The Great Consoler Review
The stories of American author O. Henry have fed into many a movie. His Cisco Kid character, in particular, was a regular in silent serials and early Westerns, even a couple of television series. Great filmmakers weren’t shy of his work either, with directors as diverse as Howard Hawks and Yasujiro Ozu approaching short stories for inspiration. The former was as part of a glossy Hollywood anthology - O. Henry’s Full House - produced by 20th Century Fox in the 1950s. The latter was for a short silent comedy about a Japanese crook who kidnaps a hungry young boy. Clearly the author could travel and over the years there have been productions from across the globe adapting Henry’s words in one form or other: Finland, Iran, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, Yugoslavia. In 1933 it was the turn of Soviet cinema resulting in an audacious concoction that goes far beyond merely illustrating a text.
The Great Consoler was conceived and directed by Lev Kuleshov, himself no stranger to bringing American tales to the big screen. In 1926 he’d adapted Jack London’s By the Law to stunning effect, drawing out the tensions of the original short story to deliver a brilliant chamber piece brimming with tension. (The film is available on disc and I reviewed it here.) In approaching Henry, however, he not only took one of his stories, he also took on the author’s life and added a fictional tale too. William Sydney Porter was convicted of embezzlement in 1898 and sentenced to five years, which he spent in Ohio Penitentiary. It was during this time as an inmate that he began to write; by the end of his sentence he’d had a number of these short tales published under a number of pseudonyms. O. Henry was the one that stuck and a career was born. It was the prison term which interested Kuleshov and how the author’s both existence was both reflected in and affected by his work.
Scenes in the cells find their counterpoint in a film-within-a-film adaptation of A Retrieved Reformation, one of Henry’s most famous tales, about a safecracker whose skills come in unexpectedly handy. The other fictional element - the one created by Kuleshov himself - adds a further dimension, about one of Henry’s readers and how his stories affect her. The Great Consoler approaches these three strands with differing techniques (though an early talkie, A Retrieved Reformation is told as a silent) but refuses to keep them entirely separate. Their narratives intertwine in a manner that prefigures Pulp Fiction or Amores Perros by decades, though Kuleshov also goes one step further. Despite his plot strands existing on differing plains of reality - not to mention those of fact, fiction, true life, wish fulfilment and even genre - he nonetheless brings the same characters to each. O. Henry’s presence is felt in each, either as lead character (in the guise of plain old Bill Porter the jailbird as portrayed by Konstantin Khokhlov), creator or off-screen influence. The detective played by Andrei Heij, meanwhile, gets to appear onscreen in all three. Such crossover allows the characters to serve as commentaries on their other selves. They are treated to both happy and tragic endings, receive their comeuppance or are granted their deserved freedom. Each existence sits atop the other, acting as, say, influence or a stark counterbalance. There’s a playfulness to their interaction - Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared the film to those of Alain Resnais - but also a strongly defined emotional weight.
On a purely technical level, this web of interconnections consistently amazes. Kuleshov has a firm command of the different styles despite The Great Consoler being only his second talking feature. The scenes within the prison house play out almost as experimental theatre: small claustrophobic sets and a declamatory fashion to the dialogue delivery. Kuleshov’s actors had a mixture of theatre and/or silent cinema training (many having worked in his earlier features) resulting in an approach that proves distinctive if somewhat offbeat. The sound design also attracts elements of experimentation, as was seemingly the norm for Soviet cinema of the time. The scenes devoted to A Retrieved Reformation, on the other hand, are told as silent cinema with off-screen narrator, thereby allowing Kuleshov to emphasise his much lauded montage techniques. This section also provides the scope for some Western and crime melodrama elements to enter the fray, complete with stagecoach, brawls and a bank job. (Incidentally, the Russian dialogue creates a disconnect that hadn’t occurred in Kuleshov’s earlier US-set silents such as Engineer Prite’s Project and By the Law.) Finally, the third strand is centred around Aleksandra Khokhlova, who has been described as the “poster girl” for Kuleshov’s experimental Actor-Laboratory. (She was also his partner.) She approached her roles from a unique standpoint resulting in work that’s difficult to pin down. At first it looks like pantomime but there’s something more personal attached. Khokhlova was unafraid of her characters’ darker sides and that showed. The performances were ‘large’, but to label them as overacting would miss the point.
The switches in style have the same push-and-pull on the viewer as the multi-strand narrative. They too find echoes and variations within their adjacent sections which has the effect of both easing these switches and adding to the interaction. Indeed, ‘ease’ is the key term here as Kuleshov makes the whole thing appear effortless. Importantly he maintains an anchor throughout The Great Consoler and that is O. Henry himself, the man inspired to write as a means of helping his fellow inmates. He refuses to write about the brutal realities of prison life, preferring instead to recast their experiences in a more favourable light complete with happy endings. A Retrieved Reformation is just that - its central safecracker is, in reality, a convict unlikely to face such positive outcomes. The stories are there, as the title suggests, to provide consolation.
Unlike many Soviet films, The Great Consoler places the artist at its centre, both questioning and extolling his role in society. The literature of O. Henry, as portrayed here, anaesthetises its readers but also shies away from the truths. Is this a celebration or a critique? Similarly, those truths are muddied by the setting. Is the film anti-American and anti-capitalist or is the US simply standing in for the Soviet so as to allow Kuleshov a means of expressing his distaste for a land in which men are wrongly convicted and the authorities bully and abuse those below them? The duality makes for a pleasingly non-didactic piece (and I’ve always felt that Kuleshov’s stance on the States was ambivalent given his love for Hollywood cinema) though some of its sentiments didn’t escape the authorities. The Great Consoler was criticised for its approach and its director never allowed the same artistic freedom again. The film effectively disappeared from view in the decades that followed, making this DVD resurrection all the more appealing. Kuleshov considered it his masterpiece - now we have the opportunity to agree.
The Great Consoler is one of six Ruscico discs now available to UK buyers through Movie Mail (click here to purchase). They’re part of the labels Academia range which present the film in ‘Hyperkino’ format, their self-devised means of accompanying each title with a wealth of additional information and material. Those who remember the early groundbreaking DVD of The Matrix will understand the approach: onscreen cues are given at various points throughout the picture which lead to relevant pieces of discussion, occasionally adorned with illustrations, facsimiles, script pages or film clips. In the case of The Great Consoler we mostly get miniature essays relating to Kuleshov’s techniques and the backgrounds of his actors. The former also involves a great deal of input from the director himself thanks to his prolific writings during his career. No film clips on this particular Hyperkino release, though illustrations are plentiful especially given Kuleshov’s storyboarding of the entire picture.
In terms of presentation The Great Consoler has its flaws, though these should be attributed to age and the technologies of the time. As an early talkie the soundtrack is, as expected, on the fuzzy side though never to an extent that would ruin enjoyment. The accompanying subtitles are white, optional, of standard size and come in a range of languages (see details below). Picture quality is generally strong despite the damage on display. Levels in brightness and contrast can waver in certain scenes, scratches and dirt are a constant presence, but the level of clarity is consistently pleasing and the discs (one with annotations, one without) cope as best they can. Certainly it’s unlikely we’ll see better.