Charade (1963)

I cannot decide whether one should regret or applaud USA’s old copyright law. What it amounted to was that anything that did not have a copyright notice on it was not protected by copyright. So whenever someone forgot to put that fateful © in its proper place, that entire work automatically entered the public domain immediately upon publication. One of the victims of this was the movie Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)

We are fortunate to have Charade in the public domain, of course, since it is a gem of cinematic art. Hollywood at its absolute best. Warm, well written, effective scenography, a brilliant score, and not least an excellent cast, spearheaded by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, each doing his and her best to outshine the other. Also, it is filmed on location in Paris, which was unusual at the time.

On the flip side of that copyright coin is the fact that the big companies rarely care about public domain movies. They are hard to make money off, because anyone can go ahead and legally distribute any preserved or restored edition. Such as in this case, where a brilliant Blu-ray copy has been ripped and uploaded to the Internet Archive. In many cases, though, those nice copies never appear.

Speaking of copies, a perfect high-resolution Matroska file is available for download, but if 11.5 gigabytes put you off, you can go for the much smaller MP4 (H.264) file. Lower resolution, but still very nice quality.

This film is best enjoyed when you are unfamiliar with the plot. This interesting and funny story, with all its twists and corny characters, is a bit too complex to sum up in just a couple of sentences. Besides, it may be better to see it with as few preconceived notions as possible. Just sit back, relax, and allow yourself to be carried away. This is cinematic magic.

Cary Grant taking a shower in  Charade (1963)

Charade
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Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Stanley Donen
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1038)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (11.5 G)

Der letzte Mann (1924)

You know that book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die? Here, let me tell you a secret: There are not that many movies you must see. If, however, there is a handful that you should see, then one of that handful is definitely Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh in English), directed by F. W. Murnau.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

In Der letzte Mann, Emil Jannings plays the aged but proud hotel doorman who is demoted to a lavatory attendant, because the young hotel manager thinks him unfit to continue the hard work as a doorman. Along with the previous job and the fancy uniform, the old man’s self esteem completely washes away, as does his social status in the neighbourhood where he lives. Jannings does a splendid performance, using his facial expressions and body language where the silent movie can support no dialogue.

Several sources claim that Murnau, similar to Chaplin years later in The Dictator, used the constructed language Esperanto in all signs in the film, in order to emphasize that the visual language of cinema is international. The ultimate source of this seems to be none other than Alfred Hitchcock (who was in 1938 to be perhaps the first to use a fictional movie language in The Lady Vanishes). Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that I am not an expert Esperanto speaker, but try as I may I cannot seem to find a single word in Esperanto in the entire film. In fact, I distinctly seem to spot a neon sign advertising “cigarettes”, which would be either English or French. So I think I can, until further information surfaces, state that this is a factoid. Shame, really, since as far as I know, no other silent feature-length movie ever used Esperanto either. Or any other constructed language, for that matter.

Speaking of visual language, much tends to be made of the fact that the entire story is told with only a single title card (similar to the somewhat later Chelovek s kino-apparatom). Now, this is a truth with some modification since there are some other written sequences, most prominently a letter in the first half of the film. Even so, the version at the Internet Archive should be perfectly watchable to anyone, even though it contains no subtitles. The written material is not essential for following the plot.

The English title The Last Laugh, incidentally, is unfortunate, since it puts focus on the film’s epilogue (after that abovementioned title card), which is truly absurd and more of a joke than part of the actual story.

The film is generally bundled together with the German Expressionism, and though there are certainly scenes with strong expressionist content, it should also be noted that it is not at all as thoroughly expressionistic as many contemporary films, including several of Murnau’s own.

This film is best enjoyed either if you care to analyze and marvel over each of the many technically advanced and tremendously effective shots (some, such as the sequence of shots combining to visualise a drunken stupor, are so brilliant that they have arguably not been equalled in the history of cinema), or if you just sit back and allow yourself to be immersed by one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

Der letzte Mann
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: Emil Jannings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack, 2 files (683 + 686 M)

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960)

When the Nazis wanted director Fritz Lang at the head of German film production in 1932, and simultaneously warning him that some of his latest social commentary was not to their liking, he quickly decided to leave the country.

