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The Ernst Lubitsch "touch" as it would later be known, was altogether
little-known back in 1919 and for the curious looking back into the
director's repertoire, Madame DuBarry is often seen a historical
curiosity rather than a signpost to later greatness. It is my opinion
however that this widely-regarded stance on Lubitsch's first major
motion picture has just as much to do with the quality of prints
available as it does with the feature's tendency to lean on drama more
than comedy. Having recently viewed Eureka's newly- released blu-ray
featuring a crisp new print backed up by a dynamic score by William
Axt, it's clear that although "the touch" is notably lighter (or
darker) than Lubitsch would employ in his films later on in his long
career, there remain many scenes during the film's first hour where the
director plays with his characters and plot in a manner which
explicitly seek to extract laughs rather than varying degrees of
Writers Norbert Falk and Hanns Kraly tell the infamous story of Jeanne Becu, her rise to power's easily-swayed side, and in the end her ultimate fate at the hands of the Reign of Terror. Although they play loose and casually with the real events that the film is based upon, the writers do well in keeping key points together whilst telling a compelling character drama. Historians may well cry humbug, but the story is gripping, amusing and enlightening in spite of its inaccuracies. Lubitsch himself directs the script's calling for epic moments of drama well, though instils just enough humour and light-heartedness to break it up so as to not become overbearing. Lead star Pola Negri establishes herself in a seminal role here, and often makes a lot out of very little. Also of note is Emil Jannings as King Louis XV, Harry Liedtke as Armand De Foix and Reinhold Schünzel as Minister Choiseul who make scenes devoid of Negri as compelling as possible, even though the ham can get a little chewy at times.
This was my first time viewing Madame DuBarry so have no real reference point to other prints of the film other than having history with other silent-era movies with some terrible public- domain versions which never really do the films any justice and at times render them incomprehensible. It's for this reason that I thoroughly recommend viewing the film on Eureka's blu-ray if you have a means to do so. Not just because the image quality is outstanding, but also largely in part for Axt's score which complements the on-screen action superbly. It might not be as light and airy as Lubitsch fans would hope for going this far back, but there's still plenty here to enjoy and strikes a nice balance between lush historical-costume drama and darkly- amusing character piece.
Ernst Lubitsch writes, stars and directs in one of his earliest features Wo ist mein Schatza humble and charming one-note comedy about a man stuck between his rock and a hard place; the mother-in- law. It is, I believe, his earliest surviving feature known about today, and while it doesn't quite showcase the future-famed director's skills quite as strikingly as Madame DuBarry would just a few years later, there's still enough here to make for an amusing and light-hearted half-hour. Louise Schenrich is charming and aloof as Der Gatte's (Lubitsch) easily-tempered wife and Lanchen Voss is notably subdued in her portrayal of a demanding and manipulative mother-in-law. Lubitsch himself is the central star however and his performance is at times a joy to watch, even if his disregard for the "third wall" borders on the absurd. Most importantly though, there's a moral to the story here. Never share a house of matrimony with your lover's mother, and if your wife kicks up about your interest in attending a chess tournament until one in the morning, offer to take up being a barfly instead.
Since the release of his seminal Nanook of the North in 1922, Robert J.
