Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The first box set in film? Les Vampires (1915)

We’re all accustomed to watching “series”: stories with ongoing narratives split over a period of time in separate "episodes". Extensively used in literature, adopted quickly by cinema and finding a natural home on television (can there be any better example than The Wire?), the serial has been the major form of story telling. It ensures long-term reader/watcher/user engagement and allows the flexibility of developing an endless variety of stories around a finite number of familiar characters.

In film, connected episodic stories began emerging early on but it was the French director, Louis Feuillade, who produced the most coherent multi-episodic sequences. He played a major part in defining and developing the form through La vie telle qu'elle est: la Tare (1911) and Fantômas (1913-14) then Les Vampires from 1915 to 1916.

Les Vampires ended up as a series of ten episodes each of differing lengths. It is common to review them as a whole but I’ve taken a break half way through to see how the “real-time” viewer may have interpreted them. I’ve seen episodes 1 to 5 but am I compelled to find out what happens to the characters?

Les Vampires tells of a group of vicious criminals who terrorise Paris, stopping at nothing to gain money and to disrupt the powers that be. They are led by the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) who adopts different guises and disguises in most episodes. His key operative is the anagrammatical Irma Vep (played with cute menace by Musidora AKA Jeanne Roques) who helps to infiltrate banks, elegant society and even the hero’s household for the Vampire cause.

Throughout they are pursued by an intrepid reporter – one of the first of his kind - Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) who is mostly helped (occasionally hindered) by the comic Mazamette (knowingly played by Marcel Lévesque).

The one word that best describes the series is “fun”, the stories whiz by and are very well structured by Feuillade. The production is disciplined and varied as it moves on apace with the narrative linked by a variety of expositionary telegrams, newspaper articles and other devices which cleverly remove the need for too many clunky intertitles.

The action switches quickly from interior groups to external shots. Close-shots of individuals and groups help to animate events and the actors seem closer to the viewer than with much contemporary cinema. There are also some thrilling shots of the rooftops of Paris as the Vampires make their escape, the camera pans gently as the grand vista of Paris opens up behind them and it follows their descent to their perfectly planned getaway.

Cameras accompany their travels either from the car behind or even in the car itself. I’m not sure how ground-breaking Feuillade was, but he certainly puts a lot of fresh, developing techniques and conventions into one place!

Here we can see the ground being broken for the police procedural, the thriller, 60’s spy films and genre TV (The Avengers and The Prisoner?) and even film noir. Les Vampires are usually one step ahead and the good guys are never guaranteed their victory. Far from it as the opening episode begins with the discovery of the headless body of the chief of police in charge of investigating the gang.

In the short second episode the ballet dancer engaged to our hero can not be saved from the villains' plotting and here, as elsewhere, their motivations are less than clear... perhaps adding to their menace.

In the third episode, we meet Irma Vep the femme fatale leading many of the Vampire’s most daring undertakings. She is first seen performing in a nightclub – The Hissing Cat Club – which doubles as a meeting place for the gang. Using the note book he gained in episode two, Guérande is able to work out where the Vampires meet and what their plans are.

Quickly though, the gang turns the tables and places Irma Vep undercover (poachers using gamekeeper tricks already!) in his household. He survives but his mother has already been taken prisoner… the action is thick and fast with the story devices efficiently woven into the events. Guérande has already given his mother a Vampire poison pen… ”just in case”…it may well help her!

A new twist is introduced in the fourth episode with the introduction of a rival gang of equal guile to the Vampires. They are led by Juan Jose Moreno who is also adept at disguise and duplicity. Now Guérande has two foes to defeat…unless they beat each other first.

This story features a tip of the hat to the huge popularity of movies, a bank manager who goes to the flickers every week: “je suis un fanatique du cinema!”. A clear indication that this wasn’t at the start of movies but smack right in the middle of their red hot period (even in Paris during war time…so close to the front).

The fifth episode pitches the two gangs head to head as the Vampires gas a society party in order to steal the guests’ jewels. At first you fear that everyone has been killed… an horrific fate, even the suggestion of which shows how ruthless Feuillade wants his villains to be. Moreno intercepts their getaway vehicle though – there’s a great shot of the vehicle from a car behind – and makes off with the hoard.

