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A young Italian, the last of the Borgias, fears he is cursed with
evil of his infamous family. And now the woman he loves may
guilty of a nasty murder...
Based on a novel by Ben Hecht, THE FLORENTINE DAGGER is raised above the level of modest murder programmers on the strength of its unusual plot, moody atmospherics and very fine acting. Sir C. Aubrey Smith graces the proceedings as a kindly old doctor who helps a young playwright and a spirited actress (Donald Woods & Margaret Lindsay) find happiness together, despite homicide and a possible family curse. Robert Barrat is also much fun as an eccentric, flirtatious police inspector; surprisingly, he becomes the story's true hero in the movie's closing moments.
The supporting cast includes Henry O'Neill as a Viennese theatrical producer; Florence Fair as his troubled housekeeper; Frank Reicher as a harried stage manager; Rafaela Ottiano & Charles Judels as worried Italian innkeepers; Paul Porcasi as a timid policeman; Eily Malyon as a lady who knows more about the murder than she's willing to say; and wonderful Herman Bing as a flustered Austrian baker.
The conclusion comes as a bit of a surprise, considering the Production Code's requirement for the punishment of all movie murderers...
Much is said, in the film's first half, about Cesare Borgia. It might prove interesting to review the facts of his life. The illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare (1475-1507) started his rise to power early, first in his ancestral Spain and later in Italy. At the age of seven he was created prothonotary & canon of the cathedral of Valencia - but it was in 1491 at the age of sixteen that his career really started to move. Over the course of the next two years Cesare was quickly created bishop, archbishop & cardinal. In 1498 he renounced his cardinalate to become Captain General of the Papal Army. Working hand in glove with the Pope, his father, they furthered their schemes towards wresting a northern Italian kingdom for Cesare.
A marriage that same year with the sister of the King of Navarre and the acceptance of a French dukedom, gave Cesare & Alexander the French support they would need for their plots of conquest. By 1500 Cesare was fully immersed in his generally successful campaigns. (One of his victims was Duke Alfonso of Bisceglie, the husband of Cesare's wicked sister Lucrezia; that unlucky gentleman had been stabbed by a quartet of Cesare's assassins and subsequently strangled in his sickbed by Cesare's servant.) Hated & despised by the rank and file of the citizenry of Italy, Alexander & Cesare had to constantly fight against the overwhelming tide of public opinion.
Surviving one rebellion in his army - and treacherously murdering the ringleaders after feigning peace - Cesare's fortunes at last crumbled with the death of his father in 1503. The new pope, Julius II, was an implacable enemy and demanded the release of Cesare's dominions. Cesare was eventually captured by the Spanish, imprisoned in Spain, and made a daring escape. He now offered his services to his brother-in-law, the King of Navarre. Cesare Borgia's short, violent, utterly fascinating life came to an end in 1507 when he was killed in a skirmish with rebels.
This 65-minute mystery was part of the Warner Brothers' "Clue Club" series of programmers. Most of these short thrillers are truly unwatchable melanges of slapstick and skullduggery. The Florentine Dagger is a little better, and does keep one's interest with the foggy Viennese (as opposed to foggy London) locations, production values that aren't bottom-of-the-barrel, and a story that involves a descendant of the Borgias. C. Aubrey Smith lends a real whiff of greasepaint to the proceedings. Don't waste your life waiting for this one to roll around, but, if you catch it, you may find it a tolerable way to pass an hour.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although technically made after more stringent censorship resumed, THE
FLORENTINE DAGGER (1935) violates the expectations of both formula and
the censorship of the time. The movie was the result of a hasty
production that did not augur well for it. Director Robert Florey was
designated to helm the project only a week before shooting began. Tom
Reed's script was still being rewritten and substantially changed
during photography, with the entire ending changed. Star Donald Woods
was considered too inexperienced for the lead, and on the first day of
shooting he became so nervous that he lost his voice. The movie was
shot in a mere 20 days, on a $135,000 budget. Nonetheless, for Warner
Bros., in 1935, this did not make THE FLORENTINE DAGGER, properly
speaking, a "B," but instead it was intended as an unusual,
high-quality item. 1. Writer Reed and director Florey had already
collaborated in similar capacities on MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE
(Universal, 1932). THE FLORENTINE DAGGER added themes not present in
the Ben Hecht novel but which deepened it considerably. Using a
"pre-noir" style, the consistently strange, unnatural behavior of each
of the performers is augmented by Florey's expressionistic treatment,
with painterly camera-work by Arthur Todd, full of oblique angles, dark
lighting, shadow effects, and composition in depth, heightening moments
of drama and character revelation. Many objets d'art from director
Florey's own collection enrich the set design and enhance the chilling
mood it creates. In a move seldom allowed contract directors, Warner
Bros. permitted Florey to oversee the editing, so that pace, choice of
shots, and narrative all combine together to memorably explore the
psyche of its characters.
