Les Vampires (1915-16)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (DVD), Saturday 25 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Gaumont

The silent film serial is sort of like a precursor to the modern TV mini-series, but feels like it must have its roots in the serial publication of novels so popular in the 19th century. Les Vampires, too, was wildly popular in its time (although not with the contemporary critics, who dismissed its vulgarity), and it’s still possible to make out some of that excitement even through the almost hundred years of distance from us. Indeed much of its frontal staginess now seems quaintly archaic, though Feuillade was no slouch at composing his shots, even when writing and filming at such speed. There’s some great use of depth, as well as occasions when the camera is unmoored to present such scenes as a car chase through suburban streets. There’s a good use of location filming in and around Paris, as well as a formal playfulness, as our journalist-detective and hero Philippe (Édouard Mathé) and particularly his put-upon sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) break the fourth wall to gesture towards the audience when things are getting particularly heated. To try and summarise the plot of 10 episodes’ worth of cinema would be futile, suffice to say it involves the titular criminal gang, who are not in fact vampires, but rather masked hoodlums — not just literal masks as frequently modelled by one of their key associates, Irma Vep (the delightful Musidora), not averse to prowling around Catwoman-like, but also the masks of respectable society figures like lawyers and aristocrats. The gang has inveigled itself into polite society, where it is causing particular havoc. The focus on this piercing of middle-class respectability hints at a political undertow on the part of Feuillade, who has a critical eye cast towards society’s entitled plutocrats and which is no doubt part of what resounded with popular audiences at a time of European war (and perhaps raised the hackles of establishment critics). However, even without this layer of social commentary, it’s still an enjoyable watch once it gets going for all its mystery thriller twists and turns, though not one perhaps for which you’d want to clear seven hours in one sitting.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Louis Feuillade | Cinematographer Manichoux | Starring Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque | Length 417 minutes (10 episodes)

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British Silent Film Festival 2014

The Cinema Museum logo The regular presentation of Britain’s early filmed legacy this year took the form of a one-day conference followed by a day of screenings at Kennington’s Cinema Museum. There were four sessions, each presenting a feature film, and some shorts, with the final film of both late-morning and late-afternoon sessions being a feature directed by Hungarian émigré Géza von Bolváry and starring Britain’s 1920s screen darling Betty Balfour, respectively The Vagabond Queen and Bright Eyes (both 1929). Other highlights were a drama about a woman finding liberation through, ahem, secretarial work in The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a sort of proto-kitchen sink drama about working-class East Enders, one of whose set finds love with a posh toff in The Right to Live (1921). Each of the sessions was accompanied by a different musician, respectively John Sweeney, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lily Henley, and Stephen Horne, all of whom did a wonderful job.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Saturday 3 May 2014

Bright Eyes (aka Champagner, 1929) || Director Géza von Bolváry | Writers Katherine Reeves and Franz Schulz | Cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl | Starring Betty Balfour, Jack Trevor | Length 89 minutes || My Rating 4 stars excellent

© British International Pictures (pictured: Thesiger, Shaw and Balfour in The Vagabond Queen)

For me, the highlight of the Festival was its final film, a 1929 drama set in Paris nightclub the Palais de Danse, and following the travails of kitchen assistant Jenny (Betty Balfour). In its setting it recalls the delights of E.A. Dupont’s contemporaneous Piccadilly (1929), and though the saucer-eyed (or should it be said, bright-eyed) and cheekily flirtatious blonde Balfour is the star, it still manages to deftly move into some darker emotional terrain before its rather more optimistic conclusion. Even as it touches on the unfairness of life, the turmoil of capitalist excess, and the dark depths of depression, the film — chiefly through Balfour’s central performance — manages to retain an essentially comic outlook. As such, we never really fear for her as much as some of the events might suggest, and it’s her romancing of the sternly tall and handsome waiter Jean (Jack Trevor) which grounds the film’s narrative, even if I was rather hoping she’d hook up with her fellow kitchenhand Marcel. It’s mostly all set in the one location, and as such there’s plenty of glamorous dressing-up, with an excess of sequins and glitz and even a few dance numbers, all beautifully filmed. And of course there’s the champagne, in what must be an early product placement spot for Moët et Chandon, though the alternative title for the US market (Champagner) is presumably an attempt to piggyback on Hitchcock’s earlier Champagne (1928), also starring Balfour. However, I feel confident that if only it were more easily available, Bright Eyes would be acclaimed as the better film.

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The Return of Draw Egan (1916) / The Lighthouse by the Sea (1924)

The Cinema Museum logo These two full-length features (albeit short by modern standards) were presented with a short film and some amusing historical anecdotes by the film historian Kevin Brownlow to a packed audience of avid silent film fans at South London’s Cinema Museum, part of the regular ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night. Piano accompaniment was provided by Lillian Henley for ‘The Passer-by’, Cyrus Gabrysch for William S. Hart western ‘The Return of Draw Egan’, and John Sweeney for the Rin Tin Tin adventure ‘The Lighthouse by the Sea’. Although on such a sweltering Summer evening it was warm in the room, the evening was enjoyable enough that any discomfort was almost forgotten. As these were prints from Brownlow’s private collection they may not have been in the best condition (and their running time may have differed from the times given below), but all were projected very capably by the Cinema Museum staff. I should be clear that my ratings and reviews below are a rather futile attempt to judge the films like any others I’ve seen this year, and though they may have been hoky melodramas, the evening was superbly enjoyable and I’m glad to have seen all three.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 4 September 2013

The Return of Draw Egan (1916) || Director William S. Hart | Writer C. Gardner Sullivan | Cinematographer Joseph H. August | Starring William S. Hart | Length c50 minutes || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable

© Triangle Distributing

By the time this Western was made, a couple of years into his film career, William S. Hart was already in his 50s but also one of the biggest box office draws in the country. Of course, the ‘Draw’ which is his character’s nickname in this film is less to do with his popularity, as with his quick-draw skills. Despite this, the life of an aging gunslinger is a solitary one, and Hart basically inaugurated the kind of weathered frontier cowboy image that would become a staple of the genre, tracing a direct line through to — taking some random examples — Randolph Scott’s collaborations with Budd Boetticher in the 1950s, or Clint Eastwood’s hard-bitten outlaw in Unforgiven (1992).

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