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Classic Film Review: 'The Face at the Window' (1939) Part One

By Edited Feb 13, 2015 0 0

Like Lambs to the Slaughter...

Theater is often associated with the classics, scholarly texts written by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, or modern masters of the stage such as Beckett or Ibsen. For centuries however, theater existed for the common person. It’s a word used in less than flattering terms now, but for most of the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, the most popular form of theater was the melodrama. The Face at the Window is a ripe example of this genre.

Melodramatic plays were the stage equivalent of the Victorian penny dreadful and often

The Battle of Bosworth Field

based upon around infamous crimes or murders. Popular subjects for British melodramas included Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, the grave robbers Burke & Hare and the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, a demonic figure said to prowl the streets of Victorian London. Such figures were well known to audiences of the time, who flocked to the cheaper theaters of the big industrial cities for their entertainment, uninterested in fine art, or moral lessons beyond the customary triumph of good over evil.

'Borrowing' old stories in this way was far from a new practice. Shakespeare drew in the crowds by basing many of his plays on stories already popular with audiences, such as famous battles, and the great heroes of history, including the past kings of England. The witches in Macbeth (c. 1600) are a good example of melodramatic figures in a ‘highbrow’ play; supernatural characters were always popular with the ‘groundlings,’ those who stood in the cheapest part of the theater. For a penny, the groundlings stood by the front of the stage and enjoyed battle scenes, cheered Falstaff, and laughed at comic characters such as Macbeth's drunken porter, with his lecherous jokes about the effects of alcohol.    

Over time, theater became more rarefied, with plays aimed for more specific audiences. Working-class audiences typically preferred action, high emotion, and virtuous heroes overcoming crises to win the heart of the leading lady. Such plays became known as melodramas for their improbable events, overwrought characterization and larger-than-life villains, for in melodrama, the villain is the most important character, with his foul deeds the play’s main subject, no matter how unlikely his motivations. Realism counted for nothing; those attending the plays had more than enough of grim reality outside the theater.

Stage melodramas waned thanks to cinema and serial adventures such as The Perils of Pauline (1914), but remained popular enough to fill British theaters with audiences interested in nothing more than a good night out. From the 1920s, one actor became synonymous with the melodrama, and he toured Britain for the best part of half of a century playing his most famous roles. Born in England in 1885, Tod Slaughter took to the stage aged twenty and took it by the throat. Slaughter became famous, or indeed infamous, for his full-blooded, overpowering performances in plays like The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn (based on a real life murder case in 1827); Treasure Island (as Long John Silver); and Jack Sheppard (a thief who escaped prison four times and remained a hero to working-class Londoners long after his hanging in 1724).

Several of Slaughter’s most notable plays saw film adaptations during the 1930s, all directed by George King for British Lion Studios, and The Face At The Window remains one of the more watchable examples for modern audiences. Along with Slaughter’s well-to-do yet utterly immoral villain, The Face At The Window features traditional melodramatic motifs such as the star-crossed lovers, an aging parent, overblown seductions and bizarre events, in this case a suspected werewolf, and a professor who can bring the dead to life.

Notre Dame
The Face At The Window begins with a rolling title card explaining just how much we’re going to enjoy the film ahead, as it’s of the sort “dear to the hearts of all who love to shudder and laugh.” Our setting is Paris of the 1880s, when all France lives in fear of ‘The Wolf,’ a killer so-called for the lupine cry heard before each murder. One man who hears the cry and lives is bank clerk Lucien Cortier (John Warwick), who rushes to the aid of a not so fortunate colleague, Michel. Dying of his injuries, Michel mutters “the face at the window.”  

Later, at the home of the bank’s elderly owner, de Brisson (Aubrey Mallalieu), Inspector Goffert (Robert Adair) names Cartier as chief suspect for both the murder and subsequent robbery, on the grounds that Cartier was quite near when it happened, and is a bit lower class, suitable reasoning for a police officer who resembles a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons. As Cartier vows to clear his name, De Brisson and daughter Cecile worry at the theft of the gold; the bank’s future is at risk without this collateral. A potential backer, the wealthy Chevalier Lucio del Gardo (Tod Slaughter) arrives to discuss a partnership in the business to save the bank.

