Posts Tagged ‘SILENT’

The Single Standard (1929)

Dir: John S Robertson | Cast: Greta Garbo, Nils Asther, Johnny Mack Brown, Dorothy Sebastian | US Drama 89′ Silent

The second of three silent features featuring Garbo released in 1929 while MGM scratched its head pondering how they were to promote her as an attraction in talkies; The Single Standard was also her second feature in a row pairing her with fellow Swede Nils Asther.

Garbo is improbably introduced as All-American party girl Arden Stuart, presumably loaded, but of whose life and means prior to the wild party in an enormous Art Deco mansion with which the film begins we learn nothing. Despite the provocative title – vaguely advanced at one point as some sort of feminist statement about the social constraints placed upon women – The Single Standard swiftly turns into a standard Garbo vehicle in which after flirting with modernity in the form of motor rides at seventy m.p.h. and a dalliance with pugilist turned artist Asther she ultimately embraces respectability and parenthood with John Mack Brown for the sake of her cute little curly-haired moppet of a son.

The name of director John S. Robertson isn’t much recalled today, even by connoisseurs of silent cinema (unless they’re also connoisseurs of horror cinema, since he directed the John Barrymore version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1920), but he does a good job here with the assistance of high-priced Metro talent like cameraman Oliver Marsh, art director Cedric Gibbons, costume designer Adrian and whoever was responsible for Garbo’s various hairstyles which subtly changed as the film ran its course to reflect her developing emotional state. @Richard Chatten

 

Eternal Love (1929) Prime Video

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch | Cast: John Barrymore, Camilla Horn | German, 61′

Eternal Love was the final silent film made by Ernst Lubitsch and John Barrymore. Based on a 1900 novel by J.C.Heer called ‘Der Koenig der Bernina’, the feature is fairly typical of the cross-pollination then common between Europe and Hollywood, with a German director and scriptwriter and female leading actress, sets and costumes by Caligari veteran Walter Reimann and Banff National Park in Canada standing in for the Swiss Alps in 1806.

Despite the high-powered talent brought to bear on it, Eternal Love for the most part lacks Lubitsch’s customary saucy wit promised in the earlier scenes featuring the saucy Mona Rico, and seems rather perfunctory compared to G.W.Pabst’s similar but far superior Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü released later the same year. Oliver Marsh’s photography would plainly be far more impressive in its pristine nitrate form than the rather blurry version available today, while the drab Vitaphone score by Hugo Riesenfeld also rather holds it back.

The luminescent final shot of the moon emerging as the clouds part strikingly anticipates Crack in the World (1965), directed 35 years later by Eternal Love’s editor Andrew Marton, which ends with a shot almost identical to that of Eternal Love, except that at the end of Marton’s later film there are two moons…@Richard Chatten

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The Last Warning (1928) *** Bluray

Dir.: Paul Leni; Cast: Laura La Plante, Montague Love, Roy D’Arcy, Burr McIntosh, Margaret Livingston, Carrie Daumery, John Boles)Bert Roach, D’Arcy Corrigan; USA 1928, 89 min.

Universal intended The Last Warning as a companion piece to Leni’s more famous (and superior) The Cat and the Canary (1927), and it was also German born director Paul Leni’s final: he died at the age of forty four eight months after the film’s premiere, contracting sepsis from an untreated tooth infection.

Based on the novel by Wordsworth Camp, the Broadway play by Thomas F. Fallon and then adapted for the screen by Alfred A. Cohn, The Last Warning is a mystery-thriller ‘who-done-it’, with a clunky and complicated narrative dominated by Leni’s direction and Hal Mohr’s jerky camerawork. Charles D. Hall’s art direction is inspired by German expressionism, with Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett/ Waxworks (1924) perhaps his greatest achievement.

Leni made use of the Phantom of the Opera (1925) set for his last outing which begins with one of the actors (Woodford’s D’Arcy Corrigan) being electrocuted on stage. There is rumour Woodford was part of a menage-a-trois, but more confusion occurs when the body disappears without trace. The theatre is closed but five years later producer Mike Brody (Roach) re-opens the place to catch the murderer by staging a re-run of the play with the original cast members.

During the rehearsals falling scenery, a fire and frightening noises occur, and the purse of leading lady Doris (La Plante) is stolen. Stage manager Josia Bunce (McIntosh) receives a telegram,  signed by John Woodford, telling him to abandon the play and this sets the stage, quite literally, for a series of disasters, involving a 400 volt cable electrocution and worse was to come.

After the shooting, some spoken dialogue and audio effects were added, but this version has been lost. We are left with great moments of camera work, such as in a scene where veteran actress Barbara Morgan leaps from the stage and plummets to the ground, with the camera taking on her POV. Whilst Phantom of the Opera would play a great role in future Universal canon of horror features, The Last Warning, with its masked killer, is a prelude to the Italian ‘Gialli’ features of directors Dario Argento and Mario Bava. AS

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Glumov’s Diary | Dnevik Glumova (1923) ****

Dir: Sergei Eisenstein | Cast: Grigoriy Aleksandrov, Aleksandr Antonov, Mikail Gomorov | USSR 1923, 5’

Conceived like Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson fifteen years later as augmenting a stage production. Before The Battleship Potemkin there was Glumov’s Diary; and before the Odessa Steps was a small flight of steps outside the Morozov mansion in Moscow in which the Proletkult theatre was currently housed and in front of which Eisenstein’s enthusiastic young cast cavorted nearly a hundred years ago (including a pipe-smoking bride arm-in-arm with a very camp-looking groom).

Representing the tiny acorn which grew into the mighty, if blighted, oak of the cinematic legacy of Sergei Eisenstein, his illustrious filmography starts with this strange-sounding title in which the young director himself puts in a brief appearance introducing himself to the camera sporting a scruffy beard and an enormous shock of hair.

By the the time he’d been harassed into an early grave a quarter of a century later he’d probably long forgotten this little squib which shows the influence of Melies rather than Kino-Pravda, since it probably contains more special effects than the rest of Eisenstein’s oeuvre put together; including the bizarre transformation of a cavorting clown into a swastika. Richard Chatten.

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Moscow that Weeps and Laughs (1927) Devushka S Korobkoy

Dir: Boris Barnet | Cast: Anna Sten, Vladimir Mikhaylov, Vladimir Fogel, Ivan Samborsky, Serafina Birman | Silent Comedy Drama, 60′

The Russian silent cinema does it again with this wonderful comedy also known as Girl With A Hatbox, and starring Anna Sten. She’s such a delight that one watches this film in awe at the near-genius with which Samuel Goldwyn managed to transform her during the thirties into such a pudding – and one of Hollywood’s biggest industry jokes – attempting to mold her into a second Garbo.

Moscow-born Boris Barnet was of British extraction and directed this second feature at the age of 24 having already trained as a doctor. His first film Miss Mend (1926) was over four hours long, this runs at a watchable 60 minutes capturing much of the detail of life in a bustling Soviet city in the same vein as Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera which would follow two years later.

The film is a portrait of female empowerment. Contrary to the Soviet ideals of the day, money-making and personal enterprise are seen as key to happiness through the eyes of Sten’s Natasha, a lively business-like young woman living in the country with her grandfather, making hats which she sells to a milliner’s shop in Moscow. The hats are high-fashion, the shop owner ‘Madame Irène’ elegantly exotic and high-living. The action is fast-moving – there’s a lottery ticket, a lovelorn young station master, a penniless student (a fluid mover with fetching Petrushka-type felt boots), a lovable old granddad out of many a communist propaganda film, and a pompous husband. Above all there’s a tremendous feeling of fun. A romantic angle sees her pursued by two suitors: an incompetent railway employee from her local train station far outside snowy Moscow whence she commutes everyday to her millinery shop; and a good-looking student whose rent she helps to pay.

Barnet throughout makes dynamic use for comic effect both of the frame and of the movement of characters within it, both indoors and out in the snow; an additional bonus being the fleeting views of twenties Moscow provided in some of the outdoors scenes. The entire cast throw themselves into the proceedings with infectious gusto; and one would have liked to have seen more of Eva Milyutina as the maid, Marfusha. Richard Chatten.

