Haldane of the Secret Service (1923)

Haldane of the Secret Service (1923)‘Silent Saunders, the slickest bull that ever caught our tail, has been croaked.’

An American special agent is seeking to avenge his father’s murder by a criminal gang, when he accidentally comes into possession of some forged bank notes when trying to rescue a damsel in distress. This gives him a line on a counterfeiting ring, who are planning to take their operation to a global level…

Harry Houdini was a legend in his own time; a magician, performer and escapologist who vowed the world with his stage performances and public, death-defying feats. He was also a man ahead of his time; diversifying into other media, such as film and printed fiction. Having said that, the magazine stories that appeared under his name, and purported to detail his real-life adventures, were actually ghost-written, one by H P Lovecraft! His movie career was limited to one movie serial and four features, the last of which was this crime thriller. Houdini financed his own films and chose to step behind the camera as director for this one.

After his debut performance in serial ‘The Master Mystery’ (1918), Houdini always appeared as a character with his own initials and here he’s treasury agent Heath Haldane, tangling with a bunch of toughs controlled by a shadowy criminal mastermind. At first, it almost seems as we are in for an ‘old dark house’ murder mystery after Houdini follows Gladys Leslie home to confront her with her bag filled with forged currency. Unfortunately, he spends far more time staring into her undeniably appealing eyes and less at the evidence and has it stolen from under his feet. Then a man in the next room is shot. It’s hardly a stellar piece of work from this representative of the U.S. Government.

But just when we think we’re stuck between these musty four walls for the duration, everyone is off on a European cruise with Houdini gate-crashing the party after being thrown off a quay. Unfortunately, his passport is not in order when they arrive in Glasgow (he hasn’t got one!) and Leslie, her father and his entourage disappear to London via Hull (a city not particularly known for frequent appearances in the movie world!) The trail eventually leads to a French monastery but all this globe-trotting leaves little impression.

Yes, the drama is delivered efficiently enough, but the story is so pedestrian and uninspiring that the news that it was the great escapologist’s last film hardly comes as a shock. His films did not make money and apparently he found the whole process terribly dull. Sadly, that’s also a feeling likely to be shared by an audience watching this turgid bore. At least Houdini’s previous films had ambition and scope, even if they were not embraced by a public who seemed unwilling to accept him on the silver screen. On the plus side, as a director, he does elicit surprisingly naturalistic performances ‘ from his cast given the era that the film was made, something that matched his own approach to acting for the camera.

Haldane of the Secret Service (1923)

It was just another day in the office for Harry…

Perhaps in an effort to leave his more familiar persona behind, Houdini gives himself no ‘great escapes’ to perform, although he is tied to a millwheel at the film’s climax. Its collapse into the river is only a brief sequence, but easily the film’s most impressive moment. However, Houdini is only seen in longshots and it emerged in later years that he wasn’t above using a stuntman on occasion.

 

During his second film ‘The Grim Game’ (1917) (thought lost for almost 100 years!), there was a plane collision after a mid-air stunt went wrong, and shots of Houdini hanging from one of the aircraft appeared prominently in the international press. Only it wasn’t actually him! There’s no evidence that he used a double here, but it’s always a possibility.

Those of you checking out Houdini’s filmography may be intrigued by the listing of a sixth film and a second directorial credit in ‘The Soul of Bronze’ (1923). This is not an undiscovered Houdini project, however, but French film ’L’ame Du Bronze’ (1917), which he bought and intended to distribute in the U.S. through his film company with translated intertitles.

This film is a damp and dreary end to a sadly undistinguished film career.

The Magician (1926)

The Magician (1926)‘If you wish to see strange things, I have the power to show them to you.’

A beautiful sculptress living in Paris is saved from paralysis by a handsome American doctor. The two fall in love, but she has become the obsession of a charismatic mystic with plans to create life using sorcery.

