Thursday, 21 January 2016

Smooth criminal… The Rat (1925), Kennington Bioscope with Cyrus Gabrysch

The year is now officially underway with the first Bioscope of 2016 and what a grand way to start with a rarely-seen British thriller featuring one of our leading men, Ivor Novello, a striking young man who for those unfamiliar is not unlike a leaner Valentino.

Novello co-wrote the script and the original stage play with Constance Collier and starred in both along with two no doubt smashing sequels - The Triumph of the Rat (1926) and The Return of the Rat (1929). This is the kind of character Hitchcock was casting in The Lodger – a contemporary leading man without peer in the UK and with a refined dramatic style that reflected a supernatural wit.

The Jeans Genie and the Thin White Duke
Directed by Graham Cutts, who enjoyed a long career from silents like The White Shadow to Three Men in a Boat (1933) and Aren’t Men Beasts! (1937), The Rat is highly stylised:  part crime caper/part love story. Crime for love’s sake, money for art’s sake… even when forced to share his last bacon rasher, The Rat still prefers to return stolen items as if the thieving of them has not satisfied him enough.

Novello prowls the opening sequences with delicious intent, Top Cat more than King Rat, breaking hearts for a living whilst being looked after by the steadfast Odile Etrange played by Mae Marsh – with whom he’d been in a DW Griffith film the previous year. He’d played a conflicted preacher, Joseph Beaugarde in The White Rose but here as Pierre Boucheron, The Rat, he has no qualms to slow down his criminal style.

 The Rat is at ease with himself, equally adept at making women fall for him as he is at throwing his cap and dagger at the wall in order to create an instant hat stand – that’s a trick for me to work on in our hallway… We first see him on the run from the police, hiding under a man-hole as they stand overhead, unaware enough for him to slice the shoelaces off one man’s shoe.

He frequents a lively nightclub called the White Coffin Club where the prevailing ethos seems to be burning out before fading away… and where the coffin-shaped doorways and general décor are simply to die for…  The redoubtable Marie Ault is superb as Mère Colline, the WCC’s mistress of ceremonies whilst the striking Julie Suedo as Mou Mou is one of Rat’s former lovers, scrapping with other contenders and ripping her skirt to dance a dirty tango with our anti-hero.

The White Coffin Club: check out the coffin-shaped doors
 Cutts' direction involves a good deal of fluid camera movement and this is seen especially well in the Club as Hal Young’s camera darts to specific characters to focus attention and to show the dimensions of their own dangerous movements – the knife fight between Rat and a jealous competitor and the dance with Mou Mou. Young had previously worked in the USA whilst Cutts had spent time in German studios and, in addition to the movement, there is some fine chiaroscuro lighting – shadows falling all too easily over Ivor’s fine-lines - a face that wasn’t made for feeding: cheekbones so sharp they could cut people dead.

Julie Suedo as Mou Mou
The editing is also cute, assured enough to allow conclusions to be reached before narrative explanation is required. Mou Mou rows with Rose (Iris Grey) and the cut goes nonchalantly from their staring each other out to a medium range shot of a tussle on the floor: this is not called the White Coffin Club for nothing. Rose fights with another ex-suitor and the object of their affection forces them to kiss and make up on the floor… there’s some frankly Germanic stuff going down.

Elsewhere there is grander entertainment as rich manipulator Herman Stetz (Robert Scholtz) treats his much younger lady friend Zélie de Chaumet (Isabel Jeans) to some culture. The dance sequences are spectacular and well filmed. Zélie is a thrill-seeker, slightly bored with it all but little does she know that her purse has just been appropriated from under her bored nose by the notorious Rat…

Stetz and his young squeeze...
Meanwhile Stetz is investigating the Coffin Club as a venue to stimulate her interest, he swans in trying to own the place but is eventually re-buffed by the smarter moves of The Rat. Undeterred he directs his aide to bring Zélie and her party: this is just the kind of decadence she will love.

Zélie arrives and duly becomes captivated by the dark-eyed, flop-fringed smooth criminal and the two engage in a middle-distance flirt off, he preening, she seething, especially after dropping her hankie and giving the biggest sequence of come-hithers imaginable. Eventually the irresistible object succumbs to irresistible force and there will be trouble ahead.

Zélie and The Rat
Meanwhile… Mae Marsh is fretting away in the background and steadfastly looking after Rat. She even takes his flick-knife to the Coffin Club where she draws the attention of Stetz… there are some uncomfortable moments between the two – is she an abused heading inevitably to another abuser – more specifically an actual, physical abuser rather than someone who just takes her for granted.

The second half of the film begins to play these themes out and is less entertaining than the more light-hearted first. In what has time and again been described as a period of stylistic struggle for domestic film, The Rat proved that our sense of humour and irony was a feature of our silent cinema and this was much appreciated by a full-house audience of considerable demographic diversity – I swear some of the denizens of the White Coffin Club may have dropped in for the night…

Odile and her Rat
As our four protagonists cross-partner, the dangers become acute and Odile’s selflessness threatens not just liberty but her life as well… Can The Rat save her; can he save even himself?!

Cyrus Gabrysch played some wonderfully fluid lines alongside the film and had a ball with Novello’s musicality: there’s a reason the songwriter’s best moments are in a nightclub.

Down in the sewers...
Tonight’s under-card was a diverse treat from an intriguing last surviving reel of a Danish gothic thriller, The House of Fatal Love 1919) featuring one of my favourites, Clara Pontoppidan, in flash-back being bricked in by an enraged lover whose read too much Edgar Allen Poe. Then there was A Trip to the White Sea Fisheries (1909), Joseph Rosenthal’s astonishing footage of the North Sea fishing fleet which shows the perfect storms the fishermen faced and yet amidst all the everyday dangers they still find time to muck about, throwing the day’s catch at each other and bobbing for apples whilst tied upside down (just wait for next Halloween!).

In keeping with tonight’s theme there was also Alice Rattled by Rats, a 1925 Disney cartoon featuring a live action Alice, dozens of dirty rats and Julius the Cat (Felix’s cousin?). Top Cat John Sweeney played along before rushing off to Bristol for more slapstick than you can shake a stick at!

Waiting for The Man?

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful article, a old-age fashion with story. GRT job.