“The Red Keys”
Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Crimson Peak offers as stimulating a post-modern reconstruction of the 19th century gothic novel as has ever appeared on a movie screen. Some of the intertexts out of which it is built are obvious, and expected. The old dark house setting combines the barren manors of the 19th century British novel (from Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights) with the Kubrickian set design of The Shining.
However, the film’s most unexpected turn is toward Alfred Hitchcock. Most obviously, Rebecca (1940) looms large, particularly via the jet-black hair of Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), the evil queen of Allerdale Hall looking suspiciously like Dame Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers. But completely unexpected is the film’s reconstruction of Notorious, a post-World War II thriller set in Argentina about the onset of the Cold War, and thus not at all about the 19th century or Britain. The plot of Crimson Peak concerns Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an American who falls in love with Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who brings his new bride to his decaying mansion in England. Upon her arrival at the bleak house, Thomas and his sister, Lucille inform Edith that she is not to go into the basement. When of course the inquisitive aspiring novelist does just that, she discovers a trunk that clearly belongs to an earlier wife of her new husband.
However, Lucille has all of the keys, one of which opens the mysterious trunk. In two scenes, Edith must steal Lucille’s key and then return it to her keychain without her sister-in-law finding out. A similar key stealing sequence is the aesthetic high point of Notorious. CIA agent, Devlin (Cary Grant) informs his spy, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) that she must steal a key from her husband Alex (Claude Rains), whom they suspect is a former Nazi agent now smuggling plutonium in wine bottles in the basement of his Argentinian mansion. In a couple of dozen seconds-long shots, Hitchcock builds riveting suspense as Alicia tries to get the key off of the chain, while Alex’s shadow looms on the bathroom door behind her.
Given that the stealing and return of the key in Crimson Peak is not edited with Hitchcockian bravura, I did not give the connection much thought until it became clear that the entire film relies on the basic plot structure of Notorious. In Hitchcock’s film, Alex’s incestuous mother poisons Alicia’s coffee when she discovers she is an American spy. Throughout the film, Alicia’s health plummets as she continues to drink the toxic brew. At the end of the film, Devlin has to carry Alicia out of the house, so weak is she from the poison. This is, of course, coupled with the film’s other toxic drink, the plutonium that the Nazis are hiding in the wine bottles in the mansion’s cellar. Notorious thus elegantly mounts its geopolitical thriller as a matter of drinking.
The poisoned drink motif structures Crimson Peak as well. As the plot develops, the incestuous siblings increasingly control Edith the more poisoned tea she drinks. But what are we to make of the historicity of Crimson Peak? By situating the plot at the turn of the 19th century, the film is certainly not a Cold War thriller like Notorious. Instead, it is a film obsessed with the transition between 19th century Britain and 20th century America. Edith’s industrialist father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) seems like he’s stepped right out of a Henry James novella. Indeed, the first half of the film reads more like Washington Square than it does the Daphne Du Maurier. The plot of a suspicious ne’er-do-well wooing a man’s daughter against his will in New York is the stuff of that best of Henry James novels.
Indeed, the key itself offers an allegory of this transformation. Whereas the key in Notorious is labeled “Unica” (Spanish for “only”), in Crimson Peak, it features the name, “Enola.” These are what film scholar Tom Conley calls the written rebus. The allegorical key of Crimson Peak is not the Enola Gay that stands for the transition from World War II to the Cold War in Notorious, that deliverer of toxic radiation. Instead of the atomic culture that subtends Hitchcock’s film, Crimson Peak is obsessed with an earlier industrial mechanization. The ex-wives speak to Edith from beyond the grave via wax voice recordings they’ve made on a late 19th century phonograph. Edith’s true love Charlie is an expert in spirit photography. Thomas is trying to rescue his decaying estate by inventing a mining machine to extract the blood red clay out of his ancestral home’s barren lands. And so on.
But the transformed key from Notorious to Crimson Peak allows us to see that the future belongs to Edith. While Lucille burns Edith’s first, typewritten manuscript, the film reveals itself as adapted from a novel published in the 20th century by Edith herself. She is the author of Crimson Peak, the eponymous book we see in the film’s final shot, with her authorial imprint embossed on the leather cover. Crimson Peak regards the toxicity of British culture’s impact on America in the same way Hitchcock laments the continued existence of a corrupt Germany, merely escaped to South America. Edith at first rejects her father’s gift of a pen, in lieu of typing her manuscript on a typewriter. The film redeems her connection to her father’s writing implement when she stabs Lucille in the heart with it shortly after the harridan has burned her manuscript in the fireplace. Crimson Peak one ups Notorious, finding the toxicity of modernity not just in the Cold War, but even further back, in the late 19th century, as industrial technology’s inhuman ghosts attempted, but we hope failed, to override our basic capacity to love.