Monday, 28 January 2013

Brooks burns out brightly… God’s Gift to Women (1931)

This is one of the few talkies made by Louise Brooks and amongst her last significant roles: her final feature. Within the space of just six years she’d gone from rising star to almost untouchable as the studios dropped and blocked.

Yet here she is alongside Joan Blondell – three months younger and at the start of a long career from talkies to Grease… But, if Louise had had it in her she would have…could have…. As it was she burned bridges like no other and enjoyed the glorious re-evaluation and rediscovery that has done as much than anything else to engender fascination with silent film. After all, if Hollywood could miss out on this transcendent talent what else are we missing?

It’s better to burn out than fade away… and Brooks burned bright indeed before a rapid fade...

24 hour party people... Louise on the left.
God’s Gift isn’t especially to comedy, but it’s an effective if slight film. It uses Brooks to good if limited effect playing a fringeless flapper, part of the mobile 24 hour party people that surround Frank Fay’s character. She’s seen in a fair amount of the film, and in a succession of stunning dresses but the part’s much smaller than say The Show Off: full circle.

Of course the film is also notable as Brooksie speaks and sounds pretty good too… She’s also involved in a hell of a cat fight with Blondell and Margaret Livingston as they compete to look after the seemingly ailing Toto Duryea (Fay). As in her other comedies, Brooks just keeps it real, she hasn’t got Blondell’s humour but anchors the action in naturalism while Fey and others go (way) over the top.

Laura La Plante and Frank Fay
The film was directed by Michael Curtiz based on the play The Devil Was Sick by Jane Hinton and was one of former vaudeville star Frank Fay’s last staring roles. Fay’s character suddenly finds the love of his life, Diana Churchill (Laura La Plante, another star nearing the end) in one of his regular nightclub haunts.

He pursues her but is fended off by her father and has to promise to not see her for six months to prove serious intent. Given a medical by the family’s doctor he is told that he has a weak heart and that the slightest excitement could prove fatal.

All in the best possible taste...
Brooks’ Florine is more than capable of providing this and, descends on Toto, along with Blondell’s Fifi and Livingston’s Tania Donaliff, to nurse him.  There’s a series of gratuitous shots as each woman goes off to change after they arrive… Fay reacts like a character in a Carry on (we’re only missing Sid James’ lascivious snigger…or Kenneth Connor’s “coorr!”…) as we’re treated to glimpses of silken lingerie: Blondell even has a nurse’s outfit.

Joan Blondell and Frank Fay
So far so pre-code and Blondell in particular excels, she was a natural comedic actress with great timing and delivery – no surprise that she made a great paring with Glenda Farrell in so many comedies.

The only surprise is why the girls fancy the aging lothario in the first place and why he choses La Plant’s rather dour character over the looks of Brooks or Blondell’s good cheer.

Can Toto resists them all and hold out for Diana against all the odds?

Margaret Livingston, Brooks and Blondell
I watched God’s Gift to Women on the just-released Warner Archives DVD. It’s a good print and a film I’d recommend to all friends of Louise. Blondell is the stand out but Fay also plays his part.

He married Barbara Stanwyck in 1928 and it has been said that their relationship formed the basis of A Star is Born. What goes up must come down, what matters is that you have your moment and Louise Brooks certainly had those.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Mob mortality… The Hit (1984)

Michael Caine once said to Bob Hoskins that there’d only been three decent British gangster films and they’d been in all three: Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. To that list I’d certainly add Stephen Frears’ metaphysical The Hit staring Caine's old mucker Terry Stamp.

To some of us locals, British crime films can be either too violent or just too American: we don’t have the guns and style of the Yanks, so why pretend otherwise? Brit-crime should be determinedly un-stylish and not directed by Guy Richie…

The Hit left a mark when I first saw it in the cinema by avoiding the enduring cliché of the genre. Yes there was violence and a dramatic situation but the film was more philosophical than psychotic.

Braddock considers his options
It touches on the deepest and most everyday fears of all, that of our own mortality and the time when death turns from distant possibility to rapidly approaching certainty (we kid ourselves otherwise…). To this end, the situation is almost secondary… all of the characters are living in mortal fear,  but just a little more focused than normal.

