Tormented (1960) on Mystery Science Theater 3000: A 50th Anniversary Horror Movie Review

Tormented (1960) posterProducer-director Bert I. Gordon is most well known for his low-budget 1950s science fiction pics like THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER, KING DINOSAUR, and ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, but this little seen relic from 1960 is actually one of his better efforts. It is also one of the more entertaining installments of the always enjoyable MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) and his robot pals are on-target with their caustic quips and silly asides, but equally important is that the target of their tirades borders perfectly on the cusp of watchability and absurdity. TORMENTED is not without merit; it simply tries too hard, and layers its melodramatic effects on so thick that you would be tempted to chuckle even without the addition of the MST3K commentary.
TORMENTED plays like a hard-boiled homicide story rammed into a horror film.  Jazz pianist Tom Stewart is engaged to Meg, but his old flame Vi (listed in the credits as “VI,” which Joel reads as the roman number for six) refuses to let go, until she conveniently falls off the top of a lighthouse. Unfortunately for Tom, Vi (whose body turns to kelp when he retrieves it from the ocean) returns to haunt him, turning his life into a living hell and generally messing up the approaching nuptials.
The scenario (by veteran George Worthing Yates, whose credits include the excellent 1954 sci-fi effort THEM) is not without interest, wrapped as it is in some moody black-and-white photography and a cool jazz soundtrack. But the whole thing is just a bit over-baked: Tom’s voice-over narration (which Crow likens to Graeme Edge of the Mood Blues, who famously intoned, “Breathe deep the gathering gloom…) tells us more than we need to know, and the supernatural manifestations (though technically competent) are a bit too insistent in their attempts to scare the audience and drive Tom bonkers; many of them would work better as externalizations of Tom’s guilt, but TORMENTED eschews this interpretation, definitely opting for a supernatural explanation.
Tormented: Vi's GhostTORMENTED quickly hits a plateau, with Tom repeatedly voicing his defiance to the unseen Vi, despite the tell-tale signs she leaves: a missing ring, footsteps in the sand, disembodied hands. When Vi finally provides a “free-floating full-torso vaporous apparition” (to quote GHOSTBUSTERS), her pose and flowing white dress are less suggestive of a spook than of a hot and sexy femme fatale, as glimpsed on the cover of a paperback novel; also, the staging is a bit static, as if Gordon were afraid that any movement would have ruined the alignment of the composite elements in the special effects shot.
Things pick up a bit when Vi’s ghost sets her supernatural sights on others. TORMENTED even achieves an occasional eerie shudder, as when Meg’s bridal dress mysteriously turns up covered in seaweed or when several characters note the presence of a perfume that Vi used to wear. There is a nice bit with a seeing-eye dog afraid to enter the fateful lighthouse and a fun if slightly melodramatic scene wherein Vi’s unseen spirit interrupts the wedding ceremony, causing all the flowers in the chapel to wilt.
Tormented Joe TurkelTORMENTED is many ways a competent B-movie. Richard Carlson (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) is an old pro who does a decent job with the guilty Tom. Juli Reding has the right look as the vampy Vi. Susan Gordon (director Bert I. Gordon’s daughter) is fine as Meg’s younger sister, an innocent moppet whose presence acts as a continual prick on Tom’s conscience. Joe Turkel (later the creepy bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING) shows up briefly in a nice turn as a would-be blackmailer, who ironically speaks hipper lingo than jazz-man Tom and suspects the pianist’s affair (prompting Crow to remark “Like there’s never been a sex scandal in jazz before!”). The downbeat ending (SPOILER: Tom and Vi’s drowned corpses end up in a mock embrace on the beach END SPOILER) even elicits crocodile tears from the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 cast, suggesting they are almost impressed by the heavy-handed attempt at romantic fatalism.
MST3K Tormented headUnfortunately, TORMENTED never achieves the right dreamlike atmosphere to support its special effects. A sequence in which Vi appears as a disembodied head, sitting on a table, is intended as a gratuitous shock (there is no reason for her to manifest in this manner; it’s not as if she died by decapitation), but it comes across as merely funny, especially when Tom picks up the head, wraps it in a towel, and then drops it down the stairs. (Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot recreate the headless scene – to much better comic effect – in one of the host segments.)
With this kind of source material, it is almost inevitable that the crew of the Satellite of Love would have a ball, resulting in one of the better episodes of the always funny MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Verbal references to “body surfing” while Tom tries to retrieve Vi’s corpse from the crashing waves are worth a chuckle, and there is a running gag about “Sessions Presents”: the over-used establishing shot of Tom’s beach-front cabin suggests a commercial for a K-TEL type record collection of pop hits. During one of TORMENTED’s many lighthouse scenes, Joel notes the echoes of Hitccock, remarking, “An aging Kim Novak recreates this scene from VERTIGO.”
The host segments offer fun as well, such as TV’s Frank (Frank Coniff) wearing a “drinking jacket” that comes equpped with the D.T.’s (i.e., a rubber snake). There is a hysterical bit recreating Vi’s death with a miniature lighthouse and dolls, which stand in for pop musicians that Joel and his robot pals would like to see plummet to their deaths (Kenny Loggins, Michael Bolton, etc). “That felt good,” Joel sighs, when it’s all over. Perhaps the funniest segment is a brief throw-away, with Tom Servo and Crow debating whether Lyndon B. Johnson’s presence on the presidential ticket really helped Kennedy win the White House.

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MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s riff on TORMENTED is currently available via Video on Demand through Netflix Instant Viewing. It is also available on DVD as part of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 11, which also includes RING OF TERROR, THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, and HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND. Rhino’s four-disc box set offers theatrical trailers for several of the films, including TORMENTED. There are interviews with director Bert I. Gordon, his daughter Susan, and co-star Joseph Turkel. Bonus features not directly related to TORMENTED include Mystery Science Hour wrap-around segments, hosted by Mike Nelson as Jack Perkins, and an “MST3K Jukebox” (a compilation of the musical numbers sung by the Satellite of Love crew.”
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, Season 5, Episode 14 (originally aired September 26, 1992). Directed by Kevin Murph. Written by Michael J. Nelson, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Paul Chaplin, Frank Conniff, Bridget Johnes, Kevin Murphy. Cast: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Frank Conniff.
TORMENTED (September 22, 1960). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Screenplay by George Worthing Yates, from a story by Gordon. Cast: Richard Carlson, Susan Gordon, Lugene Sanders, Juli Reding. Joe Turkel, Lillian Adams, Gene Roth, Vera Marshe, Harry FLeer, Merritt Stone.

Robot Noir From The UK In REIGN OF DEATH

Love your Sci-Fi but short on time? Check out the short film REIGN OF DEATH! Directed by Matt Savage (Concept Designer on KICK ASS & X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) and starring Noel Clarke (DOCTOR WHO), REIGN is classic detective noir set in a dystopian future. The movie has been making it’s way around the UK Festival circuit and has been picking up a lot of positive buzz. While the film speaks for itself, in a much larger sense it shows that you don’t need a huge budget to make a fun and memorable film.

Kiss Me, Deadly (1955) – Private Eye flick is an unsung classic of science ficiton

Kiss Me, Deadly (1955)
KISS ME DEADLY ranks among the greatest science fiction movies ever made, yet few people realize that it is indeed part of the genre. Rather like SUNSET BOULEVARD (which is considered a classy Hollywood drama in spite of its horror trappings), producer-director Robert Aldrich’s film version of the Mickey Spillane novel is labeled as a mystery-movie – a private eye film noir, in particular. Aldrich (who also gave us the exellent HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, among many others), certainly delivered a film that deserves its place among the great detective movies, at least in part because it undermines much of the ethos of the mystery genre; in fact, it uses the science fiction element like a  nuclear-bomb-sized to blast the mystery trappings to smithereens (much as Alex Cox would, decades later, use the radioactive aliens in REPO MAN to blow holes in a story about a young suburban punk).*
KISS ME, DEADLY displays a wonderful black-and-white cynicism as its brutal and somewhat ineffectual anti-hero Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman) on the run from some thugs who catch up and kill her, then try to fake Hammer’s death as well. Barely escaping alive, the private detective tries to unravel the mystery of why the woman was killed, hoping this will be the case that takes him into the big-time. Instead, he nearly gets himself and his secretary Velda killed in a nuclear conflagration.
Shot on a relatively low-budget, the film suffers from some technical lapses: during a slow nighttime tail job, a clock in the background jumps forward several minutes in the space of a few seconds; when Hammer is unable to question a suspect because he’s unconscious, the snoring sound effect is overdone almost to the point of sounding silly.
But these little grains of sand are vastly outweighed by the boulder that is Hammer as personified by Meeker. At most a competent character actor in other roles (e.g., Stanley Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY), Meeker is by far the best of many screen incarnations of Spillane’s violent private eye. He captures the physicality of the character; more importantly, he conveys the brutal enthusiasm. What made Hammer interesting in the books was that he was quite proud of being just as brutal as the bad guys – a fact he justified because his brutality was in the service of protectng the innocent (a la the various tough guys in Frank Miller’s SIN CITY), but you always got the feeling that, when push came to shove, Hammer just plain enjoyed cracking heads and blowing crooks away for the sheer helluva it. Although the level of brutality is in the film is truncated to suit 1955 standards, Meeker manages to get the point across with the enthusiastic smile he flashes at each new opportunity for mayhem – smile that virtually announces, “I’m really gonna enjoy kicking your ass!”
There is a brutal, pulp effectiveness to the writing of Mickey Spillane. The power employed in the telling of the Mike Hammer mysteries failed to impress the king of hard-boiled writing, Raymond Chandler (who considered the combination gunplay and foreplay little better than pornography), but it cannot be denied. Especially in Hammer’s debut, I, The Jury, the result is breathtaking: Spillane has such a handle on conveying the voice of his hero (the stories are related in the first person) that ultimately a critic must acknowledge that the lowest common denominator combo of violence and vendetta actually adds up to a great piece of writing. Unfortunately, Spillane never deepened Hammer’ characterization in the subsequent novels, never confronted him with a challenge that caused him to question his values and beliefs. The result is that the latter books are basically rewrites of the first, and their cumulative effect is much less impressive than that of Chandler’s Marlowe stories.
On the page, Hammer never faced a problem bigger than he – a problem too big to solve with a gun – at least, not until he appeared in this 1955 cinematic masterpiece . In a truly awesome piece of deconstruction, the film undermines the character of Hammer at every turn, transforming him into a sleazy loser who’s barely a step away from being a brutal Neanderthal. Whereas the novel’s character was always right (even when he appeared to be wrong, his instincts inevitably led him to the killer’s identity), the filmic Hammer (as excellently embodied by Meeker) is merely able to keep up with events, not to alter or solve them. Because, finally, he has come up against a phenomenon that is beyond his control.
The screenplay for KISS ME, DEADLY takes the skeletal outline from Spillane’s namesake novel (one of Hammer’s better outings) but replaces the majority of details. The most important change involves the mysterious MacGuffin that drives the plot (or as the film calls it, the “Great Whatsit”). Whereas the book revolved around a cache of illegal drugs, the black box everyone is chasing in the film turns out to contain some undefined but deadly substance that is obviously radioactive in nature.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)This revelation, over halfway into the running time, suddenly leapfrogs the film beyond the boundaries of hard-boiled mystery into science-fiction territory. When the Pandora’s Box is opened, KISS ME, DEADLY visually mutates into what looks like an old black-and-white episode of THE OUTER LIMITS (think of “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork”), complete with pulsing lights on screen and growling electronics on the soundtrack – which convey the enormous power of the nuclear genie being let out of its bottle. No longer faced with human thugs whom he can simply dispatch with bullets or fists, Hammer barely has the wits about him to survive this new threat, which comes damn nearly close to destroying him and his secretary, Velda.
The question of whether Hammer and Velda survive is one that remained unsettled for decades after the film’s release, until a restored version of KISS ME, DEADLY reached home video in the mid-1990s (and also popped up at some isolated theatrical screenings, including an American Cinematheque retrospective of Aldrich’s work). Most prints available, subsequent to the initial release, end with a shot of a seaside cabin engulfed in flames, ignited by spreading radiation from the opened box. This left audiences to ponder whether Hammer and Velda were still inside – a downbeat ending not entirely out of line with the film’s take on the Hammer character.
Yet, somehow, it did not feel satisfying dramatically to imagine them dying inside the inferno. The momentum of the story seemed to be moving towards Hammer’s rescue of Velda – just about the only unselfish act we see the slob perform throughout the whole movie, and one that deserves to be rewarded. Also, the last interior shot before the explosion shows Hammer and Velda stumbling toward the door, and the exterior scene of the cabin that follows is such a long shot (and at night) that one could easily imagine they did get out, but we just could not see them.
Kiss Me, Deadly (1955)Well, the restored version clarifies their escape, providing the missing shots that we always expected to see, of Hammer and Velda stumbling away from the burning cabin and into the nearby surf as the flames leap behind them. (Contrary to popular belief, these scenes have not been totally absent from screens for the last forty years; in 1991 a revival house in Los Angeles screened a 16mm print that contained these shots – although, ironically, other footage was missing!)
The tough guy hero is an important icon in American literature and film – a comforting fantasy that any problem can be solved with guns and bravado. KISS ME, DEADLY stands out as a unique American film of its era, one that undercuts this mythology to a devastating degree. The inclusion of its small science-fiction element is no mere gimmick but a warning on the way America saw itself at the time – a nation capable of wielding atomic energy with moral force. If all America’s heroes turned out to be as dubious as Hammer is portrayed here, that that conviction deserved to be very much in doubt.

  • Alex Cox obviously had KISS ME, DEADLY in mind when he wrote and directed REPO MAN. The aliens decaying in the trunk of the car that everyone is pursuing – and the lethal effects when the trunk is opened – are a deliberate homage to the deadly secret in Aldrich’s film.

Sense of Wonder: The Dark Knight – Gotham City's Politics of Noir

Now that THE DARK KNIGHT has slowly slipped from the #1 slot in the weekly box office race, perhaps time has come to discuss the film as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a box office phenomenon. In truth, the discussion has already begun, but the level of discourse has been sophomoric, even juvenile. Some observers have accused the film of being confused or fascist; others insist that it paints a positive picture of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror; at least one thinks it is being over-rated simply because it is a macho action pic. The very fact that the film could ignite this kind of debate is, in itself, interesting; the dark, dense, and sprawling narrative is so loaded with details that are not wrapped up into a neat bow that active audience interpretation is almost required to make sense of it. From my perspective, the two keys to understanding the film are Film Noir and the Western genre, which provide a foundation upon which the film’s narrative rests.
Not that the nation’s critics have necessarily noticed this. In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Joanne Weintraub vaguely complains that the macho heroics of Batman outperformed the feel-good, feminine-friendly MAMA MIA; besides Heath Ledger’s justifiably praised performance as the Joker, she sees little difference in quality between the two films and seems to think DARK KNIGHT has earned unfairly high critical regard because “Guy Flicks” about men trying to save the world are perceived as being serious work, unlike frothy chick flicks such as MAMA MIA.
Weintraub is correct that THE DARK KNIGHT plays out its scenario in a male-dominated world, where the one significant female character (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel) is reduced to the stereotypical female roles of emotional anchor and damsel in distress. However, Weintraub overlooks three important points: 1) action films do not typically earn critical kudos; 2) DARK KNIGHT has far outperformed most typical action films; 3) DARK KNIGHT is far from being a typical action film.


THE DARK KNIGHT is less a superhero adventure than an awesome piece of film noir
THE DARK KNIGHT is less a superhero adventure than an awesome piece of film noir

Despite its superhero trappings, THE DARK KNIGHT is more a piece of film noir, a style that typically uses hard-boiled plot lines laced with machismo. The true aesthetics of macho movie-making, however, have less to do with explosions and car chases than with how a man defines himself in a hostile, usually corrupt world. It’s the old story of “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but in hard-boiled plot, unlike the Western, what a man’s gotta do is often not nearly enough.
THE DARK KNIGHT is really about the failure of the hero. Batman strives mightily, but the Joker outplays him on almost every hand. Even apparent small victories lead to defeat. Batman may capture the Joker, but the effect is like trying to stuff a genie back into the bottle: the madness has already been unleashed, and it seems unstoppable. The large-scale goal of redeeming Gotham remains elusively out of reach.
This is not the sort of stuff we associate with summer blockbusters. It’s dark and pessimistic, but not outright cynical, and I suspect that this quality – rather than the guy flick designation – is what has embedded the film in the public consciousness. THE DARK KNIGHT celebrates the struggle – the effort against all odds – even when victory is at best partial. The film refuses to sell out with an easy happy ending; it captures the tenor of the times in which we live, when our institutions and government have failed us, but it refuses to trade in the cheap cynicism of junk like THE MIST – which mistook cynical irony for profundity.
Moving on to the political perspective, we have the usually astute Eric Alterman stating:

I saw The Dark Knight yesterday afternoon, and I think it pulled off the neat trick of being both libertarian and fascistic, which is to say it is damn confused … not bad, but not consistent either.

Responding to Alterman, Matthew Yglesias writes:

…a well-made film that, rather than being topical as such, instead chooses to deal with topical themes often doesn’t really have a political “point of view.” Instead, it makes everybody think about the present political situation but we’ll probably reach different conclusions about it just as we reach different conclusions about the real world.

That seems about right to me. THE DARK KNIGHT appears confused to Alterman because it is not designed to endorse a clear-cut agenda, in which the plot works out perfectly because a character adheres to a certain set of prinicples (unlike, say, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, in which the naive scientist is killed off by the alien while the military defeats the invader). DARK KNIGHT does not preach an easy moral: “Do this and everything will work out okay.” Instead, the screenplay takes its premise and plays it out wherever it leads, with the characters scrambling to deal with an antagonist who is too clever for them, whose very philosophy challenges their assumptions and tactics, rendering them impotent. “Fascism” and “Libertarianism” are not actually endorsed by the filmmakers; the ideas are dramatically embodied by the characters and their actions.
For example, Harvey Dent, when discussing his mission to clean up Gotham, cites Julius Cesare, approvingly, only to have Rachel remind him that Roman strong-arm tactics eventually led to military dictatorship. Likewise, Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon believe that heroes are needed to save Gotham – and if Batman is not the quite right pill for the prescription, then Harvey Dent is; their belief, however, is contradicted by the narrative itself, although they never seem to realize it.
Yglesias is also correct that different people will read different interpretations into the material. Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman believes that THE DARK KNIGHT reflects Dick Cheney’s approach to foreign policy, with the Caped Crusader seeing himself as a reluctant warrior forced into action by an inexplicable villain. The difference is that Batman worries over the moral and ethical dilemmas that face him, whereas Cheney and company never doubt their moral righteousness, believing that the ends justify any means, however despicable.

Like an old gunslinger, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) looks forward to the day he can hang up his Bat-suit for good.
Like an old gunslinger, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) looks forward to the day he can hang up his Bat-suit for good.

Ackerman’s view overlooks the Western element of THE DARK KNIGHT’s plot. Batman is a little bit like a gun-fighter in an old Western: his existence makes sense because he exists in a world where law and order do not keep violence at bay. The Western celebrates the exploits of brave men who shoot fast, but the Sheriff or Marshall who faces off with the Bad Guy in a showdown is ultimately trying to put himself out of business. The goal is to tame the Wild West, so that justice may be administered in the courtroom by a judge and jury, not in the middle of the street with guns blazing.
Batman is not a gun-slinger, but he serves a similar function; his actions are justified by his lawless environment. Gotham may not quite be a frontier town, but it is so corrupt that a legitimate lawman like Jim Gordon cannot successfully do his job. In this context, where organized crime has infiltrated institutions intended to protect citizens, it becomes necessary for Bruce Wayne to wear the cape and cowl, acting outside the law. Nevertheless, Batman ultimately serves the law: he works in close alliance with Gordon, counterbalancing the unfair disadvantages handicapping the policeman.
With the advent of Harvey Dent, however, Batman seems obsolete. Dent is not just out to catch low-level street thugs: he wants to prosecute the big fish; in doing so, he plans to wipe out the corruption undermining Gotham, and unlike Bruce Wayne, he can operate in daylight, with his face exposed to the public. In other words, Dent fits the role of traditional hero; he represents what Batman has been fighting to achieve – the rise of a more peaceful form of civil authority – a legal prosecutor who can replace the violent gunfighter. If Dent succeeds, Gordon and the rest of the police force will be able to do their jobs, and Batman can go back to being Bruce Wayne – the equivalent of the gunfighter hanging up his six-shooter.

That Batman would like to do this is in no doubt; rather than cling to power, Wayne is eager to retire. Unlike the Bush administration, it is clear that Wayne does not anticipate an unending war that will permanently justify an expansion of his powers. In fact, in a subplot that riffs off of the domestic spying issue, Batman deliberately puts his surveillance power in the hands of the one man who objects to it morally, and Batman also provides him with the code that will self-destruct the device when its purpose has been served. This is precisely the opposite of the Bush-Cheney approach, in which crisis and emergency are not only embraced but deliberately prolonged as a an excuse for maintaining a grip on power. (Have you seen  George Bush trying to rescind his expanded wiretapping powers – without warrants -or trying to permanently codify them into law, along with the help of Congress?)


