The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
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Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

Dressed to Kill (1946)

Later this week, this blog turns four years. With this week’s post, I therefore take you back to where it all began: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in 1946.

That first film I wrote about was Terror by Night, arguably the best of the many Sherlock Holmes films available at the Internet Archive. Later that same year, Rathbone along with Nigel Bruce were to make their last screen appearances as the famous detective and his sidekick. While not quite as good as the earlier film, Dressed to Kill is not a bad pick if you like old-school mysteries.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson in Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill begins with two preludes. First is a scene from a prison, then one from an auction hall. Both involve music boxes, and this is of course no coincidence. Later, we find ourselves on home turf, as far as Holmes mysteries go. Holmes and Watson sit in the 221 B Baker Street apartment, the one playing the violin, the other musing over some old cases that have recently seen print. Watson’s old pal “Stinky” calls for a visit, and of course he brings a somewhat intriguing mystery. A mystery with a music box. Well, who would have imagined?

In an attack of lacking imagination, the producer and writer here re-used the plot of the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, which had already been filmed with Rathbone two years earlier as The Pearl of Death. But there is a twist. The music boxes that are featured in place of the original’s Napoleon busts are not exactly identical; the music they play has slight variations, and in those variations is a code. A code that only Sherlock Holmes can crack. We are also treated with a number of memorable crooks, including a femme fatale well played by Patricia Morison.

With this film, I consider myself to have mined the Internet Archive for worthwhile Sherlock Holmes films, except for one little bonus feature that I saved for next week. There are several other Holmes-related films in the Archive, but all are either too poor or too short, usually both. Of historical interest is, for example, a series of silent shorts.

In addition to this one and Terror by Night, two of the fourteen Rathbone/Bruce films are available for download at the Internet Archive, and in the intervening years since my first post I have written about both. They are Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) and The Woman in Green (1945).

This film is best enjoyed whenever you are in the mood for some good, classic, Holmes. Few are better than Rathbone, and add to that solid scenography, dialogue and directing. I still think that Terror by Night is the best Holmes film at the Internet Archive, but when you have seen that, you will want more, and Dressed to Kill is not a bad next selection.

Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 12 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.1 G)

The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923)

Madame Beudet is smiling. She is smiling, even laughing, at her own daydreams about what might befall her husband, whom she does not love. He, hearing her laughter, pulls his own favourite practical joke, putting an empty gun to his head and squeezing the trigger.

This is one of the key scenes in The Smiling Madame Beudet (French: La souriante Madame Beudet), a strong and very well-made silent drama, which qualifies for my own top ten or fifteen list of silent movies.

Germaine Dermoz in The Smiling Madame Beudet / La souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Madame Beudet is smiling, perhaps, as a way of dealing with the misery of her life. The film is a brilliant and finely nuanced portrait of a woman, but those who claim that it was the first truly feministic film should take a look at the ten years older Ingeborg Holm.

The Internet Archive copy I link to here has both French and German intertitles, as well as English subtitles, so it is essentially trilingual – one of the advantages of silent cinema. In case you know either French or German and would like to be rid of the subtitles, a copy of comparable quality but without subtitles is also downloadable.

The Smiling Madame Beudet was based on a play, the original French text of which is also available at the Internet Archive.

This film is best enjoyed for its exquisite imagery and visual language. Director Germaine Dulac makes use of many impressionistic techniques, providing both effect and subtlety.

Alexandre Arquillière in The Smiling Madame Beudet / La souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

The Smiling Madame Beudet
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Year: 1923
Running time: 38 min
Language: French/German (English subtitles)
Director: Germaine Dulac
Stars: Germaine Dermoz
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (666×482)
Soundtrack: Good; orchestral music matching the film’s mood
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: H.264 (227 M)

No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth (1931)

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they immediately banned a number of films that they perceived as spreading “dangerous” propaganda. One of them was Niemandsland, known in English under different titles; the copy at the Internet Archive is called No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth.

No Man’s Land is set during World War I, and begins by telling the background stories of five different men of different nationalities. Stories that are perfectly everyday, until the men are drafted into World War I. These men come together when they seek cover in the cellar of a bombed-out house in the middle of no man’s land. They each have their own loyalties, and their own families back home, yet have to cooperate in order to survive.

World War I soldiers going over the top in Niemandsland / No Man's Land - Hell on Earth (1931)

The film sends a strong anti-war message. This may have been one reason why it scared the Nazis, but probably more importantly because one of the five men is a Jew, a Jew depicted as a perfectly normal and honest human being. Imagine the threat.

Just like last week’s Vampyr (1932), No Man’s Land is a film from the period just after sound film had broken through, and again an example of inexperience with sound technology. As a result, the poor sound detracts somewhat from the enjoyment of watching, though this film is still good enough that such a small detail can be overlooked.

I saw a comment somewhere on the Internet that this film is pointless, because five men cannot stop a war anyway. It takes the will of an entire civilization to do that. Well, that is exactly the kind of attitude that means war will never come to an end, because first and last, it always comes down to the individual. Sure, there must be powerful political leaders to sign the treaties, but they will never do it unless they feel popular demand behind them; they will never be elected in the first place unless the people support their opinions. So, yes, five men’s stand, or even one man’s stand, counts. Because as long as everyone sits on their behinds waiting for someone else to act, nothing is ever going to change.

