Sunday, 16 January 2022

Blood and Sand (1922), Daan van den Hurk and Tijn van der Sanden, Nederland’s Silent Film Festival

To the Spaniard, the love of the bullfight is inborn. A heritage of barbarism – its heroes embody the bravery of the knights of old…


Enter Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella for the opening screening of this year’s Nederland’s Silent Film Festival, playing a bullfighter and a Latin lover with a sexuality as exotic in his own way as Pola Negri (don’t mention the funeral) and other Europeans deployed by Hollywood to break boundaries and post-Victorian taboo. Valentino’s Juan Gallardo is driven by desire in life and love, and whilst being a masculine ideal is also at the mercy of his passions when torn between his true love Carmen the wanton Doña Sol, a spoilt, rich man-killing vamp who dominates and discards at will.


Blood and Sand leaves you emotionally rung with its derivative charm, wearing its Bizet firmly on its embroidered sleeve, elevated by superb performances and, as we now know, Dorothy Arzner’s innovative editing making us feel the heat of the bullfight even when matador, the bull and “the beast with ten thousand heads” are thousands of miles apart. As festival director, Daan van den Hurk said, no bulls were harmed in the making of this film, but it seems so purely because Arzner’s editing of stock bullfighting footage and Fred Niblo’s shots is seamless. The frenzy and the threat feel real as Juan takes on man and beast in a “sport” the film clearly disapproves of.


Daan was also multi-tasking, providing stirring accompaniment with the assistance of flamenco guitarist Tijn van der Sanden whose fleet fingered flourishes added diegetic immediacy to the film as well as dramatic flavouring. I loved the way the two worked together and it sounded fantastic on my new speakers, not as good as live but hopefully one day we’ll all be in the same room.


Meet the family

June Mathis wrote the screenplay based on Thomas Cushing’s smash hit play, which was itself formed from Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’ novel, Blood and Sand. It tells the tale of a poor boy from Seville, Juan (Valentino), “a son of the people” whose natural bravery enables him to become a toreador. His humble beginnings are set out complete with wise and loving mother Angustias (Rose Rosanova), sister Encarnacion (Rosita Marstini) and comedy brother-in-law Antonio (Leo White). Despite being called Zapaterin, Little Shoemaker, Juan has no interest in learning his father’s trade and dodges working with Antonio, a saddle maker, in order to go play at bullfighting.


Juan and friends head off to Andalucia where the locals enjoyed watching the amateurs from Seville. Juan does well but one of his friends is not so lucky with a watching bandit, Plumitas (Walter Long), accompanied by a title card noting that bandits and bullfighters both “risk life to gain a livelihood.” Juan avenges his friend’s demise and is not discouraged, dreaming of building his mother a fine house when and if he succeeds.


Naturally Juan gets talent spotted and ends up impressing the crowd mightily on his debut including his childhood sweetheart Carmen (Lila Lee) and the two grow close as his career advances and marry.


He searched deep into men’s hearts, ever willing to excuse weakness and, in a master ledger, recorded the lives of those who interested him.

And he can dance...

Throughout proceedings, a local philosopher keeps popping up, almost at random… Don Joselito (Charles Belcher) “a student of humanity” who will act as a guide to the morality of events passing comment and offering advice… ultimately condemning bullfighting. That beast with ten thousand heads… the audience bloodlust driving the barbarism that costs lives.

Gallardo’s success makes him the idol of Seville’s café culture and he gains a manager (Fred Becker) along with a matador, El Nacional (George Field) who “fought for living and not for glory” as well as a popular picador, Potaje (Jack Winn) and old Carabato (Gilbert Clayton) who served Juan “in order to cling to the arena and retain his pigtail” – worn by the fraternity. The film may disapprove of the sport, but it takes a delight in the details.


There’s a lovely scene in one of those cafes when we get the chance to see Valentino dance – he had made his way initially in Hollywood by dancing and teaching dance – and you can see his poise on the dance floor alongside and a dancer named Rosa. The women gets just too close though and Juan’s loyalty to Carmen makes him push her onto the floor… it’s a foreshadow of things to come.

Rudolph and Lila Lee

Men were Doña Sol’s hobby. A bullfighter was a new experience.


Time passes and Juan is famous across Spain, and he catches the eye of the daughter of the country’s bull-breeder, Doña Sol, played by the “exotic” Nita Naldi, who was born Mary Nonna Dooley to Irish parents in New York…  Juan’s reaction to this new attention is primal, and he willingly accepts her gift of a ring given by Cleopatra to Ceasar… he’s flattered but still loyal to his wife, but Doña Sol is not easily dissuaded.


The two begin an affair, with Doña Sol dragging out the dark aggression in the man, a strange sadomasochistic edge to his fifty shades of betrayal. He doesn’t feel comfortable in her world of refined hypocrisy and artificial emotions, but he can’t resist the animal games she makes him play.


A page from Don Joselito’s book reads: Juan Gallardo has reached his goal. Will success spoil him or will his love for little Carmen overcome the plaudits of the populace and the cruelty of the national sport?


Which sets up the finale perfectly!

Rudolph and Nita Naldi

Blood and Sand has Glamour and Alvin Wyckoff’s cinematography captures some lovely atmospheres, Juan’s wooing of Carmen, the mock action in the stadia and the streets supposedly in Seville. Valentino has the star power and is able to convey humour as well as sexuality, he doesn’t take himself too seriously – an attractive feature for most of those watching – but he is passionate beyond reason when push comes to shove. Here his masculinity is used against him by the vamping Naldi… who else could carry this all off and still remain heroic?


The version screened was from a Lobster print of the David Killiam restoration which is shorter than the recent version released by Kino on Blu-ray. This has the tinting restored and comes in at over 25 minutes longer with a smashing score played by the Monte Alto Orchestra and a booklet including an essay from noted Valentino expert Donna Hill. Well worth purchasing if you haven’t got it!