Operating on multiple levels, THE FLORENTINE DAGGER delves past a surface mystery into a domain where the apparently dead past intrudes on the present, releasing ungovernable passions. Woods plays a modern descendant of the Borgias, Cesare, driven to the brink of suicide by his belief that he has a dual personality, with his subconscious half inheriting the murderous proclivities of his ancestors. A misogynist psychiatrist, Dr. Lytton (C. Aubrey Smith) suggests Cesare exorcise his internal demons by writing a play on the Borgias, but no sooner has he done so, and been supposedly cured of his obsession, than events shed doubt on the viability of such a cure. Cesare falls in love with leading lady Florence Ballau (Margaret Lindsay), but it appears she is becoming her role--Lucretia Borgia. Florence is accused of murdering her father, theatrical producer Victor Ballau, but in investigating on her behalf, Cesare uncovers a maelstrom of revenge and bitterness stretching back over two decades. While Cesare's fear is the product of his own delusion, others are experiencing deep and far more real psychological turmoil. Victor, at first the apparent victim of a crime, turns out to be far more depraved than even Cesare could imagine. Victor was, in fact, Florence's stepfather, who tried to kill her mother, stage star Teresa (Florence Fair), by setting her dress afire. She survived, hiding her now hideously scarred visage behind a naturalistic mask and impersonating a servant to be with Florence. Not until Victor begins to nearly-incestuously force himself on stepdaughter Florence, having fallen perversely in love with her and jealously attempting to destroy her romance with Cesare, does Teresa finally take vengeance against the patriarchal power that has nearly destroyed the lives of two women. Overhearing Teresa's confession to Cesare, psychiatrist Lytton realizes his theories of patricide have been entirely wrong, and the police inspector in charge of the case allows Teresa, Florence, and Cesare, to escape together--without the compensatory suicide of Teresa called for by the original script and Hays Office policy. Only by assuming that the Hays Office was paying little attention to a modestly-budgeted thriller, whose conclusion was changed in production, can we explain how a film so obviously in violation of the tenets of the code was allowed. Somehow, this film was released, without much recognition by critics of just how unusual it was. Today, The Florentine Dagger can be recognized as one of the truly subversive films of its era, and one whose content would not be accepted in films until at least forty years later, making it decades ahead of its time.
In fact some of the dialogue is so out there it's actually an asset
versus a distraction for this little B mystery film from Warner
Brothers. The stars are all good performers, with Margaret Lindsay
being a 30's post-code favorite actress of mine. But some of that
dialogue - and just some of it - seems like it was produced by title
card writers from 1910. I just don't know how Donald Woods and Margaret
Lindsay could keep a straight face given some of their campy lines.
The story starts with three visitors to the famous abandoned castle of the Borgias in Italy. One is producer Victor Ballau (Henry O'Neill), another is psychiatrist Gerard Lytton (C. Aubrey Smith), and a third is a troubled young man (Donald Woods) who is the last of the Borgias - his namesake is Cesare Borgia to whom he bears a remarkable likeness. The troubled young man, Juan Cesare, attempts suicide to prevent himself from becoming a murderer when he feels the Borgia urge to kill rise up in him. Fortunately his attempt is thwarted by Dr. Lytton. Instead, Juan goes to Vienna where he recovers from his obsessions with his heritage and writes a play for Ballau that is about the Borgias. Juan cannot find the perfect Lucrezia Borgia for his play until he meets Ballau's step-daughter Florence (Margaret Lindsay). The long and short of it is that Victor Ballau winds up dead in his study one night, stabbed to death with one of the Florentine daggers he possesses that once belonged to the Borgias. There are many suspects, and the mystery has many unexpected twists and turns and for that matter, many improbabilities.
