Bernstein dons his pince-nez for a better look. Victor glances at the balcony rail behind them, which is obviously breakaway balsa wood. “If you step back a little … you’ll see it better.”
Bernstein complies, and Victor slips sideways to stand in front of him. “Look out, Professor, look out!” he cries, and hurls the old man through the splintering rail.
The stunt that follows boggles my mind. We are on the upper stair with Frankenstein, and we watch the Professor hurtle headfirst to the eminently solid-seeming floor of the hall below. The stuntman lands on the top of his head, jarringly, and bounces onto his back, Bernstein-wig flopping. Setting aside a nearly undetectable ripple in the padded surface that catches him, it’s startling in its realism.
Bernstein’s body lies still on the marble. On the upper landing, Victor steps toward the ruined banister, gazing down. In a subtle but phenomenal act of composition, the assembled physicians and observers of The Anatomy Lesson seem to stare at him in horror from the left side of the screen. Of all the steps he’s taken through that door he mentioned to Paul, way back when their experiments commenced, this is the only one that’s irrevocable.
Some extratextual notes:
- The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was painted in 1632, commissioned as a group portrait of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. The onlooking physicians gawp as Tulp displays the tendons of a cadaver’s forearm, comparing his findings against a book of anatomical illustrations propped open at the feet of the corpse.
- Said corpse, like the one stolen by Paul and Victor to build the Creature, belongs to a condemned thief — Aris Kindt, also known as Andrian Adriannsz, a repeat offender finally sentenced to death in his mid-twenties for stealing a man’s cloak. Kindt on the table appears to have a barrel chest and foreshortened arms and legs, as though he lived with a form of dwarfism. When Victor steps forward to look down on the slain Bernstein, he becomes the focal point of the painting, occluding both the lecturing physician Tulp (a man of pure science) and the anatomy subject Kindt (a deformed criminal, a “monster” by the measure of his society). He has transformed into both things simultaneously.
- If Victor’s father, the late Baron Frankenstein, thought he was buying an original when he won the painting that mutely witnesses Victor’s highest crime, he got taken. The original work is seven feet wide, far larger than the portrait Bernstein contemplates in his last moments before dying, and remained in the possession of the Guild of Surgeons until its dissolution in 1798. It has never left Holland, although it passed into the hands of a charitable fund which tried to sell it in 1828 before a royal degree thwarted that. Let’s assume that in the alternate universe of The Curse of Frankenstein, where Rembrandt sized his oils for dormitory poster frames, Victor’s father was the successful buyer.