Flicker Alley's release 0f The House of Mystery (La maison du mystère) restores to light a major movie serial almost lost forever, and allows us again to appreciate the talents of the White Russian filmmakers who greatly energized French filmmaking in the 1920s. In particular, star Ivan Mosjoukine and director Alexander Volkoff, who would also collaborate on Kean (1924) and Casanova (1927) are approaching the height of their powers.
The plot is pure melodrama: a mill owner is framed for murder, escapes from a penal colony, and spends years trying to clear his name, while the real killer woos his wife. But the ten episodes use their extended cumulative running time to explore nuances of character rather than to pile on implausible escapes and battles (though there are a few extremely impressive examples of those). The result is a tale of injustice that grips and satisfies, while displaying a highly sophisticated cinematic sense.
Some compared Mousjokine to Lon Chaney in his mastery of disguise, and there's a coincidental connection here: to pad their source novel out, Volkoff and Mousjokine added a circus episode where the hero disguises himself as a clown, and witnesses from the ring his old family and the interloper. This is a blatant swipe from the Russian play He Who Gets Slapped, which would be filmed the following year by Victor Sjöström, with Chaney in the lead.
The daring prison break which more or less fills one episode was another interpolation. The serial throughout exploits stunning locations in the South of France (including a brief glimpse of Cannes), and here there's some genuinely daredevil work as the fleeing convicts must make a human bridge to help one of their number, who is wounded, cross a ravine. It's still nail-biting to watch even though (1) at this historical distance, there's not much we can do to help and (2) it's a movie.
The film's villain is played by a comparatively youthful Charles Vanel, whose unbelievable seventy-eight year acting career had already been going for over a decade. He is required to embody malevolence, at one point hurling a puppy offscreen (one hopes the unit had a props man with a catcher's mitt stationed at the correct distance), and he does it very well. There's some occasional silent-movie ham gesturing and mugging—a little goes a long way with a slab-like mastuff mug like Vanel's—but he also impresses in a knock-down fight with the hero, a sustained, brutal and bloody conflict which releases some of the pent-up frustrations accumulated during seven episodes of evil triumphant.
But the serial's most affecting scene appears not to have been directed by Volkoff at all. Lenny Borger, who supplies the subtitles here, was present when Kevin Brownlow interviewed former child star Simone Genevois, who plays the young daughter and would later take the title role in Marco de Gastyne's The Marvelous Life of Joan of Arc (1929). She reported that her scenes were performed under the supervision of another Russian director, Viktor Tourjansky, who had a long career including 1926's Michael Strogoff.
In hobo guise, Mosjoukine returns home and spies upon his wife and her suitor. He stumbles into his young daughter as he leaves, and with her innocent eyes she immediately sees through his disguise. As at several other points in the film, the movie departs from the wide frame to go close—and the tighter angles have startling intensity when used so sparingly.
Genevois was a prodigy, Mosjoukine was a genius, together, in a powerful situation, they conjure magic.