It is night. Something seems to stir behind the motionless fall of rippled velvet. There’s a faint shadow, a silhouette. It wasn’t there before, was it? Should you go nearer? Do you dare? In the half-darkness, might you see the tips of a pair of shoes peeking from under the material? Then, if you decide to draw back that material, might it be your last action - and your scream the last sound you make?
In the 100 years or so since curtains were first drawn back on a movie, a simple household item has become a rich and complex icon. Art and cinema do that to things; but they have seldom done it more magically than with curtains. We live with them every day at home, we dream and die by them at the movies. We take them to the cleaners in life; they take us to the cleaners - our psyches, imaginations, anxieties - on screen.
I saw them in a new film the other day, the French-Romanian horror movie Them. Not exactly curtains but hangings: polythene drapes in an under-repair attic. Surreal and murkily translucent, they add an extra frisson to the life-or-death game of hide-and-seek between heroine and intruder. The thrill of ambiguity could happen with no other prop. Nor could many scenes of scariness on the large screen.
If cinema were a department store, curtains would have a floor to themselves: the top, remotest floor where you venture furthest to find the deepest, most disturbing secrets. They are the neglected master-motif, one that few filmgoers notice or ponder, but by which none has been unmarked. They recur and recur. They tell us how cinema works, how it teases, how it builds meaning and mystery.
A woman stabbed in a shower grabs the plastic curtain like a mocking lifeline, pulling it down with her into death. A girl and three humanoids in an Emerald City part a curtain to discover a charlatan wizard. In a scarlet hell, ruled by Lynch law, mortals and immortals mingle amid blood-red draperies.
Traverse history further. We see a bald director with the glinting eyes of a monomaniac stand before a silver and gold curtain introducing his film of The Ten Commandments. In another space and time - a maze of studio sets where a man called Kelly has just danced in the rain - a gawky peroxide blonde is mouthing mellifluous notes on a stage when the curtains part, star-makingly, to reveal the pretty soubrette (Debbie Reynolds) actually singing her notes.
From Reynolds to Garland, from DeMille to Hitchcock to Lynch, where would we be without curtains? They are there when revelations are sprung, secrets discovered and impostors unmasked; when teasing layers of story are discarded only to reveal there are more teasing layers.
They creep into the very dialogue: “It’ll be curtains for you.” They creep into the texture of the drama. How did penurious Scarlett O’Hara make her best dress to impress Rhett Butler? From the living-room curtains. A curtain becomes part of the swashbuckling action when Errol Flynn uses a giant drape as a ceiling-to-floor slide in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Richard Todd is killed by a curtain in Stage Fright - a “safety curtain”. (Hitchcock always knew a good joke.)
Note, too, if you are a student of film aesthetics, that the wipe shot - used for the transition from one image or scene to another, for example, a turning-page wipe or clock wipe - is a glorified, optical curtain. Remember too, if you are a student of film history, that the headline moment of Cannes 1968, when les evenements de mai filtered south to reach the film festival, was that in which French filmmaker-turned-activist Louis Malle clung to the curtain in the main salle, determined to stop the show going on.
So, again: where would movies be without them?
Theatre, we know, would be nowhere. Curtains are sewn into the fabric of stagecraft. They have been for the several hundred years of their vogue. “Curtain up.” “Curtain down.” “Final curtain.” “Curtain line” (the zinger that closes a scene, an act or a play). It has become the vernacular. We know that curtains are useful on stage, also, so that prying counsellors can be stabbed by Danish princes.
But cinema, in theory, should not need them. In such an insubstantial world, curtains, whether inside the image or robing its projection, should remind us - shouldn’t they? - of laborious illusionism. In theatre they hide cumbersome scene changes; they clunk down during the interval; on a bad night they get stuck.
But movies have never been ashamed of their kinship with theatre. Movies love the stage’s corny sleights of hand and ham trickeries. What could be more theatrical than Ivan the Terrible or Citizen Kane?
Yet movies do more, so much more, with these curtains. I had better disclose my interest, or its Proustian origin. Back in the primal dawn that was my childhood I went to movie theatres that had curtains. Few do today (and they are rare on theatre stages too). Most multiplexes are warrens of undraped rectangles, each as bald and functional as a computer screen. This is no complaint. It just means that I, and my generation, were acolytes at a different, now departed mystery.
When we went to the local Odeon, Regal or ABC, those lush front-of-screen curtains were closed when we sat down, still closed when the projector beam initially hit them. So the first refracted images, shimmering as the curtains opened, became an appetiser for the very experience of cinema. Most appetite-teasingly, none of us could work out whether the semi-transparent curtains were distorting an image that was by then already on the screen. Or did the image stop at the curtains themselves? (This was like the old refrigerator-light problem. How can you tell that it’s off without being inside the fridge?)
