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Kindred of the Dust, USA 1922

Posted by keith1942 on April 9, 2017

This film was directed by Raoul Walsh and produced by the short lived R.A.Walsh Company. This was one of the businesses in which Walsh attempted independent productions before returning to Fox in the mid-twenties: he had left in 1920. The film was part of the programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 celebrating the Production Design of William Cameron Menzies. Walsh had recruited him from Famous Players. They were to work together again on The Thief of Bagdad (1924) with a far more lavish production budget.

The film was screened from a 35mm print from the George Eastman Museum. The print was 7,205 feet; 200 feet shorter than the original release. It was projected at 20 fps.

The scenario was an adaptation of a popular novel by Peter B. Kyne,. Kyne was a successful novelist with a number of film adaptations. The most famous was ‘Three Godfathers’ (1913) of which there to have been ten film adaptations. The famous version is that directed in 1948 by John Ford and starring John Wayne. But the most memorable version is Hells’ Heroes (1930, William Wyler) screened at the 1994 Pordenone. That occasion was memorable for the addition of a [surprise] rendition of ‘Silent Night’ for the final tear jerking moments.

Kindred of the Dust is set on the Pacific Northwest coast in logging terrain. It stars Walsh’s wife Miriam Cooper as Nan [of the Sawdust Pile]. She and Donald Mckaye (Ralph Graves) are childhood friends and remain so as adults. Donald’s father Laird of Tyee (Lionel Belmore) owns the logging company. Thus Nan and Donald’s budding relationship is inhibited by the class divide. The differences are symbolised in the film by the Mckaye mansion and Nan’s family home outside of which sits the metaphoric ‘sawdust pile’.

Donald goes east to college and Nan leaves town and works as a singer. When she returns she has an illegitimate child: sparking off the town gossips. When Donald returns these factors inhibit a new relationship. Donald’s conflict with his father leads to him working at a rival logging company. He suffers an accident and is nursed by Nan. They marry but the Laird continues his opposition: it is only when a second child, a grandchild arrives, that he, Donald and Nan are reconciled and become the ‘kindred of the dust’.

The film is full of stock melodramatic situations and actions. The romance between Nan and Donald suffers one problem after another. One notable scene concerns Donald’s return. He is embroiled in a fight with a rough neighbour of Nan’s, a black man. An unusual situation for this period.

The Catalogue review by James Curtis includes the following:

Kindred of the Dust was a real old-fashioned melodramatic story, ” wrote Miriam Cooper, “full of tough, straightforward heroines, mean, vicious villains and long-suffering heroines. My costumes in the picture tell the story, all grubby homespun and calico. After reels and reels of hardship and fighting you are convinced that nobody can ever be happy. Then, gee whiz, the heroine – me, of course – has a baby and everything turns out all right.”

It is only towards the end of the film that the narrative make use of timber industry and landscape. After his accident Donald returns as a foreman. There is an engine failure at the log slide. Donald rescues the Laird from the river, including some spectacular underwater shots. And this leads to the final reconciliation .

The film was accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau on the piano.

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Janko the Musician / Janko Muzykant, Poland 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on April 5, 2017

This was one of the titles in the ‘Polish Silents’ programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. This was the first sound film made in Poland but the Vitaphone discs are lost, so only this silent version survives. The sound version  still relied on intertitles for dialogue and the track contained music, songs and some animal noises. The film was presented from a 35mm print 2561 meters in length; the catalogue proposed 18 fps. However the film was timed at 93 minutes and I do not think it overran by much. Moreover 18 fps for a sound/silent film seems rather slow and at that frame rate it would have run over two hours. There were a couple of discrepancies regarding frame rates for the Polish titles: I assume that on closer inspection they settled for 23 or 24 fps. The print was worn but the image quality was pretty good. There seemed to be some unintended ellipsis in the plot so I assume there were missing scenes or sequences.

The film was adapted by Ferdynand Goetel from a novella by Henryk Sienkiewicz [of ‘Quo Vadis’ fame]. In fact the script extended the original story considerably; the second part of the film was a complete addition. The director, Ryszard Ordyński, was a regular in the industry and this was his fifth title.

