Les Vampires (1915–16)

I have previously written about a number of serials. Looking at those earlier reviews, one might easily get the impression that serials were mostly a sound film phenomenon. Ah, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It has proven difficult to find reliable facts about silent serials, but the first ones seem to have appeared as early as the first decade of the 20th Century. By 1915, production was in full swing, on both sides of the Atlantic, and before the era came to an end around 1930, hundreds of silent serials had been made. I am guessing that many are incomplete or lost today, but many others survive, and the best are quite up to the standards of the so-called “Golden Age” serials of the 1930s and 1940s. They were not yet as clichéd and predictable as the later serials usually were, and quite often they created the elements that were later to become cliché.

Édouard Mathé in Les Vampires (1915)

The French serial Les Vampires (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) is often considered to be among the best of those early ones, and indeed some claim that it is one of the best serials of all time. It tells the story of how newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande tries to thwart a group of criminals who terrorize Paris. In spite of the title, Les Vampires has nothing to do with any vampires. It was simply the name that this gang of criminals used for themselves.

The plot, meandering in various directions, is a bit too complex to summarize here, but it is impossible to review this serial and not mention the character Irma Vep (note the anagram), who makes her first appearance in Episode 3. Vep is a close associate to the leader of The Vampires. She is totally unscrupulous and a master of disguise, and for the rest of the serial, she remains the main antagonist. Irma Vep has certainly been one of the strongest cultural footprints of Les Vampires. She remains a popular character and icon among silent movie fans.

According to Wikipedia, Les Vampires was made “quickly and inexpensively with very little written script.” Well, that shows, and the plot seems pretty random and incoherent at times. I know that some people have a problem with that, but I do not find that it detracts from my enjoyment. There is so much to like about this serial that some small rough spots are easily overlooked. Besides, modern Hollywood scripts are not always too coherent either.

This serial is best enjoyed because of the huge influence it has had on later crime cinema. Among the film makers said to be strongly inspired by it are such giants as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. There are good reasons why this particular serial became so influential. Watch it and find out for yourself!

A Vampire thief in Les Vampires (1915)

Les Vampires
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
Year: 1915–16
Running time: 6 h 40 min
Language: English
Director: Louis Feuillade
Stars: Édouard Mathé, Musidora
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (352×288)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack

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The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Eight men, one woman. They have formed a secret society, the aim of which is to better mankind by murdering those who deserve to die. They have gathered on this day to decide if a certain person will die, and if so, who is to perform the deed. Such is the beginning of The Ace of Hearts. The title indicates the fateful card that is used to randomly choose the murderer.

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

But love is about to complicate our plot. Two members are rivals for the love of the only woman, Lilith, but she loves neither back. She only has feelings for the Cause. Ah, but what will happen when one of the two is chosen to commit a murder for that Cause? Can she separate her feelings for the man and the ideal? This plot may seem a bit corny, but works really well togehter with the excellent actors and the nice photography.

Around this time, film cameras slowly started to move around; to pan, to track, to zoom. The camera in The Ace of Hearts, however, is always completely static. But that is not entirely a problem, because when the limits of the set are known, the director and cameraman can use the set as if it was a painting, carefully composing each detail to balance the whole picture. Akira Kurosawa was to use similar techniques a lot in many of his best films, decades later, and Wallace Worsley does it here, almost to perfection. Watch, for example, The Man Who Deserves to Die striding slowly from the restaurant entrance to the dining hall’s vault. Splendid!

If you are a fan of Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, then this may or may not be a film to your taste. This is the only film I have seen where Chaney does not in any way use heavy makeup or prosthetics for enhancing his role and performance. Chaney is good enough an actor that he is excellent even without this, but if your fancy are his many amazing horror masks, then this film may disappoint you.

Like any silent film, I am sure this one would have been even better with a good soundtrack. However, thanks to the film’s poetic imaging and slow but deliberate tempo, I did not find the lack of sound disturbing. The mere visuals keep tension up by themselves. If silence makes you nervous, a version with an acceptable organ score is also available, but unfortunately it has lower image quality.

This film is best enjoyed as a conceptual sequel to The Penalty from the year before. The Ace of Hearts had the same director, the same star (Chaney), and was based on a novel by the same author, Gouverneur Morris. And even though the films are set in very different surroundings, they share the delving into the darker recesses of the human psyche.

Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy and John Bowers in The Ace of Hearts (1921)

The Ace of Hearts
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (889 M)

The Stranger (1946)

An agent for a war crimes commission decides, in desperation, to let a German war criminal out of prison in the hopes that he may lead them to another German who committed atrocious acts against humanity during World War II. This other German is suspected to hide under assumed identity somewhere in the United States. He must be found before he can commit new crimes.

Orson Welles and Loretta Young in The Stranger (1946)

Thus begins Orson Welles’ The Stranger, a film where Welles both played one of the leading roles (the German in hiding) and directed. It is one of rather few Orson Welles films that can be found at the Internet Archive, and for that reason alone deserves our attention.

This is a typical film noir in many ways, such as its dramatic camera angles and lighting, and also the script which is full of cynism and human evil.

The version of the film I link to here is an excellent quality MPEG4. If you strive for nothing short of perfection, then there is also a Matroska copy made from the same source, but it is almost five times as large, and I doubt if you will notice the difference.

This film is best enjoyed for Orson Welles, even though many of the supporting cast are also very good. Welles is, as always, excellent in his acting as well as in his directing. And if the plot happens to be just a bit too improbable for this to be any of Welles’ best films, then that just goes to show that this film is a child of its time.

Orson Welles in The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Orson Welles
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (963 M)

The Scar (1948)

There are several very good film noirs at the Internet Archive. Since I have previously only written about five of them, the latest over a year ago – the “historical noir thriller” The Black Book, which is not exactly a “pure” noir – it is about time for another. The turn has therefore come to the exellent The Scar, originally titled Hollow Triumph.

Paul Henreid in The Scar / Hollow Triumph (1948)

When John Muller is released from prison, he and his companions decide to rob a casino. The heist goes awry, however, and he is now a wanted man. The casino owner wants to get even. In a stroke of good luck, Muller meets a psychoanalyst who is his doppelgänger, except for a large scar on one cheek. He decides to take over the man’s identity in order to disappear from his hunters. But this is a noir. Things are bound to go wrong somehow.

Just like any good example of the genre, this film is ripe with suspense and drama. The minds of most people who populate its black-and-white world are as dark as the dramatic shadows falling across the screen. The actors are really good, too, so even though the plot has some not so brilliant moments, this is not to be missed if you are a fan of the genre.

This film is best enjoyed whenever you need something to make you happy. Even though film noir tend to be pretty downbeat in many ways, they never fail to improve my mood.

Paul Henreid in The Scar / Hollow Triumph (1948)

The Scar
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Year: 1948
Running time: 1 h 41 min
Director: Steve Sekely
Stars: Paul Henreid
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (900 M)

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)

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)