DEATH CANNOT STOP TRUE LOVE. ALL IT CAN DO IS DELAY IT FOR A WHILE.
Capitaine Fracasse, based on a novel by Theophile Gautier. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. In France. In 1929.
It's important to be clear about times and places, because Cavalcanti worked from the '20s to the '70s, in France, Britain, Germany, Israel and his native Brazil. This peripatetic approach has dampened the man's reputation a little: the French haven't seen the British films, several of which are regarded as classics in the UK, and the British generally haven't seen the French film, which likewise enjoy a high reputation in France. Nobody I have met has ever seen any of the Brazilian films, nor the German and Israeli outings.
Further, "Cav" worked as director, producer, writer, set designer, costume designer, sound designer, editor and actor. His UK films range from horror (Dead of Night), contemporary war (Went the Day Well?), noir (They Made Me a Fugitive) to documentary (Coal Face) and beyond. His French films include a city symphony and a sterling swashbuckler—Capitaine Fracasse. He's a hard man to pin down.
A MAN LIKE THAT CAN PLAN MY CASTLE ONSLAUGHT ANY DAY
Released when Hollywood was switching wholesale to talking pictures, Cav's swashbuckler was practically made to be forgotten. It uses the language of silent cinema with sophistication and immense skill, aided by sumptious production values and sensitive playing, but all that would be swept aside in a year, consigned to the vaults.
Pierre Blanchar plays a ruined nobleman who joins a troupe of traveling actors on a trip to Paris, hoping to restore his family name with a visit to the King. En route he falls in love with the company's ingenue (Lien Deyers from Lang's Spione) and has to deal with the malevolent attentions of an ignoble nobleman (a very young Charles Boyer) who covets the girl for himself. The whole affair climaxes in a raid on the noble's castle, involving our hero, a friendly bandit, an unfriendly bandit, and a strongman. I wouldn't be surprised if William Goldman had somehow seen this film or read the book, since it resembles his Princess Bride in a number of details, lacking only the layer of irony Goldman uses to sucker us in. It turns out that, fun though Goldman's jokes are, we don't need them.
Apart from the entertainment value of this romance, Cavalcanti offers up some surprising elements. Although he discards the incestuous sub-plot of the novel, he does allow a very sweet same-sex love story—
Cav was gay himself. The waif kissing Deyers is Pola Illéry, real name Iliescu, a Romanian actress who has been styled after her namesake Pola Negri, with strange curls pasted to her brow. But she's a very different presence from the eye-rolling Pole, soulful and restrained, though capable of athletic bursts of action. Her character is the abused companion to a highwayman, and she switches sides after, it seems, falling in love with Deyers.
UNEMPLOYED IN GREENLAND
The movie boasts a couple more truly striking moments which throw in the kind of complicated emotions Cav liked to inject, even into a propaganda film like Went the Day Well? or an adventure like this. Gamely attempting to play a kind of melodramatic villain on stage, our hero is humiliated by Boyer and jeered at by the audience. Their laughter is intended for the character he plays, but our nobleman in disguise feels it deeply: a hand-held shot bounces across the sea of hysterical peasants' faces, a grotesque effect that calls to mind Hieronymus Bosch's crucifixion painting, and the wilder moments of Ken Russell.
(Also displayed in Cavalcanti's cavalcade of camera cleverness: psychological camera moves which track in on the pensive hero, exploratory dolly shots roving through his crumbling ancestral home, and bravura lighting effects, especially in the thieves' tavern where flickering shadows are thrown from the giant fireplace.)
NO ONE WITHSTANDS THE MACHINE
More fascinating still, the moment is repeated at the end of the movie. Good has triumphed, and our heroes are making their way home by carriage when a crowd blocks the street. The lovestruck protagonists are completely oblivious to the fact that one of their oppressors, the highwayman, is being executed for his crimes. This brutish man, hitherto completely unsympathetic, is about to be broken on the wheel, and Cav cuts to a recreation of the shots used earlier for his hero's humiliation: the handheld camera roving over an ugly crowd.
Pola pushes her way to the front of the throng and makes eye contact with her former abuser. Just as the executioner is about to smash the man's arm, she scurries forward and mercifully knifes the man she once lived with, fleeing off into the audience before she can be apprehended. His grateful death is filmed in soft-focus, giving it a quality of religious martyrdom.
Meanwhile, to our heroes, all this has been merely a traffic problem. This is a very strange grace note, serving to diminish the (very exciting, emotional) central story at the expense of a minor character and a villain. It's unbelievably moving, in part because it's so unnecessary in plot terms. We're used to gratuitous nudity, gratuitous violence. But cinema suffers a shortage of such gratuitous humanity.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.