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Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (51) - Max Berghouse reviews The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower (1927)

Le Mystère de la Tour Eiffel (The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower), , Julien Duvivier (Director),René Guychard and Armand Thirard ( Photography), Alfred Machard (Screenplay), Charles Delac and Marcel Vandal (Producers). Felicien Tramel ("Augustin"), Gaston Jacquet ("Sir William DeWitt"),Régine Bouet ("Sylvanie"), Jimmy Galliard ("Reginald"). France, 1927. 129 minutes.

The Eiffel Tower, circa 1927
Many, if not most of the director's early/silent work is lost or substantially unavailable. In the scheme of things the present film was only recently discovered in a Dutch collection, to immediate acclaim. It runs just slightly over two hours, relatively long for current cinema, and exceptionally so for cinema of the period. Some reviews have suggested that even at this length, the film is not complete. Given the storyline – which is quite slight, and the possibility of extra length, it seems to me possible that this might have been considered as a serial. More of that later.

The inter-titles in the copy I watched are in Dutch. I have no idea whether these accurately reflect the French originals. Some of these inter-titles have subsequent English translations, but certainly not all. Some of the English inter-titles are expository, that is they describe the action either before or after where that action does not fully correspond with the description. This may be a case of "showing and not telling", which in its reversed form is considered the most egregious of cinematic errors. That however is unusual for the director' s work and may instead indicate where film is missing.

The film is accompanied by a modern score by Ms Fay Lovsky which is interesting and jaunty although in my opinion is inappropriate to the film. Again some reviews indicate that this is a comedy and the score would be appropriate if this description were correct. Despite my own general absence of a sense of humour, I could find little to actually laugh about except that to modern sensibilities, the storyline is about as sensible and believable as 1930’s and 1940’s science-fiction serials.
I watched the film with the soundtrack and then watched it again without. It is far more compelling without because the general naivete of the score, colours one's perception.

The storyline concerns the intersection of an itinerant semi vagabond artist in a circus, Felicien, of Uruguayan background but resident in France and his "journey" to receive his testamentary request from his multimillionaire father. Then there are the machinations of the "Ku Klux Eiffel" headed by Sir William to achieve whatever evil purpose (never fully disclosed) they have. There are two central tropes which would have had much more resonance in the period: the fabulously wealthy Latin American (a common descriptor of the period was "wealthy as an Argentine") and the suave evil of an Englishman. Many reviewers have noted that in the 30’s, 40’s and subsequently, very many Hollywood villains were Englishmen. The  KKE group is additionally advised by an "Oriental gentleman" – shades of Fu Manchu, who looks about as genuinely Oriental as Warner Oland,  who was said to have achieved his Oriental look with the help of an elastic band around his head.

I don't think very much else needs to be said about the plot. The film is enjoyable and indeed compelling because of the technical mastery of the director. Every camera technique imaginable is used with subtlety and great professionalism. This facilitates a very, very fast moving pace. Of course, as is common with the director's work at the time, there is excellent use of non-studio sets which seem perfectly appropriate for the storyline. The magnificent city townhouse which is to be the beneficiary's residence is a flawless and clearly very French baroque villa with some art deco additions. During the period in question, French metalwork was very highly regarded and there are a number of props featuring these. The castle headquarters of the KKE, struck me as being quite possibly German. Interior shots "within" this castle are almost certainly studio bound but have a very strong art deco towards German expressionist feel. Absolutely excellent. Again as usual, motorcars are perfectly appropriate for the class of persons driving them. There is an extremely opulent, I think, Mercedes-Benz with a very sporting body and also a small sports car which one can imagine a well-to-do playboy might drive.

The climax is set on the Eiffel Tower itself with hero and antagonist appearing to climb the arch itself. No doubt done by stuntmen, nonetheless there appears to be no safety net and the shots are taken from, I guess seven or eight stories up.

The director was still a very young man but shows here already a consummate mastery of the medium. His facility well outpaces the storyline. For aficionados of this director, the film is a must.

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