(6/10) The first feature film containing a death ray is a rather obscure little French movie from 1924 about a man threatening to destroy Paris unless he is paid a huge sum of money.
The City Struck by Lightning (La cité foudroyée). 1924, France. Directed by Luitz-Morat. Written by Jean-Louise Bouquet. Starring: Daniel Mendaille, Jane Maguenat, Armand Morins, Alexis Ghasne, Lucien Cazalis. Produced by Luitz-Morat. IMDb score: 5.4. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
Death rays were all the rage in the mid-1920s. The idea went back to the 1870’s, and had featured prominently in both news coverage and science fiction literature in the early days of the 20th century. Early American film serials also featured a number or death ray-like devices, often as MacGuffins. But it wasn’t until British inventor Harry Grindell Matthews came along with his claims of a death ray in 1924 that the trope made its way to feature films. A number of movies incorporating death rays were made in 1924 and 1925. The first one is probably La cité foudroyée, or The City Struck by Lightning, made by French director Luitz-Morat for Films de France and Pathé. The movie was written by the critically acclaimed mystery and horror writer Jean-Louise Bouquet, and is almost completely forgotten today.
In 1924 the famous British inventor Harry Grindell Matthews arrived in Paris, to the delight of French media. The year before Matthews had made international headlines when he proclaimed that he had invented a death ray, that could stop dead any engine, and thus would be able to shoot a whole armada of enemy airplanes out of the sky. He tried to sell his innovation to the British army, but refused to give a proper demonstration of his machine. And as the British army had led itself to be duped by Matthews’ extravagant claims twice before, they were weary, and in turn refused to buy anything from him without actually seeing what it could do. Just to guard themselves against the off chance that the inventor wasn’t playing around this time, they took the matter to a court that in late May 1924 granted an injunction that forbade Matthews from selling the rights to his device to anyone but the military. With this new trump card in his pocket a certain Major Wimperis rushed to Matthews’ lab, but he was too late. The mad scientist was already on a plane to France.
The furore in the press was mighty, as Matthews spoke to the French media, claiming he had eight potential buyers for his death ray. British media begged the military to reconsider their position and buy the death ray from Matthews, if only to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. But the military once again demanded proof. Matthews once again refused to give any. At the end of June he returned to England and made a “documentary” film with British Pathé, in which the death ray was presented. Oddly enough, while it was filmed in Britain, it stated that Matthews was at the time in France, perhaps in order to give it a more dramatic flair. The film re-enacted two demonstrations he had previously given to the press, in which he allegedly used the ray to illuminate a disconnected light bulb and ignite a small amount of gunpowder. Another scene allegedly pictured a demonstration of the ray on Flat Holm outside of Wales. The death ray device in the film looked nothing like the one he had previously demonstrated to the British press, and one suspects that he was given some assistance from Pathé’s special effects team in order to pimp up what basically looks like a modified search-light. This scene doesn’t show the ray doing anything in particular, but dramatises the event with some theatre smoke, as if it has caused a plane to crash or something to catch fire.
In July 1924 Matthews went on a highly publicised trip the the US, where he claimed to have sold the death ray to the US government, something which American officials strongly denied. His American sejour was widely covered in the press, mostly based on Matthews’ own press releases. However, the US press also allowed for some dissenting voices. These mostly came from the scientific community, which was aghast at the way media presented Matthews’ extraordinary claims. The professor of experimental physics at Johns Hopkins University, Robert William Woods, was quoted in a widely distributed Associated Press article, explaining the basic principles of electromagnetic rays, and why their very nature left Matthews’ claims completely at odds with basic physics. Woods volunteered to stand in front of the death ray in order for Matthews to conduct a demonstration. As sceptical was US army pilot and flight instructor Walter Sutter, who publicly offered to fly a plane into his death ray. Matthews did not respond to these challenges.
The idea of the death ray was formulated in the late 19th century, partly thanks to science fiction novels such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897), which both featured devastating energy weapons. But also due to the scientific advances in the fields of electricity, communication and radiation, and the public fear of how new technology could be utilised in wars. Matthews wasn’t the first inventor to claim to have made a death ray. In 1876 an American inventor named James Wingard had demonstrated his ability to remotely detonate explosives on war ships with his ray. His stunts ultimately ended tragically, when two of his assistants died as the dynamite they were secretly installing on one of the ships prematurely detonated, thus exposing the fraud. In 1914 Italian inventor Giulio Ulivi used rigged submarine mines with crude timing devices to convince the French army of his death ray. His hoax fortunately didn’t claim any lives, but went out with a dud as the army demanded he replicate the demonstration with explosives provided by the army and not himself. After his device “broke down” three days in a row, the French lost interest. Despite these historical failures, the Grindell Matthews death ray was by far the most famous, and marked the peak of the death ray craze.