Staring a rejuvenated Terence Stamp as super-grass Willie Parker, the story follows his betrayal of his gang-mates in the early 70s. He’d sold them out because he couldn’t face going back inside, a prosaic and self-interested decision which certainly doesn’t make him look like the hero in the courtroom where his former gang mates send him off with a chorus of We’ll Meet Again.

Willie, the Boys and a be-wigged Jim Broadbent
We re-join Willie a decade later living a life of nervy solitude, hiding away in southern Spain with a constant bodyguard courtesy of the local police. Willie has found a new erudition with his apartment artfully decorated and the walls lined with books on philosophy and art.

But as he returns home ahead of his guard Willie is kidnapped by a group of local youths. They drag him off to remote exchange with two men: hit man Mr Braddock (John Hurt) and his apprentice, Myron (an impossibly young Tim Roth).  The Brits booby-trap the gang’s payment but leave one alive… the first of a string of crucial mistakes.

Soon after the police, led by a senior officer played by the great Fernando Rey, are seen interviewing the survivor – the pursuit is on.

Terry and Johnny
Willie overcomes his initial shock and appears supernaturally calm with his new captors… This is especially disconcerting for Myron: he only expects fear.  Willie continues an open commentary on his situation as if he’s almost on the same side as the assassins and he succeeds in unnerving even the experienced and intelligent Braddock. They are to smuggle him to Paris where he is to meet the gang’s leader (70’s pop singer Lenny Peters in a forceful yet wordless cameo) before the end: this is revenge served cold.

Willie overhears a news report detailing his abduction and Braddock is persuaded to change car in a Madrid safe house. But on arriving at the flat they find one of their paymaster’s associates Harry (Bill Hunter, vulnerably venal) holed up with a young lady friend Maggie (Laura del Sol).

John Hurt, Bill Hunter, Tim Roth and Terence Stamp
Harry’s heard too much – Willie makes certain of that - but Braddock gives him a chance by taking Maggie as insurance. As they’re about to leave Willie puts a seed of doubt in his mind and Braddock returns to find Harry phoning the police… the reward was too big a temptation.

The pace shifts as Maggie starts to have her own impact on the group dynamic. She has a fierceness and desperate need to live which contrasts with Willie’s studied acceptance: he is ready but she most definitely is not.

Laura del Sol and John Hurt
Willie continues to amaze Myron with his sang froid and skilfully drives a wedge between the young man and Braddock. At the same time Myron can’t help but let his attraction for the Spanish firebrand over-rule calculating self preservation. Braddock seemingly has no such conflict but his suppressed desire is evidenced in a number of physical confrontations with the girl.

One such battle takes place when he takes Maggie to get some petrol… she bites a clump of skin off his hand but he holds back from killing her: “you’re a very lucky girl” he later says, heart over-ruling head.

On their return he finds Myron asleep and Willie, rather than escaping is just over the hill staring in wonder at a waterfall. Braddock and Willie have their most direct exchange in the whole film Willie playing down the fear of death: “ …it’s as natural as breathing”.

They approach the border with the police close behind… the final act is played out with stunning unpredictability. 

This was Stamp’s first starring role in some time and he is superb, covering the shift from self conscious betrayal to Zen calm when life catches up with him. He’s always been great at conveying uncertain meanings in his look and here he masterfully misdirects our feelings at least some of the time…

Terence Stamp
He’s matched by John Hurt who plays against type carrying an air of martial competency you wouldn’t expect, with utter conviction. I was reminded of Ben Kinsgley in that other decent Brit crime caper Sexy Beast… also produced by Jeremy Thomas The Hit’s producer.

With these two at the centre both Laura del Sol and Tim Roth excel. Del Sol’s no-holds barred ferocity acts as the counter-point to Stamp’s fatalism whilst Roth kicks off his distinguished film career in fine style as the trainee psychopath. He’s the only one who doesn’t sense the proximity of his own death…

John Hurt
The Hit is not a film you can just walk away from and each viewing  always reveals new shades of meaning. Very few British films matched Frear’s output in the 80s and he perhaps doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for bringing a uniquely British sensibility to thrillers, from Gumshoe to The Hit and onto Dirty Pretty Things. His next film was to be My Beautiful Laundrette.