With classics like Metropolis (1927) and two Dr. Mabuse films (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler parts one and two (1922) are at the Internet Archive, although of uneven technical quality), Lang had revolutionized the visual style of German cinema, creating for himself not only a name as one of the leading German Expressionists, but also a place in cinematic history. After leaving Germany, however, he spent over two decades in Hollywood making films that, while usually well crafted, were unspectacular compared with his earlier masterpieces.

Gert Fröbe and Werner Peters in Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960)

So when I found at the Internet Archive Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse, Lang’s final return to both his successful Dr. Mabuse character and to his home town Berlin, I was naturally filled with anticipation.

In fact, this was not only Lang’s last Mabuse film, but his last film of any kind. Lang was by this time almost 70 years old, utterly disillusioned and nearly blind. Yet his final effort is a good one. Not at all on the same level as his best silents, but at least on par with his best Hollywood productions.

The film is not only interesting because of Fritz Lang’s involvement. Far from it. The actors are good, Gert Fröbe in particular, and the scenography is nice. Camerawork is uneven, but lighting is very good. Most of all, however, the film fascinates because of its Big Brother theme. Most of the film is set in a hotel where spy cameras and one-way mirrors abound.

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse was a success upon its release and was followed by five more Mabuse films in quick succession. Thus, the film marks not only an end, but also a beginning. Lang, however, was retired and apparently had no hand in any of the sequels. All of them can be found at the Internet Archive, so I may return to the series in the future.

This film is best enjoyed if you are good at German. There are no subtitles available at the Internet Archive, and I have found none elsewhere.

Wolfgang Preiss as the blind medium Peter Cornelius in Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960)

Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse
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Year: 1960
Language: German (no subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 39 min
Directors: Fritz Lang
Stars: Gert Fröbe, Dawn Addams, Wolfgang Preiss
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (640×360)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

The Bell Boy (1918)

Poor Roscoe Arbuckle! Not only did he have to live with the screen name “Fatty,” which he hated, he was also falsely accused of causing a woman’s death by raping her. And even though he was completely cleared of all charges, his acting career was in ruins. In the end, of course, he did not live at all. He died about 80 years ago from a heart attack, only 46 years old.

Before that fateful rape trial, Arbuckle had been the leading comedian in Hollywood. He had acted against both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton before either of them was famous. In fact, he was the one who discovered Keaton and made his career.

It is easy to understand how he came to be known as “Fatty”. His bulk was considerable, but in spite of it he was extremely agile and athletic. These were the days when stuntmen were very rare indeed (in comedies, they almost did not exist). In fact, some of the stunts that were made back then could probably not be duplicated today. They were simply too dangerous.

Roscoe Arbuckle in The Bell Boy (1918)

Arbuckle mostly made short films. Today’s offering was his second longest at only 28 minutes. The Bell Boy is typical of the kind of comedies that Arbuckle produced. Fast slapstick without too much story or character development to get in the way of anything important. The slapstick is often extremely well timed, and partly because of that most of the humour has survived the test of time and still feels fresh and alive today. There is also a fair amount of crazy humour that you would perhaps not expect in a film from this period. A few jokes do fall flat before a modern audience. But almost 100 years later, that is easy to forgive.

Apart from the comedy, the main reason why I enjoy watching these old films is that they allow you a quick trip back in a time machine, letting you see things like horse-drawn trams filmed at a time when they were actually in use. Wonderful stuff!

This film is one of about ten that Arbuckle made together with Buster Keaton and Al St. John. This was a very well-matched trio, not least because all three were excellent at making acrobatic and difficult stunts. See in particular the magnificent “dinner table vault” at 13:10. Keaton, of course, became one of the best comedians of the 20s (some say the best). St. John never went on to stardom, but had a decent career as a B western sidekick in the 30s and 40s. Many of his westerns can be found at the Internet Archive. Billy the Kid in Santa Fe (1941) is a typical example.

The Bell Boy lets you enjoy this magnificent trio doing what they do best. If you want an introduction to silent slapstick comedy, then this is it! The Internet Archive version, unfortunately, contains no soundtrack. This may deter some, but I actually prefer no soundtrack to a poor one.

This film is best enjoyed whenever you feel depressed. Or happy. In fact, anytime.

Al St. John, Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton in The Bell Boy (1918)

The Bell Boy
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Year: 1918
Running time: 28 min
Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Stars: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Al St. John, Buster Keaton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (185 M)