Writer-director and actor Rex Ingram was one of the first auteurs in the history of cinema. His films were released through MGM, but he had full creative control and usually filmed at his own studios in France, despite legendary arguments with the studio head Louis B. Mayer. Why was he allowed such unprecedented artistic freedom? Because he had delivered the most successful silent movie of all time (adjusted for inflation!) It was called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (1921) and gave the world Rudolph Valentino. Another film with the legendary screen idol followed before Ingram pulled the trick again (admittedly to a slightly lesser extent) by making a star out of Ramon Novarro. In 1922, Ingram married his perennial leading lady, and big star, Alice Terry. They were as much Hollywood royalty as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Unfortunately, everything started to unravel for Ingram with the big budget ‘Mare Nostrum’ (1926), and the deterioration continued with this project, loosely based on the novel W Somerset Maugham.

Having said that, the film’s opening is undeniably impressive. We join Terry in her Left Bank studio working on a giant bust of a faun’s head. It’s a striking creation, and actually the work of famous artist Paul Dardé commissioned especially for the film. Unfortunately, the statue falls apart as soon as it’s finished and one of the larger fragments crushes her spine. Enter stage right Ivàn Petrovich as super young, super handsome super surgeon Arthur Burdon who fixes her up with an operation under the watchful eyes of a roomful of medical students. One of these is a rather mature Paul Wegener: hypnotist, mystic and all round crazy man. He takes quite a fancy to Terry, as does Petrovich, but while the medicos intentions are romantic, his are far more sinister.

Terry recovers from the op without a scratch and starts making the old goo-goo eyes with Petrovich, but Wegener soon has her under his dastardly spell. This involves showing her a vision of hell, which is rather near the knuckle, given the vintage of the production. Actually, it’s the film’s most impressive sequence, and an obvious influence on the later Spencer Tracy vehicle ‘Dante’s Inferno’ (1935), mainly because both were shot by producer Harry Lachman after Ingram became bored with the sequence and left the set (as he often did apparently!) From there, it’s rather a roundabout trip to the watchtower filled with strange equipment and a dwarf assistant (UniversaI’s ‘Frankenstein’ series, anyone?) via an entirely pointless diversion to the gaming houses of Monte Carlo.

Ingram was obviously minded to make a surrealistic horror in the mould of German expressionist classics such as ‘The Cabinet of Dr CaIigari’ (1919), and F W Murnau’s monumental ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and ‘Faust’ (1926). He also may have intended some subtext regarding the theme of ‘alchemy versus science’ (the villain in the original novel was allegedly based on notorious occultist Aleister Crowley) but, the hell sequence apart, his film is far too conventional to achieve such levels of meaning or intensity.

Even having Wegener in the title role is a mistake, although it must have seemed like a tremendous coup at first. The German writer-director-star had delivered what was arguably the world’s first feature length horror film with ‘The Student of Prague’ (1913), and had followed that with a trilogy about ‘The Golem’, a giant clay statue brought to life by means of magic. Wegener’s acting style suited those projects perfectly, but it’s simply too theatrical here, and at odds with the more naturalistic approach of the remainder of the cast. This leads one character to remark that the hypnotist is like ‘something out of an old melodrama’, a title card possibly introduced at a later date to explain Wegener’s histrionic performance.

Also appearing here in a bit part is a young Michael Powell. Serving initially as Lachman’s gopher, the world famous film director got his start in the business as a member of Ingram’s company. Recalling his experiences on this film in his essential memoir ‘A Life In Movies’, Powell reveals he worked in many minor capacities behind the scenes, learning the business from the bottom up. He also paints an unflattering portrait of Wegener as inflexible, arrogant and condescending, constantly disappearing in a cloud of foul cigar smoke.

The Magician (1926)

‘Hell’s Kitchen’ had a new contestant…

Ultimately, Powell did not rate the finished product and audiences were also less than enthusiastic. lngram made only two more silent pictures and one talkie (‘Baroud’ (1932)), but never came close to emulating his earlier success. Difficult relationships with producers and studios, combined with these latter poor box office returns meant that his career was effectively over only a decade after he was one of the most successful filmmakers in the world.

Of undoubted historical interest, this is unfortunately a fairly dull experience, particularly in the middle third. However, it is worth watching for the stand out sequences, which proved highly influential on the development of the supernatural film in the 1930s and beyond.

