Russian Lark

While doing a bit of side-research on THE 39 STEPS — side-research being the stuff that’s strictly work-avoidance — I ran KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, the big Korda misfire, directed by Jaques Feyder, whose LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE I had just revisited.

This film does rather waste everything it’s got — it has a lot, so it can afford to waste a lot, but as I say, it wastes everything. I have a suspicion Jacques Feyder is not quite my bag, which means I tend to appreciate the bits of his films which seem least successful, hardest to explain. LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE is almost entirely composed of such bits, so I like it a lot. KNIGHT’s biggest handicap is its lack of shape and drama, odd in a film with so much killing, romance, and headlong pursuit. With a bit of practice I might get to appreciate the way the film endlessly postpones its excitement, then repeats the same capture-escape cycle for the last hour. As it is, there are little glimmers of interest along the way —

Here’s Michael Redgrave in what may be his first film role — unlisted by the IMDb! Gloweringly fervid, he’s actually too exciting for the film, but by no means hammy or “theatrical” in a bad way. (I’m not mistaken, I hope — I thought I spotted Hitchcock fave John Williams, but it proved to be Austin Trevor.)

And here’s Moscow, elegantly imagined by Feyder and Clair’s regular production designer, Lazare Meerson. Much of this film boasts enormous reconstructions of Russian revolution scenes, so it’s a little surprising to find such a minimalist Moscow. Very effective and convincing, though.

Dietrich and Donat (who have surprising quasi-chemistry) circle each other for the first half hour without meeting, thirty minutes devoted to explaining why Donat, an Englishman, has become a Red Comissar. First he’s a journalist, due to be kicked out of Tsarist Russia for his too-honest articles — a complete retread of Olivier’s role in THE YELLOW TICKET. But swiftly he’s recruited by His Majesty’s Secret Service, in a surprisingly convincing, low-key scene — the functionary buys him dinner and drops a hint. Then he infiltrates the revolutionary movement, gets implicated in an assassination attempt, spends two years as a prisoner in Siberia, and is liberated by the Bolsheviks and finally is placed in charge of aristocratic prisoner Marlene Dietrich (the only Russian with a German accent — the rest are English and Scottish and say things like “What the dickens?”).

During all this circumlocutory preamble, Marlene just swans about in frocks, searching for a subplot she can call her own, but without her usual success.

It’s 39 STEPS time again when Donat goes on the run with this blonde, hunted by both sides — but the promising cross-country pursuit is continually interrupted by captures and escapes which always depend on ludicrous amounts of luck. But the train station with the mad railway guard (Dundonian character thesp Hay Petrie’s finest role: in THE FALLEN IDOL he just walks in and winds the clocks) is very fine, and a scene of Donat reciting Browning to Dietrich is actually sublime — Donat’s voice, the verse, and Miklos Rosza’s underscoring and Marlene’s wide, luminous eyes… The Adam & Eve idyll in the forest is beautifully shot by Harry Stradling.

Peter Bull plays another commissar, a little glimpse into how the Russian ambassador of DR STRANGELOVE started his career, perhaps. There’s also Miles Malleson — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!” — and Raymond Huntley! Yay, Raymond Huntley!

Korda contract player John Clements gets to steal the show — a romantic Russian who dies for love, he basically usurps Donat’s role, leaving the whole thing to sort of fray away to a Grand Finally. We realize that the central relationship hasn’t developed past love at first sight, the jeopardy has all been of the same sort, and so the movie’s been running in place for an hour, as gigantic Meerson sets trundle past. No wonder the thing didn’t do well.

But as a sort of fantasy travelogue of the Russian revolution, sort of diverting, and never less than beautiful, visually. Haunted by history, since a traditional Happy Ending is impossible with Russia as one of the main characters. Impossible to this day, arguably.

Knight Without Armour (1937)

7 Responses to “Russian Lark”

  1. Whilst agreeing with some of what you say about the plot, I can’t help but fall for this film. It’s the boots, the caps, the fur hat … and can you really not resist ‘Do you like my forest? Do you like me, comrade?’? I’ve yet to read Hilton’s original novel, but I believe the ending is rather different in the book.
    Picked up an out of print biog. of Korda recently. Makes interesting reading, though I haven’t got very far with it yet. I love how he chose his name: he saw ‘Sursum corda’ above a Bucharest music hall and adopted it as his signature, and later adapted it for his name, and his brothers followed suit.

  2. Lazare Meerson also designed Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent (a Zola adaptation not to be confused with Bresson’s film of the same name.)

    Marlene Dietrich always speaks with a Marlene Dietrich accent. Even in German.

    I rather like Miklos Roza’s score.

  3. Rosza sometimes falls into just kind of doing what he does, in a slightly predictable or inappropriate way… but I love this one, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is one of my favourite scores ever.

    Just saw some of Meerson’s production sketches for Rene Clair in the Cinematheque…

  4. david wingrove Says:

    The behind-the-scenes shenanigans on KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR sound far more exciting than anything we see on screen. Marlene apparently made her standard attempt to seduce her co-star Robert Donat, and couldn’t believe that he just wasn’t interested…

    “What’s wrong with him, is he a homosexual?”

    “No, Miss Dietrich, he’s a happily married man.”

    “Why should that matter? I’m happily married too.”

    “But all he wants to do after a day’s shooting is go home to his wife.”

    “And what does he do all that time, at home with his wife?”

    “They like to work in the garden.”

    “A garden? A man with a face like that and he works in a garden?! Really, this country is too much!”

    Finding she had time on her hands, Marlene allegedly slept with King Edward VIII…in a last-ditch attempt to stop him marrying “that terrible woman” Wallis Simpson. It didn’t work.

  5. Oh that Marlene! If she had never existed no one could possibly have invented her.

    Not even Ronald Firbank.

  6. Another name and face that stood out for me in this film was the ubiquitous Hay Petrie, who plays the unhinged station master waiting for trains that punctually fail to arrive in reality, but not so in his mind. For some reason I found that small segment startling, and one of the most memorable in the film. Petrie was in so many films of note, from Powell’s THE SPY IN BLACK to Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS. He even played the murderous barber in (THE SILK) NOOSE. I’ve become quite fond of him. Also there’s Guy Rolfe, who impressed me greatly in Hamer’s THE SPIDER AND THE FLY, in a small bit. And yes, the sight of Peter Bull’s bulldog jowls never fails to delight me for some reason.

  7. You’re right, Petrie is terrific — that’s where the film starts to take life, both because the leads have finally MET, and because a fine supporting cast start to make their presence felt. There’s a promise, almost fulfilled, that the journey across revolution-torn Russia will be filled with such hallucinatory encounters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: