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Silent Movie Special

Friday 12 June 2009, 13:00

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

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With my band The Dodge Brothers I recently got to play along to a live screening of a silent movie. With us was Neil Brand, whose mellifluous skills as a silent movie accompanist have been widely celebrated by Paul Merton among others, and a jolly and rather revelatory time was had by all.

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    Comment number 1.

    Yeah I agree Mark, about how sloppy some of the films are now getting.
    If in doubt, blow something up, or play rock music, which will be outdated in a matter of months.

    Thats the talent of some of theses directors around at the moment.

    Michael Bay and McG should buy a Charlie Chaplin or a Metropolis DVD, and see real emotion from a character, or a real breathing city like in Metropolis.

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    Comment number 2.

    mark you really do need to see buffy, specifically for this subject, the episode Hush.
    joss whedon will save the world!

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    Comment number 3.

    You don't have to go back to the silent era to appreciate great expression from actors. Sergio Leones Westerns had minimal dialogue and made a star out of a limited minimal dialogue actor in Clint Eastwood. Easily the most expressive silent actor in the Spaghetti westerns however was Klaus Kinski.

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    Comment number 4.

    I keep meaning to ask - Sonny Burgess or Warren Smith?

    Steve W

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    Comment number 5.

    Dear Dr K,

    Perhaps now you're an award winning radio personality, you could use your influence to try and get people to watch some older, less widely known movies?

    I recently watched Eyes Without a Face thanks to you and was absolutely mesmerised. Films that good need more exposure to the public, I'm sure you'll agree.

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    Comment number 6.

    Enough of the film talk, were those REALLY leather trousers?

    And you a vegetarian *tut* *tut*

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    Comment number 7.

    Excellent point by youngian67

    Sergio Leone did what thousands of directors can't do with huge budgets and he did it in 1964.He even made Charles Bronson look like a nice actor :)

    Probably one of the finest examples of silent RECENT cinema is: "Les triplettes de Belleville"
    If you haven't seen it,do yourselves a favor and watch it now!
    Good doctor must have seen it.

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    Comment number 8.

    Echoing the old Balazs sentiments eh? He felt almost exactly the same (although of course he was talking about the advent of the sound film itself). Is DrK confirming, 80 odd years on, that poor film sound has indeed robbed us of the ability to interpret the language of the face?

    I think perhaps you're jumping to conclusions somewhat. Hunger for instance, used its sound & music with the sort of marvelous restraint that would've certainly pleased Balazs or Pudovkin. Not all modern cinema is as subtle as an audial sledgehammer.

    I must say however, that your sentiments on the state of pop music are way off base. There's some fantastic pop out there at the moment and I speak as somebody well versed in pre Lead Belly music.

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    Comment number 9.

    I can see Mark's point. To me comedy was never better than in the silent era, with The General being the greatest comedy film ever made. Actor's like Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were far more talented, funnier and strangely far more cinematic actors than most so called comedy actors today.

    However, what about horror? Mark, you yourself said that sound is a vitally important part of the genre and yet the original Nosferatu is one of the scariest movies ever made precisely because of the lack of sound. The use of shadows, the scratchy, jumpy print, the performance and make up are enough to send shivers down the spine. Werner Herzog proved with the pointless remake that adding sound does nothing.

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    Comment number 10.

    Recently I worked my way through Hitchcock's silents through some bog standard public domain copies mostly from this compilation. I know there are better transfers available, but seeing them with the crackle and pop, frame jump and dodgy intertitles has felt more authentic somehow, the miracle of their survival as much a part of the experience as Hitchs work itself. Which is something of a surprise for someone who is usually so meticulous about wanting to see a film in the best circumstances. What follows are some first impressions or an inadequate survey which fails to capture in any great detail this fascinating experience.

    His first complete film (at least in production terms), The Pleasure Garden, is essentially Showgirls without the rampant sexuality and subtle performances. Its about the divergent lives of two friends working at the dancehall in London; one becomes a star, the other marries a prince and tragedy ensues. Though it opens well with the hilarious if uncomfortable image of an old lascivious bore in a threatre audience gazing at the dancing ladies though an eyeglass, and it is charming in that way that most silent films are, the oblique characterisation and repetitious action are difficult to take even for an hour. Still, theres some funny business with a dog and a magical moment with a ghost using some old school theatre trickery.

    His next film, The Mountain Eagle is lost.