L’Atlantide (1921)

L'atlantide_(1921)‘But never has a Greek inscription been discovered at such a low latitude!’

The new commanding officer of a remote desert outpost relates the story of how he and a colleague discovered the lost kingdom of Atlantis deep in the Sahara, and how events took a tragic turn when they became involved with the ruling Queen.

Pierre Benoit’s 1919 novel was a smash hit in Europe, despite its obvious resemblance to H. Rider Haggard’s 1905 classic adventure ‘She’. Several critics were unkind enough to point out the similarity, and an incensed Benoit sued one of them for libel…and lost. As a novel, it hasn’t stood the test of time either; being light on plot, character development and action. What it does have is lots of stodgy detail; mainly concerning French contemporary politics, philosophers, the history of expeditions in Africa, and the customs of obscure desert tribes. The central premise is also a tad implausible. Perhaps the only real virtue of the book by modern standards is that it’s fairly short.

So, how on earth can you take a book like that and turn it into a silent film that lasts almost three hours? How? By faithfully filming every single incident in the story. For a start, this French-Belgian film retains the novel’s ‘layered’ approach. This structure was popular in literature at the time and means that the audience gets flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. The only other well-known example that springs to mind is the Humphrey Bogart WWII epic ‘Passage To Marseilles’ (1944), which was based on a similar literary source. It’s not confusing here, but it is clumsy.

Our heroes are two French Legionnaires; worldly-wise Morhange and his youthful companion St. Avit. They are only recently acquainted, but have become friendly enough to take a trip together, which gets side-tracked when the scholarly Morhange hears about some strange graffiti in remote caves. Their guide dies on the way, almost immediately after they save the life of a mysterious nomad. A quick interface with some hashish later, and they’re waking up in Atlantis! These things can happen after a night with the lads gets out of hand. The kingdom, left in the desert after the flood waters receded, is ruled by Queen Antinea, who goes through lovers at an alarming rate. It’s especially alarming for them, as they end up as mummified corpses or committing suicide when she discards them. St Avit falls head over heels for her, but Morhange remains impervious to her charms. Unfortunately, he’s the one that Antinea realty wants and she’s not accustomed to being turned down.

This adaptation is really a mixed bag for the modern day audience. On the one hand, technically is quite impressive. The sets and production design do convey a pleasing sense of the scale of the lost kingdom, and of cultural achievements now in decline. The desert landscapes are also impressive, and authentic. Unfortunately, the decision to film every last page of the novel and create a film of such staggering length is a serious error. Do we really need an extended flashback of servant girl Tanet Zerga’s life story? lt adds nothing to the drama, and it arrives when the film should be building up a head of steam toward the climax.

L'atlantide (1921)

‘Do I make you horny?’

Performances are acceptably generally, but it is seriously hard to believe in Stacia Napierkowska as the obsessive object of every man’s desire, notwithstanding that concepts of beauty may have changed over the intervening years. She also overacts quite atrociously by modern standards, and the film threatens to lurch into comedy whenever she’s on screen.

What is most interesting now are the two places where the film differs from the Benoit’s novel. Morhange and St Avit are separated on arrival in Atlantis, and the older man seems interested only in their reunion. Ok, so it’s easy to understand why he has no time for the faintly ridiculous Napierkowska but her actual character is supposed to be irresistible. The reason provided by the film (not present in the novel) is that Morhange is a devout Christian, and indeed we are given a scene where Antinea is tormented by the symbol of the cross, which is a further addition by the filmmakers. There is little biographical information on Benoit, beyond the fact that he was a Nazi sympathiser, and there are certainly no overt references to homosexuality in the novel, but it seems to have been enough of a possibility for the decision to provide Morhange with some alternative motivation.

The other change from the original story is the addition of some doped cigarettes, likewise to provide one of the main characters with motivation for actions which could have alienated audience sympathy. This was the first of several adaptions of Benoit’s novel; all of which struggle to overcome the obvious shortcomings of the source material. A more reasonable length would have helped here, but it’s still mildly interesting for several reasons and the production design remains superior to any subsequent version.

