Monday, 15 May 2017

Ivor’s engine… The Man Without Desire (1923), Stephen Horne, Abbeydale Picturehouse, Yorkshire Silent Film Festival

Sheffield’s Abbeydale Picturehouse had been operating for three years when a group of bright young things conceived this oddly affecting drama perhaps in one of London’s more cutting edge West End licenced establishments… Absinthe may have been consumed as director Adrian Brunel and his producers, Miles Mander and Ivor Novello conceived a story across the decades of Venetian love gone cold. “My God, a man losing his passion: can you imagine it Manders?!” Ivor might have said… “Oh ya, and boys, let’s film on location – I’ve got a wizard idea to place a camera on a gondola in the Grand Canal…”

Organiser-in-chief, Johnny Best said that having opened the festival with Novello in excelsis with The Lodger, he wanted to programme this earlier film by way of comparison. It’s certainly not as polished as the Hitchcock film but it is always good to see British film from the early twenties: there’s just not enough of it about.

Luckily The Man Without Desire is on the BFI Player BUT without this place – the Abbeydale is pure cinema in its decayed glory, propped up entirely by stubborn passion – and this remarkable accompanist it won’t be the same. Live cinema equals film plus place, music and audience and Sheffield has done silent film proud.

Ivor plays... Steve Howe had one of these (probably more)
Mr Horne brought the bells and whistles if not the kitchen sink and performed the seeming impossible flute, accordion and piano solo-three-piece we’ve come to expect and yet never fail to be impressed by. He also brought some of his finest romantic themes along and lifted what is an occasionally lumpy film to the emotional heights the producers intended.

Ivor’s not the finished Novello but he still makes for a remarkable leading man especially one with a dark secret that’s two hundred years’ old. He’s also aided by the strikingly lovely Nina Vanna as the woman he loves across those centuries: she carries off Regency and Jazz-age equally well and is as eye-catching as her leading man.

The story is an unlikely one but if you take a purely metaphysical view, entirely plausible… (yeah).

Modern men
We begin in 1923 as a strange post-dated solicitor’s letter is opened and read out to a group of specially requested men: they all settle back for a long read…

The document takes us back to Venice just after 1800 and one Count Vittorio Dandolo (Novello) who is persistently serenading a beautiful woman who stands at her window paying power-puff penance for marrying a real count. She is Leonora (Nina Vanna) and her suffering is caused by Count Almoro (Sergio Mari) off galivanting with premier-league courtesan Foscolina (Dorothy Warren).

Finally she allows Vittorio to climb up to her balcony and reveals the reason she cannot smile for him: she has a son and cannot break from her horrible husband. But Vittorio cannot leave it and neither can Almoro who begin to circle around each other.

Nina Vanna and Ivor
Before what will be, will be, Vittorio meets a very unusual and gregarious, scientist named Mawdesley (Christopher Walker) who is experimenting with, Indian mysticism and suspended animation as you do. The two become firm friends well in time for the big blow up…

Stories have been circulating about Count Almoro and he has the writer’s hands broken in punishment… revenge is planned as Almoro’s maid Luigia (Jane Dryden) drops poison into his drink whilst attempting to deliver a love letter from Vittorio to Leonora… The treachery is uncovered and Almoro forces his wife to drink the wine in order to prove her innocence. This she does, as she is, but pays the price just in time to kiss farewell to her lover who then makes short work of the murderous Almoro.

Y'see, it's all quite simple really...
Pursued by the law and in total despair, Vittorio has no way out except, that is, being sent to sleep for two hundred years by Mawdesley to escape, both grief and retribution.

Back in 1923 the solicitors despatch a doctor, Roger (also Christopher Walker) to establish the likelihood of these event and do indeed succeed in waking Vittorio. They leave him to fully “wake up” which even I with no medical training, can see is risky… so it proves as the confused Count makes his way to the Almoro family home unaware of the time of day, let alone the year.

He encounters a woman every bit as lovely as Leonora, her descendent Genevia – also Nina V – and her cousin, every bit as obnoxious as his forebear, Gordi (Sergio too).

Meet the decendants
There are some nice touches as Vittorio discovers this strange new world of telephones and motorised transport and, as he sampled a rolled-up cigarette on a motor boat in the lagoon, Stephen threw in a few bars familiar to those who used to smoke Hamlet cigars, which got one of the biggest laughs of the day.

But the good humour cannot last. Mawdesley warned that there could be a price to pay for this escape to eternity… and well, you’ll just have to see it on the BFIPlayer!

The shock of the new.
It’s an enjoyable film for all its quirks and occasionally over-deliberate pacing. It’s location shoot doesn’t get overplayed but then they probably weren’t there for that long and who needs Venice when you have Ivor and Nina?

The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival continues until the end of May, full details on their site.


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