The Hit is widely available but the one to go for is the Criterion Edition which comes complete with the usual trimmings - a commentary from Frears, Roth and Hurt, an 1988 interview with Stamp on Parkinson and a lengthy essay from Graham Fuller.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The prestige… Cagliostro (1929)

Hans Stüwe
So many silent films have been completely lost and others are shadows of their former selves - are we to be any less stricken at a film that is only partially intact: half empty of half full?  Richard Oswald’s tantalisingly incomplete Cagliostro - Liebe und Leben eines großen Abenteurers survives in just enough quantity to show us what it probably was....

This edition has been painstakingly reconstructed by the French Cinematheque in collaboration with Potemkin films. It is based on a 9.5mm Baby Pathé abridgement (intended for family viewing) and one surviving reel of 35mm including some censored scenes featuring startling nudity - their removal from view ironically ensuring their eventual survival and public display 80 years on.

In the court of the Capetian King...
Based on Johannes von Guenther's novel about the life of Joseph Balsamo, alias the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, an Italian occultist, adventurer and freemason-adventurer (make what you will of that and pretty much the whole of his life story)… Oswald’s film is grand in scope and still has impact even in truncated form.

Hans Stüwe is impressively larger than life as Cagliostro, charming the courts of Europe with his prestidigitation and legerdemain. He turns lead into gold in some wonderfully atmospheric shots and sets the scenes with audacious use of a disco-ball…

Studio 1784
Seemingly he believes his own hype and calls for sick people that he can make better. But it may be more trickery and part of his attempt to gain social stature… moving ever closer to kings and queens. These early scenes feature elaborate mis-en-scene and expressionist flourishes that build up Cagliostro’s mystery.

Stüwe is striking enough to carry this off but he’s less convincing as a paramour and his love affair with Lorenza (Renée Héribel) initially lacks conviction, but maybe this was left on the Pathe cutting room floor? He woos Lorenza in a missing section and we quickly learn that it was not the adventurer Cagliostro she fell for but the man Balsamo who, for a time, stopped the circus.

Suzanne Bianchetti and Hans Stüwe
The couple journey to France in 1784 and find the country on the verge of uprising with economic strife compounded by uncaring royalty. In the midst of a political rally they encounter a disenfranchised noblewoman, Jeanne de la Motte (Illa Meery) a descendant of Henry II fallen on hard times: the “Barefoot Countessa”. Cagliostro takes her under his wing and vows to restore her fortune at the same time seeing a way into royal favour.

Charles Dullin
A number of characters have been lost in the cut and others have been reduced: Charles Dullin as Marquis de Espada-Comte de Breteil, is seen all too briefly for most of the film. An admirer of Lorenza the Marquis views Cagliostro as a fraud and is intent on exposing him and grabbing the girl.

In lavish surroundings, Cagliostro presents Jeanne to the court and raises money to help her, she is accepted back into royal patronage and becomes the Queen’s lady in waiting.

Illa Meery, not just bare feet...
But the Italian blows his big chance as his tricks don’t come off and he fails to impress King Louis XVI (Edmond Van Daële) and Marie-Antoinette (Suzanne Bianchetti) – has the Marquis sabotaged his act? In trying to redeem himself Cagliostro shows the Queen her future, Oswald cleverly zooming in on the magician’s eye to show Marie Antoinette’s final moments at la guillotine…

Alfred Abel
Cagliostro is banished from court but he plots revenge and calls in a favour from Jeanne to persuade Prince de Rohan (Alfred Abel) to buy an exceptionally expensive necklace for Marie-Antoinette with whom he is besotted. The con goes off well and we see Jeanne parading around in the Queen’s finery and little else. Cagliostro is strangely unmoved, perhaps his love for Lorenza is starting to affect his moral judgement although he still steals the jewels back.