Certainly Harry Grindell Matthews’ trip to France must have inspired Pathé to produce their feature-length film The City Struck by Lightning (La cité foudroyée), which premiered in December 1924. Directed by Luitz-Morat, it is by all accounts the first feature film involving a death ray, as it came out almost three months before Soviet director Lev Kuleshov’s better known movie The Death Ray (Луч смерти). However, the theme had already been mined in American film serials for ten years, as a death ray was first seen on screen in the 1914 serial The Exploits of Elaine, on the heels of the Giulio Ulivi demonstrations. A good half dozen movie serials were made in the US between 1914 and 1925 depicting, or at least alluding to, death rays.
The City Struck by Lightning is the film’s US title, while it was released as The City Destroyed — a literal translation of the French title would be something like “The City Thunderstormed”. The only version of the film available online is a highly condensed edit: the original was reportedly 66 minutes long. But the condensed edit is well made and seems to cover all the important plot twists. From what I understand, much of the rest of the film is fairly mundane melodrama stuff. The condensed version, clocking in at approximately one third of the original length, is a beautifully filmed, action-packed power-punch of a movie, if a bit overtly reliable on stock footage of forest fires and building demolitions.
The film follows a young inventor by the name of Richard Gallée (Daniel Mendaille) who gets laughed out of the Parisian scientific society for presenting a theory that the electrical forces in nature can be harnessed and used for tremendous power — basically what he is talking about is lightning in a bottle. Scorned, he leaves for the countryside to live with his uncle Vrécourt (Armand Morins) and his beautiful cousin Huguette (Jane Maguenat), with whom he is in love. However, a financial disaster has struck his uncle, who is now deep in debt. When Richard arrives, Huguette has called together three other suitors, much to his dismay. To save her father, Huguette has decided that she will marry the man who can collect he largest “dowry” for Vrécourt. The three men, a boxer, an opera singer and a stock speculator, all return to Paris to make a fortune in their respective ways. Huguette confesses to love Richard, but says she must forfeit her happiness in order to save her father. She understands that the poor engineer has no way of winning the challenge, as the three other suitors and much wealthier, and asks him not to ruin himself by trying. But Richard refuses to surrender and locks himself in his study, claiming to have an idea with which he will be sure to win the hand of Huguette.
But time passes and Richard grows darker and more irritable with every day, never letting anyone enter his study. One day Huguette calls on him, but when she opens the door to his chamber, all his notes are carried out of the window by a draft, and out into a park nearby. Mortified, Richard exists the house, but can’t find his papers anywhere. But luckily they have been caught by the owner of the park, a mysterious stranger who lately has been seen skulking around the neighbourhood, and whose sour demeanour has garnered him the nickname “the evil man” (Alexis Ghasne). The stranger is interested in Richard’s work, and Richard tells him of his plan to build a machine that could harness the power of lightning, calling down destruction from the sky at the pull of a lever. The stranger offers to fund his research and buy his invention for a huge sum of money.
Richard continues to work in his study and seems to his uncle and cousin to descend into some dark madness inspired by the evil man. A the same time, the stranger, following Richard’s instructions, builds a gigantic factory powered by a dam by the river passing through his park. But as the deadline for the dowry draws near, Huguette starts to worry. The boxer has been knocked and the opera singer has lost his voice, but the slimy stock speculator returns with enough money to pay off Vrécourt’s debts. But with only a day left before the challenge closes, a mysterious telegram reaches the Paris press: an anonymous villain threatens to burn the city to the ground unless the authorities pay him a fortune. Of course, this is Richard, having now built his death ray machine. By pointing his death ray at the clouds, he is able to bring forth thunderstorms and lightning (very very frightening), and demonstrates its power by burning down a forest outside Paris. When the authorities refuse to be blackmailed, he burns down a whole city block, and threatens to destroy the whole city unless a light signal from the Eiffel Tower indicates their agreement — the deadline is the same time as Huguette’s challenge closes. As the hour passes without a signal from the authorities, Richard stays true to his word. Like a man deranged he starts pulling lever after lever, all while hysterically shouting commands to the heavenly powers to strike down the city. Fire and smoke ravages the city, buildings topple, lightning flashes from the blackened sky, we see the fall of landmarks like La Madeleine and the Eiffel Tower … The day of doom is at hand.
Then comes the twist. Now, I am usually hyper-allergic to twist endings which basically negate the whole film. The most common, and one which has been used pretty much since the birth of film, is the dream frame. Georges Méliès and other creators of early fantastical films were fond of this. From around 1910 onward, when film became more of a serious medium, the twist ending was often used as a way to deflect criticism from religious or otherwise conservative voices, all the way up to the 1950s, when the implementation of the Hays code softened. The dream frame was a convenient way of presenting potentially blasphemous content as a moral tale. In the thirties the dream frame was substituted with the last minute redemption, as mad scientists on their death beds realised that they had been “meddling with things that Man should leave to God”. The latter is preferable to the first, as the first always makes the viewer feel cheated.
Sometimes a twist ending which negates a whole film can be done well, like in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), where it adds an interesting social commentary. But even in that film, the last-minute reversal of roles feels like the tack-on that it is (it wasb the then presumed director Fritz Lang who felt that audiences needed “a return to normalcy” at the end of the bewildering movie). But the twist ending in The City Struck by Lightning is one of the very few of its sort that I have seen that actually works, without leaving the viewer with a sense of disappointment. On the contrary, it brings a feeling of elation, partly because it is really funny, and partly because it is just so damn smart. It doesn’t feel tacked-on, but very much in the same way as “Who is Keyser Söze” in The Usual Suspects (1995), it feels well integrated, like the film has been building up to it. When you look back on the movie, you see that it all fits. Then it makes you want to watch it again, to try and pick up on the clues. Of course, I won’t divulge the twist in The City Struck by Lightning, because that would just be mean.
The screenplay is written by Jean-Louise Bouquet, a 25-year old law student, musician, author and journalist, who had started writing for the screen in 1920. As a screenwriter he is mostly forgotten, perhaps best known for The City Struck by Lightning, Le diable dans la ville (The devil in the city, 1925) and and his 1925 adaptation of Les Miserables. Other popular movies he wrote or co-wrote were the comedy The Five Cents of Lavarede (1939) and the 1947 adaptation of Fantômas. Between 1930 and 1937 he also directed and edited six films. He worked as a screenwriter until 1951.
Between 1943 and 1945 Bouquet published around two dozen short stories, mostly mystery and detective stories. Most of these have up until now been almost impossible to find. Best known today is his Paul Dumviller cycle, a collection of detective novels involving themes of witchcraft and horror. They were re-released after Bouquet’s death in 1978 as the collection L’Ombre Du Vampire Et Autres Enquetes De Doum Reporter (The Shadow of the Vampire and other investigations of reporter Doum).
Bouquet’s two major works were published in 1951 and 1956, both comprised of a number of short stories written during the forties and fifties. The first, Le Visage de feu (The face of fire) contained five stories in which the dark beyond intruded on reality in the form of demons and the devil, both frightening and alluring. Sexuality is ever present, for example in presenting the devil as a handsome seducer, and in his stories Bouquet combined the gothic horror of the 19th century with modern notions of Freudianism and psychology. Bouquet was well-read on occultism through endless hours at the national archive, and had a vast knowledge of old traditions and superstitions, as well as notions of kabbalah and the occult. Critics at the time praised the atmosphere of the stories and Bouquet’s impeccable writing.
The same style continued in what is probably Bouquet’s most lauded collection, Aux portes des ténèbres (At the gates of darkness). Critic Alain Dorémieux at the magazine Fiction wrote about the story Les filles de la nuit (The daughter of the night) that it was a “ballet of love and death, [a] cruel pantomime where Pierrot and Colombine are trapped by a demonic Pulcinella and an old grim Harlequin”. Dorémieux calls the writing of Bouquet “a flamboyant and dark work, which burns when touched […] We can not even say that it seduces you: it is beyond seduction; it does not try to please; it subjugates”. Charles Exbrayat at Le Journal de Centre described it as a “strange world, a universe located at the boundaries of the unknown and the known. The author is a specialist in these incursions on the frontiers of the real and the unreal, and he immerses us imperceptibly, almost without our knowledge, in a subtle atmosphere, which derives its charm mainly from the way that the author lets the bizarre invade our everyday life”.
