This was an interesting experience, as this was the longest film, at nearly three hours, I've yet seen without subtitles in my native language. At school, I studied at one time or another both French and Spanish, the languages that the title cards in this silent film appear in the available surviving print available online, but that doesn't mean I retained much of any of it. This was truly a silent-film experience, too, as no score was provided. It was an active and quiet endeavor not unlike when I read the novel "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas, from which this film was adapted. And, it's a good thing I remembered the book; since the film is relatively faithful, it was easy enough to follow the plot and characters even if my memories of French and Spanish eluded me. In another sense, however, it's the opposite of reading, where one would imagine from the prose a visual picture in the mind's eye. Here, by contrast, I viewed the visual narrative presented to me while I imagined what the words meant.
Although I have no plans to beat this personal near-three-hours record--I already found subtitles for the nearly-four-hours-long 1929 French version of "Monte Cristo" next on my watchlist--I did rather enjoy the experience. It's also a reminder of how universal the art form was during the silent era. Even with a picture such as this one where there is a normal amount of titling, as opposed to, say, the nearly-wordless "The Last Laugh" (1924), it's far easier for illiterates in whatever language such as me to comprehend the picture. Of course, it helps that I'm familiar with the original text, as well as other cinematic adaptations, but silent films generally rely on an entire system of visual codes that were abandoned when talkies took over. With the emergence of some classical continuity editing, such that is evident here, the broad gesticulation invented for the distant spectator of the stage was also replaced by subtler movements and expressions.
While this "The Count of Monte Cristo" was originally a serial, of 15 episodes according to IMDb trivia, which I suppose would equal out to one chapter per reel of film, it wasn't a serial of the classic cliffhanger variety and so in the print that's available today where the entire series is of one piece with few to no obvious chapter indications, it plays like a normal, albeit long, feature-length film. This neatly reflects the history of the publication of Dumas's book, which in a common practice of yore, first began printing in serialized form of eighteen parts in a newspaper (and over three years, from 1844 to 1846, as was this film, reportedly, from 1917 to 1919) before it became renowned in the novel form we know today, although, of course, it still contains chapters. As for the film's print available on the web today, its presentation unfortunately contains a watermark in the upper right corner. The print has also faded to the point of being noticeably too dark at times--especially evident as there is more early use of low-key lighting here than in some contemporary films. There's also some bleeding whites of the picture.
Even at three hours, this adaptation still required considerable condensing of the mammoth and intricate text. As with many movies, it's evidently more an adaptation of stage versions than it is of the book. Hence, Napoleon himself makes an appearance even though it undermines claims of innocence in the letter affair by the protagonist, Edmond Dantès, and, as the Count, he receives his own sword fight. The biggest alteration is probably the dropping of the entire subplot involving Villefort's family: his father's Bonapartism, his daughter's romance with Morrel's son, and all of the poisoning stuff. Indeed, most adaptations make significant changes or completely nix these details. Unfortunately, in this case, it results in a surprisingly abrupt ending, especially for such a long film. Often, movies add a Hollywood romantic ending to resolve such discrepancies, but this one doesn't even end with the Count in the scene.
We do see more of Edmond's aliases, though, besides the Count, including him in disguise as Englishman Lord Wilmore and as priest Abbé Busoni. Although it's, probably unintentionally, hilarious, Dantès even wears a fake mustache as the Count, which is appreciable as a specifically-visual adaptation. Instead of revealing his true identity through long speeches, as per the prose, he merely tears off the mustache while inquiring whether the subjects of his revenge remember him. I could do without the many close-ups of the Count's constipated looks in one direction or another to reflect his thinking in scenes, too, but I like that the filmmakers were intent on visually adapting the text (especially since the title cards are in French and Spanish), and it's demonstrative of the somewhat subtler, less theatrical acting here than in many prior, more stage-bound films.
The film, overall, is interesting as a reflection of cinema at a time of transition from a tableau style to one of classical continuity editing. Perhaps, the tradition dating back to the early cinema of Georges Méliès, who introduced dissolves as transitions between every shot-scene in many of his ostentatiously-theatrical films, helps explain the technique's inconsistent appearance in this film, with shots being intermittently divided by either dissolves or direct cuts with no apparent rhyme or reason. Similarly, some scenes feature decent scene dissection, as well as (unlike the 1922 Hollywood "Monte Cristo") some camera pans and other movement, cutting between different angles and from longer to closer views of character interactions and with inserted close-ups or medium shots, while compositions also tend to retain a deep-staging aesthetic typical of early 1910s cinema where mise-en-scène was valued over montage. There's a good amount of background-to-foreground blocking and figure movement in this one. There also seems to be a bit of an odd mix between cutting on action and scene abbreviation (e.g. when the bodies are switched in prison) beside other scenes that play out in the dated fashion of the operational aesthetic, where scenes play cover and are played out until every action is completed (such as the series of X's marking the spot to lead him to the treasure).
My favorite shot occurs shortly after the two-hour mark, when Mercédès meets Dantès in his Count disguise for the first time. We first see her enter the scene behind a window or frame from the background, while the Count and the others occupy the foreground action. The scene also employs two aspects we don't sense, with sound, as Mercédès hears the familiar voice, and space outside the frame, as she momentarily exits the frame before re-entering it in the foreground space. The beauty of this composition is that it frames her, first, as a sort of mise-en-abyme (I know, more French words), separating the past of Edmond and Mercédès as lovers before reuniting them in the front of the present, him the avenging Count and her a mother married to one of his betrayers.
I've also read how the "The Cheat" (1915), with its studio-built "Rembrandt lighting" was especially influential on French filmmaking. Such may be reflected in this "Count of Monte Cristo." Even in the faded print, it's evident that there's a considerable amount of low-key lighting effects--maybe even too much. Sometimes this includes use of seemingly diegetic lighting, such as an alley view of Fernand with his face highlighted by a street lamp, or a lamp illuminating Villefort's office in another scene. Even though it makes me wonder why they didn't try an escape route that way, the barred windows in the prison scenes are reflected by sunlight onto the cell walls. A few years before "Nosferatu" (1922), although perhaps not as well staged as that film's famous shadowy cinematography, there's a scene where the Count's hand casts a shadow on the three seated targets of his revenge, as though his silhouette were attempting to choke them.
I'm not big on writing articulate conclusions, either, so in the spirit of the film's abrupt ending, I'll just say it was worth the effort in my quest to see a bunch of filmic transmutations since reading the book to put in the effort to view this early and relatively obscure adaptation.
1 out of 1 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.