Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Here’s Hobart! Behind the Door (1919), Neil Brand, BFI

I was slightly confused by what sounded like a war story being termed as one of the first great horror films until Behind the Door showed its true colours as the unmentionable became undeniable and the limits to which Hobart Bosworth could take human rage were defined in the crowd-silencing dénouement.

Well, almost silent, there was a nervous laugh but you don’t get off that lightly man in row C… still thinking about it I’ll bet!

If Edgar Allen Poe scripted silent films they’d all be a bit like this one although for much of the film, you just wouldn’t necessarily see the closing sequences coming. There are indicators though including the moment when Bosworth’s character, Oscar Krug, fights the alpha males of his village after they make the sadly all too modern assumption that if he has a foreign name he must be “alien” and disloyal. Well, he proves them wrong and whups the lot in one of the most blood-caked and realistic slugfests of the era.

Not bad for a fifty-something and to cap it all he even gets the girl, Alice Morse (the 23-year old Jane Novak). Bosworth still looks handy and he has a rare intensity that not only makes him a convincing pugilist and leader of men but also a taxidermist with a lighter side… A young girl’s dolly gets run over by a cart – for a second you think it might be a child – and Krug stiches it together good as new.

The film flashes backwards and forwards so many times you almost forget who the “narrator” is and I’m looking forward to re-watching when the Flicker Alley DVD is released next month to see how the opening moments marry up with the last.

It’s 1926, or thereabouts and a silver haired sailor has finally returned home, resting at the grave of his best friend, Bill Tavish (James Gordon), the only one who would have greeted him. He makes his way into town and to a dilapidated taxidermist’s shop where local boys throw stones through the windows and he no longer has the strength to stop them.

He enters and collapses onto his worktop as he finds a piece of fabric… it was hers, the woman he loved and, presumably, lost.

Hobart Bosworth
We go back to 1917, when he was happy with Alice, daughter of weasely local bank manager Matthew Morse (J. P. Lockney) who disapproves of his daughter seeing this former sailor.

Things come to a head when America enters the war and, encouraged by banker Morse, the locals decide that hangin’s too good for anyone with a Geman name even one who was born in the USA and has already served his country.

Jane Novak
Oscar sees them off and earns the eternal respect of Tavish and the two enlist for the war. As they set sail, Alice, having been disowned for marrying her man, joins him on his voyage, stowing away as a nurse but, just as they are reunited, a U-Boat spots them and unleashes a torpedo amidships: the vessel has no chance but Oscar will do what every captain and husband would do.

After days at sea in a rudderless lifeboat, Oscar and Alice look doomed but then a submarine arrives and they think it’s salvation. The submarine is the same one that sank their ship and is captained by Lieutenant Brandt (Wallace Beery), a man for whom the word ruthless could have been invented and whose hand is offered not in friendship to Alice but with far more sinister motive.

Wallace Beery
He takes her and leaves Oscar to drown… pretty much the same level of foolhardy provocation as leaving Liam Neilson your mobile phone number after kidnapping his daughter.

I’ll stop the story here as to say anymore will spoil the brutal surprises in store: see it and be shocked!

Tonight’s show featured  Neil Brand accompanying and was sold out – Bryony Dixon was delighted as were those of us lucky enough to grab a ticket! (Don’t despair, there’s some good news down below… )

Robert Byrne, President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival introduced and described Neil’s playing as bringing the film to life and so he did from the almost homely early sequences to the bloody battle, torpedo strike and the sickly horrors of the close he was on top of the story, synchronising style and substance with a practiced edge.

This restoration has been a labour of love for Robert who professed to knowing every frame after years of involvement in merging three sources together including some key action sequences acquired from Hobart Bosworth’s personal collection. The film is almost complete and thanks to original source materials they were able to use the original title script on the Russian print that formed the majority of this nearly lost film.

The restoration also includes the tints and tones that director Irvin Willat used in atypical ways to strengthen his narrative: not just red for anger and blue for night; the colours and the feelings run far deeper than that.

The Flicker Alley DVD/BluRay is released on 4th April and features Stephen Horne along with a host of extras. You can order it direct.

The film is being screened again with Stephen playing his score live at the BFI on 1st April – I would urge you to book right now to avoid disappointment – one of the silent shocks of the year awaits you! Don’t miss it!!

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