Tag Archives: BFI Southbank

The Four Just Men and the early British thriller

thrillThis guest post is an edited version of an article on the origins of the early British thriller by Bryony Dixon, curator at the British Film Institute. The full article appears in the BFI’s new compendium on the thriller, Who Can you Trust?,  now available in the BFI shop.

Next month’s Sunday Silent at the BFI Southbank is a rare chance to see a rare early film version of Edgar Wallace’s first great success, The Four Just Men. Released in 1921 by the Stoll Company, it was adapted by its director George Ridgewell, who worked on many of the Sherlock Holmes episodes for the same company. It’s a well-made film – nothing fancy but surprisingly competent for its year – from a well written novel, in fact a novel that is noticeably cinematic.

fourjustmen1

 

Try this passage from the opening of the original novel:

A NEWSPAPER STORY

On the fourteenth day of August, 19—, a tiny paragraph appeared at the foot of an unimportant page in London’s most sober journal to the effect that the secretary of state for foreign affairs had been much annoyed by the receipt of a number of threatening letters, and was prepared to pay a reward of fifty pounds to any person who would give such information as would lead to the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons, etc. The few people who read London’s most sober journal thought, in their ponderous Athænaeum Club way, that it was a remarkable thing that a Minister of State should be annoyed at anything; more remarkable that he should advertise his annoyance, and most remarkable of all that he could imagine for one minute that the offer of a reward would put a stop to the annoyance.

News editors of less sober but larger circulated newspapers, wearily scanning the dull columns of Old Sobriety, read the paragraph with a newly acquired interest.

“Hullo, what’s this?” asked Smiles of the Comet, and cut out the paragraph with huge shears, pasted it upon a sheet of copy-paper and headed it:

“Who is Sir Philip’s Correspondent?” As an afterthought—the Comet being in Opposition—he prefixed an introductory paragraph, humorously suggesting that the letters were from an intelligent electorate grown tired of the shilly-shallying methods of the Government.

The news editor of the Evening World – a white-haired gentleman of deliberate movement – read the paragraph twice, cut it out carefully, read it again and, placing it under a paper-weight, very soon forgot all about it.

The news editor of the Megaphone, which is a very bright newspaper indeed, cut the paragraph as he read it, rang a bell, called a reporter, all in a breath, so to speak, and issued a few terse instructions.

“Go down to Portland Place, try to see Sir Philip Ramon, secure the story of that paragraph—why he is threatened, what he is threatened with; get a copy of one of the letters if you can. If you cannot see Ramon, get hold of a secretary.”

And the obedient reporter went forth.

He returned in an hour in that state of mysterious agitation peculiar to the reporter who has got a “beat.” The news editor duly reported to the editor-in-chief, and that great man said, “That’s very good, that’s very good indeed” – which was praise of the highest order.

What was “very good indeed” about the reporter’s story may be gathered from the half-column that appeared in the Megaphone on the following day:

Cabinet Minister in Danger

Threats to Murder the Foreign Secretary

“The Four Just Men”

Plot to Arrest the Passage of the Aliens

Extradition Bill

EXTRAORDINARY REVELATIONS

four2

It reads like a screenplay. The ramping up in stages of tension from the total under-reaction of the old codgers of the Athenaeum, to the more informed curiosity of the Comet, to the instant action of the Megaphone creates a mental image very reminiscent of the condensed montage-opening of the standard film thriller of the 1930s and 40s. To us the vision of whirling presses and scurry of the newspaper boys may be a cliché from the opening scenes of a thousand crime films, but it was a relatively new thing in 1921, when the story was first filmed, and certainly in 1905 when it was written.

For 1905 it was, when one of the best known British thriller novels was penned by a man who would come to be known as the ‘King of Thrillers’. Edgar Wallace was a Londoner of humble origins, who overcame a modest education to become a journalist and then an astonishingly prolific writer of ingenious thrillers, plays and film scripts. His lowbrow (his word) thrillers were written to be easily readable, were hugely popular and eminently adaptable for the screen. His works spawned some 200 films and television programmes, including famously at the end of his life, the first script for King Kong (1933). He died of a chill contracted while in Hollywood working on the film for Merian Cooper.

Continue reading The Four Just Men and the early British thriller

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Two-for-one special offer on tickets to India on Film at BFI Southbank

The BFI’s mega India on Film season kicks off this month and continues all year. The season culminates (for us early cinephiles at least) in this year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala, which will be the sumptuous silent drama Shiraz (1928), at the Barbican on 14 October 2017, beautifully restored with a brand-new score by Anoushka Shankar.

But before all that, there are plenty of films to be getting on with, and if you’d like to take advantage of a two-for-one ticket offer for the films showing at BFI Southbank in the India on Film season, step this way …

Simply quote INDIA241 when booking on line, in person or over the phone to claim the offer. Only valid for all films and events in the BFI’s India On Film season in 2017.

Please note that this ticket offer does NOT include the Archive Gala.

The first silent morsels that caught my eye in the season are a couple of talks on Saturday 20 May 2017:

The first of those talks concludes with a screening of Raja Harishchandra – a rarely seen film from 1913, and the earliest extant Indian movie. To find out a little more about the making of this film, and early Indian cinema in general, why not read a little feature I wrote for the Guardian in 2013, to mark the Centenary of Bollywood’?

If you can’t make it to BFI Southbank this year, look out for screenings of Shiraz around the country after the Archive Gala, and check out the India on Film collection on BFI Player.

 

The future’s bright: Colour in Film 2017

What’s that bright spot on the horizon? It’s the Second International Conference on Colour in Film, which is back in London from 27-29 March 2017. The really good news is that the conference is half a day longer than before, and to my untrained eye, that extra time is mostly made up of screenings – including a very special silent “treat” on the first night.

The 2017 Colour in Film Conference will cover the entire breadth of colour in moving images, from early (pre)cinema’s chromolithographic printing through the applied colours of tinting, toning and their Desmetcolor rendition, from chromogenic Agfacolor and Eastmancolor through the video- and film-based look of the golden age of British colour television and up to modern, current grading in the digital domain.

chromolithographicloops
Chromolithographic loops. Photograph: StephenHerbert.co.uk

The screenings take place at BFI Southbank (NFT3 to be precise) on the first day of the conference, and include colour films from all eras, not just our favourite one. One highlight I can already see in the programme is a selection of hand-drawn, hand-painted “Chromolithographic Loops”. These took our breath away at Pordenone last year – you’ll love them, and I’m intrigued to hear more about them at the conference. All the clips and films are introduced by experts who can tell you more about the use of colour and how it has been restored.

The big-ticket event is in the evening of the first day, when Neil Brand accompanies a screening of Behind the Door (1919), which will be introduced by Rob Byrne of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I’ve mentioned this film before: a rape-revenge drama featuring a taxidermist, the first world war and some pretty savage xenophobia. It’s not explicitly gory, but it’s quite a shocker, so hold on to your hats.

The following two days of the conference is made up of papers – with an awesome lineup of experts, restorers and archivists taking you deep into the detail of colour-film science and history. These will be held at Friends House on Euston Road – and you can see the full list of speakers and papers here. The second day at Friends House is devoted to Sarah Street’s project workshop on the Eastmancolor revolution.

There are an array of ticket prices for the conference, depending on how many days you attend and whether you are a student or a member of the Colour Group or not. All the details are here. Bear in mind that if you want to see Behind the Door that’s extra, even if you have a ticket for the screening day.

The First World War on film: at the BFI and beyond

Anniversaries are bittersweet at the best of times, but this summer marks an especially painful date. It is 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the first world war, in which more than a million men were killed or injured. The date was marked publicly in the UK this weekend with tributes across the country.

Many people who read this site will know that relatives of their lost their lives in the First World War – almost all of us will have heard family tales of hardship and resilience from those four bruising years. The power of cinema, even during the war when it was only around twenty years old, is that it can show us the small human stories of the home front, as well as the epic tales of the battlefield. In fact, it can tell us the intimate, personal incidents of the trenches, as well as the soothing narrative of stoicism and sentiment back in Blighty. And on the cinema screen, these experiences can be shared with a crowd, and something therapeutic happens when we face our fears together. This summer, you can see some of the contemporary films from WWI, back on the big screen, and at the bottom of this post you will find a two-for-one ticket offer too.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Back in 1916, millions of Britons flocked to the cinema to see The Battle of the Somme, a documentary that showed the families at home what their boys were facing on the front line. It’s haunting, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating work – a letter home from the trenches to reassure and inform. A hundred years later, it has lost none of its power. If you want to know more about the film, I highly recommend Lawrence Napper’s article in the current issue of Sight & Sound, in which he calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents of our cinematic history”. Luke McKernan’s excellent Picturegoing site has also posted a contemporary review of the film, which says that it “shakes the kaleidoscope of war into a human reality”.

The Battle of the Somme is back in cinemas and concert halls across the world, to mark the centenary, with live orchestral performances of Laura Rossi’s wonderful score. You can read more about that, and find a screening near you, on the official website here. There will be 100 performances in the tour, so there is very likely to be one near you.

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The Guns of Loos (1928)

Continue reading The First World War on film: at the BFI and beyond

Win tickets to see Shooting Stars

Welcome, wherever you are … Shooting Stars, Anthony Asquith’s bittersweet movie biz satire, is screening at the BFI Southbank on Thursday 3 March 2016. As you no doubt know, this is the gorgeous new restoration that graced the London Film Festival Archive Gala in October. Also, at this screening, there will be live music, courtesy of John Altman’s jazzy new score. It’s a fantastic British film, and a glorious treat for all silent movie buffs. Think of it as a forerunner to Hail, Caesar!, but with Brian Aherne in a stetson rather than George Clooney in a toga.

If you’re quick, you could win two tickets to this screening, so listen up.

Shooting Stars (1928)
Brian Aherne in Shooting Stars (1928)

To be in with a chance of winning some tickets, email Filmcompetitions@bfi.org.uk with STARS in the subject header by Wednesday 2 March at 9am. Tickets are limited to one pair per person and it is first come first served.

You will only be contacted by if you are successful.  In which case, your name will be added to a guest list and you will receive an email  by 7pm on 2nd March.

Sonic Cinema Presents: Shooting Stars with live score from John Altman and the Live Film Orchestra An unmissable screening of Anthony Asquith’s silent film set to live music.

 

London in colour: talking about Colour in Film

Not that silent film history is complicated, but put it this way: it’s not black and white. Joshing aside, one of the most exciting themes to emerge in recent cinema scholarship is the exploration of film colour – from the earliest hand-painted frames to today’s teal-and-orange “realism”. And it’s arguably more exciting to learn about the colour pioneers and their various attempts to make films appear lifelike – or better than that – than later developments.

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

So I thought you’d like to hear about a two-day event in March that puts tinting in the frame – Colour in Film, which takes place in London, at the BFI Southbank and Friends House on Euston Road. The keynote speakers are Sarah Street, who will give a paper on British Cinema in Colour: Creativity, Culture and the Negotiation of Innovation and Barbara Flueckiger, tackling the subject of Bridging the Gap between Analogue Film History and Digital Technology. Other contributions will come from Ulrich Rüdel, Kieron Webb, and more names that will be familiar to you.

The Glorious Adventure (1922)
The Glorious Adventure (1922)

Continue reading London in colour: talking about Colour in Film

London Film Festival 2015: a silent preview

Shooting Stars (1928)
Shooting Stars (1928)

Surprises can be fun, but maybe, when you’re stumping up for film festival tickets say, it’s good to get what you really wanted. The silent movies on offer at this year’s London Film Festival may not contain any unexpected treasures, but they do comprise some of the year’s most anticipated restorations, so let’s fill our boots. Our only reservation is that a few of these silent screenings do clash, so choose your tickets carefully.

Variety (1925)
Variety (1925)

Variety (1925)

Well don’t I feel a little less sick about missing this new restoration of EA Dupont’s romantic drama at Bologna? Emil Jannings, Lya De Putti, that woozy unleashed camera … you know this is going to be a treat. Variety is a highlight of Weimar cinema, and deserves to be seen at its shimmering best. It’s screening just once at the festival, in NFT1, so make sure you’re there. The word from those who have seen the new 2k resto already is: the print is gorgeous, but there is less enthusiasm for the new score, from the Tiger Lillies. No such worries for us cockney sparrows, who will have the pleasure of Stephen Horne’s assured accompaniment.

The Battle of the Century (1927)
Stan and Ollie in The Battle of the Century (1927)

The Battle of the Century (1927)

You might have heard a whisper about this one. The rediscovered second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century makes the film almost entirely complete – and essential viewing for fans of Stan and Ollie. Enjoy it at the London Film Festival with three more L&H shorts for company and musical accompaniment from messrs John Sweeney or Stephen Horne, depending on which of the two screenings you attend. Bear in mind, if you’re not heading to Pordenone, that the first screening is a full 24 hours before it plays at the Giornate – could this be a world premiere of the restoration?

Sherlock Holmes (1918)
Sherlock Holmes (1918)

Sherlock Holmes (1918)

Benedict Cumberbatch is all very well (very well indeed if you ask me), but if any actor could lay claim to the “definitive” Holmes, it was William Gillette. And for many a long year, the film that committed his stage performance of the gentleman detective to celluloid was thought to have vanished in the night. An elementary mistake, Dr Watson – the film was rediscovered at the end of last year and has been prepped for a Blu-ray release and a handful of festival screenings, including this one, in NFT1 on Sunday 18 October. There’s live music from Neil Brand, Günter Bichwald and Jeff Davenport and an irresistible accompanying short, A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912).

Continue reading London Film Festival 2015: a silent preview

Two tickets for the price of one: the DW Griffith season at BFI Southbank

DW Griffith on set
DW Griffith on set

Last month we previewed the blockbuster DW Griffith taking place at BFI Southbank in June. This week, tickets went on sale! But before you start flashing your debit cards around, Silent London can save you a little cash, with a two-for-one ticket offer. You could buy twice as many tickets, or even bring a friend along, free, and share the greatness of Griffith at a bargain rate.

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DW Griffith: Cinema’s Greatest Pioneer at BFI Southbank, June 2015

True Heart Susie (1919)
True Heart Susie (1919)

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it feels like a long time since we saw a solid silent retrospective in this town. No need to bleat about it much longer though, eh, as the BFI has just the thing. DW Griffith – still arguably the most important American movie director of all time – will inhabit the BFI Southbank for most of June.

The season concentrates on the feature films up to and including Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffith’s first talkie. Especial care is taken over Griffith’s best-known, and still-controversial, film Birth of a Nation (1915), in its centenary year. The movie will screen with introductions on both occasions, and a special roundtable event will bring together keynote speakers from UCL’s “In the Shadow of Birth of a Nation” conference to discuss the film. To provide further context, on 7 June the BFI will screen all three parts of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s DW Griffith: Father of Film documentary.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)

This is one of those events that should have every cinephile in the city licking their lips. And you don’t have to be a silent nerd or a completist to understand why. There’s far more to DW Griffith than the awful things he believed and the clever things he is credited with doing first. Watching the films, especially on the big screen, is the best way to appreciate his genius. And look at the cast list here too: the season features several turns from the wonderful Lillian Gish, as well as Richard Barthelmess, Lionel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Mae Marsh.

Continue reading DW Griffith: Cinema’s Greatest Pioneer at BFI Southbank, June 2015

Silent cinema at the 2014 London Film Festival

Why Be Good? (1929)
Why Be Good? (1929)

The launch of the London Film Festival programme is a cascade of A-list stars, esteemed auteurs, Oscar contenders, Hollywood blockbusters and world premieres. But enough of all that. Did someone mention Colleen Moore? Here’s our rundown of the silent cinema offering at the BFI London Film Festival this year.

