Spectacle, Apocalypse and the Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars

A_Trip_to_Mars_aka_Himmelskibet_advertisement_1920A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 4.1 (2010), 107–15.

Atlantis (August Blom Denmark 1913). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 20fps. Verdens undergang (The End of the World; August Blom 1916) and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars; Holger-Madsen Denmark 1918). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 17fps and 20fps, respectively.

For half a decade, beginning in 1910, Denmark was the most influential film-making nation in Europe after France. Of more than two dozen production companies, many of which lasted only long enough to make a handful of films, Nordisk Films Kompagni was the most successful.[1] Established in 1906 by cinema-owner Ole Olsen, it quickly became the second largest European production company, after France’s Pathé,[2] making, for example, over 140 films in 1915 alone. Indeed, Nordisk’s fame and influence was such that the Hungarian theatrical actor and film director Miháley Kertész – better known as Michael Curtiz – visited Denmark to study their filmmaking systems and techniques.[3] Nordisk ceased to make films in 1917, and when production recommenced after World War One, its global position was lost. Its German market was undermined by the establishment of Ufa, Germany’s state-owned studio, and Nordisk’s increasing focus on literary adaptations proved a less-successful export strategy than Germany’s development of expressionism into a cinematic mode.

Spectacle
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In 1910, actor August Blom joined Nordisk’s 1700 staff as a director.[4] He soon became the studio’s leading director, shooting more than a hundred films by 1924. While Olsen preferred single reel films (up to sixteen minutes long), which had to sell about twenty prints before turning a profit, Blom wished to make longer films. After his racy three-reel melodrama Val Fœngslets Port (The Temptations of a Great City; Denmark 1911) became an international hit, selling nearly 250 copies, he increasingly got his way. Although largely forgotten nowadays, Blom was a major figure in the development of what we now think of as feature-length films, both in Denmark and internationally. He was best known for literary adaptations, including versions of Robinson Crusoe, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a Hamlet shot at Elsinore, and for social melodramas, which depicted temporary mobility between social classes before conservatively reasserting the natural order of social hierarchies (Mottram 135–6). In 1913, he adapted German Nobel prize-winner Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel Atlantis, following its narrative very closely. It was a prestige production over which Hauptman retained considerable control; but despite the novel’s rather modern perspective, its story of the self-exiled, proto-existentialist Dr Friedrich von Kammacher (Olaf Fønss) resonated strongly with the melodramatic form Blom favoured. At eight reels (nearly two hours), it was the longest Danish film – and one of the longest films anywhere – to that date. It was another international hit, with prints prepared specifically for Danish, German, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Russian language markets (there were two Russian versions, one with a much more tragic conclusion which is included as an extra on this DVD). For its US release, it was cut down to six-reels. According to Mottram, the excised scenes almost certainly included von Kammacher’s side trip to Paris and his brief shipboard affair with a Russian Jewess from steerage, and probably the two-shot sequence which gives the film its title and its few moments of more-or-less direct interest to readers of this journal: von Kammacher’s dream/vision of Atlantis.

Nearly halfway through the film, the overwrought von Kammacher retreats to his cabin on a liner crossing the Atlantic to the US. In his sleep, he meets a dead friend, with whom he walks through the streets of Atlantis. While Blom succeeds in giving this sequence an oneiric quality, the lost continent is rather obviously just a Danish town. This tension makes it appear oddly prescient of Ingmar Bergman’s symbolic use of Scandinavian settings in a film such as Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries; Sweden 1957), but it is profoundly at odds with the rest of the film’s realist aesthetics. In Blom’s defence, the equivalent brief passage in Hauptmann’s novel seems just as odd.

Perhaps, then, of greater interest than this fantastic element is the film’s investment in spectacle, which is increasingly treated as a defining characteristic of sf cinema. In addition to specially-filmed establishing shots of Manhattan, location shooting in Berlin (including striking material filmed from moving cars) and shots of magnificent landscapes and seascapes, there are three sequences that even more specifically evoke the cinema of attractions associated with early cinema.

