The Death Ray

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(5/10) This 1925 Soviet action film by legendary film theorist Lev Kuleshov is all about editing and light-hearted spy fun in a pre-James Bond era, as fascists and socialists fight for possession of a death ray. Kuleshov’s experimental editing and lost film reels create a highly disjointed viewing experience, and the parts are better than the whole. 

The Death Ray (Луч смерти). 1925, Russia/USSR. Written and directed by Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin. Based on the novel Повелитель железа by Valentin Kataev. Starring: Porfiri Podobed, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Komarov, Vladimir Fogel, Alexandra Kokhlova. Produced for Gosfilm. IMDb score: 6.4 Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

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Poster.

Film production was an elite pastime in the early days of the Soviet Union. Because of international embargoes Soviet filmmakers had a hard time buying film stock, and it took a while for the Russian chemists and engineers to start mass production of their own. So like most everything else, film was rationed, and many potential filmmakers had to do without. Such was the case for the so-called Kuleshov collective. Lev Kuleshov was a film theorist and teacher at and co-founder of the world’s first film school, based in Moscow. An art student turned director in 1917, he directed a handful of films before starting his work as a teacher in 1919. The state wouldn’t allow the film students to waste precious film reels on student films, and young filmmakers couldn’t just walk up to a shop and buy film reels. So Kuleshov and his collective of film students instead did what they could: they watched films. In a movie theatre on Malaya Dmitrovka street in the centre of Moscow they would sit for months on end watching everything the theatre’s director showed. And then they would discuss, analyse and take apart the movie they had seen. And when a film had run its course, Kuleshov would sometime be given the copy of the film. And while the reels were useless for filming with, there was something the collective could do with them: edit. And this suited Kuleshov’s film sensibilities, as his theory was that the heart and most crucial element of filmmaking was editing.

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Porfiri Podobed and director Lev Kuleshov on the set of The Death Ray.

Then, finally, in 1924, the collective could start making their own films, starting with the propaganda comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, one of Kuleshov’s best known and most regarded movies. This led to The Death Ray in 1925, filmed with a decent-sized budget. After the success with Mr. West, Kuleshov got bold, and took his experimental editing to the extreme in this film, with an immediate backlash. Right after The Death Ray, the collective made the tense psychological thriller By the Law (1926), based on a story by socialist writer Jack London, which is perhaps his best film. The Death Ray was Kuleshov’s only brush with SF.

Луч смерти (Luch smerti) or The Death Ray was made with a large budget and was highly publicized when it was released. It was, however, a flop both with audiences and critics, and it was later disowned and buried by the powers that be, because the Soviet bureaucrats under Stalin thought it was too influenced by Western cinema, and the sci-fi element didn’t sit well with the demands of Soviet realism.

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Vsevolod Pudovkin as the fascist Father Revo.

The film is often claimed to be an adaptation of a novel written by Alexei Tolstoy (not to be confused with the literary giant Lev Tolstoy), The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (Гиперболоид инженера Гарина), released under a number of English titles, including The Garin Death Ray and The Death Box. But the film was made in 1925, and the book was published in 1927, so there is no way the film could be inspired by the book, and Tolstoy didn’t contribute to the script, so the book isn’t a novelisation of the film. In fact, there are some sources that seem to point to another book as the inspiration for the movie, a pulp detective story (of the so called Red Pinkerton genre) by Valentin Kataev, called Повелитель железа (Povelityel zhelyeza), translated as Lord of Iron. The working title for the film was actually the same as the book, but it is possible that it was changed due to the differences between the two works, and Kataev received no screen credit. According to Natalie Ryabchikova at Senses of Cinema the book is set in India, “where a crazy Russian pacifist professor threatened the fighting workers and capitalists with the “reverse current machine”, which could magnetise all iron from a distance. His “death rays” stopped airplane engines, glued guns together, and cut off telephone communication until a Hindu-speaking Moscow journalist helped everyone realise that revolution was, in fact, the only way to world peace.”

