Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Jean Ayme

The Eyes That Mesmerize (1916)

Alternate Titles: Hypnotic Eyes, Les yeux qui fascinent

This installment in the crime serialLes Vampires” involves hypnotism, cross-dressing, and murder, as well as a hard-to-follow plot that strains credulity while being hard to predict. In other words, it’s a lot like other episodes of the series.

Focus! Focus!

Focus! Focus!

The movie begins by telling us that more than two weeks have passed since the events of “The Corpse’s Escape,” and that a notary has been killed at Fontainebleau. We also learn that Juan-Jose Moréno (Fernand Hermann) is a master of mesmerism, and he now brings his maid into the parlor and hypnotizes her, causing her to go into a deep trance. Then, Mazamette (Marcel Levésque) and Guérande (Édouard Mathé) decide to attend the movies. They see a story about the recent murder, and recognize Irma Vep (Musidora) and the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in the footage. Immediately, they rush out of the theater and make plans to go to Fontainebleau. Along the way, they happen to see a visiting American named Warner galloping at high speed on his horse to a remote spot. They follow him and see him hide a box among some boulders, which they recover after he has left. At their hotel, they discover that it is $200,000, which was stolen from an American millionaire named Baldwin, who has posted a considerable reward for its recovery and the capture of Raphael Norton, the man who stole it. They realize that Warner is Norton in disguise.

This has nothing  to do with the plot.

This has nothing to do with the plot.

Meanwhile, the Grand Vampire is now disguised as a Count named “Kerlor” and Irma Vep accompanies him as a young (male) Viscount called “Guy.” They also figure out who Warner is (he’s not at all good at keeping secrets) and plan to rob him of the money. Moréno manages to get the room between “Kerlor” and “Warner,” although he has no idea what is going on, and he has brought a very large trunk along with him. The Count tells a rather silly story about a supposed ancestor of his who had to fight two bulls during the Napoleonic Wars (we see the whole thing played out). This somehow distracts the Warners while Irma Vep gets into her Vampire costume and searches Warner’s room until she finds the map. Of course, she is accosted by Moréno, who knocks her out with chloroform and drops her out the window to his gang waiting below. They bundle her into a car and drive off. Meanwhile, Moréno takes his hypnotized maid out of the trunk (!) and disguises her as Irma Vep, then has her give the map to the Grand Vampire in that disguise.

eyes-that-mesmerizeThe Grand Vampire now swings into action, sending his confederate (Miss Édith) to go find the loot indicated on the map. She gets there and finds instead a note from Guérande, inviting the legitimate owner of the box to meet with him. Then she gets captured by Moréno, who tells her to tell the Grand Vampire that he is holding Irma Vep and will release her for a ransom. She reports all of this to the Grand Vampire, who decides to get out because Guérande might have called the police, but plans to try to recover Irma Vep anyway. In the early morning, the police raid the hotel and find that Warner is actually Norton, so Guérande and Mazamette win the reward. Moréno falls in love with Irma and decides not to return her to the Grand Vampire. Instead, he hypnotizes her and causes her to write a confession of her various crimes, then orders her to kill the Grand Vampire, which she does with dispatch, as soon as he walks in the door.

Don't mess with Irma Vep

Don’t mess with Irma Vep

The episode ends with the now-rich Mazamette giving a press interview to his friend Guérande and other reporters, assuring them that, “though vice is sometimes slow to be punished, virtue is always rewarded.”

Since there are no actual vampires in the series, I am usually forced to stretch things a bit to justify my inclusion of it in my annual October “history of horror.” In this case, the connection is hypnotism, which has been a theme of horror writing and cinema since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemaar.” When Mesmer first began convincing the educated world that hypnotism was a real psychological phenomenon, and not just a parlor trick, Europeans became frightened at the possibility of a strong will dominating a weak one. What if crimes could be committed while under hypnosis, even murder? Feuillade plays on that theme in this film by causing the weak-minded maid to become a virtual robot, and Irma Vep to switch allegiances from the Grand Vampire to Moréno. In that case, however, I’m not certain mental dominance was necessary: she appears to me to have chosen to abandon the less successful master criminal for the one who has really become the focus of the story for the last two episodes. If the Grand Vampire is really dead, though, I’m not sure how they can justify calling the rest of the serial “Les Vampires.”

