Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Garden of Allah (1936)

“The Garden of Allah” is a run of the mill melodrama, which tells the love story between a devout French heiress and a runaway monk. As usual in such cases there is a third person in the relationship, God. The predictable ending arrives after around 80 minutes. I neither care for such stories nor can relate to these characters, being neither religious nor a believer in the afterlife. This would usually have killed my interest in the film very early on. However, this particular film is a peculiar piece. Although it’s dull and towards the end I couldn’t sustain it much longer, it had two marvellous things which kept me going: Marlene Dietrich and the cinematography.

Marlene in the thirties is a recent interest of mine. I always loved her trilogy of films for Hitchcock and Wilder and a couple of her later performances, but had little interest in her earlier work, except for “Angel” (Lubitsch, 1937). That changed a few months ago when I watched “Shanghai Express”. And in this film you can’t take your eyes out of her. She’s mesmerizing, so beautiful, so out of this world and a lot of it has to do with how she was shot – which takes me to the cinematography…

This was one of the first three strip Technicolor feature films, and the one that convinced Hollywood that it was not another silly fashion. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, even with some dodgy matte paintings here and there. And I think a lot of it has to do with the way it was lit – to me it was if it had been lit for black and white but shot in colour. Whatever they did made it into one of the most beautiful films ever shot, in my opinion.

As for the rest, Basil Rathbone and Joseph Schildkraut (as Batouch, the obviously gay guide) are quite good, but Charles Boyer really can’t act – or at least I haven’t seen any proof of that. And then there’s Max Steiner’s music… I love Max’s music, I really do, but here he allowed himself to get carried away – there’s simply too much loud music, often almost muting the dialogue. In short, these weak points and its religious themes and perspectives ware too much for me and despite the obvious beauty of the film (and Marlene), I doubt I shall watch this again any time soon, if ever.

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