Conrad's silent Victory

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) wrote a number of novels drawing on his early life as a Merchant Seaman in the Far East and the captain of an African riverboat. Among his best-known novels are Lord Jim (1900) and Heart of Darkness (1899), the latter providing the inspiration for the film Apocalypse Now (1979). One of the less well known novels, Victory (1915) was filmed in 1940 and 1995 , and in 1986 in German as Der Teufels Paradies; and was the subject of a 1970 opera by Richard Rodney Bennett. It was also the subject of two earlier films: a silent version made in 1919, and an early sound film made in 1930 under the title Dangerous Paradise. The National Film Theatre showed both of these yesterday evening. The 1919 film is the first filming of a Conrad novel, and the only one made in his lifetime (though it's not known whether he ever saw it).

The novel is set in the Malayan islands: a reclusive Swede, Axel Heyst, rescues a 20-year-old English girl, Alma, from a brutal German hotel owner. They hide on a remote island, Samburan, where Heyst has a retreat, but the hotel owner sends three vicious criminals (telling them that there is buried treasure on the island) to find them, with violent and tragic consequences in which Alma dies.

Dangerous Paradise was shown first: its first public showing in over 75 years and in an excellent print. It's the first sound film of a Conrad novel (though it's a very loose adaptation), but its main interest is as a film artefact - beautifully photographed and sensitively directed (by William Wellman) and with imaginative use of sound, particularly considering the primitive facilities then available. However the script is only moderately good, and most of the acting wooden - particularly Richard Arlen as Heyst; though Nancy Carroll as Alma and Gustav von Seyffertitz as the leader of the criminals give good performances within the limitations of the script.

Victory is in entirely another class: imaginatively directed by Maurice Tourneur, very well performed and with intelligent and adult intertitles (particularly so for 1919). Jack Holt is much more believable as the reclusive Heyst; Seena Owen gives a complex performance of considerable depth as Alma; and Wallace Beery - not usually a subtle actor - gives a fine performance as the hotelier, a small-time bully suddenly confronted with three dangerous criminals. One of the criminals, the knife-wielding Ricardo, is played by Lon Chaney, the finest character actor of the silent era and a master of make-up: he is entirely convincing as a cheerfully murderous villain with a lust for Alma (picture above, with Seena Owen). The print, quite good if occasionally variable quality, was loaned by the Library of Congress in Washington: and the NFT's pianist, John Sweeney, deserves a mention for his musical and sensitive accompaniment.

The film is rivetting, only coming adrift at the very end when the perceived need for a happy ending forces changes to the plot which don't ring true: though not well known it's one of the most important films of the early silent era.

[Victory is available on an American DVD, though in an inferior print and bundled with another Chaney feature: Region 1-capable DVD player required.]

Posted: Sat - November 3, 2007 at 10:06 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM