Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Passing of the Third Floor Back

1935, UK, directed by Berthold Viertel

Yet another viewing prompted by David Cairns, who wrote at length about the film a couple of years ago, The Passing of the Third Floor Back puts Conrad Veidt in the difficult position of needing to be compelling while remaining saintly. As John Milton well knew, the devil is generally a more eye-catching character than the angel, but Veidt controls his performance, and particularly his voice, to hypnotic effect in order to counter-balance Frank Cellier's exuberant playing of Mr. Wright, the film's representation of all that is wicked.

As David notes in his piece, the religious symbolism is often quite overt, using crossed shadows, for instance, though to rather different effect than in Hawks's Scarface. The texture of secular London life of the period is equally present - references to the tenements that give Mr. Wright his filthy lucre, the organ grinder and his monkey, the joyous day out on the steamer. The cross-section of English society as gathered together in the boarding house also gives the film ample room to explore contrasts and contradictions in Britain's inter-war class system, too, although it's occasionally a struggle for the film to reconcile those differences with the narrative's need to bring the lodgers together in specific scenes.

I'm not all that familiar with the details of Berthold Viertel's career, but this feels like a much more personal outing than the following year's Rhodes of Africa, with its rather plodding narrative; the visual touches that render this film so consistently interesting are far less noteworthy in the biopic, too, although Viertel does create an interesting tension between the oppositional role that Paul Kruger is supposed to occupy and his rather endearing onscreen presentation. It's not hard to sense an echo of the contrast between Veidt and Cellier, both physically and psychologically, in the dynamic that operates between Walter Huston as Rhodes and Oscar Homolka as Kruger; Cellier re-appears in a small part in the later film, too, as a more sympathetic London striver.

The picture above is lifted directly from David's piece on MUBI; I couldn't make anything decent from my copy of the film, which is rather frayed around the edges.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States