14 June 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Strictly from Hungary
I viewed a British print of this film, titled 'The Woman in Brown' but not otherwise (to my knowledge) different from Stateside prints.
Poor Conrad Nagel! He was a star at MGM in the late silent era. When talkies arrived, Nagel proved to have a richly cultured voice with splendid elocution. Yet his career lost its momentum very quickly in the talkie era. There doesn't seem to be any easy explanation, although I've heard a rumour which I can't verify. Allegedly, Nagel's boss Louis B Mayer was self-conscious about his own Yiddish-inflected voice, and he prevailed on Nagel to give him the Henry Higgins treatment and 'Americanise' Mayer's accent. Afterwards, Mayer supposedly sabotaged Nagel's career so that Nagel would not be able to reveal how he'd helped Mayer. Anyway, by 1948, former matinée idol Conrad Nagel was appearing in rubbish like 'The Vicious Circle'.
At least Nagel is a has-been; the director of this movie is a never-was. The most interesting thing about W. Lee Wilder is that he's the brother of director/screenwriter Billy Wilder, one of the most important figures in film history. Yet W. Lee's films aren't fit to share a double-feature bill with his brother's. W. Lee Wilder's movies are poorly paced, darkly photographed, often so inept that they're enjoyable on a camp-humour level. Because many of W. Lee Wilder's films are low-budget sci-fi, he has a cult following. But even his cultists don't consider him a good director.
'The Vicious Circle' is based on a very bad stage play, and its theatre origins may have been what made this property appealing to the basement-budget Merit studio. Most of the 'action' in this movie occurs on a single set, which is supposed to be a courtroom but looks more like a bad studio mock-up.
Five Jewish peasants (four men and a woman) are framed for murder in a Hungarian village. The film implies that they've been framed because they're Jewish, when in fact they've been framed because they refused to sell their land to a crooked speculator. That's one of the problems with this movie: it seems to feel entitled to some moral gravitas for addressing anti-Semitism, but it only barely tackles that subject.
There are lots and lots of close-ups in this bad movie. Its extremely low budget forces me to conclude that the close-ups are a cost-cutting device: Wilder frames actors as tightly as possible, to avoid revealing that they're on an incompletely-dressed set. The shot-matching and continuity make it obvious that some actors weren't present in all of the camera set-ups in which their characters participate: again, I suspect that the use of tight close-ups was intended to conceal this. Annoyingly, the actors often speak *at* characters out of frame (instead of speaking *to* them) as if they aren't there at all; they probably weren't. The actors seem to be trying very hard to hit their marks, and the camera seldom moves. If the cameraman had missed his sight lines by a couple of inches, I suspect we'd see the edges of the set where the stagehands ran out of furniture.
Nagel plays the defence advocate; of course he's a crusading idealist. Just once, I'd like to see a courtroom drama in which the prosecutor is a crusading idealist, and the defence attorney is a cynic who's only doing it because it's his job. Reinhold Schünzel, in Snidely Whiplash mode, is the evil baron who's willing to kill a few Jews if they stand between him and profits. He does everything except twirl his moustache and chortle "nyaah-aah-aahhh!" Fritz Kortner plays the framed peasant who bears the brunt of the prosecution and the persecution.
One of my favourite character actors is here: the sadly underrated Edwin Maxwell, who is never included in discussions of beloved character actors from Hollywood's golden era. Maxwell was a talented actor, but he was short and not the handsomest of men; he never rose above supporting roles, yet he was often brilliant. Here, at the very end of his career, Maxwell has what ought to be a central role - 'Vicious Circle' is a courtroom drama, and Maxwell plays the magistrate - yet he seems tired and in poor health. Some of the trial sequences appear to have been framed and shot to conceal Maxwell's absence. In his prime, Maxwell had a penchant for twisting his mouth into scornful little knots of contempt: he doesn't do that here, nor anything of much interest. Lyle Talbot sleepwalks through his role. Character actors whose work I've admired elsewhere - Frank Ferguson, Philip van Zandt, the always-welcome Ben Welden - are stranded here with no direction. Michael Mark appears briefly, as a peasant. Mark was one of those character actors with *one* famous role in his CV: the peasant who carried his dead child through the streets in 'Frankenstein'. Mark's face had a very distinctive bone structure, so whenever I see him in any film I remember his 'Frankenstein' role even if he's playing something very different. In 'The Vicious Circle', he plays a character very much like his 'Frankenstein' part, only without the dead child. Here, alas, his character is named Horney: oh, dear.
Two screenwriters whose work I admire - Guy Endore and Noel Langley - adapted this material, but little of their talent is on offer: I suspect that they were hamstrung by the extremely low budget and Wilder's inept direction. I can just barely rate this movie 2 points out of 10. Several of W. Lee Wilder's films are MST3K-fodder, enjoyably bad in their awfulness ... but 'The Vicious Circle' is bad in ways that are painful to contemplate. After 'The Vicious Circle', Conrad Nagel's career continued its steady decline. By the 1970s, TV comedian Steve Allen was using Conrad Nagel's name in the same way that Jackie Gleason used Mae Busch's name in the 1950s: as the butt of jokes built round Nagel's obscurity. A shame, really. Nagel deserved better.