The Pleasure Garden (1925)

There can be no doubt that Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most influential directors of all time. Many also hold that he was one of the greatest. His true greatness is most obvious in his many classic Hollywood productions from the 40s through the early 60s. (He also made a handful of films in the late 60s and 70s, but those are not among his best efforts). Before Hollywood, however, Hitchcock had already been directing films for 15 years! Those films, almost half of his total production, are often overlooked, in some cases for good reasons.

Among those rarely seen early films is his very first attempt as a director (except one short and one unfinished film, both lost), The Pleasure Garden. Considering Hitchcock’s enormous influence, this is a film that should have a significant historic value, in spite of any cinematographic shortcomings.

Carmelita Geraghty in Alfred Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The plot is pretty standard fare for silents of the time. Jill has come to London to seek her fortune as a dancer. She meets Patsy, who works at a theatre called The Pleasure Garden. Patsy helps her get a job and lets her stay at her appartment, but later, when Jill has become a star, she will not return Patsy’s favours. The plot is complicated by two men. Hugh is Jill’s fiancé and Levet is attracted to Patsy. However, there is also an attraction between Patsy and Hugh.

The copy at the Internet Archive is apparently some 15-20 minutes shorter than the original film (which has been restored in recent years). I have not seen the longer version, but I suspect that a longer film allows for some more depth to a story that in the present form is a bit hard to follow at times.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. Sure, you can see some interesting scenes that suggest the great things that were to come (especially in the beginning), but Hitchcock at this point is no better than several other contemporary directors, and the script is not really good enough to maintain interest all the way to the end.

Miles Mander, John Stuart and Virginia Valli in Alfred Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The Pleasure Garden
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Year: 1925
Language: English (Japanese subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Virginia Valli
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×386)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; organ music partly adapted to the images
Best file format: Ogg Video (255 M)

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

As far as I know, the first feature film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the 1920 film I wrote about last week. It was to be followed by many others, and one of the best is the first sound version, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March.

Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

This film starts with a very nice first-person sequence, where we get to follow Dr. Jekyll on his way to a lecture on his research. First-person narrative is not that common in modern film, but here it works since it is well made and later in the film it is just used frequently enough to make it a distinguishing feature of the film, without seeming intrusive or overused.

March plays the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde with a vigour and zest that is pure joy to behold. You can tell that he is having fun, and at the same time he is giving a completely professional performance. Not only March is excellent in his dual role, but many of the other actors are also very good, not least Miriam Hopkins as the fallen woman who tempts Jekyll, and thereby indirectly becomes the agent of her own destruction.

It is of course almost impossible to avoid comparing this version with Barrymore’s from 1920. Both actors make brilliant, and somewhat different interpretations. Personally, I prefer March as Jekyll but Barrymore as Hyde. The later film has some very nice special effects in the transformation, and is overall more impressive and more moody in its sets and lighting. Dr. Jekyll’s lab, in particular, is absolutely marvellous. The later film is also more specific and less Victorian in its attitude to Hyde’s atrocities. While still pretty tame compared with some modern movies, it is a good step forward, and quite more open in terms of violence and sexuality, in spite of being produced after the introduction of the infamous Production Code.

As you may guess from the above, I do have a preference for this version over the silent one, but both are very good, and both deserve to be seen on their own merits.

Several other filmed versions of the Jekyll and Hyde story exist at the Internet Archive. In addition to Barrymore’s 1920 version, two early shorts are of particular interest. They seem to be the two oldest surviving versions, one from 1912 and one from 1913. Of these two, the latter is definitely the better, although the older version naturally has a strong historical significance.

This film is best enjoyed for its mood and attention to detail. It is a good example of the films that were made just in the beginning of the sound era, and that retained much of the creativity and artistry from the best silents.

Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
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Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 36 min
Director: Rouben Marmoulian
Stars: Fredric March
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×542)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (975 M)

Man in the Attic (1953)

Man in the Attic is sometimes referred to as a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent classic The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog (1927). But unlike Ivor Novello’s The Phantom Fiend (1932), which in spite of some variations is a retelling of Hitchcock’s film (Novello played the lead in both productions), Man in the Attic seems to actually be closer to the literary source than Hitchcock’s film was.

Jack Palance and Frances Bavier in Man in the Attic (1953)

Here, again, we see the strange and somewhat odd-behaving man who takes lodging in the spare room of a London couple. Again, of course, the man falls for the couple’s niece (daughter in the Hitchcock version). And again there are some very striking resemblances between the new lodger and the serial killer who goes about town murdering young women. In this film, the murderer in question is Jack the Ripper, but is The Ripper and the lodger really one and the same? The wife of the house certainly thinks so, but her husband is not at all convinced, and their lovely niece wants to hear no such nonsense.

An interesting thing with the various cinematic versions of this story is the wildly different endings. Man in the Attic presents yet another variant, and one which makes it a completely different kind of story. In fact, I suspect that this ending is close to the original novel. Hitchcock was always very liberal with how he adapted his sources, as he was more interested in creating the story he wanted to tell than in trying to recreate anything from the original. In this version, however, the producers and writer seem to have taken pains not to stray too far.

Compared with the other versions, Man in the Attic has advantages and disadvantages. Jack Palance does an excellent job, perhaps even better than Ivor Novello in some respects. Even more to the point, the supporting characters are much more finely portrayed here, and with more depth. However, director Hugo Fregonese does not manage to achieve the same feeling of suspense that you get from Hitchcock’s film in particular, and I cannot decide which I disdain the most: unmasked American accents in a Victorian London setting, or Americans trying and failing to speak with a British accent. Man in the Attic will provide you with both.

This film is best enjoyed as a counterbalance to Hitchcock’s The Lodger. If you have to watch only one version of the story, you should make it Hitchcock’s (because it is more important to cinematic history, if nothing else), but if you want another, I would recommend this one before Ivor Novello’s remake, even though that one has its positive sides, as well.

Constance Smith and Jack Palance in Man in the Attic (1953)

Man in the Attic
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Year: 1953
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Hugo Fregonese
Stars: Jack Palance
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (684×480, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DIVX (700 M)

I Bury the Living (1958)

Imagine discovering that you have the power over life and death for certain persons. With a simple action you can decide who dies within the next few hours. Of course, that is not necessarily a pleasant discovery, and since you doubt that it can be true, you have to try again. And again. And even when you are entirely convinced yourself, people around you think you are crazy, and even urge you to test it upon themselves.

Such is the story of the wonderful B horror I Bury the Living. Robert has just taken over as Chairman of a quiet little cemetery, when he notices that just by putting a black pin (for deceased) in a certain grave plot on the big cemetery map, he can prematurely terminate the life of the person who has bought that plot.

Richard Boone in I Bury the Living (1958)

Surrounding the ever more confused and desperate Robert is a number of interesting characters: His supportive fiancée, the Scottish cemetery caretaker, his uncle George and a somewhat bewildered police lieutenant. All of these will react in very different ways to Robert’s problems.

Several people, apparently including Stephen King, have criticised the ending of this film. I can understand, and to some extent agree with that criticism, since the ending breaks with the film’s otherwise tense mood. The current ending also makes the film’s genre is a bit ambiguous. But I am not one to complain. On the whole, I Bury the Living is a delightful little horror/thriller.

This film is best enjoyed for the intense feeling of suspense. The plot, when you start to think about it, has a number of glaring gaps, but the music, the photo and the excellent actors give you no time to ponder over such trivialities.

Peggy Maurer and Richard Boone in I Bury the Living (1958)

I Bury the Living
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Year: 1958
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: Albert Band
Stars: Richard Boone
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

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)

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)

X Marks the Spot (1931)

Sometimes, I find myself watching a film for very strange reasons. X Marks the Spot, for example. I was looking at this blog’s alphabetical list of films, and realized that I had blogged about films starting with every letter in the English alphabet, except X. I am a fan of balance, unity and harmony, so I set about to find myself an X film at the Internet Archive (no, not that kind of an X film). This proved easier said than done, but two films eventually turned up with the title X Marks the Spot. Finding that one was a remake of the other, I went for the original, and to my great satisfaction, it turned out to be quite a gem of a film.

Wallace Ford, Sally Blane and Lew Cody in X Marks the Spot (1931)

Before I go on, I should probably mention that there is one big problem with the available copy: image quality is terrible. A good copy may not exist. Apparently, the original negative was deliberately burnt during the filming of the great fire in Gone with the Wind (1939). Sound is not great either, but good enough, especially considering that sound in the early 1930s was not very good even under the best of circumstances.

The plot is difficult to describe without giving away too much, but it involves a reporter who needs money for an operation to save his sister’s life. He puts himself in debt with a criminal, only to find, years later, that he may have to cash the debt in an unexpected and unpleasant way. Wallace Ford plays the reporter and Lew Cody gives us a genre cliché with his hot-tempered editor-in-chief.

The best thing about X Marks the Spot is the snappy and often funny dialogue. Accounts differ regarding when the first real screwball comedies were made, but this is definitely a big step in that direction, even though some say that proper screwball only appeared a few years later.

As I hinted above, a remake with the same title is also available at the Internet Archive. From what I have been able to find out, however, it is not as good as the original.

This film is best enjoyed if you like The Front Page (1931) and want more of the same. X Marks the Spot is not quite as good, especially not the actors, but it shares similar environments, similar dialogue, and there are some parallels in the plot, also. Sensitive viewers will be advised that the film contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping.

Fred Kohler in X Marks the Spot (1931)

X Marks the Spot
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Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Stars: Lew Cody, Wallace Ford
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (480×360; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (395 M)