Just as they deepened our appreciation of Rudolf Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, Flicker Alley, with this magnificent release of two genuine rarities, gets us in touch with silent star John Gilbert. The rediscovery of both these films is cause for celebration; the quicksilver, suavely funny Bardelys is the headliner here, but Monte Cristo is top-notch entertainment, too, and certainly one of the best screen adaptations of the Dumas classic.
Bardelys has truly risen from the dead. Considered lost for decades, a nitrate print of the film was found among a large batch of old titles bought up by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films, which promptly took on the job of restoring it. The third reel was missing, but the break in the narrative has been bridged by publicity stills and by a few moments from a surviving trailer.
Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini, who penned a slew of historical adventure tales destined for the screen,1 Bardelys seems placed, in 1926, to compete with Douglas Fairbanks’ massively successful run of action romances. Plans had even been made (then discarded) to shoot in two-color Technicolor like Fairbanks’ Black Pirate, released the same year.
Taking place in the era of The Three Musketeers and King Louis XIII, the story has the skirt-chasing Marquis de Bardelys (John Gilbert) accept a wager from the conniving courtier Chatelleraut (Roy D’Arcy) that Bardelys can in three months time win the hand of Lady Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman, above, with Gilbert). Heading out from Paris to win his bet, Bardelys ends up, after some plot convolutions, getting in big trouble with the king’s guards and hiding out at the Lavedan castle under an assumed name, and there he meets the independent-minded Roxalanne . . .
Vidor’s pacing has nimble feet, and the balance of tone, between elements of action, romance and comedy, is unusually delicate and sophisticated. Neither farce nor satire, Bardelys gently mocks the swashbuckling genre while it generously serves up an exhilarating, nearly flawless example of it. And add to this the unique sexual presence of John Gilbert. Whereas in his films Fairbanks seems reserved, courtly, even timid around his female co-stars, the sensually forthright Gilbert advances confidently on Eleanor Boardman, who resists his languorous bedroom eyes as long as she can — until the lovers end up in a rowboat on a lake edged with drooping willow branches.
Here — on a placid pond in Pasadena, we’re told — Vidor and his cinematographer, William Daniels, shoot one of the best make-out scenes in cinema history. With the boat gliding among the willow branches, Bardelys climbs up Roxalanne’s neck to nuzzle her cheek, and while this is probably acting, folks, Eleanor’s resulting swoon of desire is disarmingly real.
Boardman’s intense appeal throughout this film is difficult to assess. She seems to come with no big star baggage and projects the quiet certitude of a real live girl. Even Olivia de Havilland, in her swashbuckling projects with Errol Flynn, couldn’t muster this. Yet Eleanor Boardman is not the girl next door. Maybe she’s more that college girl you wanted to date but who was just a little too mature. Roxalanne’s surrender to Bardelys is all the more erotic because Boardman has given her character a spunky intelligence that brooks no nonsense.
The 1922 Monte Cristo has the 24-year old Gilbert, sans mustache, take on this rather impossible title role and do remarkably well. Dumas’ archetypal adventure-romance enjoyed phenomenal success as a stage play, but although attempted many times, has not resulted in any stand-out movie version, in spite of the novel’s revenge/redemption plot providing the template for Lew Wallace’s best-selling toga novel, Ben-Hur, which of course spawned two of the most successful Hollywood biblical epics ever made.
Part of the problem may lie with the character of Edmond Dantès, who must transform from a young, happy-go-lucky sailor to the grim, rather loopy Count, who after either killing or ruining everybody he’s mad at, has to flip-flop in the book’s last few pages and become life-affirming all over again — it’s a stretch even for as skilled a storyteller as Dumas, who was French, worldly and not about to use General Wallace’s character-massager: Christ on the cross.
