Thursday, October 24, 2013
Forgotten today, Rex Ingram was once regarded as "the greatest director in the world." At least this was how he was described by Erich von Stroheim. Ingram was from Dublin and, in the early twenties, he worked with Valentino on such prestige pictures as "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse." His films seem to be similar to the later work of David Lean -- stories set in exotic locations shot with lavish production values. "The Magician" is a 1926 horror film made by Ingram from a novel by Somerset Maugham. (The novel apparently was a roman a clef based on the adventures of "the Great Beast," Aleistar Crowley). The film begins with a spectacular sequence, perhaps, the best thing in the movie. An American sculptress working in Paris is in her atelier working on a huge statue of a crouching demon. The statue is made from clay and it is a phallic eruption of malice towering over the center of the room. A lady Cubist, portrayed satirically, is observing the woman caressing the idol's soft clay. With paralyzed horror, she sees that a huge lump of clay is about to calve from the shoulder and torso of the malevolent figure. The big mass of somewhat fecal clay drops on top of the lady artist, crushing her. The woman, played by Alice Terry, is the endangered heroine of the story. A dashing, if somewhat dull, surgeon operates on her in a large glass-walled surgical theater. Looming over the medical action as a spectator is a bizarre figure, the sinister Magus played by the German actor, Paul Wegener. The film was conceived as a vehicle for Wegener and he imparts his extraordinary and grotesque presence to the film. Wegener is a huge boulder of a man, a German star in the mold of Emil Jannings and Wallace Beery. Apparently taller when prone, as the Australian poet Les Murray once put it, Wegener seems fantastically powerful, an evil strong man and he has the features of a goblin -- his face is slavic, with an broad Jack-o-lantern mouth slung between two enormously prominent cheekbones. Wegener's cheeks are so protuberant that, when he is lit from below, his eye-sockets are underlined by black "v"- shaped shadows. Wegener was famous for his proto-Frankenstein role in the three Golem films made in Berlin in 1915, 1917 and 1920. Wegener's magician is plotting to make artificial life in the laboratory, a project that requires life-blood extracted from the heart of a maiden. The wounded heroine recovers and falls in love with the surgeon. Unfortunately, she encounters the Magus who hypnotizes her. Although ridiculous in some ways, the hypnosis scene is a highlight in the film -- mesmerized, the rather vapid heroine has a vision of a Dionysian revel, a crowd of nearly naked folks prancing around and cavorting grotesquely in the light of hellish bonfires. The imagery seems derived from Bosch and features great writhing mobs of nude extras hopping around in a huge set littered with sinister gewgaws and barren trees and weird, vaguely genital-shaped forms. The heroine is embraced by a faun-like creature with cloven hooves and the horns of a ram while the Magician leers, his hair slicked up to form two horns on his head. The point seems to be that the conventional, chaste heroine is secretly wracked with repressed sexual desire and that, perhaps, she prefers the erotic ministrations of the grotesque magician to her conventional boyfriend. Engaged to be married to the surgeon, the Magus intervenes and spirits the heroine away to Monte Carlo and, then, to a remote mountainous village in the south of France. This terrain is familiar to horror film fans: a medieval village with crumbling huts and narrow streets huddled at the foot of a mountain crowned with a phallic knob of tower, the so-called "sorceror's tower" protruding up into the black, lightning cleft sky like a rhino's horn. The hero rescues the maiden who is fettered to a table, half naked, awaiting vivisection by the evil magician. He has been fiddling with long scalpels, delaying until the surgeon can arrive to engage him in herculean session of fisticuffs. The magician is hurled into his own red-hot furnace and the tower is blasted into a million pieces as a result of some strange magical spell. Ingram's film is interesting for the way that contrasts the rather limpid classical Grecian beauty of the heroine, Alice Terry, with the grinning gargoyle face of Wegener's magus. The picture also has an odd campy feeling, a strange sense of grotesque humor. In the middle of dire sequences, Ingram will insert vulgar jokes and low-comedy mugging by his character actors. In one remarkable image, a hunchbacked dwarf, played by a real "little person," gets blown into a barren tree. He hangs from a naked limb with his clothes in shreds, wriggling like a fish on a hook and tormented by crows -- the sight is supposed to be funny but it is like one of the more ghastly visions of Goya. In many respects, the long-forgotten film has had a long after-life. The erectile sorceror's tower, the campy humor, and the implicit disdain that the film shows for normal people all surface again, more powerfully, and in a better picture, James Whale's "The Bride of Frankenstein."