Tuesday, 22 May 2012
The First Born (1928) - Miles Mander's Masterpiece Restored
Set against a backdrop of the British upper classes, the story charts the disintegration of the marriage between Lord Hugo Boycott (played by Mander himself) and his younger wife Madeleine (an impossibly young and dark haired Madeleine Carroll). Hugo is a caddish would-be politician whose irritation at his wife’s inability to provide him with a son and heir drives him into the arms of a succession of willing women. In a desperate attempt to keep her husband Madeleine agrees to secretly adopt her manicurist’s illegitimate baby and pass it off as the son her husband desires. However, once this has happened she finds it is not enough to hold their marriage together and the relationship quickly descends into mutual suspicion, infidelity and lies. The tensions between Madeleine and Hugo are complicated by the interference of their conniving friend Nina, who seeks to seduce Hugo and tell him about Madeleine’s secret. Hugo, on the other hand suspects Madeleine to be secretly having an affair with David, a playboy with a bad reputation (played by John Loder at his most debonair).
What on paper seems like a polite and vaguely absurd drawing room drama is in the hands of Mander a keenly observed portrayal of the realities of marriage and the consequences of selfish behaviour on the surrounding society. Though the world of the British ruling classes in the 1920s is hardly something that today's average viewer can identify with, the hypocrisies and frailties Mander’s characters reveal are universally recognisable. Both Mander and Carroll are mesmerising in their roles, with perhaps Madeleine Carroll giving the performance of her career as the increasingly desperate young wife. The inherent selfishness of the group is nicely summed in a short scene where Nina drives away from Hugo’s home and in her hurry her limousine knocks over a small bicycle, spilling its basket of fruit. Like Hugo and Madeleine, she leaves unaware of the consequence of her actions.
What makes the film so compelling is that complexities and contradictions of the lead characters force the viewer to switch their loyalty as the story progresses. Hugo is selfish, a serial cheat who treats Madeleine with distain whilst using her for his own ends, yet is likable enough that we want to believe he can escape the mess he has made of his life. He is fiercely protective of his ‘first born’ (though uninterested in their second child) and is driven to rage and obsession at the thought of his wife’s infidelities despite ignoring his own fatal flaws. Madeleine on the other hand is blind to Hugo’s faults and her need to keep him is such that she is forced into an increasingly complicated web of deceit. When her lies eventually catch up with her she reacts selfishly, showing a lack of concern for those in the path of her thoughtlessness. Ultimately it is their tragic love that makes us pull for the characters, and the misguided need for both of them to have a ‘normal’ family life even though neither of them really knows how to achieve it, let alone hold onto it. Both Mander and Carroll have a great chemistry throughout the film, with Madeleine Carroll betraying her lack of cinematic experience with a sensitive and subtle portrayal. The climactic scenes between the leads sparkle with the sort of heart stopping intensity that only the great silent dramas can manage. Such is the power of the drama that when the final reel plot twist appears, at the screening I attended a collective gasp rung out through the audience to what in reality is a particularly contrived piece of melodrama (I won’t spoil it, but it’s amazing!).
Regardless of the skilled handling of the script and acting, what has received the most notice since the restoration of the film has been the visual aspect, highlighting yet again the amazing progression of filmmaking as a visual art by the end of the silent era. What sets The First Born apart from many others, and indeed its British contemporaries is in the stunning fluidity of its camerawork. From early on in the film, where Hugo throws clothes at an unseen Madeleine behind the camera, Mander seems obsessed with the idea of movement and distance. He does this to not only get the viewer inside the film but to also seemingly highlight the fact that as director he has the ability to set his camera free from its stationary position. This enthusiastic flight reaches a breathtaking climax during the scene where Hugo rushes to Madeleine’s bedroom in the hope of exposing her supposed affair. As he approaches the room, the view switches to a full point of view shot as Hugo rushes inside to find it empty, the bed slept in (both sides creased however) and assorted clothes on the floor. As his eyes whirl round the room taking in the detail, the camera moves so rapidly that in fact the frame rate struggles to keep up (no Steadicam in those days!), yet the blurry movement highlights the intensity of the feeling. Madeleine is in fact in the bath, and the camera then slowly opens the door to voyeuristically take a peek at her in the water, before the drama is resumed and we cut to Hugo's face. After tantalising us with the girl in the bath, Mander cuts us off and once again lets only the character see the result. Though undoubtedly the point of view shot had been done long before 1928, the way it is used and the fluidity of the camera movement makes the scene (shot in one take as far as I remember) both shocking and thrilling. It’s like Mander reached into the future and invented all the slasher film clichés in one go, or at least before Hitchcock got there.
Other visual touches include a beautifully lit dinner party scene that looks like one big table lit by several candles or lamps. In this entirely unrealistic yet massively atmospheric setting, each dinner guest peers out from the darkness onto their gloomy spotlight to speak, then retreats, eel-like back into the gloom to eat. It serves no purpose other than it looks great. Lighting is similarly used in an incredible scene where Hugo is seduced by Nina (wonderfully played by Ella Atherton who frustratingly only seems to have made one other film) in his own home as Madeleine sleeps upstairs. In the candlelight Nina lies back on a chaise longue and writhes and squirms like a cat in heat. Hugo is literally trapped in her seductive thrall and visibly shows his tortured mind and he wills himself to take a figurative cold shower and resist her. After the duelling close ups of the seducer and her conflicted prey, the solitary shadow of a beckoning finger cast by the candlelight seals the deal and releases Hugo’s desires.
There are other beautiful moments in the film such as another point of view shot on the hood of a car as Hugo drives up the road to the estate, and the clever use of overlapping fades to convey a conversation without the need for title cards (indeed, it is a film of few titles despite undoubtedly a lot of dialogue spoken by the actors). Near the climax the point of view camera is used one final dizzying time as Hugo falls down a lift shaft to his death. The viewer sees the fall as Hugo sees it complete with a spinning visual effect and a brief montage as his life flashes before him in his final moments. It’s an impressive effect, and guessing how heavy camera equipment would have been in those days, no doubt it was a very complex shot to achieve. These are just a few examples among many throughout the movie and what finally emerges is a film given a very thoughtful and inventive visual touch. In many ways there is perhaps too much crammed into it, but the gamble pays off and as Miles Manter’s only extant directorial work The First Born provides a fantastic showcase for his talents.
That it was Miles Manter’s debut as a feature director is astonishing, but not altogether surprising knowing his deep involvement in the movie world up until that point. Certainly, on the strength of The First Born, Manter was arguably ahead of Hitchcock artistically by 1928 and who knows, given the right opportunities could have been one of the great British directors. He certainly seems to have the potential to have been a great filmmaker. Sadly, though he went on to direct a few sound films, none seem to exist or be available to see, and after a while he decided to concentrate solely on being a reliable character actor. Like so many others his output has historically fallen into the black hole that British movies of the 20s and 30s seem to fall into, where the vast majority seem to be in limbo, either lost forever or sitting unattended in an archive. The First Born was earmarked for restoration just short of ten years ago and the fruits of the BFI’s labours are only being seen now. The restoration, with a newly commissioned score was premiered at the London Film Festival last year and will hopefully continue to get a few more showings on the art house circuit beyond it's current limited run. In these cash strapped times, one can only wonder if a DVD release will be cost effective but with a bit of luck it might get to be seen by more people. The First Born certainly deserves to be more widely viewed and can genuinely be described as a lost masterpiece and a film that will hopefully begin to shine a little more of a spotlight on its creator, Miles Mander as one of the unsung heroes of silent British cinema.