The Death Ray

No rating due to partly missing film

In a nutshell: This 1925 Soviet action film by master film theorist Lev Kuleshov is all about editing and light-hearted spy fun in a pre-James Bond era. Both critics and the audince found the film too experimental or too dumb. Still it is a masterpiece of expressive editing and has some spectacular stunts.

The Death Ray (Luch Smerti). 1925, Russia/USSR. Written and directed by Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin. Based on the novel Lord of Iron (Povelityel Zhelyeza) by Valentin Katayev (uncertain, uncredited). Starring: Porfiri Podobed, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Komarov, Vladimir Fogel, Alexandra Kokhlova. Produced for Gosfilm. IMDb score: 6.4

One of the film's many exciting action scenes.

One of the film’s many exciting action scenes.

No-one should fault me for not trying to dig up what I can about these films. In researching this film I have requested corrections for both the film’s English Wikipedia page and IMDb.

The problem with Lev Kuleshov’s 1925 film Luch Smerti, or The Death Ray, is that there is very little information to be found about it online, even on Russian web pages. This is a bit surprising, as Kuleshov was one of the Soviet Union’s foremost directors and The Death Ray was made with a large budget and was highly publicized when it was released. It was, however, a flop both with audiences and critics, and it was later disowned and buried by the powers that be (was), because the Soviet bureacrats under Stalin thought it was too influenced by Western cinema, and the sci-fi element didn’t sit well with the demands of Soviet realism.

Anyhow, the detail that both Wikipedia and IMDb got wrong was that this film would be an adaptation of a novel written by Alexei Tolstoy (not to be confused with the literary giant Lev Tolstoy). The book people refer to when making this claim is the book The Death Ray/The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (Giperboloid inzhenyera Garina). The problem is: the film was made in 1925, and the book was published in 1927. There is no way the film could be inspired by the book. In fact, there are some sources that seem to point to another book as the inspiration, a pulp detective story (of the so called Red Pinkerton genre) by Valentin Katayev, called Povelityel Zhelyeza – Lord of Iron. Some sources say there are mentions of the novel in the original script, but from what I’ve gathered from a very lengthy synopsis in Russian (I used google translate, I’m not THAT good a Russian), the film and the book only share passing similarities.

One of the few press images of Harry Grindell Matthew's real-life death ray supposedly in action.

One of the few press images of Harry Grindell Matthew’s real-life death ray supposedly in action.

In fact, the real inspiration for both the film and the host of other death ray films and books of the twenties and thirties is British inventor Harry Grindell Matthews, who in 1923 claimed he had invented a ”death ray”, that would put magnetos out of action. In a demonstration to some select journalists he stopped a motorcycle engine from a distance. He also claimed that with enough power he could shoot down aeroplanes, explode gunpowder, stop ships and incapacitate infantry from the distance of four miles. There was a lot of commotion in newspapers around the world when the British military first refused to buy his invention without further proof, then forbade him from selling the plans to any foreign actor. Matthews fled abroad and rumours started circulating that he was selling it to a foreign government, and the inventor himself seemed to revel in the attention from the world media. There is no proof that he ever managed to sell his plans, and no death ray ever emerged on any battlefield. In 2013 a theory was put forth that Matthews had accidentally invented a primitive magnetron. But since the science behind the magnetron wasn’t known in 1923, he actually had no idea how it worked, just that it did, and was therefore reluctant to provide further proof of concept.

Original Soviet poster

Original Soviet poster

So much about the inspiration and background to this 1925 film, The Death Ray (Luch Smerti) by legendary film theorist and director Lev Kuleshov. The film itself is partially lost – the first and last reels are missing. In addition to this, the only version of the film that seems to be out on the market is one that is played at the wrong speed. The original film was said to be 125 minutes long, but what remains is only 76 minutes. If only two reels are missing, it should be around 100 minutes long, if played at the correct speed. This theory is further supported by the fact that the action is almost too fast to follow, and much of the acting seems jerky even for the time. The film simply moves too fast.

The story itself is super-simple. It is placed in an unnamed capitalist country. A socialist inventor invents a death ray of the same specifications that were described by Matthews. It is stolen by capitalist government agents who use it to suppress a proletarian uprising. And here starts a detective story and cat-and-mouse game with fast car chases, gun fights, fisticuffs and truly impressive stunt work, all created with Kuleshov’s famously inventive and fast-paced editing. In the end the workers get hold of the machine, and presumably start blowing the capitalist swines’ airplanes from the sky, although this we can only guess because of the missing reel.

The real point of the film is not really the sci-fi story, which merely acts as a macguffin, nor is it really the state-required socialist yarn. The point is to make a Nat Pinkerton-like adventure as a showcase for Lev Kuleshov’s experimental studio team.

And what is a Nat Pinkerton, I hear you ask.

A copy of a Nat Pinkerton novel translated in the language of my home country, Finnish.

A copy of a Nat Pinkerton novel translated in the language of my home country, Finnish.

Well, you all know Sherlock Holmes. Some of you may even know Nick Carter. Not the Backstreet Boys dude, but the early 20th century fictional crime fighter. Nat Pinkerton was another one of these fictional detectives that were extremely popular in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. It was actually something of a surprise to me that he seems to be completely unknown the the English-speaking world that makes up so much of the internet. And hence, there is very little information about the dozens of books and films made about him. What we do know is that he is based on the real-life American detective Allan Pinkterton, who set up his Pinkterons’ Detective and Private Security Agency in 1850, and investigated a series of high-profile cases, mostly robberies, and provided security services all over the nation. It was essentially the world’s largest private security contractor. The agency still exists as a subsidiary to Securitas. Anyway, no-one really seems to know where Nat Pinkerton got his origin. According to some sources he was invented by American author John Russell Coryell, writing under the pseudonym Nick Carter, which adds further confusion. But I can find very little confirmation for this claim. What we do know is that he started appearing in in short novellas in Germany and France during the early years of the 20th century, later also in at least Dutch and Norwegian books. These were almost all anonymously written, and contained escapist adventure and detective stories written in an almost noir-ish style. Short films, and later longer ones, started appearing – the first one I can find is from 1907. They were mainly produced in Germany and France – several hundred of them were made there – but to some extent also in Denmark by the company Nordisk. Although almost completely forgotten today, Nat Pinkerton was actually monstrously popular in Europe.

Despite the use of the swastika as a symbol for the fascists, it is not a reference to the Nazis of Germany, who had then barely formed. The swastika was a common symbol back then.

Despite the use of the swastika as a symbol for the fascists, it is not a reference to the Nazis of Germany, who had then barely formed. The swastika was a common symbol back then.

Now what has all this got to do with The Death Ray? Well, the thing is that these crime stories – especially the ones about Nat Pinkerton – were hugely popular in Russia as well, both before the bolshevik revolution in 1917, and after it. But for the communists there was a problem, as many of these detective stories contained elements not compatible with the socialist agenda. But the people loved to read Nat Pinkerton. Less people loved to read Karl Marx. The idea was concocted to create an own brand of Nat Pinkerton, still American, still a crime detective, but with a socialist attitude. As a Soviet theorist and politician put it in 1922: “The point is that the mind requires a light, entertaining, interesting plot [fabula] and unfolding of events – and this is true of the youth ten times more so than of adults. The bourgeoisie knows and understands this . . . We do not yet have this, and this must be overcome.” And out of this was born the Soviet-approved ”Red Pinkerton”; both in the guise of Russian-penned Nat Pinkerton-novels, and a host of similar crime pulps, of which the aforementioned Valentin Katayev’s book Lord of Iron is one example. And this is what Lev Kuleshov’s film basically is: a Red Pinkerton story inspired by the hype around the Matthews’ death ray.

The Kuleshov effect demonstrated.

The Kuleshov effect demonstrated.

In fact, the story itself is not really important. For the young Kuleshov this was a way to showcase his experimental film studio, under the state-owned Gosfilm, that he had been nurturing for the last years. He had his own actors, writers and technical and artistic staff. With his background in art, rather than theatre, his point of view was visual. He championed the idea that the most important aspect of film making is editing. This he showcased with an experiment where he filmed a male actor’s face. With different audiences he juxtaposed this shot with a number of shots with different objects – a gun, a bowl of soup, a woman, and so forth. Depending on what image he combined with the actor, the viewers all read different emotions in the man’s face. With this Kuleshov wanted to explain that editing was not merely a way of splicing different parts of the story together, but a highly effective storytelling device in itself, and that one could completely change the tone and even the plot of a film simply by editing. The effect of his juxtaposed images was later called The Kuleshov Effect, and was hugely influential, not just on Russian film makers like Sergei Eisenstein, but on international film making as a whole.

The Death Ray also contains some spectacular editing, most notably a gun fight sequence where all we see are muzzle flashes in a dark room, firing all over the screen. The editing in the whole film is unusually fast and energetic, especially in the action sequences, alternating between close-ups of faces, wide shots, different angles, inside and outside a room, always moving, always flickering – sometimes cutting away to flashbacks and internal images – to create a dymanic visual frenzy. We also get some great stunt sequenses, borrowed from Western crime and swashbuckling films, with one character jumping out of a three story window without injury, people traversing rooftops with ropes, crashing through windows and over fences, sliding down long stair rails, jumping from one speeding car to another, and so on. The film is filled with visual eye candy and the acting is a bit overly dramatic, but that hardly matters. What matters, though, is that the story becomes pretty irrelevant and at some point all this chasing and climbing and jumping and fighting does begin to seem a bit pointless.

The expressive Alexandra Khokhlova in The Death Ray.

The expressive Alexandra Khokhlova in The Death Ray.

As the expensive film flopped, Kuleshov got in trouble with Gosfilm, and he began to be regarded as a brilliant theorist, but not a very accomplished director, and he had trouble getting funding for his next film, an adaptation of the Jack London story The Unexpected. He finally convinced Gosfilm to let him do the film on a minimal budget. The result was By the Law (Po zakony, 1926) – a claustrophobic chamber drama about a couple holed up in a ski lodge along with a murderer. It became a huge success outside the Soviet Union, and is by many considered as his finest work, and as one of the best films ever to come out of the Soviet Union. Critics praised its symolistic and restrained cinematography and editing, and the paranoid atmosphere of the cabin, when all three inhabitants are on edge, making small occurrances take on cataclysmic proportions. The film reinstated Kuleshov as a champion of Soviet cinema, and he continued to make films until 1943.

Sergei Komarov in thr 1935 film Space Flight.

Sergei Komarov in the 1935 film Space Flight.

Many of he film’s actors would later become prominent directors themselves, perhaps most notably Vsevolod Pudovkin, who also co-wrote and co-directed The Death Ray. Pudovkin would even outshine Kuleshov as a director with his 1926 masterpiece Mother, and is today regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Fogel, who plays the fascist Fogh would later garner international fame as one of the three inhabitants of the ski lodge in By the Law. Fogel portrayed the murderer. Female lead Alexandra Khokhlova would later become Kuleshov’s wife. She also played the female lead in By the Law. The third actor of the triage in the ski lodge, Sergei Komarov, also has a prominent role in The Death Ray. Komarov would later play the lead in the Soviet science fiction film Kosmicheskiy Reys, or Space Flight, in 1935 – a film comparable to Fritz Lang’s scientifically precise Woman in the Moon (1929).

The Death Ray (Luch Smerti). 1925, Russia/USSR. Written and directed by Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin. Based on the novel Lord of Iron (Povelityel Zhelyeza) by Valentin Katayev (uncertain, uncredited). Starring: Porfiri Podobed, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Komarov, Vladimir Fogel, Alexandra Kokhlova. Cinematography: Aleksandr Levitsky. Art direction: Vsevolod Pudovkin, Vasili Rakhals. Produced for Gosfilm.

The surviving parts of the film can be watched here.

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7 thoughts on “The Death Ray

  1. Pingback: Aerograd | Scifist

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