Monday, 27 July 2015

The league of extraordinary gentlefolk… The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Chaney in torment
After only a few weeks I’m playing off the Queen of Spades with The Ace of Hearts, although, with Hearts being trumps, the former wins this round. The Ace of Hearts is close though and is the kind of dark mystery melodrama you’d expect more from Europe than Hollywood.

Secret societies, death pacts, hidden agendas… all undermined by love – human weakness defining human strength in the face of ruthless and cold-hearted, organised killing in the name of progress… the more things change…

The Brotherhood of the greater good...
The film is a compelling pulp fiction in ten chapters that are economically-focused by director Wallace Worsley, he of The Penalty and The Hunchback… (both with this film’s star, Lon Chaney), who here brings Gouverneur Morris’ adventure novel to life on screen.

Farallone (Lon Chaney) belongs to a secret society along with several well-dressed middle-aged men, Forrest (John Bowers) and a lone lady, Lilith (Leatrice Joy). We’re never given much background on the group’s reason for being but we do know that the members are devoted to the cause – a dig at contemporary extremism perhaps in the wake of the Great War?

The Group monitor and then dispose, as required, of degenerates who are in breach of their moral code a modus operandi expressed by vague references to their targets’ short-comings. For their latest mark Forrest has been working as a waiter in the restaurant frequented by the “person who has lived to long” whilst friend Farallone has been painting his painting for three months.

The ”Brotherhood” use non-specific phrases: we don’t know who they are fighting against and what their “enemies” have done but, we give them the benefit of the doubt as they seem to be the good guys… Which reminds me of a Mitchell and Webb sketch in which they play SS soldiers with one turning to the other and, pointing to the death’s head on their caps, asking whether they might be, you know, the “bad guys”?

John Bowers, Leatrice Joy and Lon Chaney stride into the wind and rain
The Brotherhood’s target has had the power and opportunities to make the world better… but he has “made it worse”. It is not explained how and why but the Brothers and Sister are convinced they have this right and that the man has “lived too long”.

Grimly they pass round the cards and the one who gets the – you guessed it – Ace of Hearts – will have the duty of committing the act and terminating the life of this individual and making the World in general better for his exclusion.

At a time when individuals – tsars, kings, kaisers, generals, priests and revolutionaries – counted arguably more than they do now, you can sense the root appeal of this logic especially form a country in which assassination has been attempted so often on their president.

Here it acts as a curious means of forcing the hands of the three central characters who had previously been locked in an unresolved triangle of affection. Forrest gets the Ace and Lilith offers him her hand in eth hope that love will make him lucky; not just love of “The Cause” but for each other! Now, this would exclude all third parties and Farallone is especially concerned about that…

He is heartbroken and in a moving sequence watches the newly-married couple’s new home all night, standing looking up in the forlorn hope that something will change in his favour. No one stands in sorrow quite as well as Lon Chaney and here he is drenched through for good measure: there’s no singing but it is raining.

It should have been him…

Game's up mate...
Preparations are made and Forrest just has to bide his time until the appointed time to place the bomb that will kill the target and possibly him as well. But the couple’s union has brought a change of perspective and Lilith says: “Hatred seems so wrong - now that we have love.”…

But Forrest’s resolve seems strong and as he encounters an exhausted Farallone on their steps he reiterates his conviction and asks the other man to look after Lillian if he doesn’t survive.

The tension mounts as Forrest sets about his preparation in the café and Lilith goes to Farallone for help, Worsley cuts between the two scenes as Farallone realises his love for Lilith could never really be reciprocated whilst Forrest witnesses two young lovers sat right next to where his target will sit… In the face of such romantic innocence can he complete his task to kill he who must be killed at the cost of their lives…

Finally The Menace (Raymond Hatton) arrives and takes his regular seat. Forrest stands over him his mind in turmoil. If he doesn’t kill the man he knows his own life will be forfeit, the Brotherhood have strict rules so, who does he kill, the Menace and Young Love or his own chance for happiness?

