Summer 2012

Hell Is a Funhouse Mirror

Dante’s Inferno and Dante’s Inferno

D. Graham Burnett

Dante’s Inferno is a poem of thirty-four cantos composed in the early fourteenth century; it may be the supreme masterwork of European literature. Dante’s Inferno is an eighty-nine-minute Fox film released in 1935 starring Spencer Tracy (and featuring a bit-part appearance by a pre-fame Rita Hayworth); it merits closer attention.

We meet Tracy’s rough-and-ready character, Jim Carter, in the engine-room of an ocean steamer, where blazing furnaces rake the Stygian stokers with infernal light. He shovels coal into the flames. Fade to fire.

A drifter in the docklands, Jim eventually washes up as a carny barker in a Coney Island of the mind, rustling custom for a pasticcio attraction known as “Dante’s Inferno,” brainchild of a soulful psychopomp named Doc McQuade. This doctor aims to save sinners, and to that end, he has erected an instructive funhouse where the pedestrian pilgrim (after payment of a dime) may descend into the maw of moral instruction, touring Dante’s hell very much in the spirit of Dante himself, whose journey was meant to harrow and edify. Problem is, the strolling men in trilbies and their gals won’t pay to be perfected. A cabinet of eschatological curiosities cannot hold its own against roulette wheels and the opportunity to bean men in blackface with baseballs. The joint languishes. Doc sits at the gate, a wan prophet of the boardwalk, accorded no respect in his native land. His pretty daughter knits at the till.

Enter a bush-league Satan to animate this sleepy little underworld. Jim—silver-tongued, unscrupulous, in thrall to the gospel of success—marries the girl and sets to the task of, as he puts it, “putting hell on a paying basis.” This means a showman’s makeover for Dis: sinful chicks in gauzy pushup bras, beefy dark angels, and a panoply of the damned (well oiled) all stuffed into a soaring nine-story ziggurat of well-capitalized bad behavior. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate…

It’s a hit, of course, this new concession. But, predictably, Jim has mortgaged his soul in the bargain, playing fast and loose with money, partners, and the law. So the devil gets his due, and in a scene worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, this satanic Xanadu comes crashing down on the heads of the revelers. Chaos ensues. Suicides. A trial. The end of the storybook marriage. Fatherless children. A music box tinkles out its tragic tune. Ruin and despair.

Cue an immortal play-within-the-play: bedside with Doc (spectral survivor of hell’s collapse), Jim submits to a nine-minute hallucinatory encounter with the veritable torments of the damned. This visio comes in the form of an extraordinary coming-to-life of Gustave Doré’s cinematic nineteenth-century woodcut illustrations of the Inferno, the pages of which Doc turns before Jim’s addled eyes.

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