A surrealistic, dreamlike story of obsession

0

Phantom, released 13 November 1922, is one of eleven currently-known, fully-surviving films of the great director F.W. Murnau. A film which he wrote but didn’t direct also survives in full.

Like most of his other films, Phantom too is in the German Expressionist style. It has a lyrical, poetic, dreamlike, surrealistic quality. This isn’t a true horror story, but about a phantom in the mind. Sometimes our obsessions and inner phantoms can be more haunting than any supernatural thrills and chills.

At the urging of his wife Marie, ex-con Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel) begins writing an account of his past crimes and misdeeds, in the hopes of purging his soul of those painful memories. We then enter flashback mode.

Lorenz’s mother thinks he spends too much time with books when he can’t afford them, but he insists they provide him with a world he otherwise can’t experience. His mother also is furious at her other son Hugo for working with his pawnbroker aunt Schwabe, whose morals she highly disapproves of.

Marie’s father disapproves of her relationship with Lorenz, and derides Lorenz as too much of a dreamer. When Lorenz comes for a visit, he shows Marie’s father, Hr. Starke, some of his poems.

Frau Lubota gets into a fight with her daughter Melanie when she announces she’s going to work. Frau  Lubota suspects she’s a hooker, confronting her with silky garments she suspects were either ill-gotten gifts or paid for with ill-gotten money. In response, Melanie moves out.

While walking to work, Lorenz is knocked over by a horse-drawn carriage. Though he’s unhurt, he becomes obsessed with Veronika, the woman in the carriage.

At the start of Act II, Hr. Starke highly praises Lorenz’s poems, and tells Marie he’s a lot more talented than he gave him credit for. In fact, Hr. Starke thinks he’s a genius, and decides to back Lorenz’s writing career by getting him a mentor and making him an honorary citizen. Gone are the days when Lorenz was a lowly town clerk.

Meanwhile, Lorenz visits Schwabe to break the happy news, at the same time the publisher meets Hr. Starke. He doesn’t share Hr. Starke’s glowing opinion at all, and refuses to publish Lorenz.

Schwabe urges Lorenz to get a new suit to make an impression in society, and sends her assistant Wigottschinski out to help him with picking out the suit. Afterwards, they get a drink to celebrate.

At the club, Lorenz recognizes Melanie, who becomes Wigottschinski’s girlfriend. Lorenz also learns Veronika is engaged, and begins hanging around her house. His obsession is so great, he comes to speak to her parents and begs for Veronika’s hand.

Since he can’t have Veronika, be begins courting her dead ringer and blowing his wallet on gifts. All the while, he relives the accident. His obsession is so great, he begins skipping work and behaving very scandalously in other ways.

Wigottschinski, who’s been swindling Schwabe to keep up Lorenz’s illusion of making a lot of money, can’t keep up his scheme forever. Schwabe gets wise to him, and demands a full payback in three days. If not, she’ll call the cops.

This sets even more trouble in motion, all while Lorenz continues to obsess over his phantom woman hitting him with her carriage.

While this film is beautifully-shot (including many tinted frames), with a lovely dreamlike mood and wonderful visuals, this isn’t a film I’d recommend as an ideal first silent. It’s definitely nowhere near the worst silent I’ve ever seen (that would probably be a toss-up between Leaves from Satan’s Book and Eyes of the Mummy Ma), but it’s not the type I see making enthusiastic converts.

It’s like a modern art house or indie film. There’s an obvious, eager audience, but one has to already be a big fan of that style to want to watch it.

Advertisements

A story of the London fog

1

Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t an immediate success as a director. His bad luck turned around with The Lodger, released 14 February 1927 in the U.K. and 10 June 1928 in the U.S. It was a huge box office hit in the U.K., and received wonderful reviews.

Some name this as the first truly Hitchcockian film, setting the stage for styles and themes which permeated much of the rest of his work.

The Lodger also has the first recognisable Hitchock cameo, 5:33 in. He’s at a newsroom desk, his back to the camera. The actor set to play the phone operator didn’t show up, so Hitchcock took over. He also shows up in a mob scene towards the end.

The film is based upon Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 novel of the same name, about the 1888 hunt for Jack the Ripper. It was remade in 1932, 1944, 1953 (as Man in the Attic), and 2009. A 1960 opera was also based on the novel.

