❉ Considered one of the last silent films made by Universal, The Last Warning remains a cinematic spectacle.
“The Last Warning was very much conceived by Universal Pictures and its producer Carl Laemmle as a follow-up and companion piece to The Cat and the Canary … the German born director was seemingly at the peak of both his career and his creative powers here, with four hit American movies already under his belt despite his having only relocated to Hollywood the previous year.”
Arriving to Blu-ray care of the Eureka! Masters of Cinema label on 15th February comes the 1928 silent American mystery melodrama The Last Warning – the final film directed by legendary German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni – director of such classics as Waxworks, The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs, which I personally reviewed for this very website in August last year – before his untimely death in 1929 at the age of just 44.
Adapted from Thomas F. Fallon’s successful 1922 Broadway play of the same name, which was in turn an adaptation of Wadsworth Camp’s story House of Fear, The Last Warning is a film which opens in the immediate aftermath of a very public murder; John Woodford (D’Arcy Corrigan), a leading light of New York’s theatreland, has been murdered on stage during a performance. When his body subsequently disappears, the police find they have nothing to go on. Woodford’s murder remains unsolved and the venue is ultimately condemned. In a world full of superstitious tendencies and fragile, sensitive egos, it is perhaps inevitable that in the intervening years that followed, the whole incident has come to be considered as cursed, with many believing the theatre itself to be haunted by the ghost of Woodford himself. However, after a lapse of five years, a mysterious producer steps into the fray determined to resurrect the reputation of the theatre. It soon transpires that the enigmatic Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love) not only wishes to revive the very play that was last staged there, he also wants to reunite its original cast and crew, and he assembles together leading lady Doris Terry (Laura La Plante, fresh from starring in Leni’s wildly successful 1927 film, The Cat and the Canary) and actor Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy), the other man in a much-rumoured love triangle between her and Woodford, director Richard Quayle (John Boles) and company producer Mike Brody (Bert Roach) in order to achieve his dream.
The Last Warning was very much conceived by Universal Pictures and its producer Carl Laemmle as a follow-up and companion piece to The Cat and the Canary, and it’s clear that the studio hoped that the success of that earlier film by Leni would ensure them a good box office return. It’s worth pointing out however that, for all their optimism, Laemmle and Universal weren’t actually too keen on putting their money where their mouth was – preferring instead to recycle the theatre sets from Rupert Julian’s 1925 hit The Phantom of the Opera and pushing The Last Warning down the roster in terms of budgetary requirements. In their defence, perhaps it’s a sign of their confidence in Leni that they believed he could do so much with so little. After all, the German born director was seemingly at the peak of both his career and his creative powers here, with four hit American movies already under his belt despite his having only relocated to Hollywood the previous year. The world seemed set to be Leni’s oyster which makes his death from sepsis brought on by an untreated tooth infection just eight months after The Last Warning hit the cinemas all the more tragic.
Despite the limitations, Leni proved that their faith was not misplaced and certainly delivers the goods. The Last Warning remains a cinematic spectacle. His camera never rests, employing pioneering visual trickery – one sequence, involving the masked killer swinging on a rope in the theatre’s rafters, sees Leni place the camera on the rope itself and pushing it to and fro to capture, from the antagonist’s POV the reactions of the pursuers – and delighting in what would go on to become the tropes of cinematic horror; distorted perspectives, tilted angles, shadowplay and jump scares from cobweb spinning spiders and a flurry of bats. At all times, Leni is complimented by Charles D. Hall’s outstanding production design, Hal Mohr’s kinetic and atmospheric cinematography and a screenplay (penned by Alfred A. Cohen, J.G. Hawks, Robert F. Hill and Tom Reed) that delights in a raft of red herrings, a rich undercurrent of comedy and a meta-textual glee in a play-within-a-play format which places the murder mystery in parallel to the suspense of the production our characters are staging.
Following her standout role in Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, Laura La Plante is awarded top billing here as Doris Terry, though the writing of her character sticks firmly to the conventions of the silent movie ingenues of the day, relying as it does on Leni’s close-ups of her reaction shots to the action in each scene. As the producer McHugh, the English actor Montagu Love fares much better, seizing the opportunity to break away from the villainous typecasting he endured opposite Valentino in The Son of Sheik and John Barrymore in Don Juan (both 1926) whilst still tipping the wink in that possible direction given his character’s enigmatic motives in re-staging the seemingly cursed production. Roy D’Arcy is also good value as La Plante’s love interest, Harvey Carleton, for whom the spotlight of suspicion will fall as sure as any stage spotlight.
The Last Warning was released in January 1929, though some US cities enjoyed special advance screenings on Christmas Day, 1928. Considered one of the last silent films made by Universal, it’s interesting to note that Leni’s film was released as that curious beast, the ‘part-talkie’ with some synch-sound footage (mostly of screams and cries) added in post production. This version has however been lost to the mists of time and, given that much of the contemporary criticism The Last Warning faced was focused on what the consensus held was the unwise integration of sound, it is perhaps just as well.
Released here by Eureka! is the 2016 digital restoration by Universal Pictures as part of their ongoing silent restoration initiative, using elements of prints from the Cinémathèque française and the Packard Humanities Institute Collection in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Whilst this 4K restoration has some minimal visible deterioration and scratches here and there, it’s nevertheless the best that The Last Warning has looked since its original release and, with a newly composed score from Arthur Barrow, is a welcome addition to the Masters of Cinema label. Extras include a visual essay from film historian John Soister which reminds us that the tale had not one, not two, but three remakes; a 1939 film which took the title only, a more faithful reinterpretation from the same year which reverted back to Camp’s original title The House of Fear and a final loose take in 1945 as part of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, again entitled House of Fear. An image gallery and an audio commentary featuring Kim Newman rounds the whole package off nicely.
❉ Eureka Entertainment release ‘The Last Warning’ (Masters of Cinema) 4K restoration Blu-ray 15 February 2021. RRP £20.99. Available to order from Eureka Store https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/the-last-warning/
❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to ‘Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s’, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.