No spoilers… The Ace of Hearts follows its own romantic arc as love for The Cause is challenged by love for each other with passion, compassion and loyalty all rising up in the face of the cold-blooded accountancy of the Brotherhood who are every bit as bad as the men they judge. In the end the Ace of Hearts trumps all else and that’s as it should be.

You may think that’s a bit soppy but I don’t think the position has changed much between the post-war years and modern conflicts in which automatons play an increasing role in despatching “high priority” targets.

The central cast all perform well In spite of John Bowers occasionally reminding me of David Walliams. Leatrice Joy (the future Mrs J Gilbert) shows a good range as the woman who finds love runs far deeper than any mere “cause” whilst Lon Chaney is as extraordinarily expressive as ever in showing that true love involves sacrifice as well as conviction.

Whaddaya mean Davd Walliams?!
I watched the DVD from the TCM Lon Chaney set which is enlivened by a stirring original score from Vivek Maddala. It’s available direct or from Amazon.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Acadian fire… Evangeline (1929)

Ye who believe in affection that hopes, and endures, and is patient,
Ye who believe in the beauty and strength of woman’s devotion,
List to the mournful tradition, still sung by the pines of the forest;
List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.

In 1755 British soldiers deported a group of French-Canadians, Aradians, who refused to join with the Empire in fighting their French challengers. The communities were forcibly removed from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – up to 11,500 from a total population of 14,000… one of the first large-scale population redistribution and a large scale operation for the British.

In 1847 the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, is an epic poem that follows an Acadian girl named Evangeline and her search for her lost love Gabriel, set during the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians.

It became the poet's most famous piece and remains one of his most enduring works in spite of the inevitable historical inaccuracies... since when have poets been required to be historically accurate?
Never-the-less thousands of lives were lost and the British were responsible for a high-mountain of human misery.

In 1929 Edwin Carewe made a film version starring Dolores del Rio, shot in Louisiana and more about the poem than the history. The film was silent but featured a Vitaphone soundtrack – don’t you just love transitional technology: always some great innovation but never as prosaically-practical as the eventual winning technology!

Delores sings?
For this Milestone DVD the majority of the sound disks were used which adds tremendously to the atmosphere and authenticity if not the hi-fidelity. You get to hear Miss del Rio (or someone else) sing and as with all things Vitaphone, the soundtrack is not directly synched with the dialogue just music, songs and sound effects. There are a few audio segments missing and so pianist Philip Carli filled in sympathetically for Hugo Riesenfeld’s music.

The impression quickly gained from this film is one of scale as well as poetic emotional sweep: this is definitely a tone poem and not a book adaptation and the rhythms are quite operatic: Evangeline is found singing to herself as she works away in her impossibly sweet cottage whilst her love Gabriel (Roland Drew) sweeps into the harbour not on wings but posed heroically on the bow of a fishing boat.

Roland Drew sweeping...
We see Father Felician (Alec B. Francis) strolling along the harbour surrounded by innocents and accompanied by lengthy dolly shot that introduces the town of Grand Pre in Acadie, then the toothless fiddler Michael (Bobby Mack) who will provide much comic relief even played against the stern Notary Rene la Blanc (George F. Marion).

To the main players, the alpha leader blacksmith Basil (James A. Marcus), father of Gabriel and the richest farmer in the town, Benedict Bellefontaine (Paul McAllister) and his son Baptiste (Donald Reed) who, for all his charms can’t prevent Evangeline’s heart beating for Gabriel even for a second: theirs is a steadfast passion – far more than that as we will see..

Now the sailor is returned it is a time to celebrate and Edwin Carewe directs a cast of thousands with aplomb and there are some gorgeous set-pieces captured by the cameras of Robert Kurrle and Al M. Green. A marriage contract is drawn up and signed in good humour and the community gathers again to witness the wedding of the year.

Meanwhile, the British have been getting set for war with those pesky Frenchies and the time has come to force them off King George II’s soil. The British Governor-General (Louis Payne) impresses the need for the Arcadians to join in the fight but they are reluctant to battle their fellow Frenchmen.