Janko (Stefan Rogulski) is a young village boy with a passion for music. When we first see him in the film he is making his own homemade violin. He lives with his mother (Tekla Trapszo) and he also has a pet blackbird. However, he is tempted by the sight of a professionally made violin in the mansion of the local landowner. Caught he is sent to a Correctional Institution where the boys are disciplined and made to work at making wicker chairs. This opening section is finely filmed by cinematographer Zbigniew Gniazdowski. The film has a lyrical feel, the landscapes  lovingly photographed and with some very effective pans, tracks and superimpositions. Gniazdowski uses well-placed  dissolves to take the narrative forward. Apparently the original novella was a grimmer and more realist depiction of rural life. We do see an overbearing overseer ordering women workers, including Janko’s mother. And Janko’s treatment by the landowner and magistrate is heavy handed. But we are closer to melodrama than literary realism in this film version. In the novella a whipping leads to Janko’s death, so the rest of the film is the addition.

Whilst Janko is in the Correction Centre his mother leaves the village, releasing Janko’s pet blackbird. A young man now, Janko (Witold Conti) escapes from the Correction Institution but finds his mother gone though his blackbird returns. Janko sets off to the city where the blackbird leads to his striking up a friendship with two ne’er-do well’s (Adolf Dymsza and Kazimierz Krukowski). They form a musical trio which prove a success in a local bar-cum-restaurant. Janko’s increasing popularity brings him to the attention of a Professor of music (Wieslaw Gawlikowski) and his pupil, singing star Ewa (Maria Malicka). A rival for her affections, Zaruba (Aleksander Źabczyński), attempts to eliminate Janko by accusing him of the escape from the Correction Centre. Zaruba turns out to be the landowner who was responsible for Janko’s incarceration. But Janko’s friends rally round and he is acquitted, able to end the film in partnership with Ewa.

“The second part of the film introduces the sort of characters beloved by Polish musical comedies of the 1930s: noble rogues, driven by an honourable code despite living on the edge of the law.” (Adam Uryniak in the Festival Catalogue).

He adds that these actors for these characters were part of the popular Warsaw cabaret scene.

Filming ‘Janko’

I found the second part of the film less compelling than the first. The urban setting and the studio interiors lacked the visual charm of the countryside. And whilst the whole film is melodrama, the latter stages seemed to have more stock characters and situations. However the cinematography continued to make effective use of camera movement and dissolves, though there was little superimposition.

The screening was accompanied by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius with piano, violin and some percussion. And they included at least one song featured in the sound version of the film.

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The Mysterious Lady, M-G-M 1928

Posted by keith1942 on December 3, 2016

mysterious_lady_04

This film provided the opening night attraction at the 35th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. We enjoyed Greta Garbo in a fine Photoplay 35mm print. And with Carl Davis conducting the Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone playing his 1980s score for the film. A presentation fit for the nearly 1,000 film fans filling the Teatro Verdi.

Mark A. Vieira praises the film in the Festival Catalogue:

“Greta Garbo’s sixth American film provides a fine introduction to the Garbo of the silent era. It shows how silent-film technology was evolving, even as sound film encroached. it is also a landmark in the evolution of the Garbo image. In 1928 she was not remote, stately or tragic. She was vital and sexualised. The post-adolescent with the sleepy stare was creating a sensation. There had never been a vamp with a heart, a mind, and a conscience.”

The production and Garbo as lead performer are both excellent. Other aspects of the film are more conventional. The plot was developed from a novelette by Ludwig Wolff, War in the Dark. Essentially it is a war time spy story with Tania Fedorova (Garbo) torn between her Russian spy master General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and a young Austrian officer Captain Karl Heinrich (Conrad Nagel). M-G-M employed at least six writers over six months producing a final screen treatment. Even then the plot remains predictable and lacking the subtlety of the best spy dramas. It is clear that none of the characters have actually watched or read spy stories, otherwise they would have known what was coming and presumably avoided the perils.

