Saturday 30 November 2013

A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) (1929)

A Throw of Dice
”A Throw of Dice” is another newcomer to the list courtesy of the 10th edition currently in circulation. Its claim to fame as I understand it is as an early film taking place in India and, I should add, a decent entry both on content and technique.

Please note that I did not call it an Indian film. This film is as Indian as “Slumdog Millionaire” and there are more than a few comparisons between those two films. Both are essentially western (European) films taking place in India. That means that sensibilities and the flow of the films are familiar to a western viewer, who will in both cases recognize the fairy tale elements and tourist like flavor of India coupled with a stark realism with western cause-effect plot line. This is in stark contrast to the Indian film tradition (Bollywood), which more often than not is confusing to the western viewer with singing and dancing, divine intervention and a formulaic recipe not entirely logical. Needless to say that I am not entirely at home with Bollywood films.

“A Throw of Dice” was made by German director, Franz Osten in collaboration with the Indian actor and filmmaker Himansu Rai as part of a cycle of Indo-German films. The cast is entirely Indian and features Himansu Rai himself as the evil king Sohan. He is also by far the most interesting of the characters and Rai is perfectly diabolical as the envious king who must possess the woman of royal colleague Ranjit (Charu Roy).

The story is classic fairy tale fair and the Indian setting only emphasize this. King A (Ranjit) and B (Sohan) are fast friends with a common interest in gambling who on a hunting expedition meet the fair maid C (Sunita, played by Seeta Devi). King A seduces Maid C to the chagrin of King B who plots to kill King A. The plot fails and instead King B tries to frame King A on the murder on Maid C’s father. When that fails as well King B sets out bring down King A and take Maid C through foul play (literally).

All this is not exceptional, we can pretty much predict every step of the way and that was likely the case as well in 1929. What is exceptional is the production value. This is a beautiful film in every sense. The costumes are sparkling, the palaces are the stuff of fairy tales and the picture is knife sharp with a lot of credit to the restoration process. I have come to really respect the people at the BFI. They know their craft and give the films adequate attention. But of course Franz Osten is the real architect. He was a true son of the German impressionistic school and although the film is more melodramatic than most German productions of the age he orchestrates the story perfectly well and gets max out of his actors. Charu Roy as Sunita could walk right into a European or American production of the age and not look out of place. She does spend a significant part of the film looking depressed, but when she smiles she is radiant and the skimpy top she wears is hot! She is a worthy price of the two kings.

Another stroke of genius on behalf of the BFI was to get Nitin Sawhney to compose a score for the 2006 restoration. That soundtrack is just ridiculously good and fitting. It is not a Bollywood soundtrack, though there are plenty of Indian elements, nor is it a classic silent film score though the continuous soundscape supports the melodrama perfectly. Neither is it a new age flip, but rather a composition most pleasing to a modern listener which combines all these elements. The DVD from BFI includes an excellent interview with Sawhney where he explains his methods and choices and you cannot but admire the man. A lot of thinking went into this and the result is extraordinary. I would go so far as to say that the movie is a nice dreamscape to accompany the music rather than the other way round.

Not all however is well and good. I did have an issue with the entire gambling theme. No, I really do not mind that people are playing games nor does it bother me that some money is involved. However these two kings are obsessed with gambling. Ludomania is the right word (it even looks like Ludo). When Ranjit stakes his entire kingdom on a game of dice that tells me that this king is unfit to rule. As a subject I would be most displeased to find that I was the prize of a game to be thrown away. That is not proper management, but tells me that this king does not really care for his job and responsibility. When it is revealed that the game was rigged and Ranjit was cheated the entire city rally to save him as if they have entirely forgotten the he just staked them on a game of dice. That is a cause for revolt, not support. “Yeah, let us get our irresponsible leader back!”

Ah, but this is just a fairy tale so I guess I can live with that. At least I can root for Sunita and the sweet boy in Ranjit’s household and I suppose Ranjit learned his lesson. I might buy the soundtrack.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce
What makes the ultimate film noir? Let us see… you need to start with a murder, preferably a gruesome one. From there the story should be told in flashback, preferably by a narrator with a dry, touch and fatalistic slant. The plot must include several characters with their own ulterior and preferably seedy motives, including at least one stunning femme fatale. Of course outstanding performances in all the main leads are a boon. The cinematography must make delicate use of light and especially shadow and finally there is no such thing as a happy end. In the best case it is bitter sweet.