How far would you trust this woman?

How far would you trust this woman?

And now for my usual nit-picky logical questioning of the plot. OK, so Moréno hires a girl who looks sort of vaguely like Irma Vep to be his maid, hypnotises her and carries her into the country in a trunk…so she can wear a mask for a few seconds and give the Grand Vampire something Irma Vep was going to give him anyway? How did he know in advance to have her wear a Vampire costume? How did he manage to get the right room when everyone was using assumed names? How did he know to station his gangsters outside the window with a net just at the moment he was going to push her out the window? And why did we have to watch that silly bullfighting sequence? Anyway, I’m glad Mazamette finally has enough money to send all his children through school. Hopefully the adventures of Musidora and Moréno will continue to thrill us next week.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Levésque, Musidora, Fernand Hermann, Jean Aymé, Miss Édith, Maxa

Run Time: 58 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Corpse’s Escape (1916)

Alternate Titles: Les vampires: L’évasion du mort, The Dead Man’s Escape

This chapter of “Les Vampires” continues the cycle of capture-and-escape without doing much to advance the storyline, although it includes some references to earlier work of Feuillade and his mentor, Alice Guy-Blaché. The title as well as the plot seem to flirt with horror tropes, without actually becoming a horror film as we would understand the concept now.

corpses-escapeAt the end of the last movie, the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) and Irma Vep (Musidora) had managed to elude capture and rob the spoils of their “colleague” Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), while he was arrested. At the outset of this episode, Moréno is being interrogated by the magistrate when he produces a pill and announces that he’d rather die than go to prison. He takes the pill, and a doctor pronounces him dead without an examination after hearing the magistrate describe what happened. The “body” is moved to a holding cell until the morgue attendants can come pick it up, and of course Moréno gets up and cold-cocks a guard in order to escape.

The heroic Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is up late at night watering his plants when he sees Moréno and his lackeys go into a nearby warehouse. He has the presence of mind to take a piece of clay to make a mold of the lock of that warehouse, just in case he ever wants to sneak around in there. Meanwhile, the intrepid, tepid Philippe Guérande (played by, yawn, Édouard Mathé) pauses in his writeup of the escape to look out the window, and is suddenly hooked around the neck and pulled down to the street below, where a gang of Vampires put him into a wicker basket with a Gaumont symbol on the side. He waits until they place the basket near some stairs, then tips it over and tumbles down to another street, where some good Samaritan passers-by open it and free him. He discovers the name of the costume company that rented the basket on another side, away from the Gaumont symbol.

corpses-escape1In investigating that company, he finds that the basket was rented by a Baron de Mortesalgues, yet another alias of the Grand Vampire. Unfortunately, Moréno was also present at the costume company, since he needed some phony police uniforms for another heist, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to nab Guérande and drags him back to the warehouse. He tells Guérande that he’ll let him go if he gives him a way to get revenge on the Grand Vampire for stealing his stolen loot, and Guérande tells him the Baron’s identity. Once Moréno leaves, Guérande is quickly rescued by Mazamette.

The Baron is having a big society do for his “niece,” who is actually Irma Vep. They dose the guests with sleeping gas and emerge with other members of the Vampires in full costume to loot their wallets and jewels. However, Moréno is able to jump on top of the getaway car and throws the luggage containing the loot off the roof, then jumps off himself, and goes back to collect it all. Mazamette visits Guérande and accuses him of being “too honest,” (after flirting shamelessly with the maid – careful Mazamette, we know you have a wife and children!) but Guérande shows him a quote about focusing on the end result and Mazamette agrees to continue the fight.

