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"Svengali is not generally regarded as one of the great Hollywood classics of the 30s, but remains a very solid, atmospheric, entertaining fantasy-melodrama. John Barrymore is fascinating as the title hypnotist/charlatan, alternately sardonic, chilling, or tender, in a quite restrained and textured performance (especially for 1931). The rest of the cast is adequate, but Barrymore (in an extremely creepy makeup) dominates the film. The opening scene is funny and scary at the same time, and the scene where Svengali "calls" to Trilby at night, across the rooftops of Paris, is a stunner. (And yes, the infamous "nudity" is intact.) The atmosphere, art direction, and photography are often striking, and the usually workmanlike Archie Mayo adds the occasional nice touch.
Roan's restored DVD release easily rates an "excellent" though the print is still not quite flawless. For comparison I cued up my VHS copy (taped off PBS years ago and fairly respectable, or so I thought) and noticed that not only are the running times virtually identical, but that there is some light but noticeable water or chemistry spotting at certain points in the film that corresponds exactly on both prints. Apparently this damage resides in the available master elements. Other than that, if the TV print is at all representative, Roan has cleaned up a huge amount of speckling, scratching, blemishing, etc. Overall the print looks terrific: rich blacks, good tonal scale and shadow and highlight detail; not razor-sharp but very respectable. There is still some very light occasional speckling, vertical scratching, and the aforementioned spotting/staining. But these problems are few and far between and most people probably wouldn't notice unless they were looking for them. It also appears that frames may have occasionally been duplicated to replace missing/damaged ones. I'm guessing here, but every once in a while movements appear slightly "retarded" or "slo-mo", just for a split-second. Hardly noticeable and does not detract from the overall beautiful restoration job. Roan should be commended not only for releasing this neglected film on DVD, but for spending the time and $$ to clean it up so nicely. No extras beyond chapter stops and production notes. If there was even a trailer or anything the DVD would get 5 stars. The movie is a solid 4, leaning toward 5 if you're a student of Hollywood's Golden Age or a Barrymore fan."
Fever Dream on Celluloid
Kathy Fennessy | 05/14/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I'd never even heard of this film till it showed up one day on early morning television. It's a trip! One of its more distinguishing features is the stylized set design, whereby all the houses look as if they came straight from one of those old Disney films--"Pinocchio", perhaps--with crooked roofs and sloped ceilings and such. The centerpiece of this fever-dream-on-celluloid is a weird Bela Lugosi-ish performance from the great John Barrymore. Whenever Svengali hypnotizes a beautiful young woman to think only of him (to the exclusion of everything--and everybody--else), he turns into a glassy-eyed version of Lugosi's creepy "White Zombie" character. In that film, also made in the early 1930s, a magnetic gaze (and an odd hand gesture) was all it would take for Lugosi to coerce a Haitian town's zombie population to do his bidding. "Svengali" is more of a horror movie than a conventional literary adaptation (of George du Maurier's "Trilby"), but with a delightfully warped sense of humor. Archie Mayo also directed the excellent "Angel on My Shoulder" (1946), a breezy update of Goethe's "Faust", with Claude Rains as a suitably suave Satan and Paul Muni as Eddie Kagle, the thug who makes a deal with him."
A Barrymore Performance as Hypnotic as the Character
Kathy Fennessy | 10/16/1998
(5 out of 5 stars)
"John Barrymore was an authentic acting genius whose movie roles rarely allowed him full expression of his amazing gifts. This film is an exception, allowing Barrymore to escape typecasting as a handsome lover and indulge his love of the bizarre and the strange. His Svengali--charlatan, egotist, and genuinely sinister master of mesmerism--is by turns an object of humor and pathos, a character of his own kind of threadbare but powerful integrity, and one who has become the master of an "occult" art (hypnotism), or perhaps been mastered by it. To watch Barrymore in this film is to see an actor both immerse himself in a role and make it so totally, individually his own that actor and role are indistinguishable. His style is at once completely bizarre and totally believable, totally right. The stylized sets and photography contribute to the strange atmosphere of this classic film, and if a couple of the characters in the film are not so well-acted (especially by today's standards), this doesn't detract from Barrymore's astonishing performance, or from the impact of the film itself. A strange masterpiece that will have you "think only of Svengali...Svengali...Svengali!" END"
Great movie, not so great DVD edition!
Per Lundberg | TYRESÍ, Sthlm Sweden | 03/13/2009
(2 out of 5 stars)
""Svengali" is a great movie; the art direction, camera work and lighting is top notch, as is the performance by Barrymore. No bad ratings there - the movie is ace, and should (in my opinion) really be on par with some other classical horror movies like "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" when it comes to popularity and availability!
But alas! This so called "remastered" DVD edition is, sadly enough, nothing like the movie itself. It's low fare; an "unfinished" edition. The sound track is often low or distorted, there are visible marks and spots on the picture in many scenes, and suddenly - out of the blue - a small logo for TCM pops up on the screen. OK, now we understand!
NB: My rating of this product may seem a tad high, but I'm slightly torn between my love for the movie, and my disliking of the DVD. So: The movie "Svengali" gets 4.5 stars, but this DVD edition gets only 1.5 star."
From the glorious mind of George Du Maurier and the assertive direction of Archie Mayo this film to my mind constitutes one of the best films in that decade. The famous Cabinet of Caligari, Metropolis, The crowd and The Golem were monumental masterworks which anticipated clear and metaphorically the horrible nightmare of the possible consequences of an oppressing State against the individual. Both sinister characters Caligari and Svengali employ the hypnosis device to reach their pretended objectives. Dementia, mind suggestion and intense mental domain; the irrational behavior crowd before the leader. In such short interval of fourteen years these five films were capable to foresee the awful facts derived of the manipulation of the will with perverse goals.
John Barrymore with this acting proved once more why he was one of the giants actors of those ages. Miriam Marsh is absolutely credible in this struggling picture. Fine direction of Archie Mayo and one of my favorite cult movies in any age. "