Going a step further – or more accurately, going off the deep end – the Wall Street Journal posted an opinion piece by mystery novelist Andrew Klavan entitled “What Bush and Batman Have in Common.” Klavan is so specious in his reasoning that he does not warrant a line-by-line take-down (in spite of its reportorial excellence, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page has long been a joke); however, it is interesting to see the simple-minded conservative arguments trotted out as if they were philosophical first principles to be accepted without debate. Klavan believes that THE DARK KNIGHT has made a fortune because it is a conservative film, but he offers a lament in the guise of a rhetorical question, asking why conservative values “like morality, faith, self-sacrifice, and the nobility of fighting for the right” appear only under the guise of fantasy.
The first part of the answer to the question is obvious: morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right are not conservative values by any stretch of the imagination. The second part of the answer is almost equally obvious: fantasy films offer a venue for artists to expound upon ideas that are open to interpretation, so that audiences with different viewpoints can read what they want into them; to a large extent, this is the essence of popular art – creating something that can be enjoyed by everyone. The third part of the answer may be less obvious, but it is equally important: if your world view makes sense only in the context of a movie about hobbits, fairies, or superheroes, you probably should not try to apply it to the real world.

The police allow Batman to get tough with the Joker - a tactic that fails
The police allow Batman to get tough with the Joker - a tactic that fails

Typically, Klavan’s distinction between moral relativism and moral absolutism is not well defined. What it amounts to is: if we do it, then it’s right, because we’re the Good Guys. Consequently, things that are wrong on some occasions may be right on other occasions (i.e., when we are doing them). This hardly qualifies as absolutism. In fact, it is almost a dictionary definition of relativism: it all depends on circumstances, and we’re willing to break a few rules and do a few bad things, because it’s not quite as bad as some of the consequences would be otherwise.
THE DARK KNIGHT plays with the idea of how far one is willing to bend the rules in times of emergency, but for the most part the film is a depiction of Batman’s failure to defeat the Joker with these “get tough” measures. The film invites us to cheer when Gordon, a police officer, allows Batman, a vigilante, to interrogate the Joker, because we know Batman can kick his ass in the way that the official police could not, but the effort proves a total failure. The audience may enjoy a vicarious thrill at Batman’s extra-legal measures, but taking off the velvet gloves is useless against the Joker’s brand of villainy; getting down and dirty only plays into his scheme, such as it is.


The problem is that Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent underestimate and misunderstand their opponent, treating him like a conventional criminal – which he is not. The Joker does not have a conventional criminal agenda (the accumulation of wealth and power) because he knows these things are ephemeral. To the wounded Dent, he claims to be an Agent of Chaos, and I cannot help believing that this is a deliberate reference to Norman Spinrad’s science fiction novel of that title. Agent of Chaos is a sort of alternate spin on the dystopian novel as exemplified by Orwell’s 1984, in which the power of political oppression seemed undefeatable; Spinrad, unlike Orwell, tells us that chaos ultimately wins out over order. In the novel, the forces of chaos are represented by an anarchic organization (a contradiction in terms, perhaps) called the Brotherhood of Assassins, who seek to undermine the prevailing political establishment, which is corrupt and deserves to be destroyed.
Seen from this point of view, the Joker bears some similarity to the revolutionary title character in V FOR VENDETTA – another trickster outwitting powerful establishment forces. The difference is that in V FOR VENDETTA, the corrupt, Fascist establishment clearly deserved to be brought down by any means necessary. Gotham, on the other hand, is not so far gone that it is necessary to destroy it in order to save it. Batman, Dent, and Gordon all hope they can weed out the bad elements while leaving the essential structure intact: they do not want to destroy the existing order; they want to replace it with a new and improved version.
What the Joker seems to know (although he never states it outright) is the lesson that Spinrad taught in Agent of Chaos: the tendency toward entropy – toward chaos – will ultimately overwhelm any social order, which is always temporary in nature. Batman, Gordon, and Dent may fight to replace Gotham’s corrupt system, but their victories can be at best temporary.

