A Fool There Was

One of the finest of all silent films, as good as any ever made. Wyler’s Carrie has nothing on this for all its monumental assiduity, and you can sense his Dodsworth brimming with the recollection.

Powell is a great artist, the carefully-styled script exploits the exciting novelty of simultaneous action to prepare a counterpoint, the millionaire and Kipling’s vampire are mirrored by the butler at home and the little daughter cajoling him.

The acting is on a level of skill and command that permits small effects to assume tragical proportions, as when the wife steels herself a little shakily to overcome her humiliation and ask her husband back.

Olympia’s portrait by Manet introduces the bewitching creature. She drains men of their money and drops them utterly. The actress has to play every nuance of allure, control and contempt. By her mere presence, she has to draw the wreck of a man to her from the rescue of a friend, a wife, a daughter. Theda Bara is a great actress (her films presently known to survive are hardly more than James Dean’s three).

Powell is a very brilliant director without overemphasizing it. The vampire’s last conquest pauses to check his revolver, his full-length shadow is thrown on the light wall directly behind him in half the shot, the steamship bound for Europe is docked in the background of the rest. Nothing remarkable except the pure compositional naturalism of this, no artificial heightening, the aggregate of simple, direct images.

But every scene is so well played and composed. The tinting goes from gold to violet when a storm knocks out the lights. The vampire quells the drawn revolver by tapping it with a flower, the despondent lover blows his brains out on the spot, the passenger deck of the steamship about to sail. Her next victim sees the body carried past him on the gangplank and remembers it at the point of death, drunk on the staircase of his New York town house, reaching through the banister like an animal.

If Nabokov saw Flesh and the Devil before writing King, Queen, Knave, he might have seen this before Laughter in the Dark. The staircase scene is also remembered in Richard Brooks’ The Last Time I Saw Paris. Charlie Kane’s rage is the abandoned lover’s in her room.

A greatly remarkable shot has a waiting car cut in half by the left frame, the lovers emerge from a building right, the girl sits in the open back seat facing the camera alone in the shot as the car pulls forward with her smiling person and turns out of frame (this may be exacerbated by incorrect projection, but the proportions are there).

An idyll of love under palm trees in Italy. “Disgraceful conduct.” A stationary car fills the screen lengthwise, a man stands between it and the camera, passengers enter, the car drives off, a stone wall now fills the screen, the man stands alone in the shot. The drive through city streets in an open car, filmed from the roof of one in front, like carriages in the Bois.

The poem is given throughout in titles, amid others indicating the lapse of time like the ones in Kubrick’s The Shining.

Pakula’s Klute has something of the flavor, but this is a self-contained vampire who sees a newspaper item about a wealthy man appointed special envoy to Europe and by accident traveling alone, she packs a trunk posthaste.