Current conventions in the depiction of "realism" and in acting styles are not the only effective ones. Take Svengali, for example.
Some may find the acting arch and the pacing dull at times, but I was mesmerised by this bizarre, potent and surprisingly affecting Expressionist visualisation of George Du Maurier's 19th century novel, Trilby. The film has an unexpected power to it, an almost surrealistic intensity that grabbed me quickly, well before I'd had time to dismiss the film as old and dated. A 1930s melodrama without a doubt, it nevertheless transcends its melodramatic style through the scope of its acting and its imaginative visual realisation of a distorted emotional consciousness.
Whatever the intentions of the original novel, Svengali is better seen as a dramatic film that utilises elements of the emerging horror film genre, rather than as a straightforward horror film. It is, however, easy to see it in a more generic light. For example, the first clear hint of a "supernatural" undercurrent is a famous scene in which Svengali, having established a hypnotic link with a beautiful artist's model (Marian March, who gives an excellent and appealing performance) while ridding her of a headache -- and in the meantime establishing that the shape of her mouth offers the potential for her to be a great singer -- sends out his power to draw her physically to himself.
The sequence opens with Svengali, at night in his room, standing staring across the darkened city. The camera is behind him, so that we see only his back. Light and shadows are used to emphasise the sinister nature of the moment, and to give him, for the first time in the film, the sort of evil ambiance worthy of a Dracula figure. The following scene is a technical tour de force. The camera swings around Svengali's motionless form, until we are looking into his face; his eyes are opaque, sign that his power is at work. We are then drawn outwards away from him, as the camera moves through the shut window and over his balcony. Svengali's figure, seen in the dimly lit room outlined by the frame of the louvre doors, rapidly recedes. The camera then swings away, swooping across a German Expressionist cityscape, its roofs and houses bent and distorted into an organic nightmare world reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Eventually the camera focusses in on another window, sweeps into the room beyond and swings around to reveal Trilby, asleep in her bed, surrounded by shadows. Suddenly she sits up...
This sequence, with its apparently seamless movement around Svengali's room, out through closed window, across the model/painted cityscape and into Trilby's distant apartment, gives a memorable centre to the film, and stays in the viewer's mind throughout the rest of it -- creating a spectacularly powerful undercurrent of meaning by which Svengali's actions -- and Trilby's -- can be judged. Almost alone, these few minutes define the film as "horror".
But to thus define it too narrowly would be a mistake.
One of the most arresting aspects of the film is its chameleon-like tonal structure: it is by turns light, dark, comedic, melodramatic, sinister. In the first scene, for example, we see Svengali -- a music teacher -- receiving one of his pupils, a society woman who is clearly enraptured with him. He greets her charmingly and with considerable humour. But then she reveals that she's left her husband -- and without a penny -- to be with Svengali. Aghast, he rejects her. We subsequently discover that she commits suicide. Svengali is revealed as a heartless scoundrel with manipulative and exploitative intent -- but worse, there is a hint that he is the one responsible for the woman's death, an amoral opportunist with a frightening hypnotic power.
Several humorous scenes follow, particularly one that is not in the book, in which two British artists (from whom Svengali is trying to scrounge money), strip him and dump him in a bath. However, he turns the tables on them -- and ends up with their money and their clothes. In these scenes Svengali is funny and likeable. Throughout, in fact, Barrymore plays the Great Manipulator as witty, intelligent and capable of charm -- despite his generally dishevelled appearance and bizarre beard -- and despite the fact we are constantly aware of his dark, hypnotic abilities and his willingness to use them to his own ends. He is self-centred and dangerous, as well as funny and charming, which makes him all the more fascinating.
When Warners first approached Barrymore about adapting Trilby to film, the actor apparently cabled the following advice:
"Impress the writer with the fact that the male character [Svengali] must be funny and get lots of laughs, particularly in the first part of the story. Although a sinister figure, he is a wise, dirty, glutinous Polish Jew, with no conscience and a supreme contempt for all those nice, clean, straight-thinking English Christians. He has an enormous sense of humor. The funnier he is, in the proper way, the better the picture will be, and the greater contrast to all the sinister part, hypnotism, etc., in the last part of the picture…"
Sourced from John Barrymore.co.uk
This complex approach to Svengali's characterisation goes some way to explaining the power of the film. Barrymore's control is a triumph, no matter if his manner becomes a little melodramatic; he does nothing to make his Svengali visually attractive or to sugarcoat his motives, yet he is never simply a villain. Svengali comes over as a complex human being, not a Fu Manchu-like villian. Potential anti-Semitic attitudes (as suggested in Barrymore's description above) are minimised. In fact, on first viewing it didn't even occur to me that there might be any such element. Always, Svengali is Svengali, not a racial archetype. When his race is mentioned, it is as a Pole, not a Jew.
In a scene toward the end, we are given a particularly poignant insight into Svengali's character. It occurs after the music teacher has used his powers to make the beautiful Trilby into a famous opera singer (as well as his wife); both have benefited from this, as fame has made them rich and feted by the cultural upper classes.
After an exchange in which Svengali acknowledges that Trilby has done everything she can to repay his "kindness" to her -- everything except give him the one thing he truly wants -- and Trilby says that she has tried to love him but cannot, the following scene takes place.
S: (dragging her up to eye level): Look at me! In the eyes!
(She does. There is a long moment of intense staring. Svengali's eyes take on the opaque look that always attends the use of his powers. Finally her eyes close and he lowers her to the bed.)
S: Open your eyes.
(We get a close view of her face, her expression neutral. Her eyes open. She looks up, straight at the camera/viewer, who is momentarily seeing her from Svengali's point-of-view. Her grim neutrality becomes an intense smile, wide-eyed and joyous. She draws closer.)
T: Oh, I do love you.
(They kiss, Trilby's manner full of passion. After a moment, though, Svengali pushes her down. He is admitting what we have already seen.)
S: Ah, close your eyes!
T: I –
S: Don't say it! (He studies her face for a moment.) You are beautiful, my manufactured love. But it is only Svengali talking to himself again.
There is great power in this beautifully orchestrated moment, and here, if not already, the viewer ceases to be able to see Svengali in a simplistic light. There is vulnerability in the moment, futile human longing, and despair. We suddenly realise that the sadness has been stewing throughout Barrymore's performance, even in moments of casual humour. Svengali is a man whose power can give him everything, yet nothing of real value. He is not evil; he is simply empty.
For me there is something in the non-naturalistic aestheticism of the film that allows the audience to experience the full direct intensity of its theme. This artificiality has a psychological directness that the pseudo-realism of modern film often lacks. Patronising old films such as this is easy, particularly as representational conventions have changed – and subtleties can be lost under perceived hamminess or outmoded technical mannerisms. But difference should not be interpreted as ineptitude, neither in foreign films that reflect non-Western cultural aesthetics, nor here. Svengali is a powerful and effective film, with one of the great screen performances from Barrymore.