Film Review: The Hands of Orlac (1924)

Also known as: Orlacs Hände (original German title)
Release Date: September 24th, 1924 (Berlin premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Written by: Ludwig Nertz (play), Maurice Renard (book)
Music by: Pierre Oser
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner, Carmen Cartellieri, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas

Pan Films, Berolina Film GmbH, 92 Minutes, 113 Minutes (restored), 105 Minutes (2013 cut)

Review:

As big of a fan of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as I am, I actually hadn’t seen any of his other films until now.

I’ve known of this one for quite some time but I never came across it until it started streaming on The Criterion Channel, recently. Being that it was only on there for a limited time, I had to check it out. Plus, it starred the legendary Conrad Veidt and all of his silent films showcase his great talent for acting in that very expressive style.

Like Caligari this film utilizes the visual style of the German Expressionist movement. It features a high contrast chiaroscuro aesthetic while also having a visually surreal quality. Everything feels dark and dreamlike and for Wiene, you can see a more refined style than what he showed just four years earlier with Caligari.

Honestly, this feels like a more mature and plausible film. It’s less fantastical, more gritty and it taps into the psyche a bit deeper, providing a sense of dread and horror that eclipses that more popular and widely known Wiene picture.

The story is about a pianist who loses his hands. So he’s given hands that could’ve possibly belonged to a killer. While he doesn’t get back his ability to play music, weird things start to happen that have the man believing that the hands are taking over his body and causing him to kill. There are some twists to the plot and there’s a big reveal scene at the end but even though this is a very old film, I didn’t find it to be predictable and it had a satisfying ending.

I don’t think that this film could’ve been as good, though, without Conrad Veidt in the starring role. He gives us some of his best work, as you really start to buy into his worst thoughts about himself while feeling for the guy, as he could possibly be an innocent victim, possessed by evil hands.

While I don’t like this as much as Caligari, it feels like it utilized the knowledge Wiene gained while working on that film, as well as his others that predate this one.

Additionally, it also features one of the best Veidt performances I’ve ever seen. 

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other silent era horror films, especially those with the German Expressionist style.

Film Review: Casablanca (1942)

Also known as: Everybody Comes to Rick’s (original script title)
Release Date: November 26th, 1942 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Based on: Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre

Warner Bros., 102 Minutes, 82 Minutes (cut version)

Review:

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” – Rick

As much as I love Humphrey Bogart, noir-esque pictures of the classic era and the films of Michael Curtiz, I’m still going to be that oddball that says that this film is slightly overrated.

Don’t get me wrong, I still adore Casablanca and it has left the universe with possibly more famous lines than any other motion picture but it’s not perfect, even if I still see it as a cinematic masterpiece.

I also can’t fully quantify or elaborately explain why I don’t view it as “perfect” but I kind of just put that on the fact that it’s not a film I really want to revisit all that often. In fact, as much as I do actually like it, I put off reviewing it for a long time because I just wasn’t ever in the right mood for it.

Full disclosure, I was also waiting to revisit it on the big screen but it’s one of those all-time classics that hasn’t played on the big screen in my area since before I started Talking Pulp. If my local theater plays Gigi one more time over anything else, I’m going to throw popcorn bucket at the theater director.

Moving on, as much as I like Bogart, I wouldn’t call this his best performance. It’s absolutely exceptional but I still think it falls below his acting in 1950’s A Lonely Place. Bogart was always on his A-game though, and this film is no different and it still ranks up towards the top of greatest acting performances of all-time from any era.

I also really liked Ingrid Bergman in this and it made me realize that I need to go back and watch some of her other films, as this is the first thing I’ve reviewed with her in it. Her performance in Notorious was also top notch and that may be the first one I revisit.

The film also features Conrad Veidt, a guy mostly known for his work in the silent era. In fact, his role in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs was so chilling and iconic, it inspired the creation of The Joker, Batman’s top nemesis. In Casablanca, it is really neat hearing him speak and seeing him have to act in a different style, as he plays a Nazi commander and primary antagonist in the story.

Claude Rains and Peter Lorre also show up and both men are legends of not just the horror genre but of motion pictures in general, as their range is far greater than just playing silver screen monsters.

More than just the stupendous acting and fabulous story, the film’s greatest asset was its director, Michael Curtiz. The man is a legend and it definitely shows in this picture from his ability to get some of the most iconic and replicated shots in history, as well as getting performances out of his actors that eclipse even their own greatness. He also shows that he had the right crew working to achieve his vision just based off of how perfect and majestic the general cinematography, lighting and set design were.

Casablanca is a special film. It definitely deserves its historical status, even if I don’t see it as a pillar of absolute perfection. It’s still significantly better than some of the other films in history that are debated over as the best of all-time.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart starring pictures of the ’40s and ’50s.

