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Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Student in Prague vs. One in Chicago

It's not very often that one has the chance to view a film that is 100 years old, so I was thrilled to see "The Student of Prague" (1913) on German television. If you look the title up on IMDb, it is described as a 45-minute short, but in fact the movie has now been restored by a number of cooperating archives to its full 85 minutes. It is often described as the first horror movie and for that reason alone it is of great historical interest, even if it is no great shakes as film art. Co-directed by and starring Paul Wegener who went on to personify the Golem in the 1915 and 1920 films, it is a riff on the German Faust legend mixed with Poe's William Wilson about an impoverished student who sells his soul (in this case his mirror reflection) for worldly wealth, but who subsequently goes mad as he is haunted by his doppelganger. The Germans re-made the story thirteen years later in 1926 with a rather more charismatic Conrad Veidt in the lead and that version it is superior in every way, replacing Wegener's static camera with the heyday of Expressionistic angles. I guess there's not much more to say about this century-old treat, other than to thank those responsible for its re-birth.

So today I shall concentrate instead on a more recent movie (only 33 years old!) with a rather younger student; why is it that in so many silent films the young protagonists appear to be middle-aged? "My Bodyguard" (1980) has aged rather better than many of the teen-focused films from the '80s, but is largely and rather unfairly now forgotten. Directed by ex-actor Tony Bill, it follows the fortunes of 15-year old Clifford Peache, played by the excellent but again now little-known Chris Makepeace. He lives with his hotel-manager dad (Martin Mull) and his kooky grandma (Ruth Gordon) in a swanky Chicago hotel and is a new student at an inner-city high school.  With his smart-ass attitude, he is immediately picked upon by the school bully Melvin Moody (impeccably played by a 16-year old Matt Dillon) and his gang of thugs, who have been menacing the weaker members of the student body and extorting their lunch money. Cliff decides not to play ball with this intimidation and tries to enlist the help of big, lumbering school outcast Ricky Linderman as his bodyguard.

Ricky is played by Adam Baldwin (not, let it be said one of the many Baldwin brothers) in his film debut, and while still pursuing a film career, the actor has never been better. He is feared by the other students, as rumours circulate that he has killed his brother or raped a teacher or poked out someone's eye. His shuffling giant may be everyone's idea of a teenaged psychopath, but underneath it all lies a sensitive soul. While he initially shuns Cliff's approaches, they eventually become friends, as they bond over rebuilding the motorcycle that Ricky has been working on for a year. This friendship keeps Moody and his yahoos at bay, until Dillon pays a young tough to be 'his' bodyguard and the gentle Baldwin initially refuses to fight. I won't divulge how the movie finishes, other than to say that it couldn't have been more satisfying.

The movie is also noteworthy for giving early roles to many familiar names: Joan Cusack with a mouthful of shiny metal braces (and the patriarch of her acting clan plays the school principal), director-to-be Dean Devlin, George Wendt, and a recognizable but uncredited Jennifer Beals. The scenes with the high-spirited Gordon are gems as she propositions visiting tourists in the hotel bar (she's old but acts like a kid says her grandson) and threatens her family's tenure at the snobby hotel. That's until her joie-de-vivre seduces visiting staid hotel inspector John Houseman into her web.

All and all this sleeper is a joy to watch and resonates realistically with those of us who well remember the anxieties of being a teenager. I'm so pleased to have seen it again and highly recommend it to all of you both for its nostalgia and its heart.

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