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)

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The Black Book (1949)

This week’s film is best known as Reign of Terror, and it is so listed at the Internet Archive. However, it was also widely distributed as The Black Book, and it is that title which is used on the actual copy at the archive.

Robert Cummings in The Black Book / Reign of Terror (1949)

The plot of this film is fairly intricate; perhaps at times too much so, as rather too many things are left unexplained or unresolved. D’Aubigny is sent to Paris in order to thwart Robespierre, who is executing his political enemies one by one, as well as some friends, for whom he no longer has any use. Robespierre plans to make himself dictator, but he has lost his Black Book, with the details of those he wishes to execute. It must be found, or all is lost. He gives the mission to judge Duval, but Duval has been killed by D’Aubigny, who now impersonates him. Does this seem a bit overworked? It is only the beginning, and simplified, at that.

The actors are all good, and some are excellent. My personal favourite is Arnold Moss as chief of Robespierre’s secret police.

Made shortly after World War II, I cannot entirely escape the suspicion that the film may have been partly a political comment on Hitler and Mussolini. The European setting and Robespierre’s greed for power seem to suggest as much.

The Black Book was made at the height of the Film Noir movement. It uses much of the typical lighting and camerawork of Noir, and the protagonist is also in many ways your typical cynical and streetwise guy. The historical setting, however, makes this a sort of genre blend, and it is not always classified as a true Noir.

This film is best enjoyed as long as one does not try to analyse too much. The story twists along at a good pace and excitement is always kept up. Just sit back and allow yourself to get carried away.

The Black Book / Reign of Terror (1949)

The Black Book
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Year: 1949
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Robert Cummings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.1 G)

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney. That is all that really needs to be said, and the review could end here. But perhaps a few things about the film The Penalty should be added, just for clarity.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The plot is actually very interesting, even without Chaney’s magnificent interpretation. A young boy gets both his legs amputated by mistake. As he grows up, unloved and unloving, he gets involved with the criminal underworld, eventually rising to become a minor but ruthless crime lord, nicknamed Blizzard, and with aspirations for greatness. He has many young girls among his underlings, and his favourite gets to pedal his piano (since his handicap prevents him from doing so himself). The police has nothing substantial on him, so they decide to send their best female agent. Meanwhile, Blizzard is planning revenge on the doctor who amputated his legs, and on his beautiful sculptor daughter.

Even though it tends to get a bit melodramatic at times, this plot along with the crew’s skillful work are almost enough to raise it to the level of memorable contemporary pieces, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, The Mark of Zorro or Klostret i Sendomir. But then along comes Chaney and quite by himself elevates the whole thing to the level of masterpiece.

This film is best enjoyed for Chaney’s brilliant acting. He is in total control at every moment. Someone compared him with the Robert De Niro of silent film, and there is some truth in that. Not only because of the acting, but also because of his absolute devotion to each role. For this film, he built a contraption that tied his legs up so that he looks totally convincingly amputated. It is said that it was so painful that he could only wear it for ten minutes at a stretch, and still the man could act better than most of today’s stars.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (622 M)

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which I wrote about last week, was to my knowledge the first cooperation between director Robert Wiene and actor Conrad Veidt. Four years later, they were to repeat the success in The Hands of Orlac (originally titled Orlacs Hände).

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

Even though both films are firmly rooted in the German Expressionism, The Hands of Orlac, when compared with the earlier film, is in many ways very different. Take Veidt’s role for starters. He is the protagonist, and he is a good person at heart. But he is also somewhat weak, perhaps even cowardly. When he loses both his hands in an accident, and his career as a concert pianist is threatened, his doctor decides to graft a new pair of hands, a pair that previously belonged to a convicted murderer. When confronted with this, Orlac fears that the evil in these hands will take over his mind. This fear, that body parts from another entity will infect the new host with the mind of the old one, is a theme that can be seen in many later films, such as Wolf Blood (1925) and Frankenstein (1931).

The scenography is also very different when compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the earlier film, the surroundings were nightmarish, bent and twisted, filled with dramatic shadows. Here, the nightmare and the shadows remain, but the rooms are gigantic, with straight, looming walls and pillars, and with very few decorations. This creates an image of small and powerless characters, desperately trying to grasp control from a relentless world. So again, Wiene has created a dramatic masterpiece, but the drama is achieved with different means.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore the themes that lead up to the great Hollywood horror films of the early 1930s. It is definitely an important part of that legacy.

