Category Archives: Review

Early Murnau review: a set for the silent cinephile to linger over

The concept of “Early Murnau” is a little bittersweet. The German director had such a short career that the films in this new collection from Masters of Cinema take us up to just six years before he died. And while his most famous film was made during the period (1921-25) covered by this box set, that work, Nosferatu, is not included. The set ends just one year before his hypnotic Faust was made, and two before his Hollywood masterpiece Sunrise.

This is technically middle Murnau, then, or “the Murnau you may have missed if you only knew Nosferatu and the surviving Hollywood work”. All the same, this is a gorgeous collection of distinctive, spectacular films, well worth adding to your shelf. All of the films in the set have been made available on DVD from Masters of Cinema previously, but here together, on Blu-ray, they represent a far better bargain.

Schloss Vogelöd (1921)
Schloss Vogelöd (1921)

The journey through Murnau’s lesser-sung German work begins in 1921 with Schloss Vogelöd, a country-house mystery rendered mysterious and dreamlike at the director’s touch, and climaxes with the bracing and inventive Molière adaptation Tartuffe (1925), which introduces an especially noxious virtue-signalling hypocrite and hangs him out to dry. In between we delve into the romantic and financial misery of a poetically minded clerk in Phantom (1922), and the related entanglements of an aristocrat in Die Finanzen de Grossherzogs (1924). Indisputably, the highlight of the collection is the low-key masterpiece Die Letzte Mann (1924) starring Emil Jannings as the hotel doorman whose life hits a downward spiral when he is demoted to a toilet attendant.

As the many extra features and essays included with the set attest, Murnau’s oeuvre is hugely varied, swinging from genre to genre and rarely settling in one place for long. Stylistically, though, he is mistakably himself at all times. You can see the walls of the city bend down to oppress the heroes of both Phantom and Die Letzte Mann, for example. And you may already have noticed that the films above share a set of preoccupations with money and social position, with impossible aspirations and with toxic pride.

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The Red Turtle review: the silence of an enchanted island

 

Shipwrecked and bewildered, a lone man washes up on an island that has lush, forest vegetation, fresh water, fruit, and everything a person needs to survive, except human company. His attempts to escape his isolation by raft are repeatedly scuppered by a mysterious, and gorgeous sea creature, with which he forms a lasting, and surprising relationship.

The Red Turtle, an animated feature film that was widely admired at Cannes, plays the London Film Festival next month. You may have heard of if because it represents a first in the world of animation – a Studio Ghibli co-production, being a collaboration between the well-known Japanese outfit and Dutchman Michaël Dudok de Wit. It is also that beast rarer than a giant red sea turtle: a new, and very accomplished feature-length film without dialogue.

The Red Turtle (2016)
The Red Turtle (2016)

The silence, washed over with a sophisticated sound mix of animal noises and ferocious waves, is supplemented by a gorgeous, rousing score that helps to elevate the castaway’s solitary struggles to edge-of-the-seat, blockbuster events. And it is in the first third that the film is its most successful, as the hero adjusts to his surroundings, carves himself an awkward niche in the island ecosystem, and valiantly attempts to sail away into the sunset and towards civilisation. One early sequence, in which he slips through a crevice and must use all his strength and courage to swim to safety, cranks the tension to its utmost. In these first scenes, we are privileged to share his fears and frustration, his dreams and his sickness, so that each time he tries to make a break for it, alone on his wobbly raft, the interference of the red turtle is a cold shock. This portion of the film is closest to a horror movie, the most obvious analogue being Jaws, with a silent, invisible terror lurking beneath the waves. Sometimes he screams, but of course there is no one to hear him. It is a masterful feat of sustained silent film narrative, engrossing and terrifying.

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Have You Seen my Movie? review: a good reason to go to the cinema

Cinema has always found itself delicious. Showing at the London Film Festival next month is a movie made out of movies in which people watch movies at the movies. There are movies within the movies within this movie, and it will leave you with an intense craving for popcorn – as well as celluloid.

Paul Anton Smith was one of Christian Marclay’s assistants on his tick-tock supercut The Clock. For his debut feature, he has dipped back into the archives to create Have You Seen my Movie? (2016) – a less ambitious film, but with a more romantic theme. Have You Seen my Movie?, which screens in the Experimenta strand, stitches together sequences from feature films in which characters watch films, mostly at the cinema, but occasionally in screening rooms or edit suites and in one very enjoyable sequence, at the drive-in. The movie is roughly chronological not by era, but by the stages of movie-going: beginning in the ticket queue, taking us through the whole feature presentation and ending only when the cinema has closed and the last customer has been booted out.

