Deep Dives

Corridor of Mirrors: The Eternal Return

On Film / Features — Jun 11, 2018

Corridor of Mirrors is a perfect title for a movie about obsession and romantic madness. The image evokes infinite repetition and a dizzying mix-up of reality and illusion. It also provides a graceful metaphor for the way that movies reflect other movies, how certain plots and motifs recur, themes spawning endless variations. Take Corridor of Mirrors (1948) itself, which marked the debut of director Terence Young and which belongs to a rarified subgenre of swooning, haunted, noirish melodramas. Almost every element of the film seems familiar, yet the total effect is unlike anything else. There is an ominous portrait, a whiff of reincarnation, two people spellbound by the past, and a man who tries to make over a woman to match a fetishized image. There are undertones of the gothic, of ghost stories and fairy tales—Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, Pygmalion and Galatea, even Dracula; links to Laura (1944), The Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Portrait of Jennie (1948), and premonitions of Vertigo (1958). It is tempting to see an acknowledgement of this resonance in Hitchcock’s film when Madeleine (Kim Novak), apparently possessed by a long-dead ancestor, compares her confused state to “walking along a corridor of broken mirrors.”

Walking along a hallway of family portraits may be a better metaphor for the experience of the viewer watching these films and spotting connections, noticing resemblances and features that pass from generation to generation. Another ancestor of Vertigo is the Argentine melodrama Beyond Oblivion (1956), directed by Hugo del Carril, in which a man devastated by his beloved wife’s death marries a brassy cabaret entertainer who happens to be her physical double. Beyond Oblivion and Vertigo both start off as the stories of their male protagonists and eventually shift their focus to the women who bear the brunt of the men’s desperate need to recreate the past and their Pygmalion urge to shape and control their feminine ideal. They reveal the torment of Galateas who must submit to being sculpted in order to be desired.

Corridor of Mirrors, by contrast, takes the woman’s point of view from the start, and the script was cowritten by the female lead, Edana Romney, along with coproducer Rudolph Cartier, adapting a novel by Christopher Massie (credited as Chris Massey). More echoes: another of Massie’s books became William Dieterle’s Love Letters (1945), a convoluted amnesia romance in which the central characters fall in love with imaginary ideals, not real people. Love Letters shares the same team of director, producer, and stars as Portrait of Jennie, an ethereal fantasy about a man who paints, and falls in love with, a long-dead woman who returns as a kind of corporeal ghost—reversing the genders of the lovers-divided-by-time in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). These spectral love stories fed on the upsurge of interest in spiritualism that typically follows wars, when a critical mass of people yearn to connect with the dead. More and more films in the 1940s became exercises in time travel, especially in Britain, looking back as it faced a postimperial future. In gaslight melodramas, the Victorian and Edwardian eras were cloaked in fog, soot, and the cruel power dynamics of sex and class, while Gainsborough Pictures became synonymous with period dramas that were at once more entertainingly escapist and more daring in their overtones of sadomasochism. The past, in these films, is both dream and nightmare, alluring in its romantic beauty and frightening in its violence and irrationality. This tension between the pull of nostalgia and the suspicion of it is at the heart of Corridor of Mirrors.

“This Galatea is motivated not by love but by vanity; she is intoxicated by herself, infatuated with her own image.”

The story is framed as a flashback, opening in the present with Mifanwy Conway (Romney) living wholesomely in the Welsh countryside with a stolid, outdoorsy husband and three rambunctious children. She sets off on a trip to London, where she has been summoned to a mysterious rendezvous in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, between a model guillotine adorned with Marie Antoinette’s severed head and a wax mannequin of the elegant Paul Mangin. Labeled as the “Masked Ball Murderer,” the figure is clearly recognizable as a portrait of the actor Eric Portman, who will appear as the living Mangin. This was casting to type: critic Raymond Durgnat dubbed Portman “a one-man crime wave.” Just before Corridor of Mirrors he had played the killers in Wanted for Murder (1946) and Dear Murderer (1947), and a public hangman in Daybreak (1948). In the first of these films, he is a mild-mannered serial slayer who pays visits to Madame Tussaud’s to commune with the effigy of his grandfather, a Victorian executioner known as the “Happy Hangman.” Portman seems right at home in the museum, with his waxy pallor and his quiet, well-bred brand of creepiness. Though he could be a supercilious villain, as in his role as a true-believer Nazi officer in Powell & Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (1941), his trademark—captured in the same team’s A Canterbury Tale (1944)—was a strain of wistful madness, a twisted idealism that drives him to violence, but gives him a certain pathos and delicacy as well. All these qualities are on display in Corridor of Mirrors, where he manages to be attractive, sinister, tragic, and faintly foolish all at once.

As Mifanwy gazes at this replica of her long-ago lover, the transition to flashback is underscored by the British standard “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” an ode to all-consuming nostalgia. (“The scent of smoldering leaves, the wail of steamers, / Two lovers on the street who walk like dreamers. / Oh, how the ghost of you clings . . .”) She recalls her first sight of Paul Mangin in a prewar nightclub, where she was a fixture among the “Bright Young Things,” a restless and slightly reckless beauty looking for novelty and adventure. Paul, a wealthy eccentric, enters in an opera cape and whisks her into a waltz; later he picks her up in his personal hansom cab and shows her around his London home, a gargantuan recreation of a Renaissance palazzo, filled with marble staircases, candelabra, and priceless antiques. Believing that he was born after his time, he has chosen to live in the past, creating a flamboyant but hermetic world for himself that jumbles together the belle epoque (hansom cabs, opera capes, waltzing) and the Italian Renaissance (notably, a warning-sign fixation on the Borgias).

