The Mysterious X (1914)

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Is there any truth to the old claim that, in the very early days of cinema, close-ups were frowned upon because audiences were supposedly paying to see the performers’ whole bodies rather than just parts of them? If so, I presume the person who first said that would’ve had conniptions at this film, in which the audience would’ve been paying to see performers they couldn’t actually see… Benjamin Christensen is best known now, no doubt, for Haxan, but this, his debut, also offers points of interest. It has to be said the plot is not exactly one of those… basically, war breaks out and our main character (Christensen himself), a naval lieutenant, gets sent off to fight; meanwhile, Mrs Lieutenant has become the object of infatuation for a certain Count Spinelli, who takes an opportunity to break into the lieutenant’s sealed orders (Sealed Orders being the other, more immediately understandable English title for the film) and steal the info therein, which eventually results in the lieutenant himself being arrested for spreading said info to the enemy (whoever they are; the film is oddly reticent about who the other side is supposed to be. How ironic, too, that a film released just a few months before the actual outbreak of actual war should’ve been made in a country that would then stay neutral during that war…)

So this is all so much melodrama, and JESUS FUCK how excessive does it get at times, too… and just how does Spinelli manage to survive so long trapped in the old mill without food or water given that the film seems to take place over quite a number of days? Anyway, the narrative and the handling of same aren’t really the point, it’s Christensen’s visual presentation of his material that is. The staging is largely in fairly standard early cinema tableau form, very minimal cutting, but there are some nice moments of camera movement (the house interior set is revealed to be surprisingly large) leading to some borderline abstract compositions at times, and then there’s Christensen’s use of darkness as much as light. In 1914, I imagine this would’ve been particularly striking, and some of the silhouette business still is. It’s a better film to look at than it is a story to follow, but it’s not bad all up and the whole thing culminates in a last-minute rescue that Griffith might’ve liked.

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