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Svengali

Movie Information

In Brief: Solid production values don't really make up for the fact that this is simply not a very good film version of George. L. Du Maurier's Trilby. The casting is often just plain wrong-headed, but it's impossible to deny that there's a certain amusement value to Donald Wolfit in the role of Svengali. It may not, however, be exactly the kind of amusement that was intended.
Score:

Genre: Melodrama
Director: Noel Langley
Starring: Hildegard Knef, Donald Wolfit, Terence Morgan, Derek Bond, Paul Rogers
Rated: NR

Noel Langley’s 1954 version of Svengali is, frankly, pretty much of a botch job that lacks all the elements that made Archie Mayo’s 1931 version such an engrossing film. Perhaps the biggest problem—apart from a meandering screenplay—stems from the very peculiar casting of Hildegard Knef as Trilby O’Farrall. Not only is the very German-accented Knef just plain wrong to be playing anyone named O’Farrall , but she is incapable of imbuing the character with the slightest hint of innocent promiscuity, since she comes across as a pretty harsh woman of the world who knows the score and can add it up. On the other hand, stiff-necked, ill-tempered Terence Morgan as her romantic interest, Billy Bagot, proves that, yes, there are worse things than Bramwell Fletcher’s insipid take on the role. OK, it is rather pleasant seeing Alfie Bass and Harry Secombe in supporting roles, but the most interesting aspect of the film—well, the only interesting aspect really—is Donald Wolfit’s Svengali. He actually manages to be more over-the-top than John Barrymore in the 1931 film. The problem is that Barrymore’s performance was brilliantly infused with humor, pathos and the sense of a larger-than-life character. Wolfit’s performance is pure, unadulterated ham. Oh, it’s big and it’s funny, but it’s never even briefly convincing and it’s funny for all the wrong reasons. That doesn’t keep it from being strangely fascinating, but it doesn’t make it good. In many ways, the film is a textbook example of why people—including the British—used to look down on British-made movies.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Svengali at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 17, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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