And there you are, I have just described “Mildred Pierce”.

I am not shy to state that “Mildred Pierce” is just about the most perfect film noir I have yet seen. It is almost dogmatic in its adherence to the principles of a noir to an extend that I would not be surprised if someone told me that this is the template film noir from which the genre was defined. The only twist to the genre here is an inversal of the genders. The focal point is a woman and her adversaries are mostly men with one crucial exception.

This is an awesome film. I am flat out sold by this one. It is a tough one to see if you like me tend to invest yourself in the characters, but that is also a quality of the film. You understand the characters, why they do what they do and for all her flaws you are never ready to disconnect from Mildred. Instead I got drawn into her universe of ambition and deceit, of material success and emotional deroute. It is really rather overwhelming and I had to take a break or two in the process but it was very rewarding. A 10 out of 10 film in my book.

The opening sets the tone for the film perfectly. A man dies mumbling “Mildred”. We do not know who he is. We see Mildred (Joan Crawford), a stunning mature woman wealthy dressed but obviously distraught. First she is this close to killing herself by drowning. Then she finds what is obviously an old friend, Wally (Jack Carson), and take him to the beach house with the dead body. It is clear that Wally has been trying to get into her pants for years and now cannot believe his luck, but also that he is a sleezebag who has essentially stolen her business. Mildred leaves him in the building and runs away.

Next thing everybody is at the police station. Mildred is told not to worry, they got the murderer. It is Bert (Bruce Bennett), her former husband, and he has already confessed. His makes a distraught Mildred even more in a bad shape. She denies that he could have done it and start telling her story.

Now, that is a nice setup. Textbook noir. Not just a whodunit, but an almost existential drama involving many pieces. We know it is going to end badly. Disastrous even. But we do not know half of it yet and the story begins as trivial as a standard suburbian family; housewife Mildred, failing breadbringer Bert and two children, adolescent Veda (Ann Blyth) and the younger Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe).  

I will spare the reader for a detailed summary. It would be too much of a spoiler anyway. Suffice to say that Mildred decides to stand up for herself, to make herself a success primarily to take care of her children. She becomes a success. More successful than she could have dreamed of. In fact she does everything right and work hard to get there. By the standard that most people are measured in American movies she is a heroine.

Unfortunately her success is hollow. Her objective itself is futile. Kay, the sweet and very likable child, dies from pneumonia and no wealth in the world could save her. Veda however is a snake that Mildred is nurturing at her breast. Mildred is ambitious on Veda’s behalf, but that is nothing compared to Veda’s own ambitions. Somehow she has got it into her head that she is an aristocrat, stuck in a middle class family. No matter how much money Mildred makes it is not enough for Veda and Veda scorns her mother for actually working. Veda is just about the most unlikable, spoiled and ungrateful character imaginable. Yet she is also Mildred’s daughter and Mildred refuses to recognize the problem before it is too late. Just when we think Veda cannot get worse she ups it and surprises us by her egocentric and delusioned behavior.

Mildred also has to negotiate a sea of sharks. Wally for one, but he is nothing compared to Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Mildred may be cunning, but she has her soft spots and the sharks around her, Veda, Wally and Beragon are not shy of exploiting them. She is up against some really tough odds.

While all the actors involved are convincing the three leading women are outstanding. Mildred’s assistant Ida (Eve Arden) is tough as nails and by far the most sympathetic character, simply for cutting through the crap and saying what we are thinking. Veda is played by the only 17 year old Ann Blyth. I had no idea a 17 year old girl so completely could be evil incarnate. I will have to look up that actress. I cannot believe she would not have done well in her later films.

But the grand prize goes to Joan Crawford. She may have been a horrible person privately, but she was divine on the silver screen and this is the best I ever saw her. At 43 years she can be both the worldly and experienced business woman and the coy and sensuous girl. I dare say no other actress at the time could have lifted this role as well. Stanwyck or Davis would have done it differently and not been able to give the role the darkness Crawford gives it. Just listen to her voice. There is power there.