Honours roughly even between the three sides, I sincerely look forward to the remaining episodes. Feuillade succeeds in setting out dramatic events but also underlays everything with characterisation, backstory and motive. Guérande lives with his mother but has now lost his girlfriend to the group, Mazamette is forever being blackmailed to save his children whilst the bad guys are classy and stylish - professional criminals who want to gain from violence, destruction and fear.

Maybe this last point places the series in the context of World War One more than might be suspected. This is an adventure series but there are some bad things happening and no one is safely guaranteed to make it through to the end.

Les Vampires is available in a crisp, clear print in a three DVD set from Artificial Eye. It’s here.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Super natural Shropshire... Gone to Earth (1950)

Michael Powell’s cinematographer, Christopher Challis, described Gone to Earth as "one of the most beautiful films ever to be shot of the English countryside". This is hard to deny as the director brought his unique sense of cinema to the depiction of the rolling hills of Shropshire near the border of England and Wales.

What he had done for Scotland in I Know Where I’m Going, the hebridean islands in The Edge of the World and to north Wales in the early film The Phantom Light, Powell brought to Shropshire. He created a heightened sense of the real through cinematography, painstaking location selection and expertly eerie sound recording.

The use of sound in P&P films played a crucial part in the creation of mood. With studio recorded sound mixed with on site recordings there is often dead silence punctuating the dialogue interrupted by almost over-amplified moments. It’s almost as if they used the limitations of audio recording to create a sense of expectation and the tension of still moments before something major is bound to happen.

Jennifer Jones recites a magical incantation as she pledges herself to her fateful course of action. She wants to hear the faerie music and, suddenly through soft gusts of wind is carried the mysterious sound of a harp. The camera cuts away to reveal her father playing someway off, but she believes the coincidence and makes no attempt to rationalise the moment. This is what Powell and Pressburger expect of us too…just believe and lose yourself.

Jones plays Hazel Woodus, a pure being of nature and as wild as the fox she keeps as a pet. She sings with a frail beauty that emphasises her purity and runs barefoot and wild through the hills - pure "jam" as one of the admiring locals calls her.

David Farrar is the epitome of rugged English masculinity playing the dis-likable rogue, John 'Jack' Reddin. He encounters Hazel late one rainy day and quickly decides that "she'll do". He knows what he wants and lures the innocent towards the decadence of his decaying manor house. At the same time, the newly arrived priest, Edward Marston played by the superb Cyril Cusack, also takes a more worshipful fancy to the pursued.

Hazel is torn between the two but marries the cleric only to find the draw of wild Jack too much to resist. She follows her base instinct and runs to his home only to be followed by Edward who is willing to risk reputation to be with her. Torn between the two extremes, is there any way Hazel can find peace - to strike a balance between nature and (a) man?
There's great support from a host of British character actors - especially Hugh Griffith and Anton Knight - along with a village full of actual villagers: funny how you can always tell! Jennifer Jones is simply outstanding. Her rural accent may be variable but it doesn't matter, she has the look and the ability to make us fall for this character. She is true to her self and in the end loves nature more than man. As Powell later wrote: "What a beautiful woman, great-hearted girl, inspired actress, restless soul!"

The film was controversial on a number of levels. Powell struggled to find a dog pack as the film was seen to be anti-hunting (it's far more complex than that) whilst producer David O. Selznick, upset by a perceived lack of screen time for Jones, his then girlfriend, had the film re-cut and retitled as The Wild Heart.

Unfortunately Gone to Earth has gotten rather collectable - I hadn't realized, sorry! - but is still available at inflated prices from Amazon. Not as powerful as the very best Archers films it is still a top quality production with many of the hallmarks of their glory years: the very best and most consistent partnership in British film history. Hopefully a re-release isn't far away.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Asta is born... The Black Dream (1911) and The Ballet Dancer (1911)

In 1911 Asta Nielsen was contracted to German producer Paul Davidson for a massive $80,000 a year, a stunning amount for the time (millions in modern terms) for an actress who had made just a few features.

A graduate of the Royal Danish Theatre who had spent most of her twenties in rep with various companies, Nielsen made her screen debut with Urban Gad's Afgrunden in 1910. This film caused a sensation with Nielsen's unabashed potrayal of a woman who follows her impulse to run off with a cowboy from a travelling circus. The film, discussed elsewhere on this blog, is striking when compared with most others I've seen from this period - naturalistic, quite daring and culminating in the famous eye-popping dance routine that wouldn't have made the cut even in pre-code Hollywood.

