Monte Cristo (1929)

BFI Southbank, London

                                                                 4 June 2017

This afternoon saw us settling down at the BFI Southbank for a screening of Monte Cristo (1929), another hefty instalment in the work of French director Henri Fescourt.  Back in April of this year we were privileged to see at the Barbican the first ever showing in the UK of the full-length version of Fescourt’s epic version of Les Misérables (1925), all eight hours of it (reviewed here).  Today’s screening, of Fescourt’s adaption of the Alexandre Dumas novel would not be quite such a marathon, coming in at a mere four hours.  But Monte Cristo’s reputation is such that it was likely to be an equally enjoyable film experience. 

The film opens with the return of sailor and first mate Edmond Dantes (Jean Angelo) to Marseilles aboard the sailing ship ‘Pharaon’ (left).  Having taken over after the death of the ship’s captain, Dantes is now confirmed in that position by ship-owner Monsieur Morrel (Ernest Maupin). But this promotion incites the jealousy of his ship-mate Caderousse (Henri Debain).   Dantes goes to see his fiancé Mercedes (Lil Dagover, right) to plan their wedding.  This inflames Mercedes’ cousin Fernand Mondego (Gaston Modot) who is a rival for her affections. 

Over a drink, Caderousse tells Mondego of an unscheduled stop Dantes made to the island of Elba (where the former Emperor Napoleon is imprisoned) during their voyage and Mondego passes this information on anonymously to the authorities.  At Dantes and Mercedes’ wedding, officials burst in and Dantes is arrested as a Bonapartist.  Interrogated by prosecutor Villefort (Jean Toulout), Dantes reveals that before his death, the Pharaon’s captain bade him collect a letter from Elba and deliver it to a man known as Noirtier in Paris.  Villefort realises to himself that Noirtier is his own father, a Bonapartist sympathiser,  so tells Dantes that he will destroy the letter (thereby proteting his father) and Dantes will be free to go but instead, to silence Dantès, he secretly condemns him to life imprisonment in the Château d’If prison (left).

After years of Dantes’ absence, Mercedes eventually marries Mondego who then travels abroad as a mercenary.  In the pay of a Greek village fighting off Turkish bandits, he secretly betrays his employers to the Turks.  As a result, the Greek village leader is executed and his daughter Haydee (Tamara Stezenko) sold into slavery.  Mondego returns to France a rich man and now the Comte de Morcerf.  Villefort meanwhile has become a senior prosecutor in Paris. While secretly trying to dispose of a baby, the product of an illicit affair, he is discovered.  Although he escapes, the baby is saved and is eventually brought up by Caderousse and his wife and named Benedetto (Robert Merin).   

Meanwhile, back in his Château d’If prison Dantes eventually befriends another prisoner, L’abbe Faria (Bernhard Goetzke) and learns from him the whereabouts of a vast buried treasure.  When Faria dies, Dantes escapes by wrapping himself in the dead man’s shroud.  He discovers the treasure on the deserted island of Monte Cristo (right) and returns to Paris fabulously wealthy, disguised as the ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ and determined for revenge. 

His gift of a valuable jewel to Caderousse and his family lead them to murder and jail.  He then befriends Mondego’s son to use him as a means of gaining access to fashionable society and becoming better acquainted with Mondego himself.  Gradually releasing details of Mondego’s betrayal of the Greeks, Monte Cristo eventually produces Haydee (below right) who he has brought out of slavery and Mondego’s reputation is destroyed.  With his wife and son deserting him Mondego commits suicide.    

Having engineered Benedetto’s escape from prison, Monte Cristo now forces him to act the rich dandy in order to seduce and marry Villefort’s daughter.  When Benedetto is recaptured and revealed to be a charlatan, the outraged Villefort decides to attend his trial.  But in court Monte Cristo (left)  reveals that Benedetto is in fact Villefort’s illegitimate child who he had sought to kill.  With his mind already reeling from this shock, the discredited Villefort is driven to insanity when Dantes reveals his true self.    

