Cult Movie: The Last Warning a final offering from Paul Leni, a man who pushed the boundaries of film
The Last Warning
PAUL Leni was an incredible director. A defining figure in German Expressionist cinema, his dreamlike designs and constantly moving visuals allowed him to push the boundaries of film before sepsis claimed him at the criminally young age of 44.
His final release, The Last Warning, from 1928, encapsulates everything that was great about the man and the vision he had for cinema as the artform began to change forever.
Originally released as Universal's last great silent offering over the Christmas holidays of 28, it was swiftly rebranded as both a silent and a part-talkie film, in keeping with the fashion of the time, in January of the following year.
It starred Universal's great face of the era Laura La Plante and was based on a popular Thomas F Fallon whodunnit that traces the aftermath of a murder that happens during a live Broadway show but it failed to garner the accolades of Leni's earlier work for the studio such as The Cat And The Canary (1927). Perhaps the mishmash of creaky old mystery story, full blown farce and stagey whodunnit traditions wasn't distinctive enough to set it apart from the crowd.
Viewed today though, thanks to Universal's beautiful new 4K restoration for Blu-ray, it's both a fascinating snapshot of a lost era and an impressively fresh glimpse into an auteur's ever inventive mind.
La Plante may be the star name on the posters but it's Leni's skill that draws you in here. Working with a remarkable set created for Lon Chaney's 1925 offering The Phantom of The Opera, Leni's camera never stops moving, offering cutaways and inventive trick shots at every opportunity. We see endless furtive close-ups of possible suspects and witness cast members fade into the surroundings of the darkened theatre setting with remorseless regularity.
Such fascination with the trickery of the camera and the possibilities of that outrageous set means the story suffers from a lack of attention that leaves The Last Warning very much a visual treat rather than a dramatic one. Fans of silent cinema history do get to marvel at performances from the likes of Margaret Livingston (a veteran of Murnau's Sunrise) and Mack Swain (who famously faced off with Chaplin in The Tramp), however.
The overblown acting style of the silent era was fading from view by the time this hit cinema screens and the result is it can feel a little lost and out of time as actors stretch to emote in full-on silent mode. In many ways though such an old fashioned feel only adds to the period charm of the film today.
This fresh release features the full silent version (the added talkie elements being something of an afterthought) and new features include a brisk new score from Arthur Barrow and audio commentary from fantasy writers Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. It almost goes without saying the film has never looked better either.
As an important document from a long gone era and a nifty little slice of cinema style and craftmanship, The Last Warning is still well worth checking out.