Innocent cannibalism: “SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET” (King, 1936)

One of the earliest films in the range of cannibal stories I have chosen to cover is George King’s 1936 version of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney is a modern myth, but is a descendant of the shadow archetype, those who destroy themselves in trying to destroy others, including Homer’s Cyclops, whose behaviour, Lacan would say, is governed by “unregulated libidinism”. This Todd is certainly so governed.

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The poster on the wall of the barber shop, where the story is told

The title role is played by the wonderfully named Tod Slaughter, who presents Todd as pure evil: socially respectable, yet greedy for money and lusting after the young heroine, Johanna. This is a far more straight forward explanation of cannibalism than the 21st century version where Depp is motivated by revenge at injustice (and insists on singing as well).

The plot is straightforward: Todd has a barber shop near the docks where he lures passers-by in for a shave, kills them and steals their valuables, the kind of simple but effective business plan that any bank would find beguiling.

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Todd’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, has a pie shop and profitably disposes of the bodies. Johanna is the daughter of a local merchant and Todd offers to go into partnership with him, planning to ruin him and blackmail him into approving marriage with his daughter. When the girl’s true love, Mark, returns with riches from the African colonies, (he also bravely fights off a tribe of savages, who are probably cannibals in terms of the colonial trope) he is robbed by Todd but saved from death by Mrs Lovett, who is jealous of Todd’s attention to Johanna. In an interesting instance of early (pre-‘slasher’) gender displacement, Johanna decides to save Mark by dressing as a boy, but is captured by Todd and, setting the gender roles back to basics, has to be rescued from the resulting fire (which consumes Todd) by Mark.

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Neither Todd nor Lovett are ever seen eating human flesh – all cannibalism is performed by the unwitting customers, alluded to when Mark’s comic relief friend and shipmate, Pearley, munches through a pie while speculating on what Todd does with the bodies. The word ‘cannibal’ is never uttered, and the only whiff of abjection is when the narrator, a modern day barber in Todd’s old shop recounting the story to a customer, reveals there is a pie shop next door, and watches in amazement as the man flees. This is textbook abjection: the smell of meat from some non-human mammal cooking next door has made the customer in contemporary London realise his own mortality.

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The class nature of nineteenth century England is illustrated by young Tobias, who is brought to Todd as an apprentice: Todd gets one guinea for each boy he takes from the parish. The Beadle warns Todd that this is the last boy he is getting: presumably he has killed, and Mrs Lovett has cooked, the previous seven.

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“You’ve brought me another apprentice. And a nice little boy, too!”

The boy prepares the victims by applying shaving cream, and is then sent off for a walk with a penny pie from next door, making the innocent lad the chief innocent cannibal. In fact, all the cannibalism is innocent and is carried out by the lower classes, represented by Pearley and Tobias, an apparent metaphor for the exploitation with which the working class was struggling in the 1930s when the film was made. Todd’s unconscionable slaughter of men (never women, except, almost, the disguised Johanna) for profit is pure objectification: he treats his fellow humans as commodities. No explanation is given, nor needed: Todd’s maniacal laughter is necessary and sufficient to make clear that he is a psychopath; in this, he is a mythic figure: the stuff of nightmares.

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Full movie (with some audio issues) is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W0YoxQkTjs

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