Another adaptation of the novel, the comic play Who Is He? (1915), written by Horace Annesley Vachell, was additional inspiration.

The mood and filming techniques were inspired by German Expressionism. While working on the German–British film The Blackguard in 1924, Hitchcock studied several films being produced nearby, particularly F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh. He’d also been inspired by Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (1921).

Producer Michael Balcon was furious when he saw the finished product, and almost shelved both the film and Hitchcock’s career. After a lot of fighting, they found a compromise, and film critic Ivor Montagu was hired to edit it.

At first, Hitchcock resented this, but Montagu only made minute suggestions, such as reshooting a few minor scenes and changing some intertitles. Montagu respected his talent and creativity too much to radically edit everything.

When beautiful matinée idol Ivor Novello was cast as the star, the studio demanded changes to the script. They didn’t want any suggestion of ambiguity about his guilt vs. innocence, since ambiguity might suggest he were a villain, and the public couldn’t have that.

You’ll have to watch the film to see which side won.

The film opens with the murder of a young blonde woman. When her body is discovered, there’s a triangle on her, bearing the name of The Avenger. This murderer strikes blondes on Tuesday nights and leaves that triangle as his calling-card.

That night by a fashion show, blonde model Daisy Bunting (June Tripp) laughs at her co-workers’ hysterical fears, and how the other blondes are hiding their hair with wigs and hats. When she comes home, she finds her old parents and her rather unwanted boyfriend, policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen), discussing the crime.

A beautiful young man (Ivor Novello) arrives by the Bunting house, inquiring after the room for rent. Mrs. Bunting is very nervous to see the lower half of his face covered by a scarf, just like The Avenger, but lets him inside and shows him the upstairs room.

Mrs. Bunting is further weirded out when she discovers the lodger has turned around all the paintings of young blonde women. He says he doesn’t like them, and asks if they can be put somewhere else.

I got a good laugh out of Joe’s intertitle, “Anyway, I’m glad he’s not keen on the girls.” In a later intertitle, Mrs. Bunting also describes the lodger as “a bit queer.” Ivor was gay in real life, and in a relationship with Robert “Bobbie” Andrews from 1916 until his death in 1951.

Daisy and the lodger start becoming closer, which Joe deeply resents. Meanwhile, the lodger’s strange behaviour begins to arouse the suspicions of Joe (now assigned to The Avenger case) and Mrs. Bunting. It doesn’t help matters that The Avenger’s murders are moving towards the Buntings’ home.

In addition to the jealous, controlling Joe, Daisy’s parents also disapprove of her budding romance with the lodger. Daisy, however, stands her ground, and continues meeting him for stolen moments. When Joe catches them on a date, Daisy tells him what’s what, and dumps him.

Joe is newly-determined to prove the lodger is The Avenger, and intensifies his investigation. Will the lodger be found guilty or innocent?

Old dark house meets German Expressionism

3

Together with The Bat and The MonsterThe Cat and the Canary is one of the Big Three old dark house plays which were made into films during the silent era. Old dark house stories feature people stuck overnight in a strange, creepy, old house. Frequently, the reason for the gathering is the reading of an old eccentric’s will, and there’s at least one murder or mysterious disappearance.

The play was written by John Willard in 1921, and premièred 7 February 1922 on Broadway. It ran for 349 performances, till 2 December, and returned for 40 performances from 23 April–26 May 1923.

The first film adaptation premièred 9 September 1927 by New York’s Colony Theatre. In addition to films by the same name in 1939 (starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard) and 1979, 0ther filmed versions include The Cat Creeps (1930, lost); La Voluntad del Muerto (1930); and Katten och Kanariefågeln (1961 Swedish TV movie).

Carl Laemmle, the German-born head of Universal Pictures, invited German Expressionist director Paul Leni to do the honors for The Cat and the Canary after seeing his impressive mixing of comedy and playfulness with the grotesque in Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) (1924). Laemmle also wanted to capitalize upon the Gothic horror film trend.

Leni provided a masterful mixing of German Expressionism and comedy, tailoring that style to American audiences. A hand wiping away cobwebs to reveal the opening credits is just the beginning. Leni also created the trademark Expressionist mood through shadows, lighting, and camera angles.