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Author Valentin Kataev.

The film, on the other hand, is mostly set in an unspecified capitalist country, which is naturally the US, and in the Soviet Union. The plot follows a workers’ leader in said capitalist country (Sergei Komarov), who is imprisoned, but escapes to the Soviet Union. But he is pursued by a fascist group and a mysterious circus woman (Alexandra Khokhlova). In the USSR, we learn that an engineer has created a death ray machine that apparently can explode gunpowder at a distance. The villains steal the machine in order to suppress a workers’ uprising. And here starts a detective story and cat-and-mouse game with fast car chases, gun fights, fisticuffs and truly impressive stunt work, all created with Kuleshov’s famously inventive and fast-paced editing. In the end the workers get hold of the machine, and presumably start blowing the capitalist swines’ airplanes from the sky, although the last reel of the film is missing.

The inspiration for both books, the film and the host of other death ray films and books of the twenties and thirties was British inventor Harry Grindell Matthews, who in 1923 claimed he had invented a ”death ray”, that would put magnetos out of action. In a demonstration to some select journalists he claimed to stop a motorcycle engine from a distance. He also claimed that with enough power he could shoot down aeroplanes, explode gunpowder, stop ships and incapacitate infantry from the distance of four miles. There was a lot of commotion in newspapers around the world when the British military first refused to buy his invention without further proof, then forbade him from selling the plans to any foreign actor. Matthews fled abroad and rumours started circulating rumours that he was selling it to a foreign government, and the inventor himself seemed to revel in the attention from the world media. There is no proof that he ever managed to sell his plans, and no death ray ever emerged on any battlefield.

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Inventor Harry Grindell Matthews and his death ray as seen in Pathé’s short “documentary” The Death Ray (1924) – probably made with a little help from Pathé’s special effects department …

Matthews wasn’t the first to make extravagant claims of death ray inventions, or trying to sell their futuristic toys to the military. A “Professor” James C. Wingard got two of his assistants killed in a horribly failed attempt to fool the US marine in 1876. The assistants perished as they were secretly rigging a ship with dynamite before a demonstration and the explosives went off prematurely, exposing Wingard’s hoax. And on the eve of WWI Italian inventor Giulio Ulivi demonstrated his death ray for the French military, and successfully exploded to ships and an ammunition cache with his death ray. However, when the military insisted on providing their own ships and explosives, his death ray “broke down” three days in a row, and the deal was off. For more on the crazy history of the death ray, please see my article on the early death ray serials.

The real point of the film is not really the sci-fi story, which merely acts as a MacGuffin, nor is it really the state-required socialist yarn. The point is to make a Nat Pinkerton-like adventure as a showcase for Lev Kuleshov’s experimental studio team.

And what is a Nat Pinkerton, I hear you ask.

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Bela Lugosi (right) as a villain in the German film Nat Pinkerton im Kampf (1920).

Well, you all know Sherlock Holmes. Some of you may even know Nick Carter. Not the Backstreet Boys dude, but the early 20th century fictional crime fighter. Nat Pinkerton was another one of these fictional detectives that were extremely popular in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. It was actually something of a surprise to me that he seems to be completely unknown the the English-speaking world that makes up so much of the internet. And hence, there is very little information about the dozens of books and films made about him. What we do know is that he is based on the real-life American detective Allan Pinkterton, who set up his Pinkterons’ Detective and Private Security Agency in 1850, and investigated a series of high-profile cases, mostly robberies, and provided security services all over the nation. It was essentially the world’s largest private security contractor. The agency still exists as a subsidiary to Securitas. Anyway, no-one really seems to know where Nat Pinkerton got his origin.