Nielsen's next two films, The Ballet Dancer (Balletdanserinden) and The Black Dream (Det sorte Drøm) both from 1911, followed similar themes of love, sex and retribution: in the end someone has to pay for passion miss-spent.

The Ballet Dancer was directed by August Blom and features Asta as Camille, a dancer who wins a role in a play after the lead actress is taken ill. The play is shot from the side of the stage and Asta is right at home in showing the closing scene and taking the applause from the unseen audience. After recently watching her in Hamlet and Joyless Street, Nielsen looks so young (not quite 30 at the time) and is full of energy - she knew the exhilaration of performance well and is out of time in her ability to act naturalistically on screen.

Then there is a scene in which Camille is at an outdoor cafe with the playwright, Jean (Johannes Poulsen) with whom she has begun an affair. She sits, wearing an outrageous butterfly hat and chats away exuberantly whilst swatting away the occasional fly; such a natural thing to do but neatly improvised by Nielsen. Whether flies there were or not this helps create the impression of reality.

As Paul Wegener later said, she was able to show "...the unforced quality of natural events", a rare ability in any age and genuinely amazing to find in a 100 year old film.

This is a rich little tale of complicated bohemian love... Camille agrees to be painted by Paul (Valdemar Psilander), who swiftly falls for her whilst Jean starts seeing Yvette the wife of the aristocratic Simon Pentier.

Blom's direction is as assured as Urban Gad's and again this film shows us an authentic slice of pre-war Danish life with some well-dressed scenary and a stunning range of costumery for Ms Nielsen - I'm no expert on fashion but the opulence of the dresses, hats and coats places this closer to the vibrant twenties than the dour noughties.

In spite of his betrayal, Camille tries to cover for Jean's indiscretions as Simon comes looking for satisfaction and revenge: not everyone can get out of this one alive!

Nielsen escalates the emotional intensity as things reach a climax. She goes into what she described as a kind of trance state as, overcome by the drama, her character's mind races into overdrive. This was her way of pulling the audience towards her and making us work out her thoughts in synchronised sympathy. "I realised that one had to detach oneself completely from one’s surroundings in order to be able to perform an important scene in a dramatic film...." she said later. It's more than a neat trick and it is still working a century later.

There's more forward-thinking acting in The Black Dream, her second film with husband-to-be Urban Gad. This film has an abundance of exterior shots (including some with a window-full of fascinated on-lookers!) that give a great view of contemporary Copenhagen.

There are very few intertitles in any of these films, but this one can have barely half a dozen. This puts the onus on director and actors to tell the story. That they manage this with such subtlety and impact is impressive especially given that this is 1910-11.

Asta Nielsen plays a large part in this but Gad was also a ground-breaker in his own right with his well-paced narratives, surprising range of shots and compositional sense (...around the streets, the actors... Die Asta!).

Story-wise, the The Black Dream is another tale of love, jealousy and, ultimately violence. Asta plays a circus performer, Stella, who rides horses acrobatically in front of her adoring public. She is pursued by the scheming Aldolf Hirsch (Gunnar Helsengreen) but her true love is Johann Graf von Waldberg (Valdemar Psilander).

Hirsch forces himself on Stella and is knocked to the ground by Johann. Hirsch challenges him to a card duel and, presumably cheating, leaves him deafeted and in debt. Unable to raise the money, Johann considers suicide only to be stopped by Stella who has a plan to save them. Will it work or will the evil Hirsch win out?

These are three strong and progressive films that show cinema finding its feet surprisingly early. They also show just why Asta Nielsen became a European phenomena so quickly.

From this point on most of her films were German and, the one remaining danish exception, Towards the Light (Mod Lyset) from 1919, is also included in the Danish Film Institute's DVD set that I watched. It's available from the DFI direct or from BFI and other good retailers.

For those of you who want a poorer quality freebie... Afgrunden is now available for download free from the Internet Archive. But, seriously, don't bother with that, get the best possible quality you can, it's worth it to view one of the greatest performers of the silent era.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Asta Nielsen is... Hamlet (1921)

A new version of Hamlet has just opened at London's Old Vic theatre which places the play in a lunatic asylum and tries to "re-imagine" (is there such a word?!) the main character in this new context.