    The Lodger is usually considered to be the forerunner of his later career as a suspense director and clearly Hitchs best film of the era. The aforementioned lodger moves into a house and acts a bit strangely when a killer is on the loose in old London town. All circumstantial evidence points to him is he guilty? Artistically a more accomplished work than The Pleasure Gardens, the editing here is more fluid than I expect of the period and as a pupil of the German school he understand how to light the sinister face of lead actor Ivor Novello (a good job too because at least at this point he was a horrible actor). Theres also a documentary quality to the scenes set in the streets, which are seething with fear as the violence escalates. Surprisingly humorous too both in the pratfalls of the landlord and the bumbling about of some of the cops and the conclusion is not what youd think it might be the message is rather deeper.

    The five minutes of his next film, Downhill, reminded me of The Talented Mr Riply for some reason. I watched that on YouTube -- I can't seem to find a copy of the rest of it.

    Every director seems to make a boxing film at some point and Hitchs is The Ring, in which two prizefighters literally come to blows over the love of a woman. Scorsese must have reviewed this before going into Raging Bull; some of the smoky shots of the boxers in close-up and punches landing are almost exactly replicated in one of the fight sequences there. The psychology here is a bit more simplistic -- most of these early films feature some kind of love triangle and in none of them is there a suggestion that the woman could tell both of them to give over and make her own way in the world. Its a reminder of the time in which they were made that and in the case of The Ring, the sudden use of the n-word in one of the captions.

    There essentially seem to be two kinds of silent films those whose story could only be told in the medium and those that are essentially talkies with the sound turned off in which you can almost see the actors shouting, desperate for the dialogue to be heard. Since it's based on Noel Coward's play, Easy Virtue can't help for follow the second pattern. The wife of a drunken brute is scorned by society after an affair with an artist and subsequent divorce, only to find love again on the French Riviera. Hitch does his best to replace Cowards dialogue, with close-ups and crossfades to signal the characters thought processes and in the court sequences we see the notes of a reporter as she jots down whats being said. Already the director is introducing quite complex narrative ideas; the conclusion visually mirrors the opening in such a way that we can see the effect the affair has had on the woman, whose life is permanently in shadow.

    Someone should remake The Farmers Wife now, with David Morrissey as the widower searching for a new wife and Rebecca Hall as the maid whos secretly in love with him. Its the first of Hitchs out and out comedies, somewhat akin to farce in this case and loads of fun. The farmer makes a list of the local potentials and works his way through it, asking each of them to marry him and crossing them off the list when they dont offer him the reaction he's expecting. Also based on a play, by Eden Philpotts (the novelist who wrote a series of books about Dartmoor), it manages to entertain through proper screwball wit (plenty of caption cards) and delightful physical comedy which has a whiff of the seaside postcard about it.

    The same cant be said about Champagne, which the director himself largely disowned later in life -- he told Truffaut that "The film had no story to tell". Hes right. It's about a 1920s Paris Hilton style heiress who's father apparently loses all of his money on the stock market is forced to get a job as a flower girl in a night club, whilst maintaining the attentions of two potential husbands and there's not much else to it, yet it meanders on and on episodically without doing much to engage the audience's sympathy. The performances have the kind of exaggerated facial and physical gestures people expect from silent films which makes it seem even more dated than The Pleasure Garden. I think someone even twirls their moustache. I can only guess that the director was attempting a kind of satire on both the ingredients of contemporary cinema and the repellently rich at the time of the depression, but doesn't manage either. One of those rare occasions when the poster is better than the film.

    Manx melodrama The Manxman was Hitch's final silent (not including the original cut of Blackmail). Magnificently shot in Cornwall (years before the Isle of Man became a tax-haven and pleasant to filmmakers) its another love triangle, this time as life longfriends a fisherman and a lawyer -- both fall for a local barmaid and her promising to marry the former even though she subsequently decides she's in love with the latter. Theyre calling this kind of thing a bromance these days; the lawyer doesnt want to betray his friend even though it makes the girl suicidal. Its really worth seeing just for the photography; the exteriors are tremendously scenic especially the opening as the catch is brought into harbour, the sea filled with boats.

    Hitch mastered the silent medium just as it was going out of fashion.

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    Comment number 11.

    Maybe you should do a silent movie version of The Exorcist (without doing Oldfield's Tubular Bells).

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    Comment number 12.

    Re - NeonLoveChicken -

    So glad that someone has mentioned the Buffy episode Hush. I believe that Joss Whedon came up with the idea for a silent episode after people kept telling him that the snappy dialogue was the most important thing about Buffy.

    Hush is not only one of the best things ever to be broadcast on TV, it is actually really truly scary. The scene where "The Gentlemen" enter the college dorm and slowly murder a student, who cannot cry for help is a scene I have never forgotten. I hope the responses on this blog means that more people seek it out.

    Incidentally, the actor who played the leader of The Gentlemen, Doug Jones, later went on to play Faun in Pan's Labyrinth.