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

“Virtually unknown” it may be, but this fantastic British war film was a real genre game-changer. Walter Summers directs the noble tale of “a victory and a defeat almost as glorious as a victory”, which was a hit with audiences and critics both on its release. Unjustly neglected for years, TBOCAFI has been rescued from osbcurity via a gleaming new restoration and a modern brass score, which will be performed by members of the Royal Marine band at the LFF Archive Gala screening.

Screens: 7pm, 16 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.

Read more

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess (1934)

This sumptuous Chinese melodram stars Ruan Lingyu as “goddess” or sex worker, trying to care for her child, who is pushed into taking violent revenge on her pimp. Described on these pages by John Sweeney as: “Unsentimental and quite without melodrama, this is a great film.” The festival screening will be accompanied by the English Chamber orchestra, playing a new score by Chinese composer Zou Ye.

Screens: 7.30pm, 14 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.

Continue reading Silent cinema at the 2014 London Film Festival

Wish Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp a happy 100th birthday with David Robinson and Claire Bloom

Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952)
Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

Don’t tell me you missed the fact this year, this February in fact, we are celebrating 100 years of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Kid Auto Races, Chaplin’s first screen appearance as the anarchic scruff, was released on 7 February 1914. It’s a cinematic centenary of the best kind – one that affords the opportunity for screenings of wonderful films and some clever-clever comment and analysis too. An event at the BFI Southbank on 4 February will add a little star power to proceedings, as well as some new insights into the Tramp and his creator.

At The Centenary of the Little Tramp David Robinson will be talking specifically about how Chaplin drew on the music hall tradition of his youth to create his signature character – and how those influences stayed with him and found a beautiful expression in the gorgeous 1952 film Limelight.

This special event marks the centenary of the birth of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’. One hundred years ago this week the iconic character first stepped in front of the camera at the Keystone studios. David Robinson, Chaplin’s official biographer, presents his latest thoughts on Chaplin and the tramp and celebrates the launch of his new book ‘The World of Limelight,’ commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna, which draws on previously unpublished material from the Chaplin Archive.

Robinson will be launching his book at the event and I think copies will be on sale after the talk with perhaps a booksigning too. A particularly well-informed little bird tells me that Chaplin’s co-star in Limelight, English actress Claire Bloom, will be in attendance also. In fact, Robinson’s book is dedicated to her. Here’s a little more about the book:

Limelight was first cast not as a film script, but as a long novella, Footlights, with the supplementary Calvero’s Story.  Both are here published for the very first time – the ultimate raison d’être of this volume.  Out of these Chaplin extracted a screenplay which passed through several drafts before being transferred to the screen.

The accompanying commentary in this volume explores the documentary reality of the world which Chaplin recreated from his memories and evoked for posterity – London, the music hall and ballet at the end of an era, the outbreak of the First World War.  The book is illustrated with images from the author’s own collection, and reproductions of documents and photographs from the Chaplin archives, which clearly depict the development  of the film LIMELIGHT that David Robinson so intricately describes.

The event takes place at 6.20pm in NFT3. For more details, see the event page on the BFI website.

Further reading

Five more reasons to see The General again

The General (Park Circus restoration)

Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) goes on theatrical release this Friday – which should be cause for celebration and mass ticket-buying among all of you. However, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably seen this classic, poll-bestriding Civil War caper before, very possibly in the dim and distant. What worries me, what keeps me up at night, is that if so, you may feel a bit “so-whattish” and “seen-it-all-beforeish” about Keaton’s masterpiece. That would be a tragedy, as The General is one of the funniest, most ingenious and gosh-darn exciting films you will ever see in your long and happy life. If familiarity has bred a touch of contempt, or just complacency, in your bosom, I would gladly bend your ear about the pin-sharp 4k transfer, and the booming rendition of Carl Davis’s nimble and turbo-charged score on this digital print. But that geeky stuff isn’t for everyone, so if that doesn’t tempt you, here are five more reasons to see The General … again.

The early, funny stuff

So we all know The General as a chase film, packed with stunts and crashing locomotives. Well, it actually starts in a very sedate fashion, as our hero Johnnie (Buster Keaton) goes to visit his girl Annabelle, who prompts him to enlist and fight for the South. Patience is a virtue – don’t be in a rush to get to the fast and furious business on the tracks. Johnnie’s pratfall as he leaves Annabelle’s house, the beautiful recruiting-office sequence and that wonderful selfie of Johnnie and his other beloved are all worth arriving at the cinema nice and early for. The scene-setting opening ends with one of the quietest, but most dangerous stunts in the whole movie, as Johnnie perches forlornly on the coupling rods of a locomotive that is picking up speed …

Annabelle Lee

The General‘s Southern belle is far more than a damsel in distress. To be frank, she’s a pain in the neck – watch her daintily selecting firewood and feel Johnnie’s pain. But to be fair, she takes more than her share of punishment too: kidnapped, soaked (twice), caught in a bear trap, stuffed into a sack and loaded as freight. Not only that, but consider this: to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, you try doing everything Buster Keaton does, but backwards and in a crinoline.

There is another reason to take note of Annabelle – she is played by a fascinating woman. Marion Mack knew more than most about the silent movie business. A former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, she later turned her hand to screenwriting, including a semi-autobiographical flick called Mary of the Movies, which she also acted in. In the the 30s, she even wrote a talkie short for Keaton. And when critical favour began to smile on The General in the 70s, she was on hand to speak at screenings and festivals, explaining what it was like to play one of Keaton’s not-so-straight women. We don’t have opportunities like that any more, so thank you Marion.

