Pin Pushing

I Bury the Living is a neat, unpretentious little shocker from 1958, directed by Albert Band in a style that starts off simple and matter of fact, then heads for the surreal. The story has Richard Boone assigned the job of chairman of the local cemetery, where he’s to oversee the purchase of burial plots, then mark the purchase on a large cemetery map. Black pins are used to mark ‘occupied’ graves, white pins for reserved ones, indicating still-living buyers. But when Boone accidentally inserts black pins for white ones into one reserved plot, its purchasers die suddenly, for no reason; and Boone comes to believe that his careless action was the cause of those deaths. When he further tests his theory, switching more black pins for white ones, more bodies start dropping. So does his sanity. Yet his pin switching doesn’t cease; and, in a ghoulish twist, others try to prove to Boone that such powers don’t exist by urging him to push more black pins into more reserved plots. With grim results.

Not what I’d call a good sales technique.

The film’s premise, of a man controlling life and death by the mere push of a pin, is an eerie one, and Band realizes it well, using the pin map to chart both the increasing death count and Boone’ mental deterioration. It grows larger and more menacing, pulsing with a strange white light and taking on a phantom life as it comes to dominate Boone’s own. You can read a coded symbolism here: the map is vaguely in the shape of a figure 8 on its side, which is the sign of Infinity; the cemetery, called the Immortal Hills, is the site of eternity, the never-ending afterlife of ended lives, where Boone’s power bestows the finality of death. (One nice touch is how, in close-up, the pins, whether white or black, cast black shadows on the map’s surface, so that all the plots seem pinned with black—thus all the graves, whether the owners are living or not, are signifiers of death.) Boone then starts to think that if he can confer death with black pins, he should be able to restore life by replacing them with white ones. That’s when things really start to get unpinned…

The film has been criticized (by Stephen King, for starters) for its ‘cheat’ ending, which dodges the story’s horrific implications by offering a logical explanation for its bizarre events. The (supposed) original ending written—the protagonist going mad from guilt as the dead, for whom he feels responsible, return for revenge—might indeed have been more satisfying instead of the sigh of relief (or disappointment, for those who want further shocks) with which it concludes. But had the story proceeded ruthlessly from its premise, it might have been impossible to finish. As David Kalat’s TCM article notes, Boone’s character is forced to repeat his actions because he can never actually prove his powers to a scientific certainty. Why not have then an absurdist conclusion, of endless, terrifying repetition of Boone’s task, with no finish in sight? Like someone who keeps losing count of how many angels dance on the head of a pin and is forced, to infinity, to start again?

I may be in the minority in saying I’m not bothered by the finalé, in any form, because I think such debates miss out on something else going on in the film. Meaning, why does Boone’s character get so wrapped up in his pins anyway? Why should such a silly detail upset him so—particularly since, as any manager knows, he could easily stop pushing pins altogether and delegate such an occupation to lesser staff?

I think it’s because the man hates his job. That’s where the horror lies. Boone doesn’t want to run a cemetery; he’s objecting to it even while being sworn in. He’s too busy at his regular job (president of the town’s largest department store), and too busy to take on other obligations. But he’s been guilt-tripped into it by his wealthy family, who’ve served on the cemetery’s board of overseers since the town’s founding. And now it’s his turn to supervise the running. Only a few hours a week, he’s told; which few hours soon become an obsession. He feels thrust into an overwhelming responsibility, pressured by his elders, obliged to carry on a meaningless tradition. Could his angry, death-impelled thoughts, because of this unwanted task, be causing the epidemic of death? Boone’s director is not an evil man, not a man lusting for control, not even, at first, a crazy man. He’s instead a typical mid-20th-century man: one who’s buried in his job, with no time to spare. Such as serving as (unpaid) head of the town graveyard. In which he becomes the unwilling, and unwitting, doler-out of life and death. Whatever his career ambitions are, playing God isn’t one of them.

