The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those literary classics that have been filmed on a number of different occasions, infamously including an animated Disney version, proving that Disney can make light family entertainment out of practically anything.

Out of the several Hunchback adaptations I have seen, two emerge as superior: the 1923 version with Lon Chaney and the 1939 version with Charles Laughton. The former appears to be the only version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that is available at the Internet Archive.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

To cast the legendary Lon Chaney as the Hunchback was, of course, the best possible choice at the time. Chaney had already made several spectacular and impressive roles, for example The Penalty (1920), but The Hunchback of Notre Dame appears to have been the role that propelled him to the status of stardom, and thus on to future legendary roles.

Unfortunately, I am less impressed with Ruth Miller as Esmeralda. So far I have never seen an actress that quite captured the youth and spirit of Esmeralda from the novel. Miller gives it her best, and that is adequate, but something is lacking. She is at least nearly the right age for the role (Esmeralda is 16 in the novel; Miller was only a couple of years older when the film was made), unlike several others; the worst example possibly being Salma Hayek who was over 30 when she portrayed Esmeralda. I am still waiting for the actress that can bring the combination of youth, naiveté, kind-heartedness and strength to the character.

In addition to Chaney’s performance, there are several good reasons for watching this film. For one thing, it is perhaps one of the most truthful adaptations of the original novel (except for the inevitable happy Hollywood ending). The sets and costumes of mediaeval Paris are stunningly majestic and beautiful. Whether historically true or not, I am not competent to say, but they certainly help to set the mood.

This film is best enjoyed if, like me, you are both a fan of Lon Chaney and of Victor Hugo’s wonderful novel. The combination of the two makes for a near-perfect film and a true classic.

Lon Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller as Quasimodo and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Huncback of Notre Dame
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Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 57 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music well edited to fit the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.4 G)


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

Under the Red Robe (1937)

It seems to me that there is often something special about films set during the period of king Louis XIII (with Cardinal Richelieu in the head of government). I guess it is the gilt from The Three Musketeers, with all of its nice adaptations, that rubs off a bit. One such film that can be found at the Internet Archive is Under the Red Robe.

Conrad Veidt in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

This romantic adventure finds the swordsman Gil de Berault in trouble. He is in danger of being executed for duelling, but the sly Cardinal Richelieu gives him an opportunity for pardon if he can find and capture a rebellious protestant. de Berault eagerly sets off to do the task, but as the plot progresses, he is about to find obstacles he had not anticipated.

The director of this typical genre piece was Victor Sjöström (sometimes called “Victor Seastrom” in Hollywood, as also in this British production). Sjöström started making film in Sweden, where he directed simple melodramas in the early 1910s. He quickly moved to more advanced topics, and made several timeless classics, such as The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and The Phantom Carriage (1921). Sjöström was recruited to Hollywood, where he also made several very good silents, but in the early 1930s, he moved back to Europe. He still acted and produced films, but for some reason he directed very few of his own in the sound era. Under the Red Robe, his last film, is nowhere near as groundbreaking as some of his classic works, but it is a nice piece of craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is pretty blurry in places, and contrast is poor overall. I know of no better online version, however.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of either Conrad Veidt (de Berault) or Raymond Massey (Richelieu). Both are very good, even though I think Massey (always an enjoyable and dedicated actor) perhaps overacts a bit at times. The female lead, Annabella, is given first billing in the credits, but even though she is also good as the sister of the religious rebel, she is mostly forgotten nowadays.

Conrad Veidt and Annabella in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

Under the Red Robe
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Annabella
Image quality: Acceptabe
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (577 M)


The Flying Deuces (1939)

Before watching the film The Flying Deuces, I had no idea what the word “deuce” meant (except for the tennis term). I have now informed myself, and I know that it means “pair” or “two of a kind” or something of the sort. I still do not understand why the word “deuces” is in plural, but all the same I feel much better now.

Stan Laurel, Jean Parker and Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)

The Flying Deuces, plural or not, is mostly interesting because it is part of the Laurel and Hardy legacy. This famous pair of comedians (or deuces, maybe) hardly need any introduction, so I will just say that their presence in the Internet Archive is considerably smaller than for some of their contemporaries, such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. That is the main reason why it has taken until now for me to review one of their films, but also because those few feature films that can be found in the archive do not appear to be among their best.