Many critics have compared Jean-Louise Bouquet to H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, expecially the oppressing atmosphere of The Fall of the House of Usher. Aux portes des ténèbres was re-released in 1978 under the title Les filles de la nuit, and again in 1998, with the addition of a dozen newly added stories, most of which were previously unreleased. Literary critics have always held Jean-Louise Bouquet in very high regard, even as the foremost French horror writer of his generation. Despite this, he had flown under the radar of the mainstream audience, and not a single line of his literary work has ever been translated into another language. But at least French audiences will now have a chance to enjoy his works once more, as the small genre publisher Armada has decided to re-publish the entire catalogue of Jean-Louise Bouquet, and started in 2017 with ten little known, humorous shorts originally published in the women’s magazine Confidences under the title Mémoirs d’une voyante (Memoirs of a psychic).
Director Luitz-Morat (Maurice Louis Radiguet) is little remembered today, despite the fact that parts of The City Struck by Ligthtning displays some impressive cinematic talents, inspired, in part, by German Expressionism and horror cinema. Luitz-Morat began his film career as an actor in 1910, and appeared in, among around 50 movies, Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas (1913). In 1920 he also started writing and directing. While few of his films are spoken of nowadays, they were generally well-received at the time, and some have been praised even by modern critics. One such film is the 1920 Petit Ange (Little Angel), which he himself adapted from Alfred Vercourt’s book, about a five-year old girl caught between two bickering, unhappy parents.
Luitz-Morat does pop up now and then, however, as one of the “pioneers” of colonialist cinema in Africa. Between 1920 and 1923 he directed a handful of movies in the French colonies in North Africa. At the time, through a decree issued by the French authorities, non-French inhabitants of France’s colonies were not allowed to make their own films, which meant that the only films being made in large parts of Africa were French. In fact, it wasn’t before the emergence of Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembele in the sixties that anything resembling “African cinema” emerged.
Regardless of this, hundreds of films were made in Africa in the first first half of the 20th century. Fictional short films were being made at least as early as 1906 in South Africa and 1911 in North Africa. The first full-length feature film that we are sure was filmed in North Africa is Les cinq gentlemen maudits (The five accursed gentlemen, 1920), directed by none other than Luitz-Morat. The film was made in Tunisia, which would later on become on of the continent’s most popular filming locations, with the makers of movies like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The English Patient and of course The Life of Brian making use of its inhospitable-looking desert landscapes. The film portrays five French travelling in Tunisia, where they are cursed by a Tunisian magician after they remove the veil of a young girl.
Luitz-Morat’s grand African spectacle was Le sang d’Allah (The Blood of Allah, 1922), filmed i Morocco in 1921 and 1922. The movie was filmed in Morocco with the generous aid of the pasha of Marrakesh, who opened his palace and private quarters to the film crew, giving the Luitz-Morat a possibility to put a grandeur on screen that he would have had no possibility to do otherwise. Film company Pathé, along with French officials, were also able to round up somewhere in between 12 000 and 18 000 extras for crowd scenes, and over 5 000 berbers are said to have brought their own horses to spend three days filming. The extras received were all paid by the pasha of Marrakesh. In essence, French filmmakers under colonialism could make grand epics on a Cecil B. DeMille scale on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. The Moroccan noblesse, in turn, continued to receive preferable treatment under the French occupation, and were portrayed in a favourable light in the films.
Le Sang d’Allah told the story of a harem girl who is sentenced to be stoned after the sultan finds her in the arms of a slave. A Frenchman tries to rescue her, but is captured and also sentenced to death. Like Les cinq gentlemen maudits, Le Sang d’Allah is very colonialist and what we would call casually racist today, but the films’ main motive, apart from entertaining, is warning French colonialists not to interfere with the locals’ traditions and religious customs, even when they involve killing each other. So important to the occupations was this that the army had issued a decree forbidding forbidding French citizens from meddling in local dealings without proper authorisation. Lest you think this was out of some well-placed notion of preserving local culture, think again.
