With the voting for top 50 pre-1920’s films coming up on the Criterion Forum, I’ve been loading up on films from the era in the last month or so. There has been some genuinely wonderful discoveries including the early British films of James Williamson, Cricks and Martin, and Cecil Hepworth, and Maurice Tourneur‘s marvellous Le friquet (1913).
Oh and Judex (1916), more outstandingness from Louis Feuillade. A grand serial that despite not reaching the dizzying heights of Les Vampires (1914) manages to succeed smashingly by not even trying for the same tone. It’s much more sedate and leisurely in its pacing, but this is perhaps the serial’s greatest strength, as it gives the viewer the opportunity to know the characters inside-out. Judex struck me as a much more personal work than Les Vampires, likely due to the prevalant familial themes of the work. The serial is about the reconciliation and restoration of individuals through the restoration of family. Because of Feuillade’s choice to emphasize character over action these themes end up working very effectively, where they might have been lost otherwise.
I’m now tackling a less than stellar French/Flemish intertitled copy of Feuillade’s Tih Minh (1918), which has been made watchable by the introductory French class I’m taking. I am definitely missing out on some of the nuances, but am enjoying it nonetheless. The general plot has the famous explore D’Athy returning home to France with a new wife (Tih Minh) and a Hindu book that has caught the attention of the nefarious Kistna, a wealthy and mysterious turban wearing gent. Kistna along with his partner in crime La marquise Dolores (kind of a Musidora-lite) have the power to cast out the souls of women, reducing their victims to mute imbeciles whilst there souls wander the seas. Tih Minh becomes one of his victims, forcing D’Athy and his sidekick Placido to uncover Kistna’s secrets.
The film is a bit lacking in visual style, but Feuillade’s direction is sturdy enough, and there have been several very striking sequences, one in particular finds D’Athy and Placido discovering a cell containing dozens of Kistna’s victims…all young attractive woman dressed in white robes, pawing frantically at our heroes. It’s quite an evocative setting, almost like a madhouse. Tonally the film is quite different from the other Feuillade’s (Judex, Les Vampires, and Fantomas), as it the hero is not blessed with secret powers or even much in the way of smarts…he’s just as clueless as the audience. Kistna as a villain lacks the sparkle and charm of Fantômas, or Musidora’s various permutations, and as such he is much more of a pure bad guy. There’s nothing really to root for on his end, Dolores isn’t particularly interesting, and Kistna fits pretty nicely in the Warner Oland mold of fat-white guys in turbans planning to rule the world.
I think a great deal of my enjoyment of Feuillade’s serials is the seductive qualities of the villains, I know with all three I’ve ended up rooting for the villain over the hero. So Tih Minh is a much different experience, and in some ways a bit of a disappointment so far.
Either way I’d still give my right spleen for a DVD release.