Flaherty has since been affectionately dubbed as the "father of the
documentary", a title which is striking considering he knew almost
nothing with regards to film-making before his expeditions to the north
began in the mid-10s. Somewhat amusingly and very much in contrast to
what Flaherty depicts on screen for his audiences, it's since been
widely known that much of the director's crew (who were in fact native
Inuit and by now favoured rifles over harpoons and spears) knew more
about his crazy Western picture-machine than he did. Despite all the
grumblings and murmurs with regards to Nanook of the North's
authenticity howeverand there's plenty of it, if you lookthere exists
a compelling and fascinating look into a culture and way of life that
was completely alien in 1922 and to this day remains as something to
One of the film's stand-out scenes which involves a long, drawn-out seal hunt shown in one continuous cut, whether completely natural or not, relentlessly draws you in as if it were happening right before your eyes. In restricting his camera to one still shot, devoid of movement or cuts, Flaherty establishes one of the pillars of documentary film-making; to make the puppeteer's hand blend into the background as much as possible. While one may find cause to argue against politically-inclined documentaries or overly-manipulative docu-dramas in regards to their editing, Nanook of the North never really sets out to tell a story in the first place anyway. Instead Flaherty opts to depict, observe and, well, document. Sure, he may depict more than he observes, but the results can nevertheless be marvellous to watch. In terms of modern-day documentaries, the film is almost as barren as the landscapes it showcases; Information is sparse and character, plot or narrative is almost non-existent, or at the very least is contrived. What Nanook offers now is more akin to the icy window on the side of the tribe's igloo. When you first see it, you probably imagine that the view isn't that great from the inside. Frosted over and scraped, it instead provides curious spectators a hazy viewport through which to glance back into a bygone era which itself was peeking over its shoulder, romantically reminiscing of what once was a simpler, more fundamental time for both the Inuit, and the documentary film-maker.
Following their ruinous defeat during the War, Germany found itself in
what is now commonly referred to as the Weimar era. It's a uniquely
fascinating point in the country's history dominated by a stark
contrast between impoverished casualties of war and lavishly wealthy
benefactors soaking in aloof decadence. This divide between societal
poles was not exactly one unlikely to be crossed by any daring enough
to grab a boat and travel the uncertain waters however, and director
Fritz Lang frequently visits this idea throughout his first major
feature film still highly regarded to this day. Bouncing back and forth
between seedy gangsters, the hoity-toity elite and those unfortunate
enough to be tasked with keeping everything in order (the law), Lang
embellishes his film with a unique and varied palette of both character
and tone for its time.
Based on the novel Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler by Norbert Jacques, the story follows psychoanalyst-by-day, underground-criminal-mastermind- by-night Dr. Mabuse as he manipulates his way up the rungs of society seemingly with ease through various nefarious means including stock market manipulation and psychological mind-control during card games at high-profile gambling joints. The central theme here warns of granting overwhelming dominance through terror and misdirection at the hands of a charismatic megalomaniac misleading an already misled and fractured society; a warning that evidently fell on deaf ears before the eventual rise of the national socialists a little more than decade later, at which point Lang promptly packed his bags and headed for the States. While at its heart The Gambler may simply be something of a proto-noir gangster movie with light fantasy elements, lurking somewhere in the foreboding shadows that dominate most the film's sets is a thinly-veiled socio-political commentary that canfor the most partbe a fascinating and engrossing thriller all at the same time.
Mabuse is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, best known these days as Rotwang the Inventor from Lang's most famous film Metropolis released five years following The Gambler. While his performance in the science-fiction epic is limited but nevertheless memorable, it's a true delight to see him take center stage here as he delivers an iconic performance of the mad-but-brilliant Dr. Mabuse. As one of the character's central traits is psychological manipulation which he delivers through various fictional guises to further distract his victims, Klein-Rogge is given plenty of room to jump between personas which vary between the bizarre and ruthlessly callous, all of which he excels in bringing to life vividly. Supporting actors and actresses back up the leading man well, specifically Alfred Abel (also of limited Metropolis fame) and Gertrude Welcker who together play a husband and wife soon at the mercy of Mabuse's twisted puppeteer hands. Bernhard Goetzke is fine as State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk, but his character sticks too closely to convention to make him stand out as anything more than a pawn serving as the plot's catalyst to chug along with its rich character drama.
Those who have seen Metropolis and are less familiar with Lang's earlier works may be surprised or disappointed by the director's more restrained approach to expressionist sets and effects here in The Gambler. While his contemporaries at the time, Murnau (Nosferatu) and Wiene (Caligari), had fervently adopted the popular art movement in their respective films from the early 20s, Lang was still something of a critic and instead opted to lightly season Mabuse, rather than to glaze it every 15 minutes. Nevertheless, much of the film's most memorable and compelling moments arise from these experiments in expressionism that often mirror the film's otherwise dark and brooding atmosphere with surreal imagery that conveys the characters' inner madness, isolation, torment and despair. It's no wonder then that Lang would go on to make Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, each one more expressionist and surreal than the last.