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Shiraz (1928) ***** We Are One Festival

Dir: Franz Osten | Writer: W Burton based on a play by Niranjan Pal | Cast: Himansu Rai, Enakshi Rama Rau, Charu Roy, Seeta Devi | 97′ | Silent | Drama

SHIRAZ: A ROMANCE OF INDIA is a rare marvel of silent film. This dazzling pre-talkies spectacle was directed by Franz Osten and stars Bengali actor Himansu Rai who also produced the film from an original play by Niranjan Pal. Shot entirely in India with a cast of 50,000 and in natural light, the parable imagines the events leading to the creation of one of India’s most iconic buildings The Taj Mahal, a monument to a Moghul Empire to honour a dead queen.

Shiraz is a fictitious character, the son of a local potter who rescues a baby girl from the wreckage of a caravan laden with treasures, ambushed while transporting her mother, a princess. Shiraz is unaware of Selima’s royal blood and he falls madly in love with her as the two grow up in their simple surroundings, until she is kidnapped and sold to Prince Khurram of Agra (a sultry Charu Roy). Shiraz then risks his life to be near her in Agra as the Prince also falls for her charms.

SHIRAZ forms part of a trilogy of surviving films all made on location in India by Rai and his director Osten. Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas, 1926) and A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, 1929) complete the trio intended to launch an east/west partnership bringing quality films to India, all based on Indian classical legend or history, and featuring an all-Indian cast in magnificent locations. Apart from the gripping storyline, there is the rarity value of a sophisticated silent feature made outside the major producing nations in an era where Indian cinema was not yet the powerhouse it would become. Rai makes for a convincing central character as the modest Shiraz, with a gently shimmering Enakshi Rama Rau as Selima. Seeta Devi stars in all three films, and here plays the beguiling but scheming courtesan Dalia, determined to get her revenge on Selima’s charms.

Apart from being gorgeously sensual (there is a highly avantgarde kissing scene ) and gripping throughout, SHIRAZ is also an important film in that it united the expertise of three countries: Rai’s Great Eastern Indian Corporation; UK’s British Instructional Films (who also produced Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars and Underground in 1928) and the German Emelka Film company. Contemporary sources tell of “a serious attempt to bring India to the screen”. Attention to detail was paramount with an historical expert overseeing the sumptuous costumes, furnishings and priceless jewels that sparkle within the Fort of Agra and its palatial surroundings. Glowing in silky black and white SHIRAZ is one of the truly magical films in recent memory. MT

SHIRAZ IS PART OF WE ARE ONE A FESTIVAL CELEBRATING SOLIDARITY FROM THE FILM COMMUNITY | BFI PLAYER

 

 

Robert Siodmak | Master of Shadows | Blu-ray release

Dresden 1918, Robert Siodmak left his upper-middle class, orthodox Jewish home in this epicentre of European modern art, to join a theatre touring company. He was 18, and this was the first of many radical changes that would see him becoming a pioneer of film noir, and directing 56 feature films fraught with (anti)heroes who are morose, malevolent, violent and generally downbeat (spoilers).

Robert Siodmak began his film career in 1925, translating inter-titles. Later he learnt the editing business with Harry Piel. In 1927/28 he worked under Kurt (Curtis) Bernhardt (Das letzte Fort) and Alfred Lind. But MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (1929/30) (left) would transform his professional life forever. Together with Edgar G. Ulmer, he would direct a semi-documentary, social realist portrait that pictured ordinary Berliners, far away from the expensive “Illusionsfilme” (escapist films) of the UFA. The idea was the brainchild of Robert’s younger brother Curt (born in Kracow), who would become a screen-writer and director of Horror/SF films, and follow his brother and Ulmer to Hollywood – along with the rest of the team: Billy Wilder, Eugen Schüfftan, Fred Zinnemann and Rochus Gliese (later art director for Murnau’s Sunrise). Robert Siodmak, Ulmer and Giese would also be part of the “Remigrants”, film makers, who would return to Germany after 1945.

People_on_Sunday_2 copyMENSCHEN AM SONNTAG was filmed on a succession of Sundays in 1929. Subtitled “a film without actors” – which is misleading, since the actors – non-professionals – co-wrote and co-produced the film, had already returned to their day jobs when the film was premiered in 1930. The five main protagonists spend a weekend near a lake in a Berlin suburb: Wolfgang (a wine seller) and Christl (a mannequin) meet for the first time at the Bahnhof Zoo by accident on Saturday morning, Christl had been stood up. On the same evening, Erwin (a taxi driver) and his girl friend Annie have a violent quarrel, tearing up each other’s photos. As a result, Erwin and his friend Wolfgang travel with Christl on the following Sunday to the Nicolas Lake. And here on the ‘beach’ Wolfgang meets Brigitte (a vinyl record sales assistant), the four spend the day together; intercut with images of the forlorn “stay-at-home” Annie. The final scene returns the quartet to the heart of the metropolis: four million waiting for another Sunday. MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG is a chronicle; a document shot against the narrative UFA style of the day. There is no story, just interaction. Even in the complex narratives of his films Noir, Siodmak would always be the bystander, the person who observes much more than directs.

Inquest_2 copyINQUEST (VORUNTERSUCHUNG), Robert Siodmak’s third feature film as a director, produced in 1931, is his first ‘Kriminalfilm” (thriller). The student Fritz Bernt (Gustaf Fröhlich), has a three year-long affair with the prostitute Erna – he also receives money from her. After falling in love with his friend Walter’s sister, Fritz wants to leave Erna. Out of cowardice, he sends Walter to her flat to break the news. But Walter sleeps with Erna’s flatmate and goes for a drink afterwards. When Erna’s body is found the next morning, Fritz is the main suspect. In charge of the inquest is Dr. Bienert (Albert Bassermann), who happens to be Walter’s father. The denouement is a surprise. In many ways, INQUEST is a “Strassenfilm”, Kracauer’s definition of films where the middle-class protagonist is in love with a sexy prostitute, but goes home to roost, marrying a bourgeois girl of his own class. Some of the main scenes of the film are shot in the staircase of the house where Erna lives, the shadowy lighting clearly foreshadowing Siodmak’s Noir period. Sexuality is the enemy of bourgeois society here, and Bassermann’s Dr. Bienert is a blustering patriarch, who would sacrifice anyone to save his son.

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THE BURNING SECRET (BRENNENDES GEHEIMNIS) is based on a novel by Stefan Zweig. Shot in 1932, it was to be Siodmak’s last German film for 23 years. In a Swiss Sanatorium, the twelve-year old Edgar (H.J. Schaufuss) is bored, and pleased to befriend Baron Von Haller (Willi Forst), a racing driver. But he does not know that Von Haller is using him to get close to his mother (Hilde Wagner). Soon Edgar gets suspicious, the two adults always want to be alone. He surprises them in flagrante and runs home to his father, although he does not give his secret away. When his mother arrives, he looks at her knowingly, but stays ‘mum’. Siodmak has sharpened the edges of this coming-of-age story, the novel concentrating more on romantic and psychological aspects. There is real violence between Edgar and Von Haller, and the lovemaking of the adulterous couple, which Edgar interrupts, is more vicious than affectionate. When the film was premiered in March 1933, Siodmak was already living in Paris, and Goebbels denounced the film as un-German, not surprisingly, since both the author of the novel and the director of the film were Jews living abroad in exile.

Hatred_1 copyWhen Siodmak shot MOLLENARD (1937) in France, it would be the penultimate of his French-set features. (In 1938, he would finish “Ultimatum” for the fatally ill Robert Wiene; and in the same year he is credited with “artistic supervision” for Vendetta, directed by Georges Kelber). MOLLENARD (HATRED) is the nearest to a film Noir so far: it is a fight to the death between Captain Mollenard (Harry Baur) and his wife Mathide (Gabrielle Dorziat). Captain Mollenard is a gun runner in Shanghai, he is shown as a hero, a good friend to his crew. When he returns to Dunkirk and his wife and two children, illness renders him powerless to his vitriolic wife, who tries to turn the children against him. Mollenard attempts to use his strength to re-conquer his wife, but fails, unlike during his days in Shanghai. The son takes the side of his mother, the daughter tries to drown herself, but Mollenard saves her. In the end, his crew carries the dying man out of the house, he would end his life where he was most happy – at sea. MOLLENARD is a contrast between utopia and dystopia for the main protagonist: the sea, where he is free (to commit crimes), and the bourgeois home, where he is a prisoner of conventions. He is unable to survive in this which cold, emotionless prison. MOLLENARD is seen as his greatest film in France, a dramatic version of Noir.

