Waxworks (1924)

aka Das Wachsfigurenkabinett

2020 #232
Paul Leni | 82 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent | PG

Waxworks

Often billed as the first portmanteau horror movie, Waxworks only fits the bill in the loosest sense: its “three stories” are actually two stories and a dream sequence, the first (and longest) of which is, if anything, a swashbuckling farce.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The film begins with a young writer (William Dieterle, who would later become a Hollywood director, responsible for 1938 Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola, amongst others) who is hired to pen backstories for the four statues in a carnival wax museum. Yes, four — the filmmakers ran out of money before they could film the fourth tale. As he begins writing, into each story he injects both himself and the museum’s curator’s daughter (Olga Belajeff) as his love interest.

The first tale is set in Arabian Nights-style Bagdad (IMDb says this part inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make The Thief of Bagdad, but a quick look at their release dates shows Fairbanks’ film came out months before Waxworks), and concerns a lecherous Caliph (Emil Jannings) who sets his sights on wooing a baker’s wife. It’s quite a sexualised segment all round: the baker kneads dough so erotically it sends his wife (and himself) all aquiver (I doubt it’ll do the same for many viewers, but it clearly works for them); later, the disguised Caliph sneaks into the baker’s home and spies the wife lying in bed with her back to him, and his gaze (and, by extension, ours) clearly lingers on her bottom (clothed, lest you think the film is uncommonly explicit). I guess the characters were too busy perving to apply logic to their decision-making: when the baker is too wary to slip a ring off the sleeping Caliph’s finger, he decides to chop his whole arm off instead. Totally reasonable. Meanwhile, why is the all-powerful Caliph worried about being found out by a lowly baker? Indeed, why’s he so worried that his guards will know he sneaks out at night? He’s the boss! On the bright side, there’s some beautiful and striking Expressionist set design; an exciting chase scene, set to dramatic percussive music in the new score by Bernd Schultheis, Olav Lervik, and Jan Kohl; and the wife’s save at the climax is a cunning twist. But, overall, it’s a bit of a daft farce.

Arabian nights

The second story stars Conrad Veidt as a Rasputin-esque Ivan the Terrible, who revels in killing prisoners in the Kremlin’s dungeons with an ultra-specifically-timed poison. If that wasn’t clue enough, this segment is thematically much darker. A bride’s father invites Ivan to attend the wedding, then the Czar insists they switch roles to travel there and the dad is killed by mistaken assassins. Then his arrow-pierced corpse is unceremoniously dumped on the front steps of his home while the wedding banquet continues inside; and when daughter sneaks away to grieve over his body, Ivan has some guards snatch her; and when the angry groom tries to attack Ivan, he’s ordered off to the torture chamber. Puts people who complain about rain on their wedding day into perspective, doesn’t it? Veidt is great as the deranged Ivan, although he’s so mentally unstable that it borders on comical. The finale doesn’t make much sense (he lets the girl go… then doesn’t?), but the denouement delivers a neat and fitting fate to Czar Terrible.

The third and final story begins with just five minutes of screen time left, so you know it’s not going to be wholly-realised tale. (Incidentally, the original German version of the film is lost, leaving us with only the English version, which is about 25 minutes shorter. What’s in those minutes? If anyone knows, they’re not saying online (to the best of my knowledge). Perhaps there was more linking material in the museum? Perhaps the third ‘story’ really was a whole story? Perhaps the first two were once even longer, though it’s hard to imagine how much more there could be to do in either of them — maybe the cuts were for the best…) Anyway, the third segment is the aforementioned dream sequence, in which the waxwork of Jack the Ripper comes to life and pursues the writer and his love (they met earlier that day but already seem pretty committed) through a series of highly impressionist sets, their disjointed oddity exacerbated by differently-aligned multiple exposures. It’s Expressionism to the max, and it’s suitably effective as a chiller. But, of course, it’s all a dream… and that’s suddenly the end!

