Archive for The Master Mystery

The Sunday Intertitle: Not Even Eternity

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2015 by dcairns


Harry Houdini co-wrote and produced and starred in THE MAN FROM BEYOND in 1922. It uses the same frozen-alive plot idea as CAPTAIN AMERICA and BUCK ROGERS, with Houdini frozen at sea after being abandoned by unsympathetic skipper Luis Alberni (Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis from EASY LIVING). Fortunately for him, the first woman he meets strongly resembles his lost love, and may in fact be her reincarnation. HH drops in a bit of product placement for his sparring partner at the time, Arthur Conan Doyle ~


This exploration of mystical hooey is played straight-faced by Houdini, though he never really credited the supernatural and would set up shop as a professional debunker. Elsewhere in the plot he gets to perform some escapes, though not particularly gripping ones to look at (serial THE MASTER MYSTERY has his best screen getaway). Still, it’s exciting to be able to see the escapologist in action, even if he’s just squirming free from wet bedsheets via a display of scientific wriggling, or stopping a boat going over Niagara by the simple expedient of climbing out and keeping one foot on the bottom.


Oddly, Houdini’s acting seems to have regressed slightly since THE MASTER MYSTERY, in which he’s quite credible. Maybe because the plot this time requires him to display instability, uncertainty and pathos, a certain self-consciousness has set in. Disappointingly too, Nita “tits out” Naldi as the film’s resident femme fatale, doesn’t get to vamp him — that might have shaken him loose. I guess Naldi is the only woman to have worked opposite both Houdini and Barrymore, and under Hitchcock (twice). It’s always fun to see her, and to think of her getting them out at parties, as was her custom.

BEYOND has been described as “generally intact”, and it’s certainly in better shape than THE MASTER MYSTERY (missing whole episodes), TERROR ISLAND (minus two vital reels) and THE GRIM GAME (completely lost apart from one tantalising fragment). Houdini’s film oeuvre was not treated kindly by time. In fact, despite his movie activities being all washed up years before his death, Houdini’s brother and fellow magician Theodore Hardeen had preserved prints and negatives faithfully. But a fire inspection alerted him to the dangers of keeping nitrate stick in his home and he was forced to surrender everything to the garbage collectors. So we’re lucky anything has survived — what’s left of THE MAN FROM BEYOND comes from 16mm reduction prints, which make the night scenes impenetrably dark, and the story jumps around owing to what appear to be at least a few lost scenes.


So this seemed a fitting film to close out Shadowplay’s participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon — a naive early science fiction fantasy, and a film which has survived the ravages of time (just barely), like Houdini’s protagonist, to stand shakily before us in a new century.

Tentacular Spectacular

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by dcairns

Words cannot express the sheer clammy grip of 1919 serial entertainment TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS!

But I’ll try.

We begin in the desert — not perhaps the most fitting location for an octopus, but the serial has 300 minutes to run so we can afford to take it gently. Not that we do! Immediately, two scientists stumble upon “the Ancient Egyptian Temple of Death” — they seem curiously pleased at this. “It was not a myth!” declares the more fervid of the two.

While the archaeologists are pottering within, their native bearers — who are all black — are set upon by rapacious Arabs — cue close-up of one poor chap being lightly tapped on the brow with a rifle butt. The racial politics are made clear — black people make good servants, but Arabs are untrustworthy and will tap you on the cranium with their rifles if given a free hand.

Meanwhile, the shifty archaeologist tries to kill the fervid one after reading the inscription pertaining to the Idol of Death — a figurine depicting a bashful elephant — and we get what may be the most remarkable intertitle of 1919 —


Not only is it spelled out in hieroglyphs, but it’s accompanied by a garter snake. Of course Egyptian temples are constantly a-slither with snakes, as we know from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. What the poor things feed on is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the lack of vittles explains why they always looks so thin.

The movie provides its own translation of this sacred text, but I think we should get Kristin Thompson to work on it, then we can compare both versions and see who is the best Egyptologist, Thompson or J. Grubb Alexander.