First, when von Kammacher, distressed by the rejection of his revolutionary bacteriological research and by the need to commit his insane wife to an asylum, takes a holiday in Berlin, his friend Hans Füllenberg (Miháley Kertész) invites him to the debut of Ingergerd Hahlstrom (Ida Orlov). Her dance – a vaguely allegorical performance called ‘The Spider’s Victim’ – not only fills him with a desire for her against which he will struggle for the rest of the film, but also abruptly terminates narrative momentum in order to insert what is, in effect, a two-minute-and-forty-second butterfly dance film. Such short films, which featured the hypnotically swirling skirts and sleeves (often hand-painted frame by frame) of such performers as Annabelle Moore, were immensely popular in the 1890s and the first few years of the twentieth century (various sources claim that they constituted between 30–80% of all films made before 1910).

In the second half of the film, von Kammacher’s fellow voyager, the armless performer Arthur Stoss (Charles Unthan), performs amazingly dexterous acts with his feet. Again, the action halts – for three minutes – to present a sequence that resembles a short film recording of a popular variety act: Stoss plays a trumpet; shuffles, cuts and deals a pack of cards; lights and smokes a cigarette; opens a wine bottle with a corkscrew, pours and drinks the wine; types a letter and signs it with a pen.[5]

August Blom - Atlantis.avi_003806250In between these two ‘attractions’ lies the film’s most spectacular sequence, in which the liner hits a derelict ship and sinks. Some sources state that Hauptmann’s novel was published four weeks before the Titanic disaster, others that the novel was inspired by it; but regardless of this, the film adaptation a year later again evokes a genre of the cinema of attractions: the record of a catastrophe (typically opportunistic, often reconstructed or otherwise fraudulent) and the specific cycle of films purporting to contain actual footage of the Titanic sinking. Blom’s resolutely unspectacular visual style lends a sense of greater realism to shots of barely-choreographed extras milling about on the ship, of others leaping twenty feet or more into the sea and of the actual sinking of a large-scale model/set of the ship.

Apocalypse
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Of more direct interest to the readers of this journal is Blom’s Verdens undergang (The End of the World; 1916), in which a comet – or its debris – strikes northwest Europe. It was shot in Sweden and Denmark while memories of the 1908 Tunguska event (probably the airburst of a meteoroid or cometary fragments) and 1910’s two major cometary visitations – Halley’s Comet and the Great January Comet, also known as the Daylight Comet – were still relatively fresh, and while World War One was consuming men and matériel in unprecedented quantities. That a residual sense of such celestial phenomena being ill omens persisted is indicated by a New York Times article on the Great January Comet, which displaces such concerns onto other peoples: ‘its appearance is reported to have caused extreme terror among the Russian peasants, who regard it as the precursor either of a great war in the Far East or of the end of the world’ and ‘warnings have been issued as to the effect it is likely to have upon the populations of North Africa and India’ (Anon). However, despite Nordisk making a number of pacifist and explicitly anti-war films, Blom ignores the potential in his material to develop such a connection with the Great War. Instead, he chooses to construct another social melodrama, which escalates as the comet draws nearer (in this, it has much in common both with the overwrought familial and homosocial melodrama of Deep Impact (Leder US 1998) and Armageddon (Bay US 1998), and with the low-key mapping of social difference in Last Night (McKellar Canada/France 1998)).