Snares copyPIÈGES (1939) was Siodmak’s last French film before emigrating to the USA – and his greatest box-office success of this period. Whilst most of Siodmak’s French films featured fellow emigrés in front and behind the camera, PIÈGES only has the co-author, Ernst Neubach, as a fellow emigré– the DOP, Ted Pahle, was American, and the star, Maurice Chevalier, already an legend was very much a Frenchman: Siodmak had established himself. (A fact, which would count for nothing at the start of his US career.)  PIÈGES is the story of a serial killer who murders eleven women in the music-hall world of Paris. The police, whose main suspect is the night-club-owner and womaniser Fleury (Chevalier), chooses Arienne (the debutant Marie Dea), to lure the murderer into the open. But Arienne falls in love with Fleury’s associate Brémontière, only to find out that he is the murderer. In the end the gutsy Arienne (Dea is a subtle antithesis to the French heroines of this period) has to risk her lift to save her husband Fleury’s. There are more than a few clues to the later “Phantom Lady” in PIÈGES.  Eric von Stroheim is brilliant as a mad fashion czar who has lost his fortune and adoring women.

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SON OF DRACULA (1943) was already Robert Siodmak’s seventh film in Hollywood, his first for Universal. Scripted by his brother Curt, SON OF DRACULA was a great risk for Robert, it was his first outing in the classical Horror genre, not to mention the great ‘Dracula tradition’ started by Ted Browning in 1931. The film is set in the bayous of Louisianna, where Katherine Caldwell has inherited the plantation “Dark Oaks” from her father, who died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. She gives a party, and entertains Count Alucard (Lon Chaney jr.) an acquaintance  from her travels in central Europe. She discards her fiancée Frank and marries Alucard. Frank shoots the count, but the bullet passes through him, killing Katherine. In prison, Katherine visits him as a bat, turning into her human form (a first in film history), and asking Frank to kill Alucard, so they can live together forever as vampires. Frank grants her wish, but also burns her in her coffin. SON OF DRACULA is pure gothic horror, but suffered from Lon Chaney jr. being miscast in a role created by Bela Lugosi as his Alter Ego. Strongest are the scenes in the bayous, where the evil still lurks after the death of Katherine and Alucard: everything seems toxic, the spell of the vampire lives on.

Cobra_Woman_1.jpg_rgb copyCOBRA WOMAN (1943) was Robert Siodmak’s first film in colour, shot in widescreen Technicolor. Its star, Maria Montez, an aristocrat from the Dominican Republic, whose real name was Maria Africa Garcia Vidal de Santo Silas, would later gain cult status after her early death at the age of 39 from a heart attack in her bathtub in Paris. Maria plays Tollea, who is whisked away just before her wedding to Ramu, to her birth island where her evil twin sister Naja (also played by Montez) holds sway. Ramu and his helper Kado follow her, but Tollea has decided to sacrifice her love for Ramu to become the new ruler of the island, so as to prevent an eruption of the volcano provoked by Naja’s sins. COBRA WOMAN is pure camp, Siodmak said “it was nonsense, but fun”.

Phantom_Lady_1 copyIn 1943 Siodmak was on a roll: he would make four film that year, and PHANTOM LADY (1943) was also the most important of his American period to date: the first of a quartet, which would form with The Spiral Staircase, The Killers and Criss Cross, the classic Noir films of their creator.

PHANTOM LADY is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish), a prolific writer, whose novels and short stories were the basis for twenty films Noir of the classic period. They also provided the basis for Nouvelle Vague fare. Pivotal in Woolrich’s novels is the race against time. Scott Henderson, an engineer, is accused of murdering his wife. He proclaims his innocence, but is sentenced to death. His secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) is convinced he is not a murderer, and together with inspector Burges, she sets out to find the real culprit. Henderson’s alibi is a woman with a flamboyant hat, he meets in a bar, and spends the evening with, while  his wife was murdered – but they promised not to reveal their identities. The mystery woman  is illusive and when Carol tries to unravel her identity, the barman, who to denies having seen her at all, is run over by a car shortly after interviewed by Richman. Another witness, a drummer (Elisha Cook. Jr.), is also murdered, before Richman corners Franchot Tone, an artist, and Richman’s best friend as the murderer: he had an affair with Richman’s wife. German expressionism and Siodmak’s customary near documentary style dominate: New York is a bed of intrigue, where shadows lurk and footsteps signal danger. The majority of scenes could be watched without dialogue, particularly Cook’s drummer solo, which fits in well with the impressionist décor. With PHANTOM LADY, Robert Siodmak had found his (sub)genre.

Christmas_Holiday_10CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, has a most misleading title and is perhaps Siodmak’s most exotic film Noir. Lt. Mason, on Christmas leave, is delayed in New Orleans, where he meets the singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durham) who tells him her real name is Abigail Manette, and that her husband Robert (Gene Kelly) is in jail for murdering his bookie. In a long flashback, we see Robert’s mother trying to cover up her son’s crime. After Jackie leaves Mason, she is confronted in a roadhouse by Robert who has escaped from jail. Before he can shoot her, a policeman’s bullet kills him. Like “Phantom Lady”, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is photographed again by Woody Bredell, New Orleans is a tropical, outlandish setting and the film has much more the feel of a French film-noir than an American. Siodmak uses Wagner’s “Liebestod” to frame the love story of the doomed couple.

THE SUSPECT (1944) is one of Siodmak’s less convincing Noirs. Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton), a sedentary middle-aged man, is driven out by his heartless wife Cora, and falls in love with the much younger Mary (Ella Raines). Philip becomes a different person, and thrives with his new love. But Cora finds out about the couple and threatens Philip with disclosure, which would have ruined him professionally. He kills first Cora, then his neighbour Gilbert Simmons, who blackmails him. Inspector Huxley has no proof against him, and Philip could start a new life with his young wife in Canada, but he decides to stay and give himself up, just as Huxley had predicted. Shot entirely in a studio, THE SUSPECT lacks suspense, and is only remarkable for Laughton’s brilliant performance.

The_Strange_Affair_of_Uncle_Harry_3 copyTHE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945) features a semi-incestuous relationship between brother and sister: John “Harry” Quincy (George Sanders) lives a quiet life in New Hampshire with his sisters Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Hester. When he meets the fashion designer Deborah Brown (Ella Raines), he falls in love with her. Lettie is jeaulous, and feigns a heart attack. Harry wants to murder her, but Hester drinks the poison intended for Lettie, who is convicted for Hester’s murder, but does not give away the real culprit, since she knows that her death will prevent Harry from marrying Deborah. To mollify The “MPAA code agency”, Siodmak found a new ending: Harry wakes up at, having only dreamt the events; producer Joan Harrison resigned from the project in protest. Lettie is a psychopath in the vein of the murderer in Phantom Lady and Olivia de Havilland’s murderous twin in The Dark Mirror. But there is more ambiguity to the narrative than is obvious at first sight: there is a vey clear resemblance between Lettie and Deborah – they might have been exchangeable for Harry. THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY is one of the darkest Noirs, because all is played out on the background of a very respectable family, in small town America.