Ivan's terrible, but Veidt's great

Like so many of the portmanteau films that have followed in its wake, Waxworks struggles to be the sum of its parts. It’s ultimately a bit underwhelming, with the first two stories being slower than necessary (and this is the cut version!) before giving way to a rushed finale. Make no mistake, there’s some very nice stuff in here, but it comes in bits and pieces. It’s a welcome watch for fans of silent cinema or early horror (with caveats about its “horror” content duly noted), and there are enough good parts to recommend it, but I wouldn’t argue it’s a classic in any enduring sense (beyond its obvious influence as a stepping stone to future portmanteau films).

3 out of 5

Waxworks is streaming on AMPLIFY! until 22nd November, and is released on Blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema Series today.

Also, new on AMPLIFY! today are…

  • what sounds like a German riff on Whiplash, but with violins, in The Audition
  • a documentary about the drawbacks of algorithms, Coded Bias
  • the UK premiere of Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling
  • Catalan coming-of-age drama The Innocence
  • and unusual found footage documentary My Mexican Bretzel.

(If you don’t know, “bretzel” is the German word for “pretzel”.)

Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

aka La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc / Jeanne d’Arc’s lidelse og død

2015 #69
Carl Th. Dreyer | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | France / silent (Danish) | PG

The Passion of Joan of ArcWidely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time (look at the lists!), Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s French-produced silent movie depicts the last hours in the life of Joan of Arc (Falconetti), a nineteen-year-old who is on trial by the Church for claiming God instructed her to fight to free France from British rule. You probably know it doesn’t turn out well for her.

Such a summary, while not inaccurate, is almost disingenuous. “This is by all odds the least religious and least political Joan ever made,” write Jean and Dale D. Drum (in a piece included in the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release), because Dreyer was explicitly not interested in the political or theological issues of the trial, which he felt were no longer relevant by the 20th Century. As he wrote in 1950, “I have tried to show that people in the medieval tragedy were, behind their historical costumes, people just as you and I are, caught up in the web of political and religious opinions and prejudices of the time.” With those religious and political issues set aside, Dreyer was instead focused on the universality of Joan’s experience as a human being. He was attempting to relate the tale — and, more importantly, the emotions — of a young woman sure of her convictions but persecuted for them.

Jeanne d'ArcDreyer based his telling on the written records of Joan’s trial. Although that’s grand for claims of historical accuracy, it’s hard to deny that silent cinema is ill-suited to thoroughly portraying something dialogue-heavy. There are many things silent film can — and, in this case, does — do very well indeed, but representing extensive verbal debate isn’t one of them. Bits where the judges argue amongst themselves — in silence, as far as the viewer is concerned — leave you longing to know what it is they’re so het up about. Sometimes it becomes clear from how events transpire; other times, not so much.

Dreyer’s faithfulness was not in aid of precisely representing what happened, however. For instance, the film takes place over a day or two, at most, while in reality Joan’s imprisonment, trial and execution took most of a year. Events were condensed so as to provide “a kind of bird’s-eye view, where all the unnecessary elements disappear” (Dreyer, quoted by Drum & Drum). This was partly in aid of what Dreyer described as “psychological realism”: rather than slavish fidelity to the facts of the era, it was about accurately and universally conveying the human experience.

According to Chris Marker (also in Masters of Cinema’s booklet), the aesthetic element of achieving this goal is one reason the film has endured so. Dreyer’s efforts to make the events seem ‘present’, as opposed to historical, works to make the film eternally present; they help it to transcend not only the 15th Century, but also the more recognisable trappings of “a silent-era movie”. The actors wear no make-up, perform in sparsely-decorated setsneutral costumes on sparsely-decorated sets, and are almost entirely shot in close-ups — all elements that avoid the usual grandiosity of historical movies, both in the silent era and since. What we perceive as being ‘grand’ changes over time (things that were once “epic” can become small scale in the face of increasing budgets, for instance); pure simplicity, however, does not age much.