Gilbert’s youthful performance doesn’t solve the problem, but neither does he overplay the ebullience of the sailor or the dark implacability of the Count. Even early in his career, Gilbert showed supreme trust in the camera, and this being a silent picture, Gilbert’s greatest asset — a pair of black, penetrating eyes — gets the work done. For support, the Fox production has surrounded the star with a wonderfully individuated set of villains. The prison scenes are brief but vivid, and enlivened by a performance of Griffith regular Spottiswoode Aitken as the Abbé Faria. At film’s end, departing wildly from Dumas’ plotting, the Count’s destiny is given back to his old girlfriend, Mercedes, and a fisherman’s life in Marseilles, but it’s a satisfying finale nonetheless. We’re very lucky to have this film back.
Writers Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta (Douglas Fairbanks, 2008) provide entertaining and informative commentary for Bardelys, but also a real gem: a newly produced, 32-minute on-camera interview with John Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, who in 1985 published a biography of her father, Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Legendary Silent Screen Star John Gilbert.2 Fountain is witty and engaging as she narrates a survey of Gilbert’s career, but her interview turns very personal and moving when she describes renewing her relationship with her father while she was a teenager and Gilbert had but a few years to live.
Bardelys the Magnificent/USA/1926/91 minutes/B&W and tinted/accompanied by a choice of newly recorded soundtracks: an orchestral score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, or solo piano score by Antonio Coppola. Monte Cristo/USA/1922/107 minutes/B&W and tinted/solo piano score by Neal Kurz. Two-disc set issued on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2009.
Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille, 1934)
I suppose it says more about me than this film if, for its duration, I find myself fixating on Claudette Colbert’s breasts. But it might say a lot, too, about Cecil B. DeMille, who featured Colbert in three of his early thirties’ films, most notably Cleopatra and Sign of the Cross (1932). In the latter, a pre-Code Colbert — as the wicked Poppaea — frolics nude in a marble pool filled with “asses’ milk.” In one famous shot — they’re ready when you are, C.B.! — Colbert allows her tits to go all bouncy-bouncy midst the foamy lactose and for a nanosecond favors us with a nipple or two.
DeMille cast Colbert as a repressed castaway schoolteacher in his next film, Four Frightened People (1934), but the comedy/adventure, featuring the actress’ character rediscovering her sexuality flitting about the jungle in skimpy animal skins, tanked at the box office, and DeMille received a directive from the studio: more historical films. The director obliged with Cleopatra, and, in case anyone might be unsure what his film might be about, designed a title screen featuring a chained, ostensibly nude Cleopatra — clearly not Colbert — holding up two enormous golden orbs, with her breasts centered directly over the words of the title.
Has there ever been a wholly satisfactory Cleopatra? No print exists of Theda Bara’s 1917 incarnation, and in Joe Mankiewicz’s overcooked 1963 film, Elizabeth Taylor, who, ten years previously, had easily been the most beautiful woman in the world, is blowsy and ineffectual as the Egyptian. But DeMille’s picture is a sassy, well-oiled pop classic.
Much of Cleopatra’s success is due to the openhearted sensuality of the otherwise rather prim Colbert, who, entering her thirties at the time, had proved herself capable as a man-eater in Sign of the Cross. By 1934, however, the Hays Code is in full flower, and DeMille must be content to lift, separate and gently cup his star’s assets in a series of breezy tops designed to expose as much chest as possible without wardrobe malfunction. Indeed, the film seems structured around Colbert’s costume changes, each form-hugging outfit a tender trap for our two Roman oligarchs.
Necessarily, the scenario is bi-part — first you get Caesar, then you get Anthony — but the script enlivens the symmetry with some clever push/pull sexual dynamics that dovetail political conniving and lust. DeMille’s Cleopatra is also that familiar 1930s staple: an empowered woman inevitably brought down by her sex’s need to love and nurture. Exiled from her shared throne with brother Ptolemy, Cleopatra schemes to manipulate Julius Caesar (Warren William) so as not only to regain Egypt but to rule the world. All goes well until the Ides of March, after which Cleopatra realizes that, as Caesar grew to become the love of her life, the doomed dictator viewed their union mostly as a political opportunity to acquire more territory for his empire.