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THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) is Siodmak’s most famous Noir, a classic because of its old-dark-house setting and the woman-in-peril theme. In a small town in New England, handicapped women are being murdered. Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is watching a silent movie in town, where a lame woman is strangled. Helen then hurries home, to look after the family matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), who is bedridden. Since Helen is mute, she is in mortal danger: the killer lives in the house. When Helen finds the body of Blanche, who was engaged to Albert Warren (George Brent), after having left his half-brother Steve, Helen suspects Stephen and locks him in the cellar; then she tries to phone Dr. Parry, but she cannot communicate. Too late she finds out that Albert is the killer, who chases her up the spiral staircase, but his mother gets up and shoots him, causing Helen, who lost her voice after witnessing the traumatic death of her parents, to cry out loud. Very little of the background to the narrative has been mentioned: the theme being eugenics, a concept the late President Theodore Roosevelt was very keen on. Albert Warren has taken this concept a step further; he kills “weak and imperfect” humans because he believes his father would be proud of him. Like T. Roosevelt, Albert’s father was a big-game hunter. In his mother’s bedroom is a poster with a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike and the initials “TR” above an elephant’s tusk. Considering the Nazi Euthanasia programmes, this aspect of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE has often been neglected by critics.

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THE DARK MIRROR (1946) reflects Hollywood’s interest in Freud. Two identical sisters, Terry and Ruth Collins, both played by Olivia de Havilland, are suspected of murder, when one of the women’s suitors is found dead. Inspector Stevenson is fascinated by the two woman, but would not have solved the crime without the help of Dr. Elliot, a psychoanalyst. He finds out that whilst Ruth is a very adjusted and loving person, Terry is just her opposite: a ruthless psychopath, who fabricates clues, to make Ruth look like the murderess, whilst at the same time is planning to kill her sister, before Dr. Elliot is able to expose her. Siodmak deals with the “Doppelgänger” theme, which was explored as early as in the silent film era of expressionism, by using Freudian theory to explain the perversity of the “evil” sister: rejection, confusion and lastly alienation let her spin out of control, allowing only “herself” to survive. Unlike in The Spiral Staircase, the interior is totally unthreatening, which makes Terry’s murderous lust even more terrifying.

TIme_Out_of_Mind_2 copyTIME OUT OF MIND (1946/7) is more melodrama than Noir. Chris Fortune (Robert Hutton), the son of a heartless and ambitious shipping tycoon, falls in love with the servant girl Kate (Phyllis Calvert). But in 19th century New England, this was not the social norm. Kate encourages Chris to marry a lady of his class, who turns out to be a beast and drives Chris more into alcohol dependency. Chris fancies himself as a composer, but only Kate believes in his talent. The Noir aspect is the family constellation: Chris is obviously weak, and his overbearing father (Leo G. Carroll) rules over his life. More to the point, Chris’s sister Rissa (Ella Raines) seemingly protects her younger brother, but is in reality totally obsessed by him. She represents the semi-incestuous theme running, not only through Siodmak’s, noir films.

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CRISS CROSS (1949) is perhaps Siodmak’s most personal Noir. Reworking elements of The Killers – and casting Burt Lancaster again in the role of the obsessed lover -, CRISS CROSS is the story of an “amour fou”, its emotional intensity on par with Tourneur’s classic Out of the Past. Steve Thompson (Lancaster) is still in love with his ex wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), who now lives with the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). But when the two of them meet in a bar, the whole things starts up again. Dundee surprises them, Thompson comes up with an excuse: he needs Dundee’s help for an armed car robbery. But Dundee is suspicious: he and his gang kill Thompson’s partner and wound him after the robbery. When Anna goes missing with the money, Dundee suspects the couple have double-crossed him. Dundee has Thompson abducted, but Thompson bribes his captors and finds Anna. She is terrified by the thought that Dundee will find them and wants to abandon the wounded Steve, but Dundee arrives and shoots them both, before running towards the police. The final scene, when Anna’s and Steve’s bodies fall literally into each other, bullets flying as the police siren’s grow louder, is the apotheosis of everything that’s gone on since the scene in the bar. From then on, in true Noir fashion, all is told in flashbacks and voice-over narration. Anna is the quintessential Noir heroine, telling Steve: “All those things which have happened we’ll forget it. You see, I make you forget it. After it’s done, after it’s all over and we are safe, it will be just you and me. The way it should’ve been all along from the start”. CRISS CROSS is my personal favourite: dark, expressionistic, melancholic and wonderfully doomed.

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THE GREAT SINNER (1948/9) is an awkward mixture of high literature and low-brow melodrama. Based partly on Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Gambler” and some autobiographical details of this author, Siodmak struggles to bring this expensive “A-picture” to life. The stars Gregory Peck (Fedya) and Ava Gardener (Pauline Ostrovsky) – in the first of three collaborations – do their best, but Christopher Isherwood’s script is a hotchpotch of the sensational and sentimental, tragic events unfold fast and furiously, logic and characterisation falling by the wayside. Told in a long flash-back, Pauline receives a manuscript from the dying writer Fedya, in which he tells the story of their first meeting in 1860 in Wiesbaden. Then, Fedya met Pauline on a train journey from Paris to Moscow, but follows her to the casino in Wiesbaden, to study the effects of gambling on the whole Ostrovsky clan. When Pitard, a gambler and friend of Pauline, steals Fedya’s money, the latter tries to save Pitard from his fate, and gives him the money so he can leave the city. But Pitard loses in the casino and shoots himself. Strangely enough, Fedya, who has fallen in love with Pauline, also becomes addicted to gambling – but telling himself, that he wants to win the money, so that Pauline’s father can pay back his debts to the casino owner Armand, and thus free Pauline from the engagement to the ruthless tycoon. But after some early success, Fedya looses heavily, tries to in vain to pawn a religious medal, which belongs to Pauline; finally, he wants to commit suicide, before he looses consciousness. Recovered, he finishes his novel and Pauline forgives him. In spite of a strong supporting cast including Ethel Barrymore, Melvin Douglas, Agnes Moorehead and Walter Huston, THE GREAT SINNER flopped at the box-office, having cost 20 m Dollar in today’s money, it lost 8 m Dollar. Siodmak, according to Gregory Peck, did not enjoy the responsibility of the big budget production, “he looked like a nervous wreck”.

The_File_on_Thelma_2 copyWith THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1949) Siodmak returned to the safe ground of Noir films. Thelma (Barbara Stanwyck) is unhappily married to Tony Laredo (Richard Rober), but is attracted to his animalistic sex-appeal. When she discusses burglaries at her wealthy aunt’s house, where she also lives, with assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Correy), the two fall in love. When the aunt is killed, and a necklace stolen, Thelma is the main suspect, because Tony has been away to Chicago. Thelma is put on trial, and Cleve pays her lawyer and plans the trial strategy with him, even though he has learned about Thelma’s past, and is convinced that she is the murderer. The aunt’s butler has seen a stranger at the crime scene, but did not recognise him. Thelma, who knows that the person is Cleve, does not give his name away. She is aquitted and wants to leave town with Tony, when Cleve confronts them. Tony beats Cleve up and the couple flee, but Thelma causes an accident on purpose, in which both are killed – but not before she has confessed to the murder. In spite of this, Cleve’s career and marriage is ruined. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON is a neat reversal on Double Indemnity, which also starred Stanwyck as the Queen of all femme fatales. But here, Thelma and Cleve really love each other, and Thelma pays for her crime with her life, and Cleve will be ostracised by society for a long time. Whilst Wilder’s couple was evil from the beginning, Siodmak gives his lovers a much more human touch. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON was Robert Siodmak’s last American Film Noir. He would later direct two more films, which are in certain ways close to the subgenre; but he would never again achieve the greatness of his American Film Noir cycle, even his directing output would run to another 18 films.

The_Crimson_Pirate_3In the THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1951/2) Siodmak was reunited with Burt Lancaster, who also produced the film. Set in the late 18th century in the Caribbean, Captain Vallo (Lancaster), is a pirate, who tries to make money from selling weapons to the rebels on the island of Cobra, lead by El Libre (Frederick Leicester). On the island, Vallo falls in love with El Libre’s daughter Conseuela (Eva Bartok). Later he has to rescue her father, and support the revolution – even against the wishes of his fellow pirates, who do not see the reason for such a good deed – since it is totally unprofitable! In a stormy finale with tanks, TNT, machine guns and an outstanding colourful airship, our hero, now in drag, wins the revolution and Consulea’s heart. What is most surprising is the humour and lightheartedness of the production. Everything is told tongue-in-cheek, the action scenes are overwhelming and Lancaster (the ex-circus acrobat) dominates the film with his stunts. It seems hardly credible Robert Siodmak, creator of gloom and doom, dark shadows and even darker hearts, would be responsible for such an uplifting and hilarious spectacle, 15 years before Louis Malle’s equally enchanting “Viva Maria!”. Ken Adam, the future “Bond” production designer, earned one of his first credits for this film.

