Written and directed by Louis Feuillade, in its current abbreviated form running nearly seven hours, Les Vampires influenced the future architects of surrealism (Aragon, Breton, Eluard), Fritz Lang, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Marcel Carné, Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Olivier Assayas. (The original Mabuse serial, 1922; two emissaries’ walk through guests at a ball frozen mid-step on the dance floor in Les visiteurs du soir, 1942; the Cat Burglar in To Catch a Thief, 1955: much derives from Feuillade’s film.) Blending airy naturalism and dark though entrancing intrigues bordering on fantasy, the ten-part serial finds contemporary Paris in the grip of a devilishly clever criminal gang led by The Grand Vampire and an eternally black silk-tighted Irma Vep (an anagram for vampire). Identities shift, as in a dream. The viewer appreciates the law (and their adjunct, a reporter investigating the crimes) but nonetheless holds dear the rogues, who oppose bourgeois literalism and sentimentalism. This is an intoxicating film—one that pirouettes off the murder of a Russian ballerina.
Shadows, kidnappings, killings, theft, chases, battles of wit—all this is here; but there are also ghostly imagery and set-pieces. In dusky daylight, her impossibly graceful figure-in-black stealthily making its way across a rooftop, Irma Vep is her own shadow—at once, reality and dream, charm and threat, athletic appearance and close-to-dissolving illusion. Aristocratic guests, gassed (“a delicate perfume floated through the ballrooms” at midnight), try desperately to exit a grand room, which they find impossible to do; slumped on sofas and in chairs, as fixed as the furniture, they are robbed by the gang, which weave around them in a radiant inadvertent mockery of their minutes-earlier turns on the dance floor: one of cinema’s greatest passages.
The French love “their” Poe—and the Vampires have once again escaped!
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