Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 1, 2009: Psychobabble recommends ‘Svengali’

Will someone please tell me why I've only now seen Archie Mayo's Svengali for the first time? While its status as a horror film is debatable (it's more like a comedic, romantic, creepy thriller), Svengali still stands strong alongside 1931's other films that owe great debts to nineteenth century fiction and German Expressionism (namely Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). The hypnotist/nefarious vocal coach Svengali is not a monster in any traditional sense, but his sinister yet sympathetic persona puts him in the same category as such classically conflicted heavies as the Wolf Man and Jekyll/Hyde. As wickedly manipulative as Svengali is (hence his name's place in the vernacular), he is far more sympathetic than the jerks who are constantly jeering him about his poor hygiene. Still the close-ups of his milky, mesmeric eyes are chilling, and the distorted, expressionistic sets are magnificent-- the scene in which a miniature village links Svengali's gaze with Trilby, the woman he wishes to possess, is as artfully crafted as any I've ever seen. As Svengali, John Barrymore brings rare complexity to a character that could have easily been played as a two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. Even the finest horror films of the 1930s have a tendency to conclude in slap-dash fashion, but Svengali's denouement is both unexpected and completely satisfying... a genuine classic through and through.
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