Cabiria (1914)

In the 1910s, for the most part, film as a storytelling medium was not yet very mature. Most films were static in their camerawork, and the scripts were often clumsy. Some slapstick comedy from that time can still be amusing (in moderate doses), but the dramas and “action” films of the day are mostly pretty tiresome affairs.

But there are exceptions. Cabiria, even though it is the victim of many problems of its time, is one. This Italian film was one of the first great epic dramas, with spectacular sets, masses of extras and a bombastic storyline filled with hyperbole and melodrama.

The statue of Moloch in Cabiria (1914)

The film is about the girl Cabiria, who is robbed from her home during a volcanic eruption in ancient Roman times, taken as a slave to various places around the ancient world, and finally wins her freedom when she has become a grown woman. But in reality, various sub-plots are much more interesting, such as the story of Fulvio Axilla and his slave Maciste. Truth be told, the film is pretty confusing with all its characters and sub-plots, and sometimes too much, sometimes too little, information conveyed in the title cards.

The poor girl Cabiria is barely even treated as a personality. In the first half of the film, she is dragged and carried around as if she was a thing. In the second half, we get to see a bit more of her as she has grown up, but even then she does not do much to give a lasting impression.

Another character in this film is much more interesting, both due to the actor Bartolomeo Pagano and his portrayal of the character in the film, and due to the character’s later on-screen career. The character is called Maciste, and prior to watching this film, I had noticed that name, as it often appeared in Italian sword-and-sandal films from the early 1960s. But the English-language dubs of those films often used other names, such as Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops (Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi) or Colossus and the Headhunters (Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste). I wondered about this sometimes: Who was this mysterious Maciste, who never got to keep his name in translation? Well, it turns out that Cabiria was his first appearance, and that he was later to star in 26(!) further silents (all with Pagano in the title role) and another 25 films in a revival in the early 1960s.

I have not been able to find any other silents with Maciste at the Internet Archive, but there are several interesting 1960s Macistes. Perhaps I will review one of them in the future.

The version of Cabiria I link to is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but unfortunately it has no soundtrack. If you feel that your life is incomplete without sound, then you can choose between a version with an electronic score and one with piano music. I personally prefer the latter in this case.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in cinematic history. For its time, the film is an epic masterpiece, but I have to be frank and admit that it has aged quite considerably during the more than hundred years that have passed since it premiered. Do watch it, and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, but do not expect too much. It is still a great piece considering its age.

Umberto Mozzato, Gina Marangoni and Bartolomeo Pagano (as Maciste) in Cabiria (1914)

Cabiria
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Year: 1914
Language: English
Running time: 2 h 3 min
Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Stars: Umberto Mozzato, Bartolomeo Pagano
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)

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St Martin’s Lane (1938)

I wonder if I would have ever discovered Charles Laughton if it had not been for the Internet Archive (search this blog for “Laughton” and you will find a number of his many great performances). Sure, I would have seen a couple of his classics, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and then I would have dismissed him as typecast. Typecast? Ha! Nothing could be more wrong.

Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton in St Martin's Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938)

St Martin’s Lane, also known as Sidewalks of London, is yet another example of Laughton’s versatility. Here he plays Charles, a “busker”, essentially a sort of street musician, making his living by playing for the people standing in line for the theatres along St Martin’s Lane in London. He discovers the young and talented Libby (Vivien Leigh) and not only makes her part of his act, but also gives her a place to stay.

Libby pays him back by saying good-bye at first opportunity for a break on the big stages, and as she goes on to ever greater fame, Charles sinks lower and lower into mediocrity and alcoholism.

Laughton and Leigh, and also Rex Harrison as Libby’s playboy sponsor, all make excellent performances, even though it is rumoured that Laughton and Leigh got on each others’ nerves during production.

This film is best enjoyed for the high-quality drama and acting. The story is good and captivating, but the ending is perhaps a little bit dissatisfying. Ah, well. This piece is still well worth watching.

Vivien Leigh in St Martin's Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938)

St Martin’s Lane
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Tim Whelan
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (814 M)

The Stranger (1946)

An agent for a war crimes commission decides, in desperation, to let a German war criminal out of prison in the hopes that he may lead them to another German who committed atrocious acts against humanity during World War II. This other German is suspected to hide under assumed identity somewhere in the United States. He must be found before he can commit new crimes.

Orson Welles and Loretta Young in The Stranger (1946)

Thus begins Orson Welles’ The Stranger, a film where Welles both played one of the leading roles (the German in hiding) and directed. It is one of rather few Orson Welles films that can be found at the Internet Archive, and for that reason alone deserves our attention.

