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Not Murnau at his best: one solid melodrama and one light hearted but laughter light comedy
on 20 January 2015
“If I could help you… If I could save you… Then I wouldn’t love you anymore.”
Sometimes films can be victims of their title and their director’s filmography, as is the case with Murnau’s The Haunted Castle (a country house drama rather than a horror) and his Phantom. That the latter was made in the same year as Nosferatu and features ethereal poster art of the siren who lures an unworldly man into a nightmare sets up expectations that what turns out to be a well mounted romantic melodrama never made any attempt at fulfilling: clearly bait-and-switch marketing is nothing new in the movie business. It’s not without its occasional flights of fancy courtesy of its hero’s frustrated daydreams, but its another tale of a decent but far too innocent man lured away from the woman he should be with (Lil Dagover) to the woman he can never be with – in this case the high society daughter (Lya di Putti) who leaves Alfred Abel’s pasty town clerk and aspiring poet quite literally love struck when she knocks him down with her carriage. From then on he’s obsessed with her, emboldened by the overoptimistic prospect of his poetry being published while his long suffering mother (Frida Richard) watches her family fall apart as his sister (Aud Egede-Nissen) realises she can make a better living on her back than on her feet and falls in with a scoundrel who sees Abel as the key to defrauding her pawnbroker aunt who dotes on the boy almost as much as she distrusts everyone else.
It’s a combination of those two tried-and-trusted formulas the man who thinks he’s won the lottery and spends his winnings only to find he hasn’t and the unadventurous little man destroyed by a femme fatale. As such there’s no shortage of melodrama, but interestingly the real object of his affections is not the film’s femme fatale: she’s kept out of sight and at arm’s length after the collision, with Abel projecting his obsession onto a prostitute he thinks looks just like her (though we initially see her as she really is) and who is out to take him for every penny until he and his partner in deception are driven to desperate measures.
A lot of the imagery sounds better on paper than it looks on screen, with the recurring image of Abel hopelessly chasing Viktoria’s ghostly carriage – even the memory of which can knock him to his feet in an empty street – or the surrounding buildings starting to fall on him after his deception is uncovered all falling short due to the technical limitations of the day. It’s only in the brief topsy-turvy day sequence where he numbly goes through a day of joyless revelry where everything is askew that the camera and direction really feel like they’re getting inside his head. But then it’s back to the melodrama en route to the inevitable crisis and a happy ending epilogue that doesn’t convince in a film that’s professionally made by top craftsmen but which never really grips.
Long thought lost, the film has been very decently restored but features no extras.
Its companion piece on Masters of Cinema’s two-disc UK DVD, The Finances of the Grand Duke, is shorter and sweeter, with Murnau showing his lighter side in a comedy of revolution, concealed identities, blackmailing bankers and stock market manipulation. At the centre of it all is Harry Liedtke’s Duke of a small Mediterranean duchy with a large debt he has only three days to pay off, though that turns out to be the least of his troubles when he turns down a rich businessman’s offer to buy up the sulphur rights, leading the unscrupulous would-be mogul to start a revolution. It’s a very small revolution, mind you, seeming to consist of only four conspirators (one of whom is Max Schreck, looking much more recognisable human here than in Nosferatu) who strike while the Duke has left to meet the Russian crown princess who has offered to marry him sight unseen, assuring him that she has more than enough money for both of them. Unfortunately her letter falls into the hands of the blackmailing cad who the Duke owes a fortune to, which is turn leads to more complications when professional adventurer Alfred Abel notices it while breaking into his house. And wouldn’t you know it, the mysterious girl he finds himself protecting from the evil descendant of Ivan the Terrible (who, thanks to post-release cutting, is never heard from again) and her overly protective brother just happens to be… Well, you get the picture.
Surprisingly the film was based on one of a successful series of Swedish literary thrillers based on Abel’s character, Philip Collins, though it’s played as sophisticated comedy without that many laughs but an excellent use of locations that brings out the best in Karl Freund’s cinematography and enough plot to pass itself off as a cliffhanger serial (the film is actually divided into six chapters). There are odd moments where Murnau’s private life leave the film open to interpretation, such as the Duke throwing coins to naked boys to dive for or Abel making up the heroine to look ugly because that’s exactly as he expects a wife of his to look, but there’s not much depth here: this is a glossy, sunny crowdpleaser. The biggest surprise is Abel, so dour and one-note in Phantom as he is in so many of his films, who positively breezes through this one on roguish charm and unexpected wit, whether holding dog races in his palatial home or disguising himself as a chimneysweep to recover incriminating letters for a small consideration. It’s not a major Murnau film by any means, but it is a very amiable and easygoing one.
The film went through substantial re-editing after it premiered at around two hours, and the version on DVD is the 77-minute general release version that ups the pace but clearly leaves the odd character and subplot on the sidelines. There’s a bit too much edge enhancement on the DVD transfer but – aside from the customary Masters of Cinema booklet – it does contain the set’s only extra, a very good commentary by David Kalat that imparts a great deal of information and offers some speculation in an accessibly light manner that suits the film it accompanies.