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Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)
I feel that Fields works best here when he's engaged in the comedy de la domestic, specifically during the movie's opening 15 minutes where's caught between "burglars singing in the cellar" and his incessantly nagging wife played by a very convincing Kathleen Howard howling in the bedroom. Fantastic, hilarious stuff. The remainder of the film is more hit and miss. There are two collisions, one with a bicycle and the other with a large man. The misses are his secretary played by Fields' real-life mistress Carlotta Monti, and his daughter played by the ever alluring and sweet Mary Brian. But enough about that, who's for some applejack?
Madame DuBarry (1919)
The fall of Becu and the rise of Lubitsch
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 pathos.
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.
Wo ist mein Schatz? (1916)
An Amusing Evening of Chess
Ernst Lubitsch writes, stars and directs in one of his earliest features Wo ist mein Schatz—a 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.
Nanook of the North (1922)
An Icy Glimpse into the Past
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 however—and there's plenty of it, if you look—there 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 behold.
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.
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922)
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 can—for the most part—be 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.
Why did you kill them... the lovely flowers...?
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 Schreck—who will perhaps always be most vividly remembered for his portrayal as Count Graf Orlok here more than anything else—may 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.
Foolish Wives (1922)
In need of a good cut
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 of—cue ominous stinger—the 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 way enjoyable.
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.
The Kid (1921)
Fun, amusing and humble
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.
Is it any wonder I cry?
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.
The Penalty (1920)
When Satan fell from Heaven he looked for power in Hell
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 Blizzard—a brilliantly creative, megalomaniac-kingpin of sorts—hobbles 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 me—with 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.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
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 into—or returned to—existence 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.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Legacy of Caligari
Between the varying and conflicting production testimonies of its many players, the endless bizarre legends and anecdotes serving as catalysts for various design and creative choices; between all this there is a small, independent, seminal art-house movie that premiered in 1920 to resounding accolades, praise and most importantly for all involved, money. It was a success that surprised most of the people involved, but looking back at Caligari almost a century forward, it's easy to see how the film was at first universally adopted as revolutionary, and then analysed to death by scholars over the coming decades to the point where the actual film—that is, as a work of interpretive art and not something that desperately requires classification and resolute distinction in terms of motivations, political ideology, historical placement, influence and social stature —is often overshadowed by its lasting legacy as something more than just that.
Rather than drive myself to madness attempting to unwrap the mystery of Janowitz, Mayer and Wiene's unending battle of dispute over who did what and why and where, I instead prefer to see Cabinet for what it is; a deceptively straight-forward murder-mystery that exists in a world of irregular angles and avant-garde design. And I'm not just referring to the movie's expressionist scenery which is, of course, what makes the most immediate impression on a first viewing. I'm also alluding to the twisted, dream-like state in which the characters move within their world, almost as if they were one in the same. You could argue, in fact, that they are cut from the same piece of cloth that never wants to settle down in a neat little arrangement until you wish to make use of it. Instead, both the characters and the world in Caligari demand your immediate attention from the very beginning and in a strange way it's hard to draw your attention elsewhere, even if everything does seem a bit otherworldly, strange and abstract.
If you're looking for some sort of synopsis from this review, then best leave now. It's a relatively simple affair as I pointed out before, but even then there are many differing interpretations. My own is not in fact my own. Others share it, and it's relevant to us as individuals who see the movie the way we do, but the details of such a view aren't important to you as someone who—potentially—hasn't seen the film yet. Anyone else who has already seen it, more than likely already knows, or doesn't care. What is important, is simply the distinction that exists between Caligari and many films that came before it. It's open-ended, open to debate and, once more, refuses to be consolidated merely to straight, perpendicular angles with only one logical conclusion. This aspect, along with the overall style, atmosphere and artistic merit of the feature is what makes it special.
On paper, it's nothing special, and by no means do I loft it as highly as other film historians, scholars or enthusiasts. Let me be clear. I'm not one to automatically prescribe "genius" to trailblazing films ahead of their time for that fact alone. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a great film, and an extremely important and influential one for sure. But it's not the pinnacle of the movement it begins. It's not perfect, and no, I don't believe it to be a masterpiece. Masterpieces are timeless, and while it's very easy to watch and enjoy Caligari a century on, it's still mostly important because of the time in which it was produced. Again, it's a simple affair. Simple, but extremely effective. So much so that it caused a cinematic revolution, the echoes of which we still hear today.