This is a typical film noir in many ways, such as its dramatic camera angles and lighting, and also the script which is full of cynism and human evil.

The version of the film I link to here is an excellent quality MPEG4. If you strive for nothing short of perfection, then there is also a Matroska copy made from the same source, but it is almost five times as large, and I doubt if you will notice the difference.

This film is best enjoyed for Orson Welles, even though many of the supporting cast are also very good. Welles is, as always, excellent in his acting as well as in his directing. And if the plot happens to be just a bit too improbable for this to be any of Welles’ best films, then that just goes to show that this film is a child of its time.

Orson Welles in The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Orson Welles
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (963 M)

Under the Red Robe (1937)

It seems to me that there is often something special about films set during the period of king Louis XIII (with Cardinal Richelieu in the head of government). I guess it is the gilt from The Three Musketeers, with all of its nice adaptations, that rubs off a bit. One such film that can be found at the Internet Archive is Under the Red Robe.

Conrad Veidt in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

This romantic adventure finds the swordsman Gil de Berault in trouble. He is in danger of being executed for duelling, but the sly Cardinal Richelieu gives him an opportunity for pardon if he can find and capture a rebellious protestant. de Berault eagerly sets off to do the task, but as the plot progresses, he is about to find obstacles he had not anticipated.

The director of this typical genre piece was Victor Sjöström (sometimes called “Victor Seastrom” in Hollywood, as also in this British production). Sjöström started making film in Sweden, where he directed simple melodramas in the early 1910s. He quickly moved to more advanced topics, and made several timeless classics, such as The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and The Phantom Carriage (1921). Sjöström was recruited to Hollywood, where he also made several very good silents, but in the early 1930s, he moved back to Europe. He still acted and produced films, but for some reason he directed very few of his own in the sound era. Under the Red Robe, his last film, is nowhere near as groundbreaking as some of his classic works, but it is a nice piece of craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is pretty blurry in places, and contrast is poor overall. I know of no better online version, however.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of either Conrad Veidt (de Berault) or Raymond Massey (Richelieu). Both are very good, even though I think Massey (always an enjoyable and dedicated actor) perhaps overacts a bit at times. The female lead, Annabella, is given first billing in the credits, but even though she is also good as the sister of the religious rebel, she is mostly forgotten nowadays.

Conrad Veidt and Annabella in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

Under the Red Robe
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Annabella
Image quality: Acceptabe
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (577 M)

The Scar (1948)

There are several very good film noirs at the Internet Archive. Since I have previously only written about five of them, the latest over a year ago – the “historical noir thriller” The Black Book, which is not exactly a “pure” noir – it is about time for another. The turn has therefore come to the exellent The Scar, originally titled Hollow Triumph.

Paul Henreid in The Scar / Hollow Triumph (1948)

When John Muller is released from prison, he and his companions decide to rob a casino. The heist goes awry, however, and he is now a wanted man. The casino owner wants to get even. In a stroke of good luck, Muller meets a psychoanalyst who is his doppelgänger, except for a large scar on one cheek. He decides to take over the man’s identity in order to disappear from his hunters. But this is a noir. Things are bound to go wrong somehow.

Just like any good example of the genre, this film is ripe with suspense and drama. The minds of most people who populate its black-and-white world are as dark as the dramatic shadows falling across the screen. The actors are really good, too, so even though the plot has some not so brilliant moments, this is not to be missed if you are a fan of the genre.

This film is best enjoyed whenever you need something to make you happy. Even though film noir tend to be pretty downbeat in many ways, they never fail to improve my mood.

Paul Henreid in The Scar / Hollow Triumph (1948)

The Scar
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Year: 1948
Running time: 1 h 41 min
Director: Steve Sekely
Stars: Paul Henreid
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (900 M)

October 1917 (1928)

Tomorrow, it was exactly one hundred years ago that the Russian October revolution started (Russia was using the Julian calendar at the time; hence the confusion about the specific month). That was the final stage of the Russian revolution, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and, some forty years later, to the Cold War. And even though the Soviet Union has since been dismantled, it is no great exaggeration to say that those events still contribute to shaping the world into what it is. The most famous film about these events is Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917, perhaps more commonly known as October: Ten Days that Shook the World, or in Russian Октябрь (Десять дней, которые потрясли мир).