Whilst Garbo is luminous Conrad Nagel is romantic but not inspiring. And his character is certainly juvenile. Leaving Vienna by train Karl is carefully warned about spies and security and he still sleeps soundly through eight hours of the train journey. You can surmise what occurs.

The romance is assisted by some of the motifs placed in the plot. So Karl first sees Tania at the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Verdi’s Tosca; setting up suggestive themes that echo later in the film. We have two border crossing with their particular associations. And all the paraphernalia of spy stories, with secret papers and pre-arranged set-ups.

The film does supply great scenes between the romantic couple. Benjamin Christensen, who worked on the script, supplied one sequence:

“Tania walks over to a, little table where she lights a candle in a beautiful old French candlestick. George [changed to Karl] is playing the piano again, but stealthily his eyes follow her. This strange adventuress seems more and more interesting to him. And the melancholia which rests upon her seems to enhance this woman’s strange charm.”

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

This sequence is one of the many well served by the technology and craft of the production. Mark Vieira records that:

“This career landmark [for Garbo] is seldom mentioned but it was due to a technical innovation, panchromatic film. Before this, orthochromatic film had been the standard. “Ortho” could not see red and saw too much blue; lips went dark and blue eyes turned white. Garbo was beautiful but ghost-like. “Pan” saw the full spectrum, so the black & whit image showed the actual values of the subject.”

And this technical advance was, in this film, in the hands of a fine cinematographer and Garbo’s favourite lighting cameraman:

“The improved rendering of Garbo’s skin, lips, and eyes was more than helpful; it was stunning. In scene after scene, William Daniels used pan film and incandescent lights to paint glowing images of a performer whose presence was so unusual that even co-workers had difficulty describing it.”

The great pleasure of the screening was watching scenes like the one described. The sequence in the darkened mansion set round the piano was lustrous and Garbo looked as fine as in any of her films. In fact, some in a preview audience found this over the top and some shots were cut from the final print version. So the photograph of the production set-up used on the cover of the Catalogue with Nagel, Garbo, Daniels and director Fred Niblo is a shot that is not seen in the final scene. But it does demonstrate nicely the craft of the period and the mood musicians who accompanied the stars.

mysterious_lady_05

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A Florida Enchantment USA 1914

Posted by keith1942 on May 13, 2016

florida enchantment

I saw this film as part of a programme of films titled ‘Queer Cinema Before Stonewall’ at the Film Society Lincoln Center. I had not been aware of the title before but apparently it is fairly well known. Vito Russo discusses it in The Celluloid Closet (1981). It turned out to be an entertaining and intriguing screening.

The film was directed by Sidney Drew who also starred. I had seen two of his films before at the 2014 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, Boobley’s Baby and A Case of Eugenics (both 2015). The film is based on a C19th novel and theatrical adaptation [the latter now lost].

Lillian Travers (Edith Storey), a northern heiress takes a visit to Florida along with her fiancée Dr. Frederick Cassadene (Sydney Drew). The ‘enchantment’ arises when Lillian eats a seed that she finds in an old chest. The seed’s magical properties turn Lillian into a man, Lawrence. The film then exploits Lawrence’s actions especially ‘his’ vamping of the women in the social circle. Later in the film Lillian gives Frederick a seed and he turns into a women.

So the plot involves cross-dressing, gender and sexual re-orientation and possibly bi-sexuality. Russo makes the point that

“In both cases it’s a male view of the sexes that dominates the impersonation.”

In the lead role Edith’s cross-dressing and male impersonation is quite subtle and delightfully ironic, However, Drew’s impersonation is over-the-top and full of ‘eye-rolling’ actions.

Moreover, in the conventions of the period, Lillian’s black maid, who also undergoes a transformation, is a black-face actor, also with an amount of eye-rolling action. The full implications of these transformations are avoided with Lillian waking from a dream and all the unconventional behaviour safely tucked away. Though presumably Freud or a disciple, if they saw the film, would have had a field day of analysis.