When Anthony arrives in Tarsus to check in with the dead Caesar’s whore, a sadder but wiser Cleopatra woos him with an enormous Follies-style floor show on her famous barge, leading to one of DeMille’s most delirious images. As the Egyptian orders enormous curtains pulled to hide their lovemaking, the camera travels back along the deck, between the rowers, and as the music swells, the rhythmic motion of the rowing, added to the whole ecstatic weirdness of the spectacle, becomes a metaphor for hot sex. It’s DeMille’s triumph over Code censorship.
Henry Wilcoxon is quite good as Marc Anthony, a vain, dim bulb who wakes from Cleo’s contrived debauch bereft of motivation and common sense, eventually becoming such a sodden mess that Cleopatra decides to assassinate him by dipping a poisoned rose into a celebratory cup of wine. How imaginative! Cleopatra’s cynical ability to merely discard Anthony — as a drunken sot he’s become a liability to Egypt — adds a nice edge to Colbert’s performance. But in the nick of time, when Anthony, hearing of Octavian’s plan to move militarily on Egypt, brusquely recovers his warrior manhood, the queen backs off from the murder. Watching him strategize and order people around, Cleopatra nearly swoons with desire. Every DeMille script has to have its howler, and Colbert utters it now, locked in feverish embrace with Wilcoxon: “I’m no longer a queen, I’m a woman!”
No one expects from DeMille the kind of sardonic wit Josef von Sternberg brought to his Scarlet Empress, which, released the same year, goes all the way with the same simple concept that women may gain power only through their sexual wiles. While Dietrich the Empress finds the ultimate power-fuck riding her stallion up the stairs of the Winter Palace, Colbert the Queen trades throne and Egypt for a one-way ticket to the undiscovered country of Love-Death.
As for the film’s new DVD release, the question is, Universal, why DeMille’s Cleopatra and why now? There’s no theatrical tie-in in sight, and this stand-alone edition improves little on the version contained in the 2006 Cecil B. DeMille Collection. Apparently, the new disc contains a fresh transfer that has simply enhanced the same print to give an impression of greater sharpness and better contrasts. The film is still more than watchable, but the trade-off is enhanced grain that roils about like microbes under a microscope. New features include three short, undernourished documentaries, one each on star Claudette Colbert, DeMille, and the Hays production code.
USA/1934/112 minutes/B&W/1.33:1 OAR. Released on DVD by Universal in 2009.
In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)
From Tony Rayns’ commentary on Criterion’s new Blu-ray disc of In the Realm of the Senses, I was surprised to learn that the work’s original Japanese title is Love’s Bullfight. For a storyline of ostensibly tragic dimensions, this seems a wrongheaded, even cynical, metaphor, but then, Oshima’s film feels less sensual than intellectual and more deliberately political than intuitive.
The matador here is Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), Japan’s legendary exemplar of l’amour fou, and her trophy would not be two ears and a tail, but one severed penis, still erect and gently swaddled. When Sada, like some lovesick teenager, writes “Sada and Kicho Forever” in blood on her dead lover’s torso, you wonder if this might be a bit of black humor or, more soberly, an example of the Japanese “aesthetic of death,” a concept mentioned by actor Tatsuya Fuji in the disc’s newly filmed interview.
Back in the mid-1930s, the historical Sada, a former prostitute, “accidentally” killed her lover during a long bout of aggressive lovemaking, then lopped off his penis; days later, she was apprehended by the police wandering the streets still carrying the severed appendage. The story lodged deep in Japanese consciousness, surviving WWII as a kind of urban Romeo and Juliet myth that just happened to be true. Besides Oshima’s version, at least two other Japanese films have been made from it, but these play it safe within Japan’s pink (i.e. soft-core) porn tradition. But Oshima, already a radicalized filmmaker by the mid-’70s, wanted to bust the balls of Japanese taboo with his version, avoiding filming and international distribution problems by securing a French producer (Anatole Dauman) and by sending all exposed film to French labs. Producer Dauman was enthusiastic about the Sada tale, encouraging Oshima to make a true hard-core porn film.
