Conrad Veidt: The Sound Years. Part 2 – Der Mann, der den Mord beging/The Man Who Murdered 1931

Hello. I’m Fiona Watson, Mrs Shadowplay, and I’m back to carry out my threat to review Conrad Veidt’s sound career, in chronological order, or at least, the order listed on the IMDb. Because there’s far more to him than the kohl-smeared, expressionist flailer of the Silent Era.

I would have liked to review EA Dupont’s Menschen im Käfig/ Men(People) In A Cage/ The Love Storm 1930, shot in England at British International Pictures (made in English as Cape Forlorn), but I can’t because this film is listed as missing. (The English language version ISN’T missing) What I can offer you instead, is the opinion of an unknown journalist in Variety who writes, ‘Conrad Veidt still has much of the demon whom the little girls once upon a time used to adore, therefore unreal and posing.’ Short of nipping into a time machine to a screening in Berlin at Gloria Palast, there’s nothing I can do to refute this opinion.

So, here we are in 1931, and it’s a busy, busy time for Connie. The Last Company 1930 was a big hit in Germany and would herald his brief stint as an almost conventional leading man. In this year alone, he had four films released. Unfortunately, Die Nacht Der Entscheidung aka Der General/The Night Of The Decision is missing presumed lost, which is a great pity.

The English language version, The Virtuous Sin 1930, was directed by George Cukor, who Connie would later work with on A Woman’s Face. The 1931 German version gave us Connie doing romantic dramedy (Yes. I know!) whilst looking dashing as a WW1 Russian General. Unfortunately, there’s probably more chance of finding the jaunty Cossack hat he wears in it than the film itself. Could someone please make an effort etc…

Actually there is a way of recreating this lost movie. Just watch the Cukor version and imagine Connie in the Walter Huston role and Olga Tschechowa in the Kay Francis role. You can thank me later. Especially when you imagi-create the bit on the seesaw.

But back to the mainstream of this evening’s symposium. The Man Who Murdered is an adaptation of a play by Pierre Frondaie, itself based on a novel by Claude Farrère. It’s a slow-moving, technically impressive, if not exactly riveting drama, reuniting Veidt with Kurt Bernhardt who helmed The Last Company. Bernhardt was one of the directors who seemed to get the best out of Connie. He gives one of the most restrained performances of his life in this film. It’s notable for its naturalness and detail.

SYNOPSIS – Just before the First World War, the Marquis de Sévigné (Veidt), a French military attaché stationed in Istanbul, falls in love with Lady Mary (Trude von Molo – who was married to the director at the time), the wife of Lord Falkland (Heinrich George), a boorish, English aristocrat. He tries to protect her when the marriage, crumbling under Falkland’s infidelity and tyranny, is given the final death blow when he threatens to separate her from her small son, Georgie. Sévigné is put in an intolerable position. What lengths will he go to to save her?

Open on the vistas of Istanbul, shot on location by the second unit, headed by the great John Alton. Long shot of the dome of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Match dissolve to painting of the same dome being hung on the wall in Connie’s apartments. Nicely done Kurt! Kurt is also keen on long tracking shots, and he really indulges himself in this movie. Very lovely they are too.

It’s a long way to Connie’s table, isn’t it?

On to performance. Something I’ve noticed about Talkie Connie is that he’s no longer gesticulating and gurning and throwing himself around like a madman, but he’s still a very physical actor.

He’s become elegant and balletic in his body movements, while his face is extremely expressive without him having to pop his eyes or leer. Even in the not-very-good, soft-focus print I saw, he conveys so much with his face and body. As I said in my introductory essay, A Face You Can’t Forget But Apparently Have, he’s pared his silent style down to the bare minimum, whilst simultaneously taking on board a whole new set of sound acting rules.

Check this out. Look at the way he turns round, well, it’s more like swings round and at the same time the smile falls off his face. (He’s expecting to see his lady love but it’s someone else.) His body movements are completely in sync with his face. The arms drop as the smile drops. Beautiful.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that in all his performances, his hands are rarely at rest. They’re almost always doing something, usually in an extremely aesthetically pleasing way. It’s as if he’d become completely paralysed if he couldn’t move his hands. He’s one of the great Hand Actors of all time. But it’s not fussy (although hilarious), Donald Pleasance Hanky Acting; it just seems to flow out of him naturally.

Just a very sweet moment of Sévigné interacting with Georgie. In real life Connie adored children and animals. Yes, that incorrigible Nazi and Expressionist nightmare was an adorable giggler.

If I could just go off on a tangent, I spoke before about Connie possibly having had ADHD. As I have it myself I was intrigued by this fan theory so I spent some time researching it. I think it’s very likely, although I’m wary about retroactively diagnosing someone when we’ll never know the truth.

One of the things that persuades me is that he’s physically restless. He’s either shifting about from one foot to the other, bouncing on the spot or swaying slightly. By a supreme effort of will he can make himself move in slow motion or even be as still as a statue. But his default setting on screen is movement.