The march to the church
Now, dear reader, this is one of those moments in film historicals when the delicate Brit must look away in shame (my clan were variously Irish and Scottish at this point or Shropshire peasants so I’m taking no blame) but that aside, there’s no doubt this film is as kind to the “Mother country” as it could be. Most of the blame for the bad behaviour is laid at the table of Colonel Winslow (Lee Shumway) whose rogue, hot-headedness leads to the worst of consequences: the reality was far more organised and shameful.

The British army arrives just as Evangeline and Gabriel are being married – with hundreds of heavily-armed red-coats descending on the thousands of peaceful revelers (a bit like an early nineties rave after the Essex Constabulary turn up at 3AM Eternal…). The men are ordered into the church in which they are told they will pay the price for their insubordination: they will all be deported south and have their families broken up and their property destroyed.

Acadia burns as the boats start to take its citizens away
This genuinely-shocking development changes the tone of the film – and things get a whole lot darker form this point on as things kick off in a desperate struggle inside the church only halted by the appeals of Father Felician.

British guns mean that there can be no compromise and the community is dispersed - with contemporary images of mass-displacement all too fresh in the mind, this is, again, unsettling. The Army is relentless, not giving a fig for man, woman or child and the families and the lovers are split and taken away on boats.

As long as waters flow, their love will endure...
The months roll by and we follow Evangeline as she follows her search for her Gabriel: theirs is a true love and one that will endure “as long as waters flow…” You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be pulled in by this one and sometimes melodrama just works in spite of yourself.

Great composition and camerawork...
The film is lovely to look at and has the air of unreality required to match the poet’s phrases. Roland Drew and Delores del Rio make for a lovely lovelorn couple – the latter may not be one of the very best actors but she has an ethereality all of her own and is easily the stand-out performer.

Dolores del Rio
It’s also great to hear her “sing” her song – a theme apparently written by Billy Rose and one Al Jolson.

Evangeline is available from those nice Milestone people and is available direct from their shop – shipping is quick and very reliable!

Buy the Milestone DVD!

Friday, 17 July 2015

In the city… London in Victorian and Edwardian film (1890-1911), BFI

As our compere, Bryony Dixon, BFI’s curator of silent film, said as she surveyed the room, it was great to see the BFI’s largest cinema packed full for the sake of “some knackered old film”. Ms Dixon was on top form, showing her archive off to an appreciative crowd with expert accompaniment from Mr Neil Brand, providing not only her unique insight but also some silent stand-up to the occasional detriment of Ealing (come on, Ealing can take it!).

But the film wasn’t knackered at all, just incredibly old and in some cases jaw-dropping, 64mm of high-quality tones marking the heaving streets on Holborn and in front of St Paul’s, capturing historical events and, amazingly, your actual gun smoke from the Sidney Street siege – something I never suspected even existed.

Fleet Street with St Pauls above the smoke
From anarchist turned film-maker Wordsworth Donisthorpe’s precious ten frames of Trafalgar Square in 1890, through the repeated short bursts of 40 feet-limited Victorian film reels to the recently restored and frankly very lovely, Living London (1904) we were treated to a view of the past few of us had entirely expected. 

But the real surprise was how connected we felt to this monochrome city of relentless brick, slate and unknowable waterways. Even now, after the horses and carts have largely gone and so many buildings have crumbled under wrecking balls, bombs and planning blunders and when ruthless re-development has carelessly stabbed alien angularity across the skyline… the heart of Victorian empire feels much the same; as recognisable and atmospherically-specific as Rome.

Turns out, the London nobody knows is actually a place we all feel from the timeless song lines of tube, train, tram and Thames.

Notting Hill and Oxford Street an old-new view
As if to underline this enduring connectivity, the first film of the evening was made in 2012 using a vintage hand-cranked wooden camera: how tomorrow looks with yesterday’s glasses… Directed by Joseph Ernst, Londoners started off with workers leaving a factory and continued its Mitchell & Kenyon-inspired journey across the faces of modern London. The film is uncanny with the camera getting the same response as it would have done a century ago; the same hand waves, beaming grins and tom-foolery. Yes the subjects were amused by the antiquity but they couldn’t resist their natural response to being watched. Far more fun than a selfie.

