Night Birds Review
London. Flash Jack is the leader of a gang of robbers who are targeting the wealthy of the city, and he's a dab hand with a throwing knife. However Detective Sgt Harry Cross (Jack Raine) is on his trail...
Night Birds was made only a year into the sound era, and like quite a few early talkies, it was made in more than one language: in this case, German as Der Greifer ("The Snatcher"), with many of the same crew but a different cast. However, only the English-language version is on this disc, part of Network's DVD wide-ranging British Film Collection. (As the German version is not present, and I haven't otherwise seen it, I'll mention in passing a future name in the script credits: Rudolph Katchser, later known as Rudolph Cartier, an important name as a director in television drama from the 1950s onwards, particularly in his collaborations with Nigel Kneale on the three Quatermass serials and the controversial 1953 adaptation of George Orwell's Nighteen Eighty-Four, due out this year on DVD from the BFI.) Night Birds came, and then it went, and appears never to have been shown on British television, so other than possible archive showings at places like the National Film Theatre, chances to see it before now would have been sparse. And now that I have, I can report that the result is no overlooked classic, but it's fast-moving and quite watchable.
One of the common beliefs of the early talkie era was that the high level of visual sophistication that silents had reached was largely abandoned, with cameras less than mobile until they were able to be soundproofed. While there were directors striving to overcome those limitations from the outset, it's fair to say that director Richard Eichberg was not at the forefront of them. After opening shots of contemporary Piccadilly Circus, we're studio-bound: we do get some tracking shots and a few close-ups, but for much of the time we are in medium shot. On the other hand, the dialogue (by Miles Malleson) gets delivered at speed. The two London-born leads, Jack Raine and Muriel Angelus as the story's nearest thing to a femme fatale, both moved later to the USA. The latter's final role, in 1940 at the age of thirty-one, was the second-lead in Preston Sturges's The Great McGinty. Raine continued acting until the early 1970s, finishing with an uncredited role in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Hay Petrie makes for a good villain, and further down the cast is Garry Marsh, real name Leslie Geraghty (or Gerahty), who also continued working to the dawn of the 1970s, though in the UK and from the 1950s onwards increasingly on television. His elder brother Digby, under the name Robert Standish, was a prolific writer whose novel Elephant Walk was filmed in 1954.
Night Birds is part of The British Film Collection, one of more than 450 licensed from StudioCanal by Network. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. The BBFC certification from 1930 (for an A certificate, uncut – it's now uncut for a PG) gives a running time of 97:21 but this single-layered DVD edition runs for 86:18, which would translate to around 90 minutes without PAL speed-up. I don't have an explanation for the seven-minute discrepancy.
The DVD transfer is in the early-talkie ratio of 1.19:1. The picture is a little soft and under-contrasty, though to be fair that is not dissimilar to other early talkies I've seen. There are traces of damage here and there, particularly at forty-eight minutes when some noticeable scratching leads into a section that looks like it was replaced by a section from a dupe negative. It's certainly watchable, and given the material's age as good as you would be likely to expect.
The soundtrack is mono, as you would expect, and it does show the limitations of early sound recording: all middle, with very little at the top and bottom ends, and a noticeable hiss throughout. There's also some wobbly sections, such as the orchestra playing over the opening credits. Again, if you've seen many early talkies, this is much as you'd expect. What is less forgiveable is the lack of hard-of-hearing subtitles, especially given that many people likely to be watching this could be quite elderly.
The only extra is an alternate ending, or rather an extended final scene. This is mute and runs fifty-eight seconds.