Early & Silent Film

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Behind the Door, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2017

Robert Byrne’s notes in the Festival Catalogue for this film open:

“Behind the Door’s reputation as a shocking film, for any period, is fully justified. “Brutal”, “overwhelming,” and “diabolical” were some of the adjectives used to describe it upon release, and few viewers today will gainsay those reactions. Yet the film was also nearly universally praised as a thrilling, exceptionally well-made story that could boast top-notch technical achievements alongside superb performances.”

The general consensus at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto was that these comments were correct, both about the shock and about the quality offered by the film. It was screened in the ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ section. The producer was Thomas H. Ince, a key film player in the teens; and directed by Irvin V Willat, a director whose other work I have not seen. The story in the film played into the prejudice against German-American citizens in the USA during, and for a time after, World War I. Luther Reed adapted a short story that appeared in McClure’s Magazine in 1918, playing against the common prejudices with a story of a German -American who fights in the US navy. The adaptation seems to have been skilled piece of work. The film also benefitted from location shooting, and the use of an actual submarine  in some sequences. The film has been restored using prints in the Library of Congress and another print from Gosfilmond [which had been changed in line with common practices in the Soviet Union]. The current 35 print is still short of some 700 feet which have been covered by the use of stills and additional title cards.

The main character is Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) a German-American who owns a taxidermist shop in a small coastal town in Maine. At the start of the film as news arrives that Congress has voted to join in the European war, Oscar becomes ht object of small town prejudice. This is stirred up by two members of the local bourgeoisie, bankers, Mathew Morse (J. P. Lockney) and his partner Mark Arnold (Otto Hoffman). Oscar refuses to be intimidated and is involved in fight with one local, Jim MacTavish (James Gordon). This is impressive knock-about fight which ends with MacTavish who opines that Oscar’s fight prowess makes him

‘one regular American’.

We also meet Morse’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) who is in love with Oscar. As the fight gets underway, in her fear, Alice drops her handkerchief. Despite her father’s opposition she and Oscar marry. Oscar then enlists in the navy accompanied by MacTavish. Unable to bear parting Alice hides herself on the ship, the Perth, that Oscar captains; he has seafaring experience. This leads to the central tragedy of the film. The Perth is sunk by a German U-Boat. After 48 hours in a life boat Alice is ‘rescued’ by the U-Boat, whilst Oscar is cast adrift in the boat. Later in the war, captaining a armed cruiser, Oscar’s ship sinks a U-Boat and the sole survivor is Lieutenant Brandt, (Wallace Beery) and it transpires that he commanded the submarine that kidnapped Alice. The film now follows Oscar’s brutal revenge.

Oscar interrogates Brandt, but he uses his German and a pretended sympathy for the German cause to entrap Brandt into telling him of his exploits. These include the rape of a female survivor [clearly Alice], and having satisfied his lust she is tossed to the crudities of the crew. Brandt’s unintended confession is accompanied by flashbacks. These are not explicit in the manner of modern film but still shocking for the period. We see Alice cowering before Brandt who manhandles her. Then she is pushed through a door where a back projection shows her carted off by the crew. her death takes place off-screen. But wee then see a bundle dumped in the sea using the submarine’s torpedo tube.

Having established Brandt’s guilt Oscar proceeds to his revenge. Chaining Brandt up in a cubicle and producing a scalpel. The ensuing torture was too brutal even for this film. And after an ellipsis MacTavish and a fellow officer find Oscar with the corpse, as the widower explains,

“I told him … that if I ever caught him I’d skin him alive; but he died before I’d finished … Damn him.!”

These lines actually concluded the original play. But the film achieves a more melancholy feel by the addtion of an opening sequined which recruiters at the closure. So at the start we find an unidentified figure on a bleak Maine cliff-top at an isolated cemetery. He stops by a grave, one James MacTavish. He continues into a deserted town and a ramshackled shop, the old taxidermists. Hr picks up a scrap of cloth, a handkerchief  as it is blown across the floor proceed by the wind. A lonely dog is shown to howl.  When we return at then end we are again in the taxidermist shop. The ghostly figures of Alice and Oscar appear and embrace.

This is a fine drama and the restoration looks good. The original editing is excellent, especially during the fisticuffs between MacTavish and Oscar. The cinematography is well done, and the locations help make the melodrama convincing. There is one sequence where Bosworth clings to the conning tower of the diving submarine; using an actual vessel the actor nearly suffered a serious mishap. The inserted stills and title cards fill in the gap in the plot. And there is fine tinting which has been carefully reproduced. Phil Carli provided a fine accompaniment, emphasising at times the romance, at other the tension and finally the sense of melancholy.

And it seems we have the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to thank for this worthy addition to the archives.

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