The Giornate Catalogue for 23014 commented on Drew’s film work

‘Although they wrote and directed their films together, in interviews Drew gave his wife his wife credit for the tone of the material’.

This was Lucille McVey, his second wife, who seems to have married in July 1914. She is not credited in any source I have seen for this film except as part of the cast as ‘Mrs Sydney Drew’. However, Drew’s first wife, Gladys Rankin, also wrote plays, rewrote their vaudeville acts and worked with Drew at Vitagraph. And the writing credits include one Marguerite Bertsch. What is interesting is that all three films that I have seen feature issues that are generally seen as ‘women’s issues’: a baby, eugenics and the cross-dressing in this film. So whilst A Florida Enchantment does seem to feature a male viewpoint the basic plot tends to subversion of masculinity. It would be nice to pin down the contribution of these women.

The screening used a 16mm print which had a pretty good image. The filming was typical of the period. The settings were recognisably studio sets though there were some nice location shots. It was in the ‘second’ screen at the centre, a well appointed auditorium, spacious and comfortable. This meant however that there was no musical accompaniment and we watched the film in full silence. The film ran jus over 60 minutes. I did think that it ran slightly faster than the norm. Afterwards the manager advised me that they did not have a variable speed projector and had to run the film at 24 fps. IMDB gives the length as 1500 metres, which at 16 fps, the likely speed for that period, would give 80 odd minutes. However, I suspect that the running speed was not 24 fps as the film did not seem to be 8 fps faster. Perhaps it ran at 18 fps or 20 fps; the former is a standard setting on 16mm projectors.

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The Jew of Mestri / Der Kaufmann von Venedig Germany 1923

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2016

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

This film, part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of England’s premier playwright, was screened at the Barbican on April 10th. I have just read J. G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ so I was struck by the brutalist architecture of this complex. Inside, for Screen 1 in the main building, one enters a vast cavernous hall: it feels like the sort of entertainment space one would find in Lang’s Metropolis (1926). The cinema itself is down in the lower basement. It is spacious with a notable rake and, happily, has good quality 35mm projection. The print we viewed was from the UK National Film Archive and is a copy of the version prepared for release in the USA, shorter than the original German version.

The film was directed by Peter Paul Felner who also wrote the screenplay with Pietro Aretino. The source is not Shakespeare’s play but an earlier version which was also a source for Shakespeare’s tragedy. This is a story by Giovanni Fiorentino, in his collection of tales, Il Pecorone, which appeared in 1558. Felner seems to have worked some of the Shakespearean version in to the film but judging by the characters and plot it is closer to that of Fiorentino. The opening credits is for Fiorentino’s work but there is also a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. There are parts of the film that are close to the Shakespeare play and others that differ.  The characters appear to have the names used in the Fiorentino version: but the original German language titles may have been different. The collected plays include ‘The Merchant of Venice’ under the comedies, and parts of this film are played in that tenor.

The casting is variable. Henny Portman is The Lady of Belmont [Portia] and she is not exactly the type for this women who has so many suitors. She is better when disguised as the young lawyer {Balthazar] for the trial scene. Harry Liedtke is Giannetto (Bassanio) and Carl Ebert is Ansaldo (Antonio), they are passable rather than engaging. The stand-out performance is Werner Krauss as the Jew of Mestri, Mordecai. He combines the angry responses to prejudice with the growing malevolence directed especially against Ansaldo.   Lia Eibenschütz  as Rachele [Jessica, the Jew’s daughter] is also very good.

Fiorentino’s version and this film appear to provide greater emphasis on the manner in which the Jew is the subject of prejudice and mistreatment. In Shakespeare’s play Shylock is already prejudiced against Antonio. But in this version there is an important sequence when Mordecai sends his wife to collect debts owed to him by Giannetto. She finds Giannetto passing with friends, including Ansaldo. They roundly abuse her. As a consequence she suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack. In the following sequences Mordecai mourns his wife and vows vengeance. Thus we get the Bond with Ansaldo and the ‘pound of flesh’.