Yes, that is a real train

The one that falls through the burning Rock River Bridge? Yup. It’s not a model (you’re thinking of The Blacksmith). And if you thought it was CGI – shame on you. Famously, the destruction of the train in The General is the most expensive shot in silent movie history, and it’s a salient reminder that everything you see on screen here is real – including the danger that Keaton and Co frequently faced as they went about those wild stunts.

Those damn Yankees

Marion Mack isn’t the only thing here that gives us a flashback to Mack Sennett’s mid-teens romps. Those Yankee soldiers giving chase to Johnnie and Annabelle are enjoyably, hilariously inept. Hoot as a whole gaggle of them fail to fix the points our man has so thoroughly snookered, until their driver appears with a an axe and a shove; chortle as they topple like dominoes with every jolt of the engine. These buffoons are Keystone Kops in all but name. A guilty pleasure in a very sophisticated film.

War is hell

It’s not all larks and big kids playing with big train sets, of course. The General is a war movie, based on a true story – the hijacking of a train headed for Chattanooga, Tennessee. And it’s easy to forget that The General has a rather grim battle scene of its own, with swords and snipers and several deaths. Even the jokes fail to lighten the mood here. The flag gag, in which Johnnie grabs a confederate pennant from his falling comrade’s hand, and waves it in victory from a rocky outcrop, only to discover he has seriously misplaced his feet, is an unexpected splash of black humour. It’s a nifty moment that sharply undercuts any jingoistic vibes you may get from this story of a plucky underdog and his little engine that could.

Bonus reason

If you see The General on its extended run at BFI Southbank, it will accompanied by Keaton’s sublime early short One Week. If you were to ask me, right now, which of the two were the better film, I would have to say … “tough call”.

Hauntology weekend at the BFI: Häxan and silent treasures – win tickets

Legende du fantôme (1908)
Legende du fantôme (1908)

Next weekend is spookier than most at BFI Southbank – which is saying something, since the BFI Gothic season rolled into town. The Hauntology weekend takes over, with a screening of the majorly creepy drama-documentary Häxan on Friday 13 December, and on Saturday night, a collection of gothic treasures soundtracked by a group of seriously talented musicians – Sarah Angliss and the Spacedog ensemble. Here’s a little more about what you can expect from the shows – scroll down for a chance to win tickets to see Häxan.

The ensemble was put together by Sarah Angliss, a composer, automatist and theremin player, whose singularly unsettling music was recently heard at the National Theatre as a tense underscore to Lucy Prebble’s The Effect. Angliss’ music for Gothic film will be performed by her band: recent Ghost Box guests Spacedog. They’ll be joined by Exotic Pylon’s Time Attendant (Paul Snowdon) who will be supplying a new work on simmering, tabletop electronics. There will also be some extemporisations from Bela Emerson, a soloist who works with cello and electronics. Fellow Ghost Box associate Jon Brooks, composer of the haunting Music for Thomas Carnacki (2011), will also be creating a studio piece for the event.

Sourced by Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film, many of the short films inspiring these musicians were made in the opening years of the twentieth century. The Legende du fantôme (1908) and early split screen experiment Skulls Take Over (1901) are on the bill, along with the silent cubist masterpiece The Fall of the House of Usher (US version, 1928) and more.

“There is undoubtedly something uncanny about the earliest of these films”, said Angliss. “Many are stencil-coloured in vibrant hues, adding to that sense of the familiar taking on a strange cast. They seem to demand music that suggests rather than points up the horror, a motif that discomforts as it soothes, or a sweet sound that is somehow sickly, as though heard in a fever.”

Brooks added “the visuals suggest aural textures reminiscent of painted glass, to strange derivatives of stringed instruments. Hopefully I’ve conjured some playfulness amongst the macabre too.”

Adding to the strangeness are Angliss’ automata, who will also be performing live. These include a polyphonic, robotic carillon (bell playing machine) and Hugo, the roboticised head of a ventriloquist’s dummy who is of the same vintage as some of the films. The event will be directed by Emma Kilbey. After the BFI Southbank performance there are plans to take Vault to Gothic revivalist buildings around the UK.

Sarah Angliss is grateful to PRS for Music for financially supporting her new work. Vault: Music for Silent Gothic Treasures is part of the BFI’s Hauntology Weekend, in association with The Wire magazine (Fri 13 Dec – Sat 14 Dec)

To book tickets for Vault: Music for Silent Gothic Treasures, click here http://bit.ly/bfivault. The screening takes places a 8:45pm NTF1, BFI Southbank, Saturday 14 December.

Häxan (1922)
Häxan (1922)

On the Friday night, the Häxan screening will also be accompanied by live music: a specially commissioned score from Demdike Stare.

This 1922 documentary-horror masterpiece explores the effect of superstition on the collective medieval consciousness. Presented for the first time with a BFI-commissioned score by electronic artists Demdike Stare. The duo base their music on samples from old recordings, twisted into new sonic shapes. The blend of Demdike Stare’s resurrected aural phantoms and Christensen’s Satanic horror promises to be a singularly modern yet arcane live experience.

Häxan is a thrilling movie, and an amazing thing to experience on the big screen – an effect that will surely only be enhanced by those “aural phantoms”.

To book tickets for Häxan with Demdike Stare, in association with Wire Magazine, click here. The screening takes place at 7pm in NTF1, BFI Southbank, Friday 13 December. Tickets cost £15 full price – concessions are available.

