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Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers - The Intrigue and The Forgotten Films of Writer & Director Julia Crawford Ivers
Unlike many of the other women that Kino and various other labels have showcased in a recent push to preserve and present work by pioneering women in the silent era, Julia Crawford Ivers made more of her mark on the page than anywhere else. Nicknamed "The Lady of the Shadows," Ivers shunned publicity -- the essay inside the booklet included with this new Blu-ray, "The Intrigue and The Forgotten Films of Writer & Director Julia Crawford Ivers" notes that there are barely any photographs of her. Although she did direct films herself, including a feature that is presented on this disc, and the single surviving reel of another, she was best known for her work with director William Desmond Taylor, with whom she made roughly 20 films. Their partnership ended abruptly, when he was murdered, and she was accused (but not convicted) of committing the crime.
The hint of danger and mystery in her biography makes for an unusually good fit with The Intrigue, which is the "feature presentation" of this new Blu-ray, although perhaps oddly enough, it is not one of the films she made with Taylor. Directed by Frank Lloyd, The Intrigue is a highly entertaining and surprisingly contemporary globe-trotting spy adventure, with a touch of science fiction and romance for good measure. In it, the selfless Countess Sonia Varnli (Lenore Ulric, credited here as Lenore Ulrich) returns home after working a stint as a nurse on the front lines of WWI, and is enlisted to assist in a top-secret spy mission. An American inventor named Guy Longstreet (Cecil Van Auker) has invented an "x-ray gun" that can kill a man from miles away. When his Army bosses decline to buy it, he travels to Europe to find another buyer, and instead catches the attention of Baron Rogniat (Howard Davies), who has nefarious plans for the device, and is hoping to keep the weapon and the plans to devise it all to himself.
The packaging mentions that Ivers worked for at least some period of time as a film editor. Whether or not she edited The Intrigue (like most films from the silent era, the film has no technical credits), the movie has the pacing and clarity of vision that feels as if it comes from an editor's brain. Without downplaying Lloyd's contributions to the picture, and setting aside the shorter running time of the period, the film feels as if it has less dead weight than many of its contemporaries, moving briskly through a plot that finds Sonia switching places with her housemaid (also played by Ulric), traveling by boat to the United States with Longstreet and Rogniat, and ending up posing as a servant in Rogniat's home. Visual effects, such as crumbling rooftops, explosions, laser blasts, and dream sequences are executed with visual panache, and there is a particularly stunning cut hidden within a cloud of smoke that turns a line of soldiers into a pile of bodies and rubble.
That said, the most valuable element in The Intrigue is definitely Ulric herself, who is a charming screen presence, conveying plenty of energy and charisma even without the use of sound. One of the greatest pleasures of the film is how much fun she seems to be having sneaking around, in disguise, working to try and foil the Baron's evil plans. When she devises the idea to pose as her own servant, she gets a big grin on her face as the whole plan forms in her head. I can't say she has much chemistry with Van Auker, who is a little dull as a character, but it's a minor complaint. It would be easy to picture someone like Chloe Sevigny playing the same part in a modern thriller.
Of course, people like Chloe Sevigny rarely get to make movies like this one, which is the most interesting aspect of The Intrigue from a contemporary standpoint. Why shouldn't a compassionate, clever, and motivated woman like the Countess Sonia be the protagonist of a thrilling adventure like this one? The Intrigue doesn't necessarily offer much in the way of subtext for a modern viewer to unpack, and yet that underlines the meat-and-potatoes nature of the film's entertainment value. The same sorts of style, suspense, and wish-fulfillment fantasy that a James Bond movie captures is also captured here. Thankfully, others seem to agree: it, along with several other Lloyd films, is among those that have been preserved by the Library of Congress.
The two Alice Guy-Blache Blu-rays and the Maya Deren Blu-ray put out by Kino were simply adorned with photographs of the filmmaker. Given the unavailability of images of Ivers, Kino has adapted one of The Intrigue's theatrical posters instead, cropping some of the top and bottom and adding their "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" banner and a photo from one of the other films on the disc, but otherwise preserving the layout and design, right down to the Paramount logo prominently displayed in the upper lefthand corner. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is a booklet featuring an essay by film historian April Miller.