The ending of the film ties up the threads in a most satisfying twist and I will not spoil the fun by revealing it. Just say that the end scene is probably the most spectacular of the entire film. As Mildred and Bert leave the police station dawn has broken and they walk through an arched portal into the sun. Literally and symbolically.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Spellbound (1945)

I am rather torn in my opinion on “Spellbound”. It is a cleverly orchestrated mystery thriller with excellent scenography and first class actors, but it is also based on a premise that is so incredibly far out that I just keep shaking my head. A lot more on that later.

The short of it is that I find myself liking a movie I do not like. No, that is not really the way to describe it. I was entertained and having a good time watching it despite that I could not buy its premise.

The film starts out on the psychiatric ward Green Manor. It is an isolated location in Vermont (the only region in The States I can honestly say that I know having spent an entire summer there) inhabited by doctors and patients. The mantra of this place is psycho-analysis.  I am not really sure if this practice is still in vogue but in the 40’ies this was the rage and Freud was the second coming. All mental problems originate in a childhood trauma (preferably a sexual one, though that is toned down in the film) and if you face that trauma you are basically cured. That is quite important for the story.

One of the doctors is Dr. Constance Petersen. She has her own issues. Apparently she is afraid of feelings and abhors the concept of love. Instead she dedicates herself to her science believing solely in logic. She is in other words the perfect positivist borne out a refusal to invest herself emotionally. That is also important. Oh, and she is the tall, blond and impeccable Ingrid Bergman.

Another of the doctors is Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). He is the head of the asylum but is about to be replaced by the younger Dr. Edwardes, a stranger to the asylum. Murchison is nice and grandfatherly and everybody is sad to see him go, but alas it is time for a new head of the Green Manor.

This new head is no other than Gregory Peck. This being very early in Peck’s career he is a strapping young man. From the moment we see him we just know that Dr. Edwardes and Dr. Petersen will be an item. This is my complaint number 1. The demure doctor and the new administrator are divinely beautiful people. Hmmm…

We have hardly been introduced to Dr. Edwardes before we see something is awfully wrong with him. In fact something is really weird. I know this is an asylum full of basket cases, but Dr. Edwardes is really scary. However, equipped with Gregory Peck’s masculine beauty and irresistible charm, he also manages to knock Dr. Petersen off her feet. It soon becomes clear, first to Dr. Petersen, but soon to the rest of the lot, that this guy is an imposter and the real Dr. Edwardes  is likely dead. Why would a man pretend to be a dead man if he had not killed him? The more we learn of the fake Dr. Edwardes the more dangerous he gets and any sane person would get away from him. But not Dr. Petersen. The queen of logic and science herself has thrown all her sense out the window and believe him innocent because… well, because she loves him. Oh, yes, that makes so perfect sense. Then he MUST be innocent. This is my complaint number 2. I just hate it when professionals in movies become very unprofessional and start carrying their head under their arm (not sure if you can even say that in English). Usually it is a policeman who gets emotionally involved and starts acting stupid, but this is a friggin doctor! And it is not for lack of warning. Everybody else can see that this is a potentially dangerous fellow and going around alone with him is not the best idea. Again and again we get confirmation that this is true. What else would you say about a man walking around in a trance with a razor in his hand and murder in his eyes?

Well, it so happens that he is innocent (and sane once he faced his trauma) and that extraordinary coincidences conspired to make him look guilty, hell, he himself thought he was guilty (I doubt I am spoiling anything by revealing this), but that is actually beside the point. The premise here is that he must be innocent because he is beautiful and charming and because Constance falls in love with him. Call me a stone-hearted heathen but I do not buy that premise. To me that makes him more dangerous than ever. Secondly, of all people is the queen of science and logic who reaches that incredible conclusion that the fake doctor killed nobody and is as harmless as a little lamb, he is just confused and need some help remembering. Is she friggin out of her mind?

Fine, let her analyze him and solve the mystery puzzle, but at least recognize that she may be wrong, that this man may be a psychotic murderer. There is an off-chance that the rest of the world is right.

Of course this is just as much a romantic love story as it is a thriller and in the name of romance people usually do get stupid, but that is also why I tend to dislike romantic films. From the view point of the romance I suppose all this makes perfect sense.