Win! Win! Win!

To win a pair of tickets to Häxan with Demdike Stare, email the correct answer to this question to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with “Haxan” in the subject line by noon on Wednesday 11 December 2013.

  • Which American writer provided the voiceover for Häxan’s jazzy 1968 re-release?

The winner will be chosen at random and notified by email. Good luck!

 

Competition: win tickets for a Hitchcock silent at BFI Southbank

Champagne (1928)
Champagne (1928)

Back by popular demand, Hitchcock’s silent movies take over the BFI Southbank for a second summer in a row: all of them freshly restored by the BFI experts and all either with live musical accompaniment or a range of very classy recorded scores. You can read more about each film on Silent London here. These are the first feature films Hitchcock ever made, and from the expressionist thriller The Lodger to the rustic comedy of The Farmer’s Wife they are clearly the work of an extremely talented and versatile director. In fact, they were recently inducted into the Unesco Memory of the World register.

All of which Hitchcock fandom is a preamble to saying that I have three pairs of tickets, to a silent Hitchcock screening of your choice, to give away. Hurry, because the season has already started, and I will be choosing the winner on Monday morning. Email the correct answer to this question to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with “Hitchcock” in the subject line by midnight on Sunday 11 August 2013 for your chance to win.

  • Betty Balfour starred in which Hitchcock silent?

The winner will be notified by email. Good luck!

Kevin Brownlow’s The Other Hollywood: The Music of Light, BFI Southbank, 26 July

Kevin Brownlow (Vanityfair.com)
Kevin Brownlow (Vanityfair.com)

Everyone’s favourite Oscar-winning silent film historian, the erudite and tireless Kevin Brownlow, is bringing his mega-restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon back to London later this year. You already have your tickets, right? Ahead of that screening there is a timely chance to see one of his finest silent film TV documentaries at BFI Southbank this July – introduced by the man himself.

All silent film fans are familiar with Brownlow and David Gill’s landmark 1980s series Hollywood, crammed with legendary interviews with silent film stars and film-makers from the US. The documentary showing at the former NFT is from the followup 1995 series focusing on the other side of the Atlantic: Cinema Europe. This episode, The Music of Light, is all about French Cinema – and in particular the genius and ambition of Napoléon director Abel Gance.

Abel Gance
Abel Gance

The screening is paired with Barrie Gavin’s 1967 TV documentary The Movies: The World of Josef von Sternberg, which also features a contribution from Brownlow.

The Music of Light screens on Friday 26 July at 6.10pm in NFT2, with an introduction by Kevin Brownlow. Click here to read more and book tickets.

This news seems like the perfect excuse to post this 1980 clip of Brownlow talking about Abel Gance, just to whet your appetite:

Jean Grémillon’s silent symphonies of life, BFI Southbank, July 2013

Maldone (1928)
Maldone (1928)

“Who could fail to sense the greatness of this art, in which the visible is the sign of the invisible?” – Jean Grémillon

The name Jean Grémillon may be spoken in hushed tones by French cinephiles, but it is less familiar to our ears. A director many consider in the same ranks as Renoir, Carné and Feyder, Grémillon began as a documentary-maker in the silent era, but switched to fiction in the late 20s and continued to produce intensely beautiful films until the 1950s. In July, the BFI is holding a retrospective season called Symphonies of Life, including Remorques (1941), starring Jean Gabin and Madeleine Renaud, and Lumière d’été (1942), written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche.

Grémillon espoused a style of film-making that has been called enchanted realism, or poetic realism: the noirish, fatalistic lovechild of French impressionism and surrealism. Grémillon was not interested in what he termed “mechanical naturalism”, but rather: “that subtlety which the human eye does not perceive directly but which must be shown by establishing the harmonies, the unknown relations, between objects and beings; it is a vivifying, inexhaustible source of images that strike our imaginations and enchant our hearts.” Sadly, Grémillon’s artistic ambitions often clashed with demands of studios and producers. At the end of his career, he returned to documentary-making, and he died aged just 58.

Grémillon’s most famous works are those he made during the 30s and and under German occupation, but the silent features on offer in the season are very exciting. Both will be presented with live piano accompaniment and there are two opportunities to see each one. The films are also showing at the Edinburgh film festival this month. Maldone has been recently restored by the CNC in France and screens with Chartres, a silent short made by Grémillon in 1923 about the famous medieval cathedral. Here’s what the BFI has to say about the season:

Maldone (1928)

Beautifully performed and packed with resonant details, this dark drama tells of Olivier Maldone (Dullin), who left his wealthy family’s estate for a free and easy life on the canals only to return to a life of staid respectability when his brother dies. But temptation – in the form of the gypsy Zita, met during his youthful wanderings – still beckons… Even in this early feature, Grémillon had a great crew: the camerawork by Georges Périnal and Christian Matras and designs by André and Léon Barsacq contribute to a magical mood pitched expertly between realism and expressionism.

Maldone screens at BFI Southbank’s NFT2 on 4 and 10 July, with Chartres. Read more and book tickets here.

Gardiens de Phare (1929)

Gardiens de Phare (1929)
Gardiens de Phare (1929)

A father and son go to spend a month tending their remote lighthouse off the Brittany coast, little knowing that a dog which recently bit the latter was rabid… Grémillon’s intense drama combines expressionism and a real feeling for the traditions of the Brittany coastal communities. Not much ‘happens’ in Jacques Feyder’s script, but the skilled use of flashbacks and cutaways, the meticulous pacing and George Périnal’s striking compositions and lighting make for sustained suspense throughout.

