Saturday, 25 June 2016

House of cards… La maison du mystère (1923)

I must admit to some trepidation in taking on Flicker Alley’s three-disc collection of this serial – who has the time for the best part of seven hours of serial especially when the British summer is actually happening outside, as we speak!?

But, after a couple of episodes still peaking at the garden, nipping out to clear some weeds and eat salad, I was hooked and it turns out that you can very easily make the time to find out what happens in this tense thriller. Unlike many earlier serials, La maison du mystère (The House of Mystery), isn’t really episodic and plays like the chapters in the book, by Jules Mary, it was based on. It’s effectively one long narrative often picking up directly after the events of the previous episode.

As such it holds your attention and you never feel there’s any padding or artificial rounding off to make the stories fit within the format: the film-makers respected their audience and only now can we see their full intent by watching each element back-to-back – there was no box-set gorging in 1923; you had to wait a week at a time!

For a French production this is, of course very Russian with Alexandre Volkoff directing and Ivan Mozzhukhin (as Ivan Mosjoukine) acting and co-scripting with Volkoff. The two maintain a superb continuity throughout and keep a tight rein on the narrative which could so easily sprawl.

The tone is playful and inventive with each episode featuring a flick of the director’s wrist: a wedding shown entirely in silhouette, an overhead shot of a group of police officers suddenly emerging and circling around a wanted man and a breathless chase across a broken wooden bridge with four men holding hands to hold it together – a sequence that lasts for half an episode and could easily have come from a much later era.

The Human Bridge
Volkoff and Mozzhukhin never tire of their story and across the years it was made – 1921-23 – and the decades covered by the story, they maintain integrity and tension: they never repeat themselves and fit in stories within each episode which add extra weight and flavour. It’s a rich experience and you feel exactly like you’ve just read a good book.

Jules Mary was known for writing around miscarriages of justice and this story is no different and, whilst I usually hate stories about innocents proved guilty, you have to see this one through to make sure that justice, if at all possible, is done. To this extent it does feel very “modern” HBO or Netflix with victory not easily won and with a magnetic star every bit as capable as John Hamm or Kevin Spacey with a “European” sensibility quite unlike Hollywood at the time – Mozzhukhin looks at the camera with worrying intensity and is matched by the malevolent complexity of   the remarkable Charles Vanel who would enjoy a 77 year career including Clouzot’s Wages of Fear and Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.

Charles Vanel
Ivan Mozzhukhin (as Ivan Mosjoukine) plays Julien Villandrit the inheritor of a large mill who lives in a large country mansion in neighbouring grounds. When first encountered he is an excited youth, sprinting in shirt-sleeves to propose to the daughter of his neighbours, Régine de Bettigny (Hélène Darly). He’s so nervous he could burst and behaves with gauche uncertainty as he tries to build up the courage to pop the question to Régine’s parents.

The Mill and the House
Permission duly granted he bounds off home unable to contain himself and literally bumps into his best friend, Henri Corradin (Charles Vanel) who has also, secretly held hopes for Régine. As Julien hangs upside down from a tree, Corradin is speechless, full of loathing for this undeserving loon…

Hélène Darly and Ivan Mozzhukhin
And so it begins, as Hell has no fury like an industrialist scorned, and hatred brews that will shape the lives of this unequal triangle for ever.

A retired banker, Marjory (played by Bartkevitch) is a gentle giant who seems exceptionally fond of Régine but also her mother (Nina Raievska) gently embracing her hand as her ailing husband sleeps outside their opulent “cottage”. Then there’s the woodcutter Rudeberg (Nicolas Koline) a man of no fixed moustache and a keen amateur photographer…he is a camera and the camera rarely lies… although sometimes it withholds what it knows…

Nicolas Koline
We move forward to Julien and Régine’s happy marriage which is shown in a stunning sequence of silhouetted tableaux – it’s the type of device that sets silent hearts all a flutter and had me calling the rest of the family in to re-watch it. It’s a remarkable play – like shadow puppets but with each actor clearly discernible and in character: Julien and Régine tender and Corradin, thwarted, sneaking down stairs; making plans.

