During the early to mid 1920's Russian émigré Ivan Mosjoukine rose to great prominence as the preeminent star of French silent cinema, not only a popular draw at the box office but an exceptionally expressive and charismatic actor, who could flourish in both art-house and mainstream cinema.
Such was his stardom that in 1926 Abel Gance's first choice for the title role in Napoleon was none other than Mosjoukine - who whilst flattered could not commit to the lengthy production. Instead Mosjoukine starred in Michel Strogoff and Casanova, two vehicles which whilst less well known today were considerable box office successes at the time.
However after the second of these Mosjoukine made a major career misstep when, with a Universal contract, he left France for what he hoped would be Hollywood stardom. However only one film came from this, "Surrender", which, although interesting and well made, totally failed to establish him as a viable US attraction. Returning to Europe, his standing there had declined somewhat and he struggled to reestablish himself.
White Devil was the last of 5 German & Italian vehicles and might well have returned the actor to his former stature, were it not for a technical revolution that was sweeping through the industry.
For this film is the first of Mosjoukine's to include a synchronised soundtrack. The film boasts an effective score - with compiled elements and original music by Michael Lewin, Marc Roland & Willy Schmidt-Gentner - some sequences of singing and whistling, and a range of sound effects... but no dialogue.
It's likely that the film was initially shot silent then retrofitted with sound in order to make it more attractive in a rapidly changing market. As such it comes off very well, with an exciting and action packed plot and a meaty role for it's expressive and versatile star.
Mosjoukine stars as a fiery Caucasian captain Hadscht Murat who quarrels with his leader (initially over a perceived insult to the leader's daughter and then more seriously over the fate of some prisoners) and apparently defects to fight for the despotic Czar Nicolai I (Fritz Alberti) and becomes involved with Neidowa (played by Lil Dagover - beautiful but rather wasted in a smallish part)
Hoping to use Murat as a go-between in his plans to conquer the Caucasus, the Czar ruler finds that our hero is not so easily manipulated. Rescuing Neidowa from the Czar's clutches, Murat leads a people's revolt against the despotic regent.
Alexandre Wolkof directs with great style and visual flare in a film that represents the European silent tradition at it's finest and most dynamic. This has some wonderfully atmospheric cinematography - right up there with Sunrise & Docks of New York. Mosjoukine himself gives a moving and potent performance as the noble Murat and the film ranks amongst his best,
In this, the 7th of 9 collaborations between writer/director Wolkof and Mosjoukine, Mosjoukine's character again suffers a protracted - and in this case violent - on-screen death. It's quite a sight as he takes volley after volley of gunfire from the enemy hordes - disdainfully dispatching two or three of the more foolhardy soldiers, before his own men come to the rescue and rush to the side of the apparently dead Murat, who nevertheless rouses himself for a final ride home. In other hands this scene could have been laughable but Mosjoukine plays it with such passion and conviction that any laughter is stilled.
Perhaps it was the material or perhaps it was from a sense that an era was coming to an end but the final scene, with Murat's child and new love gathered round the dying hero ranks as one of his most powerful moments on screen, with an especially touching fade out as the sun sets and the light fades from Murat's eyes. No more eloquent comment could have been made on Mosjoukine's own subsequent decline.
NB - The film boasts some interesting credited and uncredited participants who would go on to great things:
Michael Powell, not credited, was apparently the stills photographer on this, two years before his first quota quickie as a director.
Peter Lorre also apparently appears in this, although having watched the movie a number of times I've yet to spot him.
One who is credited is Anatole Litvak who would go on to have a great career in Hollywood in the 30's and 40's.
Another interesting credit is the 11 year old child actor Kenneth Rive who plays Murat's son. Rive would grow up to become one of the most important distributor's of European Art Cinema in the UK, introducing the works of Bergman, Truffaut & Goddard to English speaking audiences. Many years later, David Robinson would screen White Devil for the now 80 year old Rive, and it was apparently a touching moment - the child on screen and the old man with a still unlined face watching as he acted opposite a cinema legend.
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