Au Secours! 1923

This post published as part of the Speechless Blogathon at Eternity of Dream. Click on icon at right for more information.

Director: Abel Gance
"I would give a lot if there were in our midst a brave man who would not be afraid to spend just one hour in the castle."
1,000 francs just to spend an hour alone in a haunted castle? Oh Max, you're not going to fall for that old one are you? Here's what happens when French master of silent comedy Max Linder and world renowned director of Napoleon get together for a bet. But behind the freeform lunacy of Gance's camerawork, we get a glimpse of impending tragedy...

At a gentleman's club, the Count Maulette recalls the strange and terrifying goings-on at his castle. His friend Max accepts a thousand-franc wager that he cannot stay alone in the castle for just one hour, eleven 'til midnight, without calling for help.

Max arrives at the castle to be greeted by a moving wax figure of a footman. He endures a poison bottle, assaults by ghosts, giant skeletons and predatory animals, and several other hallucinatory episodes, without surrendering his nerve. Then he receives a phone call from his wife, who tells him that a brutish intruder is forcing his way into her bedroom...

Max encounters a skeletal intruder 
Knowing something of the background to a film's production is not always a good thing. Can we watch The Crow without remembering that its star Brandon Lee was killed on-set by an improperly loaded gun? Or worse, that the shooting of Twilight Zone: The Movie was marred by the sickening death in a helicopter accident of Vic Morrow and two child actors, Myca Dinh Lee and Renee Shin-Yi Chen? Make-believe horrors are perfectly acceptable, but should we feel a twinge of guilt for enjoying a movie tainted by real-life tragedy? It's the same with Au Secours! (in English: 'Help!'). The film's informal origins belie the sad story of a real-life Pagliacci which was soon to reach it's desolate conclusion.

The film apparently came about when Linder, at the time still smarting from a less-than-successful run of comedies in America, bet Gance that he couldn't complete a film in three days. Gance, then between epic projects La Roue (1923) and Napoleon (1927), took up the challenge, although it's alleged that filming lasted for about twelve days in the end. 

Over the course of the film, Linder's screen persona, a top-hatted toff with a gap-toothed Terry-Thomas grin, is subjected to all manner of oddities. There are lions, tigers, snakes, wax servants with detachable heads, and an armchair that comes alive to reveal an axe-wielding executioner hiding beneath. As well as these physical distractions we have Gance's disorienting subjective camerawork throwing us off-balance, expanding the threat outwards from the haunted castle set and into the movie screen itself. He uses negative, slo-mo, odd lighting effects and a super-fast barrage of images to draw us into Max's night of horror. At one point, Max is hanging off a chandelier and the film frame stretches and shrinks as he swings back and forth.

Linder's personal circumstances during filming were less than happy. A French national hero before the war, his time in service had had a devastating effect on his health and character. He wearily told Motion Picture Magazine in 1917: "Soldiers, monsieur, learn to laugh. The horror of the battlefield is terrible. It is ghastly. To brood on it drives men mad". Ill-health, from exposure to mustard gas and a wartime bout of pneumonia, got worse. He began to suffer bouts of depression, and worst of all for France's favourite comic actor, his failure to crack America convinced him that he was no longer funny.

Gina Palerme under threat
Near the end of Au Secours!, the phone call Max gets from his wife (who is fighting off an attacker bearing a strange resemblance to Oddbod in Carry On Screaming) reduces him to a state of near-hysteria. His eyes bulge and he sobs uncontrollably, emoting in a distinctly non-comical manner. Is this a daring moment of pathos concocted by he and Gance, or a fleeting glimpse at the fragile mental state of a man who only had two years to live? 

A month after shooting for Au Secours! was completed, Linder married eighteen-year-old Helene Peters. The couple apparently made a suicide pact, and they attempted an overdose of barbiturates in a Viennese hotel during the shooting of Linder's last film, The King of the Circus. Helene was three months pregnant. Their daughter Maud was born on July 27th, 1924, by which time Au Secours! had been released, but only abroad. Contractual disputes meant that it wasn't shown in Linder's native France until 1958. 

Max Linder finally met his end in a hotel in Paris on the morning of Halloween, 1925. He and his wife were found side by side on their beds, pumped full of morphine and Veronal and with their wrists cut open. The official verdict was another suicide pact, but there were doubts as to whether Helene's demise was voluntary or whether she was coerced by a depressed and unstable Linder. In a last letter to his parents, he had written: "the woman I married who I thought was an angel, is in reality a monster." 

We can watch Au Secours! today and enjoy its charm and Linder's spot-on comic timing, or marvel at the liberties Abel Gance takes with his camerawork. But the film's serious moments are an uncomfortable reminder of the off-camera traumas that abruptly destroyed the life and reputation of a much-loved performer -- certainly not comedy, but not exactly horror either. As Max put it: "So we learn to laugh - to take things as a matter of course. If we die, it is as it will be; if we live, we are glad. We laugh; we weep over the dead comrade; we rejoice over those who are living. So it is - the laughter and the tears are mingled together."

End Credits:
Max Linder (Max), Jean Toulout (Count Maulette), Gina Palerme (Edith).
Screenplay: Abel Gance and Max Linder, Photography: Georges Specht.
(Alternate titles: The Haunted House [UK], Help! [USA])
Abel Gance Films, France
Running time 23 mins.

Au Secours! is available as a supplemental feature on Lucrezia Borgia (Image DVD)


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