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

The Hands of Orlac
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Language: English
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.1 G) or Matroska (1.1 G)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The hero who pretends to be a rich, useless fop by day, transforming himself into a vigilante fighting for justice by night is an important character template in modern popular storytelling. Batman and Zorro are perhaps the best known examples, but years before they were conceived, The Scarlet Pimpernel was perhaps the first popular hero to hide behind a secret identity.

Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is the alter ego of the English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney in a play and novel from the early 20th century. Blakeney is secretly critical of the events in France, where many of his friends are being executed without proper trials and for no other reason than being nobles. As The Scarlet Pimpernel, he therefore leads a band of resistance fighters who try to rescue the victims of the cruel tyrant Robespierre.

The Scarlet Pimpernel was popular almost from the start, and many film adaptations have been made. One of the most popular (and the first with sound) was the 1934 British The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard in the title role.

I have seen none of the other film versions of this character, but I am guessing that most are considerably more focused on the action. In the 1934 version, the drama is set first, and much is made of Howard’s excellent ability to switch between his character’s real self and the dandy he plays in order to avoid suspicion. The character’s wit and intelligence are also prominent.

This film is best enjoyed for Leslie Howard’s performance. Though it is a well-made costume piece, the historical aspects are by themselves not enough to raise the film above average. Howard’s acting, along with the exciting and amusing story, elevates this into a classic masterpiece.

The guillotine in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel
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Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Harold Young
Stars: Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (863 M)

The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page was originally a Broadway play, which has been adapted for movies and television at least eight times (according to IMDb). The most famous version today is probably the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), but the first adaptation, and also one of the best, was The Front Page from 1931. Some also claim that this first adaptation was the first screwball comedy in the movies.

Mary Brian, Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page (1931)

The story, briefly, is that the reporter Hildy Johnson is going to quit his job, get married to the girl he loves and move to a different city. But Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns, wants to stop him and avoid losing his best reporter. He therefore tries to involve Hildy in covering one last story, the case of a man who is going to hang in the morning. But is the man guilty in the first place? As the story progresses, the two originally separate plots of Hildy’s resignation and the condemned man become increasingly entangled in a movie with many interesting twists.

The Front Page has, somewhat unfairly, been overshadowed by the remake His Girl Friday, perhaps because of the latter’s fantastic chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, a chemistry that cannot be reached in the same way in The Front Page, where the story follows the original and has Hildy played by a man (Pat O’Brien, to be specific).

To let Russel play the originally male role was a stroke of genius, and allowed for some new plot twists in the remake, but it is a mistake to believe that this automatically makes the original into an inferior movie. It does not. It is just very different. And not only because of the sex change. The variations in the dialogue, the differences in photography and directing, and the equally impressive but very different actors make these two very different movies. Both are well worth watching and I would be hard pressed if I had to pick a favourite.

The Front Page was made when sound film was a fairly new invention. Fortunately, it uses many dolly track shots and other techniques that became rarer in the early 1930s for economic and technical reasons.

This film is best enjoyed when compared with its many remakes, and it shines quite brightly in that comparison.

Adolphe Menjou, Mary Brian and Pat O'Brien in The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page
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Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

His Girl Friday (1940)

The first time I saw His Girl Friday it took me by storm. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The crazy story with the sudden twists and the machinegun dialogue both represented something new to me. It was the first time ever I saw a screwball comedy.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

Screwball comedy, apparently, was entirely a product of the 1930s. Some film historians consider The Front Page (1931) to be the first screwball comedy. Incidentally, it was the first movie adapting the play which was also the source for His Girl Friday, which in turn premiered when the screwball comedy as a genre had only a couple of years left of its golden age.

His Girl Friday is the story of the female reporter Hildy Johnson, who is going to quit, get married and have a family (in The Front Page, Hildy is a man). Her editor and previous husband Walter Burns, however, has different ideas and does everything in his power to make her stay at the job and dump her kind but boring fiancé. This is played out against a plot involving a man who is falsely accused of murdering a police officer and sentenced to be hanged, a story which Hildy promises to cover, and into which she gets gradually more and more involved.

The title of this film sometimes creates a bit of confusion. I know I wondered about it for several years before I read somewhere that it has nothing to do with the day of the week. It is a reference to Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, apparently suggesting a female assistant. Even knowing this, the title is a bit strained. But who cares? It is catchy, original and easily recognizable. Not a bad thing for a classic film.

This film is best enjoyed when you have the time and energy to really focus on it. It is not a film for casual watching.

John Qualen and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 31 min
Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.3 G)