Svengali (Archie Mayo / U.S., 1931):

Svengali the maestro, the "Polish scavenger" and the lewd visionary, Svengali the John Barrymore Show. The gangling, scraggly bohemian is introduced from the back in a swirl of Chopin, he turns in profile with elongated beak and pointy beard and there you have the model for Eisensteinís Ivan the Terrible. (Citizen Kaneís ceilings and opera lesson are also visible in the opening scene.) Paris in the 1890s is an enclave of painters, singers and sculptors; mesmerism is no less an art form, Svengali uses it to lure the delectable Trilby (Marian Marsh) away from her beau, "the head of the purity brigade" (Bramwell Fletcher). George du Maurierís novel becomes a racy pre-code melodrama with dashes of horror and slapstick, shot by Archie Mayo under a Germanic shadow: The most astonishing sequence (the camera circles around the eponymous villain, then zooms out from his blank peepers and glides over Anton Grotís Gothic rooftops until it reaches the sleeping heroine) is like Murnau filming a Mabuse hallucination. Barrymore pours his Richard III and his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into this greasy rogue, at his most poignant when crumbling in self-disgust before Trilbyís hypnotized romantic declarations: "You are beautiful, my manufactured love. But it is only Svengali talking to himself again." The peculiarly affecting ode to the tragic lecher builds to an appropriately perverse onstage miracle, amour at long last materializing between the puppeteer and the marionette as the light goes out of their eyes. Hawks in Twentieth Century has the definite, irrepressible riposte. With Donald Crisp, Luis Alberni, Lumsden Hare, Carmel Meyers, and Paul Porcasi. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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