It will never be absolutely clear why Robert Siodmak decided to leave Hollywood after he finished THE CRIMSON PIRATE, to work again in Germany (with a one-film stop in France, so as to repeat his journey of the thirties backwards). In the USA, he was offered a lucrative six-film deal and had shown with his last film, that he could now also handle big productions successfully. There are rumours of pending HUAC hearings, because of his friendship with Charles Spencer Chaplin, but Siodmak himself never mentioned these as a reason for the return to his homeland. Rather like Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer, it can only be assumed that “Heimweh” was the reason for Siodmak’s return. True, he lived in Ascona, Switzerland, but he worked nearly exclusively in Germany. What he, and other “Remigrants” did not reckon with, was the political and cultural climate in the Federal Republic of Germany. When these directors had left Germany, the Nazis had just started the transformation of the country. But in the early fifties, the democracy of the country was not chosen, but forced on the population by the Allies. Old Nazis were still in many powerful positions, and the majority of the population still grieved, full of self-pity, about their defeat. The Third Reich, and particularly the Holocaust, were more or less Taboo, both in daily life and in all cultural referenced. The film industry also suffered from the lack of a new beginning; even Veit Harlan, director of Jud Süss, was allowed to restart his career. It is no co-incidence that neither Lang or Ulmer produced anything notable after their return.

The_Devil_Strikes_at_Night_4 copyThe same can be said for Robert Siodmak, with one exception: THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT (NACHTS WENN DER TEUFEL KAM), which he directed in 1957 was, deservedly, nominated for the “Oscar” as “Best foreign film”. Set during WWII in Hamburg, the film tells the story of the serial killer Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf). When caught by inspector Kersten (Claus Holm), the latter’s superior, the Gestapo Officer Rossdorf (Hannes Messmer) points out that another man had already been ‘convicted’: Willi Keun (Wolfgang Peters), a small-time party member, had “been shot whilst escaping” – without informing the population about the murders, since just a monstrous criminal did not fit in with ruling ideology of the Aryan supremacy. Both, police man and Gestapo officer, now have the difficult task to start to convince the authorities that a German serial killer was on the loose for over a decade. Both will be sent to the Eastern front, to cover up the case. The film is based on real events, Bruno Lüdke (1908-1944) was mentally retarded, but may have confessed to more murders than he actually committed – to clear up unsolved murder cases. Siodmak re-creates the atmosphere of his best Noir films: the city is darkened, the image dissolves from an omniscient perspective to a particular one – particularly in the scene where Lüdke is caught in the headlights of a car. Fear and excitement permeate like a black stain throughout. Kesten’s obsession with the case create a fragmented world, where the images seem to splinter. Chaos rules, and nobody seems to be safe: the hunt for Lüdke, which frames the film, is shown like a haunting parable on the destructive nature of the 3rd Reich. Unfortunately, Siodmak fell short of this standard in the other 12 films directed in West Germany between 1955 and 1969.

The_Rough_and_the_Smooth_1In 1959 Siodmak worked in the Elstree-Borehamwood studios, to direct THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH, based on the novel by Robin Maugham. Robert Cecil Romer, 2nd Viscount Maugham, nephew of Somerset Maugham, was the enfant terrible of his family. Socialist and self-confessed homosexual, he was a very underrated novelist: The Servant, filmed in 1963 by Joseph Loosey, with Dirk Bogarde in the title role, is one of the classics of British post-WWII cinema. THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH shows similarities: Mike Thompson (Tony Britton), an archeologist, is engaged to Margaret (Natasha Parry), the daughter of his boss, who finances his work. Mike feels trapped in a loveless relationship, and falls for Ila Hansen (Nadja Tiller), a young and attractive woman. But she has a secret: not only is she in cahoots with the tough gangster Reg Barker (William Bendix), but there is a third man in her life, who has a hold over her. After Barker commits suicide, driven by Hansen’s demands, the latter tries also to blackmail Mike and Margaret. The ending is quiet original. There are very dark undertones, particularly for the late 50s, when Ila comments: “I don’t cry much, I have been hurt a lot”. THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH is a subversive film considering the context of its period. The camera pans over stultified Britain of the last 50s, where there seems to be no middle-ground between boring respectability and outright perversion. When the two worlds collide, the conflict is fought on both sides with grim, violent determination. With THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH, Siodmak, would, for the last time, come close to his American Noir films, for which he was called “Prince of the Shadows”: referring not only to the quality of the images, but also to a society, where, to quote Brecht, “we are only aware of the ones in the light, the ones in the shadows, we don’t see”. Robert Siodmak made sure that the ones in the shadows played the major roles in his Films Noir career. Andre Simonoviescz ©

MASTER OF SHADOWS | A RETROSPECTIVE OF ROBERT SIODMAK

Masters of Cinema home video release of CRISS CROSS; Robert Siodmak’s influential film noir masterpiece; to be released on 22 June 2020.

 

 

 

White Paradise (1924) ****

Dir: Karel Lamač | Script: Karel Lamač/Martin Fric | Cast: Karel Lamač, Vladimir Majer, Anny Ondra, Josef Rovensky | Drama | Czechokoslovakia 70′ | Silent

The UK premiere of this restored box office hit from 1924 stars Anny Ondra and Karel Lamač in the role of naïve orphan Nina and escaped convict Ivan. It is screened with live musical accompaniment by Tomáš Vtípil.

In the depths of a snowbound Bohemian forest, orphan Nina serves passing travellers in a small coaching inn. One of them is Ivan (Karel Lamač), who has escaped from prison for a crime he didn’t commit and is now desperate to bring medicine to his dying mother. Nina falls for his good looks and kind heart and decides to help him, offering sanctuary in the cellar.

This social melodrama benefits from an ingeniously written script and the involvement of Der starke Vierer (The Strong Four) – one of the most distinctive creative teams to come out of early Czechoslovak cinema: director and actor Karel Lamač, cameraman Otto Heller, actress Anny Ondra and screenwriter Václav Wasserman – contributed to the international success of the film and opened the doors for Lamač and Ondra.

Presented in partnership with Barbican and in collaboration with the Czech National Film Archive. | 28th April 2019, at 3pm | Barbican Cinema 1, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS

 

Stan & Ollie (2018) ****

Dir: Jon S. Baird | Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly | Comedy Drama

When Stan & Ollie begins, the eponymous duo – that is, Laurel and Hardy themselves – are flying high. It’s 1937, and they are major Hollywood stars – but they are also under contract to producer Hal Roach and, as a result, are being underpaid. Ollie is broke, suffering from an expensive divorce and a gambling addiction, while Stan feels hard done by. He wants to own their films, like Chaplin owns his, and suggests they ask Roach for a better deal. Ollie, however, is content to carry on, not wishing to rock the boat – he has debts to pay, and can’t risk alienating Roach. So, instead, he splits acrimoniously from his long-term partner, and makes a film for Roach without Stan beside him.

16 years later, now ageing and ailing, the duo reunite for a stage tour of the UK, hoping the trip will help them launch production on a film about Robin Hood. As the tour gets underway, they perform in small venues to even smaller audiences. In an attempt to turn things around, they hit the publicity trail and, in doing so, remind the public of their appeal. Audiences soon grow, but old resentments and failing health threaten to undermine the stability of their newly revived success.

As Stan and Ollie, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are superb, perfectly capturing the infectious energy that made Laurel and Hardy so likeable, while simultaneously conveying the gamut of emotions that occur as their fortunes rise and fall. Though their loving wives (brilliantly portrayed by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) do their best to care for the men, and get many of the film’s funniest lines while doing so, it’s the bromance between Stan and Ollie that forms the heart of the film, turning their bittersweet story into a touching meditation on friendship, show business and the art of getting old. The pair are driven by a compulsion to create, even as circumstances – and their own health – conspire against them. As Ollie himself puts it, what else are they going to do?

