Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reels of Unidentified Film

From February 14 through 21, Preserving a Family Collection is participating in For the Love of Film (Noir):  The Film Preservation Blogathon.  Through this blogathon, over 80 bloggers are hoping to raise significant funds to support the work of the Film Noir Foundation and restore The Sound of Fury, a 1950 film noir starring Lloyd Bridges.  Please contribute to the effort by making a donation at  this link or through the donation buttons on host sites Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren.

Lost films turn up from time to time.  Just as when watching an episode of Antiques Roadshow thoughts naturally turn to your own family collection, the discovery of lost films can prompt renewed curiosity about that unidentified film in your basement or garage.  What could it be?  I think I may know, but first a brief digression on German expressionism and film noir.
It’s related to the subject at hand, I promise.

As it emerged in the American cinema of the 1940s, the visual language of film noir was deeply influenced by the German expressionist films of the 1920s.  There’s a direct line from early German horror masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922), and Metropolis (1927) to the look of full-blooded film noir movies like The Lady of Shanghai (1947), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and Out of the Past (1947).  You can clearly see the influence in the camera angles, the set designs, and the staging of the actors.  Of course, it’s not particularly surprising since so many of the 1920s German filmmakers escaped to Hollywood in the 1930s, where they profoundly influenced the look and feel of Hollywood films.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Above, a screen capture from the deeply influential
German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
 Below, Orson Welles' funhouse climax to The Lady from Shanghai (1947),
a truly classic film noir scene.   Note the similarities.  In each,
the world has gone mad and the insanity is expressed by the
strangely disorienting visual design.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947).

I became hooked on film way back when I was a kid in the early 1970s – an all-consuming interest sparked by the confluence of the PBS Orson Welles-hosted The Silent Years series in 1971 and my first purchase of a Famous Monsters of Filmland, which I still consider the greatest magazine of all time.

Naturally if you crave silents and monsters, you’re going to fall big-time for German expressionism.  And since they didn’t show this stuff on TV very often, one of the few options for seeing these movies was to purchase copies, potentially creating your own classic film collection.  I spent hours poring over the Blackhawk Films catalog, dreaming of all the movies that I yearned to see one day.  Over time, I was able to get my hands on full-length 8 mm copies of Caligari, The Golem, and Nosferatu

I remember setting up the 8 mm projector on the ping pong table in the basement and projecting my beloved movies on one of those tripod roll-up movie screens.  There was no sound to accompany these silents except for the constant whir of the projector.  And if that sound stopped, it might mean that the film had jammed and a frame was probably liquefying from the heat of the bulb.  Those were the days!

So...  what does this have to do with the family collection?  Simply this -- if you run across some dusty old reels of film in your basement that look as if they were made by professionals, it probably isn't a valuable long-lost film.  Chances are extremely remote that it’s a pristine copy of The Sound of Fury (1950), or the director’s cut of Greed (1923), or Lon Chaney’s famous lost vampire act in London After Midnight (1927).  In reality, it’s probably a Blackhawk film and not really that rare or valuable at all.

© 2011 Lee Price

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