So having said all that, it must also be noted that The Gambler is somewhere near 270 minutes long. What I've highlighted above are areas where around two-thirds of that runtime fully take advantage of what Mabuse has to offer. The other third is more problematic and occurs mostly during its middle section where the cat-and-mouse game between Mabuse and Norbert von Wenk goes around in circles. Though there are highlights here and there, a long stretch of 90 or so minutes occurs that feels like it could have been chopped down to 30 without much consequence other than to make the pace of the film easier to digest. And yes, I know the movie is in fact a two-part deal, but the fact that this means the first movie's ending is lacklustre and the second movie's opening lacks the enthralling immediacy of its predecessor doesn't change anything and still hurts an otherwise well-paced film.
Dr. Mabuse's first outing on the big screen is for the most part a rewarding and compelling experience, but nevertheless presents the viewer with a challenging middle half that tugs along lethargically rather than with the brisk pace that bookends the feature. However frustrating this section can be however, The Gambler remains as a feature that does a lot well and very little poorly. And thanks to a wonderfully memorable performance by Klein-Rogge backed up by an equally haunting atmosphere, rich cast of diverse characters and otherwise thrilling plot, Fritz Lang's 1922 testament to Germany's Weimar era is a captivating classic, not without its flaws, but also not one to be overlooked either.
From as early on as 1913 with Hanns Heinz Ewers' somewhat plodding The
Student of Prague all the way through to Robert Wiene's seminal
Caligari, cinema had been experimenting and teasing with the still-
undefined horror genre, mixing starkly haunting photography with Gothic
macabre stories echoing the works of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe.
While still in a form of relative infancy in 1922, F.W. Murnau takes
another stab at establishing cinema's darker side in the form of
Nosferatu, a film which never quite pushes the boat out as far as Wiene
did two years prior but nevertheless makes a haunting and memorable
experience on its own ground.
As far as vampire stories, legends and big-screen productions go, Murnau's classic film is one that may not frighten quite as much as it might have done but nevertheless still manages to startle with its beautiful photography and otherworldly performances, all the while pushing you unknowingly into an unsettling atmosphere that envelops the imagination during its strongest sequences. Max Schreckwho will perhaps always be most vividly remembered for his portrayal as Count Graf Orlok here more than anything elsemay not be as commanding or entertaining to watch as John Barrymore was a year earlier in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but there are more than a handful of moments where even now almost a century later, Shreck's dead-eyed gaze and stilted, robotic movements are unsettling and haunting to watch.
Where the film tends to suffer is during its middle-half where a lengthy boat ride goes awry. Set largely during the day and lacking the eerie claustrophobic sets that dominate the first and last half- hours, these scenes don't have quite the same amount of grip and only sporadically play with or develop the sense of tension and suspense instilled earlier on. Nevertheless, there's still plenty to take away from the experience as a whole, whether seen for historical, aesthetical or purely entertainment reasons. The film's greatest parts, which are set mostly during the dark hours and feature haunting photography bringing to life a thrillingly dark narrative, would go on to further develop the horror genre into its heydays of the 30s and burn images of horror into the minds of its audiences for decades to come. Today, it's not quite as horrifying, but there's an artistry and distinctly unsettling atmosphere throughout that even the ensuing decades since haven't managed to soften.
When it comes to the world of cinema, there has never been and probably
never will be a bigger villain to make an impact on the screen more
than that ofcue ominous stingerthe studio executive. Our oft
belittled and antagonised hero, the auteur-director-genius, fights for
his art to survive the relentless scissors which hack and cut and
simplify and malign his soul's innermost-visions, his heart's dismays
and his head's vitriol at a world which sneers at the misunderstood,
holier-than-thou artist. The villains play their part well, and live up
to their reputations in more cases than not. However, when watching
Foolish Wives, one can't help but feel that maybe roles have been
reversed for a short while. Erich von Stroheim writes, directs and
stars in his first "grand vision" of a film which somewhat fittingly
focuses on a leading character with no likable qualities or redeeming
features. In the majority of other films, he would be the villain.