In contrast to Boone is Theodore Bikel as the cemetery’s elderly Scots groundskeeper, who’s reluctant to retire on Boone’s orders. (Bikel’s is one of those performances in which his accent is so carefully yet so badly done, you’re hypnotized by its sheer awfulness. Stuck in your ear with a pin, as it were.) The groundsman sees his work as part of nature (he works outside) and engaging his skills as a craftsman (one of his tasks is to carve the tombstones). It’s an older, romanticized notion of work, in which, laboring with your hands, you get close to something basic—the mind and body intimately connected, creating from within one’s self. Bikel is the skilled maker, the craft artist, whose work is a labor of love. “It’ll get so you love it out here,” he enthuses to a dubious Boone, who thinks Bikel is nuts not to take retirement on a full pension. Who wouldn’t love the luxury of having nothing to do?

Boone’s workaholic Salaryman, however, is confined to a desk in the supervisor’s hideous, cabin-fever-inducing office (where he can’t even get the little room heater to work…), sitting in the dark while waiting for the phone to ring with bad news. He measures out his time, if not by coffee spoons, then by pushed pins. It’s the classic Job Alienation Syndrome, in which, cut off from productive labor, the worker has only the monotony of empty repetition to contend with. You see that in Boone’s performance, that down-deep-in-the-gut loathing of office life; it’s in his eyes (hollowing out visibly as you watch), in his voice, in the slump of head and shoulders. His family has stuck him with that cemetery gig, and he hates it so much, he’d probably kill to get out of it. Is it any accident that most of the people who end up dead at the end of a pin are Boone’s relatives and fellow directors, the ones who pinned him to that job in the first place?

In spite of the film’s low budget, Band does an imaginative job ringing every change possible on Boone’s shredding sanity, such as freezing the frame on his actor and then shrinking the screen image until it fades to black—as his reason diminishes, the outer world vanishes from the perception of his stressed mind. The film deals with stress and its isolating effects, in which the mind become prey to the irrational, mentally pulling together a chain of consequences from mere coincidence. Its point of view rarely gets outside Boone’s, and we rarely see the deaths of other characters but only hear of them when he does. Boone’s world dwindles to the boundaries of that awful death map, as if he’s being sucked down a drain. Or perhaps skewered by a pin.

One other thing I like about this film is that it’s short, barely 80 minutes, so it sticks (no pun intended) to the point. Sure, those spare minutes are due to cheapness, as is its spare black-and-white look, but the sparseness is turned to its advantage; it looks right for it. I HOPE no one remakes this in garish color and a two-hour-plus running time, with gore and CGI effects and a zombie ending. It’s neat enough as it is. As a pin.

 

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4 Comments

  1. crayle

     /  October 23, 2017

    Saw this at the movies when I wuz just a kid. Had no idea what was going on, but never forgot that map! Thanks for the review. — nice work!.

    Reply
  2. Nice to find that there’s someone else that appreciates this as much as I. In my own review on Letterboxd, I refer to it as a dream, comparable to Expressionist classics in which nothing, including the narrator can be trusted. Regarding the ending, “The end of the film simply makes no sense, breaks all the rules established by the narrative, falls apart into a tangled mess. This seems acceptable, however, because our dreamer is waking up, struggling to find resolution so that he may repress the dream to go on with the business of the day. The feeling lingers, however, that as night falls and the heater once again fails, Kraft will find himself, again, in that half-remembered room with the looming image of his own mind bringing fear and powerlessness.”

    Reply
    • Your interpretation that the film can be seen as a dream is very interesting; and the director suggests that with his surreal imagery, which takes on the quality of living nightmare. And Boone’s performance certainly conveys the increasing stress of a man suffering from both nightmares and sleep deprivation. In spite of its low budget, it’s really is one of the more imaginative horror films of the 1950s (now if only Bikel’s awful Scottish accent could be dismissed as a dream…) -thanks for your comment!

      Reply

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