Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Shadow Knows....But Not Much.

After yesterday’s pseudo-1920s film, I feel like travelling back in time to an actual film of that era. So, without further ado, I present to you one of the lesser known films of Mr Bela Lugosi – The Shadow of Chinatown. Originally presented as a serial, this tells the story of the cutthroat world of business in an unnamed *cough*San Francisco*cough* Chinatown. An importer of certain goods wants to get rid of their competitors, and so hires a “mad scientist” (of course played by Lugosi) to rid the city of them.

I think, given the conceits of yesterday’s film compared to the authenticity of todays, I shall do more comparison between the two.  Now, I know that there will be at least a few major differences between both films (mainly the fact that The Call of Cthulhu was set up to be a “silent” film, whereas The Shadow of Chinatown is one of those new fangled talkies). However, there will be a lot of similarities (I think and hope).

So far, the only thing that is differentiating this from The Call of Cthulhu, is that this has more crackles (both audio and visual). Apart from that, the shooting style is the same; a lot of the shots have been framed the same way (tight facial close-ups, slow pull backs and the like). Another thing that I have noticed that CoC did, and that this also does (I would presume due to its original serial form), is jump right into the plot – within two minutes, you get the reason why Lugosi’s character, Victor, will be doing what he does. No waiting around, no establishing character backstory, no making you care about characters; just “here’s what’s gonna happen, don’t ask questions” – and I like that.

Another calling card of this film, and films in general from that era (particularly the late 30s and early 40s) is the use of Heroine Archtype #2: Gumption A-Plenty (Archtype #1 being Simpering Idiot). And boy does our lead actress have it in spades, seemingly graduating from the Judy Garland School Of “Golly Gee, I’ll Show Them” Acting. Hell, she even gets to bust out the line, “I’m a reporter, honest I am” – which gets her nowhere, not even a patronising pat on the head (which shows you that she is Gumption A-Plenty, since the male characters are not treating her like a puppy – something that is less down the ladder than ignoring her completely). Thankfully, the scene leads to some WSD, whereby our fearless reporter tries to see what is going on behind closed doors by pulling down one of those old school pull down fire escape ladders, leading to her ending up on her ass, and a single scene character walking past and saying “will you stop your clowing?”

One thing that I am pleasantly surprised by is the fact that most, if not all of the Chinese are actually Chinese. Yes, there are a few obvious white folk, but it hasn’t been established that their characters are Chinese, or just white people in the Chinatown area. Go back and look at a lot of films of this era (even up in to the 60s) and you will find that many Asian characters are played by whitefolk, Italians or “for true authenticity”, Hawai’ians – but no, we get actual Chinese all over this place. The only real example of “Me No Rikey” is provided by the servant, Willy Fu – which is amusing as he is played by a gent named Maurice Liu, which sounds quite Chinese in origin to me.

Yes, while I did mention that our heroine is Archtype #2, she does slip into Archtype #1, but only temporarily. Because there is no way this could have worked with a Simpering Idiot in the hero role (I refuse to put any of the good guy males in the hero role, because they only seem to be there because the mores of the day would not have bought a sole woman as the protagonist).

Comparing him to the rest of the cast, especially the other male actors, it’s obvious that Lugosi is an actual actor, as his portrayal of Victor (while camp and semi-pantomimetic) is still understated played somewhat low key. Whereas every other male actor in the piece is very model of the Fast Talkin’ High Pants of the era. Or it could just be that he is putting some effort into the overall Lugosi-ness of his character and the fact that he is the only one who obviously got to play in the costume box. In fact, all the characters verge on being one dimensional, which works especially well with the serial that this film started as. Since it was originally shown in 15-20 minute chunks (and trimmed down quite a lot for this version, from the original 300 minutes to a taut 70),  no time could be wasted on such pointless fripperies as second, or even third, character dimensions – what you get is “he is good, she is bad, he’s a cop, that guy is Chinese”.

Speaking of the original serial nature of the film, it is so obvious that this is how it started life, even if I was unaware of it. The film starts in Chinatown, and jumps location as episodes progress; with each obvious episode ending on a cliffhanger of sorts – our heroine gets kidnapped, Victor showing his spooky powers (which I think were generated by Lugosi himself), a betrayal, etc: the usual stuff. It actually works quite well given the change in form to long form film, as, being honest, the plot of the film is pretty threadbare, and anything that helps it to chug along is a good thing. I honestly don’t know how this could have sustained over 300 minutes, though – I guess that is why it was broken down into 20 minute chunks for its original serial broadcast.

Going back to the comparison between yesterday’s film and this, another thing I would like to draw attention to is the music. Sure, given that this is a talkie rather than pure silent, there are far less musical cues, however, what there is is there enough to allow for a decent comparison – and again, what you see is a lot of simple, dramatic cues; frantic brass mainly, which seems to be de rigueur back then.

Overall, this was a pretty interesting view into what was entertaining the masses back then – or, since I’d never heard of the film/series until I decided to review it, not entertaining the masses. I think I only used it to reiterate what a good job the people behind The Call of Cthulhu did on their project, and seeing it compared to something else of the actual vintage just shows how well they did in simulating it.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy your work immensely, even though I've never heard of the talkie. I took forward to working with you.