Unlike Lon Chaney in 1920s gangster flick The Penalty however, this
doesn't make the rest of Stroheim's bloated film interesting or in any
Watching the movie now, with a mere 140 minutes of footage salvaged from the original six hours, it's plain to see why most of the movie was mercilessly cut to ribbons. Often laboriously indulging in his own elaborate sets and painfully uninteresting characters (with the exception of his own), the film goes on and on, only briefly doing something interesting before succumbing back to mundane trivialities that go nowhere slowly. Stroheim does a fair job at portraying his character as dutifully repugnant as was obviously his intent, and his cast of supporting actors and actresses hand in commanding performances when called upon. But in building this self-indulgent attack on what he saw as European hypocrisy, the director comes off as a bit of a sham himself; talking loudly and endlessly about next to nothing of any real significance other than as a means to stroke his own fragmented ego. The moral of the story? The cutting room floor isn't always where genius and art dies. Sometimes it's where overweight, needlessly self-important films go to heaven. There's probably a decent film here, but it was lost in the seventies, not in the twenties.
When it comes to classic cinema and especially those often bunched into
the "masterpiece" corner, you must prepare yourself when reading
reviews for strong gusts of superlatives and overblown gushing over
minute details. Your shining suit of scepticism should be worn at all
times, weary traveller. Although a fun and enjoyable film, The Kid
which has been met with steady and sustained acclaim since its debut in
1921, you could argue is a good example of such criticism gone awry.
It's a sometimes-amusing and often-heart-warming feature, sure, but a
masterpiece? Not so much. At least not for me. The comedy's plot which
revolves around the Tramp adopting an abandoned orphan from infancy
before fast-forwarding five years where they run a bit of a racket
together, is light and fluffy and has a distinct charm permeating the
interactions between the two actors.
But aside from a few sight gags and one touching piece of drama, there's not much else to be had from the experience and by the time it reaches the 40 minute mark, feels a bit winded. So much so that Chaplin tacks on a bizarre dream sequence seemingly to fill up some time. Critics often praise this scene as "out of the box" and "daring" and they're right. What they often overlook however is the fact that it's rather useless and superfluous to the already very little going on. It's no surprise to find out that The Kid came at a time when Chaplin was creatively bankrupt and had been so for quite some time. This scene in particular along with the more famous abduction scene are key examples of where film criticism seems ardently opposed to calling a good film a good film instead of throwing more unwarranted praise into an already overflowing river of rose-tinted admiration.
The abduction scene which I reference is great, yes, and rich in pathos, but claims of it being the most emotive scene in a comedy, nay film in general (yes this is claimed, believe it or not) are about as grounded as Chaplin's take on whether dogs go to heaven or not. The Kid is a lovely and charming miniature film with affecting performances resulting in some good laughs here and there that must have raised roofs in 1921, but that's it. Nothing else. Anybody who tells you there's more to it than that is probably just as likely to make an argument for swapping your mortgage in exchange for a 100- year-old bottle of wine. Because it's distinguished, it's cultured, it's a classic and you obviously just don't get the whole picture. Instead I'll let you in on a little secret. It's a good film as I've said, maybe even great, but it's certainly not the masterpiece it's so often regurgitated to be. Let's move on.
When it comes to silent cinema, it's often relayed by newcomers that
getting past the sound (or lack thereof) barrier is one that is
difficult or near-impossible to do. Indeed, I remember my first venture
into the silent realm and well, let's just say I wasn't convinced and
moved away for near-on a decade. It goes without saying that, now with
more than a handful of silent films (many now among my all-time
favourite movies) under my belt, it's probably best to appreciate that
some of cinema's forgotten treasures are easier to digest in a modern
world than others. Or, at least for the uninitiated. The Phantom
Carriage, I'd like to think, is one of those that crosses the barrier
with ease. Whether through its imaginative storytelling, compelling
visual effects that even a CGI-laden teenager might decree as
"impressive", or the mere pace at which the film moves along; Victor
Sjöström's 1921 classic is surely a film with no limitations set merely
by its year of production.