I especially liked the sequence at legendary biker hangout, the Ace Café – it’s as if the Leather Boys never left…

2012 Leather Boys and Girls at the Ace
Then we went way back to the Lumiere Brothers showing people leaving a cinématographe showing in 1896 an occasion entirely choreographed by the film-makers – I wonder how much Victorian extras got paid?

We saw some street dancing along to a barrel organ from 1898 before viewing an RW Paul film on the Derby whose characteristic track invasion seems to have continued from 1895 to the first fiction of the night made in 1911 to modern times. Then we were treated to more sport with the all-toffs Boat Race… regrettably won by Cambridge (probably with the help of semi-pro ringers from the US).

The Queen Vic
Then we were treated to Queen Victoria enjoying (possibly) her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 in a sequence of genuinely historical content… her son, future King Edward VII appears to pause his horse for effect before carrying on and we see him again at her funeral in 1901, his coronation in 1902 and his own funeral in 1910.

Then we have the Sidney Street siege and the suffragettes London in your face a city of unease and attitude a place where things really happen.

Can you spot Winston peering out along Sidney Street?
It could have been a very bitty evening but Ms Dixon had sequenced her films well and we were treated to a build-up of images that were framed in common context, the Houses of Parliament from the Thames, Fleet Street…like a David Hockney photo collage the images tricked the mind into perceiving  deeper dimensions and we became lost in Mother London.

Vital suppliers are shipped from Bermondsey!
But it wasn’t just the West End and we were taken on a tour of the boroughs from Seven Sisters Road (always a jam up there!), down to the Peek Frean’s Factory in “Biscuit Town” Bermondsey  and out West on a Metro Land ghost train and from thence to the aforementioned Ealing.

HMS Albion hits the water - watch it on the BFI Player!
Then there was the living Thames-side, crammed with docks at Blackfriars Bridge in 1896 and then launching a warship, HMS Albion, at Blackwall in 1899 – the days when Londoners built ships rather than just insured them! Then Petticoat Lane market before the market analysts moved in and Euston Road in1899 when buses were still pulled by yer actual horse power – two in most cases.  There was the occasional shock of the odd horse-less carriage but they weren’t really moving fast enough to worry about.

The Bank of England and all that horse power...
All of this was melded together not only by Bryony’s expert commentary but by Neil Brand’s music: so many improvised themes that, as with the images, were to coalesce, forming a unity of sound and structure.  Straight from the hip: a city symphony!

Let’s have more of this please BFI and not just London; there’s a nifty film of Liverpool’s overhead railway the Lumiere’s took in 1896 and I’ll bet there’s a decent evening to be based around England’s second city – or, as my Nan might say, the first?

Most of these films are available on the  BFI Player but as a collective experience with cineastes, compere and composer, this was something special.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Concerto for the conscience… Blackmail (1929), Saffron Hall with Timothy Brock, BBC Symphony Orchestra

When the Hitchcock Nine restorations were premiered through 2012 this is one I managed to miss – the big one! The film was screened with a full orchestra playing Neil Brand’s score at the British Museum but I was on holiday… I thought about cancelling, but, you know…

Anyway, patience is its own reward, especially if a second chance comes your way, which is why I set off in search of Saffron Walden (no, you can’t really turn straight off the M11, you need to go via Stansted Mountfitchet… or at least print out a map Paul!) to see the film being screened with Timothy Brock conducting the mighty BBC Symphony Orchestra in playing Mr Brand’s score and… I don’t think things could have been any better at the Museum.

Impressive, isn't it?
Saffron Hall is a purpose-built concert hall tacked onto Saffron Walden County High School; it has a generous stage with more than enough room for an 80 plus piece orchestra, excellent acoustics – we were wrapped in sound – and very comfy chairs. We kicked back and re-watched Blackmail in a new context as Anny Ondra’s gaze drew us in once more.
Blackmail shows how massively an evening can go wrong and how anyone can be dragged into a new world in an instant - a world that floods your very being with the sickness of guilt and the dread of consequence. It is also clearly about desire – Miss Ondra is at the centre of almost the whole story – and the danger of following you primal heart too far, as Cyril Ritchard’s character, the artist Mr Crewe, finds out.