When Frank Stoll (Olaf Fønss), a wealthy industrialist, comes to a remote town to inspect his mine, he promptly falls for Dina (Ebba Thomsen), one of the daughters of its manager, West (Carl Lauritzen). She feels stifled by the strictures of her conservative, religious father, and when Stoll declares his love for her, she abandons her home and her fiancé, a miner called Flint (Thorleif Lund), for a life of luxury in Copenhagen. Several years later, Stoll’s financial machinations have made him an even larger fortune on the stock exchange. When a comet is spotted approaching the Earth, he manipulates his cousin, Professor Wisemann (K. Zimmermann), into revealing to him the Astronomical Society’s findings about the likelihood of a collision, which are supposed to be kept secret so as to avoid panic. Having already purchased stock at rock-bottom prices when news of the comet prompted a crash, Stoll forces a newspaper editor to print a false report that it will pass by harmlessly. Public confidence – and stocks – rise, enabling Stoll to sell at a massive profit before the truth comes out. He then returns with Dina to his mansion near her home town so as to shelter in the mines from the coming conflagration. On the eve of destruction, he – presumably not being familiar with Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) – throws a party for his wealthy friends, instructing them ‘Let us celebrate this evening! If we are saved, it will be we who will found the new world, and be its masters. We will salute the rush of the meteors towards the Earth with a feast. Tonight, when the sky is in flames, we will let our stars dance for us.’ Meanwhile, Flint, intent on revenge 13081308083615263611459952against Stoll, incites the miners and townsfolk to riot. As flaming debris fall from the sky – the combination of model work and location shooting remains quite effective – and as Dina performs an erotic dance for Stoll’s guests, the common people, armed with tools and guns, converge on the mansion. Class warfare erupts (in one remarkable shot, the camera looks past the workers, through a hole they have torn in a door to where Stoll’s guests return fire). Stoll hustles the injured Dina through a secret passage into the mines, pursued by Flint. She dies from her wound; Flint and Stoll, overwhelmed by toxic gases released by the comet’s impact, die; in fact, everyone dies.

Everyone, that is, but Dina’s virtuous sister, Edith (Johanne Fritz-Petersen), rescued from the sea’s VerdensUndergang3inundation of the land by a priest (Frederik Jacobsen), who then disappears, and her fiancé, Reymers (Alf Blütecher), the only survivor of his wrecked ship. She makes her way through the post-catastrophe desolation to a church tower.[6] Reymers hears the sound of church bells ringing, and the lovers are reunited, a new Adam and Eve.

Blom’s visual style in Atlantis and Verdens undergang exemplifies – some might say typifies – the Nordisk look, which strongly favoured a single camera set-up and deep focus composition, with multiple planes of action. This not only enabled an entire scene to be filmed in a single long take, but also helped to produce a film grammar less concerned with montage (as in the US) than with composition and spatial relationships within the mise-en-scene. Blom reduces the theatricality often associated with such a style by offsetting the camera so as to reduce the sense of frontality – unless frontality could be used to emphasise a character’s sense of social or psychological confinement – and by adopting (limited) panning and tracking so as to follow the action. There is little cross-cutting to build tension or parallelism between locations, and the actors, usually in medium shot, eschew melodramatic gestures, actions and emotions in favour of a more restrained, naturalistic style. Sets are well-dressed, often with very solid-looking furniture, and Blom is careful to imply the existence of real spaces on the other sides of doors and walls. He is not afraid of cramming twenty or more actors into a shot, and he is fond of mirrors as a means of extending visible space. For example, in Verdens undergang, a tableau of the lascivious but bored Dina features a mirror angled so as to depict part of the room that is out of shot, and the haste of the scheming Stoll’s return from the stock exchange is captured by thus showing him burst into the room (in the mirror) before he bursts into shot. Slightly more mystifying – at first – is the mirror that dominates one wall of West’s dining room, seemingly angled outward at the top merely to display the rug on the floor. Its true purpose is only revealed when flood waters pour in through the window, treating the viewer to a sight of the rapidly rising tide that swirls around Edith’s legs, adding to the sense of her peril without having to alter the camera set up or edit the film.[7]

Perhaps the most striking shots in Verdens undergang come when Stoll scouts out a hiding place in the mine, and later when, pursued by TOP_D_2014_Findumonde4Flint, he tries to bear the injured Dina to safety there. Each time, the characters descend into utter darkness, with only a single candle to light the way. Blom’s ingenious use of what appears to be a chest-mounted lighting rig gives halos of light to otherwise invisible figures shot from behind, and of mobile lights out of shot at the feet of the advancing characters produces moving pools of light and shadow, emphasising the deeper darkness into which they descend. There is nothing like it in silent sf – perhaps in silent cinema – until Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) pursues/rapes Maria (Brigitte Helm) with a torchbeam in Metropolis (Lang Germany 1926).

Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars
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Alongside Blom, Nordisk’s other major director in the 1910s was Forest Holger-Madsen, another occasional actor, who shot forty-six films between 1912 and 1936. His Nordisk films include three overtly anti-war films: Ned med vaabne (Lay Down Your Arms; 1914), scripted by Carl Theodor Dreyer from a novel by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Baroness Bertha von Suttner; Pax Aeterna (1917), co-written by Nordisk-owner Ole Olsen, the poet, novelist and playwright Sophus Michaëlis and Otto Rung; and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars 1918), adapted by Olsen and Michaëlis from the latter’s novel of the same name.

In Himmelskibet, sea captain turned aeroplane enthusiast Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs) yearns for a new and worthy venture, something that will further the human spirit and the cause of peace. He finds inspiration in the work of his father, the astronomer Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), and commits himself to building a ‘bridge between the planets’ – to constructing a spaceship and flying to Mars. He is joined in this endeavour by his friend Dr Krafft (Alf Blütecher), who is in love with his sister, Corona Planetaros (Zanny Petersen). After two years, Avanti announces the completion of the Excelsior at a meeting of the Scientific Society. A cigar-shaped craft with a propeller at the rear and biplane wings above the front of the fuselage, it has a revolutionary power source[8] that will enable it to travel through interplanetary space at 12,000kph. Despite Avanti’s impressive presentation (he is dramatically lit at a lectern at the front of the darkened room, with footage of the spaceship matted in beside him as if it is a film being projected), he is ridiculed by the demoniacally-lit – and appropriately named – Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen), who denounces the venture as madness rather than science and calls for common sense to prevail.

The contrast between Dubius and his friend, Professor Planetaros, is articulated, as one might expect, through mise-en-scene. Planetaros is a stable, bourgeois patriarch, his observatory uncluttered, his home spacious and dull, with immaculate furniture that could be decades old. Physically, he resembles one of Boris Karloff’s white-haired scientists of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but while he shares something of their melancholy, he possesses none of their madness. Dubius, with his pointed beard, shock of hair, pince-nez and cheroots, more closely resembles the owlish Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) of Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler (Lang Germany 1922). Indeed, in his rather cluttered office, strewn with books and papers, he even sits beneath a giant stuffed owl, symbolising a knowledge more arcane than modern science. He lives alone with his housekeeper; his clothes suggest vanity and he is furiously envious of Avanti. When the press turn against the expedition, Professor Planetaros, fearing for his son’s safety, is driven into physical and psychological decline by Dubius’ constant taunting. (Dubius is eventually driven mad by the expedition’s success and is struck dead by lightning.)

Among the volunteer crew Avanti recruits from the Science Society, two figures are particularly noteworthy. One is an unnamed Japanese, played by an uncredited European in yellowface with spectacles and smoothed down hair, who retains an air of formal deference despite his western dress. The other is David Dane (Svend Kornbech), a stout American adventurer with the build of a young Fatty Abuckle. He is uncouth – he enters the meeting smoking a pipe and wearing a stetson, with his jacket draped over his arm, only for one of the stewards to remove his pipe and hat and make him put his jacket back on – and, it soon transpires, a secretive alcoholic. This depiction of a modern Japanese obviously owes much to Japan’s surprise victory in the 1904–5 war with Russia and to its significant role in World War One;[9] a similar blend of modernity and orientalism is found in the Japanese of Spione (Lang Germany 1928). In contrast, Dane combines frontier accoutrements with crass materialism, unhealthy appetites and a bully’s swagger that turns out to be a coward’s front. Six months into the voyage, it is not the oriental who turns treacherous, but the American. Driven to despair by the ‘brooding darkness’ of space, Dane no longer attempts to conceal his heavy drinking and begins to plot mutiny. Only Krafft and the Japanese remain loyal to their commander.

