One of Conrad Veidt’s relatively few French films, LE JOUER D’ECHECS (THE CHESS PLAYER, aka THE DEVIL IS AN EMPRESS, 1938) is a remake of a Raymond Bernard original which, disgracefully, I’ve yet to see. I would rather see it on the big screen but I don’t know when THAT’S likely to happen.

I owe the director, Jean Dréville, an unpaid debt, since big chunks of his groundbreaking behind-the-scenes documentary AUTOUR DE L’ARGENT are used in NATAN.

As feature director, he has good and bad points. Bits of this films are spectacularly overdirected in the best possible way, with the camera rushing up to people, repeatedly, like Sam Raimi’s happy dog, and all the stuff with Veidt’s mechanical men (as we all know from THIEF OF BAGDAD, he was a very skilled autonomist, a regular Coppelius or Dr. Phibes) is wonderfully uncanny.

Dréville then, was touched with genius, and his documenting of L’Herbier’s financial crisis epic L’ARGENT confirms this. But this was his tenth film, and you’d think by this time he’d have learned about eyelines. But not only do his closeups not match, so that his distinguished cast (Françoise Rosay and Gaston Modot also appear) seem to be continually staring off into space rather than at one another, but he arbitrarily intercuts, say, a profile of Veidt and a full-face view of Rosay, gaining nothing but visual chaos from the experiment.

Where was la script-girl?

However, despite the headslapping moments which are frequent, there are enough genuine whoahs — and I don’t think they’re all slavish copies of Bernard’s original —  to make me keen to try more of his rather flamboyant cinema.

But I should see the Raymond Bernard first.



3 Responses to “Puppetmaster”

  1. I have seen the Bernard film on the big screen. It is amazing.

  2. Ooh.

    The bits in Brownlow & Winterbottom’s Cinema Europe are mouthwatering.

  3. If he hadn’t learned about eyelines he’d definitely learned about guylines. Connie is more heavily made up here than he was in any silent short of Caligari. He’s good, but I think Rosay steals this one.

    I, too, have been tantalized by the Cinema Europe clips of the original.

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