In recent years, the film has been retitled ‘Missing Husbands’ – somewhat nonsensically as we have no information about the marital status of any of the male characters, even the mummified ones!

High Treason (1929)

High Treason (1929)‘I can’t possibly come out tonight, we’ve got to stop this war.’

In the near future, the world is ruled by two superpowers; the Atlantic States and the Federated States of Europe. Relations between the two are already tense and, behind the scenes, a cartel of arms manufacturers plan to escalate the situation into all-out war.

This slice of early British prophetic Science Fiction was filmed in both silent and ‘talking’ versions, the latter of which was thought lost for many years. The action begins on the border between the two superpowers, where an incident with rum runners sparks a shootout between the border guards on either side. We assume that this is the U.S./Canadian border (where else could it be?), although that would mean that Canada is now part of Europe. Well, it’s possible I guess; it is a member of the Commonwealth, after all. Hell of a job policing that border, though, which begs the question why don’t the smugglers simply walk across somewhere else? Anyway, everyone has fold-out passports, which look pretty cool, although probably quite impractical.

Caught up in these international ramifications are dashing Airforce officer Basil Gill and his gal Benita Hume. There are problems with the relationship already, though; she’s the pretty daughter of the leader of the World Peace Movement, a highly influential organisation that wield almost as much global power as the two governments in question. The story develops with the embers of War being stoked by leaders of the international arms trade, who actually perform acts of terrorism to provoke the conflict. Now, why would that sound kind of familiar?

Unfortunately, the straight-laced, moralistic tone of the film is rather overbearing, and there’s little audience investment possible in our star-crossed leads. Hume and Gill are just too stilted and unconvincing, although it can’t have been easy playing a scene for the silent version, and then attempting the unfamiliar talking medium a few moments later. A tense aerodrome stand-off between regular troops and conscripted women who refuse to fight is the films’ most effective sequence, even if it is too conveniently resolved. Curiously, the silent version is set in 1950, but the talking one takes place 10 years earlier! It’s a strange decision on the part of the filmmakers. There are a few other differences too; most notably that the attack on London and the Peace HQ is real in one version; but only part of a vision in the other. This may have been down to the territories in which each version was released, of course.

High_Treason (1929)

‘These speakers go up to 11 you know…’

Most of the enjoyment a contemporary audience will derive is by comparing the filmmaker’s vision with how things actually turned out. The City of London is all skyscrapers, elevated motorways and monorails, with lots of small planes buzzing between. Yes, it’s a cut-price ‘Metropolis’ (1926) but with poorer model work. There are daily television news broadcasts though, and we have the Channel Tunnel and Videophones. The technology isn’t always reliable though, which is where the film is at its most accurate!

On the other hand, detachable sleeves and hairdryers on rubber tubes haven’t really caught on, although the walk in shower/drying/dressing unit probably still could. There’s a full band playing at a nightclub dance, with all instruments operated by one man at a keyboard, and a President of Europe is something that looks less likely with every passing year.

But I think the film’s most interesting for a few seconds that happen in each version just before the half hour. Our handsome hero walks through the Peace Headquarters on his way to meet his gal, and all the secretaries in the main hall follow him with their eyes. There’s a brief mid-shot of one of them fixing her makeup. But, hang on a moment, isn’t that film icon Louise Brooks?! Surely that’s her! What other woman of the time had THAT haircut? Or that face?! And the shot is completely unnecessary, and doesn’t really ‘fit’. It looks spliced in from another source.

Circumstantial evidence backs the notion; Brooks had been filming in Europe in the late 1920s and may well have stopped off in the U.K. on her way back home. She was arguing vociferously with MGM at the time, and it would have been typical of her to do a bit of moonlighting just to assert her independence and spite the studio. Sadly, I can find absolutely no corroboration of my assertion anywhere at all, not on the web or in any literature about her. But I’m almost positive.

A somewhat creaky enterprise all told; worth watching to compare this ‘future’ with the real thing. And worth watching for that brief appearance by Louise Brooks!

Alraune (1928)

Alraune_(1928)‘I, as his own handiwork, shall have my revenge on him.’