But the game is soon up and Cagliostro is given over to the Marquis de Espada for questioning in his hi-tech arabesque palace – sliding doors and automated. Tied to a pillar he breaks free as the Marquis’ “questions” Lorenza in front of him… the anti gradually being striped away to reveal just  the hero.

Hans Stüwe and Suzanne Bianchetti
They escape back to Italy were they finally think they have finally found their freedom. only to be arrested by the Inquisition (no one expects the Italian Inquisition do they?) intent on punishing necromancy. Locked in Piranesi-esque dungeons, their doom fast approaches and, as Cagliostro finally seems to have caught up with the steadfast Lorenza’s feelings, they seem to have only hope left for happiness…

Elaborate imprisonment
The DVD comes with two soundtrack options which make for fascinating comparison.

There’s a DJ Cam cut up which could be perfectly suited to what is in effect a cut up of a film. He sounds very much like a Gallic version of the great DJ Shadow (a jazzier Endtroducing…?) but, even though his invention is entertaining, it lacks emotional flexibility and rides rough-shod over some of the narrative.

The piano accompaniment from Mathieu Regnault is more period appropriate and moves with the story. I understood the action more with his playing and had a better connection… there’s some lovely phrasing and it’s just more sympatico.

Both musicians make the very most of what remains and so should we. It’s difficult to make a case for this being up there with The Chess Player and other late silent era period classics, but it’s good looking and well played. The story is intact and there is sufficient drama left to have you on the edge of your seat right till the end.

The DVD is available direct from Potemkin although I got mine from the lovely BFI shop. It features an extensive booklet (tout en Français) including a fascinating essay written for May 1929 editions of Cinémagazine by Marcel Carné who was an assistant on the film. Whilst referencing lost scenes such as an apparently large-scale village fete, Carné elaborates on the set design and underlines the considerable will of his German director who, speaking hardly any French, had this film in the can within 60 days.

Not bad going for a multi-national blockbuster that interweaves so much of courtesans, kings and conjuring...

Friday, 11 January 2013

Tunnel of love… Underground (1928)

Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi
My first trip to the BFI this year and an unexpectedly rewarding one. Having once read a lukewarm review of Anthony Asquith’s second feature (his first as sole director) I was expecting an interesting film with an excellent orchestral score from Neil Brand. But the film proved to be surprisingly strong and a joy for trainspotter and cinéaste alike.

Anthony Asquith was the son of a British Prime Minister and his high-bearing has seemingly hindered his proper recognition as one of this country’s leading silent film directors. But the restoration of this previously almost un-watchable film, along with A Cottage on Dartmoor, has enabled a thorough re-assessment of his ability.

Waterloo rush hour
Underground is a confidently made film which wears its European influences proudly on its sleeve using expressionist and montage techniques which make the most of the four excellent central performances and some great London locations.

There’s a fight scene that features swift inter-cutting and point of view shots and which continues to echo in one of the characters thoughts as he strokes his wounded chin plotting his revenge… the camera tracks one of the characters as she leaves a power station and speed s up to a run at full tilt and then there’s a bold sequence of the two lovers on an open top bus speeding through fascinating London streets (South of the river I think, from Waterloo to  Kennington?).

Most of all, there’s the Underground itself. The film opens and closes with the same shot of a tube train entering and then leaving a station. Asquith could have chosen any location but he plumped for the stylishly subterranean: the “Tube” …then as now a crowded and unpredictable transport system, full of every aspect of humanity, all in enforced and unpredictable interaction.

Norah Baring and Brian Aherne
The opening sequence is precious and very familiar for those, like myself, who undertake this most egalitarian of commutes … Asquith relishes the scene as passengers squeeze on  board  and vie for seats. We focus on one particular seemingly uncouth character, Bert (Cyril McLaglen) who sneaks into a seat left by one more chivalrous traveler for a woman. But Bert changes tone when an attractive young woman Nell (Elissa Landi) sits next to him and tries to impress her but she’s too sharp for him and throws his hat over at some schoolboys.

