Anemic Cinema: experimental film of spirals wears its welcome out quickly

Marcel Duchamp, “Anémic Cinéma” (1926)

Here’s an intriguing 7-minute animated film that consists of a sequence of spiralling patterns, either of actual spirals or concentric circles around a central sphere intercut with three-dimensional phonograph disks with various cryptic messages of a tongue-twisting, alliterative or punning nature circling on them. The accompanying music consists entirely of a looping melody played over and over on a solo stringed or keyboard instrument. The steadily whirling patterns appear to bounce up and down and sometimes give the impression that viewers can see right into them; they may also appear to speed up or slow down, brighten up or reduce the light. The effect of both images and music soundtrack can either be hypnotic or frankly boring and monotonous depending on whether the viewer suffers a sudden attack of attention-deficit disorder where s/he never experienced it before while watching the film. The film does start wearing out its attention halfway through. Needless to say there’s no plot or other linear narrative device to speak of and the film could either have been made in one hit or have been a cut-and-paste job. Duchamp refuses even to speed up or slow down the sequencing of images to cater for his target audience (most likely himself and a few friends).

The film is credited to Rrose Selavy which is a pseudonym Duchamp frequently used for his creations. It does suffer from being filmed in black-and-white, colour not being available in the late 1920s as the use of colour could have extended the film’s life and maintained audience attention to the end. As it is, the film is an interesting exercise in Dadaist film-making and encourages viewers to see the art of film-making as something beyond story-telling.

 

Entr’acte: brave and experimental film-making with no linear narrative

René Clair, “Entracte” (1924)

This film’s title derives from its originally being an interlude between two acts of a ballet. Director Clair deliberately sought to make a film shorn of all conventional story-telling narrative and concentrated instead on making a highly impressionistic work. He juxtaposes various images and scenes such as cityscape scenes, boxing scenes, a view of two men playing chess on top of a building and others to suggest nervous energy and the almost neurotic pace of everyday modern urban life. Cinematic techniques available at the time included layering images over one another, filming from different angles (including filming a ballerina dancing on glass from beneath her), slow motion filming and splitting an image are all used. There is no narrative or story to follow though the second half of the film focusses on a funeral procession where the coffin runs away from the mourners through a city street and the mourners have to race after it. By making a film of unusual visual style and technique and abandoning all notions of linear narrative where one thing has to lead to another, Clair is suggesting we do away with old paradigms and mind-sets of seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing everyday life and common objects.

Erik Satie’s music is an important part of the film: Satie wrote the music to match the action and sequencing of images and in this way created a true soundtrack. The cast of actors appearing in the film include Satie himself, the photographer Man Ray and artist Marcel Duchamp. The influence of the anarchist Dada art movement which ridicules lack of meaning in the modern world is strong.

Some viewers may find the film uneven and hard to understand: the film’s first half may look disorganised but the second half which revolves around a runaway funeral hearse and the people following it may make more narrative sense (although there’s no need to look for a narrative since none supposedly exists). Scenes on a rollercoaster that include it being upside-down in some images and the camera constantly moving might make a few viewers quite dizzy. Overall this is very brave and experimental film-making from a film pioneer.

 

Les Vampires (Part 10: Les Noces Sanglantes): conclusion to an intelligent action-thriller serial

Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 10: Les Noces Sanglantes)” (1916)

Some time after the events of Part 9, star reporter Phillipe Guérande and Jane Bertonnier have married and set up their own home and hire Augustine Charlet, the widow of the Guérandes’ concierge who was poisoned during the engagement party, as their chambermaid. Augustine is still troubled by the circumstances of her husband’s death and is determined to find the murderers. The Vampires, wanting the Guérandes out of the way once and for all, take advantage of Augustine’s naivety and slip a note to her advising her to see Madame Alba, a seer. Augustine does so (with lovestruck Mazamette on her trail) and is hypnotised by the seer. The Vampires use Augustine as a pawn in an attempt on the Guérandes’ lives but Mazamette foils the murder plot and the Vampires settle for kidnapping Jane and imprisoning her in their mansion while Guérande, Mazamette and Augustine go to the police. Augustine ends up abducted by the Vampires while the police, Guérande and Mazamette visit Madame Alba’s. Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire, Venomous, escape the police but clever Mazamette discovers a way of tracing the gang to its other digs. Guérande investigates the mansion on his own and discovers the prison where his wife and maid are being held; he can’t rescue them but is able to supply a gun to Jane in case she needs it.