The near-constant use of close-ups, in particular, is one of the film’s most renowned elements. Dreyer was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, feeling this was an area film could excel in a way theatre obviously couldn’t. For Dreyer’s goal of giving us access to Joan’s very soul, it’s arguably the perfect medium — eyes are the window, and all that. This hinges on Falconetti’s acting. In her only major screen appearance, she delivers a performance that is still considered one of the greatest ever. It’s hard to pinpoint what she’s doing, but her wide eyes and almost crazed expression convey more subtlety than that sketched summary might imply. She is Joan, you feel, which again was Dreyer’s goal: he wanted his cast to inhabit their characters; to be them. He insisted the words from the trial record were spoken accurately (even though they obviously couldn’t be heard by the audience) and he built a whole 15th Century city set so that the actors might feel they were really there. As the film is shot largely in close-ups, that feels like a stupendous waste of money; and it led to the crew having to drill holes in walls and dig pits in the floor in order to get the shots Dreyer desired. But hey, whatever works.

JudgesThe actors playing the judges may be less individually memorable than Joan, but it’s their conflict — the personal battle between Joan and these men, as Dreyer saw it — that drives the film. Dreyer believed the judges felt genuine sympathy for Joan; that they did what they did not because of politics (they represented England, and she had led several successful campaigns against the Brits) but because of their devout belief in religious dogma. Dreyer says he tried to show this in the film, though it strikes me the judges still aren’t portrayed too kindly: they regularly seem contemptuous of Joan, and are outright duplicitous at times. Maybe that’s just religion for you.

Despite being one of the film’s most famed elements, Joan isn’t entirely constructed of close-ups. When Dreyer breaks free of such constraints, the dynamic camerawork on display transcends many people’s view of silent cinema. A swinging pan as maces are dropped from a window was a personal highlight, but there are some great, dramatic push-ins during the trial. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the editing as well: it’s surprisingly fast-cut at times, and the use of montage for some sequences (particularly in the torture chamber and the epic climax) makes for stunning visual cinema.

Reportedly Dreyer’s preferred soundtrack was complete silence, which makes sense given his other aims and views on depicting realism rather than interpretation. That sounds a little like an endurance test, however, and so of course the film is usually presented with a score. In the US, it’s now routinely accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light. Clearly it’s a noteworthy soundtrack because it feels like the vast majority of reviews and comments online make reference to it. Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray doesn’t include it, What's at stake?however, so I have no opinion. Instead, they offer two alternatives. On the correct-speed 20fps version, there’s a piano score by silent film composer Mie Yanashita. Apparently this is the only existing score set to 20fps, and Masters of Cinema spent so much restoring the picture that there was no money left to commission an original score. Personally, I don’t think they needed to. Yanashita’s is classically styled, which works best for the style of the film, and it heightens the mood of some sequences without being overly intrusive, by and large. Compared to Dreyer’s preferred viewing method, of course it affects the viewing experience — how could it not, when it marks out scenes (with pauses or a change of tone) and emphasises the feel of sequences (with changes in tempo, for instance). That’s what film music is for, really, so obviously that’s what it does. Would the film be purer in silence? Maybe. Better? That’s a matter of taste. This particular score is very good, though.

The Masters of Cinema disc also includes the film in a 24fps version, which is how it used to be presented most of the time (what with that being the standard speed for so long; it’s also the version Einhorn’s score was written for). I watched just the climax at that speed, and I’d agree with the scholarly consensus that it’s clearly running too fast. If it was the only version you knew, you might not notice; but in direct comparison, people are clearly moving unnaturally fast and the pacing of camera moves and edits feels off, like there’s not quite long enough to appreciate what you’re being shown. At 24fps the Blu-ray includes an avant-garde score by Loren Connors. It feels apocalyptic and so, in its own way, is somewhat appropriate, but it’s far too dissonant for my taste. I can’t imagine enduring it for the entire film, even at the commensurately shorter running time. Silent London’s review describes it as “tedious and barbaric… insensitive and intrusive”, and advises first-time viewers to “steer well clear.” I concur.

