Whispers in the Dark

Mary Pickford once remarked that it was a shame sound film hadn't come first and silent movies later. Her observation will appeal to those who share the view that silent film was an autonomous art—a different kind of cinema with significant achievements never to be equaled, cut off in its prime. The last phase of the silent era in Hollywood was particularly memorable, with masterpieces like F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, Victor Sjöström's The Wind, and Pál Fejös's Lonesome, whose visual stylization and subtle imagery were shaped by a strong European influence. Silent film survived through 1928—arguably the greatest single year in the history of the movies.

The Walter Reade's retro, spanning the years 1927 to 1931, deals with one of the most eventful periods in film and features a number of breakthroughs: The Jazz Singer (1927), the wretched tearjerker that has come to emblematize the birth of the talkies, as well as Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (1929), Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930), René Clair's Le Million (1931), and Fritz Lang's M (1931).

With La Chienne (1931), made at a time when few European directors were willing to venture outside the studios, Jean Renoir used sound with considerable creativity. This was the first French talkie to be shot in real locations—notably the noisy streets of Montmartre. Nikolai Ekk's memorable The Road to Life (1931), one of the first Soviet sound pictures (not seen here for some time), takes place in 1923 and concerns the reeducation of "wild boys," the gangs of homeless orphans left destitute and driven to crime by the years of civil war and famine. Directed with warmth, humor, and a good deal of affection for outsiders, this deeply appealing work benefits from excellent acoustical effects in spite of the primitive means at hand. Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929) is something of a landmark as the first British talkie. ("Hear our mother tongue as it should be spoken!" the ads read.) Ominous birds chirp for the first time in a Hitchcock film. Throughout, Blackmail is a brilliant object lesson in how the new medium might be used, but one passage is truly startling, even today—the famous family breakfast scene, in which the heroine listens to a neighbor prattle about a murder (which she had committed). We hear what is being said through her ears, and in a bit of aural expressionism, the word "knife" stabs out at her and at us from the track.

Shadow play: Una Merkel and Chester Morris in The Bat Whispers
photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Shadow play: Una Merkel and Chester Morris in The Bat Whispers

A culmination of the silent cinema, Sunrise is a shimmering and dreamy pictorial feast, yet technically it's also a sound film, with honking horns, "wild" (nonsynchronous) dialogue in the crowd scenes, and a fine incidental score by Hugo Riesenfeld, which at one exquisite moment uses "sound" synchronized to the human voice, but without speech—when his boat capsizes and George O'Brien, knocked out, wakes up and calls to his wife, who may have drowned, and we hear a mournful passage on the French horn that simulates his cries.

Nonpareil oddity of the series is Roland West's The Bat Whispers (1929), a talkie remake of West's The Bat (1926), an "old dark house" movie about a mysterious master criminal who terrorizes the inhabitants of a Long Island mansion. The primary inspiration for Bob Kane's Batman, this irresistible horror spoof sports one of the most dynamic, purely visual expositions on film. West's eye for eccentric shadowy compositions and swooping camera movements over striking miniatures make it an almost voluptuous experience. What's more, although it has never been acknowledged, his nutty movie seems a clear influence on Citizen Kane. Did Welles know West's work? Possibly not, but the point is moot, since Kane's stylistic innovations were in good part due to the cinematography of the great Gregg Toland, who cut his teeth as a cameraman on . . . The Bat. Case closed.

 
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