Avanti self-consciously models himself on Christopher Columbus, talking to a portrait of the explorer that decorates his father home and copying its visionary subject’s heroic pose (Tolnæs’ overemphatic performance of heroic energy and messianic commitment is at odds with that of most of the rest of the cast; his excessive gesturality recalls Gustav Fröhlich’s often-criticised performance as Metropolis’ Freder Fredersen). And in an echo of the myth of Columbus’ voyage, it is just as the Excelsior is nearing Mars that the mutineers attempt to seize the spaceship. However, the Martian observers monitoring its approach accelerate the Excelsior to ten times its normal speed and land it safely on their planet.

imagesIt is on Mars that Himmelskibet’s pacifism comes to the fore. Martian civilisation combines elements typical of nineteenth-century utopian or lost-race fictions: pseudo-classical architecture, costume and customs; divine ancient wisdom; telepathy; social, psychological and physiological engineering, in this instance organised around a fruitarian diet; and a scattering of superscience technologies. Here, however, the emphasis is not on detailing eutopia’s radically different socio-economic structures but on the stately grace of the Martians, their social/religious rituals and the beauty of their landscape (which looks exactly like the Danish countryside, apart from the occasional ziggurat or giant flower). Premiering in February 1918, the film’s boldest move is overtly to transvaluate the God of War into the Planet of Peace.

The Martians greet the expedition with fruit, but disdain the wine they are offered in return and are repelled by cans of ‘dead meat’. Avanti shoots a bird from the sky to show the Martians that they, too, could easily add meat to their diet. The Martians, appalled by the sound of the first gunshot on the planet in thousands of years and by the murder of a living being, advance on the humans, and Dane throws a grenade, killing a Martian: ‘War and sin! Killing and blood!’ have come to ‘the planet of peace’, and ‘must be atoned for’.

Marya (Lilly Jacobson), the daughter of the Martian Wise Man (Philip Bech), appoints herself the expedition’s defender as the humans subject themselves to Martian law, which punishes them by giving them self-knowledge. They are shown scenes from Martian history – of the ‘killing with fire and iron’ that prevailed until the Wise Man brought peace to their world – and thus learn that ‘Blood screams in even the smallest murder and sin opens its gates of hell/The source of life is but pure and good, woven from every strain of blood’. The humans vow never again to kill any living creature and even Dane surrenders his weapons. Then, to their amazement, the dead Martian is revived.

Many elements of Himmelskibet remain quite impressive: the dressing of its bourgeois sets and the chiaroscuro lighting effects; the Excelsior’s interior design, its rivets, gears and wheels prefiguring the spaceship interiors of Just Imagine (Butler US 1930) and Flash Gordon (Stephani US 1936); and the blend of effects shots and actuality footage, including aerial views of Copenhagen, worked into the Excelsior’s launch sequence.

However, its attempts to depict a truly spiritual Martian people have fared less well. This is perhaps most evident in the rather curious courtship of Avanti and Marya. When he declares his love at ‘the tree of longing’ and then enters the ‘forest of love’ with her, it is impossible to tell whether these terms are supposed to have symbolic meaning within the diegesis, are part of an exegetic double-coding to make it clear that they are about to consummate their love, or just really unfortunate phrasing. Likewise, it is difficult to know what to make of Avanti fondling Marya’s breasts, especially as the rest of their interactions seem so chaste and this scene comes just after a comparison has been drawn between the Martian ‘dance of chastity’ and scenes of terrestrial debauchery and violence. Indeed, the only time the images manage to convey any sense of poetic harmony are a handful of shots depicting terrestrial workers in the early morning light of which Humphrey Jennings would have been proud.