And remember, as Don Joselito says, Happiness and prosperity built on cruelty and bloodshed cannot survive.



Friday, 31 December 2021

I’ve never seen… Jules and Jim (1962), BFI François Truffaut season


Married in 1913 to Franz Hessel, German journalist Helen Grund also had a relationship with his best friend Henri-Pierre Roché for some thirteen years. Franz was so accommodating, he divorced Helen so that she and Roché could live together. In the summer of 1922, Helen and Franz Hessel remarried, although the affair between Roché and Hessel continued… sound familiar? Roché wrote the novel Jules et Jim about the relationship with his lover and best friend and this inspired François Truffaut to make the film regarded as one of the finest of the French New Wave.


Until now I’ve had to take that on trust as, shockingly I know, I’ve not seen the film before hence the borrowed line from The Guardian’s series, but now the BFI are providing with the perfect opportunity to fill in those New Wave gaps with a UK-wide celebration of François Truffaut from January to February 2022, including re-releases of The 400 Blows (1959) – which I have seen - and Jules Et Jim (1962) and, as the saying goes, many more!


For a “new wave” La Nouvelle Vague is a bit ancien regime as this film is halfway between Georges Méliès and now but Jules Et Jim still feels fresh, inventive and a step-change in style from most post war films. It’s not just the director’s bold use of narrative, a voice-over that actually works to enhance the dramatic impact for example, and the sweeping camerawork from cinematographer Raoul Coutard, but the performances the director evokes. This may be entitled Jules and Jim, but the central focus is Catherine and Jeanne Moreau’s incredible energy as this most unpredictable and curious of characters. The only one who can reliably comment on Catherine is the narrator and he (Michel Subor) is recalling actions and events that take both the men years to absorb and comprehend and, right to the end, they don’t really know what she is capable of. Neither do we.

Jeanne Genie

Moreau is unpredictable and yet totally in control of her expression, managing to convey Catherine’s mercurial contradictions in ways that appear to have only just occurred. She’s reacting to her character’s surprise at herself, as unknowable as the statue which resembles her, and which first grabs Jules and Jim’s attention. It’s not a free-running tale of escalating passion like Goddard might make but a controlled and very deliberate retelling of a mystery passed onto Truffaut by Roché.


Jaques and Julien were inseparable, and they never knew that their neighbours found their relationship ambiguous. They ate together in small restaurants. They bought each other fine cigars… everyone called them Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.


The film starts in the 1900s, during la Belle Époque and features two bohemians in their search for experience and direction. Their friendship had no equivalent in love… but Jules and Jim are friends for life, enjoying the same things and attuned in their thoughts, often competing for the same partners but with Jules (Oskar Werner) a writer from Austria less successful than the more extrovert Jim (Henri Serre). Jules’ relationship with the free-spirited Thérèse (Marie Dubois) illustrates his soft centre as she is soon looking for a more defined companion (any relation to my own experience with Debbie the Redcoat in Butlins 1982 is entirely pertinent). It’s a foretaste of love's labours to come.

Oscar Werner and Marie Dubois

The two men become transfixed by a statue in a slide show, their ideal of womanly beauty, an immovable objet d’amour. They go to visit the monument on an island in the Adriatic Sea, spending an hour admiring this unresponsive goddess before meeting a woman in Paris who has the same shaped face, she is Catherine and she’ll be a lot more trouble to worship.


Not this one, Jim…


Truffaut highlights the moment of connection when Jules looks at Catherine and she looks at him by marking out a space on screen and then blacking out the image around it, something of a standard device by later in the decade but a surprise here? Jules and Catherine seem to be destined from this point and she soon becomes a feature of his and Jim’s togetherness.


There were three people in this marriage...

She soon reveals her eccentric energy by drawing a moustache and pretending to be “Thomas” for the iconic race across a railway bridge. She wins by cheating, showing a very “male” initiative… and I wonder if there’s a parallel here with Antonioni’s male and female alienation? Probably not, I’m out of the shallows here but Moreau was equally at home in the previous year’s La Notte running rings round Marcello Mastroianni.


The trio decide to holiday in the south and as they prepare for their trip, Catherine “burns lies” in her flat with Jim and tells him she has “vitriol” for the eyes of men who lie… before pouring what looks like a bottle of acid down the sink. The film’s tone shifts in moments like this and whilst we’re shocked, we assume she’s joking… At another time, as the boys talk about the play they’ve seen, Catherine gets tired of their intellectualisation and jumps into the Seine… Jim and Jules don’t get to establish why she was so reckless, and she smiles quietly to herself soaked through between the two on the cab ride home.


Henri Serre and Oskar Werner

Jim’s relationship with Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) is on a different footing by comparison and she doesn’t meet Jules until many years later; a complexity which says everything about Catherine’s influence on the two men.


The carefree years end as war begins and Jules and Catherine move to Austria to get married before he is enlisted in the conflict which separates him from his best friend. There’s an extensive sequence of archival footage which looks like a mix of documentary and reconstructions from the silent era; I wish I knew the sources – probably a mix of French and German?


She jumped at men the way she had jumped into the river.


The three are reunited after the war at Jules and Catherine’s house in the Black Forest where they live with their daughter, Sabine. Things have changed and the marriage has not satisfied Catherine, leaving Jules clinging on, accepting anything she wants as the price of her presence. She begins a relationship with Jim, even under the same roof, and the men are able to accommodate this as the price of their own friendship and the women they love’s happiness.


Will even this state of affairs last though as Catherine still hasn’t found what she’s looking for… I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Albert (Serge Rezvani) and she writes a song with him. I’m still not sure what Catherine’s restlessness signifies and that’s the point. Every reason to rewatch this enthralling film on the big screen in 2022!


Georges Delerue’s score is also a thing a beauty, matching the emotional force with skill and lovely melody.