This film is best enjoyed for its warm and deep humanism. The five men in the cellar all come through as living, three-dimensional characters. As a viewer, I care about each of them, and therefore the film’s message also comes through as meaningful and interesting.

Ernst Busch, Vladimir Sokoloff, Hugh Douglas, Georges Péclet and Louis Douglas in Niemandsland / No Man's Land - Hell on Earth (1931)

No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth
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Year: 1931
Language: English, German, French, Yiddish
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Victor Trivas, George Shdanoff
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: Cinepack (517 M)

Vampyr (1932)

I think it is a fair statement that the modern horror genre was born out of a marriage between the German Expressionism's easthetics and Hollywood’s big-budget, mainstream storytelling tradition. For good or bad, that combination has dominated horror film world-wide ever since.

But there were certainly other directions it could have taken. And did, in some cases. Carl Theodor Dreyer showed us a glimpse of one possible influence of avant-garde thinking in the horror genre in his first sound film, Vampyr.

Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West) in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

In spite of the German language of this particular print, the film was produced in France. Like most French films from around this period, it has problems with the soundtrack, which is somewhat inexpertly dubbed afterwards. Look, for example, at Zéro de conduite (1933), which is even worse, and then compare with the Hollywood film White Zombie (1932). Even though the American film suffers from inferior recording equipment (compared with what would be the norm just a few years later), it sports sound recorded on location, perfectly synchronized with the images.

But that “perfect” sound comes at a prize. Another interesting comparison is how much more elegantly Dreyer was able to work with the light silent-era cameras that I assume he was still using. White Zombie, in comparison, is much more static and conventional in its imagery, and that is partly because they had to use heavier, sound-proofed cameras.

Dreyer sometimes inserts surrealistic elements, and even though the basic plot is fairly simple, he makes jumps that stretches the story’s credibility. The plot can therefore at times be difficult to follow, but that is a problem only if you expect a traditional story structure. This kind of avant-garde film is not one where comprehending is always the most important thing. Here, everything is designed to make you feel, rather than analyze. So let go your conscious mind, and allow your subconscious to guide the experience.

This film is best enjoyed for two reasons, both contributing to the tense atmosphere that is felt throughout. The first reason is Dreyer’s excellent use of camera, lighting and angles. The second is Wolfgang Zeller’s amazing score, in itself reason enough to watch the film.

Rena Mandel and Jane Mora in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr
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Year: 1932
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West)
Image quality: Acceptable (poor in some scenes)
Resolution: Medium (574×434; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,018 M)

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

It is 1945. The tide of war has finally turned in Great Britain’s favour. The Germans are retreating on all fronts, and victory is now more than just a vague dream. But many cities in southern England are in ruins, and the V2 rockets are still a very real threat. It is into this world that Timothy is born. As a tribute to him, director Humphrey Jennings tells the story of A Diary for Timothy.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

I am not sure if Timothy actually existed, but whether he did or not is of minor importance. In this film, the infant baby is a storytelling device, and an effective one. Though the film is not really about Timothy, or his mother, the film repeatedly returns to them and their home in Oxfordshire.

But the stories told in this film are about other people. About the Air Force pilot recovering from his wounds. About the coal miner doing his best to produce as much coal as possible for the war effort.

This is pure propaganda, and well made. It stresses how both military and civilian personnel must work together to take Britain through the war. As a factual documentary, A Diary for Timothy has very little to offer, even though many factual events are doubtlessly recorded.

This film is best enjoyed for its effectively woven image of a strong and resilient country. A country that will not give in, no matter what. Additionally, it is interesting because of its narration, written by famous author E. M. Forster.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

A Diary for Timothy
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Year: 1945
Running time: 37 min
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Stars: Michael Redgrave (narrator)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (768×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

If you have a soft spot for British mystery films, then you will not want to miss The Case of the Frightened Lady. It is a delightful, albeit fairly conventional, mansion mystery, complete with a serial killer, Scotland Yard detectives and a sealed room.

Helen Haye and George Merritt in The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

In The Case of the Frightened Lady we meet the elderly Lady Lebanon and her son, Lord Lebanon, the last in the line. Being suitably strong-willed, the Lady is set on having her son marry his cousin and secretary, Miss Crane. The young Lord, however, has other plans. As befits a good mystery, they are surrounded by a cast of strange characters, such as the two footmen who appear more like gangster thugs and the family doctor who definitely is involved in some shady business. And what about the architect, called in to plan some well-needed renovation?

The actors perform well, especially Helen Haye (not to be confused with American actress Helen Hayes, who has performed in a number of similar roles) as Lady Lebanon. George Merritt as the Scotland Yard inspector is also good, and Ronald Shiner is nice as the mandatory comic relief sidekick, possibly inspired by Nigel Bruce, who had premiered as Dr. Watson the year before.

This film is best enjoyed if you are willing to sacrifice credibility on the altar of entertainmet. The plot is definitely convoluted at times, not least so the ending, but it is told in a thrilling and involving way. Even though you may at times suspect the true killer, you will want to keep watching in order to find out the motives and all the background details.

Helen Haye and Penelope Dudley Ward in The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

The Case of the Frightened Lady
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: George King
Stars: Marius Goring
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (560 M)