Saturday, 22 November 2014

What’s so funny? The Man Who Laughs (1928)

 An American film about seventeenth century England, based on a French novel, starring one extraordinary German and directed by another, The Man Who Laughs is a truly international picture. Made at the peak of silent film technique it features a rudimentary soundtrack – in Movietone – and represents a Hollywood high-point of expressionist unease from Paul Leni, the man who directed Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary.

The boy is abandoned
It says much for contemporary sensibilities that audiences were attracted to the dark disturb of this tale. Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplaine a man scarred for life from childhood by a group of travellers led by Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann) who specialised in cosmetic disfigurement in order to create oddities suitable for circus performers. In this case, and following on neatly from Nell Gwyn and Charles II, the latter’s brother and successor James II (Samuel de Grasse ) has ordered the mutilation as revenge on the boy’s father who has displeased him. The father, Lord Clancharlie, is mercilessly squished in the Iron Lady and the boy’s face will forever be locked in an horrific grin… laughing at his father’s betrayal.

Conrad Veidt as Lord Clancharlie
Honestly, it’s five minutes in and you’re wondering whether to bail out whilst the going’s so bad… but the film’s style and substance begins to work its uncanny rhythm and hope emerges as the boy, cast adrift even from his tormentors, rescues a blind baby from the bitter cold and finds sanctuary with an itinerant circus performer called Ursus (Cesare Gravina) who lives in a caravan with his pet wolf Homo (Zimbo the Dog!). Now that’s a modern family!

Cesare Gravina
The years pass and naturally Gwynplaine’s clown-face has made him the most popular clown in town – people just can’t help but laugh when they see his hysterical smile but, in spite of the gadgetry and painful false teeth he wore, Veidt’s eyes give so much more away: pain but also something more, his love for blonde, beautiful and blind Dea (Mary Philbin) who loves him back. But she has never seen his disfigurement nor felt his smile… Gwynplaine cannot believe that she would still love him if she knew what he actually looked like.

Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin
Oh but there’s more… Gwynplaine’s father’s land and property was handed over to the family who betrayed him in the belief that he would never be seen again - he has an inheritance and a peerage he knows nothing about.  The beneficiary is one Duchess Josiana (Olga Baklanova – so good in von Sternberg’s Docks of New York and on fire in this film) who leads a life of carefree debauchery and expressive bathing as a servant’s key-hole view of her bathroom reveals…

Olga Baklanova
The troop travel to entertain the court of Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) who has succeeded twisted James II and rules with firm Stuart authority aided by the Machiavellian Lord Dirry-Moir (Stuart Holmes).  As their weird play proceeds the crowd breaks into hysterics and yet Duchess Josiana cannot decide whether to laugh or lust… there’s something more deeply intriguing about Gwynplaine’s unrelenting grin.

She orders the clown to be brought to her chambers sending him a note from the woman who did not laugh – an inversion of the film’s title: is she to be his nemesis? For his part Gwynplaine reasons that if the Duchess can fancy him in spite of his disfigurement then Dea may also… so he travels with hope in his heart.

Brandon Hurst
Meanwhile… the Queen’s aid, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), has found out that Gwynplaine is the rightful owner of the Duchess’ land: for her to retain her title and property she will need to marry him. The Queen orders his capture and immediate ennoblement.

Back in the Duchess’ boudoir, her advances have more than convinced Gwynplaine that he has appeal but his experiment over he rushes back to find Dea leaving  his noble partner confused and rather let down: not the behaviour of a gentleman…

Back in Ursus’ caravan Gwynplaine lets Dea feel the contours of his face for the first time and, in spite of her instinctive recoil on feeling the strange outlines she smiles already knowing all she need to love this man. And this would have been a happy ending were it not for the convolutions of Victor Hugo’s original plot and the relentless machinations of the Stuart state.

A guard arrives to escort Gwynplaine to the Queen’s castle… Usrus fears for the worse and the Queen’s men leave him with as clear an impression of the wrong idea as they can. The next day he and Dea are told that there man is dead and that they must leave England for good.

At the same time, Gwynplaine is dressed in ermine and fur and paraded into the House of Lords… where he will be ordered to marry the Duchess by Queen Anne herself.

No spoilers…
All looks bad for the course of true love - can Gwynplaine escape from his new found wealth and position, refuse his Queen’s instruction and go in search of Dea? Knowing Victor Hugo you’d have to say not but this is Hollywood and the unexpected is always possible if not probable.