A brilliant scientist uses primitive genetic engineering methods to create a new born baby, using a woman of low character as the mother, and a murderer’s seed. He adopts the child and raises her as his own so he can monitor the results of his experiment. His assistant fears that the girl has been born without a soul, and, when she grows into a beautiful young woman, she does prove to be a bit of a handful…

Adaptation of a curious folk tale that was filmed several times, particularly in the silent era, but also as late as 1952 in a German production with Erich Von Stroheim. It’s unusual mythology; the story being that a mandrake root will grow in the soil beneath a gallows from the semen of a hanged killer. The root is then supposed to have magical, life giving properties. You’d be forgiven for not quite understanding all that from just watching this film, and being a little puzzled as to how the good professor brings his creation to life. Perhaps the tale was more popular back then so no further explanation was necessary, or, more likely, it was simply not the done thing to allude to such unpleasantries at the time.

The lead role of the Professor is played by Paul Wegener and it’s good to see him for a change without the ’Golem’ makeup that made him famous. His scientist is a cold, clinical figure at the start of the picture, creating ‘Alraune’ (’Mandrake’ in German) just because he can, rather than for any useful purpose. Unfortunately for him, his arrogance has dire consequences when Alraune grows up to be the lovely Brigitte Helm, who had made such an impression in her debut role as Maria in ‘Metropolis’ (1927). She is wilful, rebellious and, unashamedly liberated. She cheeks the nuns at her convent school and runs off with a local boy, who has fallen for her undeniable charms. Together they join the circus where pretty soon every man is under her spell.

Alraune_(1928)

You want some? Yeah?

This is an interesting picture on several levels. Superficially, we see a man brought low by his desire to usurp the role of God. Wegener’s creation is never under his control, Helm causing chaos wherever she goes. Understandably, men can’t resist her considerable charms, and she manipulates them mercilessly, leaving wrecked lives in her wake. In one memorable scene she even stares down a cage filled with lions!

By the time she links up with the old Professor again toward the end of the film, she’s honed her flirting techniques to perfection and he is helpless to resist. Obviously, his physical desire for her opens a whole new can of sub-text and his obsession with her leads to the tragic climax.

On the other hand, if looked at from the point of view of Helm’s character, it’s a whole different movie. What is she really doing except asking for her rights as an individual and as a woman? Yes, she’s a naughty girl, but ultimately it’s the menfolk who attempt to cast her in fixed, conventional roles; the dutiful daughter, the whore, the virtuous wife. It’s the men who lack strength of character, rather than her. All this seems to inform the resolution of the story, which is pleasingly modern, rather than the corny melodrama that might have been expected.

Although a little stately. for modern tastes, the film was so popular that Helm did it all again two years later in a sound version, although the rest of the cast was different and Henrik Galeen was replaced in the director’s chair by Richard Oswald.

Helm was a luminous presence in everything she did, but did not enjoy acting, or the trappings of fame. She reportedly turned down a request from James Whale in Hollywood to appear as ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935). With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the mid-1930s, she quit her homeland and moved to Switzerland where she died at the age of 90 in 1996. She always refused interview requests and never talked about her film career.

The Man From Beyond (1922)

The_Man_From_Beyond_(1922)‘I guess you haven’t seen much of the gay side of life lately. Would you like to look around a bit tonight?’

The last two survivors of an ill-fated polar expedition stumble across the wreck of an old ship and a man frozen solid in a block of ice. They thaw him out and he comes back to life. The trio return to civilisation but complications ensue involving a beautiful bride, re-incarnation and an inheritance.

Harry Houdini’s last attempt to become a film star. The world famous escapologist must have seemed a sure box office draw, but his previous pictures had not been particularly successful. Houdini himself had found the filmmaking process rather dull, and the lack of financial returns on his previous projects was disappointing. Still, Houdini was prepared to put up the cash for one last try, and this time to include a subject close to his heart: spiritualism.