And never more so than with his hands. He’s always using them to emphasise things. He points a lot and fidgets with objects. He touches his face or head, running his fingers through his hair, or bringing his fingers up to his lips contemplatively. Sometimes he’ll even rub his lips or pull on them. He also touches people, invading their personal space in a slightly alarming way. If he didn’t do it so charmingly you’d probably punch his lights out.

Famously, his hands had a life of their own in Orlacs Hände.

I’ve noticed that I employ very similar hand gestures when I’m talking myself. If I get very excited, my arms start flailing around like a windmill. I observed this inability to speak without moving my hands when I started making video essays with David and had to record voice-overs. I was completely stilted if I didn’t move my hands, but if I allowed them to weave about in the air, as I usually do when I talk, my speech was much more fluid.

I’d go as far as saying that ADHD informed Connie’s performances. There’s an energy and restive quality to him that’s sometimes ruthlessly controlled and sometimes not. I know that in his private life he suffered from extreme emotional dysregulation which is another dead giveaway.

There’s also his boyishness. Individuals with ADHD are very enthusiastic and childlike, sometimes to the point of seeming manic or high. All of these things were present in Connie and would sometimes pop out in his performances. The next time you watch him, especially in Contraband (especially especially in the “Which Button Would You Press?” scene with Hay Petrie), where he basically plays himself. I’m not wrong.

From 1:18:28 to 1:19:05 – In all probability, this is a representation of the real Connie getting flustered in a lift. Bless ‘im. Thanks to Dubjax 30.

Another thing I observed, much to my horror, is that The Entire World is Connie’s ashtray. He’ll casually tap cigarette ash wherever he is, indoors or outdoors, with or without an ash receptacle. And he does this in most of his sound films. Were other actors doing this at the time? I haven’t thought to look. I pray to god he wasn’t like this at home, but I fear he was.

His wife Lilli described him as “messy, things lying about all over the place”, when he wasn’t working, but the moment he had a job, he’d spring into action, tidying up and organising like a six-foot-three whirlwind.

Back in the film, the six-foot-three whirlwind confesses his love to Lady Mary, but inexplicably, she’s shagging a braying idiot called Prince Cernuwicz (Gregori Chmara) because she thought he could help her keep her son. Everyone’s getting their leg over except Connie. Even the repulsive Lord Falkland is having an affair with his cousin, Lady Edith (Friedl Haerlin).

The repellent Prince Cernuwicz and the repulsive Lord Falkland.
*thinks* I don’t even know what you’re doing to your wife at this juncture in the film and I want to murder you right now!

I feel I should caution you that there are tits in this film, which surprised me. The mammaries had no particularly surprising attributes of their own. It was their being in such an early talkie that startled me. Falkland, Cernuwicz and Sévigné all go out on the town. (Sévigné actually wants to gather evidence against “that bulldog.”) They end up in a bizarre cabaret that combines striptease with the circus trapeze: Stripeze if you will. Confronted by nipples and asked what he thinks of them, Connie, cunningly blending in with his mucky pretend mates declares them to be “Excellent.”

Watching ‘Stripeze’, the wildly popular combo of stripping and the flying trapeze. It’s not as exciting as that sounds.

There’s an interesting moment where Mary and Sévigné have a secret tryst where she tells him all about the terrible situation she’s in. They deliberately walk away from where the mic is hidden and walk back again, so the conversation fades away to nothing then fades up again. It’s not a successful effect but it does show us that Bernhardt wasn’t afraid to experiment.

Connie doesn’t even get a kiss for all the trouble he goes through for this wretched woman, that trouble being murder as the title suggests. And here we come to Connie Trope No 1 – He doesn’t get the girl. No matter how noble and devoted to duty he’s been, he can never end up in a final clinch with the woman of his dreams. This trope would be repeated many times over in his filmography.

The woman of his dreams avec son.

The dark deed done, he reports to his superior, hinting at the deadly truth of the matter. He’s told to skedaddle off to another city, which he duly does, leaving a note for Milady. It’s been a somewhat turgid melodrama with beautiful cinematography, some nice tracking shots and a delicate, yearning, elegant performance from Veidt, and now this. That’s it! That’s the end of the film! Talk about an anti-climax. Still, at least he gets to live! Just not in Istanbul Not Constantinople. The Connie Death Scene is a trope for another day.

Mylady, I have the honour to bid you farewell. I am leaving Stanbul. I take this opportunity to thank you. Your most devoted servant, de Sevigne. PS – I’m The Man Who Murdered your husband. PPS – I’m too noble for my own good. Next time you need someone murdered, do it yourself. xxx

As I researched this rather dreary thing, I uncovered a wealth of information about the talents involved in making it. Henry Koster as Hermann Kosterlitz, is listed as one of the screenwriters. He’s probably most famous as the director of Harvey and The Bishop’s Wife, but check out his hugely dramatic and entertaining IMDB Bio, Trivia and Quotes sections. “I thought Richard Burton was a wonderful man. He still is a wonderful man, no matter how many times he marries Elizabeth Taylor.” Amazing.