Firstly there's the plot which, although has been beaten to death on screens for the past 90 or so years, is one that is readily engaging and compelling to this day. Echoing more famous films made later down the line such as It's A Wonderful Life or Scrooge among many others, Sjöström's adaptation of Nobel prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf's 'Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!' (the fourth adaptation of Lagerlöf's novels by Sjöström and A-B Svenska Biografteatern) is a wonderfully- told moralistic epic that swoons, sways, crashes and burns as each of the film's characters play out their parts in what is, for the most part, a very grim and starkly depressing story. It's also a tale steeped in mysticism and fantasy, and while I'm usually rather prickly when it comes to such works, when done as well as it is here you can't help but be whisked along quite willingly for 100 minutes or so. It had some small hurdles in getting green-lit back in the day because of certain touchy belief-systems, but eventually the studio decided it would better served facing the wrath of an omniscient deity than Selma Lagerlöf. A wise choice indeed.
As a direct result of the plot's reliance on the supernatural and occult, Phantom Carriage also boasts visual effects that far-exceeded anything else on screens at the time in terms of realism and clarity. Even on the newly-released Criterion blu-ray the scenes involving ghostly phantoms look stunning, even though the HD format has a tendency to do the exact opposite, often drawing attention to the primitive techniques used at certain points in history. On the flip side of the coin however, Lagerlöf's story isn't merely about ghosts in the literal sense; in fact, it probably spends more time developing and exposing the emotional phantoms that haunt its characters during their waking lives. Sjöström excels here also, blending powerful but natural performances from his more than capable cast (which includes himself in the lead role) with the detailed and strikingly-lit photography of Julius Jaenzon to cast light and shadows upon the characters' emotive faces, and most importantly, their conflicted hearts. Cinematographers were doing great work already across many studios at the time, and while The Phantom Carriage stands out as one of the very best, it's the realistic and very-seldom melodramatic performances led by Sjöström himself that break the standard for 1921 more than anything else.
Rounding out the package on the restored Criterion release are two soundtracks, one of which I haven't heard at this time. The first is a fantastic chamber orchestra score penned by Matti Bye in 1998. It's not your typical silent-movie score by any means; often it will delve into bizarre interludes and stanzas that mirror the action well, but never distract from the film. The second, which I haven't gotten around to yet, is an experimental piece by KTL recorded for a Tartan DVD release in 2008. From what I've read elsewhere it's even better than Matti Bye's, and if it furthers Phantom Carriage's already strong ability to step out of its 95-year-old history and appeal to modern audiences, then by all means. Overall, I cannot recommend this one enough. Compelling and highly emotive character fantasy-drama, start to finish.
If not the very first to reach a wide audience, Wallace Worsley's The
Penalty survives to this day certainly at least as one of the more
memorable and enjoyable proto-noir gangster thrillers from the mid-to-
late silent era. Featuring engrossingly dark imagery throughout, a
wonderfully gritty plot line filled with characters blooming from a
pre-code era and a sense of pace in editing and direction so brisk you
might have to look twice at its production date; The Penalty has plenty
going for it but by far its best feature lies in the magnetic and
grotesquely alluring performance of its lead star Lon "the man of
one-thousand faces" Chaney.
Committing fully to his role as a man wrongly crippled at a young age by inept Dr. Ferris in the late 1890s, Chaney is so convincing in his role that viewers unfamiliar with his more famous works could be forgiven for Googling his name to find out if he really did have legs or not. Apparently the apparatus he wore to achieve the effect (which he had to insist on wearing against the studio's reported resistance) left him with lasting back problems for the remainder of his life. Whether true or not, the result is nevertheless a marvel to watch as his character of Blizzarda brilliantly creative, megalomaniac-kingpin of sortshobbles his way in and out of people's lives, playing their strings all the while grinning sardonically with facial contortions likely to strip paint off walls.
