Archive for Conrad Veidt

The Sunday Intertitle: Rogue Statesman

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2010 by dcairns

THE BELOVED ROGUE, in which John Barrymore embodies swashbuckling poet François Villon, had haunted my imagination for almost thirty years when I finally saw it. My earliest definite encounter with the movie was in Brownlow and Gill’s epic documentary series Hollywood, where one episode examined the art of special effects in the twenties, and dissected a marvelous stunt where Barrymore is apparently catapulted across the rooftops of Paris and into his romantic interest’s bedroom. I was entranced by the panache and the artifice — amazing sets by William Cameron Menzies, presenting a skewed, expressionistic medieval city like something out of a Maurice Noble Bugs Bunny background, and zesty performances from a cluster of extreme physical types.

Now, I have an even earlier memory which may relate to this film: as a kid, I was excited by an extract from a silent adventure movie which featured a group of heroes of varying physical dimensions_- I think one was a dwarf. As I grooved to Barrymore’s athletic romp, I started to suspect that this movie, released by the Killiam Collection, was the source of that that same long-forgotten clip: Killiam did create a TV series out of sequences from notable silent movies… But I can’t be sure.

Barrymore’s buddies in his Robin Hoodesque capers are played by Slim Summerville (slim), Mack Swain (fat) and Angelo Rossitto (short), three noteworthy thesps with striking bodies and striking bodies of work. Slim made his debut as a Keystone Cop and racked up two hundred pictures, including outings for John Ford and Fritz Lang. Swain was Chaplin’s co-star in THE GOLD RUSH, sharing a meal made from a boot, the role for which he’ll always be remembered, but he too had a long history at Keystone, continuing into talkies as a but-part player. Angelo Rossitto is most celebrated for his work in FREAKS, where he seems to be the leader of the troupe, although this is more to do with his natural authority than with any textual evidence to be found in the script. He certainly has more authority than you’d expect in a man of 2’11 in height, with legs curved fantastically outwards as if his bean-shaped torso rested upon a horseshoe. Discovered for the movies by Barrymore, he makes his debit here aged 19, and would keep acting until 1987, although he had to support himself most of that time by running a newsstand.

This startling gang of misfits are given nothing to work with save their outlandish appearances, and serve basically to support the dashing Barrymore and make him look more handsome. And Barrymore IS startlingly impressive as a leading man, before cynicism and alcohol got the better of him: not only a Great profile, but a Great Physique.

Lovely Legs Night in the Pit of Despair.

Every player in the movie is a beautifully designed caricature, from the charming Marceline Day, who even manages to project innocent allure while wearing a hat that looks like a cross between a tea-cosy and a wasp’s face. The slender but inventive plot involves Villon protecting Paris from the depredations of the Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt), but his real enemy is the King whose interests he protects. As Louis XI, Conrad Veidt does such a great job of portraying a craven halfwit in thrall to superstition that he risks capsizing the whole movie — it’s impossible to care about the political issues covered in the story since it’s almost certain that France would be in safer hands with the sadistic Burgundy in charge rather than the moronic Louis. But one can’t begrudge Veidt his fervid overplaying, which makes all his scenes thrilling and neurotically warped. His entrance, a long tracking shot in which he creeps forward into the shadowy and tilting set, sporting a creepy centre-parting of the kind favoured by the late John Cazale, has a crazy splendour.

The Big Shave.

Remarkable how a combination of unnecessarily gargantuan talents (at least three geniuses: Barrymore, Veidt, Menzies), voluminous production values, and sheer energy, can rescue  a pretty straightahead cut-and-paste job in which highlights from the Dwan-Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD jostle with set-pieces from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (the Feast of Fools, the Court of Miracles). I mean, such a cheeky combo was always going to be fun, but this movie is like a Superman comic drawn by Daumier.

The Sunday Intertitle: Jesus Speaks

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by dcairns

I know, I know. Not great quality.

From THE WANDERING JEW (1933), directed by Maurice Elvey, who’s best known for THE CLAIRVOYANT (Claude Rains and Fay Wray) and a lively silent version of HINDLE WAKES, a much-filmed regional comedy. By the end of his career, Elvey had declined to slapstick comedies with Tommy Trinder.

But THE WANDERING JEW is another kettle of fish and loaves. Conrad Veidt gives it his all as the titular semitic itinerant, in a tale which takes its starting point from the medieval yarn about the Jew cursed to walk the earth, immortal, until the Second Coming, his punishment for spitting on Christ. The story is obviously anti-semitic at heart, but the filmmakers try to turn things around and make Veidt an analogue for the suffering of the Jewish people. He is redeemed during the Spanish Inquisition (helmed by reliable fat baddie Francis L Sullivan, whose work here may have landed him a similar role of corpulent corruption in Sternberg’s abortive I, CLAUDIUS) where the film seems to be taking aim at the modern embodiments of prejudice and hatred. A pity they didn’t go all the way and bring the WJ into modern times, where he could denounce Hitler and Goebbels. But I guess in 1933 Britain was in a more… placatory mood.

Of course, the implicit and explicit Christianity of the story kind of warps the pro-semitic good intentions, but you can see somebody meant well, meant to make a brave and powerful statement, and then just kind of got a bit lost.

