Paul Fejos, 1929
Starring: Conradt Veidt, Mary Philbin, Fed MacKaye, Leslie Fenton
Conrad Veidt stars as Erik the Great, an aged, charismatic stage magician who falls in love with (and becomes somewhat obsessed with) his young, lovely assistant (Mary Philbin from Phantom of the Opera). One night a young vagrant breaks into his hotel room to steal food and Julie, his assistant, insists that they take him in and Erik trains him to be a new assistant. Unfortunately for Erik, Julie falls in love with this unsavory character. Erik’s other assistant, the jealous Buffo, figures out what is going on and tells Erik. Soon after Buffo is found dead and Erik blames Mark, the young thief.
Though this is not really a horror film, it fits more in line with a lot of Universal’s silent output from the ‘20s that are typically categorized as horror. There are some melodramatic elements, unrequited love, and murder, making this more of a mystery with horror leanings due to Veidt’s mesmerizing performance as the magician Erik the Great. The film is also very stylish, thanks to director Paul Fejos, and is worth seeing due to its speedy space and short running time (it clocks in at almost exactly an hour). Fejos’s work here is particularly notable for including some early zoom effects which make an otherwise static film much more dynamic. After making a number of films in Hungary, Fejos travelled to the U.S. for a few years to make a handful of exceptionally lovely and stylized films for Universal and MGM, such as The Last Moment and Lonesome, a very different kind of love story with a carnival setting. Soon after he returned to Europe and made a number of well regarded films, including Spring Shower. Afterwards he began making ethnographic documentaries and ended his life with a successful career in anthropology.
This is Conrad Veidt’s last silent film for Universal before returning to Germany, though he would be back in a few years to make films in the U.K. and the U.S. due to the outbreak of WWII. Veidt completely carries the film on his shoulders and is fantastic, as usual. The young Mary Philbin is very charming and photogenic, though her character is somewhat two-dimensional (as unfortunately all her silent film characters were.) As with some other films from the end of the ‘20s, such as Paul Leni’s The Last Warning, this film was primarily shot on parts of the wonderful and very expensive set built for Phantom of the Opera.
Also known as Erik the Great, the film is available as a special feature on the excellent Criterion Lonesome release or for free on Youtube. There are actually two versions, a totally silent film, which is the one available in the Criterion release, and a semi-sound version with sound effects and some dialogue, which was typical of the transitional period between silent films and talkies. Beware that the print looks very aged, though it is worlds better than some of the unrestored silent films from Universal like The Last Warning. Recommended primarily to fans of Veidt and anyone with an interest in some of the themes Tod Browning would explore throughout his career: sideshows, performance, carnivals, etc.