The Soldier and the Poet
A truly underrated gem if ever there was one, J'Accuse, which comes from now renowned film-maker Abel Gance, is a striking, powerful and deeply moving wartime drama that packs punches, dances with the roses and howls at the moon all in the course of 160 minutes. Now known for works that came in the decade following the first World War, Gance establishes himself here in 1919 as a director willing to learn from his peers and do one better. Indeed, audiences at the time were more than firmly on his side. "Your name in England is, at present, more famous than Griffith's", an anecdote that rings true after watching J'Accuse in its most readily complete form available today thanks to the brilliant work in collaboration by Flicker Alley, Turner Classic Movies and Lobster Films in doing a terrific job restoring the film to its rightful, stylised beauty on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Set, produced and featuring actual footage shot on battlefields of World War I, Gance's seminal work here strives to do many things at once and while there are plenty who will argue he tries too much (or at least doesn't leave enough on the cutting room floor), I argue that with a few minor exceptions, J'Accuse is successful in its quest to marry poetry with war and terror with beauty, with a horizon that never seems to show itself. Sure, it's certainly guilty of being a bit overly-lofty at times. And yes, cutting back and forth between the film's two heavily-contrasted plots can be jarring, but I hardly think this was out of step with Gance's intentions. The film's theme essentially boils down to the blind getting in the way of each other and those lucky enough to have eyes thinking it best to ignore said unfortunates in order to get on with their own problems or indulgences in peace. By applying the juxtaposition of a serene, idyllic French countryside love-triangle against the harsh, cold grasp of war and death, the director sets up his idea, carries it forward and succeeds in bringing it to a very affecting close.
I would be amiss in failing to mention two other key players in J'Accuse's success however, and those are cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel and the Robert Israel Orchestra who were commissioned for the restoration's soundtrack. Burel takes Gance's direction and runs with it. The battlefields are gloomy and frightening, the French countryside bright and warm to the eyes. Furthermore, whether it was under Burel's direction or not is unclear but, the film's various intertitle designs and abstract live-action imagery (the most striking perhaps occurring early on when family members prepare to leave their loved ones) make a profound emotional impact and showcase tonal photography techniques and styles not even Griffith had dreamed up yet, much of which is still utilised today in movies favouring mood and atmosphere. Lastly, the Robert Israel Orchestra punctuate Burel's photography with melancholic sweeping piano keys and piercing, wounded strings to round out one of the finest and most striking examples of silent-era cinema at its best.
D.W. Griffith is known primarily for three of his biggest and most well-budgeted features and this is arguably the last of said trilogy. Poor Griffith. He came out with something rich in what he called patriotism and others simply tagged racist. So he decided to try something else, and then got slammed for being too lavish, ambitious and preachy. Finally along comes Broken Blossoms, a modest and earthly melodrama based for the most part within tiny, claustrophobic rooms where the weight of grief and suffering outnumber that of the bricks in the walls enclosing its victims. You couldn't be blamed for thinking it had a tenth of the budget of his first film, but you'd be wrong. In actuality his most expensive film to date, it's also perhaps his most ambitious in terms of characterisation and back-to-basics storytelling, albeit wrought with growing-pains as a result.
Set in what one could assume is Victorian-era London boiling over with strife and hard times, Broken Blossoms centres around hapless and sullen victim Lucy, daughter of professional boxer Burrows who often gets overly mad (for reasons never truly justified) before proceeding to take it out on his timid daughter in between beating people up for money and then spending said money on alcohol and women. Cue "The Yellow Man", a Chinese Buddhist who runs a shop, enjoys noodles and tea and has nothing to give but peace, love and a healthy dose of Eastern wisdom-slash-actually-it's-just-Confucius-speaking. He falls in love with Lucy, professes his "pure love" for her and Burrows goes pufferfish for a bit because he's a bit of a xenophobe.
In terms of film in the modern sense, it's all a bit of a saccharine, melodramatic mishap with very basic characterisation and drama more akin to a higher-class pantomime. However, considering its time and the films that came before, Griffith can't really be blamed for this one. And for the moments where the film does manage to tug on your heart strings through Lillian Gish's various degrees of insanity, desperation and endearing naivety, there's a charm here that many clamoured to see more of when they fell in love with Intolerance's modern-day segments. Various points do go overboard with the melodrama however, such as many moments where Lucy forces a smile whereupon she pushes up the corners of her lips in order to please those who obviously cannot see her tragic, wounded soul. It's this mundanely childish backdrop that spoils an otherwise forward-thinking and genuinely moving film. It's grating and sums up the movie well, however.
