Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Vor fælles Ven / Our Mutual Friend (1921)

[Il nostro comune amico] (Nordisk, DK 1921). D: A.W. Sandberg; SC: Laurids Skands; DP: Einar Olsen; AD: Carlo Jacobsen; C: Aage Fønss (John Harmon, alias Julius Handford/John Rokesmith), Kate Riise (Bella Wilfer), Karen Caspersen (Lizzie Hexam), Peter Fjelstrup (Gaffer Hexam), Svend Kornbeck (Roger “Rogue” Riderhood), Egill Rostrup (Mortimer Lightwood), Peter Malberg (Eugene Wrayburn), Alfred Møller (Mr. Boffin), Jonna Neiiendam (Mrs. Boffin), Peter Nielsen (Bradley Headstone), Bertel Krause (Silas Wegg), Charles Wilken (Mr. Venus), Carl Madsen (Reginald Wilfer), Henny Lauritzen (Mrs. Wilfer), Kai Kilian (Charley Hexam), Ingeborg Frölich (Jenny Wren); orig. l. (35 mm): 4664 m (210'); 2K DCP, incomplete, 123' (transferred at 20 fps), col. (tinted); source: Danish Film Institute, København. English intertitles only. Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (Charles Dickens), e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Antonio Coppola, 10 Oct 2012.

Michael Eaton: "Though this production was first released in 1921 it may have been produced in 1919, which would make it the earliest of the four Nordisk adaptations directed by Sandberg. It is certainly the longest."

"The film is structured into two “Books”, and a title at the end of this lovely tinted restoration by the Danish Film Institute states that “approximately 50% of the last half of the film is lost”, amounting to at least 45 minutes of screen time. Therefore the story is extremely difficult to understand, even for those familiar with the narrative twists and turns of the masterpiece upon which it is based, Dickens’s last completed full-length work of fiction."

"This is evidently a great loss: a contemporary reviewer in The Pall Mall & Globe Gazette wrote that the film is “the finest production we have yet seen; in short it is THE FILM masterpiece, and a worthy representation of one of our best classics.” Another notice in The People read: “(E)very worshipper at the shrine of Dickens... will be on tip-toe of expectation, wanting to know how it ‘came off’. Lots of them will be in a fever of doubt and anxiety, feeling sure that some horrible indignity has been offered to the object of their worship. It will only be kind, therefore, to put an end to their suspense by saying that the result was in every way a success.”"

"Indeed, the production bears all the hallmarks of the Sandberg Nordisk adaptations: a strong sense of atmosphere, fine casting, beautiful design, and narrative clarity, though with heavy reliance on intertitles. This version concentrates on the anything-but-smooth course of love between the two couples: Bella Wilfer and John Harmon and Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn. One important social dimension of the book – the satirization of the mores of the English upper classes and nouveaux riches – is largely absent; but though this is not remembered as one of Dickens’s most comical works, the grotesque characters of peg-legged Silas Wegg and taxidermist Mr. Venus are memorably portrayed."

"Without recourse to the original scenario it is impossible to know exactly which scenes are missing from this restoration. What follows, therefore, is a précis of the complexities of the incidents in Our Mutual Friend, which might enable the spectator to make sense of the lacunae in the surviving print of Vor fælles Ven."

"By the end of the First Book, 117 minutes into the film, there have been significant revelations. A body has been discovered in the Thames by Gaffer Hexam, which is believed to be John Harmon, heir to his father’s dust-heap fortune. Hexam’s erstwhile “pardner”, Rogue Riderhood, spreads rumours that Hexam was responsible for the murder of this discovered corpse."

"In the absence of the son and heir, the Harmon legacy has gone to “well-meaning” Boffin, the Golden Dustman. A “mysterious stranger”, “Rokesmith”, has secured a position as Boffin’s secretary... but he is really John Harmon, very much alive and acting incognito in order to discover whether the wilful Bella Wilfer – whom, according to the terms of his father’s will, he must marry before he can inherit – is truly worthy of his love. Too late he recognizes her heart of gold: Bella contemptuously rejects his proposal. Revealing his true identity to Rogue Riderhood, Harmon tells him he knows that he tried to kill him on his return to London."

"Lizzie, beautiful daughter of river scavenger Hexam, flees London to elude the attentions of two undesirable suitors: Eugene Wrayburn, a feckless attorney “above her station”, and Bradley Headstone, her brother’s creepy, stalking schoolmaster. Meanwhile Wegg and Venus are mysteriously plotting to rob Boffin of his new-found wealth, by searching the dust heaps for a supposed lost will."

"At this point a title promises: “The second part of the film will... solve all the knots that have been bound.” Would that things were that simple!"

"In the Second Book Boffin has undergone a complete change of character, to become a money-grubbing miser. Venus and Wegg realize that he has discovered something significant among the dust heaps. Rogue Riderhood has relocated up-river to become a lockkeeper, following the confrontation with Harmon. Headstone trails Wrayburn, hoping he will lead him to Lizzie’s hiding place..."

"From this point the film becomes an incomprehensible collection of apparently disconnected scenes:
- Riderhood sees Headstone changing his clothes and throwing a mysterious bundle into the river.
- John Harmon and Bella, incompatible when last on screen, are now happily united.
- Lizzie, in a rural inn, is married and at the bedside of her husband: swathed in bandages and unrecognizable, it is Wrayburn, to whom at last Lizzie has declared her love.
- Headstone collapses in fear and remorse.
- A title reads: “We now jump forward a year... A joyful year for Bella... but the young mother had no idea that dark clouds were gathering...”"

"If the film follows the narrative of the book as faithfully in the second part as in the first, these scenes must have fitted into a narrative on these lines:
Bella has realized that she reciprocates John Harmon’s love, following Boffin’s apparent cruel treatment of him.
Headstone and Wrayburn discover Lizzie’s hiding place. Headstone attempts to murder Wrayburn and to frame Riderhood for the murder; but Lizzie rescues Wrayburn and comes to love him as she nurses him back to life.
Riderhood confronts Headstone with the knowledge of his guilt; the tormented schoolmaster attempts to kill the blackmailing lock-keeper and both drown together. Kindly Mr. Boffin and his wife reveal that his miserly behaviour has been a pretence: suspecting that “Rokesmith” his secretary is truly the long-lost heir, his desire has been to bring the young lovers together.
Wegg plays what he thinks is his master-stroke to steal Boffin’s wealth, but his apparent accomplice Venus reveals that he has been on Boffin’s side all along.
It’s a complicated story – even without the lacunae of the surviving film!" – MICHAEL EATON

AA: I watched the First Book, that is, half of this presentation. I appreciate the sense of the uncanny in this movie, and it occurred to me that this might have been an interesting subject for Alfred Hitchcock (qf. The Lodger). The world of Gaffer Hexam and the other "river vultures" is effectively creepy. There are also other memorably eccentric characters such as Mr. Venus the legmaker who sometimes adds homemade poetry to his remarks, and the crippled girl who is a dolls' dressmaker. In a way Our Mutual Friend is a detective story where the detective John Harmon himself is a mysterious stranger who has many identities (like Hitchcock's The Lodger). Of the ones I have seen the films of A.W. Sandberg are the best silent Charles Dickens adaptations anywhere, and also this fascinating reconstruction deserves to be much better known. The visual quality is apparently very good in the surviving source material. This reconstruction is very handsome to watch.

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