Friday, October 09, 2015

The Rat (1925)

Ivor Novello as The Rat. Photo: BFI National Archive, London

Ivor Novello as The Rat. Photo: BFI National Archive, London

Pariisin rotta / (Il sorcio di Parigi)
    (Gainsborough Pictures – GB 1925) D: Graham Cutts; P: Michael Balcon; SC: Graham Cutts, from the play by “David L’Estrange” [Ivor Novello, Constance Collier] (1924); DP: Hal Young; AD: C. Wilfred Arnold;
    C: Ivor Novello (Pierre Boucheron, The Rat), Mae Marsh (Odile), Isabel Jeans (Zélie de Chaumet), James Lindsay (Detective-Inspector Caillard), Marie Ault (Mère Colline), Julie Suedo (Mou-Mou), Robert Scholz (Hermann Stetz), Esme FitzGibbon (Madeline), Hugh Brooke (Paul), Lambart Glasby (America), Iris Grey (Rose), The Tiller Girls (Folies-Bergère dancers);
    filmed: 5-6.1925; trade show: 7.9.1925 (Alhambra Theatre, London); première: 6.12.1925 (New Gallery Kinema, London); orig. l: 7325 ft.; 35 mm, 5820 ft, 78' (20 fps), b&w + col.; titles: ENG; print source: BFI National Archive, London.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney, 9 Oct 2015

Geoff Brown (GCM catalog and website): "Though a British feature of modest ambition, securely based on a popular play, Graham Cutts’ production of The Rat has a lineage and resonance not always matched by the more obviously “significant” product of the 1920s. One of its godfathers, albeit an unwitting one, was D. W. Griffith: Ivor Novello, the film’s star and progenitor, partly developed its story on the rebound from playing the anguished, guilt-riddled clergyman in Griffith’s The White Rose (1923). B ac k in Britain, Novello was anxious to plunge into a role that allowed him to be devilishly dangerous and charming, and show off his magnetic allure: hence the Parisian “Apache” Pierre Boucheron, alias the Rat, a character first aired in public in 1924 in the theatrical version created by Novello and Constance Collier."

"Another figure lurking in the film’s background is Rudolph Valentino, who tussled hard for the play’s film rights just as Cutts’ production for Gainsborough got underway in the spring of 1925. Gainsborough stood its ground and Cutts forged ahead, importing Mae Marsh, Novello’s White Rose co-star, to portray the Rat’s worshipful young ward Odile, whose innocence falls nastily under threat from a lecherous German villain. Griffith’s former heroine plays the role with her usual impetuous naturalism, which even lends an endearing note to the scene where the Rat force-feeds her bacon. Trade reviews were universally positive when the film emerged: the Kinematograph Weekly said, “If any ingredient is lacking to make this a first-class popular picture, we cannot think what it can be.”"

"Given Cutts’ cramped pigeonhole in history as the Hitchcock mentor outclassed by his pupil, spectators might wonder where the Great Alfred is here. Physically Hitchcock is nowhere: during production Cutts’ former assistant was abroad, making his first feature, The Pleasure Garden, in Munich. On the evidence of the visual sweep and bustle of The Rat, Cutts got along easily without him. A visionary shot conjuring a guillotine aside, The Rat is not a drama of much psychological depth; yet as a display of surface attractions, confidently delivered, the film remains continuously plausible and engaging. Contemporary press reports made much of the serpentine travels of Hal Young’s camera, mounted on a platform, moving along rails – something hailed as a “new technical device”. It was hardly that in 1925; but the dollying camera certainly gives extra life and fluidity to the scenes in Montmartre’s “White Coffin”, a night-club locale instantly memorable with its coffin-shaped apertures, split-level floors, and riff-raff clientele."

