Film Title: London After Midnight
Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Lon Chaney
- Marceline Day
- Henry B. Walthall
- Conrad Nagel
- Polly Moran
London After Midnight was released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer on December 3, 1927. Based on director Tod Browning’s original story The Hypnotist, it was initially given a working title of the same name. The film has become legendary for its lack of availability. A fire in MGM’s “Vault #7” is said to have destroyed the only known print in the mid-1960s. There has been speculation by many that a surviving print is still in existence, though one is yet to surface for public appreciation. In 2002, Turner Classic Movies commissioned Rick Schmidlin to produce a reconstruction of the film using still photographs. With a running time of 45 minutes and a new score by the Robert Israel Orchestra, it’s the best representation of the 1927 classic that we have at present.
An Englishman named Richard Balfour is found dead on his floor, the victim of a gunshot wound. Detective Edward Burke (Chaney) is on the scene to investigate fifteen minutes after the crime. Burke suspects everyone despite an apparent suicide note from Balfour in which he apologizes to his daughter Lucille (Marceline Day). Balfour’s next door neighbor, Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall), claims that he ran into the house after being awakened by the shot. Burke’s main suspect of interest, however, is Hamlin’s nephew Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel). Hibbs maintains that he’d been in his room reading at the time of the murder. Burke is clearly unconvinced but warrants it a suicide in light of the note. Five years pass and the desolate Balfour mansion is rented to a pair of sinister characters in strange clothing. The man (Chaney again, in a dual role) is an eerie, maniacal-looking version of Scrooge, complete with top hat and a flowing, black cape. His face is a recipe for nightmares; his eyes ripped wide open and his mouth carved in a perpetual smile to reveal a set of razor-sharp teeth. He walks with a twisted limp like an entity feeling the effects of centuries past. His female counterpart, Luna (Edna Tichenor), is the representation of death itself. Her skin is pale and lifeless, her teeth are darkened and her eyes are sunken and hollow. They appear to communicate strictly by look and expression, the latter of which is driven by ill intent. Balfour’s butler Williams (Percy Williams) arrives at the mansion with the new maid Miss Smithson (Polly Moran, who’d worked with Browning in ‘The Unknown’ and ‘The Show’) as a ghostly light fills the windows. Smithson recoils in horror and shouts that the house is haunted. Both Williams and Smithson are frozen in fear as the two ‘creatures’ appear in the driveway. They do little but stare with a menacing calm, but it’s enough to frighten the unsuspecting duo trembling in their horse-drawn carriage. One night, out of the blue, Hamlin receives a visit from ‘Professor’ Edward Burke (the same detective from years ago in a feeble disguise to make him appear older). Hamlin is the executor of Balfour’s will and receives a copy of the signed lease, which, to the horror of everyone, is signed by Balfour! Burke wants answers and again suspects Hibbs and Hamlin. Lucille, who now lives with Hamlin, may be in grave danger.
Smithson swears that the unsettling inhabitants next door are vampires. In fact, she all but concludes that they are directly responsible for Balfour’s death. She has no concrete proof, but the darkness of their soul is enough to justify her accusation. Lucille is suddenly startled by the voice of her father, which she claims to have heard coming from the outside garden. Burke springs into action and promises to do whatever he can to protect her. As Burke and Hamlin investigate Balfour’s final resting place, they are shocked to find it empty and take to peeking through the window of the mansion. There, they see Balfour, who appears to be very much alive, sitting upright in a chair talking with the vampire. This is a natural cause for alarm. Burke returns to the house and places Hibbs under hypnosis in order to force his mind back to the night of Balfour’s “murder”. Burke himself is visited by an unknown, hooded creature that evening while asleep. He awakens and draws his gun, but not before the nocturnal being escapes into the night. Once Burke snaps Hibbs out of his trance, they find Lucille’s room turned completely upside down and Lucille missing. Luna has lured Lucille to the decrepit mansion, but when Hibbs attempts to rescue her, he is restrained by Burke’s men. There is a much more enigmatic plot in the works; there is a hidden agenda. Before long, everyone in the mixed up chain of events will learn the truth about what is really going on in London, after midnight.
In the eight films that Tod Browning made with Lon Chaney, London After Midnight proved to be the highest grossing film. Iowa’s The Davenport Democrat and Leader, which called it one of the greatest mystery-dramas Lon Chaney ever appeared in, had this to say shortly after the release in 1927: “Fascinating with its theme of hypnotism, its delving into the super-natural and the spirit world, this film employs enough mystery to chill the blood of the spectator and yet rivet the eye and attention in a breathless interest.” It’s no secret that Browning was a fan of the macabre. His films are centered largely on carnivals and circuses, as is evident with The Show, The Unholy Three and Freaks. Chaney was a favorite of Browning’s, no doubt for his ability to ‘become’ so many characters. Dubbed “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, Chaney provided Browning with an endless string of manifestations that accented the director’s morbid taste. This film (based on the still reconstruction), was very gothic in appearance. The mansion and the adjacent house, both inside and out, seemed to be designed with uneasiness in mind. The look of the vampire is an assumed nod to the legend of Jack the Ripper. History paints the ripper as a quiet maniac strolling London’s Whitechapel district in Victorian dress under a blanket of darkness. The film does indeed take place in London and the vampire’s clothing is that of Ripper lure. It’s quite conceivable that Browning may have been captivated by the Ripper story and wanted to draw inspiration for a monster from the heinous crime. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure. Browning was somewhat of a recluse who rarely spoke about his work, and so most of his secrets and motives rest with him at Rosedale Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
London After Midnight was released on DVD in 2003 by Warner Home Video as part of the “Lon Chaney Collection”. Again, due to the original print being destroyed, there is little to be said for restoration work. However, this reconstruction was done as effectively as humanly possible. The resources were limited to still photographs collected with the help of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Studies, the Margaret Herrick Library and the University of Southern California Cinema-Television Library. The new score by the Robert Israel Orchestra was a satisfying highlight that worked nicely, despite having no prior music reference to help set the mood. For the enthusiast, this is certainly better than nothing. We can only hope that somewhere, a surviving print exists and will resurface in the years to come. Until that day, this reconstruction will serve as the resurrected ghost of a great film that once terrified the masses.
One can only imagine this chilling masterpiece in full motion. The ‘choppiness’ of an aging silent film would’ve added another layer of fright, were we able to enjoy it in its entirety. There are many silents presumed lost, and that this film took precedence says a lot for Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. In all honesty, it would be fantastic to experience every missing silent film on some level. Perhaps this will serve as a reminder to the studios that there are scores of loyal fans who still love the ancestors of present day Hollywood.
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