Take a seat.
THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR is a Tod Browning murder mystery from 1929, which pushes so far into staginess that the walls break apart and we find ourselves in a Lynchian space of puppetshow poetry. Amazingly, it features Bela Lugosi as a detective, two years before DRACULA made him a star. Even amazinglier, such is the panoply of theatric convulsion on display, Lugosi comes across as one of the more restrained and fluent performers. The whole thing is like a mass audition for acting styles for the new talking pictures. Who will win? The rigid enunciator? The sepulchral weirdie? The tremulous incompetent? In fact, NOBODY in this film gets anywhere near any of the popular modes of screen acting which would dominate the coming decade: everybody here is an evolutionary dead end.
Plot: a murder at a seance, in the dark. Whodunnit? Solution: recreate the seance. This leads to an innovation in sound film — two lengthy sequences taking place in total darkness, with the only illumination falling on some empty wall-space. A static shot of nothing, lasting minutes. “Well, they’ve got the soundtrack, what are they complaining about?”
My two favourite moments were probably mistakes caused by bad reel changes, but they’re worth celebrating anyway. In one, Lugosi is standing and the man he’s talking to sits a few feet away. Lugosi exits his own medium shot and advances upon his man. Cut to a matching medium shot of the sitting man, with a nice space for Lugosi to step into. But Lugosi does not come. For long seconds, we wait for him to arrive. He has a distance of precisely three feet to cross. He’s walking briskly (well, briskly for Lugosi). What’s keeping him. The sitting man waits, apparently unperturbed. Finally, Lugosi arrives. Nobody seems bothered.
I want to recut this sequence, cutting to random shots of Lugosi in other movies, fighting a strong wind, wading through a swamp, wrestling an octopus, all while the sitting man watches, impassive. Then Lugosi arrives, none the worse for his adventures. But it still wouldn’t be as good as the sequence the way it is.
The other best bit is also probably a reel change. We cut to a crowded room: all the suspects have been gathered (“I expect you’re wondering why…”) and told to wait. They wait, in silence. Frozen in position. Then, all at once, action! Everybody simultaneously bursts into animated conversation. Rhubarb, rhubarb! Everybody is talking nobody is listening. And then the scene starts. It feels like we’ve been offered a glimpse behind some eldritch curtain. This is how everybody behaves, all the time, in rooms we’re not in.