The House of Mystery (La Maison du Mystère) (Flicker Alley, DVD) – Serials—the adventure cliffhangers what would play out in theaters before the main feature at a chapter a week—are commonly dismissed as kid stuff, glorified B-movies cranked out with little thought for story or character. France, however, produced some serials with high production values for adult audiences. Louis Feuillaude was a master at making surreal pulp thrillers like Fantomas and Les Vampires but Judex moved him toward epic storytelling with more mature themes (his later serials, which are even more adult if less exciting, are sadly unavailable in the U.S.).
Albatross, a French studio founded by Russian immigrants who fled the communist revolution, produced some of the most sophisticated films on the twenties, including the serial The House of Mystery (1923), an epic story of love, jealousy, murder, blackmail, and injustice. The opening credits tease the audience by presenting our hero in multiple disguises before revealing the face of Ivan Mosjoukine, suggesting he is something of a Judex or Fantomas. In fact he’s Julien Villandrit, the scion of a manufacturing family who marries his sweetheart Régine (Hélène Darly) and takes over the family textile mill. All seems well as we jump to “Seven Years Later” and find his longtime associate Henri (Charles Vanel) going all Iago, planting the seeds of doubt in Julien’s mind over the attentions of an elderly banker (Sylvia Gray) toward his wife. What seems unseemly has a rather touching explanation but it takes a dramatic turn when Julien is framed for murder and sent to prison while Henri remains free to pursue Régine. Nicolas Koline plays the woodsman Rudeberg, a photographer whose hobby gives him the leverage to blackmail his way into a steady job. It’s not quite as mercenary as it seems—it’s all to give his troubled son a shot at an education and a better life than him—but it means hiding the evidence proving Julien’s innocence and incriminating the true killer.
Over the course of a story that spans decades there is a daring jailbreak and desperate escape over rugged mountains and deadly ravines (it takes up almost an entire chapter and is a magnificent piece of silent action spectacle), and a series of disguises donned by our hero to return home and clear his name, but this is more romantic melodrama than thriller. A wedding scene is played in a series of silhouettes that resembles the delicacy of the cut-out animation of Lotte Reiniger and the trial sequence takes a break from courtroom drama for a lovely moment of silent movie connection as Régine nudges Julien to sit up, refresh himself, and reclaim his dignity, all communicated in gestures and glances across the room.
Mosjoukine is magnificent in the leading role, a part in which he invested himself completely. He transforms from nervous, unworldly, odd young man to confident husband and father to tragic hero who spends years attempting to reunite with his family, and that doesn’t include the characters he creates while hiding out from the authorities. Mosjoukine wrote the adaptation (it was based on a bestselling novel) and even created his own make-up, and his transformation is as complete (if not quite as extreme) as Lon Chaney in the states.
It plays like a modern TV mini-series, more concerned with dramatic complications and character conflict than with action-film cliffhangers. The serial format gives the drama room to breathe and the actors space to develop characters and relationships over 10 chapters and 6 ½ hours and Alexandre Volkoff directs with a high degree of sophistication and elegance. It’s what silent cinema does at its best: delve into the depth of the moment, drawing out action to explore the dramatic textures and letting the actors reveal the emotions of the characters, to show the audience rather than explain in intertitles. That sounds like a hard sell to viewers not already enchanted by the charms of silent cinema but this is a lovely film and a superb presentation of a rarity. It could make a convert of anyone with a love of classic movies and cinema history.
The complete serial was restored in 1992 and was digitally remastered for its home video debut by Eric Lange and Lobster Films in 2014, and it features a piano score by Neil Brand. Also includes a gallery of production stills and a booklet with an essay and notes on the film and the filmmakers by silent film historian Lenny Borger.