BFI Southbank, London
6 February 2022
(Warning – Contains spoilers throughout)
Nicely complementing its current, and so far excellent, season of Asta Nielsen films, the BFI picked as its Sunday afternoon silent for this month a little known Danish comedy crime drama, The Hill Park Mystery, produced by the Nordisk Film Company in 1923 and directed by A W Sandberg.
The film opens in the editorial offices of the ‘Daily Wire’ newspaper, where everyone is eagerly awaiting the arrival of ace reporter Jimmie Brand (Gorm Schmidt). At the last minute an exhausted Brand arrives with the story that he has cracked the Vibeleje murder case. As the paper goes to press the worn-out Jimmie collapses, his nerves shattered and the editor tells him to take two weeks leave to recover.
While relaxing later in his apartment Jimmie happens to look out of the window and witnesses the murder of a man by an attractive woman. However, when he races outside the woman and the body are gone. When he tries to report a murder to the police they do not take him seriously and he declares he will solve the crime himself.
But first he visits his friend, Detective Williams, who has promised him a holiday of ‘sun, sand and girls’. On the beach, Williams introduces Jimmie to Joan Trent (Olga Belajeff), the daughter of the Home Secretary, and Jimmie is shocked to see it is the same woman he saw commit the murder. But he is also immediately attracted to her. Later, Jimmie learns that a Russian prince has also been attacked by a woman, in a similar fashion to the murder he witnessed. Spying on Joan Trent, he sees her in distress and discovers that she has been told to commit another murder at 5 o’clock the next day. Following her, he sees her meet a gentleman who she says she is ruining her life for.
Early next morning, Joan departs and Jimmie follows, but she manages to give him the slip. Not to outdone, Jimmie uses a railway handcart to get to Copenhagen ahead of her (albeit not without incident!). Listening in to Joan make a phone call, he hears her make an appointment with a notorious loan shark. Following her to the loan shark he sees her hand over money in return for an envelope. But when the loan shark attacks Joan he bursts in to save her. Thanking him, she leaves.
Later, Jimmie visits Detective Williams to discover he is about to arrest the woman responsible for attacking the Russian prince. Meeting with Joan again, Jimmie professes his love for her and says he will take the blame for what she has done. But when he tells Detective Williams that it was he who attacked the Russian prince, Williams replies that the prince’s wife has already confessed.
The following day, the Home Secretary visits his daughter. He asks Joan where her brother is and she goes to fetch him. Her brother turns out to be the same gentleman she met earlier. Meanwhile, Jimmie is told by his editor to interview the Home Secretary but this doesn’t go well and he tells the Home Secretary his daughter is a criminal, asking him to forgive her. Overhearing but misunderstanding Joan’s confession to her father Jimmie then encounters ‘the gentleman’ outside her room and, accusing him of being responsible for Joan’s criminal activity, a fight breaks out. Eventually, the Home Secretary breaks up the fight and the truth comes out. Joan reveals that it was her brother who had borrowed money from the loan shark and that she had been acting in moving pictures to pay off his debts. The ‘murder’ that Jimmie witnessed was just a movie scene being acted out.
The Home Secretary is appalled that the family name will appear on movie posters. But Jimmie has the solution, for Joan to become Mrs Brand!
Right from its opening inter-title, “An Odd Story In 5 Chapters”, The Hill Park Mystery is a charming and at times laugh-out-loud funny comedy crime thriller, made at the tail end of what was probably the first golden era of Danish film-making, The original Danish title, Nedbrudte Nerver or Shattered Nerves, is probably a more apt title for the film, revolving as it does around the shattered nerves of ace crime reporter Jimmie Brand. There’s just a faint whiff of Blow Up (1966) with the ‘has he or hasn’t he’ just witnessed a murder or is it just the strain of Jimmie’s job getting to him.
The film’s plot was, for its time, innovative and fairly original, but enjoyment comes at least as much from its various comic asides, such as Jimmie’s misdirected phone call to a stuttering pet-shop owner or his inability to report a crime to the police because he was improperly dressed. Meanwhile his detour via a railway handcar was every bit as funny as Buster Keaton’s efforts with the same prop in The General (1926). Then there was the superb interplay between Jimmie and Joan, he suspecting her of one crime and she trying to conceal something else entirely and all the while his fear that he could be her next victim.
Much credit for the film’s humour must go to screen-writer, Laurids Skands. The inter-titles are beautifully written, often in an hilariously deadpan manner and at one point even break the fourth wall with an interplay with the audience. Skands was a prolific screen-writer for Nordisk Film until his premature death in 1934.
Gorm Schmidt (Press photo, right) was excellent as reporter Jimmie Brands, never quite sure of whether he could believe what he was seeing or if it was the stress of the job getting to him. I spent the whole film trying to think who he reminded me of but eventually came to the conclusion that he was simply an amalgam of all the hard-bitten crime reporters who would crop up in Hollywood movies for the next forty years. Danish born Schmidt was another long term Nordisk Film player, appearing in films such as David Copperfield (1922) and Kobenhavns Sherlock Holmes (1925) but his career does not appear to have survived the arrival of sound films.
While Schmidt may have been the comedy lead, Olga Belajeff (but credited here as Olga d’Org) was more the straight foil as Joan Trent. But she was perfectly suited to this role, having made her name in serious melodrama. Apparently born in Russia in 1900, Belajeff made several films in Italy before moving to Nordisk Film. Her first appearance for them was playing Estella in Great Expectations (1922), also directed by A W Sandberg. But soon after The Hill Park Mystery she moved to Germany where she appeared in films alongside the likes of Lya De Putti, Anita Berber and Reinhold Schunzel. She also had three roles in Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924). But she too failed to make the transition to sound films and nothing more is known of her other than that she died in 1976 in the USA.
Director Anders Wilhelm Sandberg started out as a journalist but joined Nordisk Film in 1914. His big breakthrough came with The Clown (1916) starring Valdemar Psilander, then a huge international star but now completely forgotten (and who died before the film’s release). Sandberg then moved on to a successful series of Dickens adaptions as well as historical melodramas. He took on a directorial oversight role at Nordisk but also made a number of films himself in Germany and France in the late 1920s before returning to Denmark to direct several talkies before his death in 1938.
Add in a short but beautifully tinted dream (or nightmare!) sequence plus a quaint stop frame animated marionettes episode which caused Jimmie to further question his sanity and what more was there not to like in this film. There was also the lovely in-joke finale, with Joan’s politician father able to cope with the shame of his son’s frequenting loan sharks but not his daughter becoming involved with…..moving pictures!
Mention must also be made of the stunning quality of the digital reproduction, apparently taken from the original 35mm camera negative. It looked like it could have been filmed yesterday rather than a hundred years ago.
Live musical accompaniment for the film came from Stephen Horne. Lacking his more normal one man ensemble of flute, accordion and violin, Mr Horne performed this afternoon solely on piano which led me to suspect he may not have previously seen the film. Whatever the case, the accompaniment was to his usual sublime standard, only adding to the enjoyment of this already excellent film.
The Hill Park Mystery is available to watch (for free) on the Danish Film Institute’s website here (along with a whole host of other excellent Danish silents) I can’t recommend the film or the website enough.