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Tag Archives: Les Vampires

Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2012

In spite of the ever-increasing popularity of downloading and streaming (with their attendant inferior image and sound quality, suckas!), 2012 proved to be yet another year of movie-watching paradise for crazy people like me who want to feel a physical connection to the movies we love (not to mention the bitchin’ artwork, liner notes and “special features” on the discs themselves that tend to go along with the increasingly outdated notion of “physical media”). All of the great home video labels (Criterion, Masters of Cinema, et al) continued doing great work, and a few smaller domestic and foreign labels (Flicker Alley, Kam and Ronson, etc.) even stepped up their rate of Blu-ray production. Olive Films deserves a special thanks for combing through the Republic Pictures catalogue, judiciously selecting all of the titles that cinephiles most want to see and presenting them in high definition (e.g., Letter from an Unknown Woman, Rio Grande, Johnny Guitar, and, most exciting of all, a newly restored version of The Quiet Man set to drop in 2013).

Below are my top ten favorite Blu-ray discs of 2012 as well as 30 additional runners-up. (I purchased no DVDs in the past year at all.) Being fortunate enough to watch all of the below discs, some of which I was even able to screen in classes, single-handedly made 2012 a very good year for me.

10. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Olive Films Blu-ray)

Olive Films has quickly established a reputation as a home video distributor known for putting out straightforward transfers (unrestored but also never overly manipulated) of classic Hollywood and foreign films on DVD and Blu-ray. They are also known for offering little-to-no extras (think of them as Criterion’s poorer little brother). While the new Blu-ray of Letter from an Unknown Woman fits this description exactly, I’m including it here because the movie is so friggin’ awesome and because it was only previously available in North America on VHS tape. Max Ophuls’ elegant, Viennese waltz of a movie is a devastating melodrama about a schoolgirl crush that turns into an unrequited lifelong obsession. A reviewer on a popular Blu-ray review site, who is apparently unaware of the conventions of the melodrama genre and should’ve known better, foolishly complained about the film’s plot contrivances and gave it 3.5 stars out of 5. I say this is one of the great American movies and if it doesn’t rip your heart out then I don’t want to know you.

9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, Fox Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, who have a good track record when it comes to their catalogue titles, released a superb Blu-ray of Howard Hawks’ immortal Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to curiously little fanfare last July. Over time this musical/comedy has become my favorite Hawks movie, in part because I’ve come to realize that comedy is what Hawks, the proverbial “master of all genres,” did best but also because of how he used the Marilyn Monroe persona: together, Hawks and Monroe slyly suggest that her dumb blonde act is just that – an act – which makes her Lorelei Lee character seem awfully smart, after all. What impresses most about this specific release is how much the colors pop (has red ever looked so red?) and how remarkably blemish-free it is; Fox’s restoration of the film involved creating a new negative from the original three-strip Technicolor elements. I cannot recall seeing another movie from Hollywood’s studio system era that looked this pleasingly pristine on my television.

8. Lonesome (Fejos, Criterion Blu-ray)

My vote for the best Criterion release of the year is their incredible Blu-ray disc of the George Eastman House restoration of Paul Fejos’ essential Lonesome. I had previously only seen this lyrical masterpiece, a portrait of urban loneliness and love comparable to Sunrise and The Crowd, on a fuzzy VHS tape as an all-silent film in black-and-white. This new version restores it to its original theatrical glory as a part-talkie (there are three brief dialogue scenes) with a color-stenciled-by-hand Coney Island climax. Even more impressive is how Criterion bundles the main attraction together with two other Fejos features: a reconstructed version of the 1929 musical Broadway (whose generic story of a chorus girl mixed up with gangsters is merely an excuse for Fejos to show off some astonishingly fluid and dramatic crane shots) and the recently rediscovered The Last Performance, a Conrad Veidt vehicle that belongs to one of my favorite subgenres – films about the sinister goings-on within a circus. Oh yeah! Taken together, these three films offer a compelling argument that Fejos may have been the most unjustly neglected major filmmaker to ever work in Hollywood.

7. The Gospel According to Matthew (Pasolini, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s greatest achievement received the home video treatment it has long deserved with this definitive edition from the UK label Masters of Cinema. The tone of this much-beloved biopic of Jesus, based upon the book of Matthew, alternates between the reverent (the Neorealist but respectful treatment of the Christ story in general) and the irreverent (a deliberately anachronistic score, one of the best ever compiled, that mixes Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with cuts by Mahalia Jackson, Blind Willie Johnson, a Congolese mass and even snatches of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky score). That score comes through loud and clear via the uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack, and the film’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography has the thickness and pleasing graininess of an authentic, well-kept 35mm print. Also, the English subtitles are thankfully optional, not “burned in” as on the old Image DVD release. Finally, there are many welcome extras, the most important of which is Sopralluoghi in Palestina, a feature-length documentary about scouting the film’s locations directed by Pasolini himself. Essential.

6. The Mizoguchi Collection (Mizoguchi, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

This terrific box-set from UK distributor Artificial Eye collects the four best-known Kenji Mizoguchi films that pre-date the great director’s most famous period (the late masterworks he created in the 1950s). Unfortunately, it has been damned with faint praise by some critics who complained about the overall “softness” of the images, and the fact that two of the titles (Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion) have already been released by Criterion’s Eclipse DVD label in transfers that were clearly made from the same source material. But this is Blu-ray, folks, and there is an improvement, and no improvement is too small when it comes to the legacy of a giant like Mizoguchi. Granted, these films, like all Japanese films of their era, are not in the best physical shape but they are among the cinema’s finest achievements (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums in particular) and cinephiles therefore owe Artificial Eye a huge debt of gratitude for putting them out. Unsurprisingly, the best-looking film in the set is also the most recent: 1946’s Utamaro and His Five Women, the only postwar title in the bunch, is a delightful, autobiographical and uncharacteristically light movie (at least for Mizo) about an artist’s relationships to his female models.

5. The River (Renoir, Carlotta Blu-ray)

2012 was a great year for admirers of Jean Renoir. Out of all of the Blu-ray releases of classic films that came out this year that were based on new restorations, two of the very best-looking were for his masterpieces Grand Illusion (released by Studio Canal stateside and in Europe) and The River (released by the French label Carlotta). My favorite between them is The River, not only because I think it’s the better movie but also because it boasts the more impressive restoration work. Funded in part by Martin Scorsese’s invaluable Film Foundation, the film’s original vibrant Technicolor palette (marking the first time Renoir ever worked in color), which irresistibly shows off the The River‘s colorful Indian locations, has marvelously been brought back to life. The movie itself, a coming-of-age story about three adolescent girls who fall in love with the same American soldier, is one of Renoir’s best and most humane. There are no English subtitles on this French disc, which shouldn’t really matter to English-speakers because the film was shot entirely in English.

4. Les Vampires (Feuillade, Kino Blu-ray)

Louis Feuillade’s groundbreaking and deathless mystery serial was originally released in 10 parts over a span of several months in 1915 and 1916. Blu-ray, however, is arguably the ideal way to experience this 7-hour silent film extravaganza (spread across two discs in Kino’s set): one can dip into it at any given point at any time to experience its proto-Surrealist delights. And for those who have heard of Feuillade, a kind of French D.W. Griffith, but are not yet familiar with his work, this is also the best place to start: Les Vampires, a supreme entertainment about an intrepid journalist matching wits against a gang of master criminals, exerted a big influence on Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films, the entire espionage genre, and even the nouvelle vague in its pioneering use of self-reflexivity (most obvious in the fourth-wall-busting comic performance of Marcel Levesque). Full review here.

3. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

Flicker Alley’s second ever Blu-ray release was this gem of a set combining both the restored black-and-white and color versions of Georges Melies’ classic A Trip to the Moon with The Extraordinary Voyage, an informative feature length doc about the making of the original film as well as the extensive restoration of the color version (the most expensive ever undertaken). The candy-colored hand-painted visuals from 1902 turned out to be a major revelation and a total delight: they radically change the experience of watching the film by providing greater separation between subjects within Melies’ compositions, providing a much greater illusion of depth, and subtly directing the viewer’s eye to important elements within single frames. Because the color version only comes with one soundtrack option, a space-age pop score by the French art-rock duo Air, some alleged cinephiles groused on internet message boards that they refused to buy this. If you are one of those people, you are an idiot. Full review here.

2. The Lodger (Hitchcock, Network Blu-ray)

The UK label Network released this sensational disc in September, which turned out to be in many ways the year’s most delightful home video surprise. The Lodger, Hitchcock’s first thriller, was originally released in 1927 and this version is based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it is until viewing this Blu-ray. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Herrmann-esque score. I normally include only one title per director in my “Best of” lists but it was impossible to leave off either The Lodger or the “Masterpiece Collection” for 2012. More here.

1. Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Hitchcock, Universal Blu-ray)

Universal Studios did the world a huge favor by releasing this “mother” of all movie box sets in late October. The 15-disc set, lovingly packaged with a 58-page booklet and beautiful artwork, contains 15 of Alfred Hitchcock’s best known and best loved Hollywood films, all of which are loaded with copious extras. The audio-visual quality varies from disc to disc but, fortunately, the very best films included here (e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho) also tend to be the ones that have the most impressive image and sound quality. The colors of Rear Window and Vertigo in particular are more saturated and feature warmer skin tones that feel truer to their original Technicolor roots. The most pleasant surprise though is The Trouble with Harry, whose blazing autumnal color palette truly dazzles in 1080p. Below are my grades for all 15 films in the set. The first grade is for the movie, the second is for a/v quality:

Saboteur: B+/A
Shadow of a Doubt: A+/A-
Rope: B+/B+
Rear Window: A+/A+
The Trouble With Harry: A-/A+
The Man Who Knew Too Much: B-/B-
Vertigo: A+/A+
North By Northwest: A+/A+
Psycho: A+/A
The Birds: A/A-
Marnie: A-/B
Torn Curtain: B-/B+
Topaz: B/B+
Frenzy: B+/A-
Family Plot: A/B-

Runners-Up:

11. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)

12. Bande à part (Godard, Gaumont Blu-ray)

13. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Kino Blu-ray)

14. Center Stage (AKA Actress) (Kwan, Kam and Ronson Blu-ray)

15. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Criterion Blu-ray)

16. Chinatown (Polanski, Paramount Blu-ray)

17. David Lynch Box Set (Lynch, Universal UK Blu-ray) This ambitious set was unfortunately marred by technical problems on its original release (a couple of discs contained audio and/or video glitches, while others were released in 1080i instead of 1080p and with 2.0 stereo soundtracks instead of the promised 5.1 mixes) and was subsequently withdrawn by Universal UK. When replacement discs were eventually reissued, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway were still unfortunately in 1080i though Wild at Heart, Eraserhead, Dune and Blue Velvet all look and sound terrific. Had it not been for the technical errors, this extras-laden set would have easily made my top ten list.

18. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

19. Film Socialisme (Godard, Kino Blu-ray)

20. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

21. Fort Apache (Ford, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

22. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)

23. Grand Illusion (Renoir, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

24. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, Fox Blu-ray) Full review here.

25. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Criterion Blu-ray)

26. Johnny Guitar (Ray, Olive Films Blu-ray)

27. La Jetee / Sans Soleil (Marker, Criterion Blu-ray) More here.

28. Life Without Principle (To, Mega Star Blu-ray) Full review here.

29. Die Nibelungen (Lang, Kino Blu-ray)

30. Notorious (Hitchcock, MGM Blu-ray) Full review here.

31. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray) Full review here.