Every aspect of Alice's life is changed...
It is also a morally open film that challenges the audience to adjust their expectations even 86 years after release – we’re all guilty and complicit by the end with the director putting us all in the picture. 

We root for Anny’s character Alice White (see what he did..?) and we hope she and her policeman Frank (John Longden) will find themselves after the twist of hate that leaves the more clearly-defined bad-guy, Mr Tracy, the blackmailer of the title, conveniently in the frame. But the ending is purposefully ambiguous – you can escape “justice”, even get away with murder but in the end, the characters will judge themselves and each other. That much is clear when Frank’s previously supportive hand, drifts slowly away from Alice’s hand…

Tracy applies the pressure...
The restoration is of course superb leaving the images as spic and span as when they were first projected and from our vantage point we were eye-level with the sequence of marvelous location shots, close-ups and interplays that make this film one of Hitchcock’s most visually pleasing. Everything that was to come is pretty much in this film and it is one of the most disciplined of British silent films that almost needs no titles cards to explain itself.

All of which has been a gift to Neil Brand  and his composition manages to amplify the film’s emotional content whilst carefully under-scoring the narrative by matching the director’s pacing. There are powerful Herrmann chords and huge emotional shifts that well up in tune with the tears at the corner of Anny’s eyes. There are also interjections that sum up the re-assuring, yet humorous presence of a policeman even in the moments leading up to Alice’s crisis. These details are the essence of Hitchcock’s very British appeal and Neil obviously knows him very well!

Music and role-play what could possibly go wrong?
Timothy Brock’s orchestration brings out the full flavour of Brand’s score and the orchestra was simply irresistible creating that unique meld of sound and vision that can make silent film the most truly immersive of all cinema – yes, even without IMAX, 3D and maximum volume. It is “hot media” alright calling on the instinctive 90% of our communication that does not rely on spoken words and filling that missing 10% with a sweet overload of sounds in sympathy.

Donald Calthrop
This succeeds in adding flavour to the expression on view with great performances brought into new focus. Cyril Ritchard’s artist is a typically-nuanced creation: was he intending to go all the way with Alice, maybe not at first but certainly after she’d put on the ballet dress and subsequently re-buffed him. Even in these desperate moments we still expect him to back down and to be the gentleman he appeared to be.

Donald Calthrop’s Tracy is a mean man, preying on the vulnerable and living off other’s misfortune. Nothing will prevent him from trying to take advantage of Alice and Frank’s situation and yet when the tables are turned his own fear is brought to the surface, bringing out Alice’s compassion even when it may cost her dearly.

John Longden
John Longden’s Detective Frank Webber, is all action in the opening sequence and appears to be pure metropolitan police blue-blooded. He’s dedicated to his work and often leaves his girlfriend Alice waiting, she is seeking more adventure and dumps him for the artist and yet he is still willing to help. Doubts appear at the end making Frank feel even more real.

But it’s really all about Anny as Alice runs the full gamut from bored tease to a girl who will fight for her life and then condemn her own actions: she was well-brought up in that news agent! We saw it all and as a modern audience have no doubt it was self-defence but how did contemporary audiences feel. Perhaps the clue is on Anny’s face as she walks out of the police station at the end: eyes glazed and in a daze.

Hitchcock’s later films were more specifically about blood and horror here the fear is so much more effective for being contained: there is no blood, just repeated images of the knife, knives, the dead man’s hand resonating in others' hands: Alice is haunted by her actions and we can only hope Fred or someone else will help relieve her burden.

Blackmail is available but, frustratingly and unlike The Lodger, the restored version has not yet been released. As with that film it really does deserve a dual-disc release with Neil and Timothy’s music on it. OK, who’s in charge? When do we start the petition!?