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Silent Sunday Nights - November 2012
Remind Me

Feu Mathias Pascal

The earliest film version of Luigi Pirandello's 1904 novel, Feu Mathias Pascal (1926) -- also known as The Living Dead Man and The Late Mathias Pascal -- is a celebrated silent film by French director Marcel L'Herbier. Legendary Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine (aka Ivan Mozzhukhin) plays the title character, a young Italian with a dreary life in a country town who, after winning a fortune in Monte Carlo, discovers that he is believed to have been killed in an accident back home. He decides to begin a new life of freedom and goes directly to Rome. There he falls for the engaged daughter of his Russian landlord, but without genuine identity papers, he is a "living dead man" with all sorts of new problems.

Pirandello's seriocomic novel had been very popular and successful, and this film version was given a topflight production, with exteriors beautifully photographed in Rome and the Italian countryside with almost documentary-like realism, and studio interiors designed by Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian technician and artist who later became a noted director. The film's remarkable sets include visible ceilings -- providing yet another example of a film that debunks the myth that Citizen Kane (1941) was the first to achieve this. The movie also includes any number of witty visual tricks and angles, as well as dream sequences shot against black backgrounds.

Feu Mathias Pascal was a co-production between its director Marcel L'Herbier, a powerful French filmmaker of the era, and Films Albatros, a Russian film company based in Paris whose chief asset was actor Ivan Mosjoukine. His powerful comic performance encompasses a wide physical and emotional range, seamlessly moving between farce and tragedy. The film also features the first screen appearance of Michel Simon, soon to make his mark in pictures by Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne in a career that lasted into the 1970s.

While it was a big critical and commercial hit in France, Feu Mathias Pascal found a lukewarm reception in the United States, with The New York Times saying that "L'Herbier permits his comedy to get far too low for the story." The film soon disappeared from proper public view -- for decades, only incomplete 16mm B&W prints were available. In 1990, however, the Cinematheque Francaise restored the movie to its full running length, complete with its original tinting, and the film found new and appreciative audiences around the world. Variety reviewed it in 1990, declaring, "Of all [L'Herbier's] classics, except for L'Argent (1928), this film has dated the least."

In 1937, a sound version of the novel was made in France as The Man from Nowhere, by director Pierre Chenal, and in 1985 an Italian remake, The Two Lives of Mattia Pascal, was released with Marcello Mastroianni in the lead role.

Director: Marcel L'Herbier
Screenplay: Marcel L'Herbier (scenario); Luigi Pirandello (novel)
Cinematography: Jimmy Berliet, F. Bourgassof, Paul Guichard, Jean Letort, Nikolas Roudakoff
Art Direction: Erik Aaes, Alberto Cavalcanti, Lazare Meerson
Music: J. E. Szyfer
Cast: Ivan Mozzhukhin (Mathias Pascal), Marcelle Pradot (Romilde Pascal), Michel Simon (Jerome Pomino), Lois Moran (Adrienne Paleari), Marthe Mellot (Mme Pascal), Irma Perrot (Sylvia Caporale)

By Jeremy Arnold

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