The Video and Audio
The centerpiece presentation, The Intrigue, presented in 1.33:1 1080p AVC, looks pretty remarkable, with a relatively minimal amount of print damage and distortion, while offering an impressively clear and well-resolved and filmic image, with colored tinting. There are, of course, still plenty of flecks and marks, but the vast majority of a given frame is clean, aside from some notable scratches running down te left side for a few seconds near the end of the boat sequence. An English LPCM 2.0 tracks is offered, featuring music composed by Ben Model. As this track is much newer than the film itself (as far as I can tell, it was recorded for this Blu-ray), it sounds fine.
Although the outer packaging makes no distinction, the other films listed on the back are considered bonus features: A Son of Erin, which was actually directed by Ivers, Ben Blair, one of the films she did make with her longtime collaborator Taylor, and the single surviving reel of The Majesty of the Law. As with many films where only a fragment survives, it should be of no surprise that The Majesty of the Law is the least satisfying of these, although there is a very well-done card sequence, complete with a crazy cheating contraption, and a cool conversation where the characters appear to be pulled out of their environment using solid black backdrops, for emphasis. It's also impressive to see that the film included multiple black cast members.
This leaves the other two features, and it's evident after viewing them why they're technically relegated to the "extras" section. After the marvelous, buoyant escapism of The Intrigue, both A Son of Erin and Ben Blair are kind of depressing. A Son of Erin, the one film included here that essentially survives (one reel is missing) and was also directed by Ivers, is by far the better of the two. In it, Irish farm boy Dennis (Dustin Farnum) dreams of leaving the countryside for New York City. With the help of his loving wife Katie (Winifred Kingston), he buys a boat ticket that sends him on an unexpected journey that involves hunting down corruption within the police force and the local political scene. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with Katie having to fend herself against a sexual predator, and features villains who are outright racist (by which I mean the film contains racist slurs -- I'm unsure if the behavior depicted in the film was considered racist then, or more mildly discriminatory), but the story and performances are compelling. Ben Blair, on the other hand, is a slog. Although the film manages to cram a life-saving move to the countryside, a frustrated city wife, a drunken father, a murder, a rescued boy, and a decade-plus time jump into the first half-hour and mutates into a revenge thriller/romance (?) in the second half, it's a painfully slow movie. The film's disparate threads are set so far apart it's tough waiting for them to be drawn together into a cohesive finale (especially while sitting through a fairly uneventful chase sequence, and the way the film essentially extends into a second conflict after resolving what feels like the central one). The film also has an astonishingly uncomfortable ending, one that deeply undercuts the more romantic flourishes (such as when the female lead, Florence, reads poetry to Ben) as well as what seemed like a warning against violence as catharsis (highlighted by the film's most striking directorial flourish, a character cross-faded into a close-up of another character's eyes). At the very least, both films are as impressively ambitious as The Intrigue in scope and dramatic complexity.
These three additional pieces are, on average, not quite as good in terms of PQ as the main feature, with A Son of Erin faring the worse (major water damage), and, perhaps ironically, the fragment of Majesty looking the best. All three are again presented with seemingly new LPCM 2.0 mono tracks, with music by Makia Matsumura, Eunice Martins, and Andrew Earle Simpson.
Beyond the bonus films, there is only one traditional supplement included here, which is an audio commentary by film historian Anthony Slide on The Intrigue. This is one of those kinds of commentaries where the remarks seem to be prepared in advance, although Slide definitely comments on things that are actually appearing on screen. He offers plenty of biographical, technical, and historical details on the people involved with the film and the film itself, as well as the occasional opinion of his own (he thinks less of Ulric than I do, is the impression that I get).
The Intrigue an incredibly entertaining piece of silent-era filmmaking, using surprisingly contemporary techniques to tell a type of spy adventure story that is still popular today. It features a wonderful starring turn from Lenore Ulric, sharp direction by Frank Lloyd, and a delightful script by Julia Crawford Ivers. It's a shame that the other three pieces offered on the disc are not nearly as charming as The Intrigue, but they also provide a nice look into the career of "The Lady of the Shadows." Recommended.
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