Bert’s not to be deterred though and follows Nell as she tries to exit at the Waterloo Station escalators… here she meets a entirely more attractive proposition, Underground Porter Bill (Brian Aherne) who helps her on her way and then delays Bert by tripping him.

The story is run on co-incidence and the constant reconnection of the component characters is often achieved through simple chance… it matters not and adds a gentle sense of dislocation to an otherwise realistic narrative.

So it is that Bert somehow tracks Nell down to the store where she works and tries to romance her. He ends up with a bouquet but little else as it is clear she has another already firmly  in mind.

Cyril McLaglen and Brian Aherne
At the pub Bert drowns his sorrows and when Bill arrives there’s a scrap in which the porter emerges victorious and the electrician has his lights punched out. But Bert’s not one to forgive and forget. He persuades Kate (Norah Baring), a poor seamstress who rooms in his digs to help him gain revenge. For some reason the girls has a crush on Bert and having previously discarded her, he promises marriage if she’ll accuse Bill of assault in front of Nell and the swaying passengers of the Bakerloo Line.

The plan seemingly works and Bill faces ruin if found guilty. But Nell doesn’t believe it and, following Kate’s visit to her store to buy adornments for her impending nuptials, Nell puts two and two together and sets off to clear Bill…

Brian Aherne helps Norah Baring
The drama ramps up considerably but I won’t say more: it’s well worth a night out. Needless to say there’s a chase scene which would give many a modern adventure a run for its money: relentless and suspenseful, “visceral” as Neil Brand said.

The leads are all outstanding, with only McLaglen bringing a little ham; he still makes a convincing “bad sort” and is just the wrong side of “likeable rogue”.  Elissa Landi is a very striking actress with a protean smile: you wonder how she’s going to finish off some of her expressions… happiness that twists imperceptibly to a frown. She's very in the moment and, from the sound of it, quite under-used in subsequent Hollywood films. Oh and if you thought Asquith was posh, Elissa was a descendant of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria (yes, that one!).

Norah Baring and Brian Aherne
Brian Aherne makes a very ‘andsome man in a uniform and an upstanding leading man: you really want him and Nell to work out. But it’s Norah Baring who has to handle the most tortuous transitions, alone in her room, distraught and unable to channel her romantic devastation except through the displacement activity of aligning her flower pots. A nuanced performance that near rips your heart out.

The post-prandial panel discussion was also very lively with the man from the London Tansport Museum revealing the back story to the Tube’s golden age and pointing out the odd “blooper” such as  the use of Northern Line carriages on the Bakerloo Line as well as some scenes shot in Waterloo and City Line carriages…he was sure there was a logical explanation.

Bryony Dixon highlighted Asquith’s experience of international film including a period in Germany at UFA and a working holiday with Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks. Underground is most notable for Asquith’s decision to focus on the lives of ordinary folk breaking with the English obsession with period drama and the lives of our social betters. Here was a story for everyman.

The Rivals
Neil Brand was still flowing along to his musical response to the film. After his success with Blackmail he had sweated hard over “second album syndrome” with this emotionally unpredictable film. He completely re-worked his first half hour once he’d become attuned to the story’s core. The archivists and restorers play their vital roles but only the musician’s get to actually work alongside the directors.

His approach is to score the music along with the individual moments in the narrative and let the story arc take its course. This is particularly important in a film like Underground in which events unfold in unpredictable ways. Here his music had an energy and urgency which perfectly complemented the pace of Asquith’s film. Lovely stuff – even if it was slightly out of sync due to a BFI technical glitch.

Elissa Landi and Cyril McLaglen
There's an interesting video on the BFI website discussing the film and the story of the restoration. And, if you go to the Barbican site there's a podcast with Neil Brand talking about his score.

Underground now begins national release in the UK and will get a DVD release in the summer – catch it if you can to see a British silent film director every bit the equal of Hitchcock.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Betty and Lon go boating… Nomads of the North (1920)

Betty Blythe and Lon Chaney
Sometimes you have to work a bit harder to really connect with a silent film: they don’t always contain ground-breaking techniques or anachronistic naturalism. With Nomads of the North it’s more a question of just letting go and trying to enjoy it for what it was intended to be in 1920.

