The Sunday Intertitle: Quick, a Cognac!

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“Chapter 3, in which two mysterious cars play a major role, and a young woman appears who, for the time being, wishes to remain anonymous (Mady Christians), as she is being pursued by a descendant of Ivan the Terrible (Robert Scholz).”

Along with the fantabulous MABUSE box set I got from Masters of Cinema for being clever, along came a complimentary set of Murnau’s PHANTOM and THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE. Now, PHANTOM is the one with the reputation, and since you can see Murnau rehearsing the psychological effects of THE LAST LAUGH (a street that topples over to crush the protagonist, mentally) and hijacking Sjostrom’s transparent coach from THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE, it is probably the film upon which most attention deserves to be focussed.

But FINANCES surprised and kinda tickled me. Most commentators consider Murnau to be less than perfectly suited to comedy, and FINANCES is a sort of Ruritanian romance with Lubitschian undertones. Langlois reported that his top cinephages (including Godard?) had to sit through three back-to-back screenings of it until they could venture a hypothesis as to what the devil old FWM was playing at. I found it diverting, and actually fairly funny.

As rom-com, the film does have disadvantages. As the title suggests, high finance plays a role in the narrative, which doesn’t sound too promising. Said narrative is the work of Thea Von Harbou, proboscis monkey-faced Nazi and wife of Fritz Lang, not usually associated with puckish wit or drollery. And the supporting cast includes Max NOSFERATU Schreck, as “the sinister one” — damn you, typecasting!

This makes me think of one of Art Linson’s stories: he was thinking of casting Willem Dafoe (who would go on to reprise Schreck’s most famous role in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE) in a comedy, and asked his wife, “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” “I don’t know,” she mused, “but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”

vlcsnap-80616An unusually antic Mr Schreck (centre).

But oddly, it turns out that Max, largely confined to longshots, isn’t so very sinister as to make chuckles corpsify in the throat, Murnau is by no means ill at ease with the demands of the pacy caper, and Harbou can actually write gags. My favourite being when easy-come-easy-go hero Phillip Collin, boy reporter (Alfred Abel, 45) comes to the aid of a Princess in distress/disguise in a restaurant. She faints, overcome by emotion (something that happens a lot). Collin calls a waiter — “Quick, a cognac!” The waiter returns. Collin drinks the cognac. “I immediately get weak when anybody faints,” he explains.

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Elsewhere, we get people who disguise themselves as animals, professionally — for no reason; an “interesting” hand-held shot filmed from a docking rowboat; a vigorous hunchback; a full-scale revolution enacted apparently by four people; financial chicanery; a fast ship; escapes; captures; sulfurous caverns; and further confirmation of my pet theory that all the landscapes flown over in FAUST’s magic carpet ride are to be found in Murnau’s other films — here, it’s the dreamy Mediterranean vistas. And while the plot clearly takes place before the Russian Revolution of 1917, everything on display is pure 1920s chic.

17 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Quick, a Cognac!”

  1. I thought Dafoe was very sweet as the nice kind German Daimler in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. And he was damn cool as Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. Yes, he’s a very adaptable player. He makes a great psycho rat in Fantastic Mr Fox too. I think Linson just found there was a certain kind of lightness that eluded Dafoe in the lead role — the action comedy they starred him in had to be shut down halfway through because it just wasn’t working. A bit like the original Back to the Future with Eric Stoltz in the MJ Fox role.

  3. Dafoe is from my current hometown here in Wisconsin (you walked right into it again) where he is better known as Billy Dafoe (rhymes with “day glow”) – teenage thespian. In real life, he’s an easy going, light hearted fellow who just happens to be blessed with one of those once in a lifetime cinematic faces. And you are absolutely spot on with the observation about Faust’s magic carpet ride. The sheer work, time and thought that goes into any effects miniature includes a great deal of room for play…and Murnau liked to play.

  4. This is true, but what beats me is how Murnau manages to include the wheatfields of City Girl and the bubbling streams of Tabu, when he hadn’t made those films yet…

    I always enjoy Mr Dayglo, because there’ll be a moment in any of his perfs where he arranges his features into some new configuration never seen before on the front of any living animal. It’s like a time lapse film of a drunk playing with an Identikit.

  5. Dafoe made a lasting impression on me when I first saw him in Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA in its initial release. I thought he was very scary/funny menacing Laura Dern in Lynch’s WILD AT HEART, much like Stockwell was scary/funny in BLUE VELVET. Don’t know if I’ll be seeing him in ANTI-CHRIST, not sure I could handle what that film has to offer the discerning viewer. His mouth is his most salient feature, wide and thin-lipped, I almost expect a tongue to come lashing out to pluck an insect from the air.

  6. Antichrist is never exactly dull, but shuns cohesion so religiously I feel no reason to respect it. Mainly felt sorry for the cast, which is never a good sign.

  7. I watched Grand Duke’s Finances a couple months ago while trying to fall asleep on a plane. It worked, but I woke needing to know what would happen to the ridiculous professor Collin, so watched the second half a couple hours later. Without having studied either of them very carefully, I’d say I enjoyed the Grand Duke more than I did Phantom. Grand Duke didn’t always make sense, but was always moving in one direction or another, whereas Phantom felt like a 45-minute story given too much atmospheric breathing room.

  8. Maybe Murnau made every film he was going to make in his head long before he made them, or maybe he really had supernatural connections. William Dafoes father was a highly regarded doctor here in Appleton.
    One of his patients was the locally famous boy who was born without a face (and later attended high school with Billy) – a Victor Hugo story with a happy ending.

  9. Christopher Says:

    a Max Schreck sighting?..thats a bit of a rare thing isn’t it?

  10. For a long time there was this bogus mystery about Who Was Max Schreck? This eventually inspired Shadow of the Vampire, which suggests that he was a real bloodsucker, but in fact his film career was already fairly well documented — Nosferatu is his one big role, but he was always busy.

  11. Maybe that boy was born without a face because Willem Dafoe has enough face for at least two people.

  12. Christopher Says:

    after all these years..I’ve never really got a good look at Max Schreck..come on..lets see some pictures then!

  13. I love a good Max Schreck argument.

  14. I’d love to see that! I’ve seen a few Foreman plays and have been slowly getting more into them. They seem to make progressively more sense, somehow. Dafoe certainly seems like he could fit right in.

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