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The Charlatan is a forgotten film. It was well-chronicled in the book
"of Gods and Monsters". Its' plot is extremely dated, but looking from
2003, this is a good thing as it very much seems like an important
relic of its' time. The Charlatan is a great example of what passed for
pulp in the 1910s and 1920s.
The best part about the film is that it was made by Universal right before they started their classic horror cycle. The plot concerns a mysterious sideshow charlatan named Count Merlin. He reads the palm of a woman and tells her of how she once had cheated on her husband and stole his child away. She is stunned by his seeing that, and leaves. Count Merlin is in fact, her long-estranged husband in disguise. Her friend encourages her to have a party at her house and to invite Count Merlin to perform his magic act. When he is invited, murder ensues and it is his ex-wife who is the victim.
The plot is even more complicated than that, but what makes the film work is the terrific direction and lighting of George Melford and George Robinson, the pair who shot the stylish, but not as interesting "Spanish Dracula" two years later. There is a wonderful thunderstorm that lights up the evening at the house and a really good performance in the lead by Holmes Herbert who would later play supporting parts in many great horror films such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Invisible Man.
It is really a shame that a film like this is so hard to see. Universal won't even release their other late silent horror/mystery classic The Last Warning, directed by Paul Leni and these films are quite superior to a lot of the hack horror films they released in the 1940s.
Holmes Herbert (as Peter Dwight) is a magician, and quick-change
master-of-disguise; he has assumed the role of Count Merlin, a "Master
of Occult Services". Margaret Livingston (as Florence Dwight Talbot) is
his ex-wife, who, fifteen years earlier, took their baby daughter and
hooked up second husband Rockliffe Fellowes (as Richard "Dick" Talbot).
Ms. Livingston isn't one to stand by her men, and has already decided
to run away with her doctor, Philo McCullough (as Walter Paynter). She
goes to Mr. Herbert for a crystal ball reading, unaware he is her
You should know, initially, that the "crystal ball story", early in the film, is the story of how Livingston took her daughter and left Herbert for Fellowes. It really isn't at all clear (as either a bell, or a crystal ball). It's also astonishing how Livingston sits right down with Herbert for a dead-on perfect "reading" of their past, and doesn't know who he is, under the turban. She later says, "What a fool I was not to have recognized you!" Indeed.
Later, events are easier to understand. Circumstances lead to all the characters being in a house, during a storm. A murder is committed, and you're left wondering - who's the guilty party? While there is some suspense, there are no real clues (that I could see); so you'll have to take a shot in the dark on this one. Herbert's is the film's main performance attraction; he certainly is a master of disguise!
***** The Charlatan (1929) George Melford ~ Holmes Herbert, Margaret Livingston, Philo McCullough
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