Throughout the film, the ageing comedians are confronted time and again with comments about how wonderful it is that they’re still going after all these years, and still doing the same material over and over. Such backhanded compliments perfectly encapsulate the poignant tone of the film, but the words also ring true – as Stan & Ollie proves, even after all these years, the material still works. Alex Barrett

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

The Marvellous Mabel Normand **** BFI Comedy Genius 2018


The BFI’s upcoming COMEDY GENIUS SEASON features a new set of four shorts starring the queen of silent comedy, Mabel Normand.

Mabel Normand (1892-1930) had a short but eventful life: she was a pioneer of Silent Movies as a star actress (in 220) and director (in 10) between 1910 and 1927. Working alongside Charlie Chaplin, she ended up saving his career at Mack Sennetts’ Keystone – the producer wanted to sack him. Normand also developed Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ screen personality. But she was, more or less, accidentally involved in the murder of William Desmond Taylor and the shooting of Courtland S. Dines, as well as being a friend (and co-star) of ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, whose life was a series of scandals. Normand suffered for a long time from TB, interrupting her career and leading to her early death at the age of 37.

Mable’s Blunder (1914) 

Dir.: Mack Sennett, Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Harry McCoy, Charles Bennett, Eva Nelson; USA 1914, 13 min.

Mable’s Dramatic Career (1913)

Dir.: Mack Sennett; Cast: Mable Normand, Mack Sennett, Alice Davenport, Virginia Kirtley; USA 1913, 14 min.

His Trysting Places (1914)

Dir.: Charlie Chaplin; Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mark Swain, Phyllis Allen; USA 1914, 32 min.

Should Men walk Home (1927) 

Dir.: Leo McCarey; Cast: Mabel Normand, Creighton Hale, Eugene Pallette, Oliver Hardy; USA 1927, 35 min

Mabel’s Blunder is a screwball comedy of cross-dressing. Mabel (Normand) bizarrely ends up being fancied by her fiancée (Bennet) and his father Harry (McCoy) – in a bizarre turn of events that naturally sees her compromised and embarrassed.  But things get worse when the fiancée’s sister (Nelson) arrives and is also keen on her own brother. Far too fond – in the eyes of Mabel- who doesn’t realise what’s going on, and suspects she has a rival. Mabel changes into male clothing and teaches both men a lesson. Directed by Mack Sennett, this is a turbulent but elegantly comic sketch.

Sennett was also the director of Mabel’s Dramatic Career, in which Normand plays a maid in love with the young Master of the house (Sennett) whose mother (Davenport) really prefers a real ‘lady’ for her son. Mabel is dismissed, but makes a career in the movies. This leads to great unhappiness on the part of the son, when he see his ex-flame on the cinema screen. The final scene is a showcase showdown.

In His Trysting Places Charlie Chaplin directed himself and Normand as couple who fall foul of a comedy involving a mix-up in coats. Chaplin is supposed to get a bottle for the couple’s daughter, but takes the wrong coat in a pub. Mabel finds a letter for a rendezvous in the pocket. She throws a fit. At  the same time, the owner of the coat (Swain) meets his girl friend  (Allen) in the park. She finds a baby-bottle in his coat pocket, and suspects that he has a child with a rival. The helter-skelter of the solution is mad slapstick but hilarious and brilliantly timed.

Should Men Walk Home, directed by Leo McCarey (for producer Hal Roach) is Normand’s penultimate feature. Also known as Girl Bandit, Mabel plays an upmarket lady robber, who together with her friend (Hale), tries to rob a wealthy man during a party. A detective (Pallette) stumbles through the film, always missing the clues, whilst Oliver Hardy has a small, but poignant role as a guest. When it comes to farce, McCarey was one of the best directors, and the finale even features an underwater sequence. Avantgarde and beautifully carried off.

SCREENING AS PART OF BFI’s COMEDY GENIUS season NATIONWIDE from 9 November 2018

Bestia (1917) ** | Kinoteka London 2018

Writer-Director Aleksander Hertz | Cast: Pola Negri, Witold Kuncewicz, Jan Pawłowski, Maria Dulęba, Mia Mara. Melodrama | Poland / 67 min (incomplete)

Aleksander Hertz’s Bestia was one of the last of several films made by his company Sfinks starring his protégé Pola Negri under her real name Apolonia Chałupiec before she left for Germany in 1917, and, alas, the only one still surviving. Released in America in 1921 and slightly re-edited as The Polish Dancer to herald Negri’s arrival in Hollywood after making her name internationally in the German films of Ernst Lubitsch; it is to this version that Bestia owes its survival, and this was the version screened at Ognisko Polskie in partnership with this year’s Kinoteka Polish Film Festival.

Although popular playing A Woman of the World, (which became the title of one of her Hollywood vehicles), Negri in The Beast (to give it it’s literal title in English) proves far more sinned against than sinning; her choice of male company having done her no favours.

Bestia starts well with Miss Negri staying out late carousing with a bunch of drunken ne’er-do-wells (showing that Polish youth were as interested in the same things a hundred years ago as they remain today), and before long she has the world (and various men) at her feet as a raunchy cabaret dancer. Unfortunately she falls for a spineless stage door Johnny named Alexi, who neglects to inform her that he’s married, while the film’s emphasis shifts from Negri to Alexi’s dithering over whether or not to leave his wife. Negri’s honorable decision to reimburse money she’d earlier borrowed without permission from an oaf called Dimitri meanwhile seriously rebounds on her to her cost and it all ends in tears, with retribution meted out that bears little relation to the sins actually committed. RICHARD CHATTEN

KINOTEKA LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 7 -29 MARCH 2018

Napoléon (1927)

Dir|Writer|Prod: Abel Gance | Music: Carl Davis, Carmine Coppola, Arthur Honegger | Silent | 330min

One of the highlights of silent film is the digitally restored version of Abel Gance’s cinematic triumph NAPOLÉON. This magnificent film is enhanced by Carl Davis’ rousing score and technical touches to reveal the original tinting that make it feel edgy and contemporary enough for modern audiences as it approaches it centenary.

It portrays the early life of the legendary French soldier who was go on to make his mark in world for centuries to come. In opening scenes Napoleon Bonaparte is seen playing with his school friends in the snow, already asserting his powers of leadership in an impressive performance by Vladimir Roudenko. Albert Dieudonnéthen plays the adult Napoleon as he forges ahead with a successful military campaign in Italy. Running at over 5.5 hours, this is an absorbing and thrilling experience blending melodrama with moving musical interludes and combining intimate domestic scenes with full scale widescreen historical recreations that offer insight into the French Revolution and Italian campaigns of 1796. MT

Digitally restored by Photoplay Productions and the BFI National Archive, with a newly-recorded score, composed and conducted by Carl Davis, Napoleon (1927) comes to UK cinemas, DVD/Blu-ray and BFI Player | Back this December 2017 

Man With a Movie Camera (1929) | Dual format release

bfi-00m-d1f copyDirector/Writer: Dziga Vertov

Cinematographer: Mikhail Kaufman | Gleb Toyanski

Documentary    Russia

Dziga Vertov was in his early 20s when he took a job in a Soviet news company as a film editor and cameraman working on a communist propaganda series called “Kino-Pravda” which eventually gave birth to the Cinéma Vérité movement.  So keen was he, and so energetic in his desire to record real life in 1920s Russia that MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA came as a natural by- product of his ramblings with a camera and his cinematographer brother, Mikhail Kaufman. Dazzlingly innovative for the time, the reason to see this documentary today is for the fascinating record of daily life in the cities of Odessa, Moscow and Kiev.

In 1929, Vertov’s unique selling point for a film that was to screen all over the World before the Second World War and the Iron Curtain came down on Soviet Russia was that it transcended literature, language, sets scripts and actors to record life as it really happened to ordinary people, from early dawn after a Summer’s ‘White Night’ to dusk the following evening.

Vertov and his wife and editor, Elizaveta Svilova, who is seen furiously cutting and piecing together the freshly photographed images to produce startlingly emotional images. Sometimes funny and sometimes mortifying, they reveal an open coffin strewn with flowers and carried through the streets or a woman in the final stages of giving birth.

