Cagliostro (Albatros, 1929)

Cagliostro posterCagliostro (Albatros, 1929)
Directed by Richard Oswald
Starring Hans Stüwe

“Long thought to be lost…” the back of the DVD case says, although that’s a slight exaggeration. The original theatrical release was ten reels long, which would play for a bit under two hours. That version was and still is presumed lost, although a few fragments from it have turned up and have been incorporated into this video. The bulk is sourced from a home movie version released on 9.5mm in 1931, which has never been unavailable on the collector’s market. As was common for 9.5mm, the film was abridged. The Cagliostro home release filled three super reels. For reasons I won’t get into, it’s hard to say exactly how long that would run (it depends heavily on how many title cards there are), but it would be somewhere between 40 and 60 minutes. The video, which again has a few additional clips from other sources, is just under one hour long.

So, about half of the footage is missing. Subplots and non-essential characters are excised, and the main plot is streamlined and elided in places. Allowances must be made when watching it for punctuations in continuity.

It’s the time of Louis XVI. Joseph Balsamo, Count Cagliostro (Hans Stüwe) — “healer, necromancer, founder of sects, and gentleman of fortune” — is the talk of Paris. His wife, Lorenza (Renée Héribel), is worried. Cagliostro’s life as a showman is a precarious one.

Cagliostro stumbles upon Jeanne de la Motte (Illa Meery), a woman who, though impoverished, is of royal blood. He sees in her his ticket to the court. He spruces her up á la Eliza Doolittle and she’s introduced to the Queen (Suzanne Bianchetti), who takes her on as a handmaid.

For her part in the bargain, Jeanne uses her newfound influence to get Cagliostro an audience with the King (Edmond Van Daële). The King expects to be entertained by a charlatan’s magic tricks, which offends Cagliostro. He refuses to transmute lead into gold for anyone who doesn’t believe. Instead, he reads the Queen’s fortune. Marie-Antoinette, he says, will soon follow her husband to the guillotine.

Cagliostro takes an active role in ensuring that his prophesy comes to fruition. A necklace worth 2,000,000 pounds had just been offered to the Queen. She refused it. With that money, she said, France could build a warship, and France needed warships more than she needed a necklace. Very selfless, but counterproductive to Cagliostro’s aim.

The Prince of Rohan (Alfred Abel) is secretly in love with the Queen. Cagliostro, with the help of Jeanne, makes Rohan believe that his love is not unrequited. In a forged letter, the “Queen” directs Rohan to buy the necklace for her. Rohan puts down the first installment for the necklace and, with his heart all a-flitter, hands it over to the veiled woman in the palace garden.

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace (a real-life event, which happened not too unlike its portrayal here) is a disastrous blow to the public image of Louis XVI. Within the court, it’s soon found out who’s to blame and Rohan, Jeanne, and Cagliostro are arrested. Popularly, however, Marie-Antoinette is blamed for masterminding everything.

Cagliostro escapes with his wife Lorenza and they flee to Italy. The Inquisition was waiting and sentences both of them to death for practicing black magic. At dawn, Lorenza is the first marched to the scaffold. Cagliostro watches as the hangman puts the noose around her neck. Just as the rope goes taut, he deftly grabs a sword from one of the guards and cuts Lorenza down. The bottleneck of steep, narrow scaffold stairs limits the number of guards Cagliostro has to defeat, and he and wife manage to escape once again.

On the road, they meet a gravedigger at work and ask whose grave he’s opening. “The notorious Cagliostro’s”, he says, “and who are you, sir?” Cagliostro replies “I am he who is”.

Cagliostro was acclaimed as a swashbuckling epic, but there are only two action scenes included here. The abridgement focuses most of its runtime on the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. It has the cinematography of a late silent picture, with a style that’s a melding of German and French. I’ve heard director Richard Oswald’s early films described as “workmanlike”, but I don’t think any would deny the artistry of his later silents. Ever since Lucrezia Borgia in 1922 and particularly Carlos and Elizabeth in 1924, he had a fondness for tracking shots, and they are extensively used in Cagliostro. (His later American talkies might be called “forgotten” — although his son, Gerd Oswald, had a reasonably successful directorial career on TV).

I had high hopes for Cagliostro and I wasn’t disappointed by it. I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable, and would recommend it.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Potemkine

Posted on July 20, 2014, in Like it, Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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