Anyway, the image above demonstrates Jesus cursing the WJ — we never see the Christ directly, and even his speech is represented by an intertitle, or, more correctly, a surtitle, which shrinks onto the screen until we can read it, or almost. “I will not wait on you, but you shall wait for me until I come to you again.” Conrad then helpfully repeats the text for the benefit of any slow readers, and for those future generations viewing on a ratty copy with image so degraded you can hardly see anything. I like the idea that Jesus is so holy he can’t be seen directly by movie cameras (cf Wyler’s BEN HUR), and am even more impressed by the notion that his speech can only be represented through superimposed text. That’s some messiah! On the other hand, I am slightly surprised at the notion of Christ going around cursing people. That’s not how I imagined him, somehow.

Elsewhere in the movie, Peggy Ashcroft is a young Spanish hottie, and Hugo Riesenfeld contributes a striking score — 30s British movies have their own very different musical sound — which, unfortunately, never seems to shut up for a minute.

Veidt Shadows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2009 by dcairns


The 1924 original version of HANDS OF ORLAC, from Robert “CALIGARI” Weine, is too classy a film really to fit in with my demented quest to see all the films illustrated  in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but it is in the book, and I did see it, thanks to regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak. There are horror movies you should see as a kid, and when you see them as a grown-up, you wish you’d seen them earlier (for me, THE BLACK ROOM, CURSE OF THE GOLEM and the silent THE LOST WORLD might be examples), but I don’t think I would have appreciated the lugubrious tone and pace of this one as a kiddie.

It’s also good that I’m seeing it now, since I can connect the stylistic flourishes of German expressionism to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a student of the German school. This week’s Hitch, NUMBER 17, is a particularly Teutonic crime tale.


Do you all know the story? Pianist Conrad Veidt plays Orlac, whose hands are smashed up in a train wreck, and is given the substitute extremities of a guillotined murderer. Strange stuff starts to happen, convincing Veidt that his paws retain the murderous proclivities of their previous owner. It’s all part of a fiendish plot by Fritz Kortner, the details of which are obscure enough to keep you guessing. For a while there, I thought that Kortner actually intended to make Veidt murder his own father, by convincing him that his hands were animated by malevolent will.  That plot, worthy of VERTIGO’s Gavin Elster in its twisted complexity, proves to not quite be the case.

Weine here achieves delirious effects without overtly contorted or theatrical sets, although the designs by Hans Rouc and Stefan Wessely are glossy, disconcerting and non-ergonomic. Fiona particularly relished Veidt’s weirdly low hospital bed, which actively compels everybody to loom over him. The best effects are a mixture of lighting (those deep dark jagged shadows, how we adore them!) and performance. Veidt is extraordinary, a floppy-haired stick insect, his brow furrowed into a taut brainscape of clenched convolutions. He does things in this film no actor has ever even thought of doing. I mean, he tries to throw his hands off! He tries to run away from them. Sometimes he literally holds them at arms’ length, as if they’re ablaze, or they smell really bad. At other times they try to crawl inside his face. At one point he looks set to moonwalk. “Michael Jackson!” Fiona cried. “It don’t matter if you’re black or Veidt,” I offered, lamely.


Alexandra Sorina is Mrs. Orlac, her eyes rolling about like electrified pearls, barely contained by the rings of kohl surrounding them. Actively demented before anything’seven  happened, she does the impossible and keeps pace with Veidt’s physical insanity.

And then there’s Kortner, who has a hard job, appearing as a diabolical villain in such eccentric company, but he has a brilliant strategy — rather than wholeheartedly adopting the contortions and gesticulations of the expressionist style, or merging into the more naturalistic, low-key approach of the supporting players, he alternates between the two, so that you never know what you’re going to get next. Kortner also deploys his astonishing face and body extremely well: he looks like a malignant, pugilistic baby.

Of course, the pachyderm in the parlour is Karl Freund’s Hollywood remake, MAD LOVE, an excellent horror movie (the version to see when you’re twelve) that substitutes a fast-moving parade of grotesquerie and nonsense for the glacial creep of the Weine. The silent movie has nothing that can compare withPeter Lorre’s appearance as the decapitated, reanimated murderer, with black rubber prosthetic forelimbs, fetishistic neck brace, and clockwork cackle, fore-runner to the wind-up Nazi in Del Toro’s HELLBOY.

Lorre, playing a dude, pretending to be another dude — the most balls-out horrific thing in any 30s horror movie.


But Kortner, deprived of Lorre’s snazzy costume, still does well, moving his plastic-bound arms as if they were stilts, somehow, convincing us that these are foreign appendages buckled to his lardy body. His clunkinessmakes a superb contrast with Veidt’s writhing and slinking.

It’s cinema as spastic ballet!*


*The phrase “spastic ballet” is copyright Arthur Penn, who used it to describe what he wanted from Beatty and Dunaway when they’re machine-gunned to death at the end of BONNIE AND CLYDE. But on take one, somehow Beatty didn’t get the signal, and while Faye Dunaway spectacularly died in slow motion behind him, Beatty just stood there with a faint, puzzled grin as bits of his head blew off. “I wish I’d kept that bit of film,” says Penn.