Close-upSome viewers describe how they’ve found The Passion of Joan of Arc to be moving, affecting, or life-changing on a par with a religious experience. I wouldn’t go that far, but then I’m not religious so perhaps not so easily swayed. As a dramatic, emotional, film-viewing experience, however, it is highly effective. As Dreyer wrote in 1950, “my film on Joan of Arc has incorrectly been called an avant-garde film, and it absolutely is not. It is not a film just for theoreticians of film, but a film of general interest for everyone and with a message for every open-minded human being.” A feat of visual storytelling unique to cinema, it struck me as an incredible movie, surprisingly accessible, and, nearly 90 years after it was made, timeless.

5 out of 5

The Passion of Joan of Arc was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 14th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Also of note: this is the 1,000th feature film review I’ve published. (For what it’s worth, 2015 #112 will be 100 Films #1000. I’ll probably reach that in August.)

Forty Guns (1957)

2015 #61
Samuel Fuller | 76 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

Forty GunsWestern with Barbara Stanwyck as a powerful landowner, and commander of the titular posse, whose bullying brother, Brockie, is consequently allowed to run riot over the town. Enter lawman Griff (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers, whose moves to bring Brockie in line kickstart a chain of ruinous events.

Writer-director Samuel Fuller tells his brilliantly constructed tale in brisk and never dull fashion, finding time to sketch interesting characters and, alongside cinematographer Joseph Biroc and editor Gene Fowler Jr., craft much memorable imagery.

(For a more insightful and informative analysis, be sure to read this at Films on the Box.)

4 out of 5

Forty Guns is released on Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema tomorrow.

Touch of Evil (1958)

1998 Reconstructed Version

2013 #58
Orson Welles | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Touch of EvilA bomb is stuck to the underside of a car. As the vehicle pulls away, the camera drifts up into the sky, and proceeds to follow the automobile through the streets of a small Mexican border town, until it crosses the border into the US… and explodes. It’s probably the most famous long take in film history, and probably the thing Touch of Evil is most widely known for; that, and it being one of the most commonly-cited points at which the classic film noir era comes to an end.

So who planted the bomb? Who was their target? And why? None of those questions matter. I’m sure they’re answered, but I don’t recall what those answers were, because they’re not what the film is about. What it’s about is Charlton Heston vs Orson Welles. The former is Vargas, a righteous Mexican drugs enforcement officer who witnesses the bombing while out walking with his new American wife. The latter is Quinlan, the policeman charged with finding the culprit — and he isn’t an honest copper. When Quinlan works out who he thinks is guilty, he makes sure there’s the evidence to back that up. And I don’t mean by doing thorough police work. Vargas catches him more-or-less in the act; Quinlan won’t allow himself to be exposed. It’s a game of cat and mouse; at stake, not just two men’s reputations, but justice and the law (not the same thing); and just waiting to get tangled in the middle, Vargas’ new wife — sweet, innocent Janet Leigh.

This is not film noir as many think they know it. Instead of a doggedly determined wisecracking PI solving a slightly seedy case, Touch of Evil is suffused with a sweaty and disquieting atmosphere. Vargas and his wifeIt’s like a terrible fever dream, with events and characters that sometimes seem disconnected, but nonetheless interweave through a dense plot. In this sense Welles puts us quite effectively in the shoes of Vargas and his wife — out of our depth, out of our comfort zone, out of control, struggling to keep up and keep afloat. It might be unpleasant if it wasn’t so engrossing.

Similarly uncomfortable are the film’s moral implications. Well, possibly. In the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release, French critics François Truffaut and André Bazin both assert that Welles’ Quinlan, while ostensibly the villain, is really a hero; that though he technically breaks the law, he’s morally right to do so. Essentially — or in Truffaut’s case, explicitly — they are defending policemen who fabricate evidence to ensure a conviction. Unfortunately for all their so-called intellectualising, Welles completely disagrees: “The personal element in the film is the hatred I feel for the way the police abuse their power… The things said by Vargas are what I would say myself… that’s the angle the film should be seen from; everything Vargas says, I say.”