At the time of its early screenings, the films  was exhibited with live musical accompaniment suggested by Vertov’s notes for a soundtrack. This current restored 2K print is scored by the jazzy, percussive beats of Terry Donahue’s Alloy Orchestra, a three-man musical ensemble, based in the US, who write and perform to classic silent films. Enhancing the action but never eclipsing its visual language, Vertov’s documentary is propelled forward at a breakneck speed and the use of double exposures, split screens, irises and various other inventive techniques – at the time considered ground-breaking, but now looking rather quaint and adding to its extraordinary allure. But amazing as they are, the most fascinating thing about Vertov’s film is the ordinary detail of daily industriousness – women going through their dressing routines – making-up, having manicures and haircuts; horse-drawn carriages hastily crossing tram lanes; the elegant deftness of a girl packing cigarettes in a factory, clever ponies working in a coal shaft, bronzed men pumping iron, sleepy children waking up barefoot in the streets – these are the memories that provide a record of the Soviet era – far away from the illusions of Politics and official news propaganda.

But it’s Elizaveta Svilova’s remarkable editing that really makes the film buzz with an energy and a rhythm that’s quite upliting and intoxicating. During its running time of just over an hour, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen. MT

Included is the almost unwatchably sad KINOGLAZ short MEAT TO COW that follows the boy in the market asking “how much is the beef?” backwards to the cow being slaughtered, to the Cooperative and eventually seeing him grazing peacefully in the fields. MT

THIS DIGITAL RESTORATION BY LOBSTER FILMS | EYE FILM INSTITUTE IS NOW AVAILABLE FROM 18 APRIL 2016 ALONG WITH OTHER WORKS BY VERTOV | KINO EYE (1924) | KINO-PRAVDA #21 (1925) | SYMPHONY OF THE DONBASS (1931) | THREE SONGS ABOUT LENIN (1934) 

 

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) | The Play House (1921) | Buster Keaton is back

Buster Keaton (1895-1966), known as the man “who never laughed”, was not only the only silent movie star/director who could compete with Charles Spencer Chaplin, he was also a fearless stunt man who was in love with aesthetic innovation: The Playhouse (1921), a short, twenty-one minute silent ‘experiment’, featured not only, one, or two but nine (!) Buster Keaton’s in one frame. In this sparkling new restoration, with a score by Carl Davis and playfully directed by Edward F Cline, he stars not only as the inspirational leader of the vaudeville show but performs nearly all the roles of the characters and the audience. And, being Buster, he has to chase a girl who happens to have a twin sister. Full of visual gags, The Playhouse is still, nearly hundred years later, breathtakingly modern.

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) is, with The General (1926), Keaton’s masterpiece of the silent era, before the studios took away his creative control of his films. Here, he plays Bill jr., the son of steamboat captain William Canfield, the latter a burly and robust tyrant who is disappointed that his son turns out to be a meek college graduate. Canfield senior is fighting for his existence while James King, another steamboat operator, runs a modern ship and is taking away Canfield’s customers. To make matters worse, Bill. Jr. falls in love with Kitty, King’s daughter. When a cyclone breaks out, Buster/Billy saves not only the lives of all main protagonists, but jumps again into the water, seemingly avoiding the grateful kiss of Kitty, only to fish the minster out of the sea. Steamboat Bill Jr. was a major production, $135 000 worth of street sets were built, just to be destroyed by the cyclone. In one of his most memorable stunts (often repeated in film-history), Keaton walks along a street, when a whole building façade collapses on him – the cut out of the set just big enough to miss him by inches. Steamboat Bill Jr. was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Steamboat Bill, premiered six month later, and featuring, for the first time, a hero by the name of Mickey Mouse. AS

IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE FROM 19 SEPTEMBER 2015 | 4k RESTORATIONS COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS | BFI

Too Much Johnson (1938) | Orson Welles Centenary |BLU-RAY

Cast: Joseph Cotton, Virginia Nicholson, Edgar Barrier, Arlene Francis, Mary Wickes

US Silent Comedy

At the 2013 Pordenone Film Festival a remarkable premiere took place. Orson Welles’s second film Too Much Johnson (1938) was finally revealed. A mint copy of this long-considered lost silent comedy displayed the ‘boy wonder’ Orson having cinematic fun with his new toy – the movie camera. Too Much Johnson is a chase movie. Joseph Cotton plays an elusive philanderer being pursued by his rival, in romance, across Manhattan rooftops, a meatpacking market and a Cuban desert.

The film was intended to be screened as an integral part of a Welles Mercury Theatre production of an 1894 stage comedy written by William Gillette. You have to keep this multi media idea in mind and realise that only a very small portion of the film was edited by Welles. What survives is an unfinished 66 minute work print that even to avid fans of Orson Welles does feel, on first viewing, a chore to sit through. True there are delightful pastiches of the Keystone Cops, Harold Lloyd, German expressionism, Harold and early Soviet cinema. Yet this is all un-edited stuff in need of a more dynamic momentum. However a newly-edited, cut down alternative cut (or intelligent guess) lasting 34 minutes has been done by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

This speculative edit of Johnson allows Welles’s fans to have more fun in seeing how much (if any) of a youthful auteur’s signature is here. Citizen Kane did come next, and there are low and quirky camera angles on rooftops (before Welles did his Kane ceiling images), some mischief with the novelty of the automobile and a sophisticated organisation of crowd scenes. These shots look like ideas to be fully realised in The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger and The Trial. But any possible Wellesian ‘look’ is still very much grounded in his personal love of the past and early cinema.

Greed,_1924,_19_epilogoThere is an amazing scene involving barrels and hats. This has the flavour of the René Clair silent The Italian Straw Hat. Group compositions combined with deft cutting, where guys scramble for their boater hats and trilbies after chaos amidst rolling barrels, lend a frenetic charm. These moments are matched by Johnson’s later scenes where the hunter and the hunted splash, fully clothed, around a lake near a desert. Here we are pushed into something a little odder, more absurd, even darker, than a knockabout comedy. I wonder if Welles intended some mad comic take on the final scenes of Stroheim’s Greed? (left).

Too Much Johnson is more of a fascinating, re-discovered curiosity than a lost gem.But it’s still wonderful to have it back in circulation. As for the acting, well Joseph Cotton reveals a gift for comedy that was never properly realised in his other films. Both versions of Too Much Johnson are now freely available, from the National Film Preservation Foundation, and can be viewed online. Now, I wonder if the discovery of the lost Magnificent Ambersons footage is just round the corner? Just a cineaste’s improbable hope! AP

CELEBRATING THE CENTENERY OF THE BIRTH OF ORSON WELLES | DVD / BLU| Screened at 2013 Pordenone Silent Film Festival – Cinema del Muto | Courtesy of Mr Bongo Films 

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) MUBI

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers: Joseph Delteil/Dreyer

Cast: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon

80min   Drama | Biography

The close-up is one of the most potent means by which a filmmaker can make a point. It tells us what a character is thinking or feeling in an instant. Yet close-ups can produce emotional overkill – the ‘lesbian’ love story Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) is an example of employing the technique so often that the film is unable to breathe.

So what are we now to make of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc where the entire drama is the close up? It has been called the supreme close-up film (not quite true for medium shots are also inserted). Yet Dreyer inescapably creates a film where the human face is the focal point. The face of Joan (the accused) and the faces of the clergy (the interrogators) are filmed with an unbearable tension.

The Passion of Joan of Arc taxes the viewer not with an excess of looks, but with intense spiritual intimacy. The critic Béla Balázas described Dreyer’s film as ‘a drama of the spirit’ enacted ‘in duels between looks and frowns.’ Joan is played by the French stage actress Maria Falconetti. Dreyer certainly found his Joan with Falconetti. He said that ‘She didn’t act for me. She just used her face.’ Falconetti’s androgynous beauty gives her performance a timeless quality. Her ‘acting’ or ‘being’ is magnificent.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is based on the 15th century records of Joan’s actual trial. Being a silent film we only get inter-titles. However Dreyer asked his actors to read out the records, even though we cannot hear what’s being said. This was Dreyer’s need for scrupulous authenticity. He also asked for the building of a medieval town and fort (rarely used) and the tonsuring of the male actors. Most of his film takes place in a set of stripped down purity. It was never meant to be a costume drama with medieval ornamentation. Not only does it look accurate, but it is also anti-naturalistic. To get at the soul of Joan’s story, Dreyer employed a radical editing style. A tableau of close-ups is often ‘irrationally’ employed to reveal the inner conflicts of each character, and not just logically to whom the dialogue is being addressed. The film has distortions of time and space. Actor’s bodies are rarely filmed below the waist. This abstraction takes the audience off guard. If space seems very strange, then cinematic time is also compressed, leaving us unsure if it’s an hour, day or a week that’s passed.