Corradin schemes
The pieces are in place but it will take a full seven years before the drama will really begin… this is a “long firm” of  a story: payback will take all but every one of the serial’s 400 minutes. Moving on… the young couple now have a precocious daughter, Christiane (Simone Genevois) – their family complete. Already turning slightly grey with the agony of disappointment, Corradin smirks when Julien struggles with the Mill’s financial difficulties and is determined that he must not only succeed, his friend must fail… totally.

Julien confronts Marjory
He focuses attention on the kindly Marjory who, in addition to secretly bailing out the mill –  repeatedly paying their outstanding bills – is also inordinately fond of Régine: really, really fond. Julien’s not made of stone and he soon begins to doubt the old man at first banning him from their house after one generosity to many and then violently confronting him. But, as Julien storms homeward, the old banker follows and, collapsing from the effort, reveals the truth: he is Régine’s father but this must never be revealed.

Julien runs for help but whilst he’s away, another assailant appears and is caught on camera by the shocked Rudeberg who snaps the old man’s final moments; its grim struggle mirrored in his lens.

Rudeberg's lens sees all
By the time Julien returns with help the picture he has described is far from what is found: it’s murder and he is very much in the frame…

Thus begins Julien’s epic struggle to prove his innocence and, after he is incarcerated, to get free to rescue his family and to bring the murderer and his traitorous friend to justice. Over the course of the series he adopts many disguises: itinerant, clown, foreign legionnaire – they all serve in the war – and disabled veteran who works for the Mill unrecognised.

It's an epic
Christiane grows up (to become Francine Mussey – whose open, pretty face impressed my son no end…) and never forgets her father – meeting him once when she is seven and then again after the war when she begins to help him. She form a life-long attachment for Pascal (Vladimir Strizhevsky), Rudeberg’s son which is bitter-sweet as his father has used his photographs of the murder to not only blackmail Corradin into supporting the boy but has, as a result, condemned her father to his half-life in prison and then on the run…

Francine Mussey
It’s a complex tale that unfolds at novel pace… and watching it almost all at once is not the way to fully appreciate it – filming took two years for various reasons, and audiences would have agonising waits between each episode: a huge dramatic tension guaranteeing their interest. More like old analogue TV and not digital-on-demand.

The actors are all superb, Varnel treading an expert line between friend and foe and Hélène Darly enduring years of faint hope and almost certain degradation. Nicolas Koline epitomises their shared skill of character consistency and the film’s efforts to show the moral frailty in extremes as he does the right thing by his son but is largely to blame for the whole long mess.

Hélène Darly
And Ivan… Ivan is simply magnificent; one of the very best performers of the era here allowed to go the full Alec Guiness/Lon Chaney in a succession of disguises whilst all the time his charcter gets older, worn down by war and defeat… yet still with hope and the unqualified, unwavering love of his wife and daughter.

The set is available direct from Flicker Alley or Amazon and comes with an energetic new score from Neil Brand: a musical marathon which retains common themes and under-pins events in perfect sympathy – it’s full of winning lines and carries a steadfast charm that is very much the story of Julien and Régine’s love and hope.

Ivan of many faces
Also included is a slideshow of rare production stills and a 12-page booklet featuring extensive notes about the serial’s cast and crew compiled by Lenny Borger and David Robinson.

It’s essential for all fans of Monsieur Mosjoukine and inventive European silent cinema.


  1. It's a wonderful, wonderful serial. Visually beautiful, well-paced, and with very little fat to the story. I didn't like Charles Vanel as much as you - he didn't do a bad job, but the character was so obviously the bad guy that one wonders why anyone liked or trusted him to begin with - but in general it's a great cast. I'm so happy that Flicker Alley released this on DVD.

    1. He was pretty obvious I suppose but Julien clearly wasn't great at paying attention - his business was always suffering. He learned a lot in prison! There is so much in this series and they really do keep the pace up.{