HOW TO FORGET
The erosion of a reputation—
The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935) is an unusual film, but we'll come to that. It affected some people deeply in its day, and was remembered...for a time. Then it became hard to see, as is often the way. People remembered the film with considerable emotion, and would talk about how good it was. Then, a few relatively privileged people were able to see the film, and reported that it didn't live up to its reputation. It remained hard to see, and those who hadn't seen it were unsure how eager they should be to do so. Some of those who had seen it thought they must have been wrong to admire it. Or perhaps it had "dated"? Those who remained eager to see the movie again had a tendency by now to die of old age.
TO SEE IS TO REMEMBER
I've now seen the film, and I thought it was excellent. Imperfect, yes, but fascinating and unique. The closest comparison I can come up with is Strange Cargo, Frank Borzage's weird religious allegory which deals with a gang of convicts escaping from a tropical prison island, finding salvation along the way. But The Passing of the Third Floor Left brings its rogues' gallery into contact with the numinous in a modern London hotel.
What both films have in common is Jesus, encorpsified (to use Flann O'Brien's word) as a convict in the Borzage and as a myseterious tenant in Berthold Viertel's film. More to the point, embodied by the august personage of Conrad Veidt, whose presence makes Viertel's expressionist touches seem wholly legitimate and rooted in the old world of Caligari. This foreign gentleman arrives at a residential hotel in the suburbs of London which has become a miniature hell, and does his best to transform the dwellers into better versions of themselves. He's a mysterious figure, and saved from sentimentality by Veidt's slightly sinister austerity. His first appearance in the doorway is enough to clarify why it's important to be able to see films: his entrance echoes that of Ivor Novello in The Lodger: a Story of the London Fog, as well as prefiguring that of Alastair Sim in London Belongs to Me, and Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers. Veidt actually speaks the exact same line as Sim and Guinness:
"I UNDERSTAND YOU HAVE ROOMS TO LET."
Nor is the Lodger connection a matter of pure chance, since the presence of Alma Reville, Mrs. Hitchcock, as one of the film's screenwriters, forms an intriguing link to the earlier film. At this time, Reville was working on numerous movies asides from her husband's, a situation which would alter in the later American phase of their careers. Adapting a story by Jerome K. Jerome, she and Michael Hogan (who would also work with Hitch in America) were able to indulge in more blatant religious allegory than is to be found in Hitchcock's work: standing behind Veidt as he first crosses the threshold of the Belle Vue Hotel is an imposing church, and a cruciform shadow falls across his chest.
The occupants of the hotel are unlikely candidates for salvation. Stasia, the ex-reform school kitchen skivvy (Rene Ray, future science fiction writer and Countess of Midleton) is clinging tenuously to her virtue, assailed by lecherous property developer Mr. Wright (Frank Cellier), the local devil incarnate. Major and Mrs. Tomkin are contemplating giving their daughter, Vivian (Anna Lee) in marriage to this monster, and she's going along with it because neither herself nor her architect lover have faith in their own feelings. Meanwhile Miss Kite, the resident "modern" (Beatrix Lehmann = Glenda Jackson's skeleton) is an embittered cynic who joins with fellow gossips Mrs. de Hooley (Sara Allgood as an all-bad arch-snob) and musician Mr. Larkcom, who has abandoned classical music to seek popularity in jazz. The landlady, Mrs. Sharpe, runs the household with stern efficiency displacing compassion.
It's impressive how horrible the film allows most of these characters to get, making its job difficult if it's to convincingly deliver redemption. The fact is, it doesn't wholly succeed in this task, but I like its ambition.
Berthold Viertel's career has been almost wholly erased by time. His wife, Salka Viertel, as author of the screen story of Queen Christina, has a firmer place in film history, and his son Peter, screenwriter and novelist, is better known still. But Viertel Snr. had a sure hand and a restless imagination. I've managed to see Little Friend (1934), his previous film, which bursts with ideas (an opening dream sequence hits us with a psychedelic light-show, a giant tooth and a flying scooter) while steering a story destined for manipulative sentimentality into a more profound and beautiful place, using taste and imagination. All the more impressive since Viertel was a refugee stranded in England while his family were trapped in strife-ridden Austria. Viertel's screenwriter, Christopher Isherwood, was so impressed by Viertel's ability to create art while suffering intolerable emotional strain, he commemorated the film in a roman-a-clef entitled Prater Violet.