The two-month Truffaut season at BFI Southbank, starts on Friday 7th and runs to the end of February 2022. Curated by BFI programmer at large Geoff Andrew, it will feature thematic strands, so that audiences can access Truffaut’s immense body of work more easily. There are also talks and a course, no stone left unturned in this re-examination of an unparalleled life in film.


Jules et Jim plays from 4th February on the Southbank and elsewhere and a new BFI Blu-ray will follow.


Details on the BFI website.

Thursday, 30 December 2021

Three’s a charm… Early Universal Vol 1, Eureka Blu-ray

More seasonal lolling about watching my presents, this time a box set of three Universal films, fully restored and issued on Blu-ray at a very reasonable price and with essays and commentary on what could be regarded as lesser works in the silent film "cannon". All three are, however, very well made and feature noteworthy participants, they represent popular films from Hollywood's golden age and act as fine examples of the type of film that made up most of Universals output and which were enjoyed by large portions of the film-going audience.  In historical terms, there’s no such thing as “standard fare” and these films may well have had a wider audience than many an arthouse classic. So play on...

The Shakedown (1929), 4K Restoration


Directed by some fella name of William Wyler, this fast-paced morality tale features The Crowd’s remarkable James Murray in only the second film I’ve seen him in and he’s good, very good, making his life-struggle with addiction all the more tragic, as if anything could. He was so bright and not only soul full of light and shade but also physically brave, seen here rising high onto an oil rig and in the ring going toe to toe with boxer and professional wrestler George Kotsonaros. The latter appeared in Beggars of Life (1928) and others, but his life ended tragically too in a 1933 car accident.

James Murray

By contrast, Barbara Kent made it to 2011 and 103 years of age although her career petered out in the mid thirties while she was only in her twenties. So it goes and the other star of this film Jack Hanlon, would have further grounds for complaint, with a film career that ended he was just 16… a smashing child actor who became simply too old for the job.


Everyone acts well in this film with Wyler moving things at a pace and incorporating comedy, love, criminality and some excellent late silent period dolly shots following the cast along streets and in the boxing ring. In the excellent booklet with this set, Richards Comb talks of Wyler’s later acknowledged “deep-focus look” and “the ability to hold many actors, in different planes of action, across the screen…”. Combs startling evidence of this in The Shakedown starting with the early set up of the scam at the heart of the story.


James Murray and Barbara Kent at the fun fair

It’s the way the director and his cinematographers Charles Stumar and Jerome Ash, show the action in the bar where Murray’s character Dave is showing his boxing skills. He’s challenged by a rough-looking type, boxer Battling Roff (Kotsonaros) and as the bruiser tries to hit Dave, the action is seen from behind him at the bar and the street outside is fully visible. Then the camera view shifts to the reverse as Dave talks to a young woman at the doorway, back inside as Roff spots her, then outside tracking her walking away and being followed by Roff, back to Dave who moves to intervene and rush to the damsel’s distress.


Dave knocks down Roff and the latter’s manager (Wheeler Oakman) steps in saying the two should settle things in the ring where Dave could win $1,000 if he lasts three rounds. The contest agreed, the manager starts taking bets from the gathered crowd… we’re sucked in, and the next shot shows a hotel room with Dave, Roff, the girl and even the two guys arguing about who would win, all in on the scam. It’s quality filmmaking and I’m not surprised that Wyler spent months planning the project.

The excitement is in tents.

The rest of the film shows Dave setting up another scam in a new town only this time he gets too involved helping a young boy called Clem – tough and lonely as he once was – and falling for the girl he works with at the oil company, Marjorie (Barbara Kent). Will the outcome be different this time? Wyler packs a lot into a relatively short film and the climax is intense; you really care about Murray’s characters! A very proficient Hollywood film and a delight for rainy seasonal afternoons and any time really.


The film comes with a new score by Michael Gatt and commentary by film writer Nick Pinkerton.


The Shield of Honor (1927), 2K Restoration


Directed by Emory Johnson a one-time actor whose career faltered after the silent era and who directed the superb news-based action thriller The Last Edition (1925), this is another exciting feature even though it starts off like a promotional film for the LAPD.

Ralph Lewis and Neil Hamilton

The LAPD has a new weapon in the fight against crime, an airplane that is going to be piloted by one Jack MacDowell (Neil Hamilton, later Adam West’s Commissioner Gordon, a fact I love). Jack is the son of long-termer Dan played by Ralph Lewis who was so good in The Last Edition who although only 55 is tasked with playing a man ten years older and on the point of forced retirement. Dan is a natural cop and is still fit and raring to carry on. Naturally events conspire to give both father and son the chance to prove themselves and in the most heart-warming fashion.


A jewellers run by police supporter, Matthew O'Day (Fred Esmelton) has been infiltrated by a bad sort, Robert Chandler (Nigel Barrie) who is working with gangster A.E. Blair (Harry Northrup) on an elaborate plan to defraud the company by making it pay to get by diamonds already stolen from its vaults. Chandler is assisted by a woman working as a secretary for O’Day, Flora (a young and feisty Thelma Todd), and even an odd-job man; this caper is well organised.

The gang with Thelma Todd on typewriter

But even the best laid plans can go awry and when they do O’Day’s daughter Gwen (Dorothy Gulliver) – Jack’s sweetheart – gets caught up as does Dan who is retired but working as a guard at O’Day’s. Chandler plans to fly his ill-gotten gains away but his is not the only plane in town… the finale is dynamic and multi-channelled – planes crash and burn, a woman gets locked in a safe in a burning building, the tough very much get going, men fight and a dog barks! It’s breathless and the likeable cast make it work very well.


The film comes with a new score by Alex Kovacs and audio commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney.

Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926) 4K Restoration


I once saw Kevin Brownlow introduced this film at the Kennington Bioscope and he described how he’d met its star, Reginald Denny, in 1964, many years after the British actor’s silent heyday and after decades of playing stock English characters in the talkies. Brownlow projected the film for Denny and his family and, despite the actor’s fears that the film might “creak” he was rewarded with an emphatically amused response.