Houdini is ship’s mate Howard Hillary, who falls in love with heroine Jane Connelly on a sea voyage. Of course, she’s high born, and her father doesn’t approve of Harry, but any chance of resolving the situation is lost when the ship is wrecked. Fast forward a century and he’s melted out of his ice cube by being placed close to a fire and wrapped in an old blanket! Who knew cryogenics could be so simple? Back in high society, they walk in on a posh wedding and guess what? The bride is the reincarnation of Harry’s lost love (again played by Connelly of course). He thinks it really is her, because he still hasn’t worked out that a hundred years have passed (despite motor cars and some other subtle clues). Anyway, Connelly’s intended turns out to be a bit of a rotter (who knew?) and the stage is set for some fairly typical plot development and familiar silent melodrama.

The_Man_From_Beyond_(1922)

Vanilla Ice’s latest comeback wasn’t working out…

This is a very serious film, with serious intentions. Houdini only performs one escape (from a straightjacket in an asylum) and the rest of time simply plays it as a conventional actor, and he gives a performance which doesn’t resort to the usual histrionics that were the fashion of the time. But there are one too many flashbacks in the convoluted storyline, and the spiritualism angle is shoe-horned in rather clumsily late on, along with a reference to the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle. Once you get past the off-beat initial premise, there is nothing to mark this out from many other similar melodramas of the time.

Houdini obviously took spiritualism very seriously and spent much of his later life debunking fake mediums and the like. Obviously, it was not difficult, given his stage craft and conjuring expertise. But it must have been disappointing for him. And disappointing is a word that could equally be applied to his last cinematic outing.

The film was not a success. Houdini quit the film business. The world moved on.

La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) (1928)

The_Fall_of_the_House_of_Usher_(1928)‘Could one of you drive me to the House of Usher?’

When his wife Madeline falls seriously ill, Roderick Usher invites his only friend to visit. The house of Usher is isolated and partially derelict and the local villagers fear to go there. Roderick has been painting Madeline’s portrait and the more realistic it becomes, the more her health continues to decline.

French adaptation of Poe’s famous horror story from the last days of silent cinema. The tale has never been an easy one to adapt; it’s nearly all atmosphere and little plot and the absence of sound might also serve to lower expectations before viewing this effort. But we’re in the hands of producer-director Jean Epstein and assistant Luis Bunuel, who became famous in later years as the man behind ‘Le Belle de Jour’ (1967), ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ (1972) and had created notorious surrealistic short ’Un Chien Andalou’ (1928). Together, the two of them deliver what is probably the finest visual realisation of Poe’s work in the history of cinema.

The house itself is simply staggering; a series of huge rooms that seem to have no ceilings and almost no end; vast spaces in which the main characters dwindle into insignificance. Curtains lining a passage billow in slow motion for no reason and floors are so highly polished they seem to burn with white light. There are no bannisters on the main stairway; just heavy chains strung between what appear to be artificial trees. It’s a triumph of production design and, if the external long shots are plainly a basic model, then we can forgive this surrender to the limitations of the time when so much else here transcends them.

The_Fall_of_the_House_of_Usher_(1928)

Roderick’s interior designer had chosen a minimalist approach.

The final disintegration of Usher’s psyche is brilliantly realised by various motifs; stretching guitar strings that break, the inner gears and workings of a clock, a pendulum that swings like the torture device from another of Poe’s most famous works. It’s an impressive sequence; heightened by leading man Jean Debucourt, whose high forehead and watery eyes dominate frame after frame. It does look as if tiny spotlights were shone into his eyes to enhance their appearance but that’s still a trick that Tod Browning couldn’t pull off with Lugosi in ‘Dracula’ (1931).

Debucourt’s performance may look a little old fashioned to some, but it’s a model of restraint for its time and still retains an unsettling power. There’s even a creepy sequence where the camera sweeps along at floor level, blowing leaves before it; a cliché now, of course, but a startling inclusion in a film of this vintage.

Yes, we’re lacking a story to get our teeth into (apparently Bunuel walked because of it) and the pace is rather slow, so dramatically it’s slight and not terribly gripping. But what the film does have is atmosphere; creating a heightened, almost hallucinatory state of reality that is quite extraordinary.

It’s surprising that the film is not better known, or celebrated. A strangely unique and haunting experience.