Hard-core it is, but porn? More than once, the actors are clearly having real sex on the screen, complete with graphic vaginal penetration and a true money shot — in one close-up, copious rivulets of ejaculated semen run from the corners of Matsuda’s mouth — yet the end effect of the show is not pornographic. Depending on whichever makes your eyes moist, you may find the extravagantly naked bodies of the two very good-looking principals an initial turn-on, but after an hour or so, because there’s no coyness or tease to it, the nudity becomes merely an essential costume change, and a repetitive one at that.
More to the point, the many couplings lack heat. Hard-core porn would place glistening erections, penetrations, blow jobs — whatever — front and center with some attempt at elegant variation. But whereas genitals have plenty of screen time in Realm (this in itself being an affront to Japanese censorship laws, even today), Oshima frames the constant fucking in tasteful medium shots, reserving close-ups mostly for faces, especially toward the end when Sada insists on using risky asphyxiation techniques to regenerate her own excitement as Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) slips into a morbid passivity that would never do for a male porn star.
But do the studied deliberateness and borderline tiresomeness of the sex scenes make the film a failure? Like other “sexually transgressive” films of the era — Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Salo (1975), for example — Oshima’s sexual explicitness carries an undercurrent of socio-political polemic. Not an anti-bourgeois, Marxist intellectualism as with Bertolucci and Pasolini, but for Oshima a stance against the rigorous conformity of Japanese society, with militarist Japan in the year 1936 a perfect time zone for his characters to stage their own hermetically sealed floating world.
Indeed, critic Rayns posits that Oshima is nostalgic for the sensual underworld of the Edo period, but the portrayal of Sada as an obsessively driven female, wholly defined by her need to dominate Kichizo, blasts worldwide gender archetypes, not just those of the Japanese. Early on, we learn that Sada suffers from an “acute sensitivity” in her vaginal region, which I imagine, for a prostitute, is like a doctor cursed with acute empathy. So, instead of a man being led around by his Johnson, we’ve got a woman being driven to violent possessiveness by her clitoris, an intriguing reversal of genital politics that, in the U.S. anyway, would demand the punishment or destruction of the deviating female, as in Glenn Close getting wasted by the Good Wife at the end of Fatal Attraction. At the end of Oshima’s film, Sada finds herself standing alone holding her lover’s detached member; we don’t see her arrested or condemned for her actions, and Japanese viewers will know that in their cultural zeitgeist Sada is something of a rebel icon.
Criterion has issued this title in both standard disc and Blu-ray editions, and the Blu-ray is lovely demonstration of how this format can render a transfer in startlingly film-like detail without any false enhancement. Much of Realm was shot in low light with fast film, and Criterion’s disc features the resultant grain structure with such realism that you wonder whether the home video experience hasn’t finally come of age.
Japan and France/1976/102 minutes/Color/Monaural/1.66:1 Aspect ratio. Issued by The Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray in 2009.
Au Bonheur des Dames (Julien Duvivier, 1930)
Made on the cusp of the sound era, Duvivier’s last silent film is based on an 1883 novel by Emile Zola that’s partially an exposé of working conditions at the then already established phenomenon of Le Bon Marché, considered to be the world’s first department store by dint of its having a number of shops consolidated under one roof.
Zola’s novel reminds us that the big-box store, with its tendency to destroy small, independent businesses, is not a virus born of the late 20th century but was incubated in the France of Victor Hugo and the 2nd Empire. Strangely for those of us who look askance at Wal-Mart et al., neither Zola nor Duvivier, who updates the novelist’s story to 1920s Paris, judges their megastore (translated Ladies’ Paradise) to be intrinsically evil or oppressive. Under enlightened management, in fact, Duvivier — I won’t speak to Zola and his work — feels the gigantism a positive part of progress.