The Man Who Laughs was completed in 1927 and waited almost a full year for the addition of its rudimentary soundtrack which, to modern ears, adds little to the suspenseful story-telling of Leni and his crew but that's business.

Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt
Mary Philbin doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves for her supporting roles to men with unusual faces, she’s as good here as I’ve seen her and has a real rapport with the remarkable Conrad Veidt. Veidt himself was an amazing physical actor who conveys so much subtle thought process even with his face half covered in that perma-grin.

The support is also excellent especially from the incredibly expressive Cesare Gravina, Brandon Hurst who oozes comic malevolence and Olga Baklanova who's very naughty throughout - were you watching William Hays?!

Olga "burns through the screen" as one reviewer exclaimed at the time...
Leni directs with gothic style and economy even confronted with the challenge of transposing Hugo’s long-form exposition into a digestible 100 minutes. He is very ably supported by head cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton and Laughs is a very good-looking film given the grim strangeness of the Veidt grin.

I watched the Kino DVD which comes complete with the soundtrack – music from William Axt , Sam Perry and Ernö Rapée along with the odd synchronised found sound and baying crowd noise… it’ll never catch on! It's available direct as part of their American Silent Horror collection and you can still find copies on Amazon.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Into the light... Sons of Ingmar (1919), Cambridge Arts Picturehouse with John Sweeney

This was a rare experience and in her excellent introduction, Trish Sheil, Film Education Officer for the Cambridge Film Consortium, explained why.  Victor Sjöström’s Sons of Ingmar exists only on 35mm film – it is not digitised – and the Swedish Film Archive only allows prints to be shown via double reel projection which the Picturehouse is now rare in providing. Our live projectionist also had to multi-task by manually inserting English subtitles, sometimes shadowing the screen to facilitate legibility – something like patting your head whilst rubbing your tummy at the same time.

The film only gets screened once in a silvery-blue moon and as Trish said makes for interesting comparison with Mr Griffith and other the leading lights of Hollywood with its moral complexity, naturalistic acting and novelesque narrative. The film pulls you along at its own pace, only exposing the depth of its characters sparingly and if you’re not wiping a tear from the corner of your eye by the end you’re probably not human.

Victor Sjöström
Set almost entirely against the Swedish countryside there is breath-taking cinematography from Julius Jaenzon which seems to push against the limits of the settings. At times he is shooting almost against the sun or at least with the light pouring diagonally onto the performers allowing for some extremes of light and shade that go against the contemporary rule book yet add to the engagement – you’re gripped by the unconscious response as the actors and the elements merge almost into one.

This risk-taking is most in evidence in the sequence outside the prison – so highly praised by Ingmar Bergman in Gosta Werner’s Sjöström documentary* - when the bleached white stone and sunshine confounds the eye as the players try hard to gauge each other’s feelings, blinking in the bright light searching for a reaction that confirms genuine love or pity.
Searching through sunshine
Sons of Ingmar
was the first of a series of films based on Selma Lagerlöf’s novel Jerusalem – Sjöström planned to make five but only completed this one and the follow up Karin Daughter of Ingmar , with Maurice Stiller directing a third. Nobel Prize winner Lagerlöf was a major figure and this adaptation was by over half the population of Sweden within weeks of release.

Her novel was an immense multi-generational parable involving an attempt to found a new Jerusalem – the dream of a “return” that haunts the subjects of a society in flux. Sjöström’s opening section reflects this as Lill Ingmar Ingmarsson (Sjöström) tills his field, mulling over a difficult decision and daydreaming about discussing it with his deceased father (Tore Svennberg).

He imagines a huge stepladder leading up to the clouds and slowly climbs his way high above the fields, the countryside and all of Sweden. He is greeted by a bearded St Peter who directs him to his father’s homestead – surrounded by lush fields and heavenly host of heifers…  He finds his father holding court in a large room full of dozens of generations of Ingmars: the heritage he must live up to.

If all this sounds fantastical then you have to bear in mind the Swedish sense of humour…  Sjöström’s Ingmar is a bit slow with a lower lip almost perpetually pursed as he over-thinks almost everything but, bear with him; he has some tough times to live through.
The old sons of Ingmar
His father leads him to an ante room where young Ingmar begins to unwind his tale of woe…

Shortly after his father’s death Ingmar had decided to take a wife and had proposed his intention to the parents of local lass Brita (Harriet Bosse) – father (Hjalmar Peters) and mother (Svea Peters). They accept on their daughter’s behalf but she, still sweet on an old boyfriend, is not impressed at all… especially as, their banns published, it is decided that she should go to the Ingmarson farm to help out while the wedding waits.

