The House of Mystery (La Maison du Mystere), (1921-23/2015)
Cast: Ivan Mosjoukine, Helene Darly, Charles Vanel, Nicolas Kolin
Studio: Films Albatros Production/ Films Eclipse/ Blackhawk Films/ Flicker Alley FA0039 (3 DVDs)
Video: 4:3 b&w
Audio: Silent serial, soundtrack music by Neil Brand
English & French intertitles
Director: Alexandre Volkoff
Screenplay: Volkoff & Mosjoukine
Based on novel by Jules Mary
Extras: Slide show of b&w stills of production & behind-the-scenes, 12 p. illustrated booklet by film historian Lenny Borger goes into the lives of cast and crew
Length: 383 minutes
The French serial films, which had started before WWI, were melodramas for adult audiences, unlike the American serials targeted primarily at youngsters. Three serials were made by producer Joseph Ermolieff from novels of Jules Mary, all around the theme of the miscarriage of justice. The other two have been lost, but this is a gorgeous restoration of the third, restored in its original ten-episode format by the Cinématheque française. One reviewer said it was equal parts art and entertainment, and that says it well. The condition of the film is excellent considering its age – only in a few indoor scenes is the background a bit noisy and only a few outdoor shots are somewhat over-exposed.
The excellent English intertitles and the new piano score by Neil Brand help one get thru the six-and-a-half-hour serial, though the lovely cinematography and generally good acting help immensely. (In spite of that I did use the fast-foward several times to get thru some boring sections faster.) The plot is somewhat involved but fairly direct: Julien Villandrit’s (Mosjoukine) courtship of Regine causes bitterness and jealousy in Henri Corradin (Vanel), his partner in a textile mill. Julien at first thinks the attentions the elderly banker Marjory gives Regine are due to something else, and even tries to strangle him, but is finally told by Marjory that she is really his daughter. Then Marjory is killed by Corradin and Julien takes the rap with ten years of hard labor. He escapes in a daring scene after seven years and returns home in disguise (which he’s very good at – his contemporaries compared him to Lon Chaney). Meanwhile Corradin has convinced Regine to marry him instead. Mention should be made of the gardener and amateur photographer Rudeberg (Kolin), who has photos of Corradin murdering Marjory but uses them to blackmail Corradin to get a better job and support for his young son. Julien’s eyes are extremely expressive, and he was a big star of many French silents, but his Russian accent didn’t make it when sound came in.
The film has something for everyone, in spite of no sync sound. Its careful pacing and fine cinematography remove it from most cliffhanger-type serials, but it has plenty of adventure. The narrative has chase scenes, gun fights and various action scenes, but it’s mostly about an affluent family and their employees in their palatial estate. The director had been wounded in WWI and in mid-serial some of the characters go off to fight in the war since it happened during that period. The carefully-plotted French serials, based on interpersonal conflict, were certainly different from all others.