This rather Ayn Randian stance on the heroism of forward thinking comes at the very end of the film, confusing us because, until then, Duvivier seems to be issuing an indictment. The film opens with 20-year-old Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo), orphaned and fresh from the provinces, seeking her uncle’s Parisian fabric shop in hopes he can take her on as an employee. But when she finds it and him, Baudu (Armand Bour) can only shake his head morosely: his shop has lost most of its customers to the new department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, a monstrous shiny-new edifice risen just across the street. Like a cancer, the store wants to grow even larger; plans for additions have forced demolition all around Old Baudu’s storefront. With its aging 19th-century façade dwarfed by the Art Deco of Au Bonheur, the dilapidated shop begins to resemble Rotwang’s house in Metropolis.
Saddened by her uncle’s predicament — he supports a consumptive daughter, Geneviève (Nadia Sibirskaïa) and her fiancé, Baudu’s only employee — Denise lands herself a position as a model at Au Bonheur des Dames. Unbeknownst to her, she’s secured it only because the lady-killer owner of the store, Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand), has spotted her as an exciting new piece of flesh. Like Lillian Gish’s Anna in Way Down East, Denise brings the novelty of countrified innocence to a jaded sensualist.
Symbolically, Mouret’s department store seems to be an easily read billboard decrying the subjugation of women. “He that rules the women,” proclaims cynical capitalist Mouret, “rules the world.” Joining forces with a wealthy speculator, Baron Hartmann, Mouret plans to raze an entire neighborhood in order to expand his enterprise. All goes well until he happens to come face-to-face with the human cost of his megalomaniac megastore. Already disoriented from unexpectedly falling in love with Denise (instead of merely possessing her), Mouret witnesses a death scene right out of La Bohème and then becomes a target for assassination by Denise’s unhinged uncle.
Mouret transforms to a compassionate human being a little too quickly, and then comes Duvivier’s big switcheroo, which Serge Bromberg, in his filmed introduction, claims is taken directly from Zola. But Duvivier can be forgiven for the improbability of his film’s last few minutes because his filmmaking is so energetic, actually joyous at times. Early on, there are extended scenes in the store’s dressing room with a dozen girls prancing about in their underwear and having catfights. It’s a room full of mirrors, and Duvivier, clearly turned on by all the dimpled skin, is endlessly inventive in filling the frame with reflections of the girls applying makeup while lingerie-enhanced derrières swarm the edges.
There are jump cuts and montage galore. When Old Baudu, confronted by a phalanx of creditors in his ruined shop, finally goes berserk, Duvivier goes a bit over the top himself with a flashy Eisenstein-inspired montage, but the sequence that follows, in which Baudu grabs a revolver and dashes across the street to terrorize the entire department store, is rhythmically inspired, its visual pulse ratcheting up until it comes to a tragic full stop. It’s a virtuosic set piece; I watched it with my mouth open.
Facets Video once again treats us to a fine transfer from Arte France Development and Lobster Films. And once again the film’s new underscore comes courtesy of Gabriel Thilbeadieu leading the chamber group Octuor de France. Unlike his score for Poil de Carotte, this one mostly behaves itself, but then, as a kind of lovesick, moony theme for Mouret and Denise’s romance, he inserts a wobbly chanteuse singing a vintage(?) musette tune that put this viewer on edge.
Extras include a twenties’ documentary short about a real department store that reveals a cafeteria for employees very much like the one in the film. There’s also the aforementioned introduction by Lobster producer Serge Bromberg and a brief feature on the score.
France/1930/B&W/89 minutes/Full screen/Silent with English, French, or German subtitles. Issued on DVD by Facets Video in 2009.
Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)
Some 43 years on, you could say Daisies is provoking rather than provocative, but then at its very end comes this pithy zinger: “This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle.” Typed a letter at a time, the text appears over images of explosions, aerial bombings, and, finally, a nuclear blast. Bracketing the entire film, the doomsday imagery (it appears at the very beginning, too), plus the “dedication,” seems to bring an ironic, quasi-political context to the 70-some minutes of what could easily be construed as freewheeling whimsy. My dominant feeling while watching this film? Annoyance. But as she delivers that climactic slap in the face, does Chytilová have me right where she wants me?
