Archive for Victor Hugo

The Sunday Intertitle: An Unwanted Child

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2019 by dcairns

Thanks, Flicker Alley! THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, restored. From Paul Leni’s last, remarkable year of filmmaking, along with THE LAST WARNING, before his untimely death.

Always knew this would be a gorgeous movie — it’s darker scenes did somewhat survive the accumulated grim of decades, the fuzzing of poor dupes and transfers — all that obfuscatory neglect merging with the cinematography.

Sharpened up, it’s the brighter scenes that really get the benefit, and the film seems hugely more modern.

The happy ending — which one roots for like crazy — still leaves the story feeling a bit trivial. You can tamper with Victor Hugo up to a point — nearly all versions of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME leave the protagonists alive — but Quasi doesn’t get the girl. (Not even in the Disney film: but Disney tries to make his romantic yearning non-tragic, and that cripples the film.) Completely excising the tragedy somewhat destroys the point.

In fact, terrific and hauntingly disturbing as Conrad Veidt’s work is, Julius Molnar, playing the same character as a child, has some of the best stuff.

Checking his credits — he has good roles in OVER THE HILL and NO GREATER GLORY, both of which I saw this year — and turns up in MAN-PROOF, which I just watched, as an office boy.

No wonder I didn’t recall him in it — he comes in the door, hands something over, visible behind Myrna Loy’s right shoulder-pad, and buggers off again, wordlessly.

His last role was as a newsboy — nobody wanted to use him as a grown-up.

A foreground miniature has hanged men dancing on their gibbets like the dolls they are. Charles D. Hall, one of the film’s designers, would go on to do DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE BLACK CAT, THE OLD DARK HOUSE…

Hugo, a highly cinematic writer but also an internal, poetic one, titles the gallows-chapter “A tree of human invention.”

Hugo describes a corpse: “It was that which is no longer.” The kind of sentence you can stare into for quite a long time: an abyss.

To spare the feelings of the audience, Paul Leni and his collaborators omit many of Hugo’s most cinematic touches. When little Gwynplaine finds a dead woman in a snowstorm, Hugo helpfully tells us that her mouth is full of snow. But someone has been crying. Excavating the corpse, he discovers a baby, still alive, which he rescues. Without sound to motivate that action, Leni has to show Molnar simply SEEING, rather than discovering, the infant.

There’s a French bande dessinée adaptation which goes even further. The woman is found dead. But her breast is exposed. On the nipple, a frozen drop of milk. From that milk, Gwynplaine infers, then uncovers, the baby.

Narrative is cause and effect. The more detailed the chain, the more well-reasoned each link, the more effective in a story.

Askew

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2012 by dcairns

Harry Baur’s marble-dusted complexion makes him blend seamlessly with the statue he’s propping up, an impressively gargoylesque opening image…

The crowning glory of Pathe-Natan, delivered just before the financial axe fell, was Raymond Bernard’s five-hour epic LES MISERABLES. I feel this masterwork is disqualified from appearing as a piece in The Forgotten, by virtue of its being available from the Criterion Collection (along with Bernard’s WWI epic LES CROIX DE BOIS) but I can and enthusiastically will write about it here.

As a kind of three film mini-series, the Victor Hugo adaptation delivers the long-form pleasures distinct to works such as LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS and THE MYSTERIES OF LISBON — we get to meet a large number of characters, to observe them over time, seeing them grow up or age, and seeing them tested to destruction by the forces of history and/or narrative.

Shamefully, I’ve never read any Hugo, and the only other adaptation of this one that I’ve seen was the Twentieth Century Fox version produced a year later, which conspicuously lacks the epic sweep even if it has big splashy set-pieces and fine stars (though Fredric March seems miscast — he might even have traded roles with Laughton to better effect).

Bernard commands a giant production, and delivers it with his favourite stylistic devices, most of which seem to have been popular at Pathe-Natan and maybe owe something to Gance, while prefiguring Welles: sweeping camera moves, frantic montages of action, and especially in part three, a flurry of handheld shots to simulate the chaos of battle. Bernard also loves his tilted angles, as Michael Koresky says in his excellent liner notes: “The result was a faithful, as well as compellingly askew, vision of the book’s post–Napoleonic era France, from the ballrooms of the aristocracy (shot at such a drastic angle at one point that the dancers look as though they may slide right out of the frame) to the impoverished back alleys of thieves and prostitutes (evoked with palpable decrepitude and anguish) to the barricades of the 1832 student revolt (filmed at times with remarkable handheld fury).”

Such a film also needs strong performers, and it has them: Charles Vanel channels his granite gravitas into the stiff and grudging Javert, allowing the character’s blinkered obsessiveness to emerge slllooowwwlllyyy. He also, in his final scene, manages to closely resemble the great Dick Miller, and there can be no higher praise in my book. The film’s real discovery is little Gaby Triquette as the child Cosette, a wondrously natural and expressive kid. In a brief five-year career she managed to work for Bernard, Julien Duvivier, Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier.

This fairy-tale nightmare forest — complete with handheld lurch towards eerie skull-faced tree hollow — might have influenced SNOW WHITE — Bernard Natan visited Disney in 1934 and bought the French rights to Mickey Mouse.

There’s also the astonishingly youthful Jean Servais, whom I knew from his much later performances in RIFIFI and TAMANGO. Next time I see one of those I may start to cry, because his descent from handsome young blade in 1934 to the raddled and hangdog figure of Tony le Stephanois is heartbreaking. Whatever he went through in the intervening years, including World War Two, it must have been pretty devastating.

Servais, right. I think in this shot, Raymond Bernard has found Servais’ perfect angle.

But the movie is inevitably dominated by its Jean Valjean, the incomparable Harry Baur. Again, the film has an actor unafraid to take his time, so he spends the first half hour as a hulking brute, frustrating us with his unwillingness to learn from experience — and then he starts to weep and it’s devastating. From then on, he holds not just our attention but our admiration with his hulking anthropophagous of a performance. It’s always tricky when a movie casts a tall, fat actor as a very strong character: do we believe he’s a tough guy, or is he just extremely large? Possibly a man that size needs to be superhumanly strong just to move around? Baur sells the fight scene where he defeats seven assailants, but the last act, where he carries Jean Servais on his back through the streets, down a ladder into the sewers, and then through shoulder-high filth, is where we really had to sit back and admit this guy is TOUGH.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

Put On A Happy Face

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on October 9, 2010 by dcairns

Showed Paul Leni’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS to students — not absolutely sure what they made of it, they were mostly kind of quiet afterwards — but I certainly enjoyed it. The imagery crowded my head for hours, like a dark carnival.

All accompanied by the lovely crackly MovieTone score, which recycles the seduction theme from SUNRISE and God knows what all else. The attempts at sound effects, produced with whistling wind-sheets and bells, are somewhat primitive, which is fine, but sometimes a little intrusive, which is less fine. The decision to accompany Conrad Veidt’s first love scene with Mary Philbin (from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) with bangers, whistles and random rhubarbing from offscreen to simulate all the fun of Southwark Fayre, was perhaps a mistake.

I may have mentioned that Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies lists this one as “lost”, which it was, for years. A very happy rediscovery: Ray Bradbury, who was moved by it as a kid, saw it again  and proclaimed, “The damn thing still works.”

I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel, and in fact I’ve never even seen a translation of it, which is crazy because he and it obviously used to be very popular in the English-speaking world. Anyhow, I bet everyone dies in the end. In the movie, this being Hollywood, everyone lives, except the evil jester who is gored by Homo the wolf, then drowned. The happy ending provides a nice symmetry: Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), the man with the permanent smile carved in his face, begins the film by missing a boat out of England, and ends it by catching one, reuniting him with Dea, the blind girl who loves him, Ursus the kindly philosopher, and of course the faithful Homo. (The names are a source of deep joy: Hugo’s idea of credible-but-interesting English names includes “Lord Clancharlie,” “Lord Dirry-Moir,” and “Dr. Hardquanonne.” Plus Homo the Wolf.)

Meanwhile the faithless Duchess (Olga Baclanova from FREAKS) is presumably left to cry into her monkey.

Apart from the pomp and grotesquerie, there’s  the powerful pathos of Veidt’s sensational performance — deprived of his voice by silent cinema, and his facial expressivity by the forced grin, he further reduces his dramatic toolkit by avoiding the precise, eloquent gestures of which we know him to be capable: in moments of strong emotion, Gwynplaine’s hands seem to become as helpless as his smile, twisting into arthritic knots or folding up like flippers. While his tortured eyes gaze from that face as if from within an iron maiden.