Sunday, November 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Chair' (1929)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

When I wrote about the 1937 version of The Thirteenth Chair a couple of years ago, I speculated that director Tod Browning's 1929 version of the same material was probably better, since Browning is a renowned director known for suspense classics like Dracula and Freaks. But it turns out that the source material itself (a 1916 play by Bayard Veiller) is likely the real problem, since Browning's version is if anything less engaging and more awkward than the later version by George B. Seitz. It also doesn't help that Browning's film is his first sound effort, and it still struggles with a lot of the difficulties of early sound films (it was actually released in both silent and sound versions, although only the sound version has survived).

The plot is the same in both films: In British-occupied Calcutta, an unpleasant man is murdered, and his friend decides to convene a seance in order to find out who was responsible. Here, Edward Wales (John Davidson) gathers a bunch of high-society types to convene with medium Madame La Grange (Margaret Wycherly, ex-wife of playwright Veiller and star of the previous stage version) in hopes of reaching the spirit of the late Spencer Lee. When the lights go out during Madame La Grange's seance, Wales himself is murdered, and everyone else in the room is a suspect. The local cops send Inspector Delzante (Bela Lugosi), who goes to some unconventional extremes to root out the culprit.

The combination of the stagebound source material and the constraints of early sound filmmaking give the movie a belabored, sluggish feel, and the mystery isn't very compelling. Most of the characters just kind of stand around while Delzante makes proclamations, and his investigative style involves making loud, unfounded accusations and then seeing how people react. The majority of the movie takes place in just a couple of rooms in a spacious mansion, and the camera setups are all rudimentary and static, to better capture the sound. The acting is mostly broad (especially Wycherly's gratingly overdone Oirish accent, which might have worked onstage but comes across as irritatingly fake here), although Lugosi is occasionally amusing as the contemptuous investigator, who seems like he'd be content to just arrest all of these self-involved idiots and call it a day.

It's hard to care about who murdered two characters we know essentially nothing about, and the movie instead focuses mostly on the relationship between rich heir Richard Crosby (Conrad Nagel) and his fiancee Nellie (Leila Hyams), who turns out to be the secret daughter of Madame La Grange. But the threats to their insipid love aren't particularly exciting or suspenseful, and when the case is finally resolved, clearing any obstacles to their marriage, there's no sense of justice or satisfaction, other than the relief that this plodding movie has finally come to an end.

No comments: