Saturday, 10 December 2011

Ma, she's makin' eyes at me... The Eyes of the Mummy (1918)

The Variety review was not positive... "The situations are an affront to adult intelligence, but might make a thriller for juvenile audiences . . . " and, in truth, no one could claim that Eyes of the Mummy is a classic.

And yet... the film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starred Harry Liedtke, Emil Jannings and Pola Negri! Surely it can't be all bad?

Harry Liedtke plays Albert Wendland, a painter visiting Egypt, who hears of a mysterious burial chamber for one Queen Ma, which has a reputation for bringing bad luck to visitors. Unable to resist the lure to explore, Albert visits the site to be greeted by its keeper, Radu (Emil Jannings).

Inside the tomb the mummy's eye's are clearly alive and Albert brushes Radu aside the find out who is behind this scam. Pushing through the mummy's coffin he finds a young woman, Ma, played by Pola Negri. She reveals that Radu had kidnapped her and is forcing her to do his will. Albert takes her with him and returns to Europe.

But Radu is not finished, swearing vengence as he follows them after being himself rescued from the desert by Prince Hohenfels.

Albert and Ma marry and she takes to the stage after wowing his party guests with her exotic dancing. Radu accompanies his new master to the theatre and, spying Ma, begins the final stages of his pusuit.

The Eyes of the Mummy
is undoubtedly melodramatic and while it's a shame that this descriptor is today viewed as a criticism, this was a hugely popular genre of the time. The film is a slight tale, of clearly limited budget, but it's told fairly well by Lubitsch even if it doesn't stand much comparison with his other arabian adventure Sumurun.

There's a particularly good sequence when Radu nears his quarry and the camera starts to track back in response to Jannings' forward motion, almost as if it is as terrified of him as Ma. Jennings makes the most of his character and is able to bring surprising depth to Radu in the end. Liedtke makes a good, if unlucky, hero and Pola Negri's nervous energy shines through her admitedly jarring dark make up.

Pola's dancing is as good as you'd expect given her classical training and it is fascinating to watch choreography from this period. Her scenes with Jannings are the best in the film especially those from the dénouement: Radu is as much a slave to Ma as she to him...

There are stronger choices to make when considering which film to watch from 1918, but The Eyes of the Mummy is redeemed by its star turns. Whilst all concerned had much better days ahead - the following year they made Madame Dubarry - this film shows a part of their development and skill.

The film is available in cheapo DVD form from Amazon. Sometimes you have to be patient and you have to be positive.

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