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the phantom carriage (victor sjöström, 1921)

I spent a lot of time in my formative years as a film major watching silent movies, and while I don’t see that many any longer, I don’t go running in the other direction when one turns up. Silent movies are often lovely to look at. The one thing that I usually find bothersome is the acting style that was prevalent at the time.

The Phantom Carriage was my first Swedish silent film, and that makes for a pretty small sample size. I can’t make any pronouncements about silent Swedes. But based on this example, not everyone was utilizing exaggerated body language and expressions. The acting in The Phantom Carriage is fairly naturalistic, not at all distracting to the modern audience. Sjöström also utilizes a variety of narrative tricks, most notably flashbacks piled on flashbacks, so of course I was confused part of the time. But, given the supernatural nature of the story, that was appropriate.

The phantom carriage of the title is driven by a servant of Death, and both the servant and the carriage are see-through, not of this world. If the special effects seem a bit amateurish today, they were likely quite impressive in 1921, and again, when the effects are a bit clunky, it merely adds to the supernatural feel. Since the cinematography is stellar, the look of the film never disappoints, even when the effects are lacking. “Lacking” is the wrong word ... it’s only lacking when compared to modern CGI, but The Phantom Carriage isn’t a highly-regarded film because of its special effects, it is highly-regarded because of its artful look at existence and morality.

You can easily see why Ingmar Bergman loved this film. Its influence is all over Bergman’s work. This is a good thing when it comes to the use of symbolism and stark photography. But I admit I thought The Phantom Carriage bogged down as it addressed the hoped-for rehabilitation of a drunk. It felt too much like a Message Picture, which is rarely my kind of movie.

Still, The Phantom Carriage works. Victor Sjöström not only directed, but also starred and wrote the screenplay. There is a confidence here that pushes aside most complaints.

#957 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

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