For Reel

Svengali (1931)
August 3, 2015, 8:38 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Archie Mayo
3.5 Stars
SvengaliAt the time of its release, the New York Times published a review that heralded John Barrymore’s role as the eponymous Svengali as the very best of his career. It was a remarkable transition coming just one year after Barrymore’s take on Ahab in Moby Dick, said to be a performance in which the infamous drinker appeared inebriated on the screen. Barrymore’s performance is the most complex of the monsters from the 1930s deluge of horror films, a man equal parts diabolical and pathetic. In one scene, he considers using his hypnotic control over Marian Marsh for sexual purposes, but he collapses in a heap of self-hatred, pitifully wailing that, “it is only Svengali talking to himself again.” Beyond Barrymore’s performance, Svengali is notable as a remarkable feat of visual stylization. Art director Anton Grot contributes Germanic miniatures of a gnarled town, with crooked roofs and winding pathways, and Barney McGill photographs them in such a way as to make the sense of looming threat palpable. In the most acclaimed shot of the film, the camera focuses on Barrymore’s eyes before pulling back through a window, over several roofs, and into the room of Marsh. Directors like Rouben Mamoulian were experimenting with radical, showy camera movements at the time, but McGill’s use of the long take is shattering, exemplifying the extent of Svengali’s control over not only a woman, but the town below. Ironically enough, however, as his gaze is followed and the camera pulls back, the image of Svengali himself gets smaller and smaller, echoing his own castrating feelings of self-hatred.

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