Irma Vep and Venomous celebrate their wedding and hold a wild reception that includes dancing and acrobatics in the entertainment but the police gatecrash the party and kill or capture most of the guests. Venomous dies in police custody. Irma Vep threatens Augustine and Jane but Jane kills Irma Vep with Guérande’s gun.

The plot cleverly leads from one scenario to another at a fast clip that never pauses and which calls for much use of stunt actors (mostly circus acrobats) to abseil from buildings and climb walls and balconies. The details of how the stunt actors get up and down may look amateurish and Feuillade obviously never heard of concepts like occupational health and safety and what that might involve; Jane’s kidnapping scene alone would have throttled her dead before she’s even in the getaway car but one never lets “minor” techncial and medical details like that and the police’s cavalier treatment of a chemical bomb that might blow them up or gas them dead stand in the way of a rollicking story! The acting in this episode and Part 9 is much better than in the earliest episodes: there’s still a lot of emoting that looks excessive to us moderns but one must remember that expressionism in film and other areas of art was a dominant trend and as film also did not have sound until the late 1920s, actors needed to use facial expressions, hand gestures and other body language to convey emotions.

Although the filming is in black and white with use of coloured filters to show the time of day and the passage of time itself, viewers and students of culture and history can see and judge for themselves the urban architecture of Paris, in particular the less visually attractive parts where the action takes place, the fashions people wore and the domestic interiors and furnishings they used. The film is a valuable cultural artifact in itself for these reasons. Also valuable is the respect that Feuillade shows for his audience and his expectation that viewers can follow the action or even two threads of the plot occurring simultaneously; at the same time, he’s not above humour and poking fun at Mazamette who at one point in the episode addresses the audience directly and in another sees himself the subject of a cartoon caricature.

Features of the plot that might strike some viewers as unusual include the sight of Jane defending herself on two occasions and women being much more independent and pro-active than they are even in current Hollywood film productions. The Vampires themselves are portrayed as ordinary people and not as a bunch of evil criminals. Leadership in the gang is open to upper class and bourgeois people at least. There is the insinuation that evil and corruption exist everywhere in society and any one of us could be a member of the gang. The Vampires have a good time together, eating and drinking greedily, dancing the latest jigs enthusiastically and laughing at Mazamette’s portrait; compared to the sober Guérandes and their servants, and the police officers, the Vampires know how to enjoy life – again, this may be a comment on the nature of French society in 1916: the good guys are proper and restrained but perhaps alienated from feeling and emotion; the bad guys break the law and snub authority but they have worthy qualities that the good have lost or don’t understand. Interestingly when Guérande gets a good look at Irma Vep lying dead on the ground, he seems upset and wants to do something for her but Mazamette leads him away.

Overall the serial is an enjoyable romp through some quite convoluted plots all linked together through their characters and the over-riding narrative of chasing down and combating evil and corruption, and how that chase can have dangerous consequences for the good hunters. The actors acquit themselves well and for a number of them, this serial was the high point in their careers.

The serial was a hit in France and Musidora (real name: Jeanne Roques) who played Irma Vep wowed audiences so much with her mysterious and slightly sinister beauty and head-to-toe black costume that Feuillade employed her again in his next film “Judex” (1916). Musidora later became a director and producer herself and concentrated on writing and film production in the 1950s as her acting career waned. Édouard Mathé who played Phillipe Guérande also appeared in “Judex” and had quite a prolific film career from 1914 to 1924. Marcel Lévesque who played Mazamette enjoyed a very long career as an actor from 1913 to 1957.