Del Gardo overhears Cecile and Cartier talking; the couple are in love, but cannot marry due to de Brisson’s disapproval at Cartier’s lowly social standing. However, the banker has told Cartier he “can name his reward” if he solves the case of the robbery, and the couple see their chance for happiness. Del Gardo also has plans for Cecile, and after Cartier departs to seek the help of his friend Professor LeBlanc, he pours forth with florid declarations of love (the florid declaration is the main method of communication in melodramas). Slaughter, as Del Gardo, looks like a sweating stuffed bear held together with hairpieces and surgical supports, and with his voice like a lake of amontillado, is suitably loathsome as he attempts to overwhelm the fragile Cecile (Marjorie Walker, who starred in three other Slaughter melodramas).

During the business meeting, Del Gardo agrees to invest his gold in the bank, but only if de Brisson accedes to his wish of marrying Cecile. De Brisson dislikes the age difference between the two, and the idea of a blackmailing grampus as a son-in-law, but permits Del Gardo to discuss the matter with Cecile. Again, Del Gardo plies Cecile with an onslaught of not insubstantial sweet nothings and almost breaks her back with a swooning kiss. Cecile hobbles away, declaring she loves another, less gigantic, man. 

Across town, Cartier watches as Professor LeBlanc (Wallace Evennett) demonstrates his latest experiment, whereby sending electrical impulses through the muscles of a dead rabbit makes the animal’s paw twitch. Luigi Galvani made this discovery in 1780, but sensibly didn't jump to LeBlanc's conclusion that electricity can briefly revive a corpse to complete its last action. “And they called me mad!” declares the mad professor, whose mad intention is to use the mad method on the next victim of The Wolf, to uncover his identity. Take a note of this plot point, as you’ll need it for later.

Del Gardo visits The Blind Rat, a stygian bar conjured from Renoir's worst

In A Cafe
nightmares, an underworld of absinthe, loose women, stripy shirts and, worst of all, accordions. The imposing La Pinan (Margaret Yarde), runs this Degas dive, an ambulatory black velvet throne of a woman given to self-drama, and one would imagine a better match for Del Gardo than wimpy Cecile. Summoning his lackeys Babylon and Bartell, Del Gardo instructs the two ne’er-do-wells to plant a package in Cartier’s private locker at the bank, unless they’d like to swim in the Seine “cut from throat to belly.” Sounds like an in-Seine idea to me. 

Thanks to an anonymous letter, de Brisson discovers the package, filled with Mexican coins stolen from the bank, and dismisses Cartier. Later, de Brisson discusses Cartier with Del Gardo, who wants de Brisson to call the police, but the old man refuses, as a friend of Cartier’s late father. Then, de Brisson notices the wax seal on the package is the same as the seal Del Gardo uses on his business papers. Del Gardo notices de Brisson noticing and throws the package into the fire, perhaps deciding to make his incriminating mail less officious in the future. Del Gardo warns de Brisson against alerting the authorities or this banking bailout will go no further.      

Cartier visits Cecile in secret, but as he leaves, a wolf’s cry is heard. De Brisson, alone in his salon, sees the titular face at the window, a twisted, hairy horror with a mouthful of teeth set for slum clearance. Cartier races back to find de Brisson dead with a dagger in his back. Telling Cecile the news (“be brave!”), Cartier runs into the garden in pursuit. The maid follows, feeling safer outside with a serial killer than with her beau, the footman, who in the most comically understated moment in the film, promises to protect the distraught Cecile with his life. 

Del Gardo arrives, gloats over de Brisson’s corpse (boo, hiss!) and accuses Cartier both of the murder, and of treating Cecile as no more than his “mistress.” This provokes Cartier into slapping Del Gardo around the mutton-chops with a glove. The two agree to a duel for the Luxembourg Gardens at nine o’clock, possibly the most exciting event associated with Luxembourg since the succession crisis of 1437.

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