The Aviator (2004)
The Aviator (2004)

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Fedora: Billy Wilder’s recurring Hollywood nightmare

William Holden is drawn into the dysfunctional, secluded household of a fading Hollywood star, seduced and horrified by what he finds. In his familar crisp voice-over, he tells a sad story of Hollywood brutality. This beautiful screen siren, her heyday far behind her, has a terrible secret, but despite her advanced age, she remains fascinating, almost irresistible…

No, it’s not Sunset Boulevard, but Billy Wilder’s penultimate movie Fedora, which is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Masters of Cinema on Monday 26 September. Made in 1978, Fedora belongs to a different era than 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. “The kids with beards have taken over,” as Holden’s character laments, referring to those cinematic titans who were once movie brats: Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. And Fedora is not a silent movie star either. She belongs especially to the 1930s and 1940s, when she made woman’s pictures, a genre that has gone out of date in 1978. But still, her career was suspiciously long.

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It’s said that Wilder may have modelled Fedora on Pola Negri – she is Polish, aristocratic and melodramatic, and she was one of the women approached to play Norma Desmond way back then, too. Negri also retired to live quietly with a lady companion, after a couple of brief comebacks in the 1940s and 1960s. But Negri’s latter years were spent in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to Catholicism. Fedora skulks in an island villa in Corfu, and her end is much less pleasant. Wilder refused to pin this character down though. “I have known Garbo, Swanson, Dietrich, Lombard, and Monroe,” he said. “Fedora is a fictitious combination of them all.”In the opening sequence, in fact, Fedora looks like a much earlier screen goddess, Musidora, as she sprints in a fluttering black cloak towards her fate.

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The Gag Man review: a brutal insight into the silent comedy business

The consensus view on Clyde Bruckman was summed up by Tom Dardis, biographer of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: “he was not very funny, and he drank too much”. Matthew Dessem’s The Gag Man, an entertaining and revelatory study of the writer-director, does little to erase that image, but does examine how he came to “direct” some of silent cinema’s greatest comedies, and tells one heck of a Hollywood yarn.

Bruckman was a journalist who entered the film industry as an intertitle writer, before becoming a “gagster”. The “gag men” would conceive visual jokes for silent comedies, working in groups, throwing ideas around, so it’s tricky to say who did what. However, Bruckman is credited with the brilliant concept for  Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921). The star had a broken ankle, which limited his usual acrobatic display. Bruckman sketched out an idea for creating laughs out of camera trickery instead of physical exertion. Thanks to deadly timing on behalf of cameraman and star, the multiple exposures work perfectly, including a triumphant sequence in which nine Keatons dance together.

ClydeBruckman
Clyde Bruckman

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Around China With a Movie Camera review: bewitching scenes from another world

In a very welcome turn of events, the BFI releases two archive DVDs this week, both with plenty to offer the early film enthusiast. The first is the dual-format edition of Play On!, an anthology of silent Shakespeare films with newly recorded music, of which more elsewhere. The second is Around China With a Movie Camera, a disc full of surprises.

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Around China With A Movie Camera is a compilation of archive film shot between 1900 and 1948, with shimmering, groovy music composed by Ruth Chan. I’ve never been to China, so I don’t bring any geographical expertise to this disc, but these are among the most bewitching early films I’ve ever seen. There are travelogues in the mix, but also newsreels, home movies, actualities, documentaries and footage shot by missionaries. Each frame is brimful of life and activity – the familiar and the unfamiliar mingled together. We begin in Beijing in 1910, with footage shot by an unknown cameraman on behalf of Charles Urban. The streets are thronged with people: workers, families, traders, drawing carts, alpacas, horses or rickshaws, carrying water or bundles of straw. The film is vividly tinted and between the blazing sunlight and the dusty road, the heat of the day burns up the screen. The locals smoke pipes, and shave each other’s heads.

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A cut, and we see the same streets in 1925, the same crowds and rickshaws and market stalls. More industry here, if not quite high technology. Then, cut again, and it’s 1933. On and on, until we have travelled the country, and sped forward to 1948 and back again.

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Nitrate Picture Show 2016 review: intoxicating celluloid

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amran Vance, who runs the London Silent Film Meetup group and is part of the team behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscope.

When I wrote about the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York, last year I ended with the slightly pessimistic hope that we would get to see a silent film on nitrate next time around. My fear was that shrinkage issues with such old prints might prevent that from happening. I am delighted to report that my cynicism was misplaced as this year’s festival ended on a sensational high, an American silent film from 1928! But more about that later.

