September 9, 1909 [The Sealed Room]

In The Sealed Room the strange slavery that men seem so naturally to impose on women is given the royal touch: the king inspects the "sequestered dove-cote" constructed for his "favored one"; but for whom is the trysting-place built? The woman thwarts her master and chooses the courtier/minstrel: she kisses the king, but then turns to face the performer. Their love is discovered—and the tale turns Gothic: the ecstasy of the lovers (they kiss, she garlands her ukelele-player) is literally sealed by the mad cuckold, who brandishes a sword as he eavesdrops, and is struck by an evil inspiration. He continues construction of the dove-cote—but now as a prison—no, a tomb—as he walls them in. Robert Browning's "mad-house cells" and Poe's morbid fascination with the enclosed space combine in cruel glee. The lovers themselves go mad as their lungs struggle for air, the minstrel fanning the woman (ironically with the musical instrument of his wooing) while the king giggles and gloats against the new bricks, in the end crushing her flower in his hand.

As the camera-view switched from the dove-cote-dungeon to the outer room, the rhythm of the piece grew anxious, and I knew there would be no last-minute rescue—and not merely because melodrama insists on punishing transgressors. The picture unfolded—no, plummeted toward us—with nervous inevitability, guaranteeing that no one would intervene, the camera insisting that nothing would disturb this room-to-room rhythm toward suffocation on one side of the wall and devilish triumph on the other. Our hopes do not matter, merely the flip-book alternations, abrupt and merciless. This may be the first terror I have experienced in the cinema, built brick by brick not only with images but their juxtaposition, at once beautiful and horrible to watch.


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