When Blizzard begins to enact on a long-dreamt-of plan of retribution against the now-successful Ferris however, it's the inclusion of the doctor's daughter Barbara that allows the audience to see briefly the sadness and morose qualities underneath the surface of the crime- lord's chagrined demeanour. Chaney nails both sides of the coin equally well, despite the film's best and most enjoyable moments resulting from Blizzard's more-often-than-not irritable and ill- tempered outbursts. Then there are the moments where the character switches back and forth like a light switch. During an early scene, Blizzard, while playing a wonderfully sombre and melancholic classical piano piece, begins: "I shall be the master of a city! And for my mangled years the city shall pay mewith the pleasures of a Nero and the power of a Caesar!" The contrast here is palpable, and were it in the hands of a lesser talent, may have come off stilted or jarring for the wrong reasons.
On the other hand, the picture is by no means without its flaws. It's sometimes a little too melodramatic for its own good, specifically during the last 10 or so minutes. Furthermore, some plot lines go nowhere interesting, and the overall wrap-up is misguided and rushed to the point where it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, even though it does boast the best line in the film. As a package however, I would recommend at least one viewing. Much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde released a few months prior, the performance of its lead star is worth the time invested alone. Unlike said film however, The Penalty still has plenty else going for it outside of Chaney whether it's from the performances of the supporting cast or the brisk direction by Worsley cut with incisive, well-written and paced intertitles.
If you do seek out the film, again I would recommend the newly restored blu-ray which has been respectfully scanned and cleaned up by the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department and released by Kino. The disc also features a score composed by Rodney Sauer performed by the Mont Alto Orchestra which bounces off and compliments the film beautifully to the point where they actually bring piano melodies played by Blizzard alive as he muses over his plans to conquer San Francisco by force. It's a nice touch and much like Chaney strapping his legs behind his thighs, brings a level of commitment and dedication that gives an extra spark to already bright and highly enjoyable film.
Alongside Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, Robert Louis Stevenson's
novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a work that has
spawned many screen adaptations, yet predates both, the first of which
dating as far back as 1908. Widely considered one of, if not the best
of the bunch, John S. Robertson's seminal 1920 proto-horror classic is
mostly remembered for one thing above all others. Played by an
endlessly captivating John Barrymore, the characters of Jekyll and more
importantly Hyde, are brought intoor returned toexistence with
contrasting shades of elegance and pure ham-fisted grotesque in a
performance that many point to as Barrymore's first 80 minutes of
brilliance. Relying on little to no makeup for some of Hyde's
appearances, the actor merely uses his face as a means of creeping the
hell out of you as he stares enigmatically through the lens with eyes
watering with madness and depravity. Simply put, it's the stuff of
nightmares and silent-horror gold.
Outside of these murky, lusty, greasy scenes featuring Barrymore's crazed shuffle and psychotic debaucheries however, there's only a few other aspects of the film which draw quite the same amusement and/or repulsion. Overbaugh's photography does well in capturing said scenes, often sticking on Barrymore's close-ups for long periods of time, his face serving somewhat hauntingly as our only source of light in a sea of overwhelming shadow. There's also a great specials effects sequence involving a gargantuan spider crawling up the far-end of Jekyll's bed which, even now some 95 years later, is very strikingly uncomfortable to watch. Furthermore, set designs shake up the nihilistic, slimy pre- code undertones of the feature well enough, always maintaining a sense of darkness and gloom that pervades Jekyll's world, though perhaps not quite as convincing as Griffith's depiction of Victorian London in Broken Blossoms.
Overall though, there's a sense that without Barrymore, there wouldn't be much left to pick at here. Perhaps it's a natural result of being all-too-familiar with the source material that the plot seems shallow and a bit lacklustre. But regardless of the reasoning, Robertson's version here is competent at best when John "the profile" Barrymore is either not present, or not being allowed to ham it up. It's more than worthy of a watch though, if only to enjoy the performance of its lead star. If you do, be sure to catch the newly restored blu-ray version released in 2004 which features a great Rodney Sauer score performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra that mirrors the feature's action superbly.
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