One of the goofiest and best things about this film besides its campy dialogue is Robert Barrat's performance as Police Inspector Von Brinkner who is in charge of the murder investigation. Von Brinkner's not a threatening kind of fellow at all, and he's given to all kinds of appetite, usually found to be chewing on brie and the finest food he can scrounge when he isn't chewing scenery, or talking to his girlfriend on the phone. However he turns out to be surprisingly competent and generous. Watch and find out what I mean.
One thing you'll probably note is the precode ending a full year after the production code went into effect. Again, you'll have to watch to find out what I mean, but I just don't know how the censors let this ending stand as it did.
This little programmer from Warner Bros. features a bunch of studio
contract players, all trying to do their best to bring some life into
an unlikely story about a man (DONALD WOODS) who thinks he's inherited
a tendency to kill because he's from a long line of Borgias.
Nevertheless, he's encouraged to write a play about Lucretia Borgia for
the daughter of HENRY O'NEILL, played by MARGARET LINDSAY.
When O'Neill becomes the victim of a stabbing, the plot thickens as Detective Von Brinkner (ROBERT BARRAT) goes about trying to solve the crime. But it's really C. AUBREY SMITH who does most of the snooping to uncover the reason behind O'Neill's vicious death.
However, it's Barrat's lively performance as the playboy detective that gives a lift to the story and a bit of humor that's badly needed.
It's really a B-film struggling to look like an A-film with some proper atmosphere and period settings, but the story is told in dull fashion and never quite becomes as fascinating as the film's imaginative title.
The Florentine Dagger is a strange little film full of atmosphere, but
lacking the acting punch that might have put it over. A story of the
curse of the Borgias in modern-day Vienna opens with three travelers
(Donald Woods, C. Aubrey Smith, and Henry O'Neill) making a trip to a
remote village in Italy where the Borgia castle still stands. The old
inn is full of atmosphere and run my strange people (Charles Judels,
Rafaella Ottiano). They take a tour which allows the viewer to be given
the story of the Borgias' madness and its generational effects. Woods
is Casare Borgia, the spitting image of an ancient ancestor (although
the name is pronounced Cesar throughout the film). Woods decides to end
the madness and orders a drug from the local apothecary. However, Smith
(a psychiatrist) intervenes and tells Woods that the potion is fake.
O'Neill is a famous theatrical producer. So Smith advises that Woods
write a play and purge his Borgia madness. Of course Woods writes a
play about Lucretia Borgia, which O'Neill produces. He also casts his
"daughter" in the lead (Margaret Lindsay). The play is the talk of
Woods and Lindsay fall in love, but O'Neill is stabbed to death with one of the three Florentine daggers we had seen displayed earlier. Woods becomes the main suspect because of his erratic behavior and he is, after all, a Borgia. But Lindsay seems a tad off also. And Smith is always lurking. Enter the local inspector (Robert Barrat), a happy fellow who seems totally uninvolved with the murder case and is always receiving phone calls from Julia. Lindsay had left the play in a rush and is jailed on suspicion of murder. But then there is another dagger attackthis time on Smith. That clears Lindsay. Or does it? The police had let her go. Woods and Smith end up at an auction house, following a wigmaker (Eily Malyon) who buys the candle sticks that were found by O'Neill's body. Everyone converges at the wigmaker's shop and the crime is solved. All very tidy and clever. Barrat threatens to steal the film from the more stolid actors, but his character is too unbelievable, especially as he lets the murderer go free! Go figure.