Les Vampires (Part 9: L’homme des Poisons): building up to an eventual showdown between opposed sides

Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 9: L’homme des Poisons)” (1916)

With the death of Satanas, a new Grand Vampire, Venomous, a chemist with expertise in concocting poisons, is chosen to lead the Vampires gang and he immediately sets about plotting to kill that near-indestructible investigative reporter Phillipe Guérande. Hearing that Guérande is planning to celebrate his engagement, the dastardly gang enlist Irma Vep and an accomplice to buy the apartment near the Guérandes’ apartment. Throught them, the gang finds out and infiltrates the caterers contracted to supply the engagement feast and two gang members posing as waiters poison the champagne. In the nick of time, the Guérandes and their guests avoid killing themselves on the hooch and the Vampires’ men narrowly escape the irate party-goers. The Vampires won’t give up ridding themselves of the pesky reporter and Irma Vep follows Guérande and his fiancée as they go into hiding. Vep discovers that Guérande’s fiancée is staying at the Pyramid Hotel and contacts Venomous; in the meantime Guérande and his trusty aide Mazamette have discovered what the gang is up to and race to save the fiancée. The men capture Vep and tie her up but Venomous rescues her and leads Guérande and Mazamette on an exciting chase and a shooting match atop a train before finally escaping our heroes.

More action-thriller than crime thriller compared to earlier episodes, Part 9 features Irma Vep in quite a lot of action herself and taking the initiative in spying on and following Guérande’s movements despite being under Venomous’s command. Once again, the plot narrative is convoluted though it revolves around the engagement party and spiriting the happy couple to safety before the Vampires can kill them. Mazamette’s troubles with the police provide plenty of tension-easing laughs and Guérande gets himself in lots of scrapes while playing the hero.

As always, the film is clear and thrilling to watch; a cultural historian will find much of interest in the interior sets and designs and the quotidian customs and activities of the middle class and their servants. There can be a lot of expressionist over-acting but it doesn’t detract from the action and excitement that it generates. Guérande’s lady is hardly seen at all and this in itself is an interesting contrast with Irma Vep’s planning and activity: the bad girl does all the exhilarating things the boys do while the good girl acts the helpless infant who must be shielded from bad people.

This time the bad guys escape and we viewers must await the final showdown between the good guys Guérande and Mazamette on one hand and the Vampires on the other in Part 10 which concludes the serial.

Les Vampires (Part 8: Le Maître de la Foudre): saga of crusading reporter against sinister gang continues

Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 8: Le Maître de la Foudre)” (1916)

Skipping a couple of episodes of this crime-thriller serial, I arrive at Episode 8 in which Moreno the corrupt businessman has just died and Irma Vep arrested, charged and sentenced to exile in an Algerian prison. She boards the ship but the leader of the Vampires gang, known as Satanas, visits her disguised as a Roman Catholic pastor and warns her that the ship has been booby-trapped with a bomb and she needs to be at the stern to avoid being blown to bits. Sure enough, once the ship is far out to sea, it goes ka-blooey and everyone goes down with it – except for Irma Vep. In the meantime the hunt is on for the ship saboteurs; the Vampires discover where fearless investigative reporter Phillippe Guérande and Satanas goes to his house, immobilises our hero and leaves a bomb behind. Luckily Mazamette turns up in the nick of time to save Guérande and the two determine to capture Satanas and turn him over to the police. Satanas is caught all right and put into jail. Irma Vep returns to the gang’s headquarters where she learns of Satanas’s arrest and imprisonment and she is tasked to carry a poisoned letter to him in jail. Satanas receives the letter and swallows it; he dies and his suicide makes front-page news. Guérande and Mazamette vow to continue hunting down the Vampires and bring them to justice.

There are still some wonky discontinuities in the plot but the story has become so involved and complicated that viewers will forgive hiccups in the details: how Irma Vep has managed to swim or otherwise travel all the way back to France from the middle of the Mediterranean Sea isn’t explained and how Mazamette and his son Eustache always turn up to rescue Guérande and perform other brave needs in the nick of time will have to be attributed to amazing powers of telepathy on the Mazamettes’ part. Seems to be a hereditary thing. Satanas turns out to be a wealthy businessman or industrialist and this in itself suggests the penetration of the Vampires gang into every area of French society; the gang’s headquarters turns out to be a well-maintained establishment complete with waiters serving food and wine and a stage for performing plays and concerts. People of all classes wander in and out and the well-to-do bourgeoisie rub shoulders with working-class people. Perhaps the Vampires represent a genuine political and social movement dedicated to the overthrow of a sick and corrupt hierarchical society and its replacement with a democracy and an economy that distributes wealth equally among all and eliminates differences on the basis of income earned.

