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.
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.