Something like a postmodern riff on the entire idea of German Expressionism, Paul Leni’s The Last Warning (1929) was the final film for the illustrious Leni who died eight months after its release of blood poisoning at the age of forty-four. Today he’s a neglected figure, even among silent-film auteur geeks, and seems in dire need of exhumation as one of late silent cinema’s most exuberant stylists. But there’s more to it than that: in the sphere and influence of German Expressionism, where morbid moralism often goes hand-in-hand with surface shadowlands and supernatural menace, Leni was the arch-imagist for whom the style was sheer fun. From his early design work (for everyone from Joe May to Michael Curtiz) through to the features he directed, The Mystery of Bangalore (1917), Waxworks (1924), The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Man Who Laughs (1928), and The Last Warning, nobody seemed to have as much of a flat-out blast behind the camera as Leni for whom the contraptions, Gothic mood, and ornate geography of Expressionism was simply, in Orson Welles’s term, a giant model railroad set, a contrived playground for a great game of scare-your-pants-off. Other filmmakers, particularly Lubitsch, used Expressionism lightly, in comedies, but in films like The Oyster Princess (1919), the Aubrey Beardsley-like set design is part of the narrative’s outrageous satire. With Leni, the fun to be had was with the artificial world itself. No satirical agenda was required.
The Last Warning was also one of the very last silent films Universal made—except it was also released in a “part-talkie” version, with roughly sixty feet of sound scenes added (only a minute or two), the nature of which go unrecorded and now lost to time. Tacked on synch-sound scenes in those precious years rarely if ever improved a film (think Paul Fejos’s Lonesome) and, in the case of a rambunctious artist like Leni, could only have dampened the party.
The kind of party we’re in for was immediately familiar to audiences in 1929 because of the intense popularity two years earlier of Leni’s The Cat and the Canary—to which The Last Warning is devised to be a companion film, almost a redux. The setup, from an old novel by Charles Wadsworth Camp (Madeleine L’Engle’s father), was already so hoary in 1929 as to be a solid joke: in a vast Broadway theater, a play’s star is murdered onstage during a crowded performance. With the body missing and the death unsolved, the theater is condemned as haunted and closed, until years later, when a new “producer” suspiciously arrives to restage the play with all its old cast and crew—setting up the not-at-all remote possibility that the same murder will occur all over again.
Menacing notes from the dead man appear, a phantom figure is glimpsed, hidden passageways are discovered, pratfalls and accidents afflict the long-suffering comedy relief (Slim Summerville, Mack Swain, Margaret Livingston). All of it arrives with a briskness and energy that suggest that Leni & Co., with tongue in cheek, knew very well the thin ice upon which they tread. The joy of this kind of filmmaking, in fact, finds its DNA not in the Germanic assault of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but in the earlier French serials of Louis Feuillade, whose Fantômas (1913–14) and Les Vampires (1916) are filthy with secrets, turnabouts, wall-scaling mysterians in black, and deranged criminal plots. Leni was playing a well-seasoned fiddle by 1929 and feels free to play it up—his cutaways to the nervous could-be culprits, the harumphing sleuth, the ham-handed explication of clues, the sudden disappearance of cast members in the darkened theater, all of it has the lip-smacking flavor of pulp well-trodden and well-loved and a little well-mocked. Even Leni’s title cards succumb to the hyperbole, zooming in and out, wavering in and out of focus, shuddering with fear, generally wracked with an expressive evocation of the sound that isn’t there in ways that are both effective and, given the year, hilarious.
Though the star of the film is ostensibly Laura La Plante as the play’s female star, the real protagonist is the magnificent theater set, which is so thoroughly convincing in three dimensions—from looming baroque balconies to stage area to scaffolding to backstage corridors and dressing rooms—you couldn’t be blamed for thinking it was an actual, fabulous old theater used as-is, and for wanting to go visit it. You can’t—it’s actually the leftover set at Universal Studios for Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera, which was featured in numerous studio-shot films over the next half-century (including The Sting), and still stands waiting for the restoration and relocation efforts announced as recently as 2014. Perhaps no film ever used this standing wonder so thoroughly or elaborately as The Last Warning, scanning almost like an anatomical blueprint for a building that doesn’t in any real way exist.
All of this would be merely fine if Leni’s filmmaking didn’t propel the movie forward on roller skates—his camera never stops swooping and shifting, searching for new perspectives, even exploiting the center stage’s trap door, intended to disappear or reappear characters in mid-scene, but used by Leni for a beneath-to-above crane shot. The film’s climax, ignited by a policeman’s whistle, is a literal explosion of movement, montage, and hyper-Feuilladean action. The late-silent-period pyrotechnics—often approaching an Abel Gance-like love of variety and movement within the Expressionist shadow-maze—meshes with the set space and the plot, mustering a fascinating aggregate sense of how theater and life commingle. The Last Warning is one of the first films to exploit this hall-of-mirrors reality, as we (and the camera) restlessly examine the ironic relationship between the mystery of the stage play reflected in the story’s “real” murder-mystery saga, which is reoccurring (like the play, or like the movie we’re watching), in a vast theater where both mysteries transpired, and where they’ll transpire again, and so on. Every clue and character secret has a double or triple meaning, and everything is “acted.” As in the cinema of Feuillade and, later, Jacques Rivette, there is no reality—just reflecting layers of make-believe.
All of which would have all made Leni chuckle, of course—he was just making entertainment, as zestily and atmospherically as he could. The Last Warning was not the hit The Cat and the Canary was—it hardly had a chance with talkies already stealing every bit of thunder in American theaters that year. After that, it was all but forgotten, another casualty of faddish technology. Leni never lived to make a sound film or see an all-talkie moviescape. One can only imagine how this manic craftsman might have, á la Mamoulian, Hitchcock, Lang, and Clair, managed to bring his particular filmmaking arsenal into the new era.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Donald Sosin