Skinner's Dress Suit is that rare thing, a genuinely charming comedy featuring two vibrant leads – Denny and the lovely Laura La Plante who cut a rug almost as sharp as her platinum bob. In thrilling style, the two dance the Savannah Shuffle, a variation on the Charleston, before leading a host of society types in trying to learn the steps.


Laura and Reg fret

Directed by William A. Seiter a keen golfer and close buddy of Denny’s, the film never strains and the relaxed humour is testament to the compatible temperaments of both men: “we never had an argument, never a cross word, “he told Brownlow, “…and we always brought the picture in within budget...” Seiter was clearly a very able manager of time and people.


Skinner (Denny) is an over-reaching and under-achieving office worker whose wife, Honey (Laura La P), keeps egging him on to get a raise. But Skinner not only doesn’t have the nerve he doesn’t really have the edge being walked all over by both his juniors and his superiors. Unable to tell Honey he’s been passed over yet again, he pretends that he’s had a $10 a week raise and the two start extending their credit starting with a party dress for her and a dress suit for him.

Reginald Denny in said suit

Both prove very useful after Skinner is taught the new dance craze, the Savannah, by fellow wage slave Miss Smith (a peppy Betty Morrissey) and simply everyone at the party they attend wants to learn it. Social mobility awaits but in keeping up appearances their credit gets stretched to the limit. But gradually they are accepted by their snooty neighbours, The McLaughlin’s and are invited into higher society.


All comes crashing down when a major contract is lost, and Skinner is the man to be let go… he hasn’t the heart to tell Honey as she entertains but has to fight off the repo men gathering for their furniture and the tailor who wants his fine dinner suit back. There’s just one last chance… an invitation to the party of the season held by the Colby’s (Hedda Hopper and Henry Barrows) if they can make an impression Skinner could still save his social standing. Cue Mr Jackson (Lionel Braham) the man who withdrew his contract with Skinners firm and his wife (Lucille Ward) both eager themselves to get introduced to society… You can work out the rest, but the story is so well pitched the resolution works as smoothly and reassuringly as you’d hope.


Denny and La Plante

It's a thoroughly enjoyable slice of mainstream silent Hollywood and just edges The Shakedown as the most entertaining of these three. 

The film comes with a new score by Leo Birenberg and audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat.  There’s also an excellent collector’s booklet featuring insightful new writing by critic Richard Combs and film writer Andrew Graves.


This is great set, and I can’t wait for more as the Universal restoration project proceeds. We’re lucky to be at a point where such a broad range of material is being considered for release and we need to support this as much as we can. The second volume is already available, and you can find further details and order both, from the Eureka website.


Gripping… The Hands of Orlac (1924), Eureka Blu-ray


It’s the twilight zone between Christmas and New Year, the days of grace you get for responsibility-free pottering and for consuming your presents without feeling like you should be preparing for a zoom call or checking emails… it’s the time for suspending disbelief and watching Conrad Veidt.


Orlacs Hände is one of the most famous silent films I’ve never seen, not top-tier cannon but certainly featuring some Premiership players and with an influence that has endured with a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode re-working the plot in 1998 when Homer gets a hair transplant from a murderer in Hell Toupée*. Robert Wiene directs, united with his Caligari star Conrad Veidt who acts his socks off in a tour de force of unsettling, blood-vessel busting emoting that completely evokes the feeling that his body is fighting his mind and spirit. I doubt the film would work at all without Veidt’s skill, but Wiene directs well, making the most of his star and a storyline that would be hard to credit in other hands.


Some have described the film as expressionist but Lotte Eisner’s having none of it deeming only Caligari as worthy of the description and seeing it as a deceptive start for the “second-rate” Wiene who in this film makes use of “all those Romantic characteristics which seemed to him Expressionist in kind…” The film’s shadows, cavernous exaggerations of space and perspective and “Hoffmannesque” characters are more stylistic features than an intrinsic style. She does describe Veidt as dancing a kind of expressionist ballet, “…bending and twisting extravagantly, simultaneously drawn and repelled by the murderous dagger held by hands which do not seem to belong to him.”**


Conrad Veidt

This may seem like nit-picking, but I can see the point, the expressionist movement was broader than film and was clearly the jumping off point for specific techniques. Orlac is partially shot on location, and this alone mitigates against the kind of visual control Wiene exerted over Caligari, but even so there are some glorious contrasts between light and shade captured by his cinematographers Günther Krampf and Hans Androschin whether outside or within the massive rooms of the sets – designed by Stefan Wessely and Hans Rouc.


This is especially the case at the start of the film when renowned classical pianist Paul Orlac (Veidt) is onboard when two locomotive trains crash head on. Weine lingers on the devastation as people run through the smoke and flames trying to find loved ones and help arrives via another train; this is a very modern horror and one that was all too real especially in the post war/flu pandemic years. Paul’s wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) arrives and her desperate search for him is heartrending.


Paul’s battered body is just about alive and surgery on his fractured skull saves his life, but his hands are beyond repair… Enter Doctor Serra (Hans Homma) who has perfected advanced transplant techniques and offers to restore that without which the pianist could not really live. Serra attaches the hands of recently executed murderer named Vasseur to Paul but while there’s no physical rejection, the psychological impact begins to be felt almost immediately the pianist finds out where his transplant came from. There’s one immediate change, the fingers are bigger than his own and his wedding ring won’t fit them… he gradually becomes obsessed with the idea that these hands will not fit him either.


Help arrives at the train wreck

Paul returns home to Yvonne, and both are strained as he tries but fails to get his guilty hands to play his brain’s musical instructions… their rooms are huge, and they both feel lost in their darkness often at distance from each other or alone. The architecture is not distorted though and as Lotte said, Veidt put his entire body on the line for this film with some distorted contortions that are exhausting even to watch.