Gardiens de Phare screens with Dainah la Métisse at BFI Southbank’s NFT 3 on 6 July and NFT2 on 10 July. Read more and book tickets here.

Laurel and Hardy rarities at BFI Southbank, 30 January 2013

Laurel and Hardy in Atoll K (1951)
Laurel and Hardy in Atoll K (1951)

There are so many silent film myths and so little time to wearily dismiss them all. But next time someone blathers on about the coming of sound causing all the silent stars to disappear in a puff of smoke, never to darken the doors of Hollywood again, point them in the direction of Laurel and Hardy. Case closed.

And once you’ve sung the praises of the little clever British one and big daft American one, you’ll be in the mood for seeing some of their films. Happily BFI Southbank is screening the full version of their last feature, the rarely seen Atoll K (1951) on 30 January. You can read more here from Uli Ruedel about why this is such a special opportunity:

Shot in Europe by the comics with genuine enthusiasm, but in poor health and under chaotic production circumstances, the film has been much maligned by some fans and writers, who would rather see it erased from history than enjoy it for what it is.

The film’s longest version – with its extra two reels including “some of the funniest sight gag sequences” (Everson) – has practically been unseen for decades, let alone in its original technical quality.

Curators, comedy historians and conservation scholars at BFI have now previewed and confirmed that the archive’s 35mm print, preserved from unique nitrate master materials in glorious black and white, does conform to the length of this longest existing (and likely never theatrically released) extended English-language version.

Running a delightful 98 minutes, it’s only a couple of minutes short of the 100 minutes worth of footage used in all the different national versions altogether. And with a splendid visual and sound quality, it allows for a fresh appreciation of the French-Italian ‘European super-production’, its sight gags and satire, even its mostly post-synched, faux American English soundtrack – the only dub incorporating the Boys’ distinctive voices in the original, on-set performances.

The hardcore nothing-but-silent fans among you will be pleased to note that Atoll K will also be accompanied by some dialogue-free treats – including a surprise change to the programme.

First up is Grand Hotel (aka Laurel and Hardy Visit Tynemouth, UK 1932, Dir JG Ratcliffe, 10min, silent). In this newsreel footage, the duo “are rapturously received when they visit Tynemouth in 1932, and Stan clowns for the camera with his dad”. But there’s more: “programme will now include previously unseen silent amateur footage of Stan and Ollie opening a Gymkhana at Eastwood Park, Giffnock, during their visit to Scotland in June 1947.” That’s another nice er, bit of BFI archive film programming you’ve gotten yourself into.

Two more thing to know if you’re a Laurel and Hardy fan:

a) You want to be at the amazing Slapstick festival in Bristol this weekend.

b) Book now for this triple-bill of silent Laurel and Hardy films at the Barbican.

The Laurel and Hardy rarities programme screens in NFT1 at BFI Southbank on Wednesday 30 January at 6pm, introduced by Glenn Mitchell, author of The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia, and Archive curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler. You can buy tickets here.

The Silent Passion of Carl Dreyer, BFI Southbank, March 2012

The Master of the House (1925)
The Master of the House (1925)

Today, Carl Theodor Dreyer is best known for one lost-and-found silent masterpiece, and five subsequent sound films shot many years apart – but the little-mentioned fact is that the 1920s were his most productive decade. The BFI’s forthcoming retrospective, The Passion of Carl Dreyer, offers a chance to to shift the balance. In March, you’ll be able to see all nine of the Danish director’s silent features on the big screen, from 1919’s daring The President to the timeless The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). A closer look at Dreyer’s silents is always rewarding, both for their continuity with the themes of religion and female suffering found in his later films such as Ordet and Day of Wrath, and for the revelation that this serious Scandinavian was also a master of comedy.

Dreyer had been working as a journalist when he was first hired by the Nordisk company in 1913 to write intertitles and to edit and write screenplays. This was a boomtime for Danish cinema: in the teens, Nordisk was not just making hundreds of films a year but exporting them widely too. From writing intertitles, he discovered the strength of distilled, almost elliptical speech – he later talked about how he whittled down the dialogue in Vampyr (1930) until it was almost a silent film, and it was all the more powerful, all the more eerie, for his labours. Dreyer worked on the screenplays of several literary adaptations at this time, which also cemented his opinion that great films should have literary sources – and all his features did.

It was as he grew more confident in his work at the studio, and was working as an editor, that Dreyer developed his signature film-making style too – before he had even stepped on set as a director. As David Bordwell has written, Nordisk’s films at this time were predominantly shot in the “tableau” style, with the actors blocked in sophisticated patterns on a deep stage. When Dreyer got behind a camera he ditched that approach in favour of an edit-heavy style more popular with American film-makers such as DW Griffith. This distinctive, modern, method is apparent in his very first feature, just as it is in the barrage of close-ups that comprise his final silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The purpose of this post is to offer a quick introduction to Dreyer’s silents, which are for the most part much less widely seen than his sound films – and really do draw a different picture of the director. I assume that most of you are familiar with The Passion of Joan of Arc – if you haven’t seen it, you must take this opportunity to do so – but I also highly recommend many of the others, especially The Parson’s Widow and The Master of the House.