Years later Robert Ludlum would write “The Bourne Identity” with a strikingly similar plot. A man without memory believes he is a dangerous murderer and a woman helps him find out that he is in fact not because she believes in him. In that story I had no trouble buying the premise and I think it has something to do with the order of events, but also because Marie St. Jacques gets convinced by facts whereas Dr. Petersen remains convinced despite the facts.

If we for a moment forget the premise of the film and look at all the other things this film has to offer we are really getting spoiled. My favorite is the dream sequence. Instead of the usual blurry camera we get a sequence designed by Salvador Dali. I am a big fan of his stuff and this was totally Lynch 40 years before Lynch. Secondly we get an excellent score. It is haunting and romantic and fits the film perfectly. Miklós Rózsa got the films only Oscar for his music.

Finally, despite the phyco-analysis mumbo jumbo this is after all a Hitchcock film from his golden age. It is full of suspense and the timing is excellent. The sense of danger is very intense. That also means that the entertainment value is high.

No, I was not bored, I did enjoy the movie, but man, I did not buy the premise.

Friday 15 November 2013

The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

The Battle of San Pietro
In 1943 the director John Huston was visiting the American troops fighting in Italy with the purpose of making a film about them. Today we would say he and his team were embedded with an army unit and his role was not unlike reporters today who follow the troops around and report back to the public at home.

I am certain Huston was not the only film or media person who documented the armed forces, but the result, his 37 minute film is quite unique. Certainly in the avalanche of war reports available I have not seen anything quite like this before.

On the surface of it it looks fairly standard. In typical newsreel style an excited narrator (Huston himself?) tells about the taking of an Italian village and all the machinations of war. The first impression is that the soldiers are good boys, heroes with excellent equipment who is out to wipe the German ass. The enthusiasm with which the tanks, planes and military tactics is described is textbook propaganda, almost designed to sell war bonds.

But something is terribly wrong. People are dying, soldiers as well as civilians and the dead do not at all look like heroes. They look like boys, dirty and bloody and terribly young. The battle is not a walkover, nor a heroic storm. It is slow and dangerous. Grenades are exploding right in front of the camera, machineguns are pounding at everything that moves and the camera is flung around and covered in ruble. Attack after attack are repulsed. Gains are lost in counterattacks and when finally victory is at hand the enemy are… just boys as well and the front has moved 5 km down the valley.

The narrator tells about the civilian population who has been liberated from the evil foe, but the camera shows the ruins that remains after the war machine has pommeled the town and scorched the land. In these pitiful ruins emerge women, children and old men, poor and shocked, alive, but their livelihood destroyed. Dead civilians are dug out from the ruins and we see the corpses. Most heartbreaking is watching the children. The narrator tells us that only days after the battle they are laughing, but the camera tells a different story. They look lost. Two toddlers the age of my own son are holding each other’s hand as they walk through the ruins and in their dirty, ill-fitting cloth the children look more like orphans than anything else.

This may be a war document telling about the brave soldiers, but underneath it is also a subversive story about the terror, chaos and general destruction which is war. You cannot help wondering if this is a film to cheer the troops or a protest against the evil and general pointlessness of war. I suppose it can be seen both ways and it has. The army both hated and loved it. The release was delayed until the end of the war in Europe for fear that it would sap morale, yet it is also a pad on the shoulder of those men who had to fight the war. They were indeed brave and neither narrator, nor the camera denies that, but the prize was very high.

Modern war movies ride the same wave. Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Band of Brothers all praise the boys and abhor the war, but that is the present. In wartime forties there was no room for criticism. War was a heroic pissing contest as far as the public was concerned. For the troops the reality was different. That was what Huston wanted to change.

In a way I am reminded of Bunel’s Land Without Bread in the sense that narration tells one story and the camera a different one, but in “The Battle of San Pietro” the narrator never entirely disconnects from the images. It is the tone that diverges. There is very little enthusiasm in those pictures.

