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.