Thursday, October 08, 2009

Justice d'abord!

Recht voor alles [the title of the print] / Lain ja rakkauden välissä. FR 1921. PC: Ermolieff-Cinema. D: Jacob Protazanoff; SC: Ivan Mosjoukine; DP: Fedote Bourgassoff (?); AD: Alexandre Lochakoff; CAST: Ivan Mosjoukine (Prosecutor Octave Granier), Nathalie Lissenko (Yvonne), Viatcheslav Tourjansky (Eduard Gravitch), ? (Granier’s mother), ? (Granier’s sister), Paul Ollivier (a magistrate), Jeanne Bérangère (condemned man’s mother), Gilbert Sambon (the child); filmed: Studio Ermolieff-Montreuil, winter 1920-21; dist: Pathé Consortium-Cinema; orig. 1650 m; 1177 m /18 fps/ 57 min; tinted; from: NFM. Dutch intertitles. E-subtitles in English + Italian. Grand piano: Touve Ratovondrahety. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 8 Oct 2009.

From the GCM Catalogue: "Justice d’abord was the Ermolieff group’s only remake of one of its Russian productions. Prokuror (Vo imya dolga/The Public Prosecutor /In the Name of Duty) was released 20 February 1917. An alternative title was Golos Sovesti (The Voice of Conscience). Both Russian and French versions were directed by Protazanov, with Mozhukhin and Lissenko in their original roles, though the character names were changed: in the original, no doubt to avoid any risk with censorship, the main characters were given distinctly non-Russian names – the prosecutor was named Eric Olsen, and the doomed heroine, “Betty Clay, a chanteuse”. The Russian historian Benjamin Vishnevski regarded this as one of Protazanov’s best works and rated Mozhukhin’s performance very highly. The length of the Russian film was 1750 metres, about 5 minutes longer than the remake.
In the French version, the Prosecutor is Octave Granier, a ferocious orator, who falls in love with Yvonne, an artist’s model, for whom he finds work with his friend Eduard Gravitch, a sculptor. Yvonne finds documents proving that Gravitch is a foreign spy, plotting to ruin Granier. In self-defence she shoots Gravitch. Granier must now bring all his oratorical power to condemn the woman he loves, who refuses to defend herself by producing documents that would prove her innocence but might be detrimental to Granier…
The film survives only in a Dutch distribution print, shorter than the original release version by more than 20 minutes. However, the story is essentially intact, and some bridging titles suggest that this was a version severely but not unintelligently re-edited for commercial convenience. The final shots however are missing, as a result of emulsion decay, which also affects the third reel. The necessary clue for viewers to the missing action is that what Granier is about to pull out of his pocket at the point where the film abruptly breaks off is a pistol, which he will use before the end of his journey.
Since Ermolieff had managed to bring a quantity of negatives out of Russia, it is tempting to think that Prokuror was among them, and that parts of the original might have been used for the French remake, but there is no evidence for this. The few surviving stills from the Russian version show quite different set-ups for the court scenes; while the costumes of police and lawyers are unquestionably French.
Conceived by Mozhukhin himself, and developed through the two versions, the role of Granier is one of his most powerful interpretations, reaching its most extraordinary heights at the moments when he violently rejects Yvonne’s effort at reconciliation, his self-struggles before launching into his prosecution speech against her, his devastating discovery of the truth as he stands beside her corpse, or the crazed grin he flashes at his chauffeur in the last awful moments. No one seeing this film and Feu Mathias Pascal could question his stature as one of the greatest actors of silent film. This is, too, one of Lissenko’s best performances, quite free of diva affectations: her own visible struggle in the courtroom to resist producing the crucial evidence is impressive. The film also marked one of Tourjansky’s last appearances as an actor, in the role of the charming villain Gravitch.
A curious footnote is that in three successive films, L’Angoissante aventure, Justice d’abord, and L’Enfant du Carnaval, Mozhukhin and Lissenko had the same character names, Octave [de] Granier and Yvonne.
There is evidence that Ermoliev had taken precautions, in the form of an opening intertitle and a framing scene – both now lost – to avoid any kind of trouble with the censors, who were still holding up the release of La Nuit du 11 Septembre (filmed in the winter of 1919-20, but not released until September 1922). Cinémagazine (31 March 1922) noted that in its original version Justice d’abord was preceded by a title “explaining that the author’s sole purpose was to emphasize that events which may seem very clear can be deceptive, and for this purpose he had exaggerated incidents of the story”. An earlier, somewhat unfavourable review by Lucien Doublon in Cinémagazine (28 October 1921) enlarges on this: “The author has so well anticipated criticism, that he has preceded his film with a title saying that he has treated his subject in a deliberately exaggerated way. Let us accept this, and note that in the first scene, the actors are assembled, listening to a reading of the script. Suddenly the characters live the drama, in which rear up revolvers, fights, anger, tears, and finally the guillotine. Is it dream, is it reality? But no; with the last scene we know that the drama has never existed and that we are only at the casting of a very vague melodrama. It’s an old idea, and has already often been used in the theatre. As to the work, I doubt its success, because few people would consent – voluntarily at least – to take on such ample stuff for nightmares.”
The existence of this framing scene (or scenes) might in part explain the considerable difference in the film’s length at original release and in the surviving version. It is interesting that Protazanov uses a comparable framing device in L’Angoissante aventure.
The earlier writer in Cinémagazine also revealed: “Towards the end of the film we see the guillotine, then a shroud which is supposed to conceal the body of a woman executed shortly before. In certain cinemas they have managed to suppress this scene, in which a magistrate comes to view the dead woman. They are afraid of frightening some spectators, male and female.” – David Robinson". - I agree with David Robinson that Ivan Mosjoukine's powerful performance carries the film, and Nathalie Lissenko is also very good as the female lead. - The story resembles the Hall Caine novels that were filmed by Victor Sjöström (Name the Man) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Manxman); it also has some connections with the stories of The Girl from the Marsh Croft and The Scarlet Letter. - Today a situation such as in Justice d'abord! would be impossible as the prosecutor would be officially disqualified and incapacitated in a case where he has (had) personal relations with the defendant. - The print seems to stem from difficult source material. The quality was ok and often good-looking.

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