14697181688_4dcbc8e4b7Marya joins the Excelsior on its return to Earth so as to propagate her father’s ‘message of enlightenment’. Professor Planetaros, whose suicide is narrowly averted by his son’s homecoming, welcomes her with these words: ‘In you I greet the new generation – the flower of a superior civilization, the seed of which shall be replanted in our earth, so that the ideals of love may grow strong and rich’.[10] This hopeful address to the future must have seemed bitterly ironic in the closing months of a war in which nine million combatants, most of them young people, were killed. It is, however, perhaps too much to suggest that, in such hierarchical and patriarchal sentiments, in Planetaros’ reduction of a ‘superior’ woman to a literal and symbolic womb, and in the film’s Aryan vision of superiority, its fascination with uniforms, technology and messianic heroism, that the outlines of the Next Great War can already be glimpsed.

Works cited
Abel, Richard. The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Anon. ‘Not Much is Known of Daylight Comet’, The New York Times (30 January 1910): C3. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9400E7D61730E233A25753C3A9679C946196D6CF.
Mottram, Ron. The Danish Cinema before Dreyer. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1988.

Notes
[1] The longest continuously operating studio in the world, Nordisk still makes 10-15 productions and co-productions per year.

[2] The first decade of the twentieth century was the only time imported films have dominated the American screen. By the autumn of 1907, Pathé alone ‘was selling on the American market between thirty and forty million feet of positive film stock per year, nearly twice as much as all the American companies combined’ (Abel 87).

[3] He has a role in Atlantis, but there is ‘no documentation … to support [the] claim’ (Mottram 9) that he was also its assistant director.

[4] For an overview of his films from 1910-14, see Mottram.

[5] One cannot help but wonder whether this sequence inspired Tod Browning’s The Unknown (US 1927), in which Lon Chaney performs equally remarkable armless feats.

[6] A Danish audience would presumably have recognised this as the Buried Church in Skagen, the most northerly point of Jutland, which was lost – with much metaphorical commentary – to the encroaching sands during a period of desertification in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[7] Such attention to the contents and spatial organisation of the frame may have influenced Curtiz’s own distinctive mise-en-scene, perhaps best exemplified by the interiors of Casablanca (US 1942) and Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

[8] Although its engine room seems to contain only a small five-stroke motor.

[9] After the war, Japan was awarded a seat on the Council of the League of Nations, and Saionji Kinmochi was seated with David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando at the Versailles Peace Conference, although his attempts to include a racial equality clause into the Versailles Treaty failed.

[10] Rather unfortunately for the Anglophone viewer, this sentiment is followed by an ‘End’ caption in Swedish, which is ‘Slut’.

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Dandies in the Underworld

fantomasA giant figure in immaculate evening dress looms over night-time Paris. Stepping over familiar landmarks, he gazes out at us from behind a domino mask. And in his outstretched hand is a bloodied dagger. The image, by Gino Starace, is iconic. It is Fantômas. The Lord of Terror. The Genius of Evil. But despite his costume, he is not a gentleman.

Created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre for a series of 32 monthly novels, the enormously popular Fantômas soon crossed over to the movies. In 1913 and 1914, Louis Feuillade directed five films about the endless quest of Inspector Juve and journalist Jerôme Fandor to capture the criminal mastermind. However, although Starace’s picture was used to promote Feuillade’s Fantômas, he only once appears costumed like this – and then as a figment of the defeated Juve’s imagination.

The head of a vast criminal organisation and a master of disguise, Fantômas has less in common with the gentleman thief than with the villains of Fritz Lang’s Die Spinnen (1919-20), Spione (1928) and Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933, 1960), in whom the terrors of disempowerment and anonymity that accompany capitalist-industrial, urban modernity coalesce. Brutally instrumentalist and utterly impersonal, there is no true identity to be discovered behind his series of disguises.

