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 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)

49th Parallel (1941)

One of the first films made by the famous British team of writers/producers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (jointly known as “The Archers”) was the World War II propaganda 49th Parallel.

Finlay Currie, Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in 49th Parallel (1941)

The film begins with a German submarine that tries to hide in Hudson Bay after being hunted by the Canadian navy. The submarine is eventually caught up with and sunk, but a small group of survivors start to make their long way across the enormous nation of Canada, trying somehow to find a way to neutral or allied territory.

The film has an interesting structure. It is basically a series of short stories, strung together by the evil protagonist in the shape of Leutnant Hirth. Hirth is well played (though not exactly delicately) by Eric Portman. As he and his small group of Germans go from one place to the next, they also move from story to story. And there is where we meet the true heroes, played by Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, and others. They are true-blooded Canadians, who stand up for their country, against oppression and tyranny.

49th Parallel in some ways forms an interesting counterweight to One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Powell’s and Pressburger’s joint project from the following year. Both films share the theme of a crew that has lost their vessel and now have to make their way through enemy territory. The two stories share many similarities, but through the filter of propaganda they still emerge as completely different films. They are also very good, so I can only recommend that you download and watch both.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and well played drama. Even though Powell and Pressburger were yet to develop their true mastership in film making, we can already see many of the techniques that were to be used to make some of the best films in the history of cinema. 49th Parallel may not be quite up to that standard, but it is still excellent.

Peter Moore and Leslie Howard in 49th Parallel (1941)

49th Parallel
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Year: 1941
Running time: 2 h 2 min
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (664×502, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

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)

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
Download link
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)