St Martin’s Lane (1938)

I wonder if I would have ever discovered Charles Laughton if it had not been for the Internet Archive (search this blog for “Laughton” and you will find a number of his many great performances). Sure, I would have seen a couple of his classics, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and then I would have dismissed him as typecast. Typecast? Ha! Nothing could be more wrong.

Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton in St Martin's Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938)

St Martin’s Lane, also known as Sidewalks of London, is yet another example of Laughton’s versatility. Here he plays Charles, a “busker”, essentially a sort of street musician, making his living by playing for the people standing in line for the theatres along St Martin’s Lane in London. He discovers the young and talented Libby (Vivien Leigh) and not only makes her part of his act, but also gives her a place to stay.

Libby pays him back by saying good-bye at first opportunity for a break on the big stages, and as she goes on to ever greater fame, Charles sinks lower and lower into mediocrity and alcoholism.

Laughton and Leigh, and also Rex Harrison as Libby’s playboy sponsor, all make excellent performances, even though it is rumoured that Laughton and Leigh got on each others’ nerves during production.

This film is best enjoyed for the high-quality drama and acting. The story is good and captivating, but the ending is perhaps a little bit dissatisfying. Ah, well. This piece is still well worth watching.

Vivien Leigh in St Martin's Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938)

St Martin’s Lane
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Tim Whelan
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (814 M)

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The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney. That is all that really needs to be said, and the review could end here. But perhaps a few things about the film The Penalty should be added, just for clarity.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The plot is actually very interesting, even without Chaney’s magnificent interpretation. A young boy gets both his legs amputated by mistake. As he grows up, unloved and unloving, he gets involved with the criminal underworld, eventually rising to become a minor but ruthless crime lord, nicknamed Blizzard, and with aspirations for greatness. He has many young girls among his underlings, and his favourite gets to pedal his piano (since his handicap prevents him from doing so himself). The police has nothing substantial on him, so they decide to send their best female agent. Meanwhile, Blizzard is planning revenge on the doctor who amputated his legs, and on his beautiful sculptor daughter.

Even though it tends to get a bit melodramatic at times, this plot along with the crew’s skillful work are almost enough to raise it to the level of memorable contemporary pieces, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, The Mark of Zorro or Klostret i Sendomir. But then along comes Chaney and quite by himself elevates the whole thing to the level of masterpiece.

This film is best enjoyed for Chaney’s brilliant acting. He is in total control at every moment. Someone compared him with the Robert De Niro of silent film, and there is some truth in that. Not only because of the acting, but also because of his absolute devotion to each role. For this film, he built a contraption that tied his legs up so that he looks totally convincingly amputated. It is said that it was so painful that he could only wear it for ten minutes at a stretch, and still the man could act better than most of today’s stars.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (622 M)

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which I wrote about last week, was to my knowledge the first cooperation between director Robert Wiene and actor Conrad Veidt. Four years later, they were to repeat the success in The Hands of Orlac (originally titled Orlacs Hände).

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

Even though both films are firmly rooted in the German Expressionism, The Hands of Orlac, when compared with the earlier film, is in many ways very different. Take Veidt’s role for starters. He is the protagonist, and he is a good person at heart. But he is also somewhat weak, perhaps even cowardly. When he loses both his hands in an accident, and his career as a concert pianist is threatened, his doctor decides to graft a new pair of hands, a pair that previously belonged to a convicted murderer. When confronted with this, Orlac fears that the evil in these hands will take over his mind. This fear, that body parts from another entity will infect the new host with the mind of the old one, is a theme that can be seen in many later films, such as Wolf Blood (1925) and Frankenstein (1931).

The scenography is also very different when compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the earlier film, the surroundings were nightmarish, bent and twisted, filled with dramatic shadows. Here, the nightmare and the shadows remain, but the rooms are gigantic, with straight, looming walls and pillars, and with very few decorations. This creates an image of small and powerless characters, desperately trying to grasp control from a relentless world. So again, Wiene has created a dramatic masterpiece, but the drama is achieved with different means.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore the themes that lead up to the great Hollywood horror films of the early 1930s. It is definitely an important part of that legacy.

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

The Hands of Orlac
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Language: English
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.1 G) or Matroska (1.1 G)

The Phantom Fiend (1932)

Last week, I wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous silent film, The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog. Hitchcock was to return many times to the themes he started to explore in that film, but never again to that particular story. Others were to do so in his place, and it was remade in sound several times, the first as early as 1932, titled simply The Lodger. In America, it was released with the title The Phantom Fiend, and that version is available at the Internet Archive, as well as many other online movie sites.

Ivor Novello and Elizabeth Allan in The Phantom Fiend / The Lodger (1932)

Ivor Novello reprised his role as the lodger who may or may not be a serial killer in a foggy and shadowy London. The overall story is exactly the same as in Hitchcock’s version, but some details differ. One of them is that Novello invested some of himself into his character. This time, the lodger, just like Novello in real life, is a musician and a composer.

Director Maurice Elvey was no Hitchcock. Even though he does retain or copy some of the expressionistic elements of the original, his film is not at all as sinister or visually dramatic. But this version has other qualities. The added dialogue together with a very good script, co-written by Ivor Novello himself, gives this film much more depth in its character portraits, and the overall plot feels more rounded and developed than in Hitchcock’s version. Which version you prefer is a matter of taste. Personally, I like both, but of course Hitchcock is always Hitchcock.

Curiously, the endings are quite different in the two versions. One might argue that neither ending is entirely satisfactory, or that they complement each other. Either way, it is interesting to compare the two.

This film is best enjoyed in its original (and considerably rarer) British release. The American cut available at the Internet Archive is unfortunately compressed by almost a half hour, something which is painfully obvious on occasion. But if you do not have access to the original, then you can still enjoy this short version and Ivor Novello’s magnetic screen personality.

Ivor Novello playing the violin in The Phantom Fiend / The Lodger (1932)

The Phantom Fiend
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 2 min
Director: Maurice Elvey
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: MPEG4 (600 M)