And yet, for every moment of wistful melancholia steeped in lukewarm, melodrama soup, there's always an overriding atmosphere that broods and overwhelms the movie's more irksome features. From the harsh, foggy London streets to the endlessly amusing fight scenes involving Burrows, Broken Blossoms is very much Intolerance without the historical sidestories or light-heartedness of its central love story, mixed with the character dynamics of Birth of a Nation. It's for this reason that those in the camp of finding Griffith's first major film a little too much to stomach, usually find at least either this film or his previous to be more to their liking. Personally I enjoy the more analytical and grander of the two to this one, but for those wanting more of said film's modern act, it should be no surprise if this is more up their alley. It can be a little broad at times, and often tries too hard to be frail and grim, but there's still plenty to love whether it's in Gish's wonderful performance or simply just in appreciating the stark change of pace from Griffith that favours tone and character over grand historical stories, huge elaborate sets and line-in-the-sand political statements.
The Blue Bird (1918)
Never Really Gels Together
The Blue Bird, an American silent fantasy film based on a play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck, in many ways can and will be compared to the much more renowned and known 1939 classic Wizard of Oz. From animals given the forms of humans, to the whimsical, otherworldly sets and surreal, almost poetic narrative, the film certainly doesn't lack imagination. However, while this at times can work to the film's benefit, Maurice Tourneur at times seems to get a little carried away with his imagery and forgets to keep the story moving along. There's an extended stretch somewhere between the half- way point and final five minutes where the film indulges in its sense of whimsy and fantasy to the detriment of the story's central plot line. Sure, it's more of a moralistic play than an A-to-B-to-C kind of story, I can see that clearly and Tourneur certainly plays to his strengths as an artist first. What lets the work down though is that the end result resembles a half-baked pastiche of ideas and themes rather than single, always-moving, cohesive film. This is where the resemblance to the 1939 classic stops. It may be as visually impressive (for its much earlier time), but what is lacks is a gripping and compelling story. It's fine, sure, but at the same time lacks any real punch or lasting, memorable moments.
Terje Vigen (1917)
Interesting Mood Piece
A Man There Was tells the story of Terge Vigen, a Swedish seaman played by director Victor Sjöström who plucks up the courage to take on the British Empire's naval blockade of trade routes which in turn is slowly starving out his small village, wife and child. Set mostly amid the chaotic northern sea and coastlines, Sjöström creates a wonderfully moody and sombre atmosphere throughout filled with strife and tension, an impressive and fitting soundtrack (on the 2008 DVD version), distilled by beautiful intertitles taken from a Henrik Ibsen poem. Although it has its moments and overall is an enjoyable feature, its short runtime, sometimes plodding pacing and lack of significant plotting stop the movie from ever truly taking off beyond being a mere mood piece.
Cinema's First Masterpiece
If watching Birth of a Nation could be likened to ordering soup at a restaurant, appreciating the fine china bowl it's contained in but nevertheless sending it back because it lacked any warmth, D.W. Giffith's so-called "apologetic" follow-up is akin to the waiter coming back with something far more appetising. Often hailed as a film "you must see once", Intolerance I argue is a film you should not only see once, and from a reputable source (I cannot recommend the blu-ray highly enough, most of all for the wonderful presentation of Carl Davis' rigorous 1989 score) but also then treasure for the rest of your movie-watching days.
Telling four simultaneous stories that interlock with a despairing narrative throughout, the film cuts back and forth with tension, action, suspense and spectacle like nothing that had been seen before. Yes, more-so even than the much more widely lauded Birth of a Nation. The weakest and most superfluous of the stories, featuring the rise and fall of Jesus of Nazareth, is tepid and never really gets going. You get the sense that Griffith merely wanted a biblical bow to tie around the trimmings of his movie to give it extra moralist oomph. While he never quite succeeds in doing so, the segments are thankfully given very little screen time for us to really get frustrated over. The second of the bunch, a French Renaissance piece revolving around the lead up to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, has its moments, but again mostly plays second fiddle to the larger plays at hand.
The two centrepiece stories set in modern 1916 and Babylonian 539BC are where the film's real meat resides and exist to showcase the film's dualism in starkly contrasting two completely different eras of mankind's history which are plagued by all-too-familiar human flaws. Contrasting the huge sets of Babylonia with the small, claustrophobic rooms of modern 1916 whilst effectively telling the same story on different scales, Griffith strikes a firm balance between raw emotional storytelling and thrilling ideological battles fought with religion, money, power and morality. And while the two least interesting stories never really amount to anything revelatory on their own, in employing the same cross-cutting seen in Birth of a Nation's climactic sequences, Intolerance comes to a gripping and cohesive conclusion ripe with pathos and stark imagery thanks to their intricately interwoven nature.
While reports of Intolerance being Griffith's act of atonement for his previous effort are often regarded as folly, regardless there exists a warmth to it that was absent in Nation. Grander, more outward-looking in terms of scale and ideology, and most importantly presented with an artistry that propels the work further and with more lasting, readily- appreciated value. From the epic sets and casts of extras sprawling around each other in death and dance, to the smallest, most intricate moments of sorrow and inner-turmoil, Intolerance is not only the first truly great film in cinematic history, but to this day remains as a rare example of film existing as a form of classically-tuned art. Art with a pulse, a heart and a desire. See it once, sure, but I guarantee you'll be back for one more rock of the cradle.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Birth of Film-Based Propaganda.
It is often said that there are two sides to every story and The Birth of a Nation is certainly one of the most extreme examples that can be pointed to in evidence of this case. The film is split into two parts, the first of which covers the brief lead up to, effective dramatisation and culmination of the American Civil War. This part showcases all of Griffith's strongest capabilities as a director for the time in which he served American film-going audiences so early on. Although he tends to use special camera effects more for portraying vast scenes of action rather than intimate, reflective moments of beauty, the director nevertheless draws on works like Dante's Inferno and Calibria for inspiration in this regard. And while not quite as revolutionary as you may be lead to believe by other critics, his style and choice of editing amongst other aspects was at least revolutionary when shown in 1915 on American silver screens. There's no doubt about it, The Birth of a Nation is a well-made film.
But then, there's the second part which deals in the aftermath of the Civil War and serves less as a historically-inclined action blockbuster and more of a narrow-minded piece of American culture that unfortunately wasn't just the viewpoint of one man. Indeed, although titled "Birth of a Nation", one could argue that the film rather serves as the birth of film-based propaganda, purely because of this act. Rather fittingly, the film's second act opens with a disclaimer of sorts that vaguely echoes the now all-too-familiar refrain uttered by closet-bigots of "I'm not racist, but " before moving on swiftly to do nothing but demonise one skin colour and anglicise the other. But still, it's not as if Griffith suddenly stops making a good film. He just stops making a morally-sound one, and this is where things get tricky.
On a personal level, I thought the film was distasteful, but mostly engaging. One could argue that maybe such levels of engagement might not have been present if not for the eye-popping, jaw-dropping content and points of view, but Griffith's skills as a film-maker are nevertheless undoubted. The problem is, as a reviewer, who do you recommend this film to? I'd love to say film enthusiasts, but to be honest, I'm probably never going to watch this film again and feel that all things considered, wouldn't have missed out on that much had I gave it a pass. Also, what is it that makes a film "good" or "worth watching" in the first place? This depends upon the individual. For some it's about the stars, others the acting or the plot or the special effects or something else. Many people wonder why The Birth of a Nation is as widely-available and openly praised as an all-time great when at the same time it is as deeply flawed at its moral core as it is. The thing is that critics tend to favour aesthetic and a film being well-made is merely enough to make it worth seeing. That's fine and works for many modern works, but for something as out-of-time as this, it can lead to some problems. Namely that they in-turn end up recommending something vulgar and hateful, racist and bigoted.
So while I can appreciate and understand what makes Giffith's work here such a classic and well-made piece of cinema history, I also find it impossible to sit back and merely ignore everything that's wrong with it, which is a hell of a lot. The Birth of a Nation is surely a spectacle and does plenty of things right, but its naivety and narrow- mindedness about its central views trouble it to the point of bringing down the structure that props it up so loftily. Which is a shame, because at its core is a brilliantly executed tour de force that does what American cinema had never done before, and in some regards, thankfully never did again quite so heedlessly.