Anyhow, something or other happens and it turns out this is all a story being told by the fervid chap, now well stricken in years, to his anxious daughter. There’s some kind of nonsense about eight ceremonial daggers which open a stone vault, but the charming domestic scene keeps getting interrupted by STARING EYES ~


Well, you can see how that might cause you to lose the thread of the conversation. What with being under an Egyptian curse and all, the Professor is concerned, and his daughter fortunately remembers that Carter Holmes, world-renowned criminologist, lives next door (with his Scottish lieutenant, Sandy McNab) and ventures forth to get him.

Now things get really interesting — while she’s gone, disturbing Mr Holmes amid his test tubes, pops is knifed to death by a masked assailant, but the bit of film this occurred in is now missing. I suspect a conspiracy. The “reconstruction” of the missing footage consists of random, Jesus Franco type zoom-ins on freeze frames, explanatory titles, and constant cutaways to the staring eyes. Oh, and a bit of CGI lens flare is added to one shot. It’s a magnificent job, arguably improving on the original sequence, although naturally that’s hard to be definite about since it’s missing.

Anyhow, the girl fetches Holmes, and there’s an odd bit involving a mysterious voice which whispers A-B-E-F-A-C-E at him. In such a situation, you or I might blunder badly by trying to locate the source of the voice, but our Carter, who may well be schizophrenic, accepts it as a given and merely tries to interpret its gnomic utterance. This leads him to a portrait of Lincoln on the wall which he cheerfully mutilates, obtaining a valuable clew for his troubles.

Then he has a punch-up with the masked fellow, later identified as Monsieur X. No pushover, Carter knocks X out a window — but the bounder vanishes from the sidewalk like Michael Myers at the end of HALLOWEEN. Then the girl is kidnapped. Then Carter gets a note telling him to report to 33 Folsom Street by midnight or else she’ll be killed. Then he goes there and sees the staring eyes floating out of the wallpaper. Then sinister hands reach through the wall behind him clutching irons gyves. Then we see the girl, facing sacrifice at the hands of a mysterious sect  ~


Clearly, TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS is some kind of demented masterpiece and I have to watch all five hours of it or else I’ll never sleep again. Clearly I’m going to dole it out on a weekly basis as I did with THE MASTER MYSTERY, thus duplicating the authentic movie serial experience.

Director Duke Worne, a former B-list actor, was making his debut here, and he does a fine job, eliciting the required hambone performances and keeping the pace frantic and the action lurid. A shame the cinematographer isn’t credited, as there’s fine atmospheric work going on, and the design, though still relying on hand-painted flats some of the time, is exotic and atmospheric (there’s even a close-up of a dagger which is a painting, for some reason).

Screenwriter J. Grubb Alexander, apparently making the stuff up as he goes along, seems like a real Pat Hobby character, churning out silent thrillers and then foundering somewhat in the talkie era — his most famous credit there is the universally deplored (yet strangely loved) John Barrymore MOBY DICK, the one which adds romantic interest and pre-code dirty jokes. He also wrote for Barrymore on SVENGALI and THE MAD GENIUS, evincing a fine gift for inappropriate comic relief. His tone seems more surefooted in THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS.

I hope you’ll join me next week for the next exciting episode. See You Next Wednesday!


The Sunday Intertitle: Out of the Past

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 7, 2012 by dcairns

Episode Fifteen — the final installment!

First, if you can contain your excitement, a limerick about how best to arrange your fangs for a life of vampirism, and one on the Frankenstein monster’s tailoring, two subjects of pressing interest to all serious cinephiles.

Last we saw, practically our entire surviving dramatis personae was being menaced by the rampaging Automaton, presumed dormant since the death of his master, corporate scum-basin Herbert Balcom. But NO! The Automaton LIVES! And is coming to get you right now.

The Mechanical Man makes straight for poor Deluxe Dora, instantly identifiable as the most disposable cast member, and fries her mind with an electrical discharge — in fact an animated ZAP drawn directly on the film.

It must still hurt though.

