E.A. Dupont achieved early fame for Varieté (1925), a grimly saucy slice of Weimar doom and spiciness, and followed it up with prestigious British productions Moulin Rouge (1928) and Piccadilly (1929), the latter starring Anna May Wong—but just as his career was on the upswing he fell prey to the advent of sound, producing a big-budget version of the Titanic disaster in English and German versions.
Atlantic, or Atlantik, became something of a laughing-stock in Britain, owing to Dupont's unfortunate combination of Teutonic tendencies and technical trepidation. The actors were directed to communicate as slowly as possible, perhaps so that Dupont could follow what they were saying. His desire to inflect each syllable with suitable weight and portent robbed the film of any sense of urgency, despite it being set on a ship that starts sinking around twenty minutes in (none of the ninety-minute time-wasting of a James Cameron here).
Cinephiles of my generation grew up on myths of the stilted early talkies, and the few movies from this era readily available and frequently aired, like Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein, always did seem a little stiff at the knees, tending to lurch rather than glide as the late silents and late thirties films could. But we now see that there was much elegant filmmaking in the pre-Code era, and that Tod Browning and James Whale's films, though frequently brilliant, were also unusually stagey. But the gulf between the cinema of 1931 and that of just a couple of years earlier is colossal. As I've said before, a 1929 movie moves like a 1931 movie played underwater. Atlantic almost makes this simile literal truth. As the ship fills up with ocean, the actors face off in agonizingly flat two-shots, staring hard at each other, then manfully averting their eyes, pausing, giving utterance to lines like, "Who can say?" and "God have mercy on us!" and then lapsing into glowering silence again.
Dupont has managed to extract from his actors, or perhaps implant into them, alarmingly rigid performances, every grain of their celluloid being clenched in un-dynamic tension. Even for British characters in a British film, they seem inhumanly stiff. At least the Titanic itself can bend in the middle.
It's all the more baffling when you see that Dupont is surrounded by deft Hitchcock players, including John Longden, the hero of Blackmail, Donald Calthrop, the villainous blackmailer, and Joan Barry who re-voiced that film's Czech leading lady, Anny Ondra. Future Hitchcock blonde Madeleine Carroll appears as an incompetent brunette, dragging out every speech as if attempting to educate a class of drunken pre-schoolers.
(The German version has Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, and another Hitchcock blonde-in-waiting, Lucie Mannheim, Carroll's co-star in The 39 Steps. The drama must have a bit more spark in it, surely?)
But Dupont hasn't forgotten everything he knows about cinema: in fact, he's attempting to learn something new. His opening scene begins with a ludicrously long, long shot of card-playing passengers, extended to the point where you might think the director is asleep in his chair. But it would be unfair to ascribe this to the technical limitations of the period: Dupont seems to be trying to exploit the possibilities of talking pictures in an extreme way, reducing his first scene to illustrated radio. Later on he attempts to cover group dialogues with hilariously crammed compositions, the actors thrusting their heads at each other as if trying to biologically merge like the bluebloods of Brian Yuzna's Society. It's film grammar on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I find it fascinating in a strenuous sort of way.
Like other films of this transitional period, the movie keeps switching frame rates, and non-dialogue scenes have clearly been shot mute. Sound editing was primitive, and sound mixing non-existent, so that when a character shuts a door, the band music from the next room cuts off with a single splice, just like in The Blue Angel.
Despite all this, Dupont does manage to move events to a striking climax, away from the talkie stuff. The Keystone cops movement of the terrified passengers imbues their frenzy with added desperation. Recovering some of his "unchained camera" skills, Dupont mounts his tripod in a rocking lifeboat, inducing both high anxiety and mal de mer. And the whole silent-movie sequence is overlaid with a wild track of hellish screaming, which grates on the nerves and is only made worse by the band playing on with warbly sound-on-disc tunelessness. It's easily the most unpleasant Titanic sinking on film.
Dupont even surpasses this terror at the very end, as the last stranded travelers pray in the flooded lounge. The lights go out, and cries of alarm are heard during close to a minute of pitch blackness, gradually drowned out by roaring waves. It's terrifying, more than a little depressing, and it goes beyond any concept of sound cinema into pure sound alone.
The Germans sank the unsinkable again in 1943, in Herbert Selpin's epic Titanic, making opportunistic play of the fact that the White Star Line, which skimped so fatally on lifeboats, was Jewish-owned. By that time, Dupont was enduring a dozen years of unemployment after slapping a member of the Dead End Kids who mocked his accent. For that, they should have given him a bloody Academy Award.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.