Continue reading The Silent Passion of Carl Dreyer, BFI Southbank, March 2012

The Cinematic Race to the South Pole, BFI Southbank, March 2012

The Great White Silence (1924)
The Great White Silence (1924)

Spring 2012 marks a couple of grisly, yet hugely significant centenaries. The Titanic sank on 15 April 1912 (more of which in forthcoming posts) and on 29 March 1912 or thereabouts, Robert Falcon Scott succumbed to cold and starvation and died a few miles from the South Pole.

The story of Scott and his crew’s tragic expedition has been told many times, but nowhere more movingly than in The Great White Silence (1924), Herbert Ponting’s silent documentary that was rereleased theatrically last year.

To commemorate the centenary, the BFI has scheduled three special screenings of documentary material relation to Antarctic exploration, each pegged to an individual explorer. You’ll probably be familiar with The Great White Silence by now, but if you haven’t seen it yet (or bought it on DVD/Blu-Ray), this is a fantastic opportunity to see it on the big screen. The Ernest Shackleton film South is a marvellous companion to The Great White Silence, with fantastic photography from Frank Hurley. It was also recently restored by the BFI and released on DVD. The footage of Roald Amundsen’s rather more successful voyage is less widely seen and promises to be fascinating.

Race to the South Pole: Amundsen and the Others

Our first programme focuses on Roald Amundsen and the little-seen film Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd (1910-12), restored by the Norwegian Film Institute and here playing in context with a selection of surviving fragments from films of the expeditions of William Speirs Bruce in 1902-4 (The Scottish Antarctic Expedition), Shackleton in 1908-9 (Departure of the British Antarctic Expedition from Lyttelton, NZ 1st Jan 1908), the Japanese Shirase in 1911 (Nihon Nankyoku Tanken), and a work in progress to recreate cinematographer Frank Hurley’s original lecture on the Mawson Australian Antarctic Expedition 1910-12.

With introduction by Bryony Dixon and live piano accompaniment.

Race to the South Pole: Amundsen and the Others screens at NFT3 at 6.20pm on 14 March 2012. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

Race to the North Pole: Scott

Memorial Service at St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Antarctic Heroes (Pathé Animated Gazette, UK 1913, 1min) + Captain Scott and Dr Wilson with ‘Nobby’ the Pony (Gaumont Graphic, UK 1912, 1min) + Cardiff: The Ship ‘Terra Nova’ Leaving Harbour Towards the South Pole (Pathé Animated Gazette, UK 1912, 1min) + The Great White Silence (UK 1924, dir Herbert Ponting, 106min. Digital)

To commemorate the centenary of the death of Scott and his companions we present Herbert Ponting’s moving tribute The Great White Silence (1924), together with newsreels of the time showing how contemporary audiences followed the momentous news from the planet’s last unexplored continent.

Introduced by Bryony Dixon

Race to the South Pole: Scott screens at NFT3 at 6.30pm on 21 March 2012. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

Race to the South Pole: Shackleton

South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (UK 1919, dir Frank Hurley, 72min) + El Homenaje del Uruguay a los Restos de Sir Ernest Shackleton (Uruguay 1922, dir Henry Maurice, 10min, Spanish intertitles) + Southward on the ‘Quest’ (UK 1922, extract, c5min).

Of all the heroic age Antarctic explorers, Shackleton seems to have the most enduring popular appeal. Almost nothing of the film from the Nimrod expedition which inspired Scott and Amundsen seems to survive, but we do have Frank Hurley’s extraordinary document South (1919) which we will be showing with rare footage of Shackleton’s last expedition and the huge crowds gathered for his lying in state in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Introduced by Bryony Dixon. Live piano accompaniment.

Race to the South Pole: Shackleton screens at NFT3 at 8.40pm on 22 March 2012. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

Charles Dickens on silent film: part three, BFI Southbank, March 2012

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One of the great strengths, at least as far as this blog is concerned, of the BFI’s ongoing Dickens on Screen programme, is that the silent films on offer have been spread out across the season, rather than all lumped into the first month. Witness: the impressive range of silents screening in January and February.
More silents appear in March, including another programme of pre-1914 shorts and a rare sighting of a Danish film, AW Sandberg’s Our Mutual Friend (1921). The Nordisk films is one of four Dickens adaptations by Sandberg, which were all well received in Denmark at least. Our Mutual Friend, or Vor Faelles Ven, is the least seen of the quartet, and indeed the restoration work on this print has been going on for quite some time. Now, 90 years after it was released, we can see it as it should be seen.
Our Mutual Friend screens at NFT3, BFI Southbank at 6.20pm on 6 March 2012 and at 8.45pm on 9 March 2012 with live piano accompaniment. Buy tickets here.

Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer in Scrooge (1913)
Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer in Scrooge (1913)

The shorts programme kicks off with Thomas Bentley, who went on to direct several Dickens films, in front of the camera taking on a number of roles in Leaves from the Books of Charles Dickens (1912). American comedian John Bunny starred in three films based on The Pickwick Papers – but the two shown here are the only ones to survive. Two versions of A Christmas Carol finish the programme, with Seymour Hicks playing the miser in 1913 version and Charles Rock being visited by spectres in 1914.
Pre-1914 Short Films (Programme two) screens at 9.30pm on 9 March at NFT3, BFI Southbank (with introduction by Michael Eaton) and at 6.20pm on 23 March 2012 in NFT2, BFI Southbank. Both screenings will feature live piano accompaniment. Buy tickets here.