Houdini takes this chance to hoist his girlfriend Marguerite out the window, and follows her at once, as Q the bearded loon and his new-found daughter Zita escape by a side door. The Automaton marches to the centre of the now abandoned office and makes that abrupt two-fisted gesture which is universally translated as “Curses!” And — scene.

Harry shows Marguerite his new “gas bullet” which he hopes can fell the ironclad nemesis, while hinting that Q spoke the truth about Balcom’s being within it. She’s puzzled, but a cutaway to PAUL Balcom, the businessman’s feckless playboy son, alone with his inheritance of halberds, allows us to guess that perhaps it is HE who, in Mick Jagger’s wise words, “squats behind the man who works the soft machine.” (All expository stuff, but enlivened by the real affection, or its convincing simulacrum, displayed between HH and MM throughout the show.)

The Long-Awaited Cure — Mr Brent, having been deranged by the Madagascar Madness (or Laughing Mania) since way back in episode one, is fed an antidote by Q, who is only recently restored to sanity himself. Big Closeups as Brent retrieves his consciousness from the cackling dustbin he’d dropped it in, metaphorically speaking. Recognizing Q, he apologizes for their troubled backstory which I frankly can’t go into at this point but everybody seems friendly.

A Flashback! We see how Balcom and Brent hoodwinked a younger, bright-eyed and beardless Q into signing over his Automaton, before he was shipped off to Madagascar and presumed lost. It’s touching to see Q sans whiskers — he has a lovable big wide Jim Backus mouth — uncredited in the film’s titles, the actor’s identity is as mysterious as the one-initialed character he plays.

Back to the present. Q concludes his narrative, in which is family perish in a shipwreck, with the happy erratum revealing the survival, unrecognized until Episode 14, of his daughter Zita. But there’s more — Mr Brent, with his newly recollected marbles, informs Harry that he is Q’s lost son! Harry’s character name, Quentin Locke, suddenly connects with that dangling initial in a surprising manner. This makes him Zita’s brother, explaining, in a somewhat queasy way, her attraction to him all through the serial.

It’s a combination of one of those Roman farces where everybody turns out to be everybody else’s lost son or daughter (which always makes me think of Beryl Reid’s reaction to such revelations in JOSEPH ANDREWS: “What Fucking Next?”) and the Reconciliation Scene from KING LEAR. In fact, with twice as many restored lunatic fathers and estranged daughters, it’s obviously twice as good as Shakespeare. And it has Houdini and a criminal robot to boot.

“Only one thing remains to make my happiness complete,” declares Harry. He definitely wasn’t referring to the homicidal Automaton, but a homicidal Automaton is what he gets — it smashes through the French windows at more or less that exact moment, crassly interrupting the family gathering, knocking the gas bullet gun from Houdini’s terrified vague fingers, and engaging him in a vigorous bout of Greco-Robo-Wrestling. As in a nightmare, Houdini’s loved ones clutch one another in horror and do nothing to help him.

But — not for nothing known more for his extramural escapology than his career (in this movie) as a chemist, Houdini slips from the steel beast’s arms, retrieves his sidearm, and plugs the advancing mechanoid squarely in the abdomen. There’s nothing Automata hate like gas bullets, and this one certainly turns the trick. Q deftly unscrews the head from his fallen creation, to reveal — Paul Balcom! We are duly stunned. He died as he lived: rampaging criminally in a sheet metal costume.

We iris in to blackness as Houdini stares straight out at the audience, as if to ask, “Did YOU see that coming?”

Coda — this is so beautiful and perfect you should just watch it without commentary from me. Don’t be afraid of spoilers — the serial is 92 years old, you’ve probably already seen it in a previous life. Watch for Houdini’s eye-brow-raising joke at the end — we don’t get an intertitle to explain what they’re laughing at as the film ends, but perhaps some lip-reader out there can enlighten me?

Houdini Happy Ending from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Footnote: with its humanoid robot, wise beard guy, estranged father, surprise offspring and laser beams, THE MASTER MYSTERY clearly anticipates STAR WARS and George Lucas should promptly donate everything he owns to the Houdini estate.

Toenote: even if I’m wrong, it would be a nice gesture.

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