As with last year, the festival organisers kept the 2016 programme under wraps until the morning of the first day of the festival. I know this approach is controversial. Potential attendees have complained to me that they are reluctant to incur the not inconsiderable expense in traveling to upstate New York when they have no idea what films will be screened. I have a lot of sympathy with that view but there is something undeniably exciting about opening the brochure on the first day and seeing what treats lie ahead of us. There is also merit in the organisers’ position that it is the physical condition and pictorial beauty of the prints that governs their selection, with the quality and reputation of the works coming next. Personally, I favour a middle ground, perhaps naming three or four films in advance and keeping the rest secret.

The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum, our venue for the festival
The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum, our venue for the festival

I suspect that few, if any,who made the journey to Rochester were disappointed with the films presented to us. I was initially sorry to see that no silents were listed but was keeping my fingers crossed that the final screening of the festival, our Blind Date with Nitrate, might possibly fulfill that wish. And so it did.

The festival kicked off with a selection of short films – my favourites were a colorful Julius Pischewer animation Cent Ans de Chemins de fer Suisses celebrating 100 years of the Swiss railway system and a delightful 1934 Universal animation Jolly Little Elves featuring doughnut-loving kindly elves.

 

These were followed by one of the highlights of the festival and a film I had not seen before, Enamorada (1946) a tempestuous romantic drama set against the background of the Mexican revolution. Featuring the masterful framing of the legendary cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, the film looked gorgeous, especially the exterior shots of the Mexican town in which the story is set. María Félix, probably Mexico’s most famous actress, was beguiling as the feisty female lead and Figueroa makes masterful use of light and shade, given added depth and texture by the nitrate print.

Enamorada (1946)
Enamorada (1946)

 

Our final film on the first day was the classic noir, Laura, which we were told was a pre-release version that included footage that was cut for its theatrical distribution. Nobody I spoke to could spot the additional material, however, and although the print was good there were only moments when the benefit of nitrate showed through.

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L’Inhumaine (Marcel L’Herbier, 1924) Blu-ray review: the high art of cinema

L'Inhumaine, Fernand Léger, 1924
L’Inhumaine poster designed by Fernand Léger, 1924

In the silent era, films were far more ephemeral than they are today. The fragile nitrate was unspooled for a few shows in each cinema that rented them, and then sent away, re-used, melted, left to crumble and decay or burst, suddenly, into flames. It was a time before retrospectives and archives and museums of the moving image. Now we see films in very different way. In the digital world, although the films seem to have lost their physical presence, becoming data streamed or downloaded on to screens of all sizes, they have the illusion of permanence. Central to this is the arthouse home video market, which packages films like books, as objects to be cherished, or maybe hoarded. A shelf full of gleaming Criterion Blu-rays is as imposing as a line of leather-bound novels – talismans of high culture and prized possessions. We don’t just watch films now, we expect to own them: explore them rewind and freeze and read around them.

Marcel L’Herbier’s Art Deco science-fiction drama L’Inhumaine is as much an art object as a film, and as such, it is the perfect Blu-ray movie. This glittering feature was designed to be admired from all angeles, its intricate and self-consciously beautiful design is the 1920s equivalent of 4K high-definition. I dare you to watch it without your finger itching for the pause button.

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The inhuman woman of the title is a lady who knows a thing or two about being admired from all angles. Claire (played by soprano Georgette Leblanc) is an opera singer who lives in a stunning modernist home, which she opens to a select group of guests, a fawning salon of important men who jostle for her attentions. Everything about Claire’s world is both chilly and extravagant. The dinners she hosts are served at a dining table surrounded by an indoor moat. A drift of swans putter around the guest, more of Claire’s captives, but the only ones present who are indifferent to her beauty. When Claire hears that one of her admirers, Einar (Jaque Catelain) has killed himself after she rejected him, she experiences a slow awakening of her passions, and a more literal resurrection of her body, via a poisonous snake and an electric re-animation machine.

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Synthetic Sin (1929): Colleen Moore and the joyful noise of the Jazz Age

Synthetic Sin (1929) is an artefact from a time long gone. That is to say that this film is delightful, glamorous, witty … And they really don’t make them like this any more. It’s typical of this movie that the title is a roaring twenties in-joke, a bit of jazz-age wordplay on “Synthetic Gin”. That’s not a phrase you hear too often these days, but this prohibition-era film sloshes with bathtub hooch. In fact, this is the kind of wisecracking romp where a gal can say to a fella: “Let’s you and I make hey-hey while there’s moonshine!”