Paul is haunted by his hands and also believes he is catching glimpses of Vasseur (Fritz Kortner, Lulu’s sugar daddy from Pandora’s Box) urging him on towards evil. The Orlac’s maid, Regine (Carmen Cartellieri) is also sucked into the madness and is being pressured by what appears to be the very alive dead man who got her to leave Vasseur’s signature knife for Paul to find. There’s a strange sexual tension between the two, the killer’s mind overwhelming the maid’s will and when he puts his hands on her head she is almost completely in his power.


Carmen Cartellieri and Alexandra Sorina

He hates all men and even more so your husband…


Orlac’s career is ruined and as he lives in fear Yvonne tries to keep their household afloat as the debts mount, the only solution is to go and ask his extremely wealthy father (Fritz Strassny) for help. Unfortunately, Orlac Snr is weird and unforgiving man who has the strangest of servants as Yvonne finds out when the grey-headed retainer (Paul Askonas) opens the door, leering over her. The old man agrees to meet his son and Paul wends his nervous way along twisted lanes to his father’s darkened house… they very quickly disagree and part on bad terms.


Encouraged by his creditors and Yvonne, Paul returns to find his father dead, Vasseur’s knife (which he had hidden in his grand piano) deep in his chest… he runs to call the police but with Vasseur’s fingerprints all over the crime scene he begins to suspect himself…


It’s the horror of losing control, of your mind folding in on itself as you fall into madness and Conrad Veidt is exactly the man for this job ably assisted by the three other main players. As often observed, there’s Freudian psychological elements at work but Weine’s film leaves so much room for interpretation and, Lotte Eisner, he does a first-rate job of making us believe in what is a fairly shaky premise. There are many twists and turns in the final segment of the film – perhaps too many – but the set up and build up of tension is very effective.

The old man...

Santa brought me the new Eureka Masters of Cinema Blu-ray which comes with a new score from Johannes Kalitzke which mixes harsh textures with experimental orchestrations that whilst musically interesting sometimes rub against the nuances on screen. It is suitably dark toned, but I did find myself drifting between sight and sound on occasion.


There’s also a dark, cavernous set of extras including the alternate presentation of The Hands of Orlac of the F. W. Murnau Foundation. This is some twenty minutes longer at 110 minutes and is a transfer from a from a different print source, featuring alternate takes of certain scenes. I think this is the same as the Kino release, especially as it includes Paul Mercer’s more sympathetic score.


The main feature is in much clearer quality being a 1080p presentation of the Film Archiv Austria restoration and it’s fascinating to look at the scene comparisons highlighting some of the differences between the two versions of the film. There’s also a new feature length audio commentary with author Stephen Jones and author / critic / man of mystery, Kim Newman along with a video essay by filmmakers David Cairns and Fiona Watson. The booklet is great too including new writing by Philip Kemp, and Tim Lucas.


Fritz Kortner

You can order the set direct from Eureka here and no silent home should really be without a copy. Go ahead… grab a copy… it’s in your hands.


*Snake wasn’t actually executed for killing, he was on a “third strike” after he was caught smoking indoors in the Kwik-E-Mart. His first two crimes were burning down an orphanage and crashing into a bus full of nuns…


**The Haunted Screen, Lotte H Eisner, University of California Press. She decided that there were only two fully-fledged expressionist films - Von morgens bis mitternachts (1920) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) – along with the third segment of Waxworks (1924).




Saturday, 25 December 2021

Gently down the live stream… 12 from 21, Silent Film in the Modern Age

So, here it is... and what another resilient year it’s been for cinema. I saw a lot more films in theatres this year and stand in admiration all those involved in making this possible, so thank you for the projecting, programming, popcorn and perseverance. Thank you for showing me to my seat, introducing and politely requesting that we all wear masks… every little really does help. But this year’s list is dominated once again by digitally streamed films albeit from live events with Bonn, Bologna, Pordenone and others re-emerging and offering the choice to be there in person or the opportunity to watch from home. the way forward as many are still vulnerable whilst the pandemic lasts whilst those who could attend did so with appetite renewed.

So without further ado and in no particular order here's twelve highlights from the year behind us.


When Igor met Mary

1. A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927), with John Sweeney, 10th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

I’m hoping that 2022 allows me to attend Scotland’s premier silent film festival… OK, one of Europe’s premier festivals! This delicious soviet comedy typifies the focus on programming a mix of well-know and more obscure but historically significant films and is a film I’ve wanted to see for some time.

In 1926 Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks came to Moscow as part of a grand European tour and seeing how rapturously they were greeted, how fetishized they were as something beyond ordinary humanity, Sergei Komarov devised a means of using this to both shine a comic light on the nature of this ultra-fame. He had no special access to the stars, just a collection of newsreels and one crucial sequence in which Mary agreed to perform a short skit with Igor Ilyinsky at the end of which she kisses him on the cheek; the moment which makes this film transcend its sources, from meta to better.

John Sweeney provided accompaniment and delighted in every comedic twist and turn in this joyful film that is as much a celebration of the Muscovite sense of humour as its cinema. As John said in his introduction, this is exactly the kind of film you fall for… one that is largely unseen but one that is further evidence of the strength of Russian comedy and cinematic ideas during the Twenties.


2. Siren of the Tropics (1927), Günter A. Buchwald and Frank Bockius, Slapstick Festival 2021

My first missed Slapstick Festival for a few years but the programme was as strong as you’d expect especially this opportunity to see the great Josephine Baker in her first feature. At the time, Hollywood was certainly not ready to go as far as French directors Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant do by placing Baker as the main focus in La sirène des tropiques and by giving her a story largely free of the cliqued tramlines of other multi-ethnic stories. Baker is perhaps treated as more overtly sexual than most white actors at this time – she’s topless twice -  is portrayed as both innocent and with a childlike wildness; she attracts (white) male lust as well as love and protectiveness, revels in powerfully expressive jazz dancing – seriously, that core and the way she co-ordinates massive extensions without any apparent strain -  and yet her character remains in awe of western spirituality. So many questions… but it’s still a shock to see someone as naturalistic as her placed, largely, at the centre of a story from this period and one in which race is not really mentioned.