The cruiser Aurora in Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

A great many of Sergein Eisenstein’s films are connected, one way or another, with the causes and effects of the Russian revolution. Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, deal with events that in the official communist history writing are essential steps on the way to the forming of the Soviet Union, while films like The General Line (1929) detail the wonders that the revolution led to. October 1917 is the essence and the focal work of these two themes, as it deals directly with the revolution itself, and the events surrounding the Bolshevik uprising.

I am sure that a historian would have much to say about the plot of the film. Like any other Soviet film dealing with history or communism in any way, the historic events have naturally been adapted to fit into the communist ideological perspective. The first Russian revolution, the February revolution (which, for the same reasons, was in March, Gregorian time), is briefly depicted, then the depravity and corruption during the next few months, as the new government turned out just as bad as the Tsarist regime. Then, after Lenin has convinced the Bolsheviks that action is necessary, the events during the night between October 25 and October 26 are told in some detail. We see how the cruiser Aurora moves up to the place where the cannons could be fired as a starting signal. We also see how the cossacks and the female Death Squadron are won over to the just cause, and many other key events.

This film is best enjoyed for Eisenstein’s artistic and skillful telling of a story, whether historically accurate or not. His amazing cutting and use of imagery and metaphor must be experienced by anyone who has the least interest in cinematic history. And though I would recommend Battleship Potemkin first if you want to watch just one Eisenstein film (especially considering how much better that Internet Archive copy is), October 1917 is should also be on your to-see list.

Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

October
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: English
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (689 M)

The Night America Trembled (1957)

H. G. Wells’ groundbreaking 19th Century science fiction novel The War of the Worlds is fascinating, not only in itself, but just as much because of all the adaptations and sequels it has spawned. Not only has it resulted in six feature films (the 1953 version is a classic), an infamous TV series, an amazing music album by Jeff Wayne and countless comic adaptations. Perhaps most well-known of all is the 1938 radio dramatization by Orson Welles, an adaptation that allegedly created mass panic (historical consensus nowadays seems to be that it was not quite as bad as all that). Today is the 79th anniversary of that broadcast.

Panic or no panic, the radio drama, together with the events following, has itself been adapted on numerous occasions. Perhaps the first such adaptation was an episode of the CBS TV series Studio One, titled The Night America Trembled.

Warren Beatty and Warren Oates in Studio One: The Night America Trembled (1957)

After a brief introduction, the episode begins with a car racing along a deserted highway. We hear the radio. A voice is talking about the ongoing invasion. The car takes another bend, but too fast. A crash, then everything goes silent. All we see is a spinning wheel.

Through the rest of the episode, we get to follow a number of different people. We see and hear their reactions, and we also get to follow important events in their lives, as they play out to the background of, and sometimes augmented by, the radio.

The cast of this adaptation of an adaptation contains several young actors who would later rise to various levels of fame, not least Warren Beatty and James Coburn. Orson Welles, who both directed and played the main character in the original play, is here played by Robert Blackburn. However, Welles is not once mentioned by name.

In addition to The Night America Trembled, the Internet Archive contains several interesting subjects connected to The War of the Worlds, although not so many on film. A short selection: The original novel The War of the Worlds is a must read; there is also a LibriVox recording. Edison’s Conquest of Mars was one of the first sequels, though truth be told it is a pretty terrible read; again there is a LibriVox recording. Mercury Theatre on the Air: The War of the Worlds is Orson Welles’ original radio play, well worth listening to, and a Universal Studios newsreel from the day after contains some snippets from a press conference with Orson Welles; in itself a classic. Another radio drama is based on the 1953 movie, and with the same principal actors. You can also read the comic adaptation in Classics Illustrated (1955); one of the classic comic versions. Then there is a 1984 video game based on Jeff Wayne’s musical version – expect neither breathtaking graphics nor perfect surround sound. And there is more. Much more.

This episode is best enjoyed perhaps not foremost for its description of Welles’ radio drama and its consequences – as a historical documentary it is sorely lacking. It is much more interesting because it reflects a willingness in society to believe that things are generally much worse than they really are. Many politicians built their careers on this phenomenon, and so to some extent did Orson Welles. In addition, though the technical quality of the available copy leaves something to be desired, the drama is pretty well produced. It will hold your attention for an hour’s entertainment, and it is an excellent example of 1950s American television.

Alexander Scourby and Robert Blackburn (as Orson Welles) in Studio One: The Night America Trembled (1957)

The Night America Trembled
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Year: 1957
Running time: 59 min
Director: Tom Donovan
Stars: Edward R. Murrow
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (320×240)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (247 M)