As always, the film’s appearance is clear and sharp and the acting is as natural as can be for the period. The costumes worn, the interiors of houses, offices and prisons, and the cars driven will be of interest to cultural historians. The action is fast-paced and plot twists are common now but there is still plenty of room for slapstick comedy whenever and wherever Mazamette and young Eustache appear.

 

Carnage: comedy of no-manners patronises Americans and diminishes its audiences

Roman Polanski, “Carnage” (2011)

Not one of his better efforts due to the nature of the original play but then again, a comedy from Polanski is almost as rare as teeth in a chicken, especially one as entirely dialogue and character-driven as this. Two school-age boys have scuffled and one has whacked the other in the face with a switch, breaking two of his teeth, so the culprit’s parents agree to meet the victim’s at his home. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the miscreant, have jobs as investment banker and corporate lawyer respectively; the victim’s folks, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), are somewhat lower class where income is concerned but are more cultured, or at least Penelope is (or pretends to be). In attempting to call a truce and assign financial responsibility for the victim’s dental expenses, the two couples allow their personal lives to take over the conversation via their cellphone calls and their respective civilised veneers, loosened by too many glasses of scotch, fall away; before long, their hang-ups about their marriages, class differences, social consciences, general outlook on life, obligations to their families and a pet hamster explode into the open in the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment.

Polanski is wise to keep all the action based in one room (the Longstreets’ lounge-room) so as to allow the actors to fly freely with their characters. Foster and Winslet excel with their particular characters: Foster the socially conscious and caring writer-cum-artist activist is revealed as an ambitious, narrow-minded and controlling shrew who always has to be top dog; Winslet the high-maintenance trophy wife loses control of herself from drinking too much and vomiting. Reilly and Waltz have rather more limited roles with Reilly playing a mediator and failing dismally and Waltz a workaholic more interested in winning lawsuits on behalf of crooked corporate clients in order to avoid dealing with a failing marriage and a child affected by his parents’ fights and faults. We start to see why the children of these parents might have behaved the way they did: the Cowans’ son wants the attention his parents are not giving him and the Longstreets’ son may be a passive child vulnerable to bullying because his mother coddles him and his father is too laidback to show him how to stand up for himself.

There are incongruities in the characters: what Penelope, who more or less conforms to the popular “champagne socialist” type (socially conscientious, skimming the surface of art and culture so as to appear sophisticated), found attractive in Michael with his non-PC prejudices and cavalier attitude towards small animals is never explained though their differences provide plenty of laughs; and Nancy and Michael are equally mismatched (she a brittle upper class princess, he a dull one-dimensional corporate robot whose life revolves around work) and contemptuous of each other. It’s likely though that the common bonds between them are love of money and status and who married whom for the money is perhaps not too difficult to work out. Initially the conflict is between morally upright do-gooding Penelope and cynical Alan with Michael trying to calm down and jolly people along and Nancy performing her simpering debutante act. The action clearly takes place in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hot-house apartment though the Longstreets refer to their home as a “house”; usually in Polanski’s films, such a setting reflects characters’ inner states of mind but in this movie the setting merely looks picturesque.

Although the actors are very capable and the comedy is fast-paced and well-timed, the plot itself ends up in a rut: the characters simply keep on finding new scabs to pick at and make bleed and the bickering becomes tiresome. Script-writers Yasmina Reza (who wrote the original play) and Polanski pile on one unpleasantry after another on the characters until they become caricatures of themselves and the action is forced to stop rather suddenly when Nancy petulantly flings flowers about. One presumes the film-makers discovered at the last minute that there were no custard pies in the Longstreets’ fridge.