The film was very financially successful, and has received mostly positive reviews both then and now.

Millionaire Cyrus West, who lives in a decaying old mansion over the Hudson, has been driven crazy by his greedy relatives. He feels like a canary surrounded by cats. To keep them away from his money for as long as possible, he locks his last will and testament in a safe, with instructions to be read on his 20th Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

If and only if the conditions of the will can’t be fulfilled, a second note is to be opened.

Cyrus’s lawyer, Roger Crosby (veteran character actor Tully Marshall), discovers a live moth and the second will when he opens the safe. He asks caretaker Mammy Pleasant who else has been in the house, but she insists she’s been alone for twenty years. Crosby is also the only one who knows the safe’s combination.

As midnight approaches, the relatives start arriving—his nephews Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Harry Blythe, and Charles Wilder; his sister Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch); and his nieces Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor) and Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). Susan is convinced Annabelle is crazy, but Paul has a big crush on her.

Because Cyrus hated his family so much, he’s given his fortune to Annabelle, his most distant relative. However, before she can inherit anything, she has to be judged sane by a doctor named in the will, who’s due to pay a visit that night. If she doesn’t pass muster, the money goes to the person named in the second will.

Cyrus’s painting falls off the wall, which is interpreted as a very bad omen. Now everyone is even more eager to get out of there, as much as they all want a piece of the fortune. However, they’re prevented from leaving when a guard enters and announces he’s looking for an escaped lunatic, “who thinks he’s a cat, and tears his victims like they were canaries!”

No one wants to sleep alone after this.

Crosby pulls Annabelle aside to read the alternate will, so she’ll know who might be trying to get between her and the inheritance. Before he can read the name, a claw-like hand emerges from a secret panel and absconds with him. When Annabelle tells the others, they all think she’s crazy, except the smitten Paul.

In Cyrus’s room, Annabelle reads a third note, which has instructions for finding the West diamonds. She’s delighted to discover a beautiful diamond necklace, but while she’s sleeping, the clawed hand snatches it. Once again, no one believes her but Paul.

The mysterious, creepy events don’t stop there.

Of the Big Three old dark house films of the Twenties, I like this one best. I’d highly recommend it if you’re a fan of classic horror.

Fritz Lang’s screenwriting début

0

The great Fritz Lang’s very first screenplay was for director and producer Joe May’s Hilde Warren und der Tod (Hilde Warren and Death), released 31 August 1917. They collaborated again on 1920’s Das Wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image) and 1921’s The Indian Tomb. All of these films featured the same leading lady, May’s wife Mia (née Hermine Pfleger), from whose stage name he took his own.

The Austrian-born Joe May, né Joseph Otto Mandel, was one of the pioneers of German cinema. He got started at Continental-Kunstfilm in Berlin, and later formed his own production company, Stuart Webbs-Film. His film career was briefly interrupted by WWI service.

By the time he collaborated with Lang, he’d founded another production company, May-Film. Sadly, his daughter Eva committed suicide in 1924, aged only 22.

In 1933, he and his wife escaped to the U.S., and he established himself as a B-movie director.

Unfortunately, at the present time, the only widely-available version of this film is cut down to 39 minutes (out of 80 minutes total), so I won’t be able to provide a complete review based entirely on my own impressions. I’ll do my best to fill in the blanks with the full synopses I’ve read, and drawing on the knowledge that Lang revisited the premise in 1921’s Der Müde Tod.

Not only is the publicly-available version so truncated, but it also has no intertitles. It’s very hard to figure out who’s who and what’s going on.

The film received glowing reviews, particularly in regards to Mia May and Georg John (Death)’s acting. Lang’s screenplay was also highly praised.

Sadly, Georg John was deported to the Łódź Ghetto in autumn 1941, and died there on 18 November, aged 62.

During rehearsals for The Master of Palmyra, Hilde Warren, a famous stage actor, gets involved in a conversation about Death. She tells her director Wengraf she doesn’t understand how anyone could lead her to Death before her time.

Wengraf is in love with Hilde, but she rejects all his attempts at wooing her. She’s not going to give up a successful career to get married and have kids.

Death appears and tries to tempt her, but Hilde refuses.

Hilde eventually marries Hector Roger, an elegant but wanted criminal. She has no idea what kind of double life he’s leading. When the cops try to arrest him, he shoots at them, and is killed in the resulting skirmish.

