Friday, 3 July 2015

Play your cards right… The Queen of Spades (1916)

A film about the perils of gambling and on the advisability of relying on the advice of magical old women who may or may not owe you a favour, The Queen of Spades has something of the grim desperation of The Student of Prague and feels very much like Edgar Allen Poe. It also has a top notch performance from a young Ivan Mozzhukhin, years before he fled to achieve great things in France and at the height of his fame in Tsarist Russia mere months before the first revolution of 1917…

There’s some advanced technique from director Yakov Protazanov not just with his Bauer-esque dolly shot as Mozzhukhin’s character enters a casino but also in his threading of the narrative between the here and then. This is cleverly done as it brings with it the shock of when both or shockingly brought together as one.

The camera tracks Hermann's steps
Based on the 1834 Alexander Pushkin short story which had already been turned into an opera by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the film is a sustained exercise in unsettling the viewer: from Mozzhukhin’s constant state of agitation to repeated and well-timed encounters with creatures of the night…

It starts off with Russian officers playing cards at Captain Narumov’s house amongst the revelry one man looks on but never plays - Hermann (Mozzhukhin) who is “…not in a position to waste the essential in the hope of acquiring the superfluous…” his interest betrays him somewhat…

Hermann listens intently to Narumov's tale
Narumov toasts their Countess – his  Grandmother -  and admits he cannot understand why she doesn’t play like she used to…. He begins to talk of 60 years’ before when she had Paris at her feet and the scene shifts to the young woman (Tamara Duvan) as she wows all around her.  

But gambles can be lost as well as won and one night she loses heavily to the Duc d’Orleans. Returning home she orders her husband (Pavel Pavlov) to pay her debt but he angrily refuses. The Countess turns to the altogether taller, more dashing and far more shifty - Count St. Germain (Nikolai Panov) who then “…revealed to her a secret for which each of us would pay dearly…”

The Countess at play
So it is that at Versailles, the Countess chooses three cards which all came up trumps and she cleared her debts… with endless gratitude to her mystical advisor.

Protazanov parallel runs his narrative - rather than the more conventional “dip in and return”, so we see the original story unfold and how it impacts Hermann in particular.

The Duke divulges...
The story then shifts to reveal Hermann’s subsequent encounter with the Countess in St Petersburg. He feels drawn to her house (by her three card trick?) and there he meets and falls in love with her ward Lizaveta (Vera Orlova) who was soon the happy recipient of his daily correspondence (ah, the days before Snap Chat…) awaiting by her window for his daily appearance. Is this genuine or just a way in?

Lizaveta waiting for the man...
The Countess thinks back to her Paris days locked alone in her insomnia… and now we have a flashback from one character which suddenly links to a story told by a second: this is clever narrative and a genuinely surprise… St Germain and Hermann clearly have something in common.

St Germain travels through secret passages to rendezvous with the young Countess only for the director to switch directly to Hermann opening the same door to meet her elder self… But Hermann is there for a different reason and wants the old woman to “ensure that my entire life is happy”, he wants her to tell him the secret of the three cards.

Same door, same woman, 60 years apart...
At first he pleads then he threatens unfortunately the shock is too much and he returns to Lizaveta saying he has killed her mistress… Yet, as he variously mourns his lost opportunity, his callous disregard for human life and possibly the loss of his love, the ghost of the old lady returns – against her will… to reveal her secret…

The ghost of a chance...
Protazanov uses a restricted narrative in which almost nothing happens or is retold without Hermann being present. The story is clearly a subjective one from the young officer’s point of view and even the flashbacks are arguably his interpretation of events. This is the most personal type of horror story.

And the real shocks are still to come as Hermann sets out to guarantee his fortune by using the secret he gained in exchange for the Countesses’ death… He heads off to the gambling clubs of Moscow convinced that nothing can stop him playing his cards right.

Hermann makes his play
This is a richly textured film and one which rewards a re-watch (possibly as some bits are missing!). There’s an unusual focus on the psychological as much as the supernatural and Ivan Mozzhukhin is the man for this occasion. As Bryony Dixon recounts in her 100 Silent Movies, the Russian even resembled Pushkin’s description of his character whilst his expressiveness – which would stand out amongst the rest even without the eye-liner – means that the watcher is drawn into what is ultimately his character’s own, lonely story.

The shadow of a doubt
The cinematography from Yevgeni Slavinsky is also worthy of mention, with some striking well-lit shots that pre-figure expressionism: there is one sequence in which Hermann is literally overwhelmed by the shadow of a doubt…

The Queen of Spades is available on DVD as part of Milestone Films Early Russian Cinema Volume 8 - you can get it direct from their shop (I'm collecting the set). Surely this is overdue a screening in the UK?

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Roots manoeuvre… Alraune (1928)

After some years of silent exploration you’ve probably seen a fair chunk of the “cannon” and the key cult films and it gets a little harder to gain the same “hit” as when you first watched a Caligari or a Warning Shadows. That’s not to say that I’m getting jaded, just more travelled… but, whatever I watch, there’s always something remarkable.

Here we have a slightly plodding tale of mystery but one that has another extraordinary performance from Brigitte Helm whose expressive control and sheer “slinkiness” create what C. Hooper Trask in his New York Times review described as “a most engaging evening's display of erotics." They say the lights are always bright on Broadway… they say there’s always magic in the air...

The root grows below the gallows...
Now then, the nature of this particular magic is quite specific and pretty unusual dating as it does to a story from the German Middle Ages about a root – the Mandrake (the Alraune of the title) – which if left to absorb a hanged man’s “essence” in the ground under his execution, was capable of giving life either by enabling pregnancies or helping witches produce children without the aid of a living sperm donor. Such progeny were said to have no soul and sound far more trouble than they’re worth but, you know, there’s always someone ready to give it a go: to mess with Nature.

As mythology goes Alraune, starts with a disadvantage being not quite as splendidly sinister as Der Golem or as creepy as Nosferatu – it’s a root! The version available also seems to have been the victim of cuts at the crucial section dealing with conception and birth so the viewer has to draw their own conclusions about the part played by the vital vegetable… The film is based on Hanns Heinz Ewers’ novel of 1910 from which more specifics can be gleaned.

Paul Wegener
Our mad scientist for today is former Golem of this parish, Paul Wegener who plays Professor Jakob ten Brinken who has become interested in the nature versus nurture debate and this has somehow led him onto the legend of the root. By using the mandrake he hopes to engineer a human being in order to establish “whether the parents’ genetic make-up, has a purely random effect on the offspring.” Can he create something pure and free from hereditary conditioning…? I think you know where this is heading…

The professor grows the Mandrake as required and gets his nephew Franz Braun (Iván Petrovich) to help him find a lady of the lowest order - Ein Mädchen von der Gasse (Valeska Gert) - to act as the incubation chamber for the new being. Just as the woman arrives at the Professor’s apartments, turning in shock to see him emerge in white coat, the film jumps forward almost two decades…

Not your typical girl...
Alraune ten Brinken (Brigitte Helm) is at boarding school and is first scene toying with fly as it attempts to escape from a glass of water, she reaches out, not to rescue but to push it back; not the behaviour of a well-educated young woman. There is more to come as she leads her classmates into acts of rebellion, she dances, wears cologne and plants a stage beetle on the mother superiors robes.

Clearly Alraune has out-grown school and to facilitate her escape has lured a young man, Wölfchen (Wolfgang Zilzer) into loving her: he is to steal money from his family and they are to run away. Once on their train to freedom she orders champagne and starts flirting with a likely lad who spies her from the corridor.

Wölfchen tries to fight him off but there’s to be no respite as a troop of circus performers join the train. Alraune is immediately impressed by the magician’s sleight of hand especially when in one sexually obvious moment he lets a mouse run up her skirt; she leans back and looks him straight in the eye when even Bad Maria might think twice…

Have you got a light, boy?
At the circus things move on and Alraune is seen sharing a cigarette with the lion tamer (Louis Ralph) standing so close that she can light his fire with her own as it were. Chided for her wanton troublesome-ness Alraune walks into the lions’ cage challenging the beasts to come and have a go if they think they’re cat enough. The animals don’t move until the Tamer rushes in with his whip.

Alraune in the roar
So a heart-breaker with nerves of steel and a twisted sado-masochistic streak… is this what the Professor wanted to find out? How would a woman born from the human stew of a prostitute, a murderer and the mysterious root vegetable work out?

The root of all evil (sorry, just had to)
He’ll soon be able to find out as he finally catches up on his “daughter” after years of searching. He whisks her off to polite society where she plays tennis with Der Vicomte (handsome John Loder who I last saw in The First Born) who soon proposes… But, he’s not the only man to have fallen for Alraune and the Professor blackmails her into staying under his “care”.

From this point one it’s a battle between the scientist and his creation and we all know how those usually turn out or do we? The film has more than a few tricks and turns up its sleeve …

She's behind you...
Directed with competence and the odd dash of style by Henrik Galeen, Alraune doesn’t rank with the best of Weimar cinema in my opinion although I’m sure I’d enjoy it more in cinema with live accompaniment. It is, however, worth seeking out purely for Brigitte Helm’s performance alone. I love her physicality and dancer’s contortions: she seems almost too frail to be an evil thing and yet there’s considerable strength behind her movement as the Professor will find out.

Brigitte abides...
Paul Wegener is pretty good too, 15 years after his student days in Prague – one of the finest actors in German silent film and one who has been unjustly accused of collaboration in later years whereas he apparently donated money to the resistance and helped to hide the vulnerable.

I watched a copy of the 2000 reconstruction on your actual video which you can view in poorer quality on YouTube. It deserves better and I’m sure the Editionfilmmuseum folk will one day get around to it... although we are still waiting for the release of The Student of Prague guys!

The Full Maria

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Call of duty… The Small Back Room (1949)

I’ve sat many times on Chesil Beach, a Dorset oddity formed of a bank running parallel with the shore producing a long thin natural lagoon unlike anything else in Britain. The bank consists of pebbles piled deep onto the sand below: it’s hard to walk on and exhausting in the heat – the natural and perfect spot to fish for mackerel or to just surrender to the sun and the stones…

Try those same conditions with only one good foot a raging alcoholic hang-over and a mission to disarm a German mine with enough booby traps to defeat even the most sober two-footed engineer and you have the setting for the extraordinary denouement to this quietly devastating film.

You could never call Powell and Pressburger films unsubtle but The Small Back Room is probably as seemingly understated as anything they ever did during their golden stretch of the forties and early fifties. It tackles issues of disability, extra-marital relationships and alcoholism with delicacy and poise: there was no Hays code in Blighty but there were censors bred in the post-Victorian era who didn’t want to see overt co-habitation of consenting adults, near violence towards women and an heroic man reduced to “dope” and booze to cope with his weakness.

The results feel so much like a silent film with great expressionist moments and a quite superb physical performance from David Farrar as the emotionally-crippled scientist who also happens to have just one foot. He is such a masculine presence and bravely plays out his character’s weakness with sensitivity and an immaculately-remembered limp. He is more than ably supported by Kathleen Byron who plays slightly against type as his sympathetic and steadfast partner… both of them so far away from their roles in Black Narcissus.

Kathleen Byron and David Farrar
Based on a novel by Nigel Balchin with screenplay from Pressburger with the aid of Powell, The Small Back Room followed on from The Red Shoes – perhaps surprisingly but is no less concerned with nurturing love versus natural drive.

Sammy Rice (Farrar) is the brains behind a specialist team working away in the back rooms of a London ministry. He lost his leg before the war and is constantly reminded of its absence by the pain of his artificial foot. He refuses to remove the prosthetic in the company of his lover Susan (Byron) an obvious symbol that he feels like an incomplete man without it. He drinks to numb the loss and the pain of his own inadequacy.

Susan and Sammy on their Wednesday night out
Susan may see through it, but he’s punishing himself for just not being strong enough to cope with either his disability or his over-bearing masters in the ministry. He’s the lead scientist in the unit but can’t leverage this value on superiors who are mostly careerist pen pushers who wield their influence far more effectively than their talents should allow… any resemblance with the Rank Organisation is clearly deliberate: their lack of vision holds Sammy back more than his long-lost right foot…

Key signifiers in the landscape of Sammy's living room: picture, bottle and phone
Powell and Pressbuger make stunningly good use of words in this film. Where others may well show the viewer what has happened they get their characters to “tell” using their notes or third parties. A young bomb disposal expert Captain Dick Stuart (Michael Gough) arrives looking for Sammy and after locating him in his local pub goes back to his flat where he fills us all in on the story over Susan’s coffee. There’s a new German bomb which has taken the lives of a number of children as well as army officers who have failed to disarm it. We could see the deaths and the explosions but this way we are drawn into the story that we know must end in the intimacy of a close encounter, winner takes all, involving Sammy and the bomb.