Wandering around Paul’s mansion one day while he is out, Mifanwy enters a long hallway lined with mirrored doors; opening one, she confronts a white, eyeless dummy dressed in a sumptuous period gown. There is a mannequin behind each door, their faces vaguely suggesting mummified corpses; the allusion to Bluebeard’s wives is inescapable. But Mifanwy quickly recovers from her shock and wallows in the fabulous clothes and jewels, which Paul has collected in anticipation of finding the right woman to wear them. (The film’s opulent costumes, which appeal to the ten-year-old girl within every female viewer, were designed by Owen Hyde-Clark and constructed by Maggy Rouff.) Mifanwy happily succumbs to the joys of playing dress-up. This Galatea is motivated not by love but by vanity; she is intoxicated by herself, infatuated with her own image, more than with Paul. It is also clear that their romance is never consummated—and this is by his choice, not hers. They are, in a way, more like children sharing a private world of make-believe than like adult lovers.

He seems to dominate her (“Even in my sleep he would be there in the corridor of mirrors,” she recalls, “watching me dress up for him”). Romney often has a drugged look, which conveys the idea that Paul’s house is an opium den of fantasy, a perfumed prison. Once you enter it, Mifanwy is warned, it’s impossible to leave, “because if you did, the world would seem so cruel and ugly that you would have to come crawling back.” But she has a hardheaded, irreverent side that is never fully eclipsed. She notices that Paul hates laughter. Like Scottie seeing Midge’s parodic self-portrait in Vertigo, he recoils from any attempt to puncture his romantic obsession with humor or common sense. Corridor of Mirrors has its own equivalent to the hypnotic Portrait of Carlotta. Paul finally unveils for Mifanwy a fifteenth-century painting he discovered in Italy during World War I, depicting a woman named Venetia who is her spitting image. He goes on to recount his gradual realization that he was this woman’s lover in a previous life, and that in Mifanwy he has found her again. Appalled by this lunacy, she flees into marriage with a dependable, unromantic childhood friend whose idea of an endearment is to call her “imbecile woman.” Her choice is eminently sane—confirmed when Paul later tells her how in that earlier life he strangled the faithless Venetia with her own hair. But in her rejection of Paul, Mifanwy reveals a cruel streak; she seems to take pleasure in crushing and mocking his fevered dreams. That this heroine is spoiled and selfish, and often not very likable, gives the film a stimulating ambiguity: Mifanwy is at once a woman in peril and a femme fatale who destroys with her hard, derisive laughter.

Out of some mixture of curiosity, flattered vanity, and lingering compassion, she returns to attend the jaw-dropping Venetian masked ball that Paul throws in her honor, one of the most spectacular of all cinematic shindigs. Fireworks cascade above the terraced gardens of his villa, cluttered with splashing fountains and flickering braziers and living statuary. Performers scattered around the grounds present commedia dell’arte and Grecian dances à la Isadora Duncan. A troubadour sings the melancholy folk song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” as Paul and Mifanwy drift in a canopied boat around the lagoon; later they waltz deliriously in the mirrored hallway.

Just as their images are multiplied, Paul’s terminal romantic fixation is reflected back by two women who love him: nightclub singer Caroline (Joan Maude) and housekeeper Veronica (Barbara Mullen). Caroline is a sullen, overripe redhead whom Paul dismisses with a scathing remark about being “amazed by the vulgarity of an age which could produce such a type as yours.” Veronica is a strange, wizened, ageless little woman; she tells Mifanwy that she was once her master’s lover, the first of his living dolls to be used up and cast away when he got tired of her. Is she telling the truth, or is she delusional, a waif rescued from the gutter who has invented this imaginary past for herself? One of the women winds up murdered, and Paul is convicted of the crime and sentenced to death, embracing this dramatic exit from a life that is now empty since his loss of the woman he believed to be his once and future love. He chooses his illusion, what he calls his “attitude towards life,” over life itself.

The dreamy, hothouse mood of Corridor of Mirrors occasionally staggers over the line into the ludicrous, just as the ethereal score by Georges Auric mounts at times to overpowering bombast. But some of the best moments come when the movie acknowledges its own solemn silliness, as when Paul, having just discovered his treasured portrait slashed to ribbons, dejectedly peels off the fake beard and mustache he donned for the masked ball. The film itself, like Paul, is defiant in its stylization and lavish in its resources, but perhaps ultimately too eccentric to be seen as more than a novelty. It failed to establish Edana Romney, who made few other films; her lush beauty and forceful presence are ideal for this tailored part, but her acting style is somewhat limited and heavy-handed. Director Terence Young went on to a long career, but his best-known work, for the James Bond franchise, is hard to connect with this debut, which pays homage to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), also scored by Auric.

There is more than a hint of the gentleman vampire in Paul Mangin, with his cape and his lonely palace and his devotion to a centuries-old romance. He defies the modern world, just as the film defies the drabness and austerity that dominated postwar British crime movies. Where the French, before the war, had fused lyricism and grit in the style of poetic realism, British cinema of the forties was split, almost schizophrenically, between realism and poetry, restraint and excess, cold-eyed views of the present and indulgent fantasies of the past. Corridor of Mirrors comes down firmly on the side of fantasy even as it ostensibly argues for the virtues of the ordinary. It was released the same year as Powell and Pressburger’s dazzling, hallucinatory The Red Shoes; Michael Powell later theorized that the enormous popularity of that film came from the fact that, after years of being indoctrinated with the necessity of giving their lives for freedom and democracy, people were ready for the message that they should “go and die for art.” Paul Mangin would surely approve. There is more than a hint of the film director in him too, fanatically dedicated to realizing his vision, and especially to shaping the performance of his leading lady. He accepts his failure, and his muse’s rebellion, with equanimity; perhaps he will do better in his next life, in the next film to take up his immortal obsession.

Corridor of Mirrors is available on FilmStruck through August 10.