According to some sources he was invented by American author John Russell Coryell, writing under the pseudonym Nick Carter, which further adds to the confusion. But I can find very little confirmation for this claim. One theory is that it was the Pinkerton company that created the character, although this is another claim that I haven’t been able to back up. In fact, much more has been written about the Soviet offshoot, the Red Pinkertons, than about the original Pinkerton novels. What we do know is that Nat Pinkerton started appearing in in short novellas in Germany and France during the early years of the 20th century, later also in at least Dutch, Italian and Norwegian books. These were almost all anonymously written, and contained escapist adventure and detective stories written in an almost noir-ish style. Short films, and later longer ones, started appearing – the first one I can find is from 1907. They were mainly produced in Germany and France – several hundred of them were made there – but to some extent also in Denmark by the company Nordisk Film. Although almost completely forgotten today, Nat Pinkerton was monstrously popular in Europe.

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A 1987 illustration detail for the Red Pinkerton book The Garin Death Ray by Aleksei Tolstoi.

These crime stories – especially the ones about Nat Pinkerton – were hugely popular in Russia as well, both before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and after it. But for the communists there was a problem, as many of these detective stories contained elements not compatible with the socialist agenda. But the people loved to read Nat Pinkerton. Less people loved to read Karl Marx. The idea was concocted to create an own brand of Nat Pinkerton, still American, still a crime detective, but with a socialist attitude. As a Soviet theorist and politician put it in 1922: “The point is that the mind requires a light, entertaining, interesting plot [fabula] and unfolding of events – and this is true of the youth ten times more so than of adults. The bourgeoisie knows and understands this . . . We do not yet have this, and this must be overcome.” And out of this was born the Soviet-approved ”Red Pinkerton”; both in the guise of Russian-penned Nat Pinkerton-novels, and a host of similar crime pulps, of which the aforementioned Valentin Kataev’s book Повелитель железа (Lord of Iron) is one example. And this is what Lev Kuleshov’s film basically is: a Red Pinkerton story inspired by the hype around the Matthews’ death ray.

Through the many years they had sat in the cinema watching movies, the Kuleshov collective was also steeped in American culture, especially the American language of filmmaking, Their first film about Mr. West had an American protagonist, and the third, By the Law, was based on an American novel. The Death Ray was not only to a large part set in the US and had an American protagonist, but was also basically Kuleshov’s attempt at making an American action movie, complete with femme fatales, sinister villains, dashing heroes, foot chases, car chases, gun fights, fist fights and romance. Kuleshov thought the Russian landscape was utterly unfit for cinema, with both its rural and urban areas still stuck firmly in a feudal Czarist period. His idea of a cinematic landscape were the modern cities of New York or Chicago, hence his tendencies to place his films on American soil. Ironically he still tried to pass off the streets of Moscow as those of New York.

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A typical action-packed shot from The Death Ray: filming a car chase scene from inside of the car.

For the young Kuleshov this was also a way to showcase his experimental film studio, under the state-owned Gosfilm, that he had been nurturing for the last years. He had his own actors, writers and technical and artistic staff. With his background in art, rather than theatre, his point of view was visual. He championed the idea that the most important aspect of film making is editing. This he showcased with a famous experiment where he filmed a male actor’s face. With different audiences he juxtaposed this shot with a number of shots with different objects – a gun, a bowl of soup, a woman, and so forth. Depending on what image he combined with the actor, the viewers all read different emotions in the man’s face. With this Kuleshov wanted to explain that editing was not merely a way of splicing different parts of the story together, but a highly effective storytelling device in itself, and that one could completely change the tone and even the plot of a film simply by editing. The effect of his juxtaposed images was later called The Kuleshov Effect, and was hugely influential, not just on Russian film makers like Sergei Eisenstein, but on international film making as a whole.

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Guns blazing: Vsevolod Pudovkin.