What themes exist in the film – how the rapacity of Wall Street and corporate culture has found its way into the lives of people like the Cowans and reduced them to mean-spirited, hollowed-out shells who can’t connect with their son; the snootiness of self-styled “liberal” and “progressive” types like Penelope loudly proclaiming their new versions of the 19th-century “white man’s burden” by writing books about wars and poverty in Africa while perhaps ignoring the poverty in their own neighbourhoods; the redneck vulgarity of Michael – are treated in a patronising way. The audience is expected to laugh at these foolish Americans for their self-obsession and identity politics. Yet in laughing at them, we ourselves are diminished; aren’t we just as obsessed with our social identities, how we want people to view us and admire us, and aren’t we also just as unconcerned about the poor people in our midst while we express horror and concern for poor people in distant countries whom we hope we never have to see?

Interestingly the most important part of the film occurs right at the end where we see the couples’ sons being friendly as if nothing had happened between them earlier. This suggests the world in a microcosm: while the parents, self-important and materially wealthy but spiritually lacking, quarrel and treat their children like objects or trophies, the children themselves overcome any social differences and conflicts between them and become pals. If only our elites, obsessed with ideology, destructive economic growth and controlling the public, would just disappear and let the common people sort out the mess the world is in through working together and finding common ground, the planet will regenerate and humanity’s future would be bright indeed. Dream on.

Le Voyage dans la Lune: delightful and charming film about space travel

Georges Méliès, “Le Voyage dans la Lune” (1902)

Delightful short film, the first science fiction film and the first film to feature animation as well as live action, “Le Voyage dans la Lune” tells a tale of six astronomers chosen by their academy to ride a rocket to the moon where they crash-land and meet a most unusual race of beings called Selenites. The Selenites don’t take too kindly to their new visitors so they arrest the men and bring them before their king. The astronomers rebel against their capture and escape the court. They arrive back to their rocket in the nick of time and race back to Earth to tell everyone of their strange adventures on the moon.

The film is told with narration that was added long after it was made. The chief glory of the short is its use of animation, painted props and background scenes and the way the props are ingeniously used to simulate flight towards the moon and changes in the sky above the astronomers’ heads as they see the Earth rise above the horizon and the stars and planets circulate around them. The acting may be pedestrian but the costuming, if rather antiquated and fanciful in appearance to modern eyes, seems appropriate for the fantastic story and its setting; the Selenites in particular wear original and striking costumes fit for aliens. The actors playing the Selenites are obviously acrobats and the decision to use acrobats anc circus performers was deliberate to demonstrate how very different the Selenites are from humans. Scene changes are well done and though some scenes tend to blur into the next, this problem is not at all obvious.

It’s a film that’s well worth watching for everyone, not just students of film history; children especially will thrill to the whimsy and charm of the story and its characters. There is something very light-hearted and playful about the film that reassures viewers that, apart from a few Selenites who literally blow up when beaten by umbrellas, no-one will suffer and all the astronomers manage to get back home safely.

Les Vampires (Part 5: L’évasion du Mort): film shows corruption at the heart of Parisian society

Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 5: L’évasion du Mort)” (1916)

This time in the serial, the crooked businessman Juan José Moreno (Fernand Herrmann) plays the leading role in hunting down that mysterious gang The Vampires while intrepid reporter Phillipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) has a support role requiring him to do even less than his side-kick the comical Mazamette. After escaping the police by faking his death (hence the title of the episode), Moreno seeks revenge on The Vampires; he captures Guérande (who’s managed to escape a kidnap attempt by The Vampires) and under duress forces him to reveal a robbery The Vampires are planning to commit. Moreno and his myrmidons go at once, leaving Guérande bound in a hide-out; fortunately Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) turns up – he has good timing, that fella! but he has been studying the joint so it’s no surprise he knows when to pop in and when not to – to rescue Guérande. In the meantime, The Vampires wait at a swanky aristocrats’ party until midnight when it’s time to release the sleeping gas through the aircon vents; everyone then swoons and the criminals collect the jewellery and money off the guests. Unbeknownst to the black-garbed ones, Moreno has been hiding in the getaway car; once the car leaves the crime scene, he manages to sneak up where the booty is being held and throws off the cases of jewels onto the road. He claims the stolen loot as his own.

