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The Forgotten: The Slaves of Solitude

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.
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:
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.
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.
So glad to see even this little snippet as I’ve seen references to “The Passing of The Third Floor Back” for years. Coinnie overwhelms with his ineffable Connie-ness, making for the strangest celestial eminence ever — until Terry Stamp comes along in “Teorema” (hubba-hubba!) Pasolini aside, something about “The Passing of the Thrid Floor Back” begs comparasion with “An Inspector Calls” — which I hope you’ll examine in detail in future.
I was on the point of referencing the Priestly play/film, which has a nasty capitalist figure very much like the one in Third Floor Back. Since this film precedes Priestly’s 1946 play, I’m betting it was an influence. Guy “Goldfinger” Hamilton’s film of An Inspector Calls doesn’t quite have the expressionist verve to transcend its theatrical origins, but it does have the absolute perfect Inspector in Alistair Sim, who had already referenced the Veidt role in London Belongs to Me.
And as we all know, Alistair Sim is an autuer.
Great review. I haven’t seen the film, but as you say it does have a Strange Cargo feel about it. I see that The Passing of The Third Floor Back was also made by Herbert Brenon in 1918, with Johnston Forbes-Robertson playing The Stranger. It would be interesting to compare the two films. I like hotel/boarding house settings. One of my favourite novels is William Trevor’s “Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel”.
British movies from the teens are a barely-explored area. Kevin Brownlow, who has explored it a bit, seems to reckon they’re mostly rubbish. WWI really took the wind out of our sales, cinematically. But yes, it would be fascinating to see this one. I like boarding houses too — strongly recommend Patrick Hamilton’s novel which gives this piece its title.
Yes, I like Patrick Hamilton’s work. As I get older, I am coming to appreciate more and more these virtually unknown and ‘minor’ films. I find that they are often more true to ordinary life and experience than the more famous and celebrated masterpieces.
In a way it’s harder to appreciate the social observation in a film like Brief Encounter because the movie’s so ubiquitous, but an unseen gem, exposed to light can suddenly illuminate the same dark corners.
A very stimulating review of a complex film. Veidt may be a Christ figure but he touches the heart of the most oppressed lower class figure there – Rene Ray. He succeeds temporarily with those middle class figures on the boat trip but it all comes to naught the next day – as the bad capitalist tells him it will – when they turn on the most vulnerable member of that household. As well as the spiritual associations, the film is an interesting examination of class tensions existing in that awful era that have reappeared (in post-capitalist economic forms) in British post-Thatcher, post-Blair, and Gordon Brown guises. I’ve never seen the Sim version but saw a TV performance with John Gregson in the role of the Inspector who leaves the drama saddened about the house’s inability to overcome their negative feelings. It is very reminiscent of Veidt’s sorrow at the end of the film. But he does positively affect the spirit of at least one person at the end who will survive and overcome the ideological and materialistic obstacles that will still face her. No wonder it was one of this exile’s most favorite films. Veidt was an idealist and progressive and this film reveals the other side of the too-familiar (to most viewers) Major Strasser of CASABLANCA. It deserves to be more widely known.My version is an NTSC-copied VHS from a PAL original, my multi-region player frequently flicking back and forth on the viewing register to reveal this fact. Otherwise, the copy is as reasonable as can be expected until a DVD reissue.
My copy is a pristine rip from Australian TV, which seems in many ways to have a better film policy than the UK. The fact that it’s impossible to see through any official channel in the country which produced it is deplorable.
At long last someone who has not only heard of the film, but has actually seen it. Your opening paragraph about The Passing of the Third Floor Back summed up exactly my own experience. I saw it over 41 years ago on tv and have longed to see it again. I have mentioned it to many people over the years but have never met anyone else who remembers seeing it. Maybe it has dated, but our tv screens are full of films that have dated but are nevertheless repeated ad infinitum. Fear I will fall into the category of “Those who remained eager to see the movie again had a tendency by now to die of old age.” I am grateful at least to have found your excellent review.
I was going to enquire where you’d acquired the pristine images from; I’ve loved this film since seeing it (and taping it, fortunately) the last time it was shown in the UK, a late-night screening on Channel Four 25 years ago. At some stage I acquired a copy of the play, adapted by Jerome K. Jerome from his own short story; it’s a one-acter, and it’sn interesting to see quite how it’s been changed for the film version, not just opened up, but intriguingly altered; there was no hint of The Stranger going to the Dark Side as it were, as we watching the film are led to believe, briefly, that he has killed the slum landlord. As this is, one assumes, Alma’s doing, it poses a couple of questions; was this film planned for Hitchcock to direct, and is Anna Lee the Hitchcock Blonde that got away ? Or conversely, are the famous Hitchcockian themes of blondes in peril and unjustly accused men as much Alma as Alfred ???
Nice essay on a very interesting film (and I’m curious where you saw Little Friend, now). I thought you might be interested in a piece I wrote about it at Nitrateville: I made a number of the same allusions though I went a bit further with the Hitchcock one— I think Passing is, in a very distant but still discernable sense, the inspiration for Rear Window as well. Incidentally, I’m told there’s a good copy of this available for US viewers at Sinister Cinema.
I saw this movie when it was screened on British TV about 20 or so years ago and was blown away by it. At that time I was working my way through all the Conrad Veidt films that I could find, but this one stopped me in my tracks simply because of Veidt himself. His presence is at times overwhelming in its intensity. It is a very remarkable performance in a sadly neglected film. Although his character is Christ-like, I was struck by intense sexuality bubbling beneath the surface in his performance. I had read previously that Veidt held a strong attraction for members of both sexes. After watching this film I could understand why. I find it difficult to fault any aspect of the film. It acheived its aim – I suspended my disbelief, asked no questions and when the closing credits finished rewound the video and watched it again, which does not happen very often. Although some may say it is badly dated in parts or that some of the performances are crude (actually I think they are spot on – I have met all of those characters in real life and they are crude, awkard and one-dimensional people), it is of its time, a time which I am happy to be transported to. I must say, however, that I think Veidt’s performance is timeless, a real masterpiece. It’s been a while since I last watched it, my video copy mysteriously vanished along the years, but I’ve often thought about the film. Your article has prompted me to search out another copy.

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