10 haunting silent films

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Stephen Horne, silent film musician and composer. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Looking at some of the dictionary definitions of the word “haunting”, it strikes me that they are applicable to silent films in general.  After all what could be more poignant, evocative or difficult to forget than watching long passed-away performers, their mute emotions given voice by music? The following films have extra elements that have made them lodge in my memory like nagging melodies. Usually there is something about them that is unexpected, unresolved or ambiguous. They often feel as though they end on an ellipsis, a cinematic ” … ”

These are all films that I have accompanied at some point, which is probably a big reason for their place in my heart. As I’m sure every silent film musician can testify, when a live accompaniment is going well, it can sometimes feel as if you are channeling the film in a way that can be positively uncanny.  One warning. It’s in the nature of this subject that often what lingers most in the mind is the denouement. Therefore, what follows could potentially be regarded as an extended spoiler. Please approach with caution!

The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)
The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)

The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)

While The Battle of the Somme is much better known, the final images of its “sequel” remain more firmly in my mind.  Seen in spectral silhouette, soldiers prepare “to continue the great fight for freedom”, as the intertitle puts it.  Of course, what they are also heading towards is further slaughter.  The original official score, a cue sheet medley rediscovered by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum, calls for this finale to be accompanied by Land of Hope and Glory.  Seldom has a musical suggestion seemed, at least to a modern sensibility, more heartbreakingly wrong. Which somehow makes it right.

J'Accuse (1919)
J’Accuse (1919)

J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)

Gance’s first world war classic is full of images that scarify the memory.  The March of the Dead is the most famous example: is it to be interpreted literally, allegorically or as a mass hallucination? The knowledge that Gance used real soldiers on leave from the front as actors makes the viewing experience all the more impactful: we are watching the cinematic portrayal of a phantom army, played by people who were soon to become phantoms themselves.

However, the moment that always slays me is a quiet one in the scene that immediately follows. Jean, now completely mad, re-enters his old home, looks around … and calls out his own name. He has lost everything, including himself.

The Woman From Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)
The Woman From Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)

The Woman from Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)

In 1996 the BFI programmed a season of films to coincide with the publication of Gilbert Adair’s book Flickers.  Marking the centenary of cinema, this often-whimsical tome wove brief essays around a single still from one film of every one of those hundred years. Gilbert explained in his introduction to the screening of this little-known film that he had never actually seen it. All he knew was the still image included in his book, but it was one that had haunted him: a woman standing alone, perhaps lost, on a path in the middle of nowhere.  He had always wondered about the backstory that had led her to this point and was almost scared to watch the film, in case the reality disappointed him. Truthfully I don’t remember the film in detail, but now the same image lingers in my mind. For me the woman from nowhere is still standing on that road, lost for ever.

Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)
Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)

Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)

One of the most heartbreaking films ever made, despite the perfectly rendered happy ending. What lingers is the impression of a child’s struggle to comprehend bereavement, uncannily conveyed in Jean Forest’s dark eyes. The moment when the boy sees his father crying for the first time is very prescient of the ending of The Bicycle Thieves.

Stella Dallas (1925)
Stella Dallas (1925)

Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925)

Where does Stella go, after she walks away from the window?  Something in her expression indicates that she has come untethered and I always imagine that she eventually drifts into homelessness. Sometimes if I see an elderly homeless woman, having a conversation with an unseen third party, I think: “Stella – talking to her daughter … ”

Exit Smiling (1926)
Exit Smiling (1926)

Exit Smiling (Sam Taylor, 1926)

Is it possible for a comedy to be haunting? The film is delightfully funny, but it is the heartbroken expression on Beatrice Lillie’s face at the bittersweet climax that seems to resonate longer. Her character has been courageous and loveable and she deserved better. It’s also a surprising and brave way for a comedy to end.

Jenseits der Strasse (1929)
Jenseits der Strasse (1929)

Jenseits Der Strasse (Leo Mittler, 1929)

I saw this at the Bonner Sommerkino many years ago. The expression on the face of Lissy Arna’s streetwalker in the last scene burned itself into my memory.  The moment itself is partially comic, as the gross belly of her next client protrudes centre-frame. However as she tries to smile at him, her vacant eyes belie the fact that her personal window of happiness has definitively slammed shut.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)

What I love most about Asquith’s masterpiece is the ambiguity of its final act. Few other silent films seem to generate so much discussion of character motivation. Is Sally’s forgiveness of Joe purely born of compassion or does she perhaps regret her life choices? When he asks “are you happy?” she seems to pause a beat too long, before turning her head away from him and answering “very”.

Order A Cottage on Dartmoor on DVD with Stephen Horne’s score from Movie Mail

Prix de Beauté (1930)
Prix de Beauté (1930)

Prix de Beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930)

The final scene, which transcends an often wonderful but undeniably uneven film, is poignant in many ways.  Louise Brooks’ character is watching herself in a screen test – one that will determine her future career in talking films – when she is shot dead by her ex-lover.  While silent film Louise dies in the foreground, sound film Louise continues to sing on, framed in the screen behind her. It seems like a metaphor for both Brooks’ own soon-to-be curtailed career and the imminent death of silent films.

The Force That Through The Green Fire Fuels The Flower (Otto Kylmälä, 2011)

A slight indulgence, partly as this is a 21st-century silent, but also because I provided the music. However, I make no apology, as Otto Kylmälä’s seven-minute jewel of a short ends with a truly haunting moment that I won’t spoil, as it’s not generally available to watch at the moment. But you’ll know it when you see it. Come to think of it, the moment is accompanied by a rather haunting melody… …

By Stephen Horne

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7 thoughts on “10 haunting silent films”

  1. A great list. One day I will get to see Jenseits Der Strasse. I am intrigued by The Force That Through The Green Fire Fuels The Flower,

  2. A very interesting choice by Stephen – which is hardly surprising in view of his experience of playing for many (all?) of these. But it also shows the value of straying away for the canonic usual suspects, and recalls how musicians can make even films that seem forbidding, or have poor reputations, into deeply moving experiences. We owe Stephen and his fellow-accompanists a greater debut than is often acknowledged!

    Ian Christie http://www.ianchristie.org

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