Either way, it was clear - it still is - that this porous, ambiguous surface, this molten luminosity frolicking on or through the curtains, embodied the essence of movie sorcery. In cinema an inanimate surface is brought to life; and soon after we apprehend the arrival of light and movement, we understand there will also be depth. Depth of story, image, meaning. So curtains part, or sets of curtains, to reveal an ever-receding core. In great films we never quite find it: the films inspire us to keep searching. For the search itself, the going deeper, is part of the fulfilment. (And The Searchers itself has the opening and closing “curtains” of the famous shadowed doorway that frames John Wayne.)
Teasing as well as concealing, curtains show that an alluring obliquity is part of film’s adventure. The cinema of Josef von Sternberg used curtains as a component in their construction of an erotisme voile. Riotous mazes of drapes and drapery in The Scarlett Empress or The Devil is a Woman, even the “veiling” of soft-focus close-up photography, enjoin us to play hide-and-seek with the iconic carnality of Dietrich. Like any goddess, she cannot merely be presented. She must retain an elusiveness, an ethereality.
But this Salome dance of disclosure only manifests that cinema itself, like storytelling, is a kind of striptease. We want everything taken away that exists between us and the naked essence of a tale. Yet we want the taking away done slowly, enticingly, tantalisingly.
Great storytellers know that this unlayering is a dual-purpose game. It is addition as well as subtraction. In the film of The Great Gatsby, the director Jack Clayton replicates F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fascination with the billowing drapes of the mansions of the rich. Their Olympian purity, blown through by summer breezes, represents the meeting point - or kissing point - of mortal substance and immortal dreaming.
Curtains in movies are always a tease, and sometimes their teasing is menacing more than magical. A curtain conceals a would-be killer in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (in a scene like this article’s opening fantasia). The curtains in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire are soft-sculpture partitions, dark red as blood dripping down a wall, or pinkish red with a queasy, fleshy eroticism. However bad may be the nightmare going on in front of the curtain, Lynch suggests, we can always find something worse, or more damningly alluring, if we look behind.
For the curtain in cinema - let’s turn hint to declaration - is cinema. This yielding division, this liquefactious wall, this chimerical frontier (which needs only the right push or parting to defeat it) is what a movie is. Film is a blank barrier, the screen, that shimmers into motion and being, giving up its dead or its dormant living. That’s why some great films, going beyond the image of the curtain while preserving its motivic essence, play with the idea of the melting or metamorphic wall.
In Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, the arm-shaped light-sconces on the mansion’s interior wall are actual, living arms. In Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, the troubled heroine (Harriet Andersson) believes the patterned wallpaper is a shifting, breathing entity, full of secrets (perhaps it is God himself?). In Polanski’s Repulsion, the corridor wall in the apartment half dissolves, in one scene, to reveal the outlines of clawing figures reaching to entrap Catherine Deneuve.
These are unreal images conjured to heighten what curtains already suggest. Curtains protect while offering no protection. They separate with no effective separation. They prove we are closer neighbours than we thought, all of us, to the best and the worst, to rapture or horror, to consummation or catastrophe.
They are perfect devices when a film wants to “out” an authority figure whose authority is spurious or evil. A simple curtain, simply parted, exposes the Wizard of Oz as a fraud with a loudspeaker system. In Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr Mabuse the eponymous mastermind is similarly exposed by the parting of a curtain. On a cheekier level, in All About Eve, the goddess - or diva - that is a great stage actress (Bette Davis) is revealed as a shameless coquette when the end-of-show curtain rises to find her turning round to the audience, “surprised” by a continuing ovation. It’s a great camp moment in a great camp film: the moment when acting itself is shown to be something that continues, like an infinitely extending ripple in the human comedy, into life and beyond.
There is no end to the iconographic adventure that is the curtain in film. For it is a perfect analogue for the process of watching a film; indeed of looking at, or gazing into, anything. Shakespeare knew what a curtain could mean as an image. “The fringed curtains of thine eye advance, / And say what thou seest yond,” says Prospero to Miranda in The Tempest. (For that matter, wasn’t a “film”, before it became a movie, something we get over the eye? An unwanted curtain!)
The curtain that is the eyelid opens to the curtain that adorns a screen - or once did and in some palaces still does - which in turn opens to the curtains that lead us, layer by layer, into the heart and mystery of a tale. They are an enriching, enticing, irresistible device. For many of us, it would be curtains for film storytelling without them.
Nigel Andrews is the FT’s chief film critic.