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The Forgotten: Charles Vanel's "Dans la Nuit" (1929)

A disfigured miner dons a metal mask in Charles Vanel's sole film as director, "Dans la Nuit" (1929).
A friend pointed out that a shot of a girl on a swing in Renoir's A Day in the Country (filmed in 1936, completed in 1945) seemed surprisingly similar to one in Robert Florey's Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). The girl swings, and the camera swings with her. Was Renoir influenced by Florey? Both men were French. Maybe Papa Jean was a Bela Lugosi fan. But now it seems like both were influenced by Charles Vanel, who includes an identical shot in the only film he directed, Dans la nuit (1929).
Vanel also sets his camera on various fairground rides, and in this, as well as much of his visual style, he seems influenced by the impressionist school: Jean Epstein features a long, ecstatic funfair scene in his Cœur fidèle (1923). Like Epstein, Vanel exults in hallucinatory moments of disorientation, transient effects of light, and contrasting overheated emotion with gritty locations and a naturalistic depiction of working life.
Vanel, the long-lived character star of at least one hundred and sixty three films, with a face that seems the product of erosion, takes the lead in his own film, playing a newly married miner who is disfigured in an explosion. At first refusing to remove his bandages, he eventually fashions a metal mask to cover the scarred half of his face. Then his bride is tempted by another man. It leads to murder.
And then, in a terribly disappointing pay-off, it turns out all to have been a dream. Not even a dream that has any particular point. A great shame, since Vanel's handling of the story up to the denouement is deft and inventive, with striking industrial imagery at times foreshadowing Eraserhead (like Lynch, Vanel enjoys winding the film back so that a cloud of smoke contracts into a point). He also tries odd effects like oozing what looks like honey down a pane of glass in front of the action as he fades out: the next scene fades up with the honey pouring upwards out of shot.
Vanel also innovates in the matter of intertitles, using very few, and tending to superimpose titles over the action rather than interrupting it with title cards. I love intertitles, but subtitles always seemed a good idea to keep the visuals moving, and I suspect they may have largely taken over if silent films had continued another ten years.
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The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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