The French needed the goodwill of the secular and religious leaders of their colonies in order to maintain peace, so the local leaders were still allowed rule over their African subjects, as long as they didn’t interfere with French interests. And many of the local rulers saw the French as a guarantee for their position, and often benefited greatly from cooperating with the colonialists. For the pasha of Marrakesh Thami El Glaoui, providing tens of thousands of men or horse and camel for the film was a display of power. This was just before the visit of French president Alexandre Millerand in Marrakesh, and no doubt the El Glaoui wanted to send the message that if the French wanted to keep the people of Morocco under control, he was the one to deal with. As a sidenote, the pasha, known as The Lord of the Atlas, was also a great friend of Western entertainment, film in particular, and received movie stars like Colette and Charlie Chaplin as his guests. But I digress.
It was Luitz-Morat’s African epics that put him on the map, and he followed them with The City Struck by Lightning. He continued to make films at the rate of around one per year up until the advent of talking pictures in 1929, when he retired. Little information is available to the public about his later years, or his life in general. In particular his African films were very successful, although not perhaps cinematic masterpieces. Unfortunately Le sang d’Allah isn’t available today, but Les cinq gentlemen maudits is, and while it is a decently made film, one can tell it was made on a very small budget, and the story is a pretty run-of-the-mill whodunnit potboiler with some “Arabian mysticism” thrown in. Luitz-Morat also directed a couple of successful historical serials like Surcouf (1924) and Jean Chouan (1925).
As for The City Struck by Lightning, the film is a mixed bag. Most of the melodrama has been edited out from the shortened version, and as far as I can see, this part is the weakest in the movie. Comments from people who have seen the whole thing imply that it is a very run-of-the-mill affair, and that the film doesn’t really pick up until the last third, which makes up most of the edited version. However, the dramatic lighting, strongly inspired by German Expressionism, is often sublime, especially the use of natural light in the morning or evening, with long, eerie shadows cast by trees and actors. While the filming is fairly stationary, it does make good use of different angles and dramatic backgrounds. The final part where we see the protagonist/antagonist raving madly by his death ray machine is done almost entirely as a shadow play, with the shadow of Richard falling on his machine, while he pulls levers and shouts at the heavens. It’s difficult for me to make any sort of assessment of the original editing, though. It probably wasn’t as dynamic and symbolic as it is in the edited version, as that would have made Luitz-Morat a forerunner of montage theory on par with Kuleshov and Eisenstein. And as nothing in his previous work or subsequent work implies this, I think we can safely say that it was a lot more linear and simple. However, credit should be given to the non-linear storytelling.
While all the actors do a good job, the only one who made a career in film was lead actor Daniel Mendaille. One can assume that the rest were mainly stage actors. Jane Maguenat, playing Huguette, is good and natural, but only has around a dozen film credits, including a small role in the Marlene Dietrich film Martin Roumagnac (1946). Alexis Ghasne as “the evil man” is a good Werner Krauss substitute, who also did around a dozen films in the mid-twenties, including Jean Epstein’s Le double amour (1925).
Daniel Mendaille was a stage and film actor whose career spanned nearly six decades. He did his first film role in 1909 and his last in 1958, successfully transitioning from silents to talkies because of his theatre background. Despite his rather good looks, Mendaille was seldom seen in lead roles, but was a sought-after character actor. In 1927 he appeared in the epic silent French historical film Napoléon directed by Abel Gance and the following year in the WWI docudrama Verdun: Visions of History. During the short period in the thirties when films where made in several languages, he appeared in the French-language version of Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), and worked again with Abel Gance, as in the chief henchman in the historical drama Lucrèce Borgia (1935). All in all, he appeared in over 100 films.
The City Struck by Lightning was soon followed by another French movie inspired by the death ray, René Clair’s The Crazy Ray or Paris qui dort (1924), which took a more humorous and philosophical approach to the theme, inventing a ray which freezes all people in their tracks. 1925 further saw two American film serials with death ray connections, The Power God (review) and The Scarlet Streak (review), as well as the Soviet film The Death Ray (Луч смерти).
The City Struck by Lightning (La cité foudroyée). 1924, France. Directed by Luitz-Morat. Written by Jean-Louise Bouquet. Starring: Daniel Mendaille, Jane Maguenat, Armand Morins, Alexis Ghasne, Lucien Cazalis. Cinematography: Frank Daniau-Johnston. Production design: Robert Gys. Produced by Luitz-Morat for Films de France (Pathé).