The Death Ray: early Soviet silent with plenty of action, skulduggery and even some poetic film-making

Lev Kuleshov, “The Death Ray / Luch Smerti” (1925)

A silent Soviet action thriller that starts with a workers’ revolt in a factory which is crushed by the factory owners and the police, forcing the leader of the revolt Thomas Lam to go into hiding, “The Death Ray” is one of the earliest Russian-language science fiction films made. Not surprisingly given the period it was made in, the movie has pro-Communist tones though it appears to be set in a foreign capitalist country. Unfortunately the English-language subtitles weren’t very good as the person who uploaded the film to Youtube (the film is in the public domain) had to transcribe from Spanish-language subtitles which in turn were transcribed by someone else from the original Russian and the title cards used in the film don’t appear to be completely within the camera’s focus so there were bits of the plot cut out. Still the effort made by NightOfTheLivingNES to give as much information as possible about the plot in English is commendable.

The film looks very pulpy, relying heavily on character stereotypes, a fast pace, what appear to be several plot strands and lots of action in which people perform amazing stunts like jumping off balconies set three storeys or more above the ground and suffering only a strained back afterwards: in real life, the man would have died or at least smashed both his legs from the impact of landing on his feet on hard concrete. A death ray is invented early in the film. There are scenes in which people narrowly escape being run over by trains and a plucky young mop-topped boy called Freddy makes a daring escape from the bad guy fascist spies. Plenty of skulduggery is going on between both sides. In  later part of the film, two aviators engage in a bloody knife fight after which one fellow attempts to cart off a heavy suitcase across a meadow; he gets bogged down in a marsh, his foe catches up with him, takes the case and shoves him right into the marsh where he glug-glugs to death.

Technically the film is a bit all over the shop: many scenes including the title cards look cut off at the edges, especially on the left-hand side (from this viewer’s point of view) and the edits look crude and amateurish compared to modern editing. On the other hand, there are very many stills of actors’ faces in close-up and very distinctively craggy and full of character these are: the elites look extra haughty and arrogant with their monocles, sharp profiles and polished, twirled moustaches and the ordinary workers have faces that might have been hewn out of rock. A number of female characters have distinctive and expressive long faces though some uncharitable viewers are sure to think the ladies should get their teeth capped or fixed. Scenes of flying planes near the end are breathtaking and there are some almost poetic shots of nature or scenes at unusual camera angles that might suggest some avant-garde artistic influence at work.

What made it to Youtube unfortunately got cut off at the end where a whole town appears to be in revolt and the death ray that’s supposed to make its appearance and presumably blast quite a few people out of this world and into their next existence fails to appear.

It looks pretty exciting and action-packed for a film of its time even without the science fiction element.

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