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

The beginning of this episode was like a less-interesting version of “The Murderous Corpse” with Moréno substituting for Fantômas. Even the prison set is identical. I’m not sure why it was necessary to bring in a second master criminal for this series – perhaps because the hero was too bland? It seems to distract from focusing on the Vampires, and this episode has far too little of Musidora as a result. We do get a good amount of Mazamette, however, which is a consolation, and I love the little pantomime Lévesque performs to make certain we understand that he’s copied the key. The sequence with Guérande in the basket reminded me of “The Drunken Mattress” and other surreal comedies by Alice Guy where a person is trapped in an inanimate object which seems to develop a life and personality of its own.

Obligatory-but-admittedly-silly-logic-department: In this movie, we are led to believe that the Grand Vampire can convince half of the wealthy people in Paris to attend a party for his alias’s “niece.” Either he has somehow found time to build an identity and attend social functions for years in order to lure them to his home and rob them of whatever they brought with them (really a pretty petty theft) OR he was able to con them just by putting the word “Baron” before a name. Also, in this movie, we see Guérande pulled down from his apartment one story to the ground below, but in “The Red Cryptogram” we saw Musidora and the Grand Vampire escape out that same window to the rooftops of Paris, quite a bit higher up than a single story. Which is it?

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann

Run Time: 38 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Spectre (1916)

It’s October once again, and with that I continue my history of horror. I covered all of the 1915 episodes of “Les Vampires” last year at this time, and so now I continue with the episodes released in 1916. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a horror film, since the vampires in it are just a gang of ordinary master criminals, but since the imagery and atmosphere has been influential in the horror genre since then, I include it for consideration at this time of year. Hang on to your hats, as usual the plot is ridiculously complex!

Like, who's this chick?

This episode begins by introducing us to yet another of the alter-egos of the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé), a successful real estate agent by the name of Treps. One day a new client, a businessman named Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), comes to his office and requests an apartment with a safe. This arouses Treps’s greed, and he and Irma Vep (Musidora) break into the safe by way of a connecting door in the wall from the adjoining apartment. All they find, however, is a satchel full of the same type of black costume the vampires use during criminal activities. They conclude that he is a “colleague” and put the satchel back.

specterMusidora is meanwhile working for a bank under the alias of Juliet Berteaux. She learns of an upcoming transfer of 300,000 francs to be carried out by a “carefree” man named Metadier who likes to watch Gaumont films in the evenings. However, should Metadier be unable to perform his duties, she will be the substitute. So, she and the Grand Vampire attack Metadier on the train on the way home from the movies and kill him with a hatpin, dumping his body from the moving train. The next day, as she goes to get the money, suddenly the “specter” of Metadier walks in and takes it! The Grand Vampire follows him, but he escapes down a manhole.

In addition to Irma Vep, apparently Gomez Addams works at this bank

In addition to Irma Vep, apparently Gomez Addams works at this bank

When the intrepid but largely ineffectual Philipe Guérande (Edouard Mathé) learns of the theft, he goes to the bank office in disguise and recognizes Musidora. He is able to learn her alias and address, and has his agent Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) distract the maid so that he can sneak in. Musidora and the Grand Vampire, saddened at their failed heist, decide to look in Moréno’s safe to see if he’s had any success. They are startled when the body of Metadier falls out and even more surprised to find the 300,000 francs! Guérande now arrives and tries to take them captive, but of course the maid hits him on the head and they easily escape with the money. He wakes up and calls the police just before Moréno returns to find his safe broken into. Guérande holds Moréno and learns the true story: he was casing a villa for a robbery when he found the body of Metadier on the tracks, and found the note authorizing him to take the money. He then took the corpse home with him, disguised himself as Metadier and stole the envelope. Guérande hands him over to the police.