The Death Ray also contains some spectacular editing, most notably a gun fight sequence where all we see are muzzle flashes in a dark room, firing all over the screen. The editing in the whole film is unusually fast and energetic, especially in the action sequences, alternating between close-ups of faces, wide shots, different angles, inside and outside a room, always moving, always flickering – sometimes cutting away to flashbacks and internal images – to create a dymanic visual frenzy. We also get some great stunt sequences, borrowed from Western, crime and swashbuckling films, with one character jumping out of a three story window without injury, people traversing rooftops with ropes, crashing through windows and over fences, sliding down long stair rails, jumping from one speeding car to another, and so on. The film is filled with visual eye candy and the acting is a bit overly dramatic, but that hardly matters. What matters, though, is that the story becomes pretty irrelevant and at some point all this chasing and climbing and jumping and fighting does begin to seem a bit pointless. One reason for this is that it is a very difficult film to follow, a sort of post-modern dissection of an action film with the actors acting as if they were making a post-modern dissection of an action film. It’s all very broad and almost ironic, sometimes intensely good, especially the expressive Khokhlova.

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The two roles of Valentina Khokhlova in The Death Ray.

The Death Ray was a critical and commercial disaster. Denise J. Youngblood, author of the book Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, writes that it was “the most negatively reviewed [film] of 1925”, and that “audiences disliked it intensely”. She writes that “it is difficult to watch, unless one has an unsurpassing interest in seeing an encyclopedia of cinema techniques”. Critics uniformly derided Kuleshov’s obsession with form over content, and called the work self-indulgent and without anything to offer the communist worker, neither as entertainment nor food for thought. The critic Nikolai Shpikovskiy went as far as to suggest that Kuleshov was simply trolling the audience: “The film as a whole does not exist: there are individual fragments, sometimes masterfully made, but they are presented in such a clumsy montage, in such a tenuous connection to the plot, in such a blatant pseudo-American tempo that one cannot help but wonder: What if, perhaps, the director has decided to make fun of us? What if they suddenly start projecting the film in some different way, and “the mirage” will end and everything will fall into place? What if a damaged garment can be fixed?”

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More spectacularly good framing from Kuleshov.

Some have suggested that the ruthless beating Kuleshov took from contemporary critics was ideologically motivated: the American setting and style of the film was seen as suspicious, and the shameless play with structure and narrative as catering to an elite audience of artists without much interest for the “common man”. And it is true that some modern critics have viewed The Death Ray in a more positive light, suggesting that Kuleshov was simply decades ahead of his time. One of these critics is the afore-mentioned Natalie Ryabchikova: “Watching The Death Ray in 2017, one is suddenly struck by its similarity to another production cannibalising popular American serials and turning them upside down. In the afterglow of Twin Peaks: The Return, the Soviet auteur’s bizarre spectacle can perhaps be appreciated for what it is, rather than what it failed it be. Just like in the latest season of David Lynch’s TV-show, The Death Ray abounds in plot-redundant car rides and lengthy fights, red herrings and guns waved around. New characters continue to be added well past the mid-point, and there is even a (potentially sinister) doppelgänger: Kuleshov’s wife and muse, Aleksandra Khokhlova, posing as her character’s spinster sister […] Seen this way, The Death Ray suddenly reveals the essential dream logic behind Kuleshov’s montage experiments: a close-up of a man’s expressionless face is put next to a bowl of soup (or is it a cherry pie?), then to a beautiful woman, then to a dead child, while worlds collide (a man is walking along a Moscow street towards a woman who is walking along a street in Washington, D.C.), and a perfect body is formed under our eyes out of perfect body parts belonging to different people. This is a logic of experimentation, or perhaps a cinephilic logic: the wonderful world of film where everything is or might be connected and everything is allowed at least once.”

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Fight scenes and acrobatics abound in The Death Ray.

I must admit to having never been a huge fan Twin Peaks: I admire the show’s audacity, I think its comedy is absolute genius and I recognise how groundbreaking it was as a TV show. But in the same way as I quickly grew tired of the very similar show Lost, I found its vagueness and unwillingness to give me any straight answers tiresome, and in the long run felt that it was rather pointless. This pointlessness was probably David Lynch’s point, but unfortunately it was lost on me. In the same way The Death Ray ultimately seems pointless in its experimental approach, not because it is difficult to understand, really, but rather because the story itself is rather trite and follows a very basic international spy drama narrative. It’s basically the same story the American film serials had churned out for ten years, only filmed and edited in a postmodern way. But unlike l’Inhumaine (1920) or a much later Alphaville (1965), The Death Ray doesn’t follow up its experimental visuals with a similar dissection of content, which makes the end result little more than a kaleidoscope of cinematic techniques. In this sense The Death Ray is more like a flipped mirror image of Twin Peaks or Lost, two shows that were traditionally filmed, but with content that felt more like endless experimentation.