The film ends with Mercedes and her son living with the family of the ship owner Morrel,  whom Dantes had earlier saved from bankruptcy out of kindness for his taking care of Dantes’ father in his absence, including Morrel’s son and his new wife, Villefort’s daughter.  Dantes himself returns to his palace on the island of Monte Cristo taking with him his new bride, Haydee. 

Although director Fescourt’s version of Monte Cristo presented a somewhat simplified version of Dumas’ story (having authored, as usual, his own screenplay), the above outline does itself capture only the barest threads of what remains a complex and multi-faceted plot.  But with a slimmed down storyline and a near four hour running time Fescourt had ample time to encapsulate and depict the very essence of Dumas’s novel, not only in its drama and scale and the constantly changing fortunes of its characters but also in its portrayal of their evolving attitudes to one another. 

While we may perhaps naturally empathise with Dantes in the first half of the film following his false incarceration, once he has escaped in the second half and is consumed with a craving for revenge, this creates an almost anti-hero, determined to bring down not just the men responsible for his imprisonment but all those around them, be they wives, sons or daughters.  Even the son of the kindly ship-owner who Dantes had earlier helped looked set to suffer, with his love for Villefort’s daughter likely to be a casualty of Dantes’ plan to get Benedetto to seduce her.  And yet for all his villainous intent, the scripting and direction from Fescourt and the performance of Jean Angelo meant that Dantes continued to elicit our sympathy, particularly as he himself gradually came to question whether his revenge had gone too far.  However, the finale in which he brings the various blameless family members together in something of a ‘happy families’ situation did strain credibility just a little. 

And this distinction between the first and second half of the film is echoed in a number of other aspects.  The first half is very much an adventure film, with Dantes’ return from the sea, his arrest, incarceration, daring escape and search for the treasure.  In contrast, the second half is much more carefully paced.  In place of thrills we have gradually escalating tension and melodrama.  While the first half made stunning use of location shooting, with the arrival of the sailing ship in Marseilles and actual filming on the Château d’If island prison being particular highlights, the largely Paris-focused second half was mainly studio based, with a series of increasingly grand set pieces, each sumptuously designed and decorated.  While Dantes’s Arab-themed palace on Monte Cristo island (above left) may have looked just a tad over the top, it was certainly visually stunning.  Equally impressive was the set of his Parisian residence  (above right) where Mondego is humiliated.  Built on an enormous scale, the matt-ing between actual set and painted backdrop was just seamless.  Then there was the evening at the opera (left), where Monte Cristo makes his grand entrance.  I was caught in two minds as to whether this was an actual opera house or a studio set, deciding eventually on the latter, but it was again built on a vast scale.  Particularly striking were the chandeliers as they were raised into the ceiling as the performance began.  But even the more intimate scenes were often shot on an impressive scale, for example the shooting gallery (right) where Dantes practised for his forthcoming duel, although once again the transition from set to painted backdrop was seamless.  Not to be outdone by the sheer scale of these sets, Fescourt populates them with a cast if not perhaps of thousands then certainly of many hundreds, beautifully costumed and skilfully choreographed.   

What also impressed throughout the film was the camera work.  Much has been made of the scene in which Dantes, concealed in the dead man’s shroud, is swung back and forwards before being tossed into the sea and how the camera dramatically follows this to and fro movement.  But equally impressive is his earlier failed escape attempt, with the camera following him as he races up the darkened interior of the jail and then, as he bursts out onto the roof, both he and us watching are almost blinded by the sudden intense sunshine.  Similarly, the wonderful panning shot around the opera house is used to considerable dramatic effect, serving to heighten the tension of the anticipated first appearance of the Count. But a similar shot earlier in the film as Dantes and Mercedes enjoy the flamenco evening together is equally effective in conveying the gaiety and informality of that evening. 

