Monday, 26 September 2016

The Big Countries…The Ghost That Never Returns (1930)/Hell’s Hinges (1916), Barbican with The Dodge Brothers

Long-time no Dodge for me and it was off to the September-sunlit steps of the brutalist Barbican for a double dose of specialist silent skiffling and much more. There’s enduring debate among silent cineastes about “correct” musical accompaniment with some opting for tradition and others favouring experimentation. I can see both sides but the key is always respect for the source material and music that works with and not over the visuals.

The Dodge Brothers provide that perfect blend and somehow the roots music of post-war(s) America played by modern musicians works well not just with Soviet psycho-drama but with one of the great templates of the Western genre. Neil Brand anchors the team as you’d expect but the Brothers Dodge are not only a very tight band they’re clearly in love with the subject matter too.

The party's started in Hell's Hinges: where's John Gilbert?
Dancing’s frowned upon ‘round these parts but it’s hard not to respond to the music in upbeat moments especially when the band starts chugging along in forceful unison as Jose Real travels by train to his day of freedom or when Blaze Tracy decides his town is going straight to Hell.

But the ensemble also plays it slow and atmospheric proving that their unique brand of Americana is remarkably flexible especially with the addition of a Theremin bassist Mark Kermode described as impossible to play and yet which he controlled with a steady hand and perfect pitch.

The Very Big Country, USSR circa 1929...
Mike Hammond leads this emotionally intelligent music, providing big guitar lines that floated carefully across the epic landscapes of both movies. Aly Hirji provided rhythm guitars, Alex Hammond percussion – including washboard! - and Mr Kermode is on bass as well as that socialist synthesiser, designed by a Russian, Léon Theremin, in 1928 to be playable by all.

Apparently it was not unusual for silent films to use local bands for accompaniment and following in that tradition the Dodge’s improvised most of the score working from title cards and not sheet music. A few contemporaneous tunes were included, again as per common practice, but the music of the moment proved the most compelling with Neil Brand’s piano sounding so at home in this context.

Boris Ferdinandov
This was the first time I’d seen The Ghost That Never Returns (Prividenie, kotoroe ne vozvrashchaetsya) and Abram Room’s direction did not disappoint those, like me who are readily impressed by the insanely-cut montage and the rabid experimentalism of Soviet silents.

The film features an impressive set showing prisoners held in cells stacked high in front of an inhumane controller. Ghosts in the machine, these men are doomed to hard labour at an unspecified South American oil field crushed by an industry serving only the greed of their grotesque and unknowable masters.

If a man survives ten years here, he is allowed a single day’s freedom on the condition that he returns… If he tries to run, he will be shot and,so far, no one has ever returned.

Jail from Hell
Jose Real (Boris Ferdinandov) is our hero and a man involved in syndicalist resistance against the grinding industrial-political axis. His day is coming and he receives a message that he is needed. At the same time Jose knows he will not survive his day-off… but he takes the chance all the same.

He catches a train – cue Dodge-overdrive – and eats a hearty lunch with a man on the train. As his wife and family get ready to greet him he sleeps through his stop and has to jump train many miles onward. He is followed by the man he met,who turns out to be the officer detailed to man mark him for the day, a strange chap, skilfully wielding a gun but also fond of wild-flowers… if only he could be liberated by socialism?

Missing his stop and his wife
In truth there are more than a few off-beat moments such as this; mad cowboys who play pool more intent on aggressive posturing than potting (“remind you of anyone?” as our Theresa May might say…). Never let it be said that a sense of humour was missing in these early years of the first Five Year Plan.

Will Jose make it back to see his wife and child? Will he escape his destiny or create a new one? The answer is probably in the strength of collective action; the dialectic moves film-makers in mysterious yet hugely entertaining ways.

Can't find my way home...
Mark Kermode said that an extra reel of the film has now been found in Germany and that this could explain more of the definitive narrative and yet… it’s a mood piece that works well in its abstracted form.

Now we headed back 14 years to California and the magnificent Hell's Hinges (1916). I’ve previously written about this film and it was a joy to see it on screen and with this live accompaniment.

Bob falls for the fallen Dolly
Directed by Charles Swickard along with an uncredited William S. Hart and Clifford Smith there is something proto-soviet about the film’s masses of people (I’m reminded Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear with its large-scale choreography…masses of humanity trailing behind their leader, waiting for an answer) some of whom were John Gilbert and Jean Hersholt.

The town of Hell’s Hinges is in a state of constant motion as the human collateral surges from good to bad and random acts of brutality. There’s matter of fact-ness about life and death in the town emphasised by these inhuman crowds and it’s no surprise that the chances of Christian ministry surviving long are so slim.

Alfred Hollingsworth takes cover
But these two films are linked by “The Struggle” whether collectivist or Christian and, in both cases there are near impossible odds.

All that I’ve said about Hell’s Hinges still stands with knobs on and William S Hart is a force of hyper-nature: a wild man tamed by the truth-force of Clara Williams’ Faith Henley even as her feckless, faithless brother Robert (Jack Standing) fades away… Bob the Preacher: can he fix it? Can he heck…

Sleazy Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) sets him up for seduction with Dolly (Louise Glaum) and his resistance lasts about as long as it takes him to stroll form his newly-built chapel to the Saloon…

Blaze and the locals listen to Faith's faith
This ain’t gonna end well… and the resultant conflagration is a tsunami of ultra-violence rained down on this septic patch of ground by a Blaze inflamed by righteous indignation. Another failed western community destroyed in order for the survivors to move on with the (holy) spirit burning that much more brightly.

As with The Ghost… Hell's Hinges ends with The Struggle about to continue.

All the best tunes...
It also left us wanting more… Neil, Mark, Al… how about a Beggars encore next time?!

More details of the band are on their website. They have plans to release The Ghost on DVD and one hopes that their other film scores will also see the digital light of day.

Never The End...


  1. Thanks for the review! It's refreshing that you covered the music in as much detail as the film.

    1. You're very welcome! The music is so important for any silent film and here we had the perfect balance: a really lovely afternoon's cinema!