There is more space devoted to his daughter Racele than in the play. She is wooed by Lorenzo (I missed his name in this version) who is something of a fancy man. Mordecai meanwhile has arranged a union with the son of a friend. So there is drama round Racele’s unwillingness to join this union.

The trial sequence is very close to that in Shakespearean’s play and it is followed by the re-union of Giannetto with The Lady of Belmont, of Ansaldo with the Lady’s assistant and confidante and of Lorenzo with Racele. We again see Mordecai in the streets, bitter and frustrated by the loss of his suit, his monies and his daughter. The final moment of the film also differs from the Shakespeare play. In a powerful final shot we get a close-up of Mordecai [an iris shot], which can be read different ways depending how you interpret Krauss’s characterisation. I tended to see this as sympathetic. The longer German version may generate a different feel

One of the cachet’s of the film is that it was filmed on location in Venice. It is well served by the excellent cinematography by Axel Graatkjær and Rudolph Maté. One thing I noted that was that the crowd scenes in the streets of Venice were running slightly faster than the rest of the print. This could have been a different cranking rate in exteriors, but it seemed quite consistent across sequences. So I think it was shot to run slightly faster in order to generate drama.

I found the trial sequence impressive. There is a volatile crowd of onlookers, who become excited and vocal. In front of this the young lawyer, Mordecai and Ansaldo play out the famous dramatic scene.

The print we enjoyed was of pretty good quality. It was projected at 19 fps, running for 78 minutes. This would be about 1700 metres. However, Wikipedia suggests that the original version was at least two reels longer, about 220 metres: IMDB has even longer at 2800 metres. It is possible as there were parts of the film that seemed undeveloped. This is true regarding the death of Mordecai’s wife, some of the street sequences, scenes on the ‘Il Ridotto’ involving the Jewish financial community, the plotting of the affair between Racele and Lorenzo and also some of the plotting around the wooing of the Lady of Belmont. It may be that what is missing includes scenes that are closer to Shakespeare.

We also enjoyed an excellent accompaniment by Stephen Horne. He likes to accompany with multi-instruments: so we had the piano keyboard and strings; a flute, an accordion, a xylophone and a hand-held harmonium.

 

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Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2016

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

This annual event runs this year from March 14th until March 20th. Among the programmed presentations are two films screening from 35 mm prints with live musical accompaniment.

On the Friday evening we have Exit Smiling Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures 1926.

Exit smiling

The film has seven reels and runs for 71 minutes. It is a comedy drama starting off in a bank with an innocent teller discharged through the machinations of his rival in romance. The film then becomes a backstage comedy with a second-rate theatrical company touring small towns, The two aspects of the plot come together in the finale. The star is Beatrice Lillie, who was already a success on London’s West End and Broadway. Lillie was successful in revues, on radio and on record. However, this was her only mainstream leading film performance. She was reckoned to have an ‘eccentric persona’. So whilst Lillie is the star she is not the romantic lead in the film. But she is its comic heart.

The film was written directed by Sam Taylor. One of his more famous films was Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923). The film also enjoyed the talents of Cedric Gibbons on the set designs: a craft person whose work graced M-G-M right through the studio period. The film will also enjoy an accompaniment by Neil Brand, one of the most talented of the regular silent film musicians.

On the final Saturday there will be Stella Dallas Samuel Goldwyn, Inc. 1925.

Stella-dallas-lobby-1925

This is an eleven reel film running 110 minutes. The source is one of the great woman melodramas, originally a 1923 popular novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. It was also successful in several stage versions and later as a popular radio series. And there is a sound film version from 1937 with Barbara Stanwyck in the title role. This film features Belle Bennett as Stella. Bennett worked right through the teens and twenties including starring in  another great literary melodrama East Lynne (1925). Both films dramatised the mother who sacrifices herself for her child. Lois Moran plays the daughter, whilst the absent father is played by Ronald Coleman. He was one of the very popular romantic leads of the period.

