London After Midnight aka The Hypnotist is a 1927 silent mystery film with horror overtones produced and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The film stars Lon Chaney (The Unknown), Marceline Day, Conrad Nagel, Henry B. Walthall, and Polly Moran and was directed by Tod Browning.
It is also a lost film, quite possibly the most famous and eagerly sought of all lost films, essentially the holy grail for archivists. The last known copy was destroyed in a fire in an MGM film vault in 1967.
The setting of the film is 1920s London.
Sir Roger Balfour is found shot to death in his home. Inspector Burke (Lon Chaney) of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. The suspects are Williams (the butler), Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall) and his nephew, Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel). A suicide note is found and the case is supposedly closed.
Five years later, the old residence of Balfour is taken up by a man in a beaver-skin hat, with large fangs and gruesome, sunken eyes. His assistant is a ghostly woman, with flowing robes and raven black hair. Could it be Balfour, returned from the dead?
The last sighting of the film came in the mid-1950s in vault 7 of MGM’s archive and it is also listed in their inventory around this time. An electrical fire in 1967 destroyed the only known print, as well as scores of other material, ranging from early technicolor movies, unedited Laurel and Hardy footage, an early Marx Brothers short and many Tex Avery cartoons.
It is difficult to evaluate whether the film will ever now be found; it is difficult to believe anyone could be sat on a copy without realising what it is and the fact that no copies were ever made for foreign markets mean that realistically, the only copies that ever existed were always in the possession of MGM.
The cost of the films meant that the studio were extremely thorough in ensuring copies were returned after being screened. There is a slim chance the film may make an appearance post-2022 when the copyright expires, meaning that an private ‘hoarder’ could benefit fully from its release. However, adverts offering Super 8 and 16mm copies of the film did appear briefly in magazines in the 1970s.
Chaney plays a dual role in the film, both the investigating detective and the ‘vampire’ itself. The real irony of the film’s legend is that by most accounts, it’s meant to be pretty rotten. Chaney’s make-up as the vampire is typically alluring, filed teeth and eyes painfully wired open, the image is one of the most iconic of the era. However, the sequence of the detective masquerading as the evil hypnotist features only fleetingly towards the end of the movie, the rest being a surprisingly humdrum yarn, considered far inferior to Browning’s own remake of 1935, The Mark of the Vampire.
The film cost $152,000 and was shot in only three weeks, the shortest schedule and lowest budget of any Chaney’s MGM efforts but takings of $721,000 still meant it appeared in the top films of the year lists.
Some reviews from the time of release:
“It is a somewhat incoherent narrative, which, however, gives Lon Chaney an opportunity to turn up in an uncanny disguise and also to manifest his powers as Scotland Yard’s expert hypnotist. You are therefore treated to close-ups of Mr. Chaney’s rolling orbs, which, fortunately, do not exert their influence on the audience.” —The New York Times
“There are moments during the onward sweep of this Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offering when one feels that the essentials that make for mystery and creepiness have been carried a bit further than we have hitherto noted…Mr. Chaney’s excellent work is materially aided by that grand master of screen acting, Mr. Walthall.” —Moving Picture World
“Will add nothing to Chaney’s prestige as a trouper, nor increase the star’s box office value. With Chaney’s name in lights, however, this picture, any picture with Chaney, means a strong box office draw. Young, Browning and Chaney have made a good combination in the past but the story on which this production is based is not of the quality that results in broken house records.” –Variety
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA
Related: The Unknown
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