Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Karl Freund really was a master with a camera. His cinematography is why the Bela Lugosi DRACULA is still remembered today. It holds up pretty badly on just about every other count but damn, is it pretty to look at. Some extraordinary atmosphere. I've always suspected Freund was battling director Tod Browning over that one. I haven't sampled enough of Browning's silent output, but in his sound pictures, he's terribly uninspiring, employing bland staging, and I always get the impression that, if he had the choice, he'd bolt the camera in place and never move it an inch in any direction. Freund, as cinematographer, is the one who made DRACULA work, and the next year, he hauled his substantial bulk into the director's chair himself with THE MUMMY, taking a similar story by the same writing team and brought to life by some of the same cast and upstaging the much-better-known DRACULA in pretty much every way.
Though it's often regarded as one of the lesser Universal horrors of that era, I've long held that THE MUMMY is, in fact, one of the crown jewels of that extraordinary run of films. It goes about its business much more subtly than some of the more highly regarded films in the cycle but it works. Boy, does it work.
The "mummy" Imhotep, or "Ardeth Bey," as he calls himself after his resurrection, is easily one of Boris Karloff's best parts. I'm surprised it isn't more widely remembered as such. Boris is always revered for FRANKENSTEIN but, one suspects, that's mostly because it was so wildly successful. Though the Frankenstein tales were great and the part physically taxing, the role just wasn't that challenging as acting jobs go. Perhaps Imhotep isn't so terribly challenging either--one could make the case that a lot of what Karloff is able to project through the part is a product of the director--but it leaves a remarkable impression. The part strips Karloff down to his strengths--his eyes, his face, his voice. The resurrected Imhotep is a tall, frail, dried-up husk of a man who moves slowly and stiffly and, one suspects, would crumble to dust under any real physical trauma but Karloff, playing from his strengths, imbues the character with a remarkable presence. He's always the baddest dude in any room.
While it's demonstrably unwise to get in Imhotep's way, he isn't really a villain. His story is, instead, a grand tale of love spanning millenia and transcending death itself. Imhotep is an ancient Egyptian priest whose love for a princess leads him to defy the gods themselves in an effort to restore his love to life. He pays a terrible price for his blasphemy but, resurrected in the present, remains defiant and continues his efforts. He's a very passionate, driven fellow who is terribly, obsessively, single-mindedly in love and though the gods in the movie judge him harshly, I can't. I find him a glorious notion. I love it that he goes through so much hell and remains totally unrepentant.
Zita Johann is quite good as the sharp-dressing modern-day vessel of the reincarnated soul of the princess. Edward van Sloan is on hand to deliver his usual Learned Fellow Who Becomes All Christianly Righteous in the Face of Monsters, a routine he admirably reproduced in several of the early Universal horrors. Arthur Byron provides him with a solid foil and David Manners gets the unenviable job of token Young Male Hero, who, in THE MUMMY, is essentially a non-entity. I get a kick out of the fact that Karloff warns Zita Johann against the love she has creeping into her heart for Manners. Typical of Hollywood at that time (when such conventions were obligatory), their "love" was a stupid plot contrivance, formed in mere minutes. I like to look upon Imhotep's remarks on the subject as a metatextual commentary on that convention. The movie makes it easy to read it that way; though the filmmakers included this inane subplot, they didn't make this contrived "love" the reason Zita wanted to live at the end--her concerns are, instead, entirely self-centered.
Jack Pierce, Universal's master monster-maker who designed some of the most iconic make-ups ever to grace the silver screen, turns in the greatest single work of his career in the initially-resurrected Imhotep. It's on the screen for, cumulatively, less than a minute in the opening act but it's Pierce's finest hour, no doubt about it (and must have been pure hell for Karloff). His later "Ardeth Bey" make-up doesn't rise to that height but it more than gets the job done.
As with most Universal horrors, particularly those involving Freund, the movie is creepy atmosphere from beginning to end, a masterful use of light and shadow, and probably a good place to start if trying to instill some appreciation of black & white in a foo... er... skeptic of the format. Karloff's eyes, lit just a little brighter than his surroundings and shot with his head at a slight downward tilt, practically burn through the screen. The effect is so impressive, Freund uses the footage of it more than once.
It's always hard to write about acknowledged classics, particularly one so long-lived as THE MUMMY. It's been with us since 1932 and when a flick hangs around that long, what can you say that hasn't already been said a million times and usually better than you could ever say it? Still, I love THE MUMMY. In recent years, I've fallen to watching it on a pretty regular basis. It's become one of my favorites. I can't help but want to write about it, even if I don't have anything new or even interesting to say. I love it and, in some little way, just wanted to say so. Sue me.