Tuesday, January 31, 2017

In short: The Ghost Camera (1933)

Returning from a vacation in the more boring parts of the country – though there is a very picturesque ruin around - John Gray (Henry Kendall) finds a camera the audience saw falling into his car among his luggage. Because developing the film in it seems a possible way to find out who it belongs to (and because he’s frankly rather curious but would never admit to it), Gray does so. The first photo he develops seems to show a fight to the death between two men, but before he can examine things more closely, someone organizes the fiendish distraction of a ringing at the door, and it is stolen.

His curiosity now truly peaked, Gray investigates and strolls into a case concerning the mandatory beautiful woman (Ida Lupino), her missing brother, and a stolen diamond.

This little British low budget mystery romance directed by Bernard Vorhaus is surprisingly engaging. There’s not just Ida Lupino before she was a star or the only female director in Hollywood who made up for the “only” by being quite brilliant behind the camera here bursting with energy in front of it, Henry Kendall playing a proto-nerd hero I can only read as a young M.R. James character fighting crime, a plot that moves through the film’s 65 minutes with verve and control, and the time capsule effect low budget films often achieve much better than productions that are allowed to aim higher.

Vorhaus also demonstrates in his first feature film all the visual talents that would stand him in good stead in the future (at least in those of his films I have seen): there’s some fine use of chiaroscuro effects, a real sense for expressive editing that never reaches the tackiness of The Montage (there, I said it), and an understanding of the creation of mood with simple means. Particular highpoints are a proto noir style flashback to the film’s central murder and an interrogation sequence at an inquest that sees the accused bodily shrinking ever further into a corner, while the camera moves closer and closer to the accusing coroner’s face with every shot.

The Ghost Camera is light and a bit fluffy, but also engaging and much better made than it needed to be, which is quite an achievement for an eighty year old low budget film.

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