...and Susan's familiar
Bomb disposal is the closest of encounters and is the battle of minds between the designer and the disposer. Later on one of the officers is killed and, again, rather than show the events, we learn in the most heart-breaking manner of the young man’s death as his Corporal (Renée Asherson who is just perfect) reads out his transcript of his encounter her voice going thick with emotion as she recalls the forensic bravery and fragile jokes of the man she clearly loved attempting and failing to outwit the enemy.

Renée Asherson's moving cameo
The film is almost perfectly paced and we know that Sammy will at some point have to face down the same opponent: whether he’ll be defeated in the same way or succumb to his own failings we genuinely don’t know and it is gripping cinema even when our heads cry out that it’s just an actor and what looks like a thermos flask…  we believe.

Before all of that we witness what Charles Barr in his commentary describes as perhaps the most complex pairing not just in an Archer’s film but in all British cinema of the period. We also see how this forms the backdrop for Sammy’s day-to-day battles as part of the expert but under-valued team that works away trying to “solve” the War in the small back room of the title.

Sammy on Salisbury Plain
Barr talks about the film’s “restrictive narrative”, one that is focused almost entirely on Sammy – hardly anything ever happens when he’s not there and there are almost no point of view shots and no sudden screen changes to other characters: everything happens with Sammy there. This adds to the focus on character all aided by the expert cinematography of  Christopher Challis.

The supporting cast is uniformly superb with Milton Rosmer as Professor Mair who runs the unit and Jack Hawkins as R.B. Waring the salesman responsible for raising their profile and getting them into trouble with the pursuit of certain technologies for convenience and profit, not necessarily effectiveness.

The team present their findings to a Whitehall committee
Such short term-ism and petty politicking is very much the British disease (then as now) and Powell and Pressburger were undoubtedly making comment based on their own experience. R.B. laments that he is tired of people who “know their job”  as if competency smothered commerciality. The director and writers certainly knew their jobs and were craftsmen of integrity in much the same way as the film’s heroes.

Cyril Cusack and Michael Gough
It is not just Sammy who saves the day but the rock-solid perceptions of his partner, the principled professional soldiers such as Stuart, Colonel A.K. Holland (Leslie Banks) and Colonel Strang (Anthony Bushell) who is with Sammy when the going really gets tough as well as the flawed but inspired engineers in his team – the stuttering Corporal Taylor (brilliant Cyril Cusack) and the dedicated Till (Michael Goodliffe). These are people whose steadfast commitment still stirs a race memory of selfless sacrifice in response to the call of unconditional duty.

The moment arrives...
Ultimately the concern is how the individual must rouse themselves to fulfill this sense of duty and not just for any sense of national pride but through personal responsibility to those we love and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in our name.

Whether this was a message cinema-goers still wanted to hear in 1948 is open to doubt as the film struggled in spite of warm reviews. Now it stands out as another of Powell and Pressburger’s films that is almost perfectly realized. David Farrar could have gone to Hollywood but stayed to work with Powell who he described as knowing how to move the art of the talking picture forward at a time, just a decade and a half after its introduction, when there must have been some doubt.

Two extraordinary people take the tube
Powell delivered arguably more than any other British film-maker of his time and his work retains many rich textures that still unravel at their own pace.

I watched the Criterion DVD which is available either direct or from Amazon.

Sidney James
There’s also a lovely cameo from Sid James as 'Knucksie' Moran, a patient barkeeper who tries to look after Sammy – you’re reminded of just how good an actor Sid was when given the chance.

Patrick Macnee also makes a brief appearance on the committee. RIP Mr Steed

Sunday, 21 June 2015

DW changes pace… True Heart Susie (1919)

After so much grandeur and heavy weaponry it’s good to see DW Griffith turn off the blockbuster superhighway and head off down a dust road. After Judith, George Washington and Lloyd George it’s good to meet Susie, a “plain” girl but with a heart of golden titanium. It’s Lillian Gish of course and her consummate skill, along with Billy Bitzer’s golden eye make this one of Griffith’s best looking and contemplative films: a pastoral symphony of tinted textures all run at the pace of a cow herd after a full day’s grazing…

Carol Dempster’s in it and, once again, she is not Lillian but then few people are and Miss Gish (she would have no time for Ms I suspect…) has few peers in terms of naturalistic control –  many years later she confessed that she never wanted to be caught “acting” – nor the range and commitment. King Vidor thought he might lose her to self-imposed deprivation in La Boheme but here she comes across like Stan Laurel albeit with really big, pretty eyes.