Shortly afterwards, Hilde discovers she’s pregnant. Death appears for a second time, but once again, she withstands temptation.

As her son Egon grows up, he’s pulled to the dark side like his father. Meanwhile, Wengraf is still in love with Hilde, but he gives her an impossible condition for marriage—abandon her child.

Death appears a third time, but Hilde once again refuses.

Egon gets more and more out of control, in spite of Hilde trying to reform him. She blames herself for his criminal lifestyle.

The next time Egon begs for money, after almost ruining her financially, Hilde stands her ground, orders him to get out, and threatens him with a revolver. She fights back when Egon attacks her, with shocking results.

When Death appears again, will she finally accept his offer?

Lon’s Legendary Lost London

0

Released 3 December 1927 and directed by Tod Browning, London After Midnight is among the Holy Grail of lost films. It was last known to have been screened sometime in the 1950s. Like hundreds of other silents (and some early sound films), its last known surviving print was destroyed in the horrific fire in MGM’s Vault #7 on 13 May 1967.

LAM was filmed in a record 24 days, with a budget of $151,666.14, making it the cheapest and quickest of Lon’s MGM films. While the U.S. gross was $721,000, its international earnings were below par. Overall, it turned a profit of $540,000, and ranked as MGM’s #4 film of the 1927–28 season. It was also the tenth-highest earner  of 1927 overall. This was one of Lon’s highest-earning films ever.

But was it really that good?

Contemporary audiences, critics and laypeople alike, weren’t particularly impressed. Even those who were among the very last to see it in the 1950s were underwhelmed. Lon’s incredible acting talents were highly praised, as usual, but the actual story was widely panned.

A frequent point of criticism was that the story was nonsensical and incoherent. Other reviewers called it boring, trying too hard, lacking characters the audience could connect with, lacking the weird atmosphere of The Cat and the Canary, and a wasted effort.

A rare, consistently positive review came from The Film Daily, which found the film marvellously creepy and unsettling.

Roger Balfour (Claude King) is found dead from a suspected shooting suicide. Though his friend and neighbor Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall) insists Roger couldn’t possibly have killed himself, Inspector Edward C. Burke of London Yard (Lon) officially rules the death a suicide.

Five years later, a creepy man with pointed teeth and black clothes (Lon in a dual role) arrives at the Balfour home, accompanied by a woman who looks like a corpse and also dresses all in black (Edna Tichenor). These two strangers’ arrival inspires Hamlin to call Scotland Yard.

Inspector Burke discovers three of the people in the house were the only three present when Roger died. These are Roger’s daughter Lucille (Marceline Day), his butler Williams (Percy Williams), and Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel). Hibbs is the nephew of the man who made the call to Scotland Yard.

At first, Burke doesn’t believe any of them were involved, but then Roger’s body disappears from his tomb. Even weirder, his dead ringer appears in the house. Other creepy happenings include gunshots heard in Roger’s old bedroom when Burke is there, bats flying around, and the creepy visitor terrifying everyone.

Burke finds the killer by recreating the crime scene and hypnotizing the guilty party into re-enacting the murder.

In 1928, Marie Coolidge-Rask published a novelization of the film. In 1935, Tod Browning remade LAM as The Mark of the Vampire, with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi.

A man who murdered a woman in London’s Hyde Park in 1928 claimed LAM made him do it, by driving him temporarily insane. He supposedly didn’t remember taking out the razor or using it on his victim. His plea was rejected, and he was convicted.

LAM has been referenced in popular culture a number of times over the years. These references include the name of a card game with the theme of classic horror movies, the name of an industrial-goth-rock band, and the lyrics of the song “Bodom After Midnight.”

In 2002, film preservationist and scholar Rick Schmidlin produced a 45-minute stills recreation. I’ve counted this on my list of silents seen, making note of the fact that it’s a recreation and not the actual film. I always note if something is a home movie, stills recreation, trailer, advertisement, newsreel, or surviving reel of a lost film.

In spite of LAM’s lackluster reviews, I’d still love to see it as an actual moving picture. Given Lon’s incredible acting talents, I can’t imagine it’s worse than some of the awful doozies on my list. I keep hoping all these famous lost films are found someday.