Yet another baffling and yet still welcome random choice from Amazon Prime, the 1954 version of Svengali arrives in a print processed in the Awful-o-vision labs, with characters glowing like lanterns then fading mid-scene and a pervasive air of murk that’s appropriate for the subject matter of male dominance. If you’ve heard men described as Svengalis, then we’re talking about control freaks, but the Svengali featured here is even freakier than that….
Played by Donald Wolfit, this Svengali looks like Bela Lugosi playing Fu Manchu as Genghis Khan, and his every over-the-top appearance provokes mirth. Wolfit’s protrayal of Svengali feels incredibly racist, although it’s not clear which particular race should be offended, possibly all the races should file complaints. An artist of some kind, Svengali stalks the demi-monde of turn of the 19th century Paris, with acolytes including such richly Gallic actors as Michael Craig, Harry Secombe and Are You Being Served?’s Alfie Bass.
The object of Svengali’s desire here is Hildegard Knef, who plays an artist’s model from Ireland, going by the splendid name Trilby O’