When the twenties roared, there was mischief to be made. In the inner cities, in real life, gangsters took advantage of the prohibition laws to make plenty of illicit cash hawking illegitimate booze. But in the movies, and in the anxious imagination of Middle Americans, the flappers, a new breed of confident young women with bobbed hair and short hemlines, were wreaking just as much havoc.

Synthetic Sin has all the hallmarks of a classic flapper film, even though its heroine, aspiring actress Betty Fairfax, is really quite an innocent. Betty is played by Colleen Moore, an impish natural comedienne who was the first of Hollywood’s bright young starlets to bob her hair and embody the newest, freshest way to negotiate the path between girlhood and womanhood. If any writer encapsulated the spirit of the Jazz Age, it was F Scott Fitzgerald, and he doffed his fedora to our star. “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth,” he said. “Colleen Moore was the torch.” And if you love Louise Brooks, Clara Bow or Jean Harlow, then you need to know Moore.

Colleen Moore

Preternaturally youthful and vivacious, Moore defined the flapper, the modern, sexually liberated young woman, in terms that high-school girls could love and emulate. After Moore’s mother cut her hair into her trademark fringed bob (“whack, off came the long curls. I felt as I’d been emancipated”), teenage girls across the US rushed to the salon. She was unthreateningly friendly and funny, but a beauty too. Moore has a cute charisma that works instantly on the audience, like a fast-acting drug. She is both irresistible and unforgettable – and she was a huge star in the 1920s. But the sad fact is that many of her films have now been lost, which means that most people don’t know her work at all. Synthetic Sin itself was only recently rediscovered and restored. So this film is a very precious chance to see Hollywood’s foremost flapper in action.

“Moore created comic heroines who are as engaging in their failures to be glamorous as they are in their often accidental triumphs in love and career,” wrote Molly Haskell. That’s Synthetic Sin in a nutshell.

Here Moore plays a young girl desperate to grow old too quickly, to become a “woman of the world” with the necessary life experience to be a serious dramatic actress. All flappers want to push the boundaries imposed by their old-fashioned parents, so Betty runs away from her comfortable home to a fleapit hotel in the big city, in the name of art, and of love. The audience is in on the joke from the beginning: Betty is wonderful just as she is. Her improvised show at the family piano early in the film is Grade A comedy, and the steps she takes to widen her horizons bring her into dangerous territory: grubby, sleazy, violent. A place where this flapper might just encounter a gangster or two.

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The New York Hat (1912): what women want 

This is a very slightly fleshed-out transcript of an introduction I gave to The New York Hat at the Kennington Bioscope as part of an evening dedicated to women in silent film.

It’s quite old, and very short, but The New York Hat (DW Griffith, 1912) is one of my favourite films, and I’d really like to explain why. As with Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916), this film looks at the lives of women and their finances through the lens of  consumerism, but the ramifications run deeper than the shop window.

The first reason that I love The New York Hat is that it is an early woman’s picture and I mean that in a fully feminist sense. Today we talk a lot about the Bechdel Test, which is basically a test to ascertain whether the women in a film are fully realised characters and not just appendages to the blokes. To pass the Bechdel Test, two named female characters have to have a conversation with each other about something that isn’t a man. Sounds simple. In the field, films that pass this test are rarer than hen’s teeth. It’s really hard to map the Bechdel test back on to silent films in the first place, and so many modern films fail it that you have to assume that older ones will struggle.

However, The New York Hat passes not just the letter but the spirit of the Bechdel test with flying colours, because its narrative is driven entirely by what women want, by what women understand about the world and the values that women have. We have the mother who wants the best for her daughter, the “bits of finery” that she craves, and the daughter who wants to grow up. Then we have some more women, the gossips, who create a conflict for her.

We have two male characters: the father is a no-good man who doesn’t really understand or care about women, and the minister who is a very good man, but also fails to understand women and their world.

The New York Hat (1912)
The New York Hat (1912)
The second reason that I love The New York Hat is that even though it was made in 1912, it is like a glimpse at the future, at Hollywood in the height of the 20s. If you are interested in the history of silent cinema then this film is going to give you a real kick because everyone is in it. If The New York Hat were a pop band it would be a rock supergroup. The scenario for The New York hat was written by Anita Loos, who would go on to have a fabulous Hollywood career, writing films and intertitles and also the hilarious novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The New York Hat is pure Loos – it’s very sharp on the way that women interact with each other and it also contains two of her favourite hobbies: fashion and gossip. When the lead character wears her new hat, the gap between the impression she thinks she is making and the one she really is, is a bitterly dark example of Loos’s vicious humour. It’s also a very poignant moment – and those mixed emotions are part of the magic of this enduring film.

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