THE LAST PERFORMANCE starts by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you—a dizzying parade of images bubble and churn atop one another, a manic tour through Vaudeville's acrobats and blackfaced whites, with director Pal Fejos pushing the cameras to constant motion. If the remainder of the film were like the first seven minutes or so, this would rate highly based on style alone. But it's not!
Conrad Veidt, in one of his last stateside outings, plays Erik the magician. We learn this as the film ditches its frenetic origins for a way more conventional tone (and story). So magicians need beautiful assistants...
...and here's ours, Julie (played by MARY PHILBIN, as the credit yell). Erik is smitten with this kitten, but keeps it admirably professional during the show.
I've written before about the scare potential of magic and hypnosis when it comes to horror films. We get a little bit of that here in the early goings, as Erik mesmerizes the 1% in their opera box into experiencing an earthquake.
Alas, after the show's over, things get pretty pedestrian. Erik loves Julie, a love that is rivaled only by this film's love for elevators. I am not exaggerating when I say that there are at least four different elevator scenes in the first fifteen minutes. I'm not sure if they were a new invention and LAST PERFORMANCE was some kind of elevator-exploitation thing, but it's pretty weird.
Anyway, yes, the plot. Erik catches a burglar in his apartment, BURGLARING HIS FOOD, and since he's a nice dude for a dude who wears thick black raccoon-like eye makeup, he consents to give him a job. Julie lobbies to let the burglar, Mark, serve as assistant to Buffo, Erik's assistant. The world of magicians is a complex bureaucracy. So far, we have no tension, right? Well, this is Buffo...
The general perversity of early silent cinema has hardened into rote homoerotic monstrosity. That in itself is worthy of discussion. But Buffo loves Julie! As does Mark! Instead of a love triangle, we have a love rhombus or tetrahedron. The conventionality of everybody-wants-this-bland-girl-cuz-she's-SO-special (which persists into our own days with the TWILIGHT saga and A TALKING CAT!?!) is mirrored in most of the shots here, although there are some revivals of the innovation we saw earlier:
So, essentially, this is like a 1929 version of THE ROOM with elevators instead of flowers and pizzas.
Up until the denouement, when murder and blood finally make it to the party. It's also notable that Julie demonstrates why she's so desired for the first time here. #1 makeover award!
After a brief rise in action, we have a courtroom scene. These kinds of things don't tend to play well and the payoff here isn't incredibly satisfying, although these scenes are enlivened by a bit of literal gallows humor.
It's worth seeing the first 1/5 of this, although you'll want to keep your remote close at hand, because that early promise gets squandered quickly. Easy to find on the Internet, although you might have to watch a copy with Norwegian intertitles, as I did, so be prepared to get called nasty names.
TOP TEN OF THE 1920S (still no change):
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. Faust (1926)
3. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
4. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
5. The Unknown (1927)
6. Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
7. The Wind (1928)
8. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
9. A Page of Madness (1926)
10. The Cat and the Canary (1927)