Brita struggles on the farm, distancing herself from Ingmar and his aloof Mother (Hildur Carlberg) who can hardly move for knitting and is a slave to the routines of hard work. Only the alert middle-aged maid Karin (well-played by Jenny Tschernichin-Larsson) seems to notice her pain…

Jenny Tschernichin-Larsson and Harriet Bosse
Things get much worse as Brita gets pregnant as Ingmar obviously couldn’t wait for wedlock… she nurtures a hatred for the family around her and vows to make Ingmar suffer the only way she can. One day Brita disappears and after a night of frantic searching, she is found with her stillborn baby…

Brita is tried for murder and the whole village turns up to pass judgement of their own…  she can sink no lower and yet Ingmar speaks out on her behalf, accepting his part in the breakdown of their love and pleading for leniency: if she would only change her mind about him, he would marry her.

Brita’s eyes spark open with hope and yet, when her mother asks him if he meant it he says only that he was trying to get her a lesser sentence… “she has killed all love in him”. Never-the-less, Brita heads off to jail with hope in her heart whilst Ingmar returns to his farm weighed down by remorse and tainted love…

Three years on, as he asks his dead father, should he take Brita back or let her go to start again in America, all shame left behind. It’s a tough call and as the old man goes off to consult the massed ranks of the male line, Ingmar comes to his earthbound senses and makes his decision or does he?

Harriet Bosse
No spoilers…

By this stage of the film you are convinced of the resolution but Sjöström doesn’t allow such certainty to linger long and it’s anyone’s guess as miss-communication worthy of Antonioni ensures the audience is left willing the characters on against seemingly insurmountable odds of church, community and family.

This is surely amongst the most genuinely compelling dramas of the period with superb, restraint and power from Sjöström as well as from Harriet Bosse who’s character does a hateful thing but must still somehow gain our sympathy – you wouldn’t get that kind of role in a DW photo-play.

John Sweeney provided expert accompaniment helping to create a live event that will live long in the memory and that’s exactly where it will remain unless this opportunity ever comes our way again or that dream box-set of Sjöström rarities ever gets released. As it was, Sons of Ingmar was a transient experience just as it was always intended to be… a bit like life I suppose.

*The documentary is an extra on the Kino DVD release of The Outlaw and His Wife and shows the only digitised sections of the film from which I’ve captured the above images.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Social disease… Child of the Big City (1914)

It’s Russia in 1914 and you know what’s coming you just don’t know when… then, as the two main characters enjoy a drink in a busy night club it happens:  there’s movement behind a curtain at the far wall revealing a stage, a dancer emerges and as your eyes get drawn to her undulating arms, the camera literally follows your gaze, moving past the couple – who reveal their diverging emotions at the same time – and heading towards the dance.

It’s an expert dolly shot perfected by Yevgeni Bauer and used to give his films an extra depth few contemporaries in World Cinema could rival. He created beautiful sets and moved his actors around them with the same expert precision as his cameras to weave richly-morbid morality tales that may or may not have reflected the turmoil enveloping his country: you know his characters will face life-changing moments and that a happy ending is far from assured.

The camera shows their distance...
But, whatever the trajectory, Bauer will tell his story in a style that avoids the melodramatic through restrained direction and a focus on subtle signifiers rather than grand gestures… well, to a large extent and even when he does use the broader strokes he does so in a way that might confound expectation…

In Child of the Big City we are led immediately in the wrong direction as the story begins showing a poor child Manetschka (Nina Kosljaninowa) watching her mother die of consumption. Six years later and Manetschka has grown up into a striking young woman called Mary (Elena Smirnova) who works as a seamstress while daydreaming of the rich life beyond her… There’s a lovely close up as Mary sits at the window; the outside world going about its business happily without her.

Arseniy Bibikov and Michael Salarow
Meanwhile we meet a young man called Viktor (Michael Salarow) who is looking for a woman with more depth than his well-schooled social circle – here’s a man of integrity in spite of the crude urgings of his extrovert pal Kramskoi (Arseniy Bibikov). He sits disconsolate in his drawing room half-heartedly reviewing snaps of young socialites. Needless to say, this is a Yevgeni Bauer drawing room with many objects positioned to not only illustrate the depths of Viktor’s intellect but also to create superior depth of field as the actors move diagonally through the frame… you’re drawn in (to the drawing room…).