Amusingly, Bazin is indeed forced to admit that “in the interviews which he gave me… Welles challenged this interpretation. He maintains that his moral position is unequivocal and he condemns [Quinlan] absolutely”. Meanwhile, Truffaut’s praise-filled essay asserts that, in the film’s ending, “[Vargas’] sneakiness and mediocrity have triumphed over [Quinlan’s] intuition and absolute justice.” Elsewhere, Welles summarises that “it’s a mistake to think I approve of QuinlanQuinlan at all… there is not the least spark of genius in him; if there does seem to be one, I’ve made a mistake.” You can get pretentious about it all you want, and bring to bear political views that the film doesn’t support (after all, within the film Quinlan is punished for his crimes and the “mediocre” (Truffaut’s word) moral hero triumphs), but sometimes a spade is a spade; sometimes a villain is a villain; sometimes your disgusting moral perspective isn’t being covertly supported by a film that seems to condemn it.

Welles:

What I want to say in the film is this: that in the modern world we have to choose between the law’s morality, and the morality of simple justice, that is to say between lynching someone and letting him go free. I prefer a murderer to go free, than to have the police arrest him by mistake. Quinlan doesn’t so much want to bring the guilty to justice, as to murder them in the name of the law, and that’s a fascist argument, a totalitarian argument contrary to the tradition of human law and justice such as I understand it.

So that’s the end of that.

Welles’ beliefs about filmmaking were similarly forthright, stating that “all of the eloquence of film is created in the editing room” — the images were important, but the real art was in how they were placed together in the edit. It must have been especially hard for him, then, that so many of his films were “violently torn from [his] hands”: as of 1965, he says only Citizen Kane, Othello and Don Quixote were movies he’d been allowed to edit to his own specification (and that last one barely counts).

a 58-page memo?Notably and obviously absent from that list is Touch of Evil. It was taken away from Welles during the editing process, and though he submitted an infamous 58-page memo of suggestions after seeing a later rough cut, only some were followed in the version ultimately released. Time has brought change, however, and there are now multiple versions of Touch of Evil for the viewer to choose from; but whereas history often resolves one version of a film to be the definitive article, it’s hard to know which that is in this case. Indeed, it’s so contentious that Masters of Cinema went so far as to include five versions on their 2011 Blu-ray (it would’ve been six, but Universal couldn’t/wouldn’t supply the final one in HD.) The version I chose to watch, dubbed the “Reconstructed Version”, tries to recreate Welles’ vision, using footage from the theatrical cut and a preview version discovered in the ’70s to follow his notes. Despite the best intentions of its creators, this can only ever be an attempt at restoring what Welles wanted. Equally, although it was the version originally released, the theatrical cut ignores many of the director’s wishes — so as neither version was finished by Welles, surely the one created by people trying to enact his wishes is preferable to the one assembled by people who only took his ideas on advisement?

But that’s not all, poor viewer! There’s also the issue of the film’s aspect ratio: Welles was forced to shoot the film for projection at 1.85:1, but he did so on the understanding that an open matte 1.37:1 version would be shown on TV. He penned an article the same year as Touch of Evil’s release, called “Ribbon of Dreams”, in which he firmly advocates the Academy ratio and shows a strong distaste for widescreen (reading it today, it’s reminiscent of and comparable to Christopher Nolan’s comments on the film vs digital debate). With that considered, the full screen version would seem the preferable choice. It's enough to drive you to drinkTo quote from Master of Cinema’s booklet, “the familiar Wellesian framing appears in 1.37:1: indeed, the “world” of the film setting emerges with little or no empty space at the top and bottom of the frame, almost certainly beyond mere coincidence.” There are things to recommend the widescreen experience (“a more tightly-wound, claustrophobic atmosphere”), and undoubtedly the debate will continue… and such is the wonders of the modern film fan that, rather than having to make do with someone else’s decision on what to put out, all the alternatives are at our fingertips.

Obviously I can’t speak for all the different cuts of Touch of Evil, but considering its constituent elements, it’s hard to imagine a version that isn’t complex, thought-provoking, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, and all-round an impressive work of cinema.

