Combustible Celluloid
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With: Séverin-Mars, Ivy Close, Gabriel de Gravone, Magnier, Max Maxudian, Georges Térof, Gil Clary
Written by: Abel Gance
Directed by: Abel Gance
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 270
Date: 05/21/2008

La Roue (1923)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Specs and Violins

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While we're still patiently waiting for a U.S. DVD release of Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), Flicker Alley has graced us instead with this 1923 Gance film, which is almost as good. Gance is known in the history books as a filmmaker of mixed skills; one writer called him "a genius without talent." And so Gance took this moldy, soapy story about a railroad man who adopts a young orphan girl and turned into a sprawling, half-mad, 4-1/2 hour masterpiece (and it was originally even longer).

After a massive train wreck, Sisif (Séverin-Mars) finds the young Norma and takes her in, allowing both her and his son Elie to believe that they are blood brother and sister. When Norma grows up, she becomes a dazzling creature (played by Ivy Close), with cascading ringlets of golden hair. Everyone falls in love with her, including a wealthy, crooked entrepreneur, Jacques de Hersan (Pierre Magnier), who takes Sisif's inventions and passes them off as his own. Elie, now a violin maker, also falls for her. Astonishingly, even old Sisif falls for her. But when Sisif tries to kill himself, Norma agrees to marry the rich man to try and appease everyone, but her selfless act leads to more tragedy.

Gance called La Roue (a.k.a. The Wheel) his "black and white" epic, setting the first half in the railroad yards (black) and the second half in the snowy mountains (white). Gance's visual inventiveness comes through in almost every shot, specifically in his unique editing, which sometimes repeats shots, and sometimes uses rapid-fire cutting to increase tension or excitement. When Sisif tries to crash his own train by increasing the speed, the film's rhythm builds to an intense frenzy. And when Sisif begins losing his vision, Gance responds by slowly fading the image up to pure white. This level of technical achievement was fairly rare for 1923, with perhaps the exception of Erich von Stroheim's work in America. Even D.W. Griffith didn't dare to turn such a wretched melodrama into an epic; he needed epic material to justify a film's size and length.

The little studio that could, Flicker Alley, has done another Criterion-worthy job with this DVD, remastering the film to a luminous digital finish and providing the best silent score I've heard in years (by Robert Israel). Extras include -- believe it or not -- behind the scenes footage! The 2-disc set also comes with a 16-page booklet.

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