Sunday, 29 January 2023

She'll lose her heart in Monte Carlo? The Magician (1926), with Laurent Pigeolet, Redwood Creek Blu-ray

"…weird, fantastic, adequately suspensive, and shivery…”

Lawrence Reid, Motion Picture News


Of the thousands of silent films lost this is one of those that was found, having been considered "perhaps the most elusive of lost films”, by critic Carlos Clarens before being rediscovered restored and shown on TCM and released on Warner Classics DVD a decade ago. This project is based on a 16mm black and white source from a private collection and whilst it doesn’t have the DVD’s tints, it’s pretty much the same cut as far as I can tell. This is the first time that the film has been released on Blu-ray and is the result of a Kickstarter from Redwood Creek Films who conducted a 4k transfer and restoration of the materials.


The film is new to me although I have some familiarity with the work of Rex Ingram and The Magician is notable not just for its mystery and imagination but also its location having been filmed in France with shots featuring Monte Carlo and Paris. Carlos Clarens explains this as a means of avoiding studio interference, and given how he sums up the response on release as mostly on grounds of tastelessness, it’s easy to see why Ingram wanted time alone with his monstrous creation.


In addition to an international cast there’s also a British connection with young Michael Powell, often resident in the South of France, acting as an assistant director as well as an extra in one brief appearance. This cast include Ingram’s wife, Alice Terry, as well as sundry Frenchmen and the wide-eyed stylings of Herr Paul Wegener who, as one of the characters observes, looks like he’s stepped out of a melodrama. Paul gets the job done though and his magically-unreal mad Professor Haddo is a joy whether he’s hypnotising Alice, inexplicably influencing the tables at the casino or plotting ancient magic. Powell was not impressed though saying his "one expression to indicate magical powers was to open his huge eyes even wider, until he looked about as frightened as a bullfrog." Maybe you had to be there.

Michael Powell and Gladys Hamer


The script is based on a 1908 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, as unlikely as it seems, and is characterised by an uncanny intensity mixed with some humorous episodes that serve to both relive and build up the eventual tension. This is Todd Browning strange and proto-Universal odd, with the seemingly unstoppable Haddo plotting murder and the most gruesome recycling of human flesh… there really ought to be some kind of cinema code to restrict the horrific imaginations of these debauched show people.


All begins artistically enough with sculptor Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry) moulding a huge clay statue of Pan which is of such a scale that I really doubt she’ll be able to get it out of the room. Also present is Margaret's painter friend Susie Boyd (Gladys Hamer) who provides the first moments of light relief as she changes the title of an abstract painting from sunrise to sunset over the Seine.


I was right about the scale of the work though for the clay suddenly cracks and the giant head falls onto Margaret threatening more than just her promising career. Her spine damaged only the state-of-the-art intervention of handsome surgeon Dr. Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich) saves her with an onlooking doctor praising his skill as almost magical.


The saving of a human life is a comparatively simple matter. On the other hand, the scientific creation of life does indeed call for the powers of a magician.


Paul Wegener keeps it real.

Also watching – really, really, wide-eyed – is Professor Haddo, who plans on actual magic, and more, with this most attractive of patients. The operating theatre is the strangest of places to pick up potential subjects for hypnotism and heart donation but it’s the early worm who catches the worm even though Margaret and Dr, Arthur soon begin a romance. Haddo meanwhile discovers the rare recipe for creating life in his local library – OK, a library – and makes his plans to, literally, steal Margaret’s heart.


After engineering a chance meeting in the park, Haddo then turns up at a visiting circus as the young couple along with Susie and her quirky pal (played by Michael Powell) watch a snake charmer. Haddo, has some words with the charmer, before picking up the snake and holding it to bite his hand, within seconds he makes the bite disappear, but the snake then bites and apparently almost kills the charmer’s assistant. He’s either a genuine magician or a master of prestidigitation.


If you wish to see strange things, I have the power to show them to you…


Haddo then makes a visit to the young woman’s apartment and proceeds to hypnotise her, using the completed head of her sculpture to present her with a vision of a pre-code Hell in which people seem to be doing exactly the kinds of things that got them sent there in the first place. He urges one especially lithely demonic, dancing faun (Hubert I. Stowitts, an American dancer at the Folies Bergere), to make his moves on Margaret who succumbs in ways that would dismay William Hays…



Margaret and her good Doctor plan to marry but on the morning of their ceremony, Arthur discovers that she has not only been whisked away by Haddo but has married him. Convinced that her will is being controlled, he begins to search Europe for them finally tracing them a year later to Monte Carlo where Haddo is using Margaret to somehow fix the odds at the gaming table presumably to fund his greater plan.


Arthur and his friend Dr. Porhoët (Firmin Gémier, a leading light of French Theatre who created the role of Père Ubu in the original production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu roi in 1896) set out to foil the Professor and the closing segment is full of classic horror tropes right down to a lightning illuminated tower and an “Igor” played by Henry Wilson. It’s high camp and schlock horror but this is one of the places were that all began. It’s a key work “Supervised by Rex Ingram” even if he didn’t direct all of it according to Henry Lachman, who directed the Sabbat section, and Powell’s memoirs.


The result is great fun and whilst Wegener is over the top as usual, it’s all part of the fun – he does indeed heighten the melodrama. Terry is a very effective damsel in distress and the Ingram’s supervision brings out the best in all his players. Laurent Pigeolet’s score adds a lot of flavour, inventive piano that works well with the creeping unreality of the evil professor’s emotional invasion of the couple’s real world.

Iván Petrovich and Alice Terry

The restoration has the flaws of the material and lacks the clarity you’d expect from a 35mm source with digital cleaning – we are so spoilt these days – but it looks like what it is, a direct copy from 16mm. The 2010 Warner Archive DVD is still to be found on eBay and other places and whilst it’s claimed as 88 minutes it’s 80 and as I say at the tope the same cut… probably!


Some copies of this Blu-ray are for sale on eBay, it’s not cheap but it is different.


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