Perhaps the stand-out in the film is the party scene after the guests have all fallen unconscious: it reminds me of 19th century French painter Thomas Couture’s work “Romans in the Decadence of Empire” with bodies strewn over the furniture and the floor. The camera forces our gaze to the very back far into the scene where doors open and The Vampires, led by Irma Vep, pick their way through the guests and take the jewellery. This is the only time in the film we see Irma Vep and her accomplices at all. The Grand Vampire himself is the Baron who organised the party and he looks a very fop. His involvement in crime and in The Vampires gang suggests that corruption exists at the very heart of Parisian society and if people are looking for the cause of that corruption, they should seek it within themselves. Guérande, Mazamette and the police may fly hither and thither to find and arrest its most obvious manifestations but where The Vampires originate from, other contagion will fly out and follow.

The standard of acting is better than in earlier episodes and from Episode 5 on, the stories are longer, hinting that story-lines are improving (there are still gaps in the plot that need explaining – how does Moreno manage to get onto the car, tip off all the booty and escape without being noticed?) and Feuillade, his cast and the technical crew are growing more confident as film-makers and story-tellers. Close-ups are being employed and there’s not so much reliance on car-chases and secret hidey-holes in walls. Ingenious if not always plausible twists are a major part of the plot and help to advance the story which always moves at a brisk pace.

As with previous episodes of “Les Vampires”, the quality of the film is very clear when its age is taken into account. Parts of the film sometimes look very modern and the costumes worn by the evil Baron’s guests are stunning to see and are of historical value to culture historians.

Les Vampires (Part 2: La Bague qui tue / Part 4: Le Spectre): microcosm of public paranoia and terror

Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 2: La Bague qui tue)” (1915), “Les Vampires (Part 4: Le Spectre)” (1916)

Here be two further episodes in which investigative reporter Phillipe Guérande (Edouard Mathe) has encounters with members of that dastardly criminal gang The Vampires who go skipping about in head-2-toe all-leather black costumes (ooh, ah!) and evade all attempts to arrest and identify them. In “The Killer Ring / La Bague qui tue”, a ballerina and Guérande’s supposed fiancee, Marfa Koutiloff, receives a visit from aristocrat Count de Nourmoutier who unaristocratically shoves a strange ring he himself has just received from a stranger onto her finger; the ring scratches her skin and injects a poison that later kills her while she performs a ballet dressed as a vampire bat. Guérande tries to pursue the Count but is captured by the Vampires who plan to execute him. Guérande’s trusty side-kick Mazamette (Marcel Levesque) turns up unexpectedly to rescue him and substitutes another fellow in his place. They make their getaway, the Vampires execute the substitute but before they can uncover his face, the cops arrive so the baddies escape, but just narrowly. The cops find the body and discover that the dead man is a chief justice.

In “The Spectre”, businessman Moreno is taken on a trip through an apartment by real estate agent Treps and is shown a secret safe. Vampire gang member Irma Vep overhears their conversation and starts planning some mischief. Impersonating a secretary, she takes a job at a bank where manager Metadier is preparing to take a large sum of money to another bank by train. On his trip, Metadier is murdered and his body disappears. Reporter Guérande reads about the murder and, snooping about and finding clues, goes to the apartment with the secret wall safe and attempts to make a citizen’s arrest of Irma Vep. She and her accomplices overpower Guérande and escape. On recovering consciousness, Guérande finds the dead Metadier in the safe. Moreno also arrives and he and Guérande confront each other. Moreno tells Guerande how he found Metadier on the train tracks and then attempts to flee but police, called earlier by Guérande, arrive and arrest Moreno.