Live musical accompaniment was provided by Guenter A. Buchwald on piano and Frank Bockius on percussion, who, in addition to deploying an almost telepathic musical synchronicity, smartly avoided the cliches of cultural referencing. This being one of the great jazz babies, they gave us a rip-roaring, hi-tempo jazzed score that not only kept pace but lifted the film to the vibrational level of its all-powered star. When Baker eventually struts her considerable stuff towards the end of the film you felt that this is the moment the players had been pacing themselves for.


Marthe Fabris... L’Arlésienne

3. L’Arlésienne (1922), Il Cinema Ritrovato, Günter Buchwald and L’Octuor de France


A film with a fantastic sense of place, shot on location in the gorgeous city of Arles and the surrounding countryside of the Camargue, it’s almost entirely shot outdoors, featuring the images of locale and rural practice you’d expect from André Antoine, the director of L'hirondelle et la mésange (1920) and La Terre (1921).


This 4k restoration is a thing of beauty completed in 2020 by Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé and La Cinémathèque française from two unique diacetate prints preserved at the latter and it benefited mightily from musical accompaniment based on orchestral arrangements by Gabriel Diot from the score edited by Pathé in 1922. Günter Buchwald rearranged the score, which features compositions from Bizet (who incidentally wrote an opera based on this story), Gillet, Rachmaninov and others. He also added his own Impressions d’ Arles and conducted L’Octuor de France to create a perfectly synchronised emotional narrative that not only pull at present day heartstrings but also recreates the sound of the contemporary silent experience.


Lyda Borelli 

4. Fior di male (1915), Bonn Silent Film Festival with Cellophon


I’m not having a best of list without a new-to-me classic Diva film and here was a prime cut of imperial Borelli in all her operatic pomp and with a collection of magisterial emotional displays only matched by her gorgeous and frequently changing wardrobe. Only in Italy miei amici and it took a German film festival to highlight that point.

Accompanying were the Cellophon duo, aka Paul Rittel and Tobias Stutz who both play cello in ways that are emotionally resonant and respectful of the source visuals. They used admirable flavour and restraint with both recognising the need to underplay when confronted by the operatic fireworks on screen using this most mournfully flexible of instruments in musical tribute to perhaps the greatest Italian silent film diva…

Another excellent presentation from this year’s Bonn festival and I have completely run out of reasons not to go there in 2022.


Magda Holm

5. The Girl in Tails (1926), Stephen Horne and Elizabeth Jane-Baldry, Bonn Silent Film Festival

I’m to be disgraced simply because I’m a girl. A meek and mild, simple and unassuming girl…

Karin Swanström’s uplifting film, a delicate mixture of comedy and drama that fully lives up to its promise as A Light Summer Film Story especially with truly delicious accompaniment from Horne and Baldry, without whom no remote access Bonn would be complete. It is notable for addressing so many issues that might be considered more modern concerns and it tackles proto feminism in ways which are never black and white, flowing naturally with the story. It’s sophisticated about its subject and uses cross-dressing as a means of creating conflict as well as comedy and makes points about fairness that doesn’t bang the drum so much as rolls it around the ballroom between social conservatism and the heroine’s “fight against injustice”.

Stephen’s multi-instrumentation and Elizabeth-Jane’s harp work so well together as they leave each other so much space and support, sharing the leading lines with the harp being used as percussion and bass as well as the heavenly flourishes you’d expect. There were some exceptionally lovely themes and the improvised was hard to separate from the pre-arranged which says it all. The ideal accompaniment for this delightful film!


Leslie Howard and some of my old neighbours

6. Breaking the silence… The Wit and Wisdom of A.A. Milne, BFI, with Bryony Dixon and Neil Brand

This was not my first cinema of the pandemic but it was the first silent screening with live accompaniment since March 2020… and, what a way to break the silence with BFI Curator Bryony Dixon providing expert introduction and Neil Brand accompanying with all the contextual flourish and narrative instinct you would expect.

There were two films written by Alan Alexander Milne for Minerva Films, founded in 1920 by the actor Leslie Howard with his friend and story editor Adrian Brunel. The company’s board of directors included C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Playfair and A. A. Milne. First up was The Bump (1920) featuring Smith as the famous explorer with a “bump” that enables him to find even the darkest parts of Africa but in London he gets hopelessly lost. Smith was 57 and the film makes great play of his cragginess with a sequence notating the origins of the scars on his face, a shark bite here and a lions’ claw there; he’s explored the world and has the autographs left by every predator he’s met.

The second film featured Leslie Howard in Bookworms (1920) another witty tale of love and adventure this time transporting a knight and fair maiden to Edwardian semi-detached suburbs in what is now West Wimbledon. Turns out the location was just around the corner from where I used to live too.


Henry Edwards

7. The parade returns… The Joker (1928), with Stephen Horne, Le Giornate 40th Edition Streaming, Day One

The 40th Edition of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto mixed physical media and digital content with the cinemuto-philes returning to Pordenone for the full programme including live screenings, accompaniment and lashings of Aperol Spritz late into the night… and a lighter schedule available online and worldwide. It was the best of both worlds and the best we can hope for as the cautious C-19 recovery continues.


The streaming got off to a rip-roaring start with a big party in Nice, featuring the annual carnival, covered extensively, including one or two hangovers and a reunion of Mander and Horne; not a long-lost music hall pairing but the star of The First Born, accompanied once again by the man who produced one of the most memorable scores for modern restorations at the London Film Festival in 2011. Directed by Danish Georg Jacoby this “Euro pudding” had a charming cast to match its location and story of playboy jewel thievery with The Joker played by the British actor and director, Henry Edwards, in prototypical Bond fashion admittedly more Niven than Craig.