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    Comment number 13.

    Hi Dr K

    I was thinking of moments in films from more recent years where expressions said 1,000 words. I instantly thought of Anthony Hopkins in 'Remains of the Day' and 'Silence of the Lambs', Paul Bettany in 'Gangster No1' and Johnny Depp in 'Edward Scissorhands'.

    These moments still exist, just not very often. I don't know whether this due to the film maker being lazy, showing a lack of imagination, or just fearful of the big film producers...who knows. But when we do have those silent moments where actors convey emotion through facial expression, those moments for me tend to steal the film.

    Loved the Buffy clip.

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    Comment number 14.

    Yeah that Buffy episode was good.
    I only watched some of the show's though.
    I remember where he turned an episode into a musical once.
    I have never seen Firefly mind,but been told its great.
    Not really a TV person tbh.
    Flight Of The Conchords is really great though.

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    Comment number 15.

    good point - well made (to use the words of a reknown film critic)

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    Comment number 16.

    I know this is neiher here nor there, but I'm watching "changeling" and I was getting ready to resent angelina jolie but you were absolutely right. She's bloody brilliant! You were right and I was wrong.

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    Comment number 17.

    Yes Dr K I mostly agree with you.

    But what was German Expressionism without the use of extremely highly stylised production design and extreme acting to signify something far deeper into the human psyche?

    Was that not the CGI of its day? The use if false perspectives and minatures employed by the great filmmakers of Murnau, the use of spectacle employed by Griffith, DeMille and the romanticised legends of the old west as told by Ford. Not that I am comparing these greats to someone like Michael Bay (that would be stupid and insane).

    Story telling has changed, maybe not for the better or for worse because we get great films like Let the Right One in and there are also directors such as Michael Haneke who make films such as the glorious Cache (Hidden).

    Films today I think just need to slow down, but you can't always blame the filmmakers or the studios. Were it not for the demand of the masses maybe we could have cinema that has slowed. But then you can't stop the progress of technology. Storytelling is changing. Let us hope that it is not for the worse.

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    Comment number 18.

    On the subject of 'you were right and I was wrong'...

    A while back I was a bit sniffy about you calling Michael Bay the antichrist, arguing that it was puerile to blame one person for a trend in film making. However I had the misfortune to see the trailer for Transformers 2 recently, and so I bow to your perspicacity.

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    Comment number 19.

    we've lost the melody in melodrama, nice line!

    summer usually meant three things: holidays, nice weather and fun summer blockbusters.

    unfortunately these three things are no longer guaranteed. it's been a couple of years now since we've last had a decent summer. holidays are confined to a couple of weeks rather than the glorious three month break. and summer blockbusters have turned into a cacophony of actions set pieces welded together with little care for story or character.

    ive decided to no longer subjest myself to the torrent of insipid blockbusters like once before.

    I've decided to become extremely selective in my choice of summer blockbuters. Instead I have compiled a list of films I've been meanign to see for a long time. So far I've seen some amazing films including
    Black Narcissus, The World of Apu, Best Shot, Hopscotch, Sullivan's Travels and All About Eve.

    It's a great way to counteract the bile in our cinemas this summer!

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    Comment number 20.

    Talking about summer blockbusters... So finally we get a solid (if not exceptional) mainstream movie, this summer.The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a remake of the 70's classic starring Walther Matthau and Robert Shaw, opened in the US this weekend.There are enough differences from the original that you dont feel like you are watching a remake and know what's coming next. Tony scott keeps up the tension during the hostage negotiations and includes some impressive exterior action sequences. John Travolta and Denzel Washington, ably supported by John Turturro and James Gandolfini, are in good form with a good script that rattles along until it hits the buffers shortly before the end. Travolta's moustache twirling supplies the humour and Washington's character and personal story are more complex than Matthau's was. I can't help wondering if we are still being affected by the writer's strike of last year as the resolution is rather weak compared to the rest of the film. It doesn't compare to the original largely because of the lack of a third act but still worth the price of admission although the UK will have to wait until 24th July to see it.

    Now, what is all this nonsense about not liking films about Las vegas just becaue they are about Las Vegas? Apart from the exceptions you metioned, what about Casino or the Cooler? I also didnt mind Bugsy, Honeymoon in Las Vegas, Very Bad Things, Oceans Eleven (not 12 or 13), Midnight Run, Austin Powers(1), Rain Man and Diamonds are Forever. Good grief, man! You can watch the most sordid slasher movies but you balk at Sin City? What rot! Mumbai is not exactly a model city, is it?


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Outspoken, opinionated and never lost for words, Mark is the UK's leading film critic.

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