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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Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Plenty of good old movies at the Internet Archive are practically forgotten today. Many deserve to be so, but others are better than their non-existing reputation would suggest. Murder in the Clouds is such a film.

Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds has a somewhat convoluted and improbable plot, yet not without a certain charm. Our hero is the hot-shot pilot “Three Star” (Lyle Talbot). He has been grounded for reckless flying, but gets another chance when an extremely important flight must be made, delivering a secret explosive device which can change the nature of warfare (someone invented the atom bomb that early?). “Three Star” is also in love with Judy (Ann Dvorak), whose brother is to be his co-pilot on the important flight. But of course, things happen; further entaglements involve friends who may not be who they seem, a mountain cabin and a fateful bar fight.

Compared with similar aviation B movies, such as Danger Flight (1939) or Q Planes (1939), Murder in the Clouds has much better flight sequences. There is a pretty ugly mid-air explosion, but otherwise the aerial scenes are both varied, elegant and well filmed. They were mostly shot at and around Grand Central Airport outside Glendale, California. The airport is long since gone, but the runway has been converted into Grand Central Avenue and some of the buildings also exist.

Ann Dvorak is mostly remembered today for her role two years earlier in the classic original version of Scarface. She was a good actress, and even though her initial shots in Murder in the Clouds are a bit too tightly strung, she improves as the movie rolls along, and is excellent for the most part.

This film is best enjoyed for the high quality aerial stunts.

Travel Air 4000 in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds
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Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Stars: Lyle Talbot, Ann Dvorak
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (498 M)

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

The Golden Age of Swedish cinema came quickly and went away quickly. Except for Ingmar Bergman (who decades later appeared as something of an isolated phenomenon) it lasted only a very brief period of about four years, towards the end of and just after World War I. During those short years, Swedish-produced films, helmed by the directors Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, were praised by critics and became international block busters. Time and time again. Not only that, but they became tremendously influential on contemporary film-makers all around the world.

Perhaps even more spectacular is that most of those films have withstood the test of time and still feel interesting and relevant today. They impress, both by their advanced imagery and their competent story-telling. Sjöström and Stiller worked in many different genres, and for the most part they based their films on prestigious literature.

Victor Sjöström and Edith Erastoff in Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru aka The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

As far as I know, nothing by Stiller is available at the Internet Archive, but a good selection can be found across Sjöström’s career. One of Sjöström’s first international successes was Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru, known in English as The Outlaw and His Wife.

Sjöström often played the lead in his own films. Here, he plays the fugitive Ejvind, who falls in love with the rich widow Halla, played by his future wife Edith Erastoff, pregnant with their first child. Some have said that their real love shines through in their acting.

Unfortunately, the version at the Internet Archive has only English title cards, not the original Swedish ones.

After the peak of the Swedish golden years, Sjöström and Stiller both went on to international careers. Sjöström’s was successful but short, and he made few films after the silent era. His final one as a director was Under the Red Robe (1937), but he continued as a producer and a celeberated actor in his native Sweden for two more decades after that.

This film is best enjoyed for its use of forces of nature as an integrated story element. Sjöström was a pioneer in this.

Edith Erastoff in Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru aka The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

The Outlaw and His Wife
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Year: 1918
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor; synthesized score partly adapted to the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Windows Media (939 M)

Der heilige Berg (1926)

With the Winter Olympics in full swing, I wanted to try and find a film with a winter sports connection for this week’s post. That was harder than I had thought, but luck was on my side and the only feature-length film I found on that theme turned out to be really interesting.

Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain) is a German silent which is often mentioned as Leni Riefenstahl’s first film (as an actress). But Riefenstahl, quite frankly, was far better a director than an actress, and the film is interesting today mainly for other reasons.

Leni Riefenstahl in Der heilige Berg (1926)

The film is built around a very simple (and quite frankly somewhat far-fetched) plot about a love triangle where two friends, initially without realizing so, compete for the same woman (played by Riefenstahl). About the only strong part of the plot is the ending, which is moving (though a bit pathetic). But Der heilige Berg is not much about love and friendship anyway, nor about any specific characters.

This film resounds with two dominant chords, both vibrating with messages about nature. First of all about the wild, fierce and uncontrollable nature around us; especially the snow and the mountains, as contrasted by the sea. And second about human nature, more specifically it strongly romaticizes a physical ideal that lies close to the ideal of our own time. A sound mind in a sound body. That kind of thing. (The Nazis made this ideal their own, but director Arnold Fanck, though later forced to join the Nazi party, does not seem to have been a Nazi at heart.)

One section in the film shows a competition in Nordic combined, an interesting sport where ski jumping is combined with a cross-country ski race. The scenes from the competition are lengthy, but the interest is kept up all the way due to the excellent filming and the great variety of the scenes. It is also amazing to see what could be achieved even with the relatively primitive equipment they had available.

Der heilige Berg was made during the height of German Expressionism, and though it is sometimes cited as part of that movement, it is really much more strongly rooted in romanticism. There are touches of expressionism, such as in the exploration of the darkness of the human pshyche, but not at all as much in focus as in for example Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

This film is best enjoyed for its beautiful images and for its documentation of winter sports in the 1920s. Russian officials will be glad to know that it is free from any dangerous suggestions of homosexuality and thus perfectly safe to watch.

Nordic combination in Der heilige Berg (1926)

Der heilige Berg
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Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 45 min
Language: German (English subtitles)
Director: Arnold Fanck
Stars: Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: h.264 (624 M)