5 out of 5

Touch of Evil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

Die Puppe (1919)

aka The Doll

2010 #5
Ernst Lubitsch | 64 mins | DVD | PG

Die PuppeFrom the very start, Die Puppe sets out its stall (literally) as being something a bit special. The first sequence sees director Ernst Lubitsch himself unpack and assemble a doll’s house set and two dolls, which then become life-size and the dolls — now humans — the first characters we meet. It’s a neat framing device, a joke in itself, and some kind of early commentary on the role of a director.

From this point on, Die Puppe is a riot. Yes, some of it is distinctly old fashioned — an early chase scene, for example, sees Lancelot pursued by 40 desperate women, his mother, his uncle and the latter’s servant, back and forth and round in circles in a cartoonish fashion — and yet, even leaving aside allowances for it being 91 years old, there’s something wholly amiable about even these now-familiar proceedings.

And that’s just some of it, because Lubitsch doesn’t pass up any chance for a gag. Take the scene where Hilarius, the doll’s inventor, returns to his workshop to fetch the doll, who at that moment is actually his daughter in disguise. The point of the scene is conveyed — Hilarius accepts the deception. Except he also decides she needs more paint on her lips, which he dutifully applies. Or the pantomime horses that pull a carriage… but rather than ignore them, Lubitsch has the driver have to re-apply one’s tail. And so on. This constant expression of humour, working at every level from intellectual wit down to slapstick tomfoolery, means that even if one element has been done to death in the past near-century, there’ll be several other moments or scenes to compensate.

Even more so than in Ich möchte kein Mann sein, one could easily fill a whole review listing the great bits. Like when Lancelot is initially presented with an array of dolls, like a bizarre early-20th-century brothel with Autons for whores. Or the vulturous relatives, dividing up items while the Baron lies on his deathbed, and having the gall to accuse him of bad planning when they can’t decide who should have a vase that’s promptly broken. Or the broadly satirical monks with their ‘meagre’ meals, unwillingness to share, and incessant greed. And, in the vein of things-you-might-not-expect-from-this-era, there’s a great gag about an instruction manual. It’s a constant array of delights, and, also as in Ich möchte…, nothing outstays its welcome — every sequence is mined for its full comic potential, but Lubitsch wisely moves on before it can become repetitive or stale.

Lubitsch’s playfulness extends to the medium itself. He uses camera masks and wipes to focus on specific areas, breaking free of the 4:3 box to create different compositions, revealing parts of the frame on a delay, illustrating dream sequences, and more. There are ‘special effects’ that one could only achieve with a camera, like Hilarius’ hair changing colour, the balloon-flying sequence, a ghostly dream, and so on. And the irrepressibly cheeky young apprentice, played brilliantly by Gerhard Ritterband, routinely breaks the fourth wall to air his grievances to the audience.

And I haven’t even mentioned Ossi Oswalda, who gives another good comic turn as both the titular doll and her real-life inspiration. In his essay accompanying the Masters of Cinema edition, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky summarises her appeal (some of it, at any rate) so well that I may as well just quote from it: “Her comedy isn’t just funny to watch — it’s inviting, like a friend who cracks a joke and then asks you to tell one too. She begs a like-minded idiocy from the audience.” It is, I think, a point that’s even more applicable to Ich möchte kein Mann sein, but it stands well enough here.

Talking of this specific edition, I understand that Bernard Wrigley’s new score has come under fire from some sources (namely, Sight & Sound, though I’ve yet to read that review myself). Maybe their reviewer has a genuine complaint, but I thought that Wrigley’s score was for the most part perfectly lovely. It’s only flaw is that it often falls silent for a few uncomfortable seconds, reminding the viewer that ‘silent films’ should be anything but. Still, this is as minor a complaint as it sounds.

The Lubitsch in Berlin box set was a complete blind buy for me (as this series of reviews will attest), but these first two films alone easily justify it. Die Puppe, in particular, is simply outstanding.

5 out of 5

Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.