Whether Daisies is a trifle is an open question, but the two young women featured (Jitka Cerhová and Ivan Karbanová) certainly do plenty of trampling, most particularly on the sexual well-being of men, but more broadly on the thin skin of conformity and society’s (or, Communism’s) desire to keep things, well, orderly. There is no narrative here, but instead a series of skits that, back in the day, one might’ve called happenings but, in more recent decades, performance art. Briskly in and out of environments, but most often in their apartment, the two girls, both named Marie, enjoy making messes while seeking some kind of ego gratification that remains obscure — unless food is involved. Sex, except as a means with which to manipulate men, is not on the program.
Throughout, the women behave in a regressively silly manner that’s perhaps meant to mirror the empty-headed infantile bimbo of men’s dreams, but here the behavior doesn’t equal puerile sensuality. Instead, the girls are nightmarish versions of the id, and, yet, as such, their antics become tiresome rather than disturbing. Stumbling into a staid cabaret (its floor show featuring a couple performing a lame run-through of the Charleston), they get obnoxiously drunk on a shared 32 oz. bottle of Pilsner Urquel, no mean feat. Back in their rooms, they chop up phallic bread rolls, veggies, and sausages while a paramour on the phone romantically apostrophizes one of the girls.
As a kind of finale, they come upon a table set for an elaborate banquet, groaning with foodstuffs, on which they gorge themselves unrestrained. The consumption devolves into a food fight, then total chaos, leaving the room in shambles and the table a mass of commingled cakes and caviar. At which point the girls decide to straighten up the mess. “We don’t want to be bad,” they proclaim, as they get it all back in order — only to have a massive chandelier come down on them and the explosions begin.
As she experiments wildly with color filters and different film stock, Chytilová’s editing is tightly controlled, and there are several beautiful montage collages, the most memorable involving butterflies. Rapid-fire and vaguely psychedelic, this short sequence is juxtaposed with the blond Marie posing nude but coyly covering her backside with some framed Lepidoptera. Along with the butterflies, I would have liked to see more of the naked Marie (both Maries are young and very pretty), but frustration, for the butterfly collector and me, is part of the message. While these silly girls get your dander up, Chytilová is saying, you’ve blithely accommodated the agents of terror and suppression. Where’s your anger, where’s your activism?
Shot as Prague inched towards its spring, Daisies is dissident, political filmmaking, aimed at the groin of an oppressive regime, but most likely, too, at the reigning sexism in the arts in which Chytilová — a former model — found herself at the time. This film needs its context, and Second Run is wise to include Jasmina Blazevic’s 53-minute documentary, Journey (2004), which offers an affectionate portrait of the lioness in winter. Although Chytilová, at 75, continued to compulsively shoot film, Blazevic’s film allows a valuable look backwards to the days when her enemy “was a dangerous idiot.”
In Second Run’s transfer, Daisies is crisp, new, and particularly vivid in its color sequences, showcasing the cinematography of Jaroslav Kucera.
Czechoslovakia/1966/B&W and color/73 minutes/1:33:1 OAR/English subtitles. Released on DVD by Second Run in 2009.
The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has, 1965)
When Polish director Wojciech Has decided to film Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, he picked a doozy of a difficult book. Here’s a novel, if it can really be categorized as such, written in French by a Pole but taking place in the wilds of 18th-century Spain. First published in 1813, Potocki’s novel is a frame narrative, with the initial, set-up frame being the discovery of a large manuscript by a French officer while he loots a village during the siege of Saragossa (1802). Taken prisoner, the Frenchman finds that the manuscript is a diary written by an ancestor of one of his Spanish captors.
