The Upturned Glass (1947)

April 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Along with actors like Cary Grant, James Mason must among the few British actors that can so effortlessly convey sophistication and intelligence. It’s an interesting premise, then, when the viewer follows such a character very closely as he carefully plots a murder — after all, nothing could lure the viewer into believing he’s justified more than the kind of charm he manages — before the final reels of the film suggest the possibility that he might be completely mad.

Mason plays a neurosurgeon named Michael Joyce who falls in love with a patient, but when she apparently falls to her death, he begins to suspect it’s the work of a relative of hers, and starts to quietly investigate the matter. In a clunky, improbable and unnecessary structure for the narrative, he lectures a class on the criminal mind, and begins to tell his story (at least up to a certain point), providing such a remarkable level of detail that it should be plainly obvious he’s talking about himself. And since he doesn’t eventually take questions from the class, the scene doesn’t even serve the purpose of illustrating that he’s questioning himself. Clearly he doesn’t, and clearly the viewer isn’t meant to question him much either. The film even makes the relative he plans to murder into a pushy (pardon the pun) self-centered person, a long-standing technique in drama that’s designed to soften our judgement of Joyce.

The lecture is the only clunky part of the narrative. Once he’s finished, and heads out to try and pull off the murder, the film really takes off. His elaborate plan has involved dating the woman he firmly believes shoved her out the window, and tossing her out the same window. But far from some kind of neat execution, the actual act is a cringe-inducing scene that reminds the viewer it’s a messy and unpleasant business he’s confidently strolled into. Additionally, her hysterical accusation that he’s completely mad is where his neat world and confidence begin to unravel, even if he doesn’t recognize it yet. After this, there’s a final set of scenes with another doctor who arrives quite literally (and symbolically, in a great scene) out of the fog, waving at Joyce in need of a ride. This other doctor is remarkably cynical (It’s “all one to him” whether people recover or not) but he gives Joyce the push towards a more objective viewpoint, and that’s all Joyce needs in order to see the hideousness of his actions. There’s one short speech given by the other doctor (who has spotted the body hidden in the backseat, and has a good idea what happened) that makes his diagnosis of Joyce clear:

“Not you, I’m not speaking of obsessionals. I’m speaking of the normal, the perfectly sane. Let me put it this way. The vessell which we normal people use for imbibing experience is a stout austerity model which doesn’t crack. With others, like yourself, the glass, though of superior design, cracks quite easily.  Now, instead of of leaving it upturned on a shelf, a danger to all, it should be thrown away.”

Of course, the statement is loaded with generalizations. Who is he to declare himself normal, when he’s so dispassionate about his patients recovering or dying? Joyce, however, recognizes he likely killed a murderer, but acted without solid proof, or any kind of confession. It’s a film that’s interesting both for the plot twists and the psychology of the characters, as well as managing to ultimately leave some questions open-ended. Those viewers that have run out of Hitchcock can turn to The Upturned Glass for a film inspired by his work, but worthy enough to stand on its own.


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