Delicious relic of early twentieth century! Arliss posturing...
Yesterday I watched "The Devil" (1921) with George Arliss, Sylvia Breamer, Lucy Cotton, Edmund Lowe, Roland Bottomley, Florence Arliss, and others. Young Fredric March is in one of the crowd scenes, but I never spotted him. This was George Arliss' first film. The film is based on a satiric play written in 1908 by Ferenc Molnar, and which launched Arliss on Broadway. Arliss was approached about doing film in 1920, and had learned that movement and emoting were exaggerated by the camera on film, so needed to be subtler, and he thought that learning the film craft might make acting on stage a tad tidier, too, without the necessity of exaggerated limb movement. One of the things that really stood out in the film, especially near the beginning of the film, was Arliss' own sense of posturing his body, much like one might on stage, but it was a precision posturing. Nevertheless, it wasn't anywhere near as natural as what one might see today, but not in any way off-putting, either. Arliss seems as natural as anyone in that era, and he has a commanding presence at all times! He has the definition of charisma at any time when the camera is on him.
This one concerns a kind of bet that is made: while viewing a painting called "The Martyr - Truth Crucified by Evil" Lucy Cotton (playing Marie) says that that title is an impossibility, that Truth cannot be crucified by Evil; Arliss (playing a man called Dr. Müller, though we know he is really the devil himself!), walking with Cotton, says she's probably correct, but he then goes about trying to prove that, yes, Evil can indeed make a martyr out of Truth! The essence of the plot is that Roland Bottomley (playing Georges), who is engaged to Marie, and whose best friend, artist Edmund Lowe (playing Paul de Veaux), who is loved by Sylvia Breamer (playing Mimi, the model), are connived by Arliss into near infidelity. In the end, a prayer leads to the devil being consumed by flames. All of this must have been quite fascinating to watch in 1921, because it is still a fascinating relic of what the stage must have been like at the turn of the twentieth century. The camera does a very nice job of moving the personalities around on film, but the story is rather stage bound. The sets are gorgeous, however, and they still play well to a modern audience. Today's audiences will have difficulty with the satiric content, and possibly the content in general, but the film graphically illustrates the differences in taste between generations that are one hundred years apart and more.
I enjoyed the film, I must admit, as much because George Arliss is one of my favorite actors, and every one of his films has a certain kind of dénouement that points, not so much a moral, rather a kind of necessary axiomatic goodness that needs to come from human beings towards each other - and which WILL come, even in the face of evil or stupidity. A live and let live kind of plot never exists in Arliss. Even his historical pieces are loaded with plot that leads us on to a certain kind of conclusion. I think that's why I find Arliss truly interesting, never dull. He's never plebeian, either, but magisterial (even in films like "Old English" or "The Guv'nor"), and his movies represent a kind of film, if not genre, that I think is nearly unique in the English speaking film.
My copy of the film is from Alpha. You never know what you're going to get for the $5-$8 Alpha films. This one is B-. The picture quality is okay, never perfect, but certainly very, very watchable! It's not blurry or white, but the sharpness is never as good as many. The score used is just okay. It's classical music that sort of fits, but... Would love to see this pristinely released with a new music score. The film was thought lost for decades, then re-discovered in the late 1990's, then shown in 2000 at a film festival. Nearly everybody seems to be releasing this film on the grey market, but it was made the year before 1922, so it shouldn't have any copyright problems.
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