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Milestone Film & Video presents
The Chess Player (Le Joueur d'echecs) (1926)

"I have changed my mind. Just before sunrise, we will shoot the automaton as a way of ending the gaiety of the evening."
- Catherine II (Marcelle Charles-Dullin)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: January 08, 2004

Stars: Pierre Blanchar, Charles Dullin, Edith Jehanne, Camille Bert
Other Stars: Pierre Batcheff, Marcelle Charles-Dullin, Jacky Monnier, Armand Bernard, Pierre Hot, James Devesa
Director: Raymond Bernard

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, battle sequences)
Run Time: 02h:20m:31s
Release Date: July 29, 2003
UPC: 014381198027
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

A Hungarian nobleman, Baron von Kemplen, took Europe by storm with his invention of a chess-playing automaton, which was in the shape of a life-sized Turk. While this may seem like nothing in particular in these days of Deep Blue defeating Grandmasters, it was certainly novel in its day. Taken up and exhibited by Maelzel, Beethoven's friend and inventor of the metronome, it caused a sensation by playing and defeating such notables as Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, and even Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote an 1836 essay on the "Turk." This French drama takes the real character of von Kempelen and his Turk and makes an oddball little historical drama set during the struggle for Polish independence.

Boreslas Vorowski (Pierre Blanchar) is a leader of the Poles in 1776, just after one of the endless partitions of that nation. Under the oppression of the Russians and Empress Catherine II (or the Great, played by Marcelle Charles-Dullin), tensions are high. When some Russian soldiers assault a Polish dancing girl (Jacky Monnier), Vorowski has had enough and instigates an unsuccessful rebellion. With a price on his head, Vorowski is hidden by his foster sister, Sophie Novinska (Edith Jehanne) and their guardian, Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin). The mechanical genius hits upon using the chess-playing Vorowski as the means of achieving his Turk, and works toward using it to smuggle Vorowski out of the country. But Major Nicolaieff (Camille Bert) learns of the secret and arranges for the Turk instead to be sent to St. Petersburg and the court of Catherine herself, increasing the danger to all our heroes substantially.

Although von Kempelen and the Turk are genuine articles of history, the rest of the tale is made out of whole cloth. While parts of the picture are exceptional, it suffers from overly languid pacing and numerous tedious dance sequences that do nothing except display the costumes designed by future Hollywood director Eugene Lourie. There's also an odd notion of Sophie being the symbol of Polish independence, though how that came to be or why anyone would even know who she was is glossed over completely. On the positive side, there's a nightmarishly unforgettable sequence with Nicolaeff trapped in von Kempelen's workshop, which works incredibly well. Also notable is the contrast between Sophie's romantic fantasies about the revolution against Russian domination, intercut with the actual bloody hand-to-hand of the fighting. The result is quite effective and memorable.

Dullin was a noted stage actor of the time and ran a school for mimes; not surprisingly, he's the subtlest and most accomplished actor on the screen. Blanchar is decent, though he's really not called upon to do much more than be heroic; he never falters from his appointed task, though in later segments he does do a passable job of emulating someone who has been stuck in one strange position inside a mechanical Turk for a lengthy period of time. Jehanne tends to overact and gesticulate wildly for the most part. Dullin's wife makes for a suitably imposing empress. Also notable is a comic orderly (Armand Bernard), seemingly straight out of Monty Python's Flying Circus, complete with bungled guard duty and cross-dressing. The camera work is mostly static, though there are some interesting moments, such as the use of a handheld camera during battle sequences to convey chaos, and a distortion effect as a major character bleeds to death.

Though one gets the sense Bernard is trying to make something of the scope of Gance's Napoleon, there just isn't the technical proficiency or the thematic resonation here. The notions of liberty and independence are thrown about a bit at the beginning, but are eventually cast aside for the human drama and never really resolved well. Nonetheless, it's a visually arresting costume drama that has some noteworthy moments.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame picture looks acceptable for the most part, considering its age. The focus of an extensive 1990 restoration by Kevin Brownlow and several film archives, the source print is in very nice condition, with only one brief spot that suffers from a significant defect. Unfortunately, a PAL/NTSC conversion was done rather than a native PAL transfer, so ghosting is present. For the most part, it's not terrible and, in fact, hardly noticeable even when going through frame by frame. However, during rapid motion and activity the ghosting becomes fairly obvious and gives the picture a smeary quality that it really shouldn't have. Decent greyscale is present, and black levels are fairly good, which is as it should be since the source prints are supposedly printed directly from the original negative. This would rank highly if not for the conversion artifacts, which some will find distracting, especially on larger screens. Otherwise it looks quite filmlike, though both texture and fine detail probably would have been better with a new transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: The original score by Henri Rabaud is performed here by the Radio Television Luxembourg Orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis. Since it is a fairly new recording, sound quality is generally as good as one would expect. There is mild background hiss, but the orchestra has a moderately good soundstage and presence, with mild directionality to the orchestral party. The winds sound particularly good, but the violins are a bit muffled and muddy-sounding and lacking in clarity.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:12m:10s

Extra Extras:
  1. Still gallery
  2. Presskit gallery
  3. Text interview with director Raymond Bernard
Extras Review: Such pictures don't usually get much for extras, but Milestone provides a few interesting ones here. Foremost is an 18m:07s radio interview with Tom Standage, author of a book on the Turk. Though he doesn't reveal the secret of the automaton (for which you have to buy the book), he does relate some of the mechanism's history over the years. A gallery presents about two dozen well-labeled stills from the film in a nicely windowboxed format. One is noted as being from a deleted scene, but there's no indication as to what that scene is supposed to represent. A similar gallery provides a slide show of the presskit, but it's rather illegible other than the photographs.

The last extra, a three-page text interview of Bernard conducted by Brownlow in 1965, discusses The Chess Player and his other silent films. Oddly enough, instead of being accessible on a DVD player, it can only be opened as a PDF file using DVD-ROM. I found this to be rather annoying since I had to take the disc out and put it into my computer to see this extra rather than just being able to access it normally.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

The Turk strikes again in this French costume drama. Though the print is nicely restored, there are a few video artifacts that will annoy more sensitive viewers. The audio is decent and there are some useful extras though one is accessible only by DVD-ROM.


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