For anyone interested in the byways of twenties fiction, the most intriguing event of the year has been John Shapcott’s publication of Arnold Bennett’s lost story, Punch and Judy.
This was written in 1929 but never published, because it was commissioned as a novelised scenario for the young wonder-boy of English cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, whose talent had recently been on spectacular display in The Lodger.
Punch and Judy is – literally- an excursion by Bennett into the genre of Grand Guignol (Guignol being roughly the counterpart of Mr Punch in French puppet shows). Since 1897 Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the Pigalle had been dispensing sophisticated horror theatre to sophisticated and sensation-hungry Parisians, and in the early twenties Russell and Sybil Thorndike and Rginald Arkell had brought the genre to London. The plays were harsh, cruel and often cynical, differing sharply from the standard dramas of the time in their refusal to moralise. Good and bad alike perish horribly (and arbitrarily) in these scenarios; the persistent themes of physical suffering and madness show the cruelty of existence in a godless world. Writers for the London seasons at the Little Theatre included talents such as Noel Coward and Richard Hughes (and Joseph Conrad offered them a play, but it was rejected as too difficult to stage). One season featured a version (for human actors) of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show, in all its exuberant violence.
Bennett’s film treatment begins with a street Punch and Judy show. The puppets are first limp and lifeless, but then burst into wild action, to enact the usual story of mayhem and murder. As the show reaches its conclusion, cinema trickery turns the Punch puppet into a human – Flitfoot, Bennett’s utterly ruthless hero-villain.
The subsequent story shows Flitfoot’s unstoppable rise to wealth and power. He lies, swindles and cheats, ruining anyone who gets in his way. Like Punch he has an energy that makes him fascinating even at his most appalling.
The story is clear and fast-moving, and the characters, as befits a puppet-show (or a silent film) are vividly-drawn types. The liveliest of them is Miss Sligo, Flitfoot’s private secretary. She is utterly dependable and utterly discreet, but when her boss has left the office she sits back on his chair with her feet on his desk, smoking his cigars.
Flitfoot is one of Bennett’s misers, but a miser who – unlike Henry Earlforward of Riceyman Steps, for example – has no redeeming features. The emptiness of his soul is shown by the Spartan bareness of his home; he has no interest in spending the money he has amassed with such viciousness. Yet he has a gusto that one can’t help but identify with, even as he cuts a swathe through subsidiary characters.
In an article by Bennett on the cinema (usefully included in this edition by John Shapcott) he expresses an admiration for the German expressionist films, and this film treatment includes expressionist touches; not just the equation of human life with a puppet show, but the suggestion that Flitfoot should at moments of crisis seem to be pulled towards wickedness by invisible strings. (Though since Punch is a glove puppet, not a marionette, I’m not sure that this suggestion is completely thought-through.)
An important part of the film’s action concerns Flitfoot’s dealings on the stock exchange, and his ruthless manipulation of the market to ruin a rival. (In choosing this theme, I wonder whether Bennett was remembering an earlier German film, Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, which shows the abuse of arbitrary power in a similar way). One can see why Bennett, the very best English novelist on the theme of money, chose the stockmarket setting, since that is the place where money shows most clearly its naked amoral power.
It was this financial theme, however, that Hitchcock objected to:
The hero of your story is a financier. Now would a street-market woman in Hoxton understand about getting an overdraft at a bank? That is the test, the street-market woman in Hoxton.
Hitchcock knew that, to be successful, a film had to communicate to the whole range of society. Later in his career he might have used explanatory dialogue to convey financial niceties to the unsophisticated, but silent films had to use the clumsy device of inter-titles for this kind of exposition, and Hitchcock was one of those directors who liked to keep the number of inter-titles in a film as near to zero as possible.
Hitchcock even suggested that the story should be moved to a circus setting. Doubtless he was thinking of the visual opportunities that a circus would have given him (in the same way that the theatre gave him opportunities in Murder! of 1930). Bennett was not interested in doing a radical rewrite, and the project foundered.
Another source of friction between the potential colleagues was the question of sound. Like many critics of the time, Bennett thought that the advent of the talkies was likely to ruin cinema as an art form. He and others were put off by the lack of subtlety in the sound quality of the early talkies, while the limitations imposed by the use of microphones severely restricted the fluidity of camera movement. After the visual poetry of the best films of the twenties, the movies became stagey again. Hitchcock, of course, was looking beyond these temporary problems, towards the possibilities of using sound in a truly cinematic way. His first sound film, Blackmail, showed how sound did not have to be cinematically limiting, but could be used in truly original ways.
Bennett was adamant that the film must be silent, and yet his treatment is full of very effective dialogue scenes, with twists and turns that could only be made clear in words. Considerable adaptation would have been needed to turn this into a silent film – another reason, perhaps, why Hitchcock remained lukewarm.
So Punch and Judy was never filmed, and we are left to imagine what Hitchcock might have made of it. Maybe its very dark humour would have brought out the best in him. Isn’t Psycho just about the best of all grand guignol movies?
Meanwhile we must be grateful to John Shapcott for going back to Bennett’s manuscript and producing this edition. The story is not absolutely top-rank Bennett, but it is good Bennett and highly entertaining; and it is Bennett tackling one of his great themes, the power of money.
John Shapcott’s introduction usefully puts the text into the context of the times and of Bennett’s interest in film. An appendix gives an extract from Bennett’s journal for 1929, in which he describes his meeting with the self-confident young film-director:
He was far from being a fool. Intelligent in his own way, but it was a crude way. There was certainly something of the artist in him. Some creative fire in him. I liked him.
Maybe Bennett and Hitchcock had too much in common (including a great deal of self-esteem) to be completely compatible as collaborators.