The film certainly caught the attention of my two teenage “critics” and that, if anything confirmed that it is still viable entertainment after almost 93 years: pet bears, forest fires and a good man wronged by the cheats around him… all that and will he get the girl?

Directed with economy and some flair by David Hartford, Nomads of the North was based on the popular novel by James Oliver Curwood – a purveyor of dramatic “pot-boilers” featuring similar themes of love, betrayal and decency in the end. Things change but maybe not that much… popular entertainment still requires skill and they can’t all be middle-brow Euro art films.

The film is set in the wilds of Canada, “God's great wilderness” (not a million miles from Nell Shipman’s latest adventure no doubt…) in a small community thriving on timber and trapping. 

Here the main draw is Nanette Roland - the film’s star Betty Blythe, Theda Bara’s nominal replacement at Fox and accordingly later to reveal a lot more as The Queen of Sheba and She. Nanette not only attracts the attention of the local Mountie Corporal O'Connor (Lewis Stone) but also the sleezeball son of the local business leader, Buck McDougall (Francis McDonald)

But Nanette is pledged to Raoul Challoner (Lon Chaney: all limbs still attached, his real face uncovered… playing the romantic lead…), a fur trapper who has long been missing. She dotes on her gravely ill father (Spottiswoode Aitken) who is too infirm to work leaving his family in debt to the McDougalls.

Lon Chaney and friend
One of Buck’s men reports that Raoul has been killed and, following the death of old man Roland, Nanette is forced into marriage with Buck. But…! Just as she’s about to pledge herself, Raoul arrives to save the day.

The couple only gain brief respite as Buck continues to try and remove Raoul, attacking him with his side-kick. Raoul is too strong and fights them off but in doing so accidentally kills the other man. Accused of murder, he is chained in the room below the McDougalls’ house awaiting the sheriff and a host of phoney testimonies from the family’s hired hands.

Betty Blythe is armed
Nanette will not accept this fate and bravely rescues her man and the two head off into the wilderness with his adopted pets a Grizzly Bear called Neewa and a dog called Brimstone. These two get quite a lot of airtime but were still able to impress my youngsters…

Melbourne MacDowell and Francis McDonald

Time passes and Nanette and Raoul are seen in domestic bliss with their two animals and their new child.

It’s been over three years but sadly they get recognised by Buck. He waits for his chance and tries to blackmail Nanette into leaving Raoul for him but she fends him off with the aid of the pets. Then Buck tells Corporal O'Connor who sets off to arrest Raoul...

Lon Chaney, Betty Blythe and Louis Stone
The climax of the film is pretty impressive, as a forest fire ranges all around and we’re not sure which way the protagonists will fall right to the close. Apparently both Blythe and Chaney were injured during this fire which was actually set up on the back lot using fake trees. It served the drama very well.

No spoilers, you really should watch this as it was intended: a wholesome drama about love and steadfast morality.

This is melodrama and that can be problematic for the modern sophisticate… but both the leads do well. The style is pantomime and whilst not as subtle as the likes of Pickford, Gish and Talmadge, Blythe does a decent job. Chaney has the most expressive face but he seems to be holding back in this role…  was that script or direction? Maybe I’m too aware of the range he was to demonstrate in later roles.

Francis McDonald makes a good baddy as Buck but Lewis Stone almost steals the show as the decent Corporal O'Connor… the Mounties may always get their man but perhaps not always their woman… Stone had a long career and was one of the Stars of Grand Hotel, Queen Christina and other successful talkies.

Louis Stone
I watched the Image Entertainment DVD which is produced from a pretty good 35mm print – no restoration just good preservation. It features a fascinating score performed by Robert Israel on a vintage Fotoplayer – a multi-roll piano/organ equipped with sound effects, which was used to accompany silent films at the time.

The second film on the DVD is The Shock, which is more typical Chaney fare and again features an Israel score, this time played by an orchestra.