As in Episode 1, coloured filters indicate the time of day and inter-card titles the passage of time in the story. In these subsequent episodes, the Vampires gang is revealed to be a more amorphous and trickier entity: it seems that their members are hired from different social levels and their leader, the Grand Vampire, changes a lot as well. The Vampires assume the veneer of a radical political movement opposed to the bourgeois nature of society which is perhaps why the city of Paris is so afraid of them and the police and Guerande are so keen to capture them. A parallel can be drawn between the Paris of “Les Vampires” and the present-day post-911 world in which citizens across the First World fear terrorists, Islamic fundamentalism and banksters alike. (Only one of these is worth fearing, the others most likely don’t exist or exist only because of the odd one out and its depredations across the world.)

The acting is not remarkable – there tends to be considerable over-acting and emotional excess which are par for the course in silent films – but more emphasis is placed on action-thriller activity and skulduggery with each episode under review here featuring a car chase and some form of evasion. Humour is present whenever Mazamette turns up which is not often. Props and sets are significant characters as well, the interiors and in particular the wallpaper patterns of the apartment with the secret safe quite lurid in this respect!

Holes in the narrative do exist and the second episode’s plot seemed quite sketchy but on the whole these episodes are packed with activity and story and so are exciting to watch (though the downloading on Youtube took a while and broke up Episode 4 which was annoying). Above all, the atmosphere in these episodes is sinister and Paris itself appears as a city of menace with deserted streets over which long shadows in the afternoon loom and where strange deaths and disappearances occur without rhyme or reason at night.

 

 

Les Vampires (Part 1: La tête coupée): enthralling early crime drama serial about a sinister gang of criminals

Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 1: La tête coupée)” (1915)

First episode in a ten-part serial about a gang of criminals called Les Vampires and the efforts of young investigative reporter Phillipe Guérande to catch them, “The Severed Head / La tête coupée” is an engrossing story filled with drama, intrigue and mystery. It doesn’t end well for a couple of characters but the narrative is bound to whet viewers’ appetite for more. Guérande of The Chronicle newspaper is enquiring into the decapitation death of Police Inspector Durtal; he visits the castle of Dr Nox, where Durtal was last seen alive, and stays the night. During the long night, the reporter discovers secret caches and passages in the castle. Morning arrives and fellow guest Mrs Simpson discovers she has been robbed; Guérande is framed by Dr Nox for the crime. Our hero high-tails it to the magistrate’s office with Dr Nox and Mrs Simpson, the buyer of the castle, hot on his heels. Conveniently, the magistrate arranges for the irate couple to stay at the court under police guard and he and Guérande with a couple of other men drive off to the castle and investigate its interiors. They find the head of Durtal in a box in a secret hole behind a painting in the room where Guérande had slept overnight. On returning to the court-house, Mrs Simpson is found dead and Dr Nox has disappeared.

The film has an intense, brooding quality and the locations selected promise much mystery and chilling suspense. The camera work includes plenty of shots that embrace the distinctive exterior and interior appearances of Dr Nox’s surprisingly modern-looking mansion. Close-ups of actors’ faces are not used; instead considerable distance filming of the actors arriving at the court-house in open sedan cars and of Dr Nox’s domicile is featured. The use of coloured filters to show changes in time and lighting conditions is very effective and looks very avant-garde for the film’s time (1915). Clues such as cryptic notes on cards, hidden safety vaults behind paintings and characters’ secret comings and goings, some of which are done off-screen, advance the plot and give it a frisson of suspense and dread.

The story flows well and comes to the point quickly and smoothly; the climax which reveals the unhappy fate of Dr Nox and shows the Great Vampire leader’s daring cat-burglar escape across the roof-tops and shimmy down a hose-pipe to the ground, is rather long and the film ends awkwardly and abruptly on that note. Viewers must wait for future episodes to find out if Guérande captures not just the Great Vampire but his (or her) infamous crime gang whose presence is more sensed than heard. The music accompaniment, full of zest and drama, fits the action well.

For its period, the film looks well done and quite accomplished. There’s silly humour and some of the acting and stuntwork may look amateurish to modern eyes but the story is enthralling enough that I think I will see more episodes.

The film may have some cultural relevance to post-911 times: as in the film, made in the early years of World War I, the public in the present day is spooked by an unseen and poorly understood enemy who may not be what s/he seems but can cause serious and fearsome upset and catastrophe.