32. Rio Grande (Ford, Olive Films Blu-ray)

33. Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, Criterion Blu-ray)

34. Sansho the Bailiff / Gion Bayashi (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

35. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, Warner Bros. Blu-ray) More here.

36. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

37. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

38. That Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

39. Ugetsu / Oyu-sama (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

40. Weekend (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)

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A Silent French Cinema Primer

Following my French cinema primers covering the Nouvelle Vague and the pre-Nouvelle Vague sound era, today’s post covers what I think are the most essential French movies of the silent era. Although I normally only write about feature films in these primers, I’m going to make an exception for this one so that I can cover some of the most influential French films of the era.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with the diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this year.

The Life of Christ (AKA The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916)

The brilliant, prolific Louis Feuillade directed over 600 movies, many of them multi-part serials, before his death at 52. Les Vampires, which is not about vampires but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires,” is one of the highlights of his career. The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette. This was much beloved by the Surrealists for its evocation of an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood. Nearly a hundred years later, this 10 part mystery serial has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

Tih Minh (Feuillade, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance, and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie that I have ever seen from any era.

Coeur Fidèle (Epstein, 1923)

My favorite French silent feature is Jean Epstein’s Impressionist masterpiece about a young woman, Marie, whose cruel foster parents force her into a marriage with an unemployed, alcoholic thug ironically named “Petit Paul.” Marie nonetheless continues to pine for her true love, Jean, a local dockworker. This romantic triangle is infused with sublime visuals from beginning to end (including a highly poetic use of superimpositions, rapid-fire cutting and close-ups) that make the film a crushing emotional experience when viewed today. The famous merry-go-round sequence, with its striking imagery and musical rhythms, is one of the glories of the silent cinema.

Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dmitri Kirsanoff’s astonishing 38 minute short is arguably the most modern-looking film produced anywhere in the silent era. The story, told without intertitles, revolves around two sisters who, as children living in a small town, tragically witness their parents being murdered. Then, Kirsanoff flashes forward to years later as both sisters are living in Paris and become involved with an evil seducer. But no plot description can do justice to the way Kirsanoff uses his camera like a paintbrush to capture images of incredible beauty and emotional depth. The film’s tempo ranges from fast, Soviet-style montage to a deliberately arty languorousness depending on the mood of the characters, and contributes to an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. Finally, there is the brilliantly understated lead performance of Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff’s wife) who, in the film’s most celebrated scene, contemplates suicide before changing her mind when a complete stranger offers her bread in a public park. Ménilmontant is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Napoléon (Gance, 1927)

First, I must confess to having only seen this on VHS tape in a controversial restoration overseen by Francis Ford Coppola that was both incomplete and transferred at the wrong speed. The arguably nationalistic and pro-militaristic content of the film also strikes me as somewhat dubious. But . . . as an insanely gargantuan, impossibly ambitious work of pure cinema, this has few equals. Gance’s film begins with Napoleon as a child engaging in a snowball fight at a military academy and proceeds through many visually astonishing episodes before climaxing, unforgettably, with a three-panelled widescreen sequence that shows Napoleon at the height of his powers invading Italy as the head of the French army. One of my fondest cinephiliac desires is that silent historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration, which has now swelled to five and a half hours, will make its way to blu-ray soon.

The Little Match Girl (Renoir, 1928)

Although it wasn’t until the sound era that Jean Renoir directed the films that made him immortal (e.g., Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game), I think The Little Match Girl, a 40 minute adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, is one of his best and most affecting films. The title character is a waif forced to sell matches on the streets in the dead of winter in order to earn her livelihood. While literally freezing to death, the match girl looks through a toy store window and fantasizes that she is inside and that the toys have magically come to life all around her. The dream-like visuals and fantasy element are atypical for Renoir, the humanism is not.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)

After a successful run of films in his native Denmark, Carl Dreyer headed to France for his last silent film, a beautiful dramatization of the life of the beloved saint. Instead of showing Joan’s heroism in battle the way you would expect a biopic to do, Dreyer focuses instead only on the last days of her life as she is tried and executed by an English court. The film’s most notable characteristic is its relentless use of extreme close-ups, which capture every wrinkle on the judges’ evil faces and every nuance of Renee Falconetti’s highly emotive performance in the title role, which remains one of the finest ever captured on celluloid.

Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, 1929)

Luis Bunuel’s directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with Salvador Dali, is the most famous Surrealist movie ever – and for good reason. It opens with the shocking image of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor (a shot that is graphically matched with a cutaway image of a cloud drifting in front of the moon) before jumping ahead to “Eight Years Later” and focusing on a new set of characters in scenes that are equally bizarre. But, since Bunuel plays the man with the razor, the function of the prologue is obvious: to announce an all-out assault on the viewer, whose sight, after all, is the most important sense in experiencing a film. Bunuel and Dali’s rule when writing the screenplay was that Un Chien Andalou should be nonsensical to the point of not being interpretable; legions of critics and historians, including me, have ignored their intention ever since.

À propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

À propos de Nice is the exceptionally promising debut film of Jean Vigo, whose career was tragically curtailed four years later when he died of tuberculosis at age 29. This begins as a conventional “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title locations before expanding its scope to offer surreal stylistic flourishes and a satirical/critical view of Nice’s wealthy citizens. In 25 minutes, Vigo and his ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman offer up more ideas, visual invention and wit than what you see in most features; the slow-motion, low angled shots of women dancing are particularly memorable for their eroticism.


Blu Vamp

Newly released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber is Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-1916), one of the greatest and most influential works of the early narrative cinema. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is made from a new HD transfer of a photochemical restoration that was overseen by Jacques Champreux, the director’s grandson, in 1996. This release is massively significant because, unlike most Kino releases of silent French movies, which usually port over the intact (or in some cases truncated) contents of pre-existing region-locked French discs, this is the true world premiere of Les Vampires, or any Feuillade for that matter, in 1080p. It is, as one might expect, a marvel to behold and should be considered a must-own for cinephiles. For those unfamiliar with it, Les Vampires was the result of Feuillade provocatively combining contemporary French pulp fiction with the Balzac-ian notion of secret societies, and then refracting it through his own unique and highly moral sensibility. The finished product is an insanely entertaining mystery serial that went on to exert an explicit influence on everyone from Fritz Lang and Luis Bunuel to George Franju and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas in the present day (and this is to say nothing of the hundreds of directors who were influenced by it indirectly). In short, Les Vampires is the very essence of cinema. To paraphrase something Martin Scorsese said about Sam Fuller, if you don’t love it, then you just don’t love movies.

The most significant directors in the development of cinema prior to 1920 were D.W. Griffith in the United States and Louis Feuillade in France. Like Griffith, the brilliant Feuillade was incredibly prolific; he directed over 600 films, many of them multi-part serials, before his premature death at 52. Unlike Griffith, Feuillade may not have been a pioneer in terms of the specific techniques he employed in lighting, shooting or cutting his movies. (One can find instances of tracking, panning and tilt shots, as well as close-ups of actors’ faces, in Les Vampires but they are used far more sparingly than in Griffith. More often than not, Feuillade preferred to let his scenes unfold in long shots and long takes, a style that used to invite accusations of “theatricality” in some quarters; but, in light of certain European art film trends beginning in the 1960s, his use of depth staging now arguably looks stunning in its modernity.) Feuillade was unquestionably, however, an innovator in terms of his approach to narrative structure. His 1913 release Fantomas, for instance, is credited with being the first “cliffhanger” serial. While the serial format already existed before Feuillade came along, he is believed to be the first filmmaker to wed that particular form with the high concept of suspenseful, “open” endings in an attempt to lure viewers back to the theater week after week to see future serial installments.