Many consider The Passion of Joan of Arc to be one of the pinnacles of silent cinema. It is certainly one of the best examples. Perhaps Dreyer’s last film Gertrud (1964) would be my favourite amongst his films. But Joan’s trial has to be experienced. 87 years old and still so essential, disconcerting and very moving.

A final suggestion. To fully experience Joan’s trial play the DVD/BLU RAY without choosing a music option. For me it’s probably the only silent film that benefits from being watched in total silence. Alan Price

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC IS AVAILABLE ON MUBI

Algol (1920) | Tragödie der Macht

Director: Hans Werckmeister   Writers: Hans Brennert, Friedel Köhne

Cast: Emil Jannings, John Gottowt, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, Hanna Ralph, Erna Morena

99min  Fantasy | Sci-Fi

The intriguingly titled ‘Algol’ (1920) crops up occasionally in histories of silent cinema in general and sci-fi cinema in particular, but the excellent restoration – complete with a live musical accompaniment by the esteemed Stephen Horne – displayed at the Barbican, in the City of London, represented the first chance in Britain actually to see the film on a big screen in over 90 years. (The film can be viewed on YouTube, but untinted and with German titles only; and a DVD, also scored by Horne, may be in the pipeline).

Subtitled Tragödie der Macht (Tragedy of Power), the film provides a fascinating glimpse of a period when Germany’s fragile new postwar democracy seemed precariously poised on the brink of total political and economic collapse, yet was possessed of a film industry capable of producing an ambitious, lavishly mounted production such as this.

Emil Jannings – already a star of international stature on the strength of his roles for Lubitsch, and later the first actor to win an Oscar – plays Robert Herne, a coal miner presented by a mischievous alien called Algol (played by John Gottowt) with a machine that renders coal obsolete as a source of energy and thus gives Herne the financial clout to suck the rest of the world dry. (Sound familiar?) The action spans twenty years, during the course of which Herne loses his wife and ultimately his marbles before finally going up in smoke with his diabolical machine.

The histrionic plot combining both anti-capitalism and anti-technology provides a rather slender framework for such an opulent production, but Hans Werckmeister (a quantity otherwise totally unknown to film historians, who died in 1929) directs with a firm hand. The acting is generally good; far less like stereotypical ‘silent film’ acting than that in Fritz Lang’s later and much better-known Metropolis, while the superb photography and production design (the latter by Walter Reimann, fresh from working on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) consistently provides something interesting to look at. All in all, a dynamic and enjoyable relic of an extraordinary era both in the history of the world and of the cinema. Richard Chatten.

Richard Chatten has written for Film Dope, The Independent, the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, The Encyclopedia of British Film, The Journal of Popular British Cinema and Cinema: The Whole Story. His favourite film is A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

15030343977_006f14eaee_zDirector: Raoul Walsh  

Writers: Lotta Woods and Douglas Fairbanks

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Anna May Wong, Sôjin Kamiyama

155min  Silent Adventure Family Drama   US

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was Douglas Fairbank’s pet project after success with The Three Musketeers (1921), The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922) had cemented a Hollywood career. His powerful physique and athletic prowess that was later to make him the inspiration for Superman (despite being only 5.7”) fits well with this swashbuckling role that required him to scale walls stripped to the waist as the charismatic and infamous Arabic ‘Thief’ Ahmed. Based on one of the ‘1001 Nights’ tales, Ahmed uses his powers to win the heart of the Princess, but his father The Caliph (Brandon Hurst) forbids the marriage so the couple to embark on an exciting adventure involving a crystal ball, a magic apple, an invisibility cloak and, of course, a magic carpet. But vying for her hand is also the deceitful Mongol Prince (Sôjin Kamiyama) who also has a few more tricks up his sleeve. The first Chinese American star, Anna Way Wong has a role as the Mongol slave.

Under the direction of Raoul Walsh this is a dreamy and visually seductive fairytale affair that glistens with all the mystique of Araby and must have enchanted audiences young and old on its release in 1924. Today it’s still mesmerisingly beautiful to watch. and its silent format adds to its magnetic allure with Julanne Johnston as a simply luminous Princess. Her delicately romantic costumes were the creations of Mitchell Leisen, who was known for his elegant designs worn by Olivia de Havilland. After training under Cecil B De Mille he went on to work on The Thief. With its gorgeous technicolour sequences by Arthur Edeson and sumptuous sets by William Cameron Menzies transporting us to a distant world of make-believe, it was one of the costliest outings of the silent era and also the most lush, even by Hollywood standards. Carl Davies’ atmospheric score adds to the magic making this an ideal film for Christmas for all the family. MT

DUAL FORMAT DVD BLU RAY RELEASE AVAILABLE FROM EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT FROM 24 NOVEMBER 2014

Spione (1927) | DVD release

15213276627_8978af3e0a_mDir.: Fritz Lang; Cast: Fritz Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Lien Deyers, Willy Fritsch; Germany 1927, 144 min.

SPIONE, whilst directed by Lang, is much more a Thea von Harbou film, co-written by her, based on her novel of the same name. It has long become fashionable to put all the blame for the weaknesses of Lang’s films before his emigration on von Harbour – after all, she stayed in Germany, being a convinced national socialist. But it is not so easy: Kracauer rightfully criticises that “SPIONE could have been a true forerunner of the Hitchcock thrillers if Lang had not fashioned it after the pompous manner of METROPOLIS, with empty sensations taking on the air of substantial revelations.” But to say that its “virtuosity alienated from the content”, and later alleging that Lang only found his true ‘style’ in Hollywood, is simply going too far and forgetting that Lang’s Hollywood B-movies were much leaner because of restricted budgets. But one should not forget that on his return to Germany in 1958, Lang’s last films again could be put into the category of “form above content”; mainly for the reason that he could command a much higher budget – using scripts co-written by von Harbou (who had died in 1954) and himself based on her novels for “Der Tiger von Eschnapur” und “Das Indische Grabmal”.

In many ways SPIONE is a more rational version of Lang’s earlier “Dr. Mabuse” films from 1921/2. The main protagonist, Haghi (Klein-Rogge, who also featured as Mabuse), has a triple existence: he is leader of a powerful spy ring; the (crippled) president of a bank and the circus clown Nero. But whilst Mabuse was driven by lust for power alone, Haghi is much more a protagonist of the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivism). He does not want power, he wants to have a better organisation than his opponent, the boss of the state run counter-espionage. Being a pragmatist, he underestimates the power of emotions: Haghi’s agent Sonja (Maurus) falls in love with her opposition agent no. 326 (Fritsch), and after Haghi fails to kill 326 off in a wonderfully staged railway accident, he flees into the circus world, but is even cornered there: he commits suicide on stage, the audience clapping, wildly believing it to be the highlight of his performance.

As usual, in most films from Kracauer’s so-called “Stabilised Period” in German cinema (1924–1929), neutrality is the order of the day. Whilst Mabuse was seen as the enemy, Haghi and his opponents are just competitors – like police and underworld in M (1931). In Lang films of this era, technology is perhaps the most dominant factor. Haghi’s spies use planes, which are much quicker than the trains used by the agents of the state. (A copy of SPIONE was taken by Zeppelin to New York for its US premiere). And all the walls in Haghi’s banking empire have spy-holes, as in Metropolis: so he could spy on his workforce. Spying is the central idea of many Lang films, SPIONE morphing without little transition into MINISTRY OF FEAR sixteen years later. AS

RELEASED AS A DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD ON 17 NOVEMBER COURTESY OF MASTERS OF CINEMA

 

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