An heiress in peril! A scheming villain! A cunning and terrifying plan! Yes, this is an honest-to-goodness melodrama of the Victorian school. Director Leonce Perret crafts a knotty little thriller out of old-fashioned ingredients.
The villain still pursued her.
Silent movie fans spend a lot of time and energy explaining films of the era to people who have never seen them. No, women weren’t tied to the tracks (except in comedies spoofing old plays). No, there weren’t pie fights every three minutes. No, silent movies weren’t all melodramas.
Let’s face it, that last description pretty much sums up what people think of silent movies. Nasty villains doing terrible things to young maidens. Of course, pure old-fashioned melodramas were pretty rare in the feature film era and the more sophisticated early short films managed to dodge hoary stage tropes as well. Still, melodramatic plot elements did indeed exist, just not of the villain-in-top-hat variety.
Today, though, we are going to be looking at a film that not only embraces melodrama, it goes pedal-to-the-metal crazy for it. What’s more, it’s still a great movie.
Innovative French director Leonce Perret also plays the villain of the piece. Perret had a career that spanned nearly three decades. He had the rare talent of being able to work in both the French film industry and the Hollywood studio system but his films are comparatively obscure next to those of his more famous countrymen. I will try to correct this injustice and will be covering lots more Perret in the future.
This time, however, I am going to be limiting the discussion to The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador and how Perret’s skills elevated it beyond its simple melodrama roots. (The films runtime makes it a bit of a curio. At about 45 minutes, it’s too long to be a short but just a little too short to be a feature. In any case, the time flies while the film plays so I guess it doesn’t really matter.)
The story opens with Suzanne (Suzanne Grandais), a beautiful heiress, hearing the reading of a will. Her rich uncle has died and has left everything to her– with a few important provisos. First, Comte Fernand de Keranic (Leonce Perret, who would be twirling his mustache if he weren’t clean-shaven) is the executor and has control of Suzanne’s money until she reaches legal adulthood. If she dies before, all the money will go to him. I can see no possible way this could go wrong.
Keranic is a villain of the first water and his first plan is to marry Suzanne and gain her fortune that way. However, he is thwarted (curses!) by Captain Jean d’Erquy (Max Dhartigny, last seen playing cowboy in The Railway of Death). The captain has fallen for Suzanne and she for him and they hope to start courting.
Ok, now for Plan B. Here it is in its entirety: kill everyone. Keranic doesn’t believe in messing around, does he?
Keranic (boo! hiss!) pretends to be Suzanne and writes a letter to d’Erquy asking him to meet her at the rocks of Kador. Then he spikes Suzanne’s coffee and leaves her unconscious body at Kador where the tide will soon drown her. Finally, he sets up a sniper’s nest and shoots the captain as he arrives by boat. All in a day’s work and (need I add?) mwahahahaha.
Of course, Keranic fell victim to the classic melodrama villain blunder. He didn’t check to make sure that the captain was dead. Well, the captain assuredly isn’t. Wounded but still possessing his wits, d’Erquy manages to drag the unconscious Suzanne into the boat as the tide comes in.
The next scene is the stuff of nightmares. Suzanne recovers from the drug and awakens to find herself in a boat in the middle of the ocean. The dying Captain d’Erquy is beside her and there are no oars. The boat is thrown about by the waves as she screams in horror.
By the time Suzanne is rescued, she has been driven mad. Captain d’Erquy makes a recovery but he has no idea who shot him. Suzanne cannot be questioned and it seems unlikely she will ever return to sanity. This all works out just fine for Keranic as the will stated that the money would be his if Suzanne were to suffer from permanent insanity.
Will our villain win the day? Not a chance! Captain d’Erquy is determined to solve the mystery of the cliffs of Kador and bring the cad to justice. Help comes from an unexpected source. A psychologist named Williams (Emile Keppens) has been using exciting new technology to help people in Suzanne’s condition. What new technology? Why, the movies!
Williams engages actors to reproduce the traumatic event that triggered the madness and then projects the resulting film for the patient. But will it work for Suzanne? The intrepid d’Erquy is willing to give it a try.
What makes The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador so successful is that Perret instinctively understood that the power of melodrama was in pure emotion and striking imagery. While the events on the screen are breathless and sensational, his method of storytelling is calm and assured.
In short, Perret understood the genre in which he was working and this clear vision gives his film the intelligence that is missing from many other melodramatic offerings of the period. He knows that the story is old but he invites the audience along for the ride. We all know what we are getting into and this frankness is very appealing.
The visual sophistication of the film helps enormously. These scenes could have been the models for an Edward Gorey picture book. (They may have been, for all I know.)
I mean, just look at these scenes! Here is Suzanne in the drifting boat with the dying captain beside her:
And here is Keranic lying in wait for Captain d’Erquy:
And here is Suzanne as she watches her own life unfold on the movie screen:
One more thing I admired at Perret’s direction was that he did not take shortcuts. See, most movies that make use of the security/reenactment footage plot device just recycle the “real” scene. Perret stays true to his story and actually reshoots the scene. Considering that modern era television and films often do not bother with this (a famous example being Star Trek III) it is very impressive to see it in 1912.
The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador is an unabashed melodrama that succeeds brilliantly. It’s as entertaining as anything and the runtime flies by. This one’s a keeper.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador was released on DVD by Kino Lorber as part of volume one of their Gaumont Treasures box set. The film is accompanied by a suitably eerie and moody score by Philippe Dubosson.