The Joker (Heath Ledger) vividly displays his disinterest in the criminal acquisition of wealth.
The Joker (Heath Ledger) vividly displays his disinterest in the criminal acquisition of wealth.

What makes the Joker so dangerous is that he is not trying to create a social order of his own; there is no Master Plan to unravel because his only aim is to make things unravel. His agenda, if he has one at all, is to corrupt the forces that are trying to save Gotham.* This goal becomes most obvious in the character of Dent, the fair-haired golden boy who represents the legitimate, official counterpart to Batman’s vigilantism. Dent is the guy who theoretically can accomplish what Batman is trying to do. However, the Joker throws a monkey wrench into the works, turning Harvey toward evil – or at least destroying his sense of justice, so that nothing is left but a will toward revenge and a belief in the random, arbitrary nature of events – hence his reliance on a flipping a coin to decide who lives and dies.
The film forshadows Dent’s transformation into Two-Face with a scene where he threatens a helpless, mentally deficient suspect with a gun; the scene reminds the viewer that even the best of us has a dark side that can be dangerous if it goes unchecked. The message is that the world cannot depend on “heroes,” who are merely human and may fall from grace. We must depend upon principles. There is no force strong enough to police everyone all the time; people themselves – the public at large – are the ultimate source of a stable society. They don’t need to be saved so much as they need a fair shot at not being sand-bagged by evil forces, whether common criminals, uncommon criminals (like the Joker), or organized criminals.
The point is made quite dramatically in the the dilemma the Joker forces upon two boats in Gotham harbor, each rigged to blow up if the passengers do not blow up the other boat first. This is the Joker’s way of proving a point – that self-interest will override morality in a crisis – but it turns out to be the one genuine defeat he suffers in the film. The “heroes” who save the day are not Batman, Dent, or Gordon; they are two men on the boats who (for different reason) either refuse or simply cannot bring themselves to push the button. Batman doesn’t do it. Harvey Dent doesn’t do it. Jim Gordon doesn’t do it. Just two guys who find themselves in a bad situation but make the right decision.


It is here, only here, that THE DARK KNIGHT finds a small glimmer of hope. Yes, the Joker (who manifests an unspoken death-wish) concedes defeat in his attempt to force Batman to kill him, but the real victory belongs to the anonymous populace. The Joker – like another unidentified criminal mastermind, the pseudonymous John Smith in SEVEN – is trying to teach the world a lesson; like other examples of oracular evil (MANHUNTER’s Hannibal Lektor, MR FROST’s title character, the Gemini Killer in THE EXORCIST III), the Joker offers a dark but compelling philosophy filled with both cynicism and insight; the combination is designed to evoke despair, but inspite of all his best effort, a flicker of human decency defeats him.
That the victory belongs not to Batman is made clear in the key image of the film: while Batman dangles the Joker upside down from the side of of a building, the camera revolves 180-degrees until his face looks right-side-up in the frame. In effect, the camera has adopted the Joker’s frame of reference: Batman has not turned him upside down; the Joker has turned the Batman’s world upside down.

The film ends with Wayne and Gordon preserving Harvey Dent's good-guy image.
The film ends with Wayne and Gordon preserving Harvey Dent's good-guy image.

This is not the sort of resolution  that yields an easily digestible “moral to the story.” And the film provides a final turn of the screw in the form of a plot twist regarding the demise of Two-Face, in which Batman and Gordon make an ill-fated decision in order to preserve Dent’s heroic image. Even after all they have seen and experienced, the two men still place their faith in a worldview that (they should now realize) has been rendered topsy-turvy. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, they refuse to render Dent “that justice which was his due,” instead perpetuating a comforting lie, allegedly for the public good.
If THE DARK KNIGHT has anything definite to say, it is that a handful of men working in secret and without accountability are not the answer to the world’s problems; however well intentioned, their efforts are doomed because the chaotic forces at work in the universe are too big to be controlled. Real hope rises from the bottom up, not from overlords who make decisions on our behalf. Moments of heroism may arrive in unexpected places, but the mantel of hero is no guarantee of success. Batman cannot save us; we can only hope to save ourselves.

  • Judging from his actions if not his words, the Joker also hopes to commit “Suicide by Batman,” but this may be considered part of his agenda to corrupt the forces of good in the film.