What a weird film! I sought out 'The Devil's Claim' because it was written by J. Grubb Alexander, who did such a great job of turning Victor Hugo's unwieldy novel 'The Man Who Laughs' into one of Conrad Veidt's greatest films. 'The Devil's Claim' isn't in that league, though.
I viewed the Eastman House print, which is duped from a 35mm nitrate positive found in Spain, with Spanish intertitles (and insert shots of printed text) replacing the English-language originals. The Eastman House print has re-translated the Spanish titles back into English, but the translation isn't very good. There are unwieldy terms such as 'a late-arriving musician', and several titles read like bad poetry or Mills & Boon dialogue. ('Jealousy is a sad adviser.') Please note that my review is based on the re-translated titles, not the original versions.
The story is set in New York City's 'French Quarter', but in real life there's no such neighbourhood. I don't know if this error was in the original script, or if it was created by the Spanish title writer. The first reel of the print is beautifully tinted in several colours, but after that we're stuck with monochrome.
One of the denizens of the French Quarter is Akbar Khan, successful author of the exotic novel 'Karma'. (Sessue Hayakawa wears a turban for this role, which I suspect was inspired by the real-life poet Khalil Gibran.) Khan has broken off an affair with the Persian damsel Indora (Colleen Moore, looking far more Persian than I would have thought possible.) Khan's literary technique seems to involve getting a woman to fall in love with him, using her as inspiration for his next novel, then tossing her aside. Along comes the (very American) Virginia Crosby (Rhea Mitchell, previously unknown to me), who vows to make Khan come crawling back to Indora by unusual means. The first step in the process is to get Khan to fall in love with Virginia. If you say so...
There's an improbable sequence at the Polly Ann Café, somewhere in that French Quarter. All the tables in the café are numbered, and there's a spinner on the wall. When the hostess (presumably Polly Ann) spins the wheel to a random number, the person at that table must get up and entertain everyone else. Wot, no karaoke?
Where this movie well and truly gets weird is in the story WITHIN the story. Khan churns out his latest novel ('The Mask of the Devil') as chapters to be serialised in the magazine 'Metropolis'. (We see its cover; it clearly resembles Hearst's 'Cosmopolitan'.) The editor (William Buckley: no, not THAT one!) was daft enough to start publishing Khan's serial whilst it's still being written, with no guarantee of a last chapter, and now he's regretting that error. Meanwhile, we see Khan's novel being acted out. The hero is Hassan Marouf (also played by Hayakawa), a somewhat idealised version of Akbar Khan. Hassan kills his own minion Kemal, but is then haunted by Kemal's ghost ... and must placate the dead man by allowing Kemal to take temporary possession of his own (Hassan's) body. There are a couple of ludicrous scenes in which Hayakawa does a ridiculous Jekyll-and-Hyde routine, as the nominally benevolent Hassan is possessed by the soul of the evil Kemal. (I'd walk a mile for a Kemal, but not this one.)
All through this movie, people keep materialising and vanishing. One shot of Hayakawa seated in front of a curtain placed him significantly off-centre, so I knew that somebody else would balance the frame composition either by emerging through the curtain or materialising out of thin air. Sure enough; cue the ectoplasm.
The film never establishes what time of year this is happening, but it seems to be late autumn: I was intrigued that the actors' exhalations show up on screen during the exterior sequences, even though there's no snow. Even a cat's breath is visible. (The cat gets shot dead: we see a close-up of a feline corpse that seems to be the same cat which appeared alive just a few seconds earlier.) Colleen Moore and Rhea Mitchell wear nice gloves, although the camera doesn't emphasise these.
At one point, Akbar Khan and Indora decide to get married. Instantly, a priest pops out of the woodwork -- he looks more like a bishop -- and he's conveniently wearing Christian vestments. Khan just happens to have a wedding ring in his pocket, too. After trying to establish the exotic Oriental credentials of these two characters, the film goes out of its way to assure us that they're entering into a white-bread Christian marriage. Hoo boy. Despite its title, there isn't any actual satanism in this movie. I'll rate 'The Devil's Claim' just 6 out of 10. Pass the mandrake root, sahib.
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