Paul Porcasi is a police man, Henry Kolker is the auctioneer, Florence Fair is the weird maid, Herman Bing (who has no part) is the baker, Louise Seidel is his assistant, and Frank Reicher is the stage manager. Woods is boring, Lindsay is miscast, and Smith is relatively subdued. Only Barrat and Malyon seem to have much life. Judels serves as the castle your host, but Ottiano seems irrelevant to the story. Makes one wonder about the editing here as Ottiano and Bing have no reasons to be in the story. And the play is a STINKER!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
1935's "The Florentine Dagger" finds director Robert Florey ("Murders in the Rue Morgue") doing a trial run for his 1941 Peter Lorre vehicle "The Face Behind the Mask," only here we never actually SEE the face in question. Sad to say, Donald Woods seems totally out of his depth as a tortured Italian descendant of the infamous Lucrecia Borzia, whose legacy of misdeeds get quite a lot of airtime during the picture's first half. Banishing his suicidal thoughts by scripting a play about his ancestors, he falls in love with the star performer (Margaret Lindsay), who also feels a kinship for the Borgias, which puts her in a bad light when her stepfather (Henry O'Neill) is discovered murdered by a Borzia Florentine dagger. There just aren't enough suspects for the whodunit angle, and Robert H. Barrat's grating comic police captain spends more time eating than investigating. The climax does at least feature some salacious and surprising elements, unusual for any Hollywood product of that time. Newcomer Donald Woods was barely passable in "The Case of the Curious Bride," only marginally better as Perry Mason in "The Case of the Stuttering Bishop" (most effective in "Charlie Chan on Broadway"). Florence Fair appeared in 15 titles that year, as did dependable Frank Reicher, but Ruthelma Stevens, so good opposite Adolphe Menjou in a pair of Thatcher Colt mysteries, is sadly wasted as an acting understudy.
"The Florentine Dagger" is a Warner Brothers film from 1935 starring
Donald Woods, Margaret Lindsay, Henry O'Neill, and C. Aubrey Smith.
Woods plays a descendant of the Borgias who comes to Italy to see the
Borgia castle. Apparently afraid that he has inherited the Borgia
madness, he tries to kill himself with a potion, but the psychiatrist
(Smith) tells him it's fake. He suggests that Woods write a play about
the family and achieve some closure that way. O'Neill plays a producer
who does the play in Vienna, with his daughter (Lindsay) as the lead.
The play is a huge hit, and Woods and Lindsay fall for one another.
When O'Neill is stabbed with a Florentine dagger, Woods becomes the
Very atmospheric for such a small film with some good performances, particularly by Robert Barrat as a police inspector who's quite funny. Lindsay is miscast as this mysterious, goddess-like woman whose performance is the talk of Vienna. A Greta Garbo role in the hands of Margaret Lindsay, a completely different type.
A short film, fairly well done given the budget.
Florentine Dagger, The (1935)
** (out of 4)
Yet another murder/mystery with this time a young play-write (Donald Woods) stopping off in a small village where he meets a beautiful young woman (Margaret Lindsay) who he wants in his latest play. Soon the play is a hit and they want to be married but her father (Henry O'Neill) refuses permission but soon he's found dead with a dagger in his heart. That's pretty much the set-up to this thing but in the end I found the majority of the picture to be downright boring with very little going for it. I've always thought Florey did his best work outside this genre as it just seemed like he never could pull things together very well. I think the biggest problem with this film isn't his direction but instead it's the screenplay that doesn't offer up any decent characters and the weak story is just a major drag. I had a very hard time getting into the film early on simply because the characters were all underwritten and even worse is the fact that the movie itself doesn't really know what it wants to do. Yes, we eventually get the mystery but everything is pretty dry without any small laughs and the romance is pretty boring as well. Woods is usually a very reliable actor but even he seems very bored here as he goes from one scene to another without too much energy and seems to be lacking any type of passion. Lindsay is also pretty bland in his role but so is O'Neill as the soon-to-be-dead father and Robert Barrat does very little with the Inspector role. C. Aubrey Smith is good as the doctor who ends up staying close to Woods. Florey does add a couple nice touches including a rich atmosphere in the house as well as a few other scenes where the darkness does some justice but in the end this thing is just too flat for its own good.
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