"The cast play a major part in the film’s parade of pleasures. Profile to the fore, with generous make-up applied round lips and eyes, Novello exudes exceptional charisma in a role custom-made to showcase the thrills of knife fights, the warmth of his smile, and the wonder of his soulful eyes. Mae Marsh’s performance is winningly emotional, but brief compared to the space allotted the slumming aristocrat Zélie, so decoratively portrayed by Isabel Jeans. In British cinema of the time, none could beat Jeans at extending an elegant arm or lying suggestively on a sofa, cradled in cushions and pearls. At such moments, Cutts reveals a trait that he passed on to Hitchcock: making the camera and spectator voyeurs. Cutts’ fondness for suggestive spectacle also appears in the fascinating Folies-Bergère footage, shot on the spot, and the dazzling opening display of Montmartre’s electric lights. With images like that and the street locations it’s easy to feel that we’re in the authentic Paris, not locked in a London studio next to a canal. After The Rat, Cutts made two sequels, weaker and stiffer, though with points of interest; then producer Herbert Wilcox stepped in with a remake in 1937. He needn’t have bothered. This is the Rat to watch, to learn from, and above all enjoy.
" – Geoff Brown

AA: Ivor Novello was a unique songwriter, composer, and actor still known today for the Ivor Novello Award for songwriters. Novello features as a character in Robert Altman's Gosford Park on whose soundtrack many of his songs are heard. I know Novello's performances as an actor in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger and Downhill and in D. W. Griffith's The White Rose. From the Griffith production Novello brought with him Mae Marsh, a true Griffith veteran who had starred in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance but had also already worked with Graham Cutts in Flames of Passion and Paddy the Next Best Thing. Isabel Jeans repeated her stage role as the woman who has seen it all; she was already an experienced actress of the stage but only at the beginning of a long film career including several roles for Alfred Hitchcock (starting with Downhill and Easy Virtue) and Vincente Minnelli's Gigi. The German veteran Robert Scholz had worked with Graham Cutts in his previous film, Die Prinzessin und der Geiger / The Blackguard. As Geoff Brown says above, it is good now to see a film of Cutts without Hitchcock with whom he had worked in his five previous films.

Let's state for the sake of fairness that Hitchcock has been obviously influenced by Graham Cutts's The Rat at least in The Lodger, Downhill, and Easy Virtue, but also still in Blackmail. It is interesting to compare the attempted rape sequences of The Rat and Blackmail and especially the performances of the characters played by Mae Marsh and Anny Ondra, both deeply shattered both by the rape attempt and the killing of the potential rapist with a knife. Here it is Pierre Boucheron "The Rat" (Ivor Novello) who saves Odile (Mae Marsh) by killing Hermann Stetz (Robert Scholz) but the police suspects Odile who is arrested and acquitted first in the conclusion.

The Rat is a Jazz Age drama incorporating aspects of Belle Époque fictions about the Parisian underworld. Spectacular centerpieces include a showy knife-fight and an electrifying Apache dance. Two days ago in Pordenone we saw similar scenes parodied in Louis Feuillade's comedy Bébé apache (1910) made 15 years earlier. Already then films were made of high society folks "slumming" in underworld hangouts, just like the decadent Hermann Stetz and Zélie de Chaumet do here. "The bored woman looked at her luxurious world and found it wanting". The account is impressive but perhaps just a little bit tired with dialogue such as "Absinthe at once". Settings include a dubious Montmartre hangout called The Coffin and the legendary Folies-Bergère with gorgeous spectacles of nude female flesh and bare breasts. The show culminates with a view of an almost naked woman climbing on top of the golden calf.

The film is star-driven, based on a legendary performance by Ivor Novello, himself a characteristic Twenties figure, to be compared with Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro, Enrique Rivero, and, in Finland, Teuvo Tulio. The nickname "The Rat" is based on the fact that the master burglar Pierre Boucheron knows how to move in the sewers of Paris. (Not a cat burglar but a rat burglar. Hitchcock associations run also to To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant, also set in France). Novello is seductive and androgynous, powdered and lipsticked, irresistible to women. Together with Odile they are "driftwood on life's ocean". But they are not nearly as dangerous as Stetz, a ruthless and vampire-like sexual predator. Rather, they are characterized as "only a couple of kids".

As always, the performance of Mae Marsh is startlingly plain and anti-glamorous, here in contrast to the powdered male lead, the vampiric predator and the decadent Zélie.

The cinematography of Hal Young has obviously been influenced by the contemporary German revelations of Karl Freund in films such as Der letzte Mann. (Varieté was released in the same year as The Rat). His previous film Graham Cutts had made in Babelsberg with Theodor Sparkuhl, and he had first hand know-how of how Germans did it.

There is a beautiful toning (including blue) in this print which seems to be based on sometimes worn and battered sources but providing a very enjoyable general overall visual experience.

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