The Last Warning sits at a pivotal point in Hollywood history. It marks the end of an era and richly deserves this new Blu-ray restoration from Eureka Entertainment, as a part of their rapidly growing ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint. It’s visually interesting and, for a silent film with a relatively simple story, a surprisingly enjoyable viewing. Though it’ll appeal mostly to film buffs and horror fans with an interest in the roots of the genre.
It feels as if we should be discussing this as an early film in the long career of a hugely influential director. Instead, it turned out to be Paul Leni’s final film as, less than a year later, his promising career was cut short by premature death. It also signifies a momentous ‘hand-over’ of power from one of the original movie moguls and Universal City founder, Carl Laemmle, to his son.
The Last Warning was billed as a mystery movie, mainly because horror had yet to be recognised as a cinematic category. Under the stewardship of Carl Jr., Universal Studios would soon assert their dominance over the emergent genre that Leni helped define—beginning with his classic of German Expressionism, Waxworks (1924), which drew him to the attention of Hollywood. The Last Warning comes soon after Leni’s masterpiece, The Man Who Laughs (1928), and in comparison, is a more modest offering. It’s closer to the ‘haunted house’ format he set-out with The Cat and the Canary (1927), which had been his US directorial debut.
Ironically, what was to be Leni’s last film seems to be a sort of stopgap movie, keeping costs down by making use of properties already owned by Universal. It was based on a successful stage play and filmed on the marvellous theatre sets built for The Phantom of the Opera (1925). They aren’t all that’s been borrowed, either—there’s also secret passages, and a masked ‘monster’. Its cast is made up of character actors who would’ve been familiar, but only stars one A-lister in Laura La Plante and, after around 70 appearances, this would be her first ‘talkie’. Wait a minute, didn’t I just say The Last Warning was a silent movie…?
This was the end of the silent era but not all picture houses had projectors that could handle synchronised sound. So, for a while, it became the norm for films to be released in two alternative versions. Not so many stars of the silent age transitioned easily to voice acting. The theatrical mime and big facial expressions, which are showcased here, were an entirely different language. The Last Warning was written, performed, and shot, as a silent film, but some scenes were also recorded with dialogue and the two prints were distributed.
Apparently, the silent print was longer than the sound version. I presume that’s because the dialogue scenes were shortened due to technical and financial constraints and, of course, less time was taken-up with caption cards. This would’ve been a shame as the inter-captions are used most inventively here, integrated as part of the artform. Their beautifully rendered text distorts, stretching or fragmenting expressively, and when two characters speak at once their lines double and merge with one another. None of the sound prints survive, which sounds to me like a blessing as the silent version met a generally positive reception, whereas reviews of the talkie just focussed on how jarring upon the ears it was. That didn’t seem to mar La Plante’s career which lasted another three decades.
One of the differences that came with sound was more cumbersome equipment and, for a while, cinema reverted to a format more akin to filmed plays. Cameras stayed put with minimal use of panning and tracking shots. By contrast, Paul Leni’s camerawork here is distinctively dynamic and one of the film’s most remarkable features. In some scenes, the viewpoint seems to defy gravity and even manages to, literally, swing through the air from balcony to balcony across the vast auditorium. Credit has to be shared with his pioneering cinematographer Hal Mohr who had shot the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), less than a year earlier.
The Last Warning cleverly plays with the parallels between film and theatre, and like a stage conjurer, Leni exploits cinematic sleight-of-hand to misdirect the audience. The opening scenes present a kaleidoscopic montage of Broadway lights, dancing girls, and glitterati arriving in style. This evokes the excitement of a night at the theatre whilst also exploiting the dream-language of film where reality’s malleable, time isn’t constant, and one location can dissolve to another. He used a similar sequence as the entrée for Waxworks to express the surreal experience of arriving at a fairground.
It’s the opening night for the Bunce Brothers’ Broadway production of The Snare, starring John Woodford (D’Arcy Corrigan), Doris Terry (Laura Le Plante), Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy), and Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery). In the midst of the action, right before the eyes of a packed auditorium, John Woodford drops dead mid-performance, bringing the play to a sudden, unexpected halt. The doctor, called from the audience, cannot determine the cause of death and by the time the police coroner arrives, the body has mysteriously vanished.