"The face was the face of an emperor, but the eyes were the dark, mocking eyes of his slave —the slave who ironically obeyed, watched, humoured and judged the master who could never understand him; the slave upon whom the master depended utterly—for his amusement, for his instruction, for the sanction of his power; the slave who wrote the fables of beasts and men."
Thus does Isherwood describe the Great Director, prophetically re-named Bergmann, in his novel. As a description of Viertel it's sure to be accurate, and is certainly evocative. As an accidental description of Conrad Veidt it seems thrillingly apt also. Veidt, who played the Janus-face for Murnau, and whose imperious visage could so easily crack into piteous angst. His arrival in the film not only rescues the other characters, it rescues their performances, injecting a dose of vigour and magic into a cast which seemed prone at times to constipation and self-consciousness, in the manner of too many British films of the era. As Veidt transfigures the characters, he also animates the players.
VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET
As a snapshot of a certain kind of life in inter-war England, the film has considerable social interest, with snobbery and class distinctions under the microscope, and the lens used by the authors is that of allegory. Describing himself as "a wanderer," Veidt's Stranger combines aspects of Christ with the figure of the Wandering Jew. Also, like Captain Kirk, he's forbidden to interfere in affairs on the world he's visiting, a fact instinctively recognised by the satanic Mr. Wright. Cellier, as the ironically-named Wright, looks like a fleshier Hitler, minus moustache, and is both a very earthly man-of-the-world, and a character with one foot in Passion-Play himself: he's the only one who recognises who Veidt is (whoever he is) and what he's about (reclamation of lost souls). As in Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle (1982, surely influenced by this) it's the bad man who's able to recognise the presence of the divine or satanic. Cellier also partakes of Christ-like duality: he's definitely a mortal man, but at the same time the conscious representative of something more, or less, than human.
When Veidt restores compassion and joy to the "inmates" of the Belle Vue, Wright is quick to undo all his work, and a classic good-versus-evil battle is joined—and unlike the fantasies of modern cinema, the filmmakers are well aware that to encounter these forces in their pure state is to find oneself in a parable. As in The Exorcist, the representatives of salvation and damnation must battle it out on the earthly plane.
"Oh, how the lodgers yell / When they hear the dinner bell!"—The Slaves of Solitude, by Patrick Hamilton.
It's very dicey material, and Viertel proves himself sure-footed, orchestrating his shots with Germanic precision, pressing relentlessly in with the camera in tense moments, creating rhythmic, incantatory sequences of silent montage, and using Hubert Bath's quirky score to create mystery rather than sentiment. The emotion seeps in from the strangest corners, as in a brief cutaway of an organ-grinder's monkey, given the power of a pieta. Of course, the story does its work right alongside the visuals. Miss Kite's character arc is a good example of the film's scope. Initially characterised as a caustic and embittered old maid, she begins to crumble under the relentless assault of Veidt's old-world kindliness, opening up to him about her fear of aging. When he suggests that there might be a kind of beauty other than the physical, she starts in with "I never wanted that, I only wanted—" and then an amazing look of horror comes over Beatrix Lehmann's face as her character perceives for the first time, all at once, the complete emptiness of her dearest wishes. It's a pretty startling fusillade of emotion. Drunk with power, the movie then makes Miss Kite a heroine, then a harpy, before rescuing her for humanity. "It's going to be alright now," says Mr Larkcom, a line that usually smacks of screenwriters' desperation. Something about the ending doesn't quite reach the sublime heights the film elsewhere seems to reach so effortlessly. Perhaps its the way the potted flower in Veidt's room fails to bloom again, like the one in E.T. - The Extraterrestrial, when symbolically it really ought to. Perhaps its the way Veidt departs like an ordinary lodger, instead of vanishing mysteriously. Some additional mystic poetry is required, but perhaps the idea is that we should supply it ourselves.