Bull Montana does what Bull Montana does best.
It was Hogmanay, in Edinburgh, the most Hogmaniacal city on this particular hemisphere of the planet, and we were all set to go round to friend Nicola’s to celebrate in comfort and warmth and alcoholic haze but (1) Nicola got a stinking cold and (2) I got a stinking cold, which meant Fiona and I celebrated in front of the TV with a good film, which is my answer to any crisis anyway (my late friend Lawrie, octogenarian, frequently housebound, paralysed down one side, after watching any decent film: “Ah, life is good“).
The film chosen was VICTORY, about which you can read a bit here (am I David Bordwell’s publicist? Or just a long-distance stalker?) — apart from its many dramatic and aesthetic merits, the film may contain cinema’s earliest over-the-shoulder shot, we learn. One of the great things about the o-t-s shot is that, used sparingly, it can still seem as fresh as when Maurice Tourneur tried it out in 1919. In THE KNACK, Richard Lester avoids the standard shot-reverse-shot formula so consistently that when he does do it, near the start and near the end, it seems almost like some crazy sixties gimmick he’s come up with, along with jump-cutting the actors around a park or winding the film backwards.
VICTORY is a 9-10ths faithful 1-crucial-10th travesty of Joseph Conrad’s novel, which incidentally Lester once planned to make with a screenplay by Pinter. The Great Harold’s script perhaps short-changes us on the romantic aspect of the story, which Tourneur and his scenarist Jules Furthman (later of Sternberg-Hawks affiliation) allows more expression, as you’d expect, but they cop out on the tragic ending. The result is a slightly weird moral to the story which equates true love with homicide — both are things you apparently have to be prepared to do if you want to live a full life. Hmm.
BUT — the film is visually a treat, with many many striking images. Conrad’s dastardly villains are one part of his novels that the movies can really get down with — see James Mason in LORD JIM as a frinstance — and here we can exult in Wallace Beery, Lon Chaney, LOST WORLD man-myth Bull Montana and a terrifying fellow called Ben Deeley as the psycho-albino Mr Jones, who becomes somewhat less terrifying as the film progresses but starts off as the most terrifying specter I’ve ever seen in a silent movie. Scarier than Chaney!
Nevertheless, Chaney is impressive, with an unpleasant makeup and some impressive athletic work, and that powerful presence and ability to distort his body in expressive, expressionistic ways. What a performer he was. This shouldn’t really be considered as “a Lon Chaney movie” — it’s early in his career and he has only a supporting part, but in many ways, it utterly IS — the grotesquerie and violence, faithfully transferred from Conrad (a moment where a character falls face-first into a bonfire is an unconvincing special effect but memorably wince-making all the same) seem to exact prefigure Chaney’s later stick-in-trade.
Maurice Tourneur, whose work is nearly all hard to see via legit channels, is somebody who really should be honoured with a fat box set sometime. Here’s what’s available just now in the USA — I highly recommend it all. Nothing whatever is available in the UK.
NB — if you follow the links and buy anything from Amazon, I get a percentage!