specter2Once again, the plot advances with no obvious resolution in sight: the Vampires killed a man and bungled a job, but still wound up with the money and Guérande is no closer to apprehending them. I liked this episode, though, because we got a lot of Musidora and not too much Guérande, although there wasn’t enough Mazamette for my taste. My usual logical criticism of the plot: it seems like the Vampires have to spend an awful lot of time working straight jobs in order to arrange their devious crimes. How exactly does one become a “successful real estate agent” when one only has a few days a month not wearing some other disguise? I think director Louis Feuillade handles the pacing and story complexity well. I’ve read some criticism recently that claims Feuillade always edited sequentially and never made use of inter-cutting between scenes. While that may be technically true, he does use cross-cutting here to show simultaneous actions in the adjoining apartments (maybe this could be seen as a single scene), and there’s good use of close-ups, location shots in Paris, and establishing shots that set up interiors. Also, he uses his triple-split-screen effect again to demonstrate a phone conversation, as he did in “The Dwarf.” Watching a Feuillade crime serial feels sort of like coming home: I more or less re-started this project when I watched “Fantômas” in 2014.

specter3Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Jean Aymé, Musidora, Fernand Herrmann, Eduoard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque

Run Time: 40 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Best Costume Design 1915

The clothing we wear affects how others see us and how we see ourselves. An actor’s body language and character can be directly influenced by their outfit, and time periods are established for the audience at least as much through clothing as through scenery. The movies selected for this year’s award for costume design all reflect the importance of this art to the motion pictures.

In “Trilby,” a bohemian subculture is established through clothing, and the development of the main character is shown through her wardrobe changes. In the “Les Vampires” episode called “The Deadly Ring” exotic costumes contrast with the day-to-day norms of Parisian culture. Theda Bara got to display some of the hottest fashions of 1915 in “A Fool There Was.” The Civil War era comes alive in the costumes of “The Coward.” And, although it is remembered today for the innovation of female nudity, the diverse costumes of Lois Weber’sHypocrites” help establish the archetypal nature of its characters.

The nominees for Best Costume Design of 1915 are…

  1. Trilby
  2. The Deadly Ring
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. The Coward
  5. Hypocrites

And the winner is…”The Deadly Ring!”

Deadly RingAs with last year, when I gave the award to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” outfit, again I chose what must be seen as one of the most iconic images of 1915 cinema, the famous bat-suit worn by Stacia Naperkowska for her brief and fatal dance sequence. While the other costumes in this movie owe a great deal to its “Fantômas” predecessor, the glamorous evening clothes of Jean Ayme and the Grand Inquisitor’s understated but official costume also earn a mention.

The Red Cryptogram (1915)

This week’s episode of “Les Vampires” is being reviewed as part of the Silent Cinema Blogathon at “In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.” I’m always pleased that film fans are taking the chance to learn about early and silent cinema, and I hope you’ll check out the other entries as well this weekend. For those of you who may be new to this series, the main thing to understand is the the “Vampires” are actually members of a criminal gang called “Les Vampires,” not supernatural undead beings.

Red Cryptogram1This was the last episode of the serial to be released in 1915, so we’ll have to wait a while to see how things develop. It’s also the longest so far, getting back to more the style of full-length serial episode that we learned to expect in Fantômas. It begins with our intrepid hero, the lackluster Guérande (Édouard Mathé), playing hooky and staying home from work on false pretenses. It’s not clear to me whether he does this to try to trick the Vampires, who thought that they had killed him in the previous episode, or just because he wants a day off. He discovers a Vampire watching his apartment, however, and goes out in disguise to a hot new nightclub featuring the act of one “Irma Vep” (played by Musidora, who would be the biggest star to come out of this series), where he watches her sing. She then goes to an after-hours club with an Apache Dance as the floor show and meets with the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé), who instructs her to retrieve a red notebook that Guérande got from the Grand Inquisitor in the previous episode. Guérande returns home by way of his fireplace, and is shortly thereafter followed by Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who passes along a poisoned pen he has stolen from the Vampires.

Red CryptogramThe next day, Irma Vep arrives and applies for a job as a maid. She tries to poison Guérande, but he figures it out and drinks water instead. Now, a message comes for Guérande’s mother (who he lives with, remember), telling her that her brother was in an accident and she should come quickly to the country. Guérande suspects something and advises her to take the pen along. He continues working on decoding the mysterious notebook. A Vampire sneaks into the house with the help of Irma Vep, but Guérande shoots them both. While he goes to summon a police officer, the two “bodies” manage to escape – Irma had filled his gun with blanks! Of course, when the mother gets to her destination she is kidnapped by Vampires, who try to get her to write a ransom note to her son. She gets out her pen, and uses it to kill the man holding her captive. She runs outside and flags down the first car to make good her escape. the Grand Vampire and Irma Vep return to the hideout, and recognize the pen, which tells them that there is an infiltrator in the organization, but not who it is.