Ellen Richter

8. Moral (1928), with Donald Sosin, Le Giornate 40th Edition Streaming, Day Seven


The rediscovery of Ellen Richter was one of the big themes of this year’s Giornate live in Pordenone and she did not disappoint digitally either. She’s one of those performers who naturally draws the eye and apart from having charisma to burn she has a richly centred persona with a smile that radiates glee as powerfully as sardonic rage. You don’t mess with Ellen but, if you do, she’ll have you back and relish a cool revenge that aims not to destroy but to educate; it’s not just piano she teaches, it’s self-respect.

Here she plays stage performer Ninon d’Hauteville who causes a stir when her troop come to play in the provincial town of Emilsburg and whilst battling the self-appointed Moral Society, gets the chance to teach the Prince Emile XXVII’s “milksop” of a son piano and much more besides. There’s much comedy and cabaret and the fashions are spectacular but so is Ellen and knowing that enables even the truly improbable garb to hang naturally and unselfconsciously. Donal Sosin accompanied with the appropriate sense of occasion and humour.


9. Maciste All’ Inferno (1926), with Teho Teardo and Zerorchestra, Le Giornate 40th Edition Streaming Day Eight

This was Bartolomeo Pagano’s 26th performance as the likeable lunk who combines power and morality as the Italian superuomo first introduced in Cabiria (1913). It was something like a cross-over event in the Dante Extended Universe, a follow-up to L’Inferno (1911) with a soul-devouring Lucifer drawn directly from Bertolini, Padovan and De Liguoro’s masterpiece, a feature film diligently drawn from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.


It’s a wild ride with amazing special effects from the legendary Segundo de Chomón along with direction to die for – literally – from Guido Brignone, along with set and costume direction from Giulio Lombardozzi. Maciste must fight in Hell and it’s ugly, fierce and outrageously sexy. Hellzappopin’ alright and wonder it left such an impression on Federico Fellini who remembered it as the first film he ever saw – aged five or six? – even down to the details the capture of Maciste by Proserpina (Elena Sangro).

Spirited accompaniment was provided by Pordenone-born composer Teho Teardo who’s electronica was accompanied by local favourites the Zerorchestra along with Accademia Musicale Naonis and cellist Riccardo Pes. For this tale of many contexts, the cello represented Dante’s “voice” whilst the booming brass of the Accademia Naonis was that of Maciste. This was the performance that kicked off the pre-Festival event in Teatro Zancanaro, Sacile and I’d have loved to have been there in person to see it. Next year… next year.


Franciszka Themerson

10. Europa (1931/2). BFI London Film Festival 2021, Opening Night

Well, I made it to one festival at least… this was the first night of the BFI London Film Festival and the screening of a film not seen since 1933; a World Premier of its restored version no less, followed by a second screening. Europa was the first film made by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, two radical minded Polish artists who believed in the political importance of art at a time of confusion.

This was an extraordinary session, not just in terms of the content but also the context given by William Fowler, BFI National Archive Curator, along with renowned Polish film historian and programmer, Jasia Reichardt who first met the Themersons as a child. Europa was based on a poem from Anatol Stern publishing in Reflektor magazine in 1925, attacking the relentless violence of propaganda designed to undermine critical thinking and fuel populist sympathy. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? An important film and one believed destroyed by the Nazis, Europa has outlasted them and stands as a message to us all.


Their house

11. Back home… The House on Trubnaya (1928), with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope 

This was my first visit to the Cinema Museum since March 2020 and it was a delight to see the Kennington Bioscope back up and running. The KB carried on through the pandemic with KBTV on YouTube and whilst the path to the old place is all still familiar, what a time we’ve had. The old team was back together in the flesh and as star of stage and small screen, KBTV’s MC Michelle Facey introduced and John Sweeney warmed up for the first films… we partied like it was 2019.

Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya is very clever slapstick mixed with social observation and the required political messaging: if all bosses are as venal and self-serving as in the film – even over a decade on from the Revolution – then workers need to join unions to support themselves and others, not to mention their ducks… It never lectures just wends its peculiar way scoring laughs over political points and that’s exactly why it remains so watchable.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied in style and relished this return to the silent film “club” he helped found. This was a fitting welcome home to him and everyone else involved in this wonderful collective.


Léontine takes flight

12. Anarchy in the UK… Nasty Women: A Comic Tribute, BFI with Meg Morley 

There was a guy, I’m not sure if you remember him, who once referred to his presidential rival as a “nasty woman” long ago in The Time Before. In response film historians Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak ran a programme of comedy shorts at the 2017 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto featuring women behaving nastily for comic effect. As there is plenty more where that came from the BFI decided on a re-run with a new-old favourites thrown in.

Thus, we had Florence Turner’s incredibly flexible fizzog in Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914), Alma Taylor and Chrissie White giving plenty of cheek in Tilly’s Party (1912) and Texas Guinan our riding and out gunning the men in The Night Rider (1920). There was also the enigmatic gallic anarchy of the legendary Léontine, also known as “Titine” in France and Betty” in the United States, about whom almost nothing is known. Three films Léontine s’envole (1911), Léontine enfant terrible (1911) and Léontine garde la maison (1912) showed her daredevil comic flair and it is to be hoped that her story emerges in more detail. What a talent she was.

Meg Morley accompanied with thematic variety and satisfying melodic invention. No two scores were the same and she kept pace with the on-screen anarchy with the acuity of a seasoned jazz player, one used to working as part of an improvisational team, this time with her bandmates on screen.

A splendid afternoon on the Southbank and we drank a toast to the nasty but nice trailblazers who are being remembered anew.


So much more to discover in 2022… I hope to see you all then!


Monday, 20 December 2021

Late summer… I've Been Trying to Tell You (2021), Saint Etienne, BFI Blu-ray


Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne once wrote a blog post about the London Pedway, “high walks” that were originally intended to go through the West End and to provide an alternative to streets chocked with traffic. Conservationists and regime change scuppered the plan and the most complete section, from the Barbican to Moorgate has subsequently been demolished, the old flat roofed pubs, gentleman’s outfitter and the two banks, Midland and National Westminster Bank signage revealed near the end, all signifiers of an earlier age and unfulfilled vision.


As with his music, Bob touches on the sweet spots of optimism passed, imagined or otherwise, and it is where he has returned with his band’s latest album, I've Been Trying to Tell You, made with vocalist Sarah Cracknell and Peter Wiggs. Described by Bob as being about "about optimism, and the late nineties, and how memory is an unreliable narrator" the music is about the period of New Labour, from 1997 to 2001 and the beginnings of the modern world with the attack on the Twin Towers. As we look back from this time of political helplessness and as younger creatives pick the sweet spots from the decade of Trip Hop and Brit Pop, we have to ask; is that all there is?


I once danced in a fountain in Liverpool...

I've Been Trying to Tell You is the band’s first album based on samples since before that time and, fittingly, it uses samples from the period as the basis for the tracks. This is, of course, the perfect metaphor for their subject matter, memories and music can be twisted, re-run and overwritten, extrapolated and mixed with dream and misconception… sampled, slowed down and replayed at greater length. It’s a Lockdown reverie that, as others have said, manages what St Etienne often do, to create something old and something new.


Tapping into this is film maker Alasdair McLellan, who had already been talking to the band about making a film based on their music when told that, due to circumstances, the original album had to be shelved and then replaced with this one, created in remote studios from Brighton (Pete) up to Saltaire (Bob) via Sarah in Oxford. Alasdair is based in London and his mother in South Yorkshire and so the A1 became even more iconic in terms of the ensuing project along with the road signs that point the way and, indeed, spell out the album’s title and intent. In the progressive rock seventies, Hatfield and the North took their name from an A1 road sign, now McLellan was to infer deeper meaning form these signposts to British locations and feelings.

Timeless low summer rays transform Albion

We all have our own relationship with St Etienne as Jason Wood points out in his booklet essay on the films of Saint Etienne and for McLellan their albums were a soundtrack to his formative years in the nineties. The endless summers of his Doncaster youth walking for hours past endless rows of bungalows listening to the music as he says in the excellent interview with the BFI’s Stuart Brown and Bob Stanley. One of Sarah Cracknell’s instructions was a reference to that late summer ambiance, and McLellan’s low-sunlit vignettes form a cohesive visual commentary to the eight tracks of the album.

The opener features gorgeous orange sunlit stone of St Pauls and then Marble Arch as a young couple meet on a bench for a short but not so sweet assignation that leaves them setting off in different directions. They look dressed for a ball and yet there’s something stopping them which we can only imagine. They are both beautiful and that’s a hallmark of the film with models being used rather than actors and McLellan’s background in fashion photography enabling him to place these impossible people into everyday contexts that all ages can connect with.



The cast drift through the loose narratives, edited in for musical specificity or dramatic inference and against backdrops up and down the A1 and far apart. There’s a lovely sequence in Port Merion, Clough Williams-Ellis’ Italianate village in North Wales, famous for acting as the set of The Prisoner and yet perhaps not given the credit it deserves by younger generations. It’s a marvel of location, association and design and allowed McLellan plenty of scope to improvise a compelling narrative with just three performers and the giant chess board installed by the fans of No. 6… It’s an unreal place at the best of times.


Elsewhere the use of a sample from Love of a Lifetime by Honeyz on the first track, Music Again, which includes a synthesised harpsichord which made the director think of Stratford-upon-Avon and comparing actual Tudor with mock Tudor in Hampstead. It doesn’t stop there though as we drift from Marble Arch to the stones of Avebury with their powerful connotations of seventies children’s folk horror, another memory co-existing with alternate facts.

Youth being not wasted on the young.

Memory and assoiation, real and constructed… European cinema mixed in with sixties British kitchen sink and channelled out like a city symphony albeit one based across the country. It’s like Arcadia… but with more now than then.

Penlop features a sample from the Lightning Seeds’ Joy and features some wonderful sequences of Blackpool, the lights barely changed from when I used to be taken up there every winter to see them. Multiple Cracknell’s sing arcane words channelling the Cocteau Twin’s Liz Fraser in tone and possible intent...


I don't really know you

But I'd like to show you

Just a town

We wear olive brown…

How many Sarah Cracknells does it take?


As with memory, interpretation is fluid and McLellan’s guess is as good as yours but its unerringly absorbing and attuned to the music. It’s one to watch again and again if you want to refine your response and there are some beautiful sections… but there’s always a point to all this and as with memories, it’s ultimately down to you what you focus on. Few of us looked like the models in the film back in 1997 and not every chemical processing plant comes with a gorgeous soundtrack and a sunny day.


Ultimately, perhaps the question is how we use the memory to move forward both those of us who were there and those who are, only now, just visiting. Things can only get better… and maybe they will?


There is, after all, a young man eating a Zoom ice lolly.

Summer breeze

The film comes with some splendid extras including:


·         Bob Stanley and Alasdair McLellan in conversation with the BFI’s Stuart Brown (2021, 29 mins)


·         New Saint Etienne music videos directed by Alasdair McLellan: Her Winter Coat, Hello Holly, Escalade and Access to All Alone / Infinity 21 (2021, 20 mins)


·         An illustrated booklet, with the first pressing only, including an introduction by Alasdair McLellan, an essay by Jason Wood; Bob Stanley and Jason Wood in conversation, a director biography, full credits and notes on the special features


You can order it now direct from the BFI shop online!


Pete and Bob grab a cuppa

Bonus lovely images...