Starace’s dapper but knife-wielding gentleman is – in the face of the globalising forces of empire and capital squaring off on the eve of World War I – at once reassuring, anachronistic, transgressive and fantastical. Perhaps this is why Fantômas, the product of arch-conservatives, so appealed to such radical avant-gardists as Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Blaise Cendrars, René Magritte and Kurt Weill. He embodies the contradictions of his age.

The probable source of Starace’s gentleman-thief image is AJ Raffles, perhaps channelled through Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. Created by EW Hornung in the 1890s, Raffles is the finest slow bowler of his generation. Penniless, he is nonetheless proud to be a Gentleman rather than a Player, and likewise insists on his amateur status as a thief. Selecting only the most challenging jobs and most exquisite loot to support his bachelor lifestyle, he robs from the rich and is not averse to others helping the poor.

raffles-1917He appeared in a dozen films between 1905 and 1939. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917) stars John Barrymore in a breakneck mash-up of Hornung’s stories that only ever pauses to display The Great Profile’s great profile. This Raffles appears to be not so much a gentleman as someone who knows a gentleman’s tailor (Barrymore, his looks and his star both fading, is a more compelling gentleman thief in Arsène Lupin and Grand Hotel, both 1932). In Raffles (1925), House Peters, known as ‘The Star of a Thousand Emotions’, can muster only a handful of them, including ‘stolid refusal to be charismatic’ and ‘discomfort in ill-fitting evening dress’. In contrast, da993b7bbe01f24bdfcf2ae6e48c04bbRonald Colman in the first talkie Raffles (1930) gives one of his most effortless-seeming performances – as if acting were too vulgar even to contemplate – and the warm timbre of his Surrey burr modulates plummy received pronunciation into something quite sensuous. But the narrative material had already been filleted of its fundamental queerness. Hornung’s stories, focused on the close bond between Raffles and his accomplice Bunny, are full of innuendo and double entendre, with occasional allusions to amyl nitrate and Oscar Wilde.

Once the Production Code was enforced, the gentleman thief became not merely straight but almost completely desexualised. In the 1940 Raffles, David Niven is too young, his Raffles too boyish, and the casting of classical Hollywood’s very best good girl, Olivia de Havilland, as his love interest compounds an error that would not be corrected until Yorkshire Television’s 1977 Raffles series, raffles_tll10starring Anthony Valentine. Perfectly cast, Valentine’s precise delivery and slightly faded looks – the contrast between his crow’s feet and seemingly plasticised cheekbones suggests more than merely a youth misspent – unleash the homoerotic appeal of the gentleman thief: the tastefully furnished, comfortable quarters, devoid of women; the endless flirtations, but avoidance of romance or entanglement; the gentlemen’s clubs; the secret nocturnal identity; the dressing-up to break into other men’s houses; the crossing of class barriers; the mixing with rough trade…

But, queer or otherwise, this sexual undercurrent is not the only source of the gentleman thief’s appeal. The flipside of Fantômas, that anonymously devastating force of modernity, the gentleman thief negotiates modernity’s transformations of economic and social structures. This is beautifully captured by the prominence afforded a bust of WG Grace in the apartment of Valentine’s Raffles. As the finest cricketer of his generation, Grace is worthy of Raffles’s respect. But despite being a Gentleman, he was only nominally an amateur, making more money from the sport than any professional Player. A similar whiff of disrepute surrounds Raffles.

As old hierarchies crumbled, signifiers of social class were disrupted by wider access to certain varieties of commodity. Appearances begin to deceive. In Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, pre-Code Trouble in Paradise (1932), a Baron (Herbert Marshall) and a Countess (Miriam Hopkins) only fall in love when each discovers the other is a fake and a thief. Self-made and simulacral, they can play any social role – given the right costume – but the only place they really belong is with each other, conning, stealing or on the lam. However, such semiotic manipulations rarely succeed. In Pépé le moko (1938), Jean Gabin’s proletarian thief is unutterably stylish, but he cannot escape his class or fate.

