Archive for Harry Piel

The Sunday Intertitle: Booby hatch/trap

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2021 by dcairns

Since we’re making a video essay about Joe May’s THE INDIAN TOMB (1921), we’re naturally also digging into Fritz Lang again, since he co-wrote it with Thea Von Harbou. Lang is more distinguished than May, a genius rather than a sometimes-astute craftsman and businessman with moments of wizardry. Also, there is far more Lang available to see than there is of May’s long oeuvre.

Some of this research was already done — you can buy my video essays accompanying CLOAK AND DAGGER, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, DER MUDE TOD and SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.

So, we rewatched SPIONE and THE TESTAMENT OF DR, MABUSE and THE 1,000 EYES of same, and Lang’s own remake of the TOMB, which he liked to trash-talk later as “Indienschnulze” (India-tearjerker) and as DER TIGER VON DEXTROPUR (The Corn-sugar Tiger) and DAS KINDISCHE GRABMAL (the Childish Tomb). Thanks to Ulrich Ruedel for the nicknames and translations.

TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE stands out among the films we watched — I had always sort of doubted Lang’s word when he said he’d put Nazi slogans in the mouths of criminals, but it depends how good the translations are. On the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray you can hear Professor Baum (L. Frank?) speak of a thousand-year empire of crime. If you assume that Lang, in some way, saw the writing on the wall with his one good eye, or with some other, better eye, then the film’s ending is really remarkable:

Baum is reduced to gibbering insanity, as Mabuse had been, when his empire crumbles. The asylum attendant closes the door to lock him into the padded cell. And he closes it on us, too. Everything goes black and we hear the lock click with finality over a massive ENDE.

Assume it’s not modern mankind Lang intended to incarcerate in the loony bin (but it could be). Assume he senses on some unconscious level that he’ll soon be leaving the country. Assume it’s Germany that’s being shut up with the raving maniac, left behind.

Lang thrillers sometimes sag a bit in the middle — I think SPIONE does — but they kick in and become frenzied at the end. SPIONE has an equally great, abrupt ending, one which seems like a good Hitlerian prophecy (suicide by pistol, before a theatre audience, yet).

The brutal abruption of these endings is made possible partly because of the lack of end credits. What I’d somehow not noticed before is that Lang doesn’t have any opening credits either: just the production company (unavoidable), EIN FRITZ LANG FILM (with the F and I of FRITZ, the L of LANG and the M of FILM shaded to make a second FILM of shadow) and the title. Even Thea doesn’t get her name up there.

Other random thoughts —

There’s a Fritz Lang cinematic universe: Inspector Lohman from M comes back in TESTAMENT, tying the one-shot in with the series. And I’d like to think that Professor Baum’s collection of African masks (which mark him as a Lang stand-in, looking at Fritz’s own decor) made their way across the Atlantic to decorate Mark Lamphere’s home in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR. Lanphere, a neurotic quasi-wife-murdering architect obsessed with predestination, is CERTAINLY a Fritz surrogate.

In SPIONE, a bad guy crashes his speeding jalopy into the revolving doors of the Atlantic Hotel — coincidentally or otherwise the name of the hotel in Murnau & Mayer’s THE LAST LAUGH, which has, memorably, the same doors. Possibly some acerbic commentary at work there. Murnau was transatlantic by that time.

The POV crashes, of car and train, are pretty incredible. Lang also blows up a factory, for real — I guess he was in competition with Harry Piel, the king of demolition and an ardent Nazi (most of his negatives were bombed out of existence, which is a shame for film history but seems somewhat fair).

The greatest intertitle in German cinema

Haghi, the Klein-Rogge mastercriminal here, is pretty close to being Mabuse under another name: he’s a master of disguise in charge of a criminal empire with an impressive desk. But the great thing about Mabuse is his dispersion through society. In the first double-film, DER SPIELER, he operates through disguises and proxies, but is still a corporeal spider at the centre of his criminous web. By the time TESTAMENT, he’s lost his mind, but is still scribbling crazy plans, which have seized the mind of his asylum superintendent, Baum. When Mabuse dies, his spirit appears by double-exposure and possesses Baum. Lang later felt this was an artistic mistake, for some reason — usually a good sign that he’s on to something. Lang’s inspirations are sublime, his afterthoughts often erratic.

In THOUSAND EYES, Mabuse is merely an idea. Anybody can become a Mabuse, simply by thinking about it too much. The fake Mabuse, appropriately enough, is a medium. Having dispensed with flesh and blood, the good doctor is unkillable. We’re stuck with him.

Or is it?

The Palm Sunday Intertitle, a day late

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 29, 2021 by dcairns

These are my programme notes from this year’s just-finished Hippodrome Silent Film Festival presentation of A KISS FROM MARY PICKFORD:

A year ago was to have been Hippfest’s tenth anniversary celebration, which was to have climaxed with a gala screening of The Mark of Zorro (1920) starring Douglas Fairbanks, and I was to have written the programme notes for that. Needless to say, stuff happened, and needless to say a screening of The Mark of Zorro to a packed auditorium at the Bo’ness Hippodrome was not among said things. So it feels really nice to be writing about A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1928) in which scenes from that earlier swashbuckler are prominently featured. A small step towards the resumption of normal service, so long as normal service includes putting on a mask and cape and prodding evildoers with a rapier.

Movie stars, cinema, stunts, romance, swashbuckling and celebrity: all are satirical targets in Sergey Komarov’s wild, energetic, inventive and affectionate satire.

Goga Palkin, played by the great theatre/film tragedian/comedian Igor Ilyinsky, is a cinema usher with a problem. Dusya, the girl he fancies is besotted by fame, and won’t date him until he’s a celebrity. Poor Goga – how can he compete with Doug Fairbanks, who is handsome, athletic, world famous, and Zorro?

Anyone familiar with Jerry Lewis or Norman Wisdom’s later characterisations will recognise our hero’s comic type: a childlike idiot with big dreams, who delights us by driving authority figures up the wall with his ineptitude, an eternal underdog who just might triumph over the odds because fortune favours fools, or if it doesn’t, at least we can pretend. If it did, wouldn’t that be good news for all of us?

This hymn to silent cinema is celebrated today for the filmmakers’ triumph of actually getting married megastars Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (America’s sweetheart) to appear in a Russian film. The pair were doing a publicity tour of the USSR and are captured by documentary cameras, but then the good sports actually interact with Goga and play some scenes, a gesture of goodwill towards Russian film and filmgoers.

Comedies, particularly broad comedies – and they don’t come much broader than this – were eternally popular in the USSR – well, you would need some relief from all the idealised depictions of agrarian reform – but the rest of the world hardly ever got to see Soviet slapstick. A shame, since Ilyinsky is a terrific clown, agile, monkeylike, innocent and wide-eyed, with a pugilistic thrust to his buttocks that hints at his indefatigable fighting spirit.

He’s going to need it, too, since the path to stardom is unexpectedly uncomfortable. The committee of lab-coated scientists who test him for his fitness for fame put him through a program of experiments more suited to becoming a cosmonaut than a matinee idol. Life at the movie studio is no easier: when Goga takes an accidental tumble, the enormous movie mogul seizes upon him as “our Harry Piel,” a reference that’s obscure today but spells trouble for our hero. Piel was a German movie star celebrated, like Fairbanks, for doing his own stunts, all of which were dangerous, athletically challenging, and carried out without anything we’d today recognise as a proper concern for health and safety. Goga starts to think he might prefer being a live nobody to a dead Harry Piel.

(If Piel isn’t remembered today, it’s probably on account of his fervent Nazism, as well as the glorious irony that a bunch of his films were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, a loss for film history but a win for poetic justice.)

Director Komarov and his co-writer have prepared various plot wrinkles to trip Goga: fame may come from surprising directions, and then may not be as desirable as the swooning fans imagine. The image of a long queue of patrons buying tickets to peep through a keyhole at a celebrity eating his lunch tells us that the modern mania for observing famous people at play was nothing new in 1927.

As with Chess Fever, Komarov (who cameos in that film) combines the full-figure framing and plain filming techniques suited to slapstick comedy (especially with actors who move as well as Ilyinsky and co-star Anel Sudakevich) with more montage filmmaking of the kind Russian silent cinema is still best-known for: when a whole throng of rabid fans are knocked cold in a stairwell, Komarov serves up a quick flutter of expressive angles, showing lots of prone bodies splayed all down the steps, the kind of cinematic brio Chaplin, Lloyd or Keaton simply wouldn’t have had time for. To the Russians, celebrating the moment with a zigzag set of alternating diagonal compositions was as natural as breathing.

It’s kind of a shame that all the movie-making smarts and comedy skill have been overshadowed by the gimmick of the film’s two celebrity guest megastars, but at least the trick is well integrated into the story, and it’s fun to see the Hollywood movie legends playing themselves. Doug climbs trees and leaps fences with the grace that was his watchword, and shows of his deeply burnished tan, normally whitened by makeup and lights; Mary is unassuming and likable and becomes more so when she’s the first person in the film to show any kindness to Goga, the poor goof.

The Sunday Intertitle: Garry Pill

Posted in FILM with tags , , on March 21, 2021 by dcairns

Happy to have solved a minor mystery for HippFest: perusing the charming A KISS FOR MARY PICKFORD, which I’ve written about for the fest (buy a ticket to read my programme notes and see the movies), I came across the above puzzling intertitular utterance.

The film’s Jerry Lewis-like dope hero has inadvertently performed an impressive stunt at the Russian movie studio he’s crashed. So I figured this was supposed to read “Harry Piel,” after the German Jackie Chan, who was a popular writer-director-producer-star and stuntman, as well as an enthusiastic Nazi later on.

The corrected subtitles will be used today for the first time when the film screens at 14;30hrs.