The investigation reveals the usual backstage rivalry and romantic entanglements, but the crime remains unsolved and the ‘cursed’ theatre stands abandoned for five years… until a detective, Arthur McHugh (Mantague Love), working undercover as a theatre producer, plans to reopen it with the same play using the original cast and crew. He sends for the same director, Richard Quayle (John Boles), who recasts Carlton, one of the prime suspects, in Woodford’s role. Thinking that Doris Terry is away in Europe, another actress, the vampish Evalynda (Margaret Livingston), arrives to read for her part. When Doris does unexpectedly return to take up her original role, all the suspects are assembled again, and it seems that even Woodford is back in phantom form to haunt the rehearsals.
The first half of the film’s a fun slice of lightweight hokum, camp and played for chuckles with plenty of visual gags. It’s like watching a game of ‘theatre edition Cluedo’, following that familiar Agatha Christie template of gathering all the players in a closed environment. Even a candlestick is implicated, but it turns out the theatre itself (with its trapdoors, catwalks, high-voltage lighting, flying flats, and false walls) is the real murder weapon!
Things get curiouser when, at the same moment during the same scene in the play, Carlton also disappears in circumstances echoing the moment from five years earlier. The second act gets a little darker and there are a few effectively creepy moments. Look out for the freaky hand with long witchy fingernails and a hook through its palm, or the seemingly disfigured face we only ever glimpse blurred or in the half-light. The Gothic atmosphere is all the more effective for the grainy and distressed quality retained in this sensitively restored print.
Some of the imagery rivals the best of German Expressionism or early Hollywood horror, but it’s all too brief and never gets too grim. Basically, what we’re left with is an entertaining whodunnit with a few fleeting elements of horror mixed with police procedural. At the time, it drew comparisons with The Terror (1928), which was based on a story by Edgar Wallace—who pretty much created the macabre mystery genre.
The Last Warning stage play, which enjoyed 238 packed performances from 1922-23 at Broadway’s Klaw Theatre, was written by Thomas F. Fallon. It was loosely based on a popular mystery novel of 1916, House of Fear, by Wadsworth Camp. The film was scripted by a team of writers from the Universal stable, headed by Alfred A. Cohn, who would later be nominated for the very first ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ Oscar in the inaugural Academy Awards of 1929, for his adaptation of The Jazz Singer.
The resulting story is silly, simple, but well-crafted. There’s some mutual misunderstanding of motives among the characters and this throws some whopping red herrings into the mix. Any fan of Scooby-Doo will have no difficulty in predicting the dénouement, but there’re enough twists and misdirection along the way to keep one guessing. Even if you pick the right suspect, you can’t be certain until the final reveal.
USA | 1928 | 89 MINUTES | 1.20:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH / SILENT
Blu-ray Special Features:
- Limited Edition O-Card slipcase [2000 copies]. The O-card boasts striking new artwork, but don’t worry if you miss out as it’s the same as the Blu-ray menu graphic.
- 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from Universal’s 4K restoration, available for the first time ever on home video in the UK. This version has been created from two sources: a 35mm nitrate negative from the vaults at Cinémathèque Française and a 16mm print from the UCLA Film and Television archive. There are noticeable jumps in quality, scratches and other artefacts have been retained, but this only adds to the historic feel of the material and helps evoke the atmosphere.
- Score by composer Arthur Barrow, which sits nicely with the visuals, probably more appealing to our modern sensibilities than the original music would’ve been when, played by a small-town pianist or local band of the day. The score has a jazzy vibe which lends a Lynchian feel to some scenes whilst remaining sensitive to the period setting, highlighting the drama and emphasising pertinent clues.
- Brand new audio commentary with horror and fantasy authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. Newman spews forth in is his usual ebullient and erudite style, with plenty of info to help place the film in its historical context. He often goes off on interesting tangents and Stephen Jones does an admirable job of bringing things back to the film we’re actually watching and what we see on the screen. They provide brief biographies of key cast and crew, and compare and contrast it with the original novel, stage version and remakes. Between them they make the re-watch fun and rewarding…
- ‘Paul Leni and ‘The Last Warning’—a 10-minute video essay by film historian and author John Soister on Leni’s final film, in which he recounts how the film was conceived as a sequel of sorts to The Cat and the Canary and tracks its production through to its Christmas Day premier in 1928.
- Rare stills gallery.
- A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp. A good, well-researched biography of Paul Leni; and a short essay by composer Arthur Barrow on his score for the film, in which he gives some insight to how he approached the task and how music for a silent film is quite a different thing to a score for a sound film. At 24-pages it’s nice little booklet with some well-presented production stills and publicity material.
Cast & Crew
director: Paul Leni.
writers: Alfred A. Cohn, J.G Hawkes, Robert F. Hill & Tom Reed (based on the novel by Thomas F. Fallon).
starring: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Margaret Livingston & John Boles.