School days
Lillian’s Susie follows her man like a love-struck puppy in their school days with Gish perfecting a walk that so precisely explains her character that you hardly need to see her face. At one point the two traipse around the lanes after school and walking deep into the shot, Susie shakes her foot to remove a stray twig, once, then twice... nothing will stop her from following her sweetheart and these discomforts are so very minor when compared to the years ahead.

Lillian Gish
In less thoughtful hands, Susie might come across as a pain but she’s hard-core: not just steadfast but operating on a strict set of rules and self-restrained to the point of obstinacy but, and it’s a crucial “but”, she isn’t after winning or losing and will deal with both those imposters just the same.

This is a very Victorian stoicism but that’s the director’s homeland and from the sound of it writer Marian Fremont too.  But it’s not just being true it’s also avoiding the pitfalls of flippancy, tight dresses and make-up. At one point Susie’s aunt berates her for "trying to improve on the Lord’s work” as she tries to apply some corn flower to enable her to compete with the “paint and powder brigade”… an army of young women who seem intent on just enjoying themselves and confusing men.

Definitely the “paint and powder brigade”!
Susie doesn’t do that and from their earliest days at school, she is faithful to her sweetheart William (Robert Herron), gently propping him up in class as he struggles in spelling and walking slightly behind him, a dutiful believer with that measured walk. Interestingly, Lilian had recommended a “walk” for her sister in Hearts of the World and the two were clearly students of physical acting from tip to toes.

The pair carve their names on a tree but always just about fail to kiss: timidity being next to goodliness whilst “prettier” girls show an interest in William but he remains true to Susie.

How many prettier girls would sell their cow for a boy?
William wants to go to college and yet his father (Wilbur Higby) tells him they can’t afford it. A chance meeting with a self-promoting stranger (George Fawcett), encourages the young man as the odd man says he sees something in him and would like to help someday. An odd moment until Susie decides to sell her prize cow and then anonymously donate the money to enable William to go to school. Now that is loyalty.

William asks Susie if he should marry... the wrong end of the stick awaits.
Unaware of the source of his good fortune, William assumes it’s the stranger coming through on his promise and ventures off to learn his fortune. At first William retains his links to home and Susie but his time away changes him – he has to fend for himself and cope with more advantaged students – and he returns more self-confident and determined to be a success as a local minister.
Susie is delighted but she hasn’t realised that he’s moved imperceptibly onwards and that she is now repositioned as a friend someone associated with where he has come from not where he is going.

Bettina bats her eyelids and blows Bill away...
Susie’s hopes are sustained a while longer but soon competition more closely aligned with William’s new objectives arrives from Chicago: the painted and powdered Bettina Hopkins (Clarine Seymour). Bettina is a good-time girl and a proto-flapper (the film is set in 1909) with pals with names like Sporty Malone (Raymond Cannon) and a willowy best mate played by Carol D. She’s not a bad person just someone carried away with her own life and on the look out to settle down just that little bit too early…

The truth hits hard...
Susie did not see Bettina coming and before she knows it is helping her put on her bridal gown as she and William get married. Susie takes this all in good grace and Gish transitions with real force through denial, anger and acceptance – at the engagement she hides her tears behind a fan in pieces but holding herself together for her pal: self-less Susie.

Surviving the engagement party
Is that it then? Of course not…  the path to true hearts is never as smooth as it should be but Griffith and cast tell it with knowing wit and some style: it’s good to see a Griffith romantic comedy. He can’t help himself preach a little and you are left feeling a little confused by the idea that only one in ten women get the chance to marry and yet men have a more open field?

The couple canoodle while Susie works - lovely composition
My daughter Beth (17 and just finishing her A Levels) watched the film with me and at the end asked when Hindle Wakes was written: comparing the women’s view of their own choices. The British play was produced in 1910 (thanks Lucie D!) and does make for an interesting comparison… one hoping for goodness to be recognised and the other looking forward to an age of independence in which women’s destiny is fashioned by their own hands not by who they marry.

That’s not to say I don’t like Susie: this is a lovely-looking film superbly focused by director and with a performance of real greatness from its lead. The irony is of course that Lillian might have been respectful but she was also one of those very women who forged ahead – just like Fanny Hawthorn in fact!

True Heart Susie is available on DVD from Image and comes with a nifty score from the Mont Alto Orchestra. It’s available direct or from Amazon.