Sounds challenging and with an apparently amazing star turn from Michael Sheen - must see it. But it's far from the first time a radical re-interpretation has been attempted for this play. Try this for an elevator pitch: Hamlet's actually a woman and all the twists and turns in this drawn out tale of revenge are down to her uncertainty about revealing her true gender! How very bold and modern yet it was all the more so in 1921.

Asta Nielsen was so successful by this point (she was known simply in Germany as Die Asta) that she formed her own film company, Art-Film GmbH, specifically to make this film. Such creative dynamism is reflected throughout the production (co-directed by Heinz Schall and Svend Gade) but is encapsulated by her performance. I've watched a number of her other films but Hamlet shows her at the peak of her powers presenting a naturalistic, believable "prince" at the heart of this daring enterprise.

The film starts by detailing the difficulties in understanding Hamlet's character and mentioning the work of Dr Edward Vining who suggested that the reason for this is that prince was actually a woman. Hamlet's father is nearly killed in battle and in desperation to maintain the bloodline, his queen tells the world that their new baby is male.

The story then weaves itself around the usual narrative in interesting ways with a good deal of subversive sexuality thrown in; Hamlet's appreciative glances at Horatio are priceless whilst for Ophelia... let's just say that it's no surprise she loses it. The drama remains intact though and the freshness of the approach doesn't get in the way of the tragedy that must happen (are you watching Tom Stoppard?!).

Acting Shakespeare in silence was an exceptionally difficult task, so much is about the words, and yet Asta manages to convey the depth of this story without the over-elaboration of many contemporary films and, indeed, some of the players around her. Her eyes are darkly-immense and her range of subtle expression is exceptional: she is in virtually every scene and it's hard to think of a silent film more reliant on a single dramatic player than this (Joan of Arc...).

Her movement is fluid, commanding and assured. Dressed mostly in black with a huge flowing cape, she is the physically dominant figure in the film. In this way she is totally convincing; deliberately avoiding the urge to butch it up and over-elaborate on the guy/girl thing.

I've seen a few Hamlets in my time (Derek Jacobi in the late 70's, Kenneth Branagh in the 90's stand out) and Der Asta stands comparison. It's comparing (adam's) apples with oranges but she's true to the spirit of the play.

I watched the excellent restoration DVD from Edition Filmmuseum which has a great new score composed by Michael Riessler. In addition to a welter of extras it also features the first reel of the sadly incomplete, Die Filmprimadonna from 1913. This film is about a successful actress who takes control of the film-making process. Seven years later Asta did. What a talent she was.

I bagged the last copy from the BFI shop (more on order) but the DVD is available direct from Edition Filmmuseum or through Amazons.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Humanistic horror? The Phantom Carriage (1921)

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) is a renowned film directed by and starring Victor Sjöström. I'd has this on the shelf for some time and,after flipping a coin between it and Häxan, watched it on Halloween. I was expecting an horror story with an atmosphere to fit the occasion, but, what you get from Phantom Carriage is not just ghosts, special effects and the chill of mortality, it's a very human tale that challenges the viewer to wake up and grow up.

The story begins on New Year's Eve at the death bed of a salvation army worker, Edit (Astrid Holm), who calls out for a last visit of one David Holm (Sjöström). But Holm won't come, preferring to carry on getting sloshed in the graveyard with his drinking buddies.

He tells them of a tale concerning a carriage driven by the last person to die in each year, that takes the spirits of the dead to their afterlife. A fight breaks out and Holm himself becomes the last fatality before the clock strikes midnight. He is greeted then by the phantom carriage and its ghostly driver, his friend and the man who first related the tale, Georges (Tore Svennberg). George it was who first led Holm into the life of drunken depravation and here he has come to collect Holm's mortal soul and take it to account for the life he has led.

It is now that the real horror begins as we learn about the un-making of the man through a series of intricate flash backs that gradually tie up the backstory.

Sjöström acts his sock off as the wastrel Holm who gives in to a life of alcoholic self indulgence, dragging down all those around him in the same way he was sucked in. Neglecting those he loves he drinks away health and wealth, forcing his wife to take their children and flee.

He pursues them across Sweden and ends up seeking refuge at the Salvation Army hostel run by Edit. She tries to help him by mending his jacket but he cruelly rips apart her handiwork and tells her he needs no saving. She is not deterred and keeps on trying to help him, ultimately sacrificing her own happiness so that he can be re-united with his family.

