Louise Brooks

Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)

I think there’s one bad shot in Pandora’s Box. Maybe not even bad. It’s one of the standard silent one-shots, where the person is shot from low, disregarding the continuity of the scene (i.e. he or she is standing too close to another person). There’s one of those shots in the film and it’s the bad shot. It’s not even bad as compared to another film… but in Pandora’s Box, even a good shot would look bad. All of Pabst’s other shots are perfect, whether they’re somewhat standard composition or if they’re the awkwardly angled close-ups. The film’s amazing to look at.

The film’s split into two distinct sections. First, Louise Brooks ruins Fritz Kortner’s life. Second, she ruins everyone else’s. The film is oddly split into “acts,” which are really nothing of the sort. There are seven or eight of them and for the most part, they could be replaced with fade outs. But that strange choice of segmenting the film really doesn’t hurt it… Instead, Pandora’s Box is most hurt by how traditional a story it turns out to be in the end. It’s a morality story about the dangers of loose women (ignoring, strangely since the film didn’t even need to introduce it, all of Brooks’s problems can be traced to criminal parenting–something even furthered at the end, when her father sends her out on to the London streets looking for a john, just so he can have some Christmas pudding). It’s kind of strange how Pabst doesn’t stick with her, instead going with Kortner’s son, played by Francis Lederer, for the lovely close.

The performances are all great–Brooks establishes herself from her first moment on screen, so maybe a minute into the film, and she never lets up. She’s probably best during the second half, when her life has gotten complicated and difficult, but not yet impossible. Kortner is excellent too, even if his monocle makes him a little hard to take seriously. It’s enormous and takes up most of the side of his face… hard to believe the character would wear such a visibly uncomfortable eyepiece. Lederer is good as the son, though he has little to do but fall from grace. Carl Goetz and Krafft-Raschig are a great pair, funny a lot of the time, but always with the hint of evil below.

It’s a beautiful looking film, slow but rewarding through most of it. The ending falls apart, but not completely, with Pabst giving himself an elegant exit. That exit’s also strange, because he gives it to the film and not to Brooks, who made the film work.



Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst; screenplay by Ladislaus Vajda, based on plays by Frank Wedekind; director of photography, Günther Krampf; edited by Joseph Fleisler; produced by Heinz Landsmann and Seymour Nebenzal; released by Süd-Film.

Starring Louise Brooks (Lulu), Fritz Kortner (Dr. Ludwig Schön), Francis Lederer (Alwa Schön), Carl Goetz (Schigolch), Krafft-Raschig (Rodrigo Quast), Alice Roberts (Countess Anna Geschwitz), Daisy D’Ora (Dr. Schön’s Bride), Gustav Diessl (Jack the Ripper), Michael von Newlinsky (Marquis Casti-Piani) and Sig Arno (the instructor).

The Canary Murder Case (1929, Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle)

As an example of a transitional sound film–Canary Murder Case was filmed as a silent, then reconfigured as a talkie–the film’s very interesting. It’s an early talkie (1929) so there’s no sound design–there’s rarely any noise besides the talking and few sound effects, the actors aren’t ready for talking (for the most part), and the direction, even of the talkie-specific scenes, is awkward and paced for a silent film. People say their line, wait a few seconds, either for a title card or a cut, then someone else says his or her line. It’s disjointed, which surprised me, since I figured I’d just get used to it.

William Powell’s fine in the “lead,” except, while the film’s a “Philo Vance mystery,” Powell has very little to do in the film. He’s an accessory to the police and his single solo scene is a summary sequence of him up all night figuring out the solution. I too figured out the solution and had Philo Vance read more, specifically Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he wouldn’t have had to stay up all night. The only other amusing actor is Eugene Pallette, who was in the other Powell Vance film I’ve seen too, and even he’s having trouble finding his footing in the talkie atmosphere. He does have some funny moments, which is an achievement, since all the other attempts in the film fall completely flat.

As the titular canary, Louise Brooks leaves little impression. I wasn’t paying attention during the opening titles or something and, since I’ve never actually seen any of her other films, it took me a second to realize who she was when she showed up (I thought the female lead was going to be Jean Arthur, who’s a brunette in the film and barely in it). The greatest impression Brooks’s character does leave, however, is she’s a crook… and when the film’s conclusion is her murder’s justified (agreeing with what the audience already thinks), it makes the whole thing a somewhat pointless experience.

The direction, compositionally, is boring, so there’s little driving the film. Past the long set-up, which I suppose is supposed to be interesting because of Brooks’s presence, there’s almost nothing going on. It’s a very long eighty minutes, though the section where the detective decides a poker game is the best way to discover a murderer is nice and there is one excellent plot development, which in a different film (a better one) would give the characters some real angst. But not so in this one.



Directed by Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Albert S. Le Vino, Florence Ryerson and S.S. Van Dine, based on Van Dine’s novel; directors of photography, Cliff Blackstone and Harry Fischbeck; edited by William Shea; music by Karl Hajos; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Louise Brooks (Margaret Odell), Jean Arthur (Alys LaFosse), James Hall (Jimmy Spotswoode), Charles Lane (Charles Spotswoode), Eugene Pallete (Sgt. Heath), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Dr. Ambrose Lindquist), Lawrence Grant (Charles Cleaver), Ned Sparks (Tony Sheel), Louis John Bartels (Louis Mannix) and E.H. Calvert (District Attorney Markham).

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