dir. Richard Oswald. The last silent film based on a Sherlock Holmes story. Holmes and Watson are visited by doctor from the West Country of England who needs their help after his friend has died of apparent heart failure on the moors, but he believes to be a family curse of a demon hound. This was considered a lost film for many years and was restored as part of an international film project led by the Polish National Film Archive (a print was discovered in Poland), and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. One of the reels early in the film is still missing, but still photographs and text cover the missing story. The spooky Baskerville manor is the highlight of the film, with many delightfully atmospheric scenes of the mysterious butler creeping around by candlelight. In one scene Holmes is observed by someone hiding within a suit of armour, that is very evocative of the movie trope of eyes observing from the eye holes in old paintings. The oldest example of that example I have of ‘eyes behind a painting’ is in the John Wayne film RANDY RIDES ALONE (1934), where evil eyes peer out from a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is an enjoyable silent film mystery, but for me it does not capture the charm, and cool detachment of Sherlock Holmes. This is not helped by multiple unflattering shots of Holmes’s rear-end as he inelegantly climbs through the tunnels beneath the manor. This might be one of the most enduring Sherlock Holmes stories because of its blend of mystery and horror, unfortunately the titular hound is never threatening or dangerous, which removes the life and death peril that this story needs.
dir. Fritz Lang. Set during 1920s Germany during the Weimar Republic. A secret network of spies (possibly Russian) infiltrates various government and diplomatic organisations, with the goal fomenting another world war! A handsome young secret agent working for the German secret police has a chance encounter with a beautiful enemy agent, and love blooms on the battlefield. After Lang’s masterpiece METROPOLIS (1927) was not the financial success his studio had hoped, SPIES had for the most part a visually stripped back and economical style, with spymasters on both sides controlling their agents from plain grey rooms. Despite the smaller budget, SPIES does feel like a proto-James Bond style spy film, with doomed love affairs, honeypot operations, and an action-packed finale. Some more Bond elements; the heroic German agent is simply known by his number 236, the wheelchair bound villain (and Fitz Lang regular evil genius) is very reminiscent of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and the female agents are much more capable than the blokes, which proceeds only the most recent Bond films.
dir. Alfred Hitchcock. In foggy 1920s London, a killer is roaming the streets, killing fair-haired women on Tuesday evenings. A handsome, nervous young man rents rooms from an elderly couple, and begins making eyes at their attractive young daughter, but he’s hiding a secret! Hitchcock’s third feature film, and in conversation with François Truffaut, he called it “the first true Hitchcock picture”. This film remains very atmospheric, with dramatic and inventive lighting, charming performances, and a genuine tension throughout the whole story. There are many examples of what would become signature Hitchcock moments, including two from the wonderful, THE THIRTY NINE STEPS (1935), the lovable working class elderly couple beaming at the young lovers, and the suspenseful use of an overcoat to cover up handcuffs to elude the police. Perhaps the most striking future looking element is the presence of the psychosexual connection between visual art, and suppressed memories of violence which Hitchcock would perfect in VERTIGO (1958). While I did not notice the first time, Alfred Hitchcock has his first on-screen cameo as a police officer with his back to the camera. This cameo is during the montage showing the making of a newspaper headline, from journalist in a phone booth, to the massive printing presses, the delivery truck on the road, right up to newspaper boy on the street: “7th Avenger Murder!” (no connection to the Marvel cinematic universe).
dir. Sam Taylor. Comedy silent film starring Harold Lloyd, who plays dimwitted millionaire, J. Harrold Manners. Manners lives his life spending money with abandon, until one day he accidentally becomes the patron of a religious charity mission for the Downtown poor. Manners finds romance and a strange form of friendship with the Downtown gangsters and drunkards. There is plenty of visually impressive physical comedy but is something nasty and mean about the slapstick humor. Perhaps this is because Harold Lloyd plays a millionaire who spends most of the movie abusing and manipulating people into easing his newfound romance. He has little charm or lightness in this film. There is runaway bus scene that is very similar to Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR. (1924), but not nearly as well done.