Film Review: The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Release Date: April 27th, 1928 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Paul Leni
Written by: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, Charles E. Whittaker
Based on: The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
Music by: Ernö Rapée, Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, William Axt, Sam Perry, Gustav Borch
Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Brandon Hurst, Olga V. Baklanova, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Samuel de Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell

Universal Pictures, 110 Minutes

Review:

“[via subtitles, to the House of Lords] A king made me a clown! A queen made me a Peer! But first, God made me a man!” – Gwynplaine

This is sort of the swan song to the typical German Expressionist style, even though it was an American film. The director was German and Conrad Veidt, the title character, originally made his mark in the expressionist film style. Plus, even though this takes place in England, the sets look very German, especially for the time.

Now while it shares a strong resemblance to German Expressionism, it isn’t as surreal as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or as brooding as Nosferatu. But it still has a darkness to it and even though IMDb and other places categorize this as horror, it is very light in that regard. In fact, the only thing one can argue that fits the horror genre is the grotesque disfigurement of the title character.

Veidt plays Gwynplaine, a man who, as a boy, had his mouth disfigured by a king to look like a creepy smile. As a child he meets Dea and over the years they fall in love, even though Gwynplaine feels he is unworthy of her due to his disfigurement. Gwynplaine constantly wears a scarf over his mouth unless he is performing in the freak show of his traveling carnival. Dea, however, is blind and she sees her blindness as a blessing as it lets her see the true Gwynplaine.

As the film rolls on, it is revealed that Gwynplaine has a right to the throne and he is then pushed into a marriage with a Duchess, who is pretty much a horny vixen that weirdly is turned on by his disfigurement. But all Gwynplaine cares about is spending his life with Dea in his arms.

The character of Gwynplaine is one of the most iconic in cinema history, even if he is mostly forgotten by modern audiences today. His look was the inspiration of the Joker in the Batman comics. He would also inspire the look of the title character in the iconic ’60s horror picture Mr. Sardonicus. Most recently, the origin of his smile was an inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

This also came out during the time when film was transitioning from silent pictures to sound. Initially, this was released as a purely silent movie but due to its quick success it was re-released with a score, it’s own theme song and added sound effects.

The plot is based off of a Victor Hugo story, which the studio thought would help capture some of the magic they had with the adaptation of his more famous story The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Regardless of that, The Man Who Laughs stands quite strongly on its own.

This is a well crafted movie, the narrative flows nicely and the acting is exceptional, as you fall in love with a few of these characters and you want to see Gwynplaine achieve the happiness he yearns for.

A solid motion picture, through and through, The Man Who Laughs is one of the finest pictures of its era.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: other German Expressionist films with a dark edge: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Golem, etc.

Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Also known as: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany)
Release Date: February 26th, 1920 (Germany)
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Written by: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer
Music by: Giuseppe Becce
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski

Decla-Bioscop, 74 Minutes

das-cabinet-des-dr-caligariReview:

Few movies can illicit as many feelings and emotions without the use of sound as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While I love many films of the silent era, especially the German Expressionist pictures of that time, none of them quite capture my attention and imagination in the way that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has.

The film came out between the two World Wars, wedged between the loss and destruction of the Great War and the rise of Nazi Germany. Needless to say, it was one of the darkest and precarious eras in European history. The film reflects the state of life in that time and it exists as an allegory to the war-like authority of the state and the abuse of the common man, manipulated by a greater power into committing heinous acts that serve the sinister master.

Was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari somewhat prophetic? Scholars have debated that for decades. In fact, there are several books and a documentary about it.

As a film, outside of its apparent political influence, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a superior work of art. It is meticulous in its design and execution. It is one of the most haunting and well-acted silent films ever made.

The real standout of the film is the talent of Conrad Veidt, who played the hypnotically controlled somnambulist killer Cesare. His motion, his facial expressions and his aura of dread makes him one of the greatest horror characters in the history of cinema. In the silent era, he is only really rivaled by Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck) in 1922’s Nosferatu and Lon Chaney in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera.

Werner Krauss also created a very effective and scary presence as the title character, Dr. Caligari. He was large and brooding and carried a strong sense of authority with him, especially when the reality of his character is revealed in a great twist ending.

Lil Dagover was beautiful and almost angelic as the apple of everyone’s eye. She had a grace and frailty that made her feel like a sole delicate flower on the verge of getting torn apart in the oncoming storm.

Apart from the acting, the set design was also marvelous. The surreal German Expressionist vibe takes over the film and makes it feel like a nightmare sequence, which is the intention. It is effective while creating a contemporary dark fantasy setting that many filmmakers have tried to emulate for generations with none of them coming close to the magic of this film’s set design and cinematography.

There are many great motion pictures from the silent film era. None of them, however, match the storytelling, aesthetic and overall quality of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is also a great silent classic that many consider the best of the best, it still falls behind Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Plus, this film also benefits from being its own unique story where Murnau’s masterpiece is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Rating: 10/10