The backdrop of the film is the Italian campaign. While Germany and the Soviet were fighting a battle of the titans in Russia the western allies were fighting a miniature (by comparison) campaign in North Africa and Italy. The idea was that an invasion in Italy might take out all of Italy from the war. Italy quit soon enough, but the Germans simply took control and set up a scheme for controlled withdrawal. With only token units (compared to the Russian campaign and the allied forces invading Italy) they were able to stretch that invasion for 2 years. The Italian peninsula is mountainous and very easy to defend and while the Allies paid a high prize for their advances it is difficult to say what exactly was the purpose once the Germans had taken control of Italy. It is possible its purpose simply was to be a token front to placate the Russians while they were fighting the real war until a second front could be opened in France in 44. If that is really the case then the battle of San Pietro was really futile.

No doubt the general cause was noble and just, and I personally appreciate what the western allies accompliced, otherwise I would have grown up on the other side of the iron curtain, but war is an ugly business no matter the cause and damage all across is terrible. That is the message of “The Battle of San Pietro”. Huston himself is quoted to have said that if he ever made a pro-war movie, he should be shot. Well, he would not be shut after this film.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
”The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, or ”Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed” as is the original title, is a stunning animated feature created more than a decade before Disney’s “Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarfs”. “Prince Achmed” is a silhouette puppet show as they are known particularly in the Far East but also in Europe in the 19th century before the cinema made this kind of projected shows old-fashioned. Except the characters here are not puppets controlled by a puppeteer with strings and sticks, but frame by frame animated silhouettes on a backlit and tinted surface. The effect is beautiful and quite stunning as these literal outlines take on a life of their own.

In simpler silhouette animation each character would just be a single cut-out being moved around on the background, but in “Prince Achmed” there are so many moving parts, even the individual fingers, that the artificial element, which of course is quite obvious given that we are taking black silhouettes, fades away and we have a true animated world.

The woman behind “Prince Achmed” was called Lotte Reiniger. She was a pioneer in this style of animation and with her team she worked 3 years to make this film. I am still wondering how she did it. The details are so many, the outlines on each silhouette so full of fine and delicate element that it must have been an insane job to cut them. The skirt of the princess and the cape of the prince both consist of latticework of minute detail. I can understand how you would do this on a computer but in the mid-twenties it was just you and a knife and a camera on a glowbox. The achievement is also highlighted by comparison with the later works of Lotte Reiniger also included on the DVD I got. None of them measures up to “Prince Achmed” in technical excellence.

The story of the film will inevitably take backseat to the technical achievement. Without knowing the background in full detail it seems to me that it is a medley of stories from “1001 night” combined into an adventurous journey. Our hero, the prince, inadvertently flies away from Bagdad on a magic flying horse belonging to a wicked sorcerer. Achmed gets the horse under control and finds a nice girl who unfortunately is guarded by some jealous demons in the wonderfully named country of Wak-Wak. They manage to get away only to be caught by the Emperor of China. Everything turns sour for Achmed who finds himself up against an emperor, a sorcerer and a bunch of demons. Fortunately he finds some allies namely a badass witch and a fellow called Aladdin who used to have a lamp of the more useful kind. The witch and Achmed help Aladdin get the lamp back and together they take on the sorcerer and free the girl and as a nice bonus Aladdin gets a magic castle and the princess, Achmed’s sister.

The adventure surely has all the elements of an exciting fairytale, but somewhere between the very two-dimensional world and the over the top fantastic elements the story itself loses its grip on me. I was not overly interested in this story. I was much more interested in the technical aspects and just kept wondering how on Earth she did it.

The original was lost in Berlin in 1945 as another casualty of a conflict that had nothing to do with the film, but fractions survived abroad and were pieced together in the reconstruction. The film came with an original score by composer Wolfgang Zeller, years before sound film, and that was added to the restored version. There is also a narrated version in English which I did not see. I felt that the version with the score would be closer to the original experience and it certainly fits very well.

“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” should first of all be seen for the technical and artistic achievement it is and that is really reason enough. I believe it deserves its newly acquired spot on The List.        

Thursday 7 November 2013

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Farvel, Min Elskede
Everybody knows the private detective Philip Marlowe. If not by name (there are people more ignorant than me) then as a concept: Trenchcoat, hat, voice-over, dark streets, complex murder mysteries. That character is an institution. What I did not know was how funny and entertaining that character can be.