And then we have one of the other screenwriters, Carl Mayer, listed as working on dialogue. Yes. THAT Carl Mayer. The man who co-wrote The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and worked on the scripts for Journey Into The Night, The Haunted Castle, The Last Laugh, and Sunrise, all for FW Murnau.

Bringing up the rear are cinematographer Curt Courant who shot the first The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Passing Of The Third Floor Back (one of the best of the bunch of Connie’s British Period), Editor Laslo Benedek who directed The Wild One, and Hermann Warm, who was Art Director/Production Designer on The Student Of Prague 1926 (Connie version), Caligari, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and Vampyr.

Phew! And relax…

Join me as we explore the next film in the little discussed Veidt sound filmography, Die andere Seite/ The Other Side, in which German actors all play British soldiers in an adaptation of R. C Sherriff’s Journey’s End.

Danke.

9 Responses to “Conrad Veidt: The Sound Years. Part 2 – Der Mann, der den Mord beging/The Man Who Murdered 1931”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    What you’ve isolated here, particularly in regad to his hands, is that Connie I one of the cinema’s greatest EXOTICS — right up there with Dietrich, Anna Mae Wong and Maria Montez. Valentino and Novarro played exotic characters but at heart they were always nice young men doing “dress up.” With Connie it all comes straight from his heart and soul. There was nothing remotely “normal” about him — which is of course why we love him.

  2. Fiona Watson Says:

    I’ve never felt ‘normal.’ I didn’t receive my ADHD diagnosis until quite late on. I was 52. I’m quite happy to let my Freak Flag fly but I must admit, there is a certain amount of sadness attached to not fulfilling my true potential.

    I haven’t mentioned Veidt’s bisexuality and how it may have consciously or subconsciously affected his performances. What’s rather disturbing is how many people insist on monosexuality. Even Andrew Macdonald, writing about his grandfather Emeric Pressburger, refuses to believe the rumours circulating at the time about Veidt’s past Berlin lifestyle.

    There’s an interesting link between ADHD and bisexuality. People with ADHD are for more comfortable with it than the rest of the population because many of us are hypersexual. The gender of the individual giving/receiving the pleasure wouldn’t matter, because pleasure is pleasure. Full stop.

    Of course it’s entirely possible to be separately ADHD and bisexual, but from what I’ve read, Connie fits the ADHD profile extremely well. Obviously I’ll be writing about this in more detail later.

    Connie’s certainly ‘exotic’. He’s like some kindly alien that’s popped in to observe the human ‘norms’ and developed an unshakable attachment to them. I’d have to disagree about his acting prowess. I think he’s more versatile than those you mentioned, it’s just that most people who haven’t been exposed to his sound filmography haven’t seen that he could move from traumatic WW1 drama to comedy with ease.

  3. The young Veidt would have been an excellent Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

  4. Fiona Watson Says:

    Agreed!

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    In the American commercial cinema sexual “roles” are quite rigid. Men are supposed to behave one way ad women another. This has been scrupulously maintained until very recent times As you know I wrote a whole book about Gay Hollywood. That Connie got work hre at all is remarkable. Among Bi actors my favorite is Alan Bates. I know that Michael Powell greatly enjoyed working with Connie, however he made a point of calling Anton Walbrook “The Prince of Homosexuality.”

  6. Michael Powell joined Andrew Macdonald, who was in turn channelling Pressburger I imagine, in being adamant about Connie’s monosexuality, straight division. Almost weirdly so in Powell’s case. I suppose it was a function of when they knew him.

  7. Fiona Watson Says:

    Hi David, Connie’s second Hollywood sojourn (He was in Hollywood for 3 years in the late silent era) was almost accidental. He came over to get Contraband/Blackout distributed, intending to come back to the UK as he’d become a British Citizen, and ended up being offered the part of General Kurt von Kolb in Escape, taking over from Paul Lukas.

    What happened after that was quite surprising. His performance was met with ”ahem” enthusiasm from members of the female populace, leading to the only acting award he ever won in his life (from the National Board Of Review) and a contract with MGM. It was his rather sympathetic in places portrayal of Von Kolb that got the ladies (and probably some men) all astir, so afterwards he made a point of playing Nazis, who he’d had direct dealings with of course, as the fascist, idiot, bastards they were.

    His past life in 1920’s Hollywood seems to have been completely forgotten.

    There’s a fascinating compare and contrast video available between the Cukor directed reshoot of the ending and the original.

    Shearer’s bloody awful in the original. Thank god for Cukor!

  8. Simon Kane Says:

    That’s an astonishing video

  9. It’s a bit like the screen tests for Rebecca, where you can see Hollywood’s finest trying and failing to play “shy” – and you can see the genius of the system, as embodied by Hitchcock and Selznick, making the right pick. There seem to be very few clips that give an insight into studio production in a compare-contrast way like this.

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