Blair McClendon  reports on a live score by Philip Glass and The Kronos Quartet that accompanied a recent screening of Tod Browning’s Dracula at the Cité de la Musique in Paris.

Dracula

Fifteen minutes into the performance, the conductor started waving his hands hoping to get Philip Glass and The Kronos Quartet’s attention. Their backs to the screen, they hadn’t noticed that the movie had stopped playing. The audience giggled. The conductor turned to the room full of Parisians and apologized. The subtitles were missing, so they were going to start over. First there was laughter and then applause. When you’re sitting in a concert hall, listening to Glass and the Kronos Quartet perform a live accompaniment to the 1931 version of Dracula, technical difficulties are not enough to ruin the night. The lights dimmed once more, the music set in and there on the screen was A Tod Browning Production.

This is the kind of film that I would have assumed I had already seen. It seems that at some point during the years I spent watching almost anything and everything that came on Turner Classic Movies, I would have come across the most iconic monster performance in film history. With my taste (I think Pierrot le fou should be in contention for greatest film ever made) I often hesitate to make such wide-ranging decrees about what does or doesn’t qualify as a “foundational” film. However, Bela Lugosi’s incarnation of Count Dracula is so powerful, so thorough that it has largely infiltrated popular culture right down to that subtle inflection of the voice we use to say “children of the night.”

Dracula is so succesful, because on the one hand Browning is at the height of his powers in regards to the image, and on the other there is a deep understanding of what makes Dracula’s story so frightening. The vampire, recent variations notwithstanding, promises death and damnation with an undercurrent of sexual violence. Allowing Lugosi to reprise his role from the Broadway play broke with the two most well-known vampire films before this one: Nosferatu and Vampyr. In those two, the vampire is unattractive and so definitively of another world that while frightening he is tucked safely in a fantasy. Browning offers no such space. Yes, he revels in examples of his powers – transforming into a bat, the ever present fog – but he sets up his attacks in a much more mundane manner. Handsome, and apparently of noble stock, he is able to gain access at first to a young lawyer and later to the family of a well-respected doctor. He turns the first into his minion, whose last vestiges of will power drive him insane, and attempts to pick off the most beautiful members of the other.

Of course, no vampire movie is complete without the attack scene. Dracula attacks a nameless young woman in the street; Lucy, a friend of the doctor’s family; and Mina, the doctor’s daughter. In each case, the treatment of the scene always offers up a subtext of sexual predation. The woman in the street offers to sell the count a flower and, as the mist closes in on them, he steps towards her, opens his arms wide and draws her near. All that is left is a brief scream and a body. Browning repeats this formula throughout the film and each time the movements are slow, careful and frightening as much for their real world equivalent as their supernatural one. When he finally comes for Mina, in her bedroom no less, the count’s gleaming eyes steadily approach the camera. His head lowers out of the lower left corner of the frame, presumably to suck our blood. In the morning, Mina has been bitten.

This undertone is reinforced as she fights for her own sanity, torn between the knowledge that she is now possessed by Dracula’s power and still in love with her well-meaning but largely unhelpful fiancé. She tries to explain what has happened, but she can only bear to get out “Count Dracula…. he…” Her fiancé understandably panics, “He what? What did he do to you?” Until someone mentions the potential damnation of her soul, nothing in the scene sounds like she’s getting at being made into a vampire’s minion.

As far as Browning’s image goes, I implore you to make sure you watch a good print of this film. The film is so set in deep blacks and grey that when white does arrive (the shirt of the mad minion or that of the comic relief insane asylum janitor) it’s almost shocking. The set is meticulously designed and sets up enough visual possibilities that when he needs to move away for a trick shot, the resulting image only calls attention to itself insofar as it is an impeccably constructed one. For example, when Dracula rises from his coffin, the film is confronted with a problem. The vampire is a graceful creature, even during violent outbursts. There is not, however, a graceful way to get out of a coffin. Browning instead shows us but a hand gripping the lid, pulls back and pans to the left. The focus is deep and in the back of the frame a wrought iron window catches the dying of the light. We push in and pan back to the right to see Dracula, already standing, rolling back his shoulders. This exact sequence is repeated for the next night and while the doubling makes its immediate purpose obvious, it leaves the higher goal intact. We never see Dracula out of control. Even when the heroes do kill him, his death does not come in an awkward struggle, but rather as he lays calmly in his casket waiting for the sunset.

When the film was over, the audience applauded for quite some time, first for the film, then for the musicians. Glass and the quartet achieved the near impossible – they disappeared. As world famous musicians, performing Glass’ composition, it would have been easy to steal the show. Instead they played in synch with it. Rising with the camera, falling to let Lugosi go to work. When the film first came out there was no score apart from the credits. Just voices and a few effects. The night at the Cité de la Musique may not have been faithful to the original experience, but it offered something rarer: the complete communion of the works of a handful of a geniuses, some of whom had long since passed.