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Lev Kuleshov and Alexandra Khokhlova in latter years.

That is not to say that The Death Ray is not a fun, interesting or even beautiful film to watch, or that it would not have its definite moments. It’s just to say that it is probably a lot more enjoyable to the cinephile than to the casual viewer. On the other hand, few others than cinephiles would be expected to seek out an obscure silent experimental Soviet sci-fi spy yarn from 1925. For science fiction fans The Death Ray is of some interest, however, as it served as a book-end for the first wave of death ray films, which stretched approximately between 1915 and 1925. Most such films made during this period were American film serials, where for the most part, like in The Death Ray, said device worked primarily as a MacGuffin. Three feature films involving a death ray-like apparatus were made, both other were French and both were made in 1924: The City Struck by Lightning (review) and The Crazy Ray (review). One could even argue that The Death Ray is really the only one that actually features a death ray, as the other two are a) a ray that controls lightning and b) a sleep ray. The film can also be seen as the first feature film example of the subgenre of spy-fi. However, the real frontrunner for this classic James Bond-type mashup was the 1920 serial The Black Box.

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Vladimir Fogel as a fascist.

As the expensive film flopped, Kuleshov got in trouble with Gosfilm, and he began to be regarded as a brilliant theorist, but not a very accomplished director, and he had trouble getting funding for his next film, an adaptation of the Jack London story The Unexpected. He finally convinced Gosfilm to let him do the film on a minimal budget. The result was By the Law (1926) – a claustrophobic chamber drama about a couple holed up in a ski lodge along with a murderer. It became a huge success outside the Soviet Union, and is by many considered as his finest work, and as one of the best films ever to come out of the Soviet Union. Critics praised its symbolistic and restrained cinematography and editing, and the paranoid atmosphere of the cabin, when all three inhabitants are on edge, making small occurrences take on cataclysmic proportions. The film reinstated Kuleshov as a champion of Soviet cinema, and he continued to make films until 1943.

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Vsevolod Pudovkin.

Many of the Kuleshov ensemble would later become prominent directors themselves, perhaps most notably Vsevolod Pudovkin, who also co-wrote and co-directed The Death Ray. Pudovkin would even outshine Kuleshov as a director with his 1926 masterpiece Mother, and is today regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers of the Soviet Union. 

Vladimir Fogel, who plays the fascist Fogh would later garner international fame as one of the three inhabitants of the ski lodge in By the LawFogel portrayed the murderer.

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Alexandra Khokhlova.

Female lead Alexandra Khokhlova would later become Kuleshov’s wife. Khokhlova was a star of Soviet cinema in the twenties, an extremely charismatic and expressive performer. Khokhlova made a name for herself as a screenwriter and director in her own right, as well, and taught film classes at the Moscow film school. She was also a part of the culture elite, and something of a style icon. However, due to her wealth and her family connection with the noblesse of Czarist Russia, her film roles quickly diminished as the liberal twenties passed and Stalin clamped down on Soviet society. Sergei Komarov  Komarov would later play the lead in the Soviet science fiction film Space Flight, in 1935.

Janne Wass

The Death Ray (Luch Smerti). 1925, Russia/USSR. Written and directed by Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin. Based on a novel by Valentin Katayev. Starring: Porfiri Podobed, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Komarov, Vladimir Fogel, Alexandra Kokhlova. Cinematography: Aleksandr Levitsky. Art direction: Vsevolod Pudovkin, Vasili Rakhals. Produced for Gosfilm.

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