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The Phantom Carriage (1921)

I was recently watching some YouTube videos on Crash Course about film history with my three year old daughter. One of the videos described early innovations in film technique, including running film through the camera twice to create a ghostly shadow. I thought “huh, haven’t really seen that before.” Little did I know that the next film in my tour through 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die would not only use this technique, but as its signature effect: The ghostly translucent image of a dead man’s soul and the grim reaper.

The overall visual effect of this film (my first Swedish film) is stunning. In addition to the double exposure, Phantom Carriage features the most powerful use of color-tinted B&W film I’ve seen yet: melancholic yellows and the haunting blue of the afterlife. There’s a gloomy austerity to the supernatural here, far removed from the expressionistic production of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (my review). The film is well-preserved, and there’s a gritty texture to the cinematography that complements the film’s story.

Another strength of this film — the real way it foreshadows later art films — is psychological complexity and gray morality. The American epics of the 1910s and early 1920s I’ve seen so far were largely melodramas with flat characters. Here, there’s shading to the characters: a fallen husband who continually wastes shots at redemption; a naive social worker whose tender heart proves her undoing; a tormented wife torn between moving on and forgiving her troubled husband.

The acting is remarkable. Starring Victor Sjostrom (also the director) who captures all the grimy depravity but inner humanity required of the lead, but also featuring great turns from Hilda Borgstrom as his wife and Astrid Holm as Sister Edit, the cast is excellent from top to bottom — all showing cinematic restraint for the era.

The film’s story is an extra-dark Christmas Carol twist: Drunkard Peter Holm dies on the streets as the New Year tolls midnight, and he encounters Death. Being the first death of the new year, Holm must drive the “Phantom Carriage” of death the next twelve months. Holm proceeds to revisit important moments of his life and witness how he squandered every chance for a brighter future. He carelessly passed his tuberculosis to his wife, his kids, and even kind social worker Sister Edit, who is in love with him and also on her deathbed.

There’s more to it than personal tragedy, though. The film makes clear that Holm is just the next in line to inherit society’s sins, and the cycle will continue. The film has an oppressively bleak worldview that grows like a stone in your gut as you watch. The tenuous, happy ending of death undone that it arrives at feels a bit cheap, as if Sjostrom feared his audience just couldn’t bear the all-out tragedy his story was leading to.

The Phantom Carriage is one of the best movies I’ve watched in this tour of film history yet. Its image of hooded death with a sickle is perhaps the most lasting single takeaway: it’s haunting and eternal, frequently quoted in other films. But the film as a whole is satisfying and chilling, astonishingly crafted to deliver its icy tone and dark story. Its 105 minutes drag on quite slowly to modern eyes, and the ending, as mentioned, feels a bit like a cop-out, but otherwise this is an early film masterpiece.

(I’m attempting to watch 1001 Films to See Before Your Die in chronological order. This is film number 11. Up next is The Smiling Madame Beudet.)

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.


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