The production team is also a stellar affair. The director was Henry King whose fine list of titles includes Tol’able David (1921). The script is by Frances Marion, whose writing included the scenario for one of the greatest woman pictures of the decade The Wind (1928). And the cinematography was by Arthur Edeson, whose most famous film was Casablanca (1942).

The film has one of the most emotional finale’s. So the accompaniment will need to match this. Fortunately this is another fine regular silent film musician Stephen Horne.

Two very fine and worthwhile screenings.

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By the Law / Po zakonu / Dura Lex, USSR 1926

Posted by keith1942 on August 11, 2015

The prospectors

The prospectors

One critic described this film, from the Kuleshov Collective, as a ‘constructivist western’. It was adapted from a short story by Jack London by Viktor Shklovsky and Lev Kuleshov; the latter also directed the film. The plot of the film adheres fairly closely to London’s story, though there are three significant changes. The film follows from the admiration of many Soviet artists for the work of Jack London and also from a strong interest in US culture, including Hollywood film genres. These were seen as possessing a real dynamism and an embrace of many aspects of modernism.

The setting is the Yukon during the late C19th gold rush. There are only five characters, though the film adds a dog. Four men and a woman, all prospecting for gold. The original story also features Indians/Native Americans, though their role is subordinate. The film jettisons them completely. There was an opening shot of the execution of an Indian, which was left out. This is a desolate landscape for much of the time – from summer, through winter, to spring – frozen hard. The only additions to the harsh terrain are a cabin and the mine workings. For the film the exteriors were actually shot not far from Moscow.

It is very interesting to remember how the outdoor shooting in By the Law took place. We had to be in time to catch the ice flows thawing in the spring. We had a house built on the shore of the snowy river bank, and this house had to be flooded with water when the ice came into contact with it. …

First, it was necessary to work on the ice all the time. The actors’ hands and feet were scratched and bleeding. (Kuleshov).

In fact this was a low budget film, the only reason it was made. There was the small cast and few settings. Even then the production worked sparsely. The screenplay was written almost in one night.

The first major change in the film is the composition of the prospecting group. In the story we have four men, all of whom have contributed equally to the working capital. The leader is Hans Nelson, and the woman is his wife Edith, who for servicing the domestic needs of the group enjoys an equal partnership. In the film we have the Nelsons (Hans – Sergej Komarov, Edith – Aleksandra Khokhlova), the shareholders Dutchy (Fred Forell) and Harky (Porfiri Podobed); the fifth member Michael (Pyotr Galadzhev) is the group servant; Edith here works with the men on the mine. Michael will receive wages rather than a share of the finds. In the story these come from a steady flow of small amounts of gold, which amount in value to $18,000. In the film there is a sudden find of gold – by Michael! – whose value is not tabulated.

In the story violence erupts unexpectedly; this is the case in the film but it is also obvious that the inequalities between the partners and their servant are the motivation. Michael shoots Duchy and Harky. Following this he is bound by Hans and Edith. Whilst Hans wishes to carry out summary justice, Edith persuades him that they should follow ‘the law’. We observed the trio as Michael is imprisoned and watched over through the winter and then, with spring, how Edith and Hans proceed to trial, verdict and justice.

Much of the plot shows us the harshness of the artic winter. Hans’s struggles to dig graves for the two corpses in the frozen ground. He and Edith struggle to drag the bodies to the graves and inter them as a winter storm increases in violence. Then, later, as winter recedes, the land is flooded and Hans and Edith, with Michael, struggle against the waters that surround and flood the cabin.

In the story the omniscient narrator explains the character of the three main protagonists. In the film, much of this is conveyed in the mise en scène. Thus Edith is frequently seen with a small prayer book; seen in the first shot of her. She insists on reading some burial prayers over the graves as the storm howls around her and Hans. She constantly uses or refers to the same book in the cabin.

In the case of Michael we first see him with his dog and a wooden flute. We learn something from a flashback. He hails from Ireland and we see him in an earlier time with his aged mother, promising to return with money to support her. London explains this to the readers in his narrative voice.