Les Vampires, which originally ran in France from November of 1915 through June of 1916 in ten episodes of varying length, has always been Feuillade’s most popular work. It was first famously revived by Henri Langlois at the French Cinematheque in the mid-1940s. Jacques Rivette paid homage to it in his two best films, Out 1 (1971) and Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). And it again piqued international interest in the mid-1990s after Olivier Assayas used it as a major reference point in Irma Vep (where he drew intriguing parallels between Feuillade’s serial and contemporary Hong Kong action films). The perennial popularity of Les Vampires probably stems from its subject: not literal vampires as the title has led many to believe but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires.” The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace investigative newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette (Marcel Levesque). The bad guys, unsurprisingly, have long been the biggest appeal factor; the serial was much beloved by the Surrealists in the 1920s for its evocation of what seemed like an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society, as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood cinema. These are qualities that come through amazingly loud and clear on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray, which proves that Les Vampires has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

The plot of Les Vampires is virtually impossible to summarize because the story of each episode is crammed with plentiful twists and turns and the sprawling, overarching master narrative was not worked out in advance but improvised by the filmmakers as they went along instead. Andre Bazin, in a typically lovely and incisive piece of writing, noted that “(Feuillade) had no idea what would happen next and filmed step by step as the morning’s inspiration came. Both the author and the spectator were in the same situation, namely, that of the King and Scheherazade; the repeated intervals of darkness in the cinema paralleled the separating off of the Thousand and One Nights.” Suffice to say, the narrative ingredients of Les Vampires are quintessential Feuillade: murders, hypnotism, cryptograms, disguises, kidnaps, rescues and escapes. A character known as the “Grand Vampire” murders a wealthy doctor and then assumes his place, entertaining a guest by day but infiltrating his room by night through a secret passageway hidden behind a painting. Similarly, Irma Vep dons many disguises including that of a maid and an office clerk, and even dresses up in drag as a “Viscount” (Musidora was fittingly rediscovered by feminist critics in the 1970s) in order to gain access to different levels of society so that the Vampires can execute their various dastardly schemes. The Vampires ultimately find themselves pitted against not only Guérande and Mazamette but also a rival gang headed by a Spaniard named Juan-José Moréno (who is himself a master of disguise). As the serial progresses, more and more characters are piled on, including wealthy American victims (two of whom, I’m happy to point out, hail from Chicago), as well as love interests for our journalist-heroes.

What is probably the most outrageous narrative contrivance, however, involves a character who (while in disguise, of course) regales a roomful of people by reading aloud from the memoirs of his grandfather, an adventurer who had spent time in Spain a hundred years ago. This allows Feuillade to insert a flashback scene, one that notoriously consisted of bullfight footage from an abandoned movie project that the director had shot in Spain not long before. Adding to all of this nuttiness is the fact that Les Vampires has probably the highest sex and violence quotient of any Feuillade serial; a typical episode contains at least two murders. The first episode is titled “The Severed Head” and includes the grisly discovery of the title body part inside of a hatbox. Another episode contains a scene where a man is killed by being stabbed in the neck with a hairpin before his body is tossed off of a moving train. As for the sex, Irma Vep’s frequent nighttime prowls see her donning a skin-tight black body stocking that, in addition to being fetish-worthy in itself, leaves nothing to the viewer’s imagination concerning what’s underneath in certain lighting conditions. Unsurprisingly, Feuillade was severely criticized for romanticizing his criminal characters by both the wartime French government and the press. Consequently, many commentators feel that he intentionally toned down the explicit content and ratcheted up the moralism for Judex (1916) and other subsequent serials.