“Murder, My Sweet” is thoroughly entertaining to a degree that I have to say I am not sure I had this good a time since I saw “The Awful Truth”. Everything in this film works out but condensed into one name that would be Dick Powell. Last time I saw him he was the romantic guy in a series of Busby Berkeley musicals. For “Murder, My Sweet” he has gone through a transformation and is reinvented as the tough, smart and cocky boyish detective. He is fantastic, like a 1940’ies Axel Foley with tons of charm, witty lines and a deadpan attitude and I wonder, is this really the same guy? I love this fellow. This is a crime story, but the comedy is bubbling underneath and only by keeping a straight face throughout does it stay a crime story. With a character like Powell’s Philip Marlowe this could have become really silly or a spoof on itself, but by taking itself serious throughout the film pulls it off. But man, it is funny.

The plot of the film is so complex that it is almost absurd. I will not even try explaining it. It is convoluted with people showing up out of the blue and being connected in unexpected and improbable ways. Attempts to follow the deductions Marlowe makes in his running commentary is bound to make you dizzy and more than once I was not a little confused. Instead of being annoying I actually felt it worked very well because Marlowe is just as confused. Often his “sharp” analysis is just a bluff, a shot, and he admits it willingly, but it often triggers a new avalanche of unexpected information, adding to the general confusion.

There are a plethora of characters, all of them with secrets, none of them what they appear to be, friend or foe? We keep getting surprises. My favorite is the half-wit, double-size ex-con Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki). He is like a bulldozer without a driver, with an agenda he hardly knows himself. And then of course the girls: Pretty, innocent (?) Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) and the blonde vamp Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), women with more secrets and agendas than is good for them and both with a hungry eye for Marlowe.

“Murder, My Sweet” can be described as a mix between “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man”. The complex crime mystery and noir elements are straight off the Falcon while the approach with a sharp witted sarcastic, but charming (and thirsty) detective harks back to the non-stop party of “The Thin Man”. Combining these two elements into something this dark and threatening and so hilariously funny was a stroke of genius. In this incarnation it is not cliché, partly because it is so well done, partly because it was new, but the format has become a favorite for imitations, good or bad. Think “Naked Gun” or “Bladerunner” and countless in between.

The comparison with “The Maltese Falcon is quite appropriate. The theme of a detective becoming the focus of the plotting of a host of dodgy types is obviously a noir favorite and these two do that to perfection. The main difference is Bogart versus Powell. Bogart is the tough nail who keeps his head cool and navigates those murky waters with a rare skill. He calls the shots and is quick at turning the situation if he is on the defense. Powell on the other hand is almost the antihero. He gets beaten up, drugged, dragged around and pulled by his nose and yet he keeps getting back on his feet. His lines are not so much cool as they are sarcastic and a bit smart-ass or even jack-ass. It fits him. Powell is a great antihero. If Bogart is a real man then Powell is a real boy.  

This one could so easily have tipped and become silly. If the Grayle girls had started telling jokes, if Moose had started laughing or if Marlowe had shifted his balance from the slightly bitter ironic amusement to not taking the case and his predicament seriously this would have become a farce. This film walks a tightrope and only by keeping the straight face and taking itself serious does it work. We have to believe the story as unlikely as it is. If we realize how absurd it is or even worse, if the characters start thinking this is absurd then we get thrown off and this would be neither funny nor suspenseful.

But because the balance is exactly right this film works perfectly. I highly recommend it.

Sunday 3 November 2013

The Eagle (1925)

The Eagle
It was a gross oversight when the editors of The List ignored Rudolph Valentino in the first nine editions of The Book. Admitted, The Eagle is now the only Valentino film I have seen in its entirety, but even an ignorant like me will know what a huge impact Rudolph Valentino has had on not just cinema, but western culture in general. Even today to call somebody a Valentino is not uncommon. It ranks somewhere between a Don Juan and a Casanova but its meaning is more romantic and maybe a bit tacky. In any case the image of Valentino as the sheik riding off into the sunset with his girl is printed forever in my mind and probably in many other’s as well.  

Now, the reason Valentino did not get his entry in the first 9 editions could be that his movies were just not that good. Based on my very thin experience with Valentino films I tend to think that may be the case. If “The Eagle” is representative of Valentino’s film then they were just vehicles for the romances that sold the tickets. Certainly in this case the consistency and integrity of the story is as thin as a modern mainstream romcom, meaning paper thin.