Both films from when cinema was fun, cast aside your preconceptions and just enjoy…

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Turkish delight… The Chess Player (1927)

A mechanical chess player known as The Turk defeated almost all opponents from 1770 to 1854 and baffled the best minds of Europe including Napoleon Bonaparte (not to mention Benjamin Franklin). Remarkably it was only “exposed” in the 1820s... some trick.

In Raymond Bernard’s 1927 film, The Chess Player, a similar device is used to hide the leader of the Polish forces from the occupying Russian army. It’s an ingenious mix of illusory fact with fiction.

Charles Dullin and friend
Clearly treading a similar path to Abel Gance, Bernard’s film is full of camera mobility, rapid cross-cutting and attempts to show the inner lives of its characters.

Set in Eighteenth Century Poland after the Russian invasion of 1776, the film was adapted from the novel by Henry Dupuis-Mazuel and stars Pierre Blanchar as the pig-tailed Polish noble, Boleslas Vorowski, a master chess player and military leader.

Empress Catherine II’s troops have over-run Poland and the armies from both sides work in uneasy alliance sharing quarters in Boleslas’ home town of Vilnius. On the outskirts lives the inventor Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin) a man who’s genius has earned him royal favour and yet who seems to harbour deep agendas.

His ward, Sophie Novinska (Edith Jehanne) is seen as a symbol of Polish independence with her face painted on the army’s standards and yet she may not be entirely all she seems… Even though she loves him like a brother, she does not reciprocate Bolselas’ romantic feelings and instead is drawn to his unlikely best friend, a Russian officer Serge Oblomoff (Pierre Batcheff)… a decent enough chap in spite of the heavy foundation and powdered wig – fashion eh?

Edith Jehanne and Pierre Batcheff
Boleslas plays chess against the Russian Major Nicolaieff (Camille Bert) as the officer’s relax in the mess. A Polish ballerina, Wanda (Jackie Monnier), performs for them but this is not enough for some of the Russians who pursue her into a locked room… Boleslas rushes to her aid and starts a fight that sparks a war.

The Poles succeed in driving the Russians from Vilnius but they are eventually defeated by the latter’s superior numbers. The battle is filmed in style by Bernard with camera’s tracking the cavalry charge and with dynamic inter-cutting showing different facets of the chaos.

Sophie watches on in tortured isolation from her grand house… hoping for the survival of both her friends and appalled at the deaths in her name. Jehanne emotes superbly, playing out her grief on the piano – very 1927 but very effective.

Boleslas survives the battle but is badly wounded, as the Russians search him out the Baron has an idea…

Pierre Blanchar and Charles Dullin
The second half of the film shows the tour of The Turk, a mechanical chess player which conceals the recuperating Boleslas. Accompanied by von Kempelen, Sophie and Wanda, the mechanical wonder beats all comers and travels ever closer to Germany and freedom.

But, Major Nicolaieff recognises the playing style in losing to the machine and realises that the clock-work grand master hides a secret. He persuades their host, King Stanislas, to send the Turk to the Empress in St Petersburg… out of the frying pan…
Catherine's a great big cheat...
At court the Empress is highly amused by this new toy but orders it to be executed after she fails to beat it and tries to cheat… Boleslas sweeps all the pieces from the board (the real Turk would also react similarly to any moves outside the rules).

It is also revealed that the Empress knows Sophie’s real heritage and that she is a Russian princess and she sends Nicolaieff off to the Baron’s castle to find the evidence required to destroy Sophie’s credibility…

Pierre Blanchar and Edith Jehanne
Can Boleslas be rescued from the firing squad, who will Sophie chose between pigtaled and powder-puff princes and will the cause of Polish independence be maintained?

There’s a lot packed into the last part of the film and it feels very much like a novel turned to film with Bernard cramming in as many resolutions as possible.

Camille Bert gets a shock...
But The Chess Player also contains some stunning sequences especially those at the Baron’s castle when Nicolaieff encounters the full extent of his invention in one of the most macabre silent set pieces I’ve seen.

I watched the Milestone DVD which uses the restoration overseen by Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury and David Gill. It is enhanced by Henri Rabaud’s stirring new score performed by the Orchestre de Radio-Television-Luxembourg ably conducted by Carl Davis.