The Flying Deuces is perhaps not their best either, but there are some really good scenes including an absolute classic just at the end. Some of the humour, however, feels very out-dated, especially some very long-winded chase scenes during the last fifteen minutes. But all in all, the film is a good introduction to Laurel and Hardy, and if you already like them, you will not want to miss this chance to see them do their usual routine in some pretty unique situations.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful timing and acting by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It is not without reason that these two have gone down as one of the best pairs of comedians in the history of cinema.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)

The Flying Deuces
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 3 min
Director: Edward Sutherland
Stars: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×546)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (528 M)


Charade (1963)

I cannot decide whether one should regret or applaud USA’s old copyright law. What it amounted to was that anything that did not have a copyright notice on it was not protected by copyright. So whenever someone forgot to put that fateful © in its proper place, that entire work automatically entered the public domain immediately upon publication. One of the victims of this was the movie Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)

We are fortunate to have Charade in the public domain, of course, since it is a gem of cinematic art. Hollywood at its absolute best. Warm, well written, effective scenography, a brilliant score, and not least an excellent cast, spearheaded by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, each doing his and her best to outshine the other. Also, it is filmed on location in Paris, which was unusual at the time.

On the flip side of that copyright coin is the fact that the big companies rarely care about public domain movies. They are hard to make money off, because anyone can go ahead and legally distribute any preserved or restored edition. Such as in this case, where a brilliant Blu-ray copy has been ripped and uploaded to the Internet Archive. In many cases, though, those nice copies never appear.

Speaking of copies, a perfect high-resolution Matroska file is available for download, but if 11.5 gigabytes put you off, you can go for the much smaller MP4 (H.264) file. Lower resolution, but still very nice quality.

This film is best enjoyed when you are unfamiliar with the plot. This interesting and funny story, with all its twists and corny characters, is a bit too complex to sum up in just a couple of sentences. Besides, it may be better to see it with as few preconceived notions as possible. Just sit back, relax, and allow yourself to be carried away. This is cinematic magic.

Cary Grant taking a shower in  Charade (1963)

Download link
Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Stanley Donen
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1038)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (11.5 G)


Downhill (1927)

Alfred Hitchcock’s early films are only rarely the suspense filled thrillers that we are used to from his later works. There are many dramas and a few comedies. Some are interesting only for tracing Hitchcock’s development, but a few are genuinely good. One of those is Downhill.


Downhill was the second time – after The Lodger (1927) – that Hitchcock used Ivor Novello as his leading actor. Novello, at the time highly popular, also worked on the script. Some believe that the story reflects Novello’s attitudes towards women. He was apparently a homosexual, and the women in Downhill are for the most part treacherous, deceiving and seeking lust or riches. This is a pretty risqué story, even though some of the moral implications may seem very dated today.

Another important theme is that of friendship and trust. The friends Roddy (Novello) and Tim (Robin Irvine, also very good) go to the same school and are interested in the same woman. When Tim makes her pregnant, Roddy takes the blame and is consequently expelled from school and disowned by his father. This is the start of his moral and economic downhill ride in society, a ride which is sometimes depicted with brutal sincerity.

Hitchcock’s image compositions are terribly elegant, sometimes bordering on overdone. The influence from German Expressionism can be clearly seen (F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924) was one of Hitchcock’s major sources of inspiration). In fact, had this film been made in Germany, I am sure it would have been considered part of the German Expressionism.

This film is best enjoyed if you do not expect a “regular” Hitchcock. Downhill is a good silent drama, and Hitchcock is experimenting successfully with visual elements that he were to re-use later in many of his thrillers. The theme of the falsely accused is also used to great effect here. But no thriller or horror elements are to be expected, so while the lover of silent cinema is likely to enjoy this, the casual Hitchcock fan may find it a disappointment.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's Downhill (1927)

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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (560×416)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (969 M)


The Black Book (1949)

This week’s film is best known as Reign of Terror, and it is so listed at the Internet Archive. However, it was also widely distributed as The Black Book, and it is that title which is used on the actual copy at the archive.

Robert Cummings in The Black Book / Reign of Terror (1949)

The plot of this film is fairly intricate; perhaps at times too much so, as rather too many things are left unexplained or unresolved. D’Aubigny is sent to Paris in order to thwart Robespierre, who is executing his political enemies one by one, as well as some friends, for whom he no longer has any use. Robespierre plans to make himself dictator, but he has lost his Black Book, with the details of those he wishes to execute. It must be found, or all is lost. He gives the mission to judge Duval, but Duval has been killed by D’Aubigny, who now impersonates him. Does this seem a bit overworked? It is only the beginning, and simplified, at that.

The actors are all good, and some are excellent. My personal favourite is Arnold Moss as chief of Robespierre’s secret police.

Made shortly after World War II, I cannot entirely escape the suspicion that the film may have been partly a political comment on Hitler and Mussolini. The European setting and Robespierre’s greed for power seem to suggest as much.

The Black Book was made at the height of the Film Noir movement. It uses much of the typical lighting and camerawork of Noir, and the protagonist is also in many ways your typical cynical and streetwise guy. The historical setting, however, makes this a sort of genre blend, and it is not always classified as a true Noir.

This film is best enjoyed as long as one does not try to analyse too much. The story twists along at a good pace and excitement is always kept up. Just sit back and allow yourself to get carried away.

The Black Book / Reign of Terror (1949)

The Black Book
Download link
Year: 1949
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Robert Cummings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.1 G)