Thrillers– Silent Cinema Style 1: Les Vampires

Summer TV got you down?

Summer blockbusters mostly busts?

Allow me to offer a different answer to your viewing woes: Thrillers from the Silent Era.

First up is the oldest of my suggestions, and in some ways my favorite: Les Vampires by Louis Feuillade. This is an almost seven hour ten part serial filmed in Paris France in 1915. It concerns no sort of vampire, not even the “Twilight” kind. Rather it is the story of a criminal gang ravaging France and the reporter who seeks to expose and destroy them.  Alternating between black outfits and various disguises, the Vampires are forever up to dark deeds like robbery, kidnapping, murder, gassings and bombings. The gang is perhaps based on the illegalist anarchist Bonnot Gang that operated in France in 1911-12. Though the men who lead them change, the constant for the Vampires is one Irma Vep, one of cinema’s first vamps, played by Musidora. Appearing first in episode three, she is in many ways the serial’s real protagonist, a prototypical femme fatale one can’t help but watch.

This is early cinema, and it shows in many ways. The serial is almost a hundred years old. The print on the American DVD is tinted, obstinsibly to separate interior, exterior, day and night scenes, actually also attempts to improve the image of what was apparently a last ditch rescue print of the film. The serial has since been lovingly restored in a French and English editions that look magnificent but alas, haven’t made a Region 1 disc appearance.

The camera technique in the film is pedestrian by modern standards, but not so many static middle range shots as you might expect. The  makeup and acting are heavy-handed, and you can tell that sometimes the director/writer is calling out instructions to his actors as they film. The incidents that abound in these episodes include all the trappings now all too familiar: disguises, hypnotism, poison, blackmail, narrow escapes, near meetings, traps and fiendish plots. There are mothers and millionairesses in distress, and even a funny sidekick.

All this might make “Les Vampires” sound awfully dull. Instead it is somehow magical. There is a freshness to the serials that comes from their being some of the first thrillers ever filmed, and from their being shot in a now bygone world. There is no trace of the cynicism that underlies so many films and TV nowadays. They are highly watchable not only as the pioneers of the film thriller genre, but also as highly enjoyable stories on their own. I recommend them for a good several nights in front of the TV screen.

Oh, yes. These are not what you might normally think of as a serial. It is not one long story with cliffhanger endings in between. Instead, “Les Vampires” is more like a short run TV series, with a constant background and recurring characters that have episodic adventures. And did I mention it’s great stuff?

UPDATE: 6-13-2010: For the three of you interested, all ten chapters of this great serial are available for online viewing or downloading at Archive dot org here.

Check out the new “Feature Films” link on my right sidebar for more public domain films, including many a classic.

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2 thoughts on “Thrillers– Silent Cinema Style 1: Les Vampires

  1. We may not agree on exegesis or politics, but we are in complete harmony on movies (based on this post). Excellent choice. Looking forward to further posts on this topic.

  2. Theophrastus,

    I skimmed through your blog and we do share a taste in DVDs, it seems. Thanks for the reminder of the BBC “Age of Kings”. I’ve heard of that for years. And I need to get back to some Asian cinema, like “Mad Detective”, for one.

    Interestingly, even though I love “Les Vampires”, I was not terribly taken with “Judex”.

    Those in the know can guess where I’m going next in silent films. For the rest, I give an obvious hint:

    “The name’s Lang. Fritz Lang.”

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