In the post-war period, values shifted. Consider the contrast in The Pink Panther (1963) between the aristocratic Phantom and his nephew: David Niven is too old, Robert Wagner too American, too glib. A new consumerist masculinity was taking over, and gentleman thieves were no longer gentlemen. And they were as likely to solve crimes as commit them.

The character-type saw a popular resurgence in 1966, the year in which Cary Grant, Hollywood’s master of sartorial transformation (and a gentleman thief in To Catch a Thief, 1955), retired from films. The charm of Gambit’s Harry Dean (Michael Caine) is located in the gulf between his East London vowels and his dubious received pronunciation when posing as Sir Harold Dean. That of Kaleidoscope’s Barney Lincoln (Warren Beatty) depends entirely on his transparent reliance on a broad smile to buy time when he is out of his social depth. This league of ‘gentlemen’, which also includes Oliver Reed in The Jokers (1967) and Stanley Baker in Perfect Friday (1970), consists of working- (or middle-) class boys made good, and valorised for doing so. The very best of them is to be found in How to Steal a Million (1966), less a film than an opportunity to ponder whether Audrey Hepburn – as elegant when disguised as a cleaning lady as when dressed by Givenchy – or a young Peter O’Toole is the more beautiful (although it is probably a draw, O’Toole does showcase some of the most remarkable cigarette-handling you will ever see).

21129_Danger-Diabolik-05Costume, commodities and consumption are also at the heart of Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968). The eponymous Jaguar-driving criminal mastermind (played by John Phillip Law, who looks like the offspring of Alain Delon and a Vulcan mod) dresses in full-enclosure leather and rubber body suits to commit his crimes, only his eyes visible through a domino-shaped cutaway. Based on a 1960s Italian comic book character, Diabolik is an intriguing inversion of Fantômas. His ‘terrorism’ is restricted to destroying the taxation system because the government have wasted so much public money pursuing him, and his subterranean base is a fantasy of modish, high-tech apartment living – a love-nest shared with Eva (Marisa Mell), his beautiful blonde accomplice with a taste for mini-raf_bun2dresses, hotpants, hipsters, peekaboo tops and kinky boots. Crime, for them, is passionate foreplay and, in contrast to poor Raffles and Bunny, it need never go unconsummated.

This dynamic between class and consumption was repeatedly played out on British television in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Adam Adamant (Gerald Harper), a Victorian secret agent revived in swinging London, was a gentleman (and misogynistic prig) but not a thief. Peter Wyngarde’s deliciously-voiced Jason King was no castgentleman, although he was certainly a player. Tony Curtis’s brash self-made millionaire Danny Wilde partners up with Roger Moore’s Lord Brett Sinclair to fight crime in expensive locations in The Persuaders!, although Moore always seemed less an aristocrat than a bemused estate agent. However, the pattern was most decisively set when, in the fifth season of The Avengers, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, formerly so well-dressed that you forgot he was a government functionary, let himself be costumed by Pierre Cardin. Bringing modern touches to classic Savile Row designs might have sounded innocuous, but from there it was only a short step to working with Gareth Hunt…

Perhaps it was the backlash against the ‘excesses’ of the 1960s and 1970s, or perhaps it was neo-liberalism’s success in persuading otherwise sensible people that there are no such things as society or social and economic classes, that finally did for the gentleman thief. Where is he now?

In Entrapment (1999), Sean Connery – whose James Bond negotiated so intriguingly between working-class physique and access to style, articulating social mobility as a semiotic possibility – is just some rich guy, no more convincing as a gentleman than he was as a Soviet submarine commander. There is too much of the catalogue model about Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean merely gentrifies the rat pack. Remorselessly heterosexualised, they reek of new money. And then there is The Gentleman Thief (2001), which only exists because the BBC realised – far too late – that they should lazily cast Nigel Havers as Raffles before it was too late. Or former Eastender Michelle Ryan as Doctor Who’s ‘aristocratic’ thief/Emma-Peel-wannabe, Lady Christina de Souza…

Frankly, I’d rather work with Gareth Hunt.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 12 (winter 2009), is now out of print.]