Cinema's First Worthwhile Outing
There's something magical and alluring about Cabiria that goes above and beyond the sum of its hit-and-miss elements. Beautifully sprawling sets depicting ancient times with stunning detail and imagination serve as the backdrop to characters that jump out from the screen in a way that had yet been achieved anywhere else. In more ways than one, Cabiria strikes many a resemblance to Dante's Inferno from a few years prior, but tops said film on just about every count. Perhaps the most vivid comparison between the two lies in its special effects. While Inferno's imagery strived for biblical grandeur, Cabiria instead delivers something that's more artistic and frail. Sure, there are scenes which focus mostly on disaster and action, but it's the movie's dabbling in dream-like effects and romantic imagery that gives it the upper hand. By no means is everything perfect, however. It has to be said that moments of banality and obtuse, incomprehensible plotting occur more frequently in between moments that either awe you with spectacle or woo you with charm. Nevertheless, the film still manages to make its mark well, standing out vividly from its early cinematic siblings thanks to its more straight-forward subplots which more often than not cease any yawns beginning to surface. Perhaps most staggering of all is the film's scope, not just in ambition and bravado, but in its ability to strike genuine pathos. Whether it's moments of comic relief, tragic despair or sheer thrill, Cabiria gripped me from time to time in ways that earlier features failed to do. Definitely worth at least one watch for curious cinephiles and in my opinion is the first truly worthwhile entry in cinema's awkward infancy years.
Der Student von Prag (1913)
Flashes of greatness trapped within a cloud of nothing
The Student of Prague tells the story of young Balduin, a charismatic and devoted "swordsman" who is a bit out his luck in the financials and gets a bit morose as a result. Along comes creepy old Scapinelli who eventually (20 minutes into the film) strikes a deal with Balduin which grants him anything he wants in exchange for a large sum of gold. This is the real meat of the story, but unfortunately seems more like a subplot to the romance that too often takes centre stage between Balduin and a rich countess named Margit. What results is a sporadically engrossing "horror" movie mixed with a very slow-moving and tepid romance which goes nowhere. By the time we get to the film's inevitable conclusion, we realize it could have been told in half the time and with greater results had it not devoted much of its time to going nowhere with a love story that neither develops nor endears. Sure, Paul Wegener's loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson is an important one in terms of independent, expressionist cinema, but is it worth watching now? Not really. You're better going straight to Caligari rather than stopping by to read the history of each bus stop on the way. It's occasionally interesting, and somewhat of a maverick for the times, but too mundane and plodding on the whole to make it the classic it ought to be.
The Kid Brother (1927)
Although there is a lot to like in Harold Lloyd's The Kid Brother, perhaps the most understated and least applauded aspect is the chemistry and intermixing shenanigans that results from Jobyna Ralston's character showing up on the scene. Both Lloyd and Ralston had shared the screen before in previous antics, but their interlocking here is as sweet and endearing as can be. It would be their last date on screen before Jobyna would retire a couple of movies into the "talkie" era because of an unfortunate lisp, but if anything, it's a fitting and memorable farewell. Aside from the romance, The Kid Brother also has more than a handful of laughs up its sleeves and while I'm not a big fan of the movie's switch to elaborate stunts in the third act, the majority of the film showcases a somewhat restrained and down to earth tone that is both laugh-out-loud funny and charming at the same time.
A Beautiful Classic
Nearing 90 years since its initial release back in 1927, there probably isn't much left to say about Metropolis that hasn't already been repeated in countless other reviews and articles. Nevertheless, I am compelled to chip in with the roar and recommend the film to anyone who somehow hasn't gotten around to giving it a shot. Having recently viewed the latest Masters of Cinema BluRay, I cannot overstate the importance of watching the movie from a reputable source. My original viewing was somewhere close to a decade ago on a cheap public domain DVD that left me somewhat bewildered to the film's adornment. Ten years on however and I'm a convert thanks to the great efforts of those involved with restoring the film as close to its former glory as possible. Finally, I will conclude by echoing the praises of many others. Between the glorious photography, hugely elaborate sets, bombastic original score and epic storyline there lies a madman, Fritz Lang. Perfectionist to a fault, he somewhat unknowingly created one of the great silent epics of all time and the rest is history.
The General (1926)
Laughs and Thrills
An endearing and consistently entertaining romp from Buster Keaton that flows seamlessly between exhilarating action, bonkers comedy and stunning on-location photography. As always, Keaton performs all his own stunts here and they never fail to impress and keep you riveted, without being overly dramatic while doing so. It was a flop when it came out back in the mid-20s, but has since been re-evaluated as one of the best silent comedies of all time, and rightly so. Of course, Keaton's deadpan style isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but The General uses every tool in the comic's arsenal and comes out shining as a result. Avoid public domain releases and seek out the restored Kino Lorber BluRay for the best possible experience.