But Holm looks beyond help and he seems doomed. It is only when his wife is about to take her own life and those of their children that he finally decides that enough is enough. But is it too late?

This is a pretty uncompromising film that takes any lazy preconceptions by the throat and hands them back to you in pieces. Genuinely moving and thought provoking; the true horror is in what people do to each other and themselves and the chances they let go.

The film's prayer is "Lord, let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped…" and this seems to me a very humanistic sentiment: let me comes to terms with who I am before it is too late.

The Phantom Carriage is superbly constructed with great acting and innovative production - there is extensive use of double exposure to create the transparency of the carriage and its un-living passengers. It deserves its ranking as one of Sjöström's and silent film's very best pictures but not necessarily in the way I expected.

Tribute to the extraordinary and enduring talent of Mr Sjöström... still making people think 90 years on! Jag hälsar er sir!

The Tartan DVD comes with a challenging modern soundtrack composed by KTL a musical duo consisting of Stephen O'Malley (of drone metal funsters Sunn O)))) and Peter Rehberg (Pita). It's not synchronised exactly to the action but interwoven thematically, matching the mood with raw yet delicate tonal extrusions.

Still available from Amazons worldwide.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Proud Flesh (1925) Eleanor Boardman & King Vidor (again!)

"Proud Flesh is King Vidor's gentle farewell to his passing youth..." wrote Charles Silver in programme notes for a 1972 showing of the film at the New York MOMA film department. It was certainly at this point that Vidor spoke to Irving Thalberg and told him that he was "weary of making ephemeral films..."; he wanted to make a film that really stood the test of time.

This Vidor undeniably did with his next film, The Big Parade, but is Proud Flesh all that insubstantial? The film is certainly a fairly simple construct and one that was undeniably built around Eleanor Boardman... designed to show off the former model in a variety of opulent settings, wearing a stunning array of dresses, scarves and, a wonderful silver head-wrap.

If Vidor hadn’t popped the question to his future wife at this point, he was certainly thinking about it as he ensures that she looks great throughout.

The film’s central sequence has her meeting Pat O’Malley on the windswept cliffs at Cypress Point. He arrives to find her running wild, throwing her arms out to the open sea and letting the wind move her around in total freedom. All artifice of class is lost and she just is…and, in this setting, she finally allows herself to fall for him…just as he’d hoped. This section is almost dream-like and another superb set piece along the lines of Vidor’s "boat through the willows" tour de force in Bardleys.

But it’s Boardman’s acting that really elevates proceedings, she’s just so natural and capable. She tells the story with a range of expressions that are believable and engaging even to modern audiences. Not that she’s taxed too much by this tale but she makes the most of it with ease and elegance.

The film is never-the-less, stylish and full of wit, starting off, “for apparently no reason at all” with the San Francisco earthquake during which Boardman’s character, Fernanda Borel is born. She grows up in Spain in upper class circumstances and we see her romanced by the artful Don Diego (played by Harrison Ford…no, not that one), a man who has taken this process to new levels. Don Diego sub contracts the singing and has a band of helpers who help elevate him to Fernanda’s level for she has – “the most charming balcony in Barcelona” (the intertitles are a hoot!).

Fernanda aims to get Don Diego to reveal his true feelings by pretending she is moving to her uncle’s house in San Francisco. Seemingly he doesn’t fall for it and she is forced into following through and emigrating. Don Diego secretly follows her and by the time they are re-united she has already met a wealthy plumber, Pat O’Malley (played by, erm, Pat O’Malley). Finding O’Malley uncouth the Spanish couple tease him relentlessly. But, cruel as she may be, Fernanda does develop a soft spot for the earnest hero.

There are the usual twists and Vidor has us hanging on as long as possible before true love wins out. It's as if he was toying with an already well-trodden story progression and is pushing our response to Fernanda and Don Diego’s cruelty as far as he can. But, Fernada sees sense in the end and returns to the guy who feels it most. Don Diego is broken hearted for all of two minutes – the time it takes him to find a new date in his little black book. O’Malley and Fernanda presumably live happily ever after with the former's pet dog and assured of hot water and efficient central heating for always!

Very engaging even on a zillionth generation copy…another film you’d hope would get a proper DVD release someday.

For, as Charles Silver wrote, “Eleanor Boardman…possessed an ethereal loveliness which could elevate a trifle like Proud Flesh into something resembling art”. Yes, she did... and she could!