Svengali 1954 ***

svengali

Yet another baffling and yet still welcome random choice from Amazon Prime, the 1954 version of Svengali arrives in a print processed in the Awful-o-vision labs, with characters and set-dressing glowing and fading mid-scene and a pervasive air of murk that’s appropriate for the subject matter of male dominance. If you’ve heard men described as Svengalis, then we’re talking about control freaks, but the Svengali features here is even freakier than that. Played by Donald Wolfit, Svengali looks like Bela Lugosi playing Fu Manchu as Genghis Khan, and his every appearance provokes mirth. Wolfit’s protrayal of Svengali feels incredibly racist, although it’s not clear which particular race should be offended. An artist of some kind, he stalks the demi-monde of turn of the 19th century Paris, with acolytes including such richly Gallic actors as Michael Craig, Harry Secombe and Are You Being Served?’s Alfie Bass. The object of Svengali’s desire is Hildegard Knef, who plays an artist’s model from Ireland, going by the splendid name Trilby O’Farrell. As often as Trilby disrobes in private, Svengali loves to tickle the ivories in public, and clears crowded night-clubs by performing the death match; his plan is to hypnotise poor Trilby and convince her she’s a world-class singer. Given Wolfit’s bizarre antics, it’s hard to see what Trilby sees in him as he mumbles about ‘the music of the spheres’ and offers such romantic blandishments as ‘Sing, you clumsy oaf!”.  It’s a shame Amazon couldn’t find a better print that this, with all kinds of marks and splatter not helping a pretty dank looking film, but the eccentric performance of Wolfit gives Svengali all the fascination of a ten car pile-up; notorious as one of Britain’s most famously self-absorbed actors, Wolfit’s huge, unhinged performance was probably visible from space, and his gleeful, scenery-chewing antics genuinely have to be seen to be believed.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade 1968 ****

charge

Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on as Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid pictures which might created today. The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with history, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vivid tableaux that say just as much about the vain-glorious mind-set of those involved that rest of the the film itself. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.