The story is that Rudolph Valentino is Vladimir Dubrovsky a lieutenant in a regiment belonging to the czarina of Russia (Louise Dresser). You know, those honor guard horsemen that are more about looking good in uniform than doing any real soldiering. In fact their role is mainly to please the czarina in her vanity and she frequently picks from their ranks a lover-boy to please her in bed and in return elevate him to the status of general. You can imagine what a ridiculous echelon of old and new lover-boys her general staff consists off! The right people to wage a war, no? Anyway, Dubrovsky is picked out to be her next companion and he has the audacity to refuse! No wrath is worse than that of a refused woman and the czarina has power to boot. Soon Dubrovsky is on the run with warrant hanging over his head for treason.

The next chapter is interesting in the sense that it sets up a very interesting conflict. A man named Kyrilla (James A. Marcus ) has taken over the (impressive) Dubrovsky estate in a scam and is shown to be a cruel and evil man who feeds his enemies to a bear in his wine cellar. Vladimir Dubrovsky swears vengeance and becomes The Black Eagle, a Russian version of Robin Hood complete with a take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor agenda. He means to take back his family estate with his band of outlaws. We see a bit of his plundering and he is really the gentleman thief.

The interesting part is that Kyrilla has a daughter Mascha (Vilma Bánky) and that Dubrovsky falls in love with her. So on the one hand he wants to give Kyrilla the boot and on the other he wants her daughter. That is a difficult balance and Dubrovsky struggles with it awhile. Instead of choosing he wants both and loses both. I will not go into detail with that except to say that Dubrovsky infiltrates the mansion as a French teacher and gains the confidence of both father and daughter before the scam collapses around him.

His dilemma carried me through the second half of the film. I was wondering how he would manage to kill or at least dispossess Kyrilla without losing the girl. The resolution was however both ridiculous and romantic. First Mascha tries to kill Dubrovsky when he is pointing a gun at her father. Then she falls into his arms knowing well that the teacher and The Black Eagle is one and same person and finally she rides off with him when he reveals himself to protect one of his men only to be caught by the czarina’s men and brought to prison.

Kyrilla is still in possession of the Dubrovsky estate and Vladimir Dubrovsky is sentenced to death. No girl, no vengeance, only death at the hand of a vain empress.

That is where the story takes a really silly turn. The new lover-boy and captain-turned-general has changed the execution orders and when the czarina learns that Dubrovsky has just been executed she changes her mind and gets sooo happy when her boy-toy reveals that he has disobeyed her insane order and arranged for them to be sent out of the country. And then they all wave happily at each other as Vladimir and Mascha drives away in a horse cart.

That ending just ruined the entire film for me there and then. I can live with Dubrovsky as a romantic fool who sacrifices his cause and all his men for a girl. I mean, this is Rudolph Valentino we a talking about. The girl is more important than anything, I am sure the majority of his mostly female audience would agree. But the combination or a czarina so entirely out of touch with the basics of ruling people and the happy-all-is-forgiven-and-we-all-love-each-other finale is just far far out.

Had Vladimir been executed after marrying his sweetheart in prison I would have bought the story. That would have been a nice and romantic end, sort of Titanic style. Though it would still leave the outlaws and Kyrilla hanging unresolved, but who cares anyway, they were just a vehicle for the romance.

If we cut away the ridiculous story and focus just on the romance we get what we came for. Valentino is the great lover. He is masculine and feminine in on. Lithe and sharp with his dark lipstick and trimmed eyebrows and awesome sideburns. He is immaculate. He is not the he-man Douglass Fairbank who defeats all his enemies with wits, strength and cunning nor the happy-go-lucky Errol Flynn whose laughing bravado wins him fame and women. Valentino is the knight of flowers, the wet dream of the maidens in their towers or at least of bored women who wished there was a bit more fire in their men at home. And Valentino delivers. They get all their money’s worth of puppy looks and kisses and gallantry. The full Valentino package.

So do I agree with the editors that it was right to leave out Valentino? No, of course not. He was way too influential to be ignored like that. You would have to have seen at least something of him. But I do understand at least to some degree why he was left out. If The Eagle is representative of Valentino’s film I would prefer “The Thief of Bagdad” any day as a romantic adventure.