Amongst the cast, Jean Angelo as Dantes (right) excels.  Apparently chosen to play the same role in an earlier adaption of film in 1914, that production was interrupted by the outbreak of war and when shooting resumed in 1916 another actor replaced Angelo who had by then been conscripted.  But a more mature and professionally vastly more experienced Angelo now produced what is claimed by some to be the definitive performance in this role, providing Dantes with a quiet dignity and yet a ruthless determination to gain his revenge.  Angelo was an early star of French cinema, making his first appearance in The Assassination of the Duke de Guise (André Calmettes, Charles Le Bargy, 1908). He went on to appear in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Albert Capellani, 1911) and a serial The Mysteries of Paris (Albert Capellani, 1911).  In 1917 during wartime service he appeared in the war propaganda film Mothers of France (René Hervil, Louis Mercanton, 1917), starring Sarah Bernhardt.  In the 1920s Angelo became a superstar of French silent cinema with leading roles in films such as The Adventures of Robert Macaire (Jean Epstein, 1925) and Nana (Jean Renoir, 1926).  Although he appeared to find the transition to sound difficult he continued to make films until his early death in 1933 from pneumonia, contracted during filming of Colomba (Jacques Séverac, 1933).

Lil Dagovar was also excellent as Mercedes (left), particularly in conveying the conflicted emotions when she learns not only that Dantes is still alive but also of the true character of her husband Mondego. Dagover was a true grande dame of the cinema.  Born Maria Antonia Siegelinde Martha Lilitt Seubert in 1887 in the Dutch East Indies and orphaned at age eight, she made her film debut in 1913.  After parts in a couple of Fritz Lang films, The Spiders and Harakiri, both in 1919 she shot to fame as the heroine in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920).  Further starring roles followed in Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921), Dr Mabuse: The Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922) and The Phantom (F W Murnau, 1922).  Dagover made a successful transition to sound films in the 1930s and, despite reputedly being one of Adolf Hitler’s favourite actresses, she steered an apolitical course in German films made during the Second World War.  After the war, she continued her film career but moved increasingly into German TV work.  Her last acting role before retirement was in Tales from the Vienna Woods (Maximilian Schell, 1979) and she died in 1980, aged 92. 

Jean Toulout was excellent, as sinister playing Villefort in this film as he was portraying Javert in Fescourt’s earlier Les Miserables (1925).  Also deserving of mention were Henri Debain as Caderousse, his wife, La Carconte, Germaine Kerjean and Robert Mérin as Benedetto, if only for the incredible scene in which the latter two brow-beat Caderousse into murdering the jeweller (right). Without a single word being spoken, not an inter-title visible, their intent is patently clear simply through their looks, stares and physical presence and Caderousse visibly wilts under this intense psycholigical pressure. 

Although Debain and Mérin are clearly used by Fescourt to inject a little black humour into parts of the film the funniest moment comes perhaps unintentionally (as, for example, it does in Nosferatu (1922) when the vampire Count Orlok says on first seeing heroine Ellen Hutter, ‘What a beautiful neck you have!’) when Dantes’ fellow prisoner Faria, having spent years digging an escape tunnel only for it to emerge in Dantes’ own cell, says “Curses, I expected to be out by now”.  There was also a certain amusement to be gained in the somewhat paper-thin disguise used by Dantes to appear as the Count of Monte Cristo.  At the end of the courtroom scene, for example, the count has only to change his jacket for everyone suddenly to recognise him as Dantes.  Oh, how the innocence and simplicity of silent film never fails to make me smile!

As for director Fescourt, Monte Cristo marked the culmination of a series of films based upon classic French novels.  Although successful at the time of its release, Monte Cristo never achieved the long-standing reputation of greatness accorded to Les Misérables and the film quickly disappeared from view.  Long thought lost, it was re-assembled from a number of partial versions held in Russian and German archives.  Having now seen the restored versions of both Les Misérables and Monte Cristo I have to say that there is little to choose between them in terms of quality, both are equally superb in content and appearance and together they cement Fescourt’s position as one of the finest (if still glaringly underappreciated) of silent film directors. 

This afternoon’s screening was superbly complemented by piano accompaniment from Costas Fotopoulos.