The diary’s author is a young officer in the Walloon guards, Alphonse van Worden, who, en route to Madrid in the year 1739, finds himself enmeshed in a series of fantastical events in and around a dilapidated, haunted inn nestled under a foothill of the Sierra Morena Mountains. Deep within the inn’s mystical basement, a pair of Muslim princesses, enticing van Worden with exotic blandishments, encourage him to turn from his Christian faith. Alphonse appears to want to go along with the program, yet each time he reaches an erotic turning point with the princesses, he blacks out and wakes up under the gallows of two bandits, the Zoto brothers, whose corpses lie next to him. In the end (big spoiler alert), the girls’ protector, the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez, turns out to be staging everything — including the scores of narrated tales that make up the bulk of the book — in order to give the somewhat naïve, even buffoonish, van Worden a sentimental education. Basically, Potocki’s hero needs to grow up.
The storytelling of the various narrators — a gypsy chief, a cabalist, a mathematician, a love-besotted son of a merchant, and many more — is very much in the tradition of Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is how much of this concept is retained. Nearly everyone van Worden (Zbigniew Cybluski) meets tells their own story; in the film’s second part, while van Worden rests in the castle of the cabalist, the gypsy chief Alvadoro (Leon Niemczyk) entertains the variegated gathering not only with his story but also with those of four others. Here Wojciech pulls off a kind of narrative polyphony; each voice, each tale is distinctive, holding an array of memorably sketched characters, like the mischievous meddler Busqueros (Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz), who seems to have escaped from an opera buffa. Yet the swarm of stories meshes deftly — at times their events intersect and explain each other.
In the first part, much of the action directly involving van Worden has a farcical, fabricated quality in the spirit of a Monty Python sketch, and the viewer begins to realize that both he and the hero have been set up in an elaborate con game. In one bravura sequence, Inquisition goons abduct van Worden and deposit him in a torture chamber, but just as he’s about to undergo painful interrogation under an iron mask, he’s rescued by a band of freedom fighters led by the resurrected Zoto brothers and the Moorish princesses. During the sojourn at the cabalist’s castle, a few members of the Inquisition sequence, still in their hooded costumes and far in the background, nearly make an entrance before realizing their mistake and skittering out of sight — it’s like they’ve shown up at the wrong costume party. Throughout the film, Wojciech makes wry use of the Cinemascope format with its attendant deep focus.
Zbigniew Cybluski, who has a nagging resemblance to Al Franken in his SNL days, brings a light comedic touch to van Worden’s cluelessness, a sort of Mr. Jones demeanor, as in: you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Wojciech’s film is indeed much more of a head-trip than its source, which ties up the craziness rather neatly with the completion of the Sheikh’s designs on the Walloon dunderhead. Wojciech includes the Sheikh’s grand revelation, too, but then delivers a coda in which his hero simply goes mad and gallops back to the haunted Sierra Morena landscape, implying that van Worden is trapped eternally in his own psychic funhouse. Thus, Wojciech satisfied any acidhead who actually saw the film,3 but nowadays the ending feels like something of a copout, and not the capper I wanted for this brilliant film.
Now issued by Mr. Bongo Films, The Saragossa Manuscript looks okay but not spectacular on disc. The gorgeous black and white photography by lensman Mieczyslaw Jahoda comes through just fine, though, as do the fabulous sets recreating the dusty, sun-drenched Spanish plazas of Goya’s time. At the beginning of the film, we see an appropriately malevolent but down-in-the-mouth Venta Quemada, the inn where van Worden meets his bumptious maiden ghosts.
Poland/1965/B&W/182 minutes/2:1 OAR/in Polish with English subtitles. Released by Mr. Bongo films on DVD in 2009; distributed by Facets Video.
- Such as The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche. [↩]
- Now out of print, unfortunately. [↩]
- For example, Jerry Garcia, who, according to clues mentioned by Glenn Erickson in his review of the 2001 Image DVD release of The Saragossa Manuscript, may have been mistakenly thinking of another movie entirely when he got Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola interested in restoring Wojciech’s film. By the time a complete print of The Saragossa Manuscript arrived in the U.S. for restoration in 1995, Garcia was dead. [↩]