The Sunday Nontertitle: Three Finger Salute

So, according to my calendar, one week after the vernal equinox announced the coming of Spring, we have the start of British Summertime (a contradiction in terms if I ever heard one). I never knew Spring was only a week long, but now that I do, it kind of makes sense.

To celebrate a Summer that isn’t a Summer, we have an intertitle that isn’t an intertitle. For Arthur Robison’s WARNING SHADOWS is title-free, apart from the opening credits. Above, we see how they signify the start of Act III. Now, a silent without intertitles is like a day without sunshine to me — even THE LAST LAUGH has one. But, on the other hand, the fewer the titles, the more effective the cinematic storytelling — or the simpler the story.

An overwrought Fritz Kortner smashes his mirror, an action Robison liked so much he gave it to Anton Walbrook in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE — who repeated it in THE RED SHOES..

WARNING SHADOWS actually has a rather sophisticated narrative, disguised as a straightforward one. The “nocturnal hallucination” structure goes well beyond the usual “it-was-all-a-dream” bookends in terms of ambiguity, resonance and meta-narrative allusiveness. The sinister shadow-puppeteer, at once Hoffmannesque and reminiscent of the creepy cobbler in THE RED SHOES, is an obvious stand-in for the filmmaker himself, presenting a cautionary fable with such artistry that we all mistake it for reality.

The film is subtitled “A NOCTURNAL HALLUCINATION” — and they don’t mean this bit!

Robison seems an interesting guy — an American who became an archetypal German expressionist filmmaker, with both this and the sound version of THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE starring Anton Walbrook. Also a British version of THE INFORMER with Lars Hanson an unlikely Irishman. Further study is warranted. Here, he has the services of designer Albin Grau and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, both from NOSFERATU.

In WARNING SHADOWS, a tousled Fritz Kortner is tormented by homicidal jealousy regarding his wife, with her Grecian costume and strange, funnel-shaped hairdo. The arrival of a grimacing shadow-puppeteer leads to an extended revenge phantasie, making this the German expressionist version of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (itself a screwball Othello). Fritz Rasp (the newly-restored Thin Man of METROPOLIS) plays a snide footman, his centre-parting extending right down to the back of his neck, a striking look in a film marked by tonsorial eccentricity from the off.

We also get Rudolph Klein-Rogge, and Alexander Granach (Knock, the Renfield character from NOSFER) is “the Shadowplayer” — a unique performance attained mainly by thrusting his arse out in an insolent fashion. I may have to make him my avatar.

The cast is frozen in time in this Last Supper pose/composition, so that Granach can project an instructive shadowplay inside their dreaming minds — a metaphor for the cinema itself?

Verdict: grotesque beauty. Not a horror movie, really, so Denis Gifford’s featuring two stills from it in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies is sheer perversity, of the kind we love him for. This may have been the last GOOD film in his book left for me to see…

Buy Kino’s DVD and rescue me from penury: Warning Shadows – A Nocturnal Hallucination

9 Responses to “The Sunday Nontertitle: Three Finger Salute”

  1. Trying to think of other silent films with little or no title cards. There’ The Man With A Movie Camera of course, and as I recall The Last Laugh.

    (That’s the great Jean-Louis Trintignant on your banner, correct?)

  2. Correct. Was entertaining myself with framegrabbing The Conformist. Every image is a joy, of course, though not every image can be slice to fit the banner.

    The Last Laugh has a single title to introduce its Bokononist mock-happy-ending. So the ending violates the “realist” aesthetic and the title card violates the visual storytelling imperative, making it doubly blasphemous.

  3. Of course there’s hundreds of examples of early cinema that are just one shot and no titles, but late-silent sophistication usually has a text element.

  4. Christopher Says:

    as long as nobody’s saying anything I guess,but I find myself getting annoyed if a inter card dosen’t come up soon..

  5. You’d get over that frustration with this one, after the first half-hour anyway. The only unclear part is the actual shadow puppet show, some kind of Japonisme affair which we couldn’t make head nor tale of, although I suspect it’s a microcosm of the movie’s own storyline.

  6. Judy Dean Says:

    Buster Keaton to Studs Terkel: “We eliminated subtitles just as fast as we could, if we could possibly tell it in action.”

    Keaton and Chaplin had a friendly contest to see who could use the least number, which Chaplin won (21 against Keaton’s 23).

  7. Keaton, though he disparaged wordplay in the talkies, was more inclined to use his titles to get an extra joke or two in.

    Chaplin’s are more plain storytelling devices — and with City Lights he achieves the most sublime dialogue exchange of the silent age.

    Look out for an appearance by both these boys later in the week.

  8. Paul Synnott Says:

    The stills in Gifford’s book always intrigued me, and the above are also amazing.

  9. Oh, every frame is a delight. No skill was required in selecting satisfactory images!

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