I think my personal favorite aspect of Les Vampires may be the performance of Marcel Levesque as Mazamette, which is saying a lot given my boundless enthusiasm for Musidora. Alone among the performers of the film’s ensemble cast, Levesque repeatedly and hilariously breaks the fourth wall by playing directly to the camera (and, by extension, the viewer). Levesque continually winks, nods and smiles in the direction of the camera, as if to say “get a load of this!,” all more than forty years before the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague were credited with introducing similar self-reflexive techniques with their direction of actors. What I find particularly endearing about Levesque’s mugging though is the way that it increases in frequency as the series unfolds. It’s probably the best example of how Feuillade tailored later episodes of his serial to what audiences had responded to positively in the earliest episodes. It’s also a good example of how the joyous nature of cinematic storytelling itself can be seen as Feuillade’s true subject. (Other examples would include scenes where the film’s characters go to the movies: once to a “Gaumont Palace,” a theater owned by the studio that produced Les Vampires, and once to see a documentary that the film’s heroes are stunned to find features their nemeses, the Vampires.) In the end, it is hard not to find infectious one character’s exclamation of “I am a movie fanatic!,” surely one of the most charming intertitles of the entire silent cinema.

What I’ve come to expect from, and love about, Kino Lorber is their resistance to manipulating the image quality of their silent movie releases. While many of their DVDs were problematic in the pre-HD era, the label has really come into its own on Blu-ray. Nothing they do is “over-restored,” a charge that can definitely be leveled against rival labels. Instead, Kino Lorber presents high-quality hi-def transfers of the best surviving silent film elements with flaws intact, just the way they would look if seen projected in 35mm. Fortunately, Les Vampires is in exceptionally good shape for a movie from 1915-1916. This is the third time I’ve seen it in full (following its releases on VHS and DVD from Image Entertainment) and I’ve been increasingly impressed by each upgrade in presentation. Two areas in which the Kino Blu-ray trumps the Image DVD in particular are in its more restrained use of color tinting (the entire film is seen in true black and white with only a sparing use of blue for night sequences) and in a vastly improved English subtitle translation. To be fully candid, the score on the Image DVD by the esteemed Robert Israel is probably superior to the serviceable job by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra included on the Kino, but this is not a big deal. All of the composers, musicians and engineers responsible for writing, compiling, performing and recording these scores have been tasked with the unenviable job of producing 7 hours worth of music for what is probably little to no pay, and so I feel grateful for even serviceable work. My fondest hope is that this Kino Lorber Blu-ray will sell like gangbusters and encourage the label to acquire and release my favorite Feuillade serial: 1919’s Tih-Minh, which I’ve only seen on a bootleg DVD-R taken from fuzzy French VHS tapes with fan-created English subtitles. Even under those less than optimum conditions though, Tih-Minh just might be the only film I’ve seen that I can say is more entertaining than Les Vapmires. Are you listening Kino?

The Blu-ray set of Les Vampires, 6 hours and fifty seven minutes (or the equivalent of at least three feature-length films) spread over two platters, can be purchased for a very reasonable price on amazon here.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. “In Defense of Mixed Cinema.” What Is Cinema?. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California, 2005. pg. 32.


Why Honore de Balzac is the Father of Louis Feuillade

“‘. . . the Ten Thousand Society is an association of major thieves – men who work only on a large scale, and refuse to meddle in anything that brings in less than ten thousand francs. This society includes all the most notable men we ever bring to the assizes. They know the law, and they never do anything that may involve the death penalty if they’re caught. Collin is their confidential advisor. With his immense resources, he’s managed to build up a private police force with agents everywhere; and he has surrounded it with impenetrable secrecy. We’ve had spies all around him for twelve whole months, and we still can’t make out what his game is. His money and his talents are always at the service of crime and vice, and the whole thing keeps an army of blackguards in a perpetual state of war against society. If we can lay hands on Tromp-la-Mort, and get hold of his bank, we can cut the evil at its root. The hunt for him has become a matter of official high policy, and it will honor anyone who contributes to its success. You yourself, Monsieur Poiret, might be found a job in the administration again. You might become, say, a secretary to a police superintendent, and still be allowed to draw your retirement pension.'”

Balzac, Honore de, and Henry Reed. Chapter Four: Tromp-la-Mort. Pere Goriot. New York: Signet Classics, 2004. 172-73. Print.


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