The film uses very sharp and sometimes elliptical editing and favours angular shots. However, the chronology is straightforward and linear with the flashback fairly clearly signalled. In common with the 1920s Soviet cinema there is s strong tendency for the use of symbolism. Apart from her prayer book Edith also puts up a picture of Queen Victoria, who represents both Britain and British Law. In a title card, which may be ironic, Michael is informed that as he is Irish he is subject to British Law!

Much of the drama of the film is communicated by the acting. Michael early on, as he performs his menial tasks, suggests the class envy that motivates him. Hans also suggest an instinctive urge to violence and retribution. The standout character is Edith. Khokhlova is a very distinctive actress and this is one of her most powerful performances. The drama around the question of ‘the law’ derives much of it potency from her characterisation.

By the law dog

Then there is the dog. Unfortunately here the Soviet film mirrors that of Hollywood. The dog appears in the early scenes setting up the drama. However after the murders he more or less disappears from the plot. Then suddenly he re-appears for a scene in the sodden cabin. This is a festive dinner as spring arrives, also added for the film and reminiscent of a scene in Dostoevsky. The dog is seen licking Michael’s hand: adding to the change of mood as the imprisoned trio relax to celebrate the festivities. This is the point that we see the flashback. Then the dog disappears once more for good.

Kuleshov was the pioneer in Soviet montage and he had his own particular take on this. Rather than the discontinuities found in the films of Eisenstein, Kuleshov, with his cinematographer Konstantin Kuznecov, tends to rapid and short takes. However, like Eisenstein objects and parts of characters appear in close-up working as signifiers. Continuity flows from the plot and the title cards. Cuts between shots rarely provide a sense of the space between. The cutting is often abrupt and effectively some of the cuts work as jump cuts. Space in his films tends to collapse so that it is the changes in shot sequence that provides meaning rather than the suggested sense of the setting or landscape. Lighting is extremely important in his work. One technique he favours:

…the most advantageous lighting for the cinema is backlighting, so-called contre-jour. This light provides the opportunity to see, precisely and clearly, the silhouette of the object, provides an effect of stereoscopy and depth.

The approach is most dramatic in the climatic execution scene. The sequence has an abstracted and symbolic feel, as the characters and setting are seen more in outline: contrasting powerfully with the more realistic shots earlier in the film. The setting is dominated by a solitary tree, a tree that first appeared in the second shot of the film.

The execution.

The execution.

Kuleshov also has a distinctive approach to acting. This is most notably with his star Khoklova. This approach in some ways parallels the work of the German expressionists, in that acting seems to be an extension of the settings and objects in the film. However, Kuleshov makes very different use of light and camera. Soviet theatre had developed a dynamic approach to performance. Kuleshov develops this to create movement that is economical but authentic for the character. He describes Khokhlova in an earlier training in ‘educational etudes’ – rehearsal playlets that included the proposed montage of a finished film version.

A doctor receives a female patient. The doctor’s wife (Khokhlova) is extremely jealous. She confronts the doctor in a hysterical fit, and this fit goes on for about 150 meters, worked out in the most complex, semi-acrobatic series of movements.

This highly developed and precisely worked out acting style recurs in the most dramatic sequences inside the cabin. It reaches a crescendo in the execution scene where Khokhlova’s almost mechanical movements and stances parallel the stark outline of the set, dominated by the ‘hanging tree’.

The film follows this climax with another change to the London story. This is one that sets up both an ambiguity and a psychological frame for the characters’ actions and motivations. And it also brings back the economic to the fore of the story.

The film was popular in the USSR and well received critically abroad. Some critics in the Soviet Union thought that the film needed a stronger political slant. In fact, Kuleshov and his colleagues had sharpened the class angles of the original story: a recurring problem in London’s writings. Generally regarded as the best of Kuleshov’s surviving features, the film is powerful and involving. And it is another fine example of 1920s Soviet cinema.

Quotations from Kuleshov on Film Writings of Lev Kuleshov, translated and edited by Ronald Levaco, University of California Press, 1974.

The film was screened from 35mm prints at the 2005 and 2008 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

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