dir. Harry O. Hoyt. Journalist Ed Malone joins an expedition to rescue lost explorers in South America who have gone missing on their search for a secret plateau where prehistoric creatures have lived undetected for millions of years. Malone embarks on what the film itself rightly describes as a “Stupendous Story of Adventure and Romance!” This was so much fun, a real adventure soap opera, with overlapping love triangles, physical humor, and giant dinosaur battles. The film is marred by an unfortunate racist portrayal of a local guide named Zambo, complete with black face and broken English. Many interesting links to later films, including the distinctive mountain terrain from Pixar’s UP (2009), and the clever monkey from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), with many more Indiana Jones links along the way. Based on the original story by Arthur Conan Doyle, I did appreciate the reference to his famous detective, with a professor donning a deerstalker hat and magnifying glass. The plot is remarkably close to KING KONG (1933), to the point that it’s almost a retread of the same story – another connection is that pioneer special effects artist Willis O’Brien created the creature effects in both films.
dir. Buster Keaton. A down on his luck projectionist dreams about being a famous detective, as he solves the crimes and defeats the villains he cannot in real life, all the while getting into thrilling chases, and outwitting devilish crooks. Delightful. The comedy and action scenes stand up so well, and the pacing is relentless and perfect. It’s easy to see why gifted physical filmmakers like Jackie Chan were so inspired by Keaton’s films, especially this one, with the chase scenes and stunts truly exciting and filled with danger. The oldest example I am aware of with a film within a film, and certainly the most elegant example. There is one very impressive scene where through perfect continuity and editing, Keaton appears to instantly transport from location to location. You cand raw a squiggly but connected line between this comedy, and the ocean of comedic fake magic videos on video platforms such as the defunct Vine and the currently popular TikTok.
dir. Germaine Dulac. Silent film from feminist avant-garde filmmaker, Germaine Dulac. A dark comedy centering on Madame Beudet, who is married to a boorish garment maker who ignores, torments, and mocks her. She devises a plan to dispose of him, by using one of his irritating gags against himself. There are some charming special effects using double exposures, such as Madame Beudet daydreaming about a handsome tennis player coming alive from a magazine and carrying her husband away. Germaine Dermoz is Madame Beudet, giving a very real, naturalist performance, as she flips through a magazine, rearranges the flowers, or simply stares into the mirror whilst combing her hair. The title is ironic, given that Madame Beudet has little to smile about, outside her rich inner life of fantasy.
dir. Benjamin Christensen. Delightfully strange and often amusing film about the history of Witchcraft in the middle ages, and how the church persecuted women – particularly women born with disabilities, or simply unlucky enough to catch the ire of a spiteful priest. The message of the film is dated by the connection of imagined witchcraft to a supposedly more scientific affliction of hysteria. The film presents as a sort of documentary, with extended dramatized scenes depicting witch trials and various tortures. One of the most powerful sections depict an elderly woman being tortured by monks, which remarkably foreshadow the performance of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the silent classic, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, five years later. Fans of THE EXORCIST (1973) may notice a very interesting connection in the opening sections depicting woodcut prints of satanic acts. The director Benjamin Christensen has a great time depicting Satan, complete with a lascivious and wicked tongue.
dir. Victor Sjöström. A very spooky often disturbing Swedish silent film about a “drunkard” who is forced to examine his life after encountering the grim reaper. The story is told through flashbacks within flashbacks, as learn of his abusive relationships with his friends and family. The flashback technique would prove to be influential on the films of Ingmar Bergman. There are some very impressive special effects, using double exposure (with hand cranked cameras) to create the illusion of the grim reaper moving through walls and collecting his souls. A very early example of the cinematic trope of a transparent body escaping from an opaque one, to signify death. Usually, we see a ghostly figure emerging under its own agency to discover they are dead, but in this film, we have the unsettling vision of the grim reaper dragging an incorporeal corpse and flinging it unceremoniously in the back of his cart. The structure of the story likely shares some DNA with Dicken’s novella, ‘A Christmas Carol’, and its many film adaptations. There is some wisdom in the repeated moral of the film, “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped.”, the inverse of Saint Augustine’s “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet”
dir. Somkait Vituranich. A beautiful, sad, and beguiling Thai romance film, about a young seamstress/aspiring author and, her doomed love affair with an academic/political activist. Some interesting parallels to Warren Beatty’s REDS (1981). The production design is superb, and completely evocative of 1970s Bangkok. The attention to detail in the costumes, the cars, and the architecture are highly impressive. The two lead actors Ratchawin Wongviriya, as the luminous Sangchan, and Thanawat Wattanapoom as the rugged democracy activist Rawee, are both delightful and it’s painful to watch them pulled apart by circumstance, and by chance. It’s a bitter coincidence to watch this story of how the darker forces of Thai society impact the lives of ordinary people, on the same day that the streets of Bangkok once again witness a new generation forced to throw their bodies against the barricades, for love and freedom.