By the Law (1926)

Director: Lev Kuleshov

By 1926, Kuleshov’s filmmaking career was already being outstripped by those of his former associates (Vsevolod Pudovkin and Boris Barnet, both of whom acted in Mr West now had directorial careers); the Goskino studio were unhappy with Kuleshov’s work, and he and what was left of his old group were on their last legs. So he proposed this as a low-budget (supposedly the cheapest Soviet feature ever) project, which would involve three main actors and only have one actual set. By the Law was adapted from a short story by Jack London (whose work the Kuleshov workshop had tackled in their “films without film” theoretical period), and though the studio wasn’t exactly thrilled by the material (if Mr West had merely been kind of an “American”-styled tale, this was obviously far more so) nor Kuleshov’s propensity for casting his wife Alexandra Khokhlova in his films, I presume the low budget deal won them over. It’s as bleak as hell, and apparently even critics at the time were struck by the lack of a real hero or villain and indeed of any overt motive for the story’s key event… setting is the Yukon in gold rush days, a quintet of people are prospecting, mostly without luck; things start looking up for them but one of the team finds himself excluded by the others, until finally one day he snaps and kills two of them. The leader of the expedition wants to kill him in return, but his wife insists upon the law taking care of him. But they’re a long way from any representatives of the law and the winter weather isn’t helping… cue increasing cabin fever, madness, and a bit of a “hang on, what the fuck was that?” type ending. Really good (though as this review rightly observes, Khokhlova’s semi-Expressionist acting style walks a fine line at times), made in a way that kind of belies the stupidly low budget, and something of a surprise hit in Europe, but it’s basically free of Soviet propaganda and so Kuleshov wasn’t exactly feted at home. Must say, though, that ending’s left me more genuinely rattled than most actual horror movies I’ve seen. Quite something.

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