Less than six months from their release of the 1928 Paul Leni-directed The Man Who Laughs, Eureka Entertainment add Leni’s final feature, The Last Warning, to their Masters of Cinema range. Released in the same year, this is his last feature before his death from sepsis at the age of 44.
Beginning five years earlier, we start at a Broadway production, where one of the actors, John Woodward (D’Arcy Corrigan) drops dead, apparently murdered, on stage in the final moments of the play. The first act deals with the immediate aftermath of the death, where detectives interview the key players at the scene, leading to both the exoneration of the actors, and the discovery that Woodward’s body has gone missing. With several of the key players looking somewhat unsettled during proceedings, and suggestions of a love triangle involving the play’s leading lady, Doris Terry (Laura La Plante), we are left with few answers.
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Moving on five years, the theatre has sat unused, as it was abandoned immediately in the aftermath of the events of that night. Producer Mike Brody (Bert Roach) decides to resurrect the location for a fresh mounting of the play (‘The Snare’), starring the original cast (minus Woodward, of course). It soon becomes clear that his motives are to recreate that night, in the hopes of solving the murder.
With rehearsals taking place at the theatre, the cast are plagued by unexplained events, such as falling scenery and props, a fire, theft of the leading lady’s purse, and even a sighting of what appears to be the ghost of the slain actor. With ominous telegrams, purporting to be from Woodward, warning our cast off remounting the show, and asserting that the theatre must remain closed, the key players move towards opening night with their safety far from assured. With police alerted to be present for the first performance, the race is on to identify the killer before they have a chance to strike again.
The film itself bears the mark of arriving in the awkward period of ‘talkies’ existing, but with their impact on the film industry yet to be fully felt, although clearly feared. Performances retain the exaggerated nature inherent to the silent era, and the final act is visually arresting, with a great deal of thought given to movement and staging. The film makes an attempt to essay lengthy dialogue sequences by summarising large sections through the intertitle cards.
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Complementing this is a newly recorded score from Arthur Barrow that seeks to mimic the style of the late silent era by including sound effects such as police sirens. This is film with a foot in its past and one in its future. The score is lush, and varied, even evoking film noir in places – almost 20 years before the popularising of that genre. A relatively disposable film when compared to some of Leni’s other work, it is nevertheless engaging, if hampered by a restoration that is wildly variable in quality – understandable given the film in 93 years old.
Bonus features for the film comprise a commentary track from writers and critics Stephen Jones and Kim Newman; ‘Paul Leni and “The Last Warning”‘ – a video essay from film historian John Soister; a stills gallery; and a collector’s booklet. The commentary, despite having the strange quality of each man’s voice coming out of a different sound channel, is comfortably the strongest of these features. Jones and Newman position the film as the missing link between German Expressionism and the Universal Horror era, exemplified by Dracula in 1931. They spend as much time talking about Leni, the era, Phantom of the Opera (the first version of which was shot on the same theatre stage), and the cast, as they do about the film itself. They are excellent value for their 78-minute talk track.
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As for the other features, the video essay is a dry work, lasting under ten minutes, and the stills gallery has relatively few entries. The booklet, however, matches the quality Eureka put to their recent releases of Hell and High Water and House of Bamboo. Coming in at 24 pages, this attractively presented piece comprises essays by Philip Kemp (‘The Last Warning – A Beginning and an Ending’) and composer Arthur Barrow (‘The Last Warning – Notes on the Score’). Complementing the striking artwork for this release; the booklet rounds off a relatively scant set of features.
As each generation of delivery for home releases passes, however, fewer and fewer classic films have continued to be available commercially to the public. Not everything made it to VHS, not everything form VHS made it to DVD, and even less to the modern high definition offerings. For this, we must be grateful to Eureka for ensuring as much classic cinema as possible – particularly from an era that can be seen as part of an historical shift in filmmaking methods, standards and performances – continues to be presented to us, and presented with effort and care.
The Last Warning is out on Blu-ray on 15th February from Eureka Entertainment.