Window shopping
After work Mary tortures herself by window shopping in the more expensive parts of town: we hope she gets what she wants. She encounters Kramskoi outside a jeweller's shop whilst Viktor looks on… and accepts his forward invitation to dine with them at.

Mary steps open-eyed into their bourgeois world only to be repeatedly mauled by Kramskoi she runs to Viktor for protection and succumbs readily to his more whole-hearted embrace. So far, so good… surely Mary has found her fortune in the arms of this serious young man?

But then we see them at the night club and as the camera moves through the scene we can see their relationships fault line all too clearly: Mary smiles to herself as she downs her champagne as Viktor looks on with concern... distanced. Then an overhead shot reveals the bawdy scene in full and Mary accepts an overly-familiar greeting from another man in a top hat.

Viktor is soon driven to financial ruin by Mary’s insatiable requirements for possessions and parties. He sits in his study contemplating the very worst course of action… by the time he gets to Mary’s rooms he finds her in the arms of a servant (Leonid Jost): her passion has run wild. Viktor shoots his pistol in impotent rage and collapses in front of them…

Now, Viktor dreams of winning Mary back from the sparse darkness of his tiny new lodgings whilst Mary carries on living the high life supported by an ever-increasing circle of well-heeled admirers. He pleads for a last chance – one last meeting – will Mary stop to think or has her careless accumulation of wealth and experience inured her to the concerns of common humanity?

Viktor finds Mary in a compromising embrace...
Child of the Big City offers little comfort to those who expect natural justice from their films and as the title makes clear, sees society as the issue and not the individuals. Mary is just as much the victim of consumerist culture as Viktor is of his naive search for pure love: perhaps the need to possess endangers us all?

Elena Smirnova makes for a delightfully flighty Mary, winning our sympathy then throwing it back in our face whilst Michael Salarow’s Viktor begins his fateful tailspin luxuriating in self-indulgent introspection.

There’s a nice cameo from Lidiya Tridenskaya as Mary’s cheeky maid servant whilst Emma Bauer provides the decadent dance in the nightclub.

Viktor's desperate letter is read...
I watched the Milestone Early Russian Cinema Volume 7 DVD which features the BFI restoration from the early 1990s which comes complete with splendid accompaniment from a young Neil Brand: he’ll go far! It’s available direct from Milestone along with the other volumes of their comprehensive overview of Russian cinema.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Give peace a chance… High Treason (1929)

Having watched Mathew Sweet’s Silent Britain documentary as well as the British episode of Brownlow and Gill’s Cinema Europe, I’ve been on the look out for more home-grown films like Nell Gwyn that support the idea that there was more to UK film production than quota quickies and the worthy yet dull efforts so derided by contemporary reviewers in the self-referential pages of Close Up.

Mere hundreds survive of the thousands of British silents made and it is difficult to compare what remains with the better archived materials from Germany, France, Scandinavia and Hollywood.  But, there is one film from 1918 that points to our potential with drama – albeit docu-drama – and that is Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George – which was suppressed by the government at the time. Over a decade later the director, undoubtedly one of this country’s great film makers (silent and other-wise), turned his hand to science fiction and some prescient pacifism.

London and New York in the 1950 of 1929...
High Treason is an intriguing prospect made on the cusp of the talkie era and at a time when most of the best domestic output was achieved following the introduction of the quota system and the absorption of expressionism and other European techniques.

Based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing, who also co-scripted with one L'Estrange Fawcett, the film is clearly influenced by Metropolis and whilst Elvey can’t match Lang’s vision or budget there is one sequence which is as good as almost anything in the German film…

It’s the near future of 1950 and the Federated States of Europe is at loggerheads with a union of the Atlantic States.  Dark forces are at work trying to ramp up the tensions and push the two sides toward World War Two – arms manufacturers need more war and there’s no profit in pacifism.

A shoot out at the American/Canadian border increases tensions and as the two governments argue over how to respond we see the future London – quaint skyscrapers dwarfing the Houses of Parliament as flying ships criss-cross the capital. One of the largest buildings houses The Peace League, a global organisation aiming the stop the military-industrial complex from destroying themselves. The Peace League is member-driven and in their vast central hall of operations we see the ever-growing count of converts approaches 25 million – the peace is with them.

Benita Hume and Humberston Wright
The human heart of this global dichotomy is represented by two families:  European President Stephen Deane (Basil Gill) and his son, air force commander Michael (Jameson Thomas), the head of the Peace League, Dr Seymour (Humberston Wright) and his daughter Evelyn (Benita Hume).  They are intimately connected, with Evelyn in a relationship with Michael even though father disapproves: both are young enough to believe that the worst won’t happen but their fathers know better…

Jameson Thomas vid-skypes Benita Hulme or something like that...
The agent provocateurs listen in on an Atlantic States cabinet meeting as one of the delegates describes the potential devastation of an aerial assault on New York: the skyscrapers levelled by high-powered bombs and the people gassed in their thousands. This was Pemberton Billing’s specialist subject – the role of aeroplanes in future military conflict. He was an air-war visionary albeit one with some strange beliefs, including the idea that German homosexual spies were out to undermine British manhood in the First World War…. anders als die andern indeed.

The Channel Tunnel
The agents decide one last spectacular is needed to push the two sides to war and set about blowing up the Channel Tunnel (yes, that’s one prediction they got right… not so sure about the extended European Union…). Their murderous operation takes place as the innocent passengers dine in luxury, hanging their small dogs up in silken bags on special hooks… a horrible juxtaposition.

Meanwhile Michael is taking Evelyn out nightclubbing and endures a stilted few minutes with her disapproving father whilst she readies herself using hi-tech bathing equipment: the longest walk-through shower in cinema history… Wet rooms haven’t quite played out this way although I like the extension of the hair-dryer principle.

The club of the future doesn’t feature a live band but a single MC playing synthesised sounds; as if you could ever replace live music with recorded sound… the couple dance almost robotically as Elvey's camera follows them round this strange old-new room.

Just as the party is in full swing events are halted by an announcement of the Channel Tunnel atrocity: the President has ordered full mobilisation and war seems certain. Evelyn briefly tries to address the revenge-hungry hoards but she is shouted down and Michael goes off to get his uniform.

Evelyn addresses the women conscripts
As the population turns up for conscription the film’s great set piece takes place as Evelyn leads a large group of women conscripts against Michael and his black-suited guards. This section features hundreds of extras all perfectly choreographed by Elvey as the white and black lines flow in close quarters. The sheer weight on white threatens to overwhelm the black until Michael orders the men to unsheathe their weapons. But even with guns pointed at them Evelyn urges her peace troop on assured that “they won’t dare shoot women…”

Michael and his guards
The face-off is paused as one of the ever-present government broadcast video screens reveals that the President will make a televised proclamation at midnight. At his cabinet office Dr Seymour arrives to make a final plea it seems that nothing can prevent world war…

Dr Seymour and the President: who will speak out for peace?
No spoilers… High Treason manages to ramp up the tension very well for the closing section even though it has a double barrier to overcome not just its own vintage but also a view of the things to come firmly rooted in late twenties technology. That's the curse of science fantasy - the future’s never what it used to be when watched after the event. Inevitably most predictions are wrong and a few are almost right: the use of of almost instant telecommunication is pretty spot on and whilst it enables narrative propulsion it also shows how quickly the World and its fortunes can turn.

The walk-through shower... by now every home should have one
Elevy anchors the grand events in his characters and not just the four main players. There are numerous, very British, cameos injecting light relief into what could be a portentous story whilst the impact of violence is shown in human detail after every whiz and bang from the imagined attack on New York to the bombing of the train and the League's HQ.

The human cost of destruction
Jameson Thomas makes for a fine airman, stiff upper lip adorned by an impeccable moustache and there is genuine chemistry with Benita Hume’s proto-feminist flapper, who's sense of style is more than patched by her passion for peace and the conviction that women must lead the way. The performances have to fit with the grandiose settings and ultimately High Treason is a fable just like Metropolis with a rather mixed message about pacifism and the ultimate resort to violence which is not as inconsistent as it might seem.

High Treason doesn’t rank with Elvey’s magnificent Hindle Wakes or Lloyd George but it certainly has its moments and is an entertaining ride – unless, that is, you’re going through the Channel Tunnel.

It was also made as a sound film in which the repeatedly-sung Peace Song might have more impact and there’s a definitely transitional feel to the narrative with some lengthy titles. I’d also really like to hear that one man synthetic band in the night club! Raymond Massey also pops up arguing for peace in government meetings: there would be more of him to come.

Watch the film now on the BFI Player!
High Treason is now available for streaming on the BFI Player… and it proves that, whilst we didn’t have German budgets we did have ideas and a style all of our own.