Irma Vep

Irma Vep

For people not accustomed to the serials of Louis Feuillade, this may all seem a little strange, not least because the episode doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, but this was standard for serials at the time. Each episode was more or less self-contained, and had a resolution, or partial resolution, at the end. We still don’t know what the significance of the red notebook is, and obviously Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire are still at large, but for the time being Guérande and his mother are in no immediate danger. There were some things that took me by surprise, though. For one thing, I nearly knocked myself out I slapped my forehead so hard when the name “Irma Vep” was decoded. I’ve known about Irma Vep for twenty years, even though I’d never seen this serial, and it never occurred to me it was an anagram for anything. Och! Meanwhile, Guérande continues to be a total panty-waist. Not only does he fail to rescue his own mother, he spends most of the movie in bed pretending to be sick! I don’t even think Feuillade wanted us to like this guy. Mazamette and Musidora are, ultimately, in too little of the movie to make up for it. And the usual logical inconsistency: if the gun was firing blanks, why didn’t the Vampires just overpower Guérande and force him to show them the notebook instead of escaping? Why bother putting blanks in the gun at all, instead of just taking out the bullets? I know, this is part of the fun, I should really just relax.

Silent Cinena BannerDirector: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Musidora, Jean Aymé, Marcel Lévesque, Florense Simoni

Run Time: 40 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music), or here (with music).

The Deadly Ring (1915)

For my “feature” this week, I’m returning to the series “Les Vampires” by Louis Feuillade, a crime-drama that served as his follow up to “Fantômas.” I’m a bit embarrassed to call it a “feature,” though, given its short running time. I’ not certain whether the relative brevity of the chapters in “Les Vampires” versus “Fantômas” was a result of budget cuts due to the curtailing of the French film industry during the First World War, or whether these were artistic decisions made by Feuillade. Since this episode and the previous one were apparently released on the same day, it could be that they were meant to be shown together.

Deadly RingAt any rate, the movie does have quite a bit to it, given the time it takes to watch. It opens on an exclusive Paris gentleman’s club, wherein a Count Noirmoutier (Jean Aymé) reads in the paper about the relationship between the heroic newspaperman Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and a ballet star named Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska). He then purchases a ring from a nervous fellow who warns him that one scratch from it could be deadly. Then the count heads over to Marfa’s dressing room, where she is being interviewed by Guérande and dressed by her maid. Guérande discreetly leaves and the count offers her the ring “as a token of my affection…with honorable intentions…and absolute respect.” Marfa agrees, and insists he put it on her finger, which he does a bit forcefully. Once he leaves, she complains that her finger is hurt and removes it. Then her curtain call comes and she rushes out to the stage, after donning huge batwings. Her dance as the enormous bat is one of the most iconic images of the film, but it doesn’t last long before she collapses from the poison o the ring. Guérande notices the count fleeing the scene and suddenly recognizes him as Dr. Nox (why didn’t he know him in the dressing room? Never mind.)

If this gig doesn't work out, maybe they're hiring at Disney.

If this gig doesn’t work out, maybe they’re hiring at Disney.

The second act of this episode begins with Guérande pursuing Nox in a taxicab, only to be seized by a gang of Vampires in their Fantômas-like costumes. He is then taken to a secret hideout where orders are passed along from the Grand Vampire that he is to be held there until the Grand Inquisitor comes to interrogate him at midnight. At dawn, he will be executed before the Black Council. The loyal Vampire who is left to guard him quickly becomes overheated in his costume and removes his mask. It is Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), Guérande’s co-worker from the previous episode! Now that he has a “man on the inside” as it were, things start looking up for Guérande. He has Mazamette undo his bonds, and attempts to flee. However, the door is bolted from outside. So, they wait until the Grand Inquisitor shows up and jump him, putting a hood on him and leaving him in Guérande’s place. The next morning, the Black Council arrives to witness the deed, but before they can start, there is a police raid, led by Guérande, who wants to catch the Grand Vampire. However, they all know a secret way out, and they shoot the Grand Inquisitor before they go. The police unmask the dead man and find that it is a prominent judge of the Supreme Court. Fortunately, the Vampires now think they have assassinated Guérande, so he can continue to investigate them without fear of reprisal.

Deadly Ring1This is a fun episode, but again, somewhat less exciting than the Fantômas movies. At first, when Marfa was introduced as Guérande’s fiancée, I thought maybe we were starting to overcome some of his milksop tendencies from the previous episode, but apparently she’s just a “beard.” Anyway, so far as we know at this point, she’s dead, so the point is moot. One thing I don’t think I’ve mentioned before is that the artist Edward Gorey referred to Feuillade as one of his major influences, especially in the book Ascending Peculiarity. That Vampire Dance sequence was one of the first times I really sensed this influence in watching a Feuillade film – perhaps because the detailed backdrop looked like a background to a Gorey drawing. There’s a closeup when Marfa begins to falter in her dance, but in general the camera is fairly static and most of the story is shown in long- to mid-shot. I rather liked the touch that the reason for assembling the Black Council was to implicate all of the gang leaders in the murder together, so that no one would be “clean” should anyone try to betray the rest. Criminals just don’t go in for elaborate schemes like that in the movies anymore.

Alternate Titles: “The Ring that Kills,” “Les vampires: La bague qui tue”

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Jean Aymé, Stacia Napierkowska, Marcel Lévesque

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

The Severed Head (1915)

Severed HeadI’m going to skip ahead in my history of horror this week, because I want to cover all of the 1915 episodes of the serial “Les Vampires” before the month of October is over. This serial is often confused for a more typical horror movie by writers who haven’t seen it, because of the title. In fact, it is a kind of follow-up to “Fantômas” by Louis Feuillade – another crime and detective serial involving a master criminal. The name of the “Vampires” is simply a moniker chosen by the criminal gang that leads this movie. Still, with secret passageways, mysterious notes, a murder in a police station, and, of course, a severed head, there is plenty here for horror fans to enjoy.

Severed Head1This first episode begins by introducing the intrepid reporter Guérande (Édouard Mathé), who returns to his office after some thrilling investigation, only to find that his files on the criminal gang known as the Vampires is missing. He accuses his co-worker Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) of pilfering them, then finds the folder on his person after his denial. Mazamette convinces him not to turn him over to the police by showing him a picture of his children, and says he will be forever in Guérande’s debt when he agrees. Now Guérande’s boss calls him in and assigns him to investigate the case of Inspector Durtal, whose body was found in the swamps without its head. After a farewell scene with his mother (who packs his clothes for him by rolling them into tubes), Guérande cables ahead to an old friend of his father’s, Dr. Nox (Jean Aymé), to request permission to stay at his chateau near the crime scene. Dr. Nox agrees, although he is in negotiations to sell the house to Mrs. Simpson, a wealthy American. The three dine together, and Guérande thrills Mrs. Simpson with stories of the exploits of the Vampires and Mrs. Simspon impresses the men with her valuable jewels, which she always carries with her as a security precaution. That night, Guérande receives a note warning him of tragedy if he doesn’t give up the case. At midnight, a thief uses a secret passage to creep into Mrs Simpson’s room wearing a distinctly Fantômas-like costume and steals the jewels. In the morning, evidence has been planted to incriminate Guérande and he rushes out when the crime is reported, leading Dr. Nox to accuse him in his absence. But, Guérande tells his story to the local Magistrate, who agrees to hold Nox and Simpson at the police station while they investigate the chateau together. Instead of the jewels, what they discover is the missing head of Durtal! Now, they go back to the station to confront Dr. Nox, but they find that he has murdered Mrs. Simpson and fled the scene, leaving a mocking note in the name of “The Grand Vampire.” The audience, though not the characters, are treated to the image of the Grand Vampire escaping across the roof and down the drainpipe of the police station unobserved.

Severed Head2I actually found this first part of the series a bit disappointing, compared to its Fantômas predecessor. I’m hoping that’s because Feuillade is still setting the scene and establishing the situation for greater thrills to come. In spite of the good parts mentioned above, an awful lot of the action in this movie is just people sitting in drawing rooms talking to one another. One interesting parallel between the two series is that both begin with a jewelry heist. There’s fairly little exterior footage, which means we are limited to rather cramped-looking interiors, and sometimes the biggest visual thrill is when the tinting on the film changes from blue to amber when someone turns on a light. I thought it was interesting that our hero is a teetotaler who lives with his mother – neither the American image of the action hero nor of the average Frenchman! So far, the Grand Vampire has been mostly a disguise-wearing Fantômas clone, but I expect things to get more interesting, given the stills I have seen from other episodes.

Like, who's this chick?

Like, who’s this chick?

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Cast: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Roman Orgy (1911)

Roman Orgy

OK, let’s get it out of the way right off, in case anyone came here because they were Googling for porn: There is no orgy in this film. Move along, nothing to see here. Nothing, that is, except for an odd costume drama directed by Louis Feuillade and starring Jean Aymé (whose talents as a baddy we previously saw in “The Defect”). Aymé camps uncontrollably as the debauched Roman emperor “Heliogabalus” (that’s a mouthful, but the end title makes it even worse by telling us he was the “Sardanapalus of Rome”), who sets lions loose on his dinner guests, spoiling the planned orgy. Having had enough of his tyranny, they call in the Praetorian Guard to do away with him There’s limited hand painting of the costumes in this movie, which is mostly pretty understated, but is striking in the gold helmets and armor of the Praetorians. Gaumont must have had a decent budget or some pull with a local zoo, because there’s at least seven or eight lions running around the studio, apparently with actors and crew right nearby.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Cast: Jean Aymé, Renée Carl, Luitz-Morat

Run Time: 8 Min, 52 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Defect, the (1911)

Defects

Alternate Title: “La Tare”

This longer story by Louis Feuillade (feature-length, if we accept the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s liberal definition), is quite somber and serious, although also interestingly different from similar morality films from the US at the time. Anna (Renée Carl, who we’ve seen in a number of these Gaumont movies now) is a “flower girl” working at a brasserie frequented by “loose women” and making time with a dandyish medical student. She is unhappy in her job, but a real doctor strays in and offers her work at a hospital for seriously ill children and old people. She writes her boyfriend a goodbye letter and travels South, taking up her work with determined efficiency and a good bedside manner. Years later, when the old doctor dies, she becomes the director of the hospital. And then her old lover hears of her success and tries to chisel her for a job. When she refuses, he writes to a newspaper of her “sordid past.” The board, which at first appears willing to defend her against slander, decides to dismiss her when she owns up to it all. She can’t get a job without references, and is on the verge of suicide, but she collapses back into her chair and a final intertitle tells us she “considers the Far East — where people stricken by plague need nurses to liberate them from death.”

Now, as this is a bit longer, I want to take a bit of time to discuss it. First, it is interesting that the actress here is not made up to be at all glamorous or attractive, she is quite plain-looking and rarely, if ever, smiles or appears happy. Second, although Feuillade mostly keeps this one inside the cramped, stagey-sets of his studio, we do get some beautiful shots of Paris and the hospital grounds, and a shot of a train racing South that put me in mind of Lumiere, except that the angle was rather more interesting. While we’re on the subject of photography, there’s also an interesting tracking shot between two of the cramped sets at the employment office – nothing groundbreaking, but camera movement is so rare in 1911 that it stood out. It’s quite slow and deliberate, matching the mood of tragic destiny that prevails.  Third, I was fascinated, both by the apparent sympathy for the heroine shown in the narrative, and by the fact that having worked in a “brasserie” would disqualify a competent nurse from hospital work. Wikipedia tells me that “brasserie” means “brewery,” although the translated intertitles once used the term “dance hall,” perhaps trying to make the negative connotation clear to Americans. We don’t see any dancing, though, just what looks like a fairly congenial restaurant, with mostly female wait staff and mostly male clientele, both quite conservatively dressed and not touching one another. I admit, I don’t know much about the turn-of-the-century mores of French dining establishments, but it seems like a pretty judgmental position, perhaps the French equivalent of the gossips fussing about Mary Pickford’s “New York Hat.” Here, however, no one gets any comeuppance and the tragedy is taken almost to its final extreme, aside from the fact that the last intertitle tells us that Anna is truly redeemed and will continue her good works.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring:Renée Carl, Jean Aymé, Alice Tissot

Run Time: 41 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Le mystère des roches de Kador (1912)

LéoncePerret

Alternate Titles: The Mystery of the Kador Cliffs, The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador.

The French had the largest and most successful film industry in the world prior to World War One, and so it’s no surprise that their movies appear rather “advanced” already by 1912. Of the films of this period I have reviewed so far, this made the strongest use of text – both in the form of intertitles, and many handwritten documents that characters wrote and sent to one another, or found and used as evidence. Unfortunately, since I don’t read French and no translation was provided, this was an impediment to my following the action. It also didn’t help that the version I watched had a very modern Dark Ambient soundtrack superimposed (I turned it off after 15 minutes). It did have some interesting bits, however. I particularly liked that they solved the “mystery” with the relatively-new science of Psychotherapy, and that the method of treatment was showing the traumatized witness a film recreating the event they had experienced. This gave the filmmakers a chance to reflect on some of their own techniques for the audience.

Update 12/12/2016: I wrote this review shortly after starting the project of watching 100 year old movies back in 2012. I have now been able to see it with English subtitles (and a decent soundtrack), so the time has come to update the review.

mystere-des-roches-kadorThis movie is the story of a young woman whose rich father dies while she is still a minor, and who then falls into the clutches of the malicious executor, who hopes to inherit by means of marrying or killing her, whichever is more convenient. If that plotline sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was used with rather less subtlety by Pathé in the famous serial “The Perils of Pauline” in 1914. In this instance, the scheming trustee is played by the director, Léonce Perret, who brings a certain decadent boyishness to the role. Unlike Pauline, the heroine (Suzanne Grandais) doesn’t want to seek “adventure,” she just wants to marry her true love (Max Dhartigny), who she met once at a spa and fell instantly in love with. When she therefore spurns Perret’s advances against the backdrop of a lovely rock formation at the beach, he decides to poison her and shoot her lover. He leaves them lying on the beach, but neither one is actually dead, so they manage to crawl into a rowboat and spend the night adrift instead of drowning when the tide comes in.

mystere-des-roches-kador1The whole experience remains a mystery, however, because Max didn’t see who shot him and Suzanne is so traumatized that she becomes catatonic. So, the brilliant psychiatrist Émile Keppens is called in and he brings a camera crew back to the beach to shoot the whole incident and makes Suzanne watch. This triggers her memory, but now they have to trap the evil Perret. They arrange to show up in costume at a masquerade he is holding and spring a trap, demonstrating that he must have written the note that lured the lovers to their near-doom.

mystere-des-roches-kador2As with “The Child of Paris,” this movie’s strength is in its imagery and a series of well-chosen shots, not in pacing or editing. The use of the motion picture as a new technology to recover memory is also interesting, particularly the scene in which we see the recreation of a scene we just watched, only now there is a cameraman in frame, cranking the film by hand as the action plays out. The doctor/director then says “OK, let’s get the shots on the waves,” letting the audience in on the fact that movies are shot out of sequence. It still strikes me as a clever and effective idea, however unlikely that it would actually help someone with PTSD. Perret’s approach works because the whole movie seems to occur in a kind of fairy tale or mythic space, so that the scientific details don’t really matter.

Director: Léonce Perret

Camera: Georges Specht

Starring: Suzanne Grandais, Léonce Perret, Émile Keppens, Max Dhartigny, Jean Aymé, Louis Leubas

Run Time: 44 minutes

You can watch it for free: here