A historical curiosity
Frequently classed as the first "blockbuster" of its time because of its large production budget, long runtime and higher-than-average ticket costs at the box office, L'Inferno adopts Dante's prose and brings its pages to life with some decent production values helping it along the way. As far as adaptations go, the movie is fine and features a handful of impressive shots and sequences. The tone is brooding and somewhat haunting, which is appropriate given the source material. The problem though is that it's drawing from a book that (as far as I can fathom) is highly regarded for its lyrical beauty as opposed to its storytelling. Despite the film's best intentions then, you're nevertheless left to watch a bunch of scantily-clad white people faff around for 80 minutes either getting burned to varying degrees or flailing around in some water for whatever reason while another white guy (Dante) has a day-trip through hell in order to feel good about himself by looking down on and deriding the "sinners". For what it is, it's a somewhat interesting watch, but only for historical purposes. Well, that and to make you aware that as long as your sins are lust, gluttony, or fraud, things could be worse.
Understatedly emotive, in a manner which is overwhelmingly bleak.
Lars Von Trier is a film-maker whose work goes without definition; he's the kind of artist that defies what the mainstream may consider to be the proper and appropriate way to present a narrative, yet somehow still manages to find himself at the talking end of press and internet blogs the world over. The explanation is simple; Trier makes films that take the basic premises of modern cinema and tip them on their head, exposing secrets we never quite saw before, and in turn capturing the attention of movie-goers either through disgust, ambivalence or enlightenment. So whether you find the man's work to be refreshing or just downright indulgent, there's probably a part of your argument that's completely correct; and that, I guess, is what makes his films so often the talking points of any film-festival or internet forum.
Melancholia (which is coming to theatres now in amongst the dark dreary shadow of perhaps Von Trier's most publicized work to date, Antichrist) has big boots to fill but will once again no doubt have audiences who manage to sit through the undeniably stark and barren film at odds with how they feel towards it. Part requiem for planet Earth, part character- study and analysis on chronic depression and the acceptance of our mortality, Melancholia is very much just as dismaying as the bleak and horrifying Antichrist was, but in a much more subtle manner. And while the overarching plot revolves around a flyby planet that is destined to destroy the Earth and everyone on it, Von Trier never once divulges in the fantastic—instead he subjects the viewer to the mundane; the crawling, agonising, polarising, sometimes exhilarating viewpoint of his central character Justine who is played by an astoundingly muted Kristen Dunst.
What results is a film that is understatedly emotive, in a manner which is overwhelmingly bleak. Conceived during a severe bout of depression that Trier experienced prior to the production, one can easily digest where the darkness of Melacholia comes from and how instead of coming across as a bloated, indulgent essay on the condition, the film-maker acknowledges the sometimes serene, and calm qualities that can be distilled in a depressed mind during times of crisis. Justine, who begins the film getting married, cheats on her new husband on a golf course, quits her job soon after and then laments her loneliness all in the one night, might not be the most understandable or empathetic of characters, but we're never meant to feel sorry for her—on the contrary we see her as she is, as troubled, hard to deal with but yet still with a sense of integrity and intelligence. Which is why, when the movie comes to its strikingly bombastic halt, we're surprised to find that it's probably Justine that we would hope to be, should the curtain come crashing down on us.
How Von Trier achieves this is part of what makes Melancholia a treat; despite its tendencies to overdo and prolong the mundane. It's a complex and often very sharp, precise and punctuating discourse on the ever- looming prospect of death that awaits each and every one of us. What Melancholia does is explore how different characters react or deal with the realisation that, yes, death is coming, so how are you going to deal with it? What kind of person are you? The result is startling, and for a movie that depicts the end of the world with no quarrel; no reservations; the final bullet point is a refreshingly conclusive one, which in this day and age is hard to come by. So if at all you find anything to appreciate about Melancholia, it will probably be just that— that it has something to say, and it does so without compromise. It may be depressing, and it may be a tad dull and dreary, but when you're dealing with manic depression and the end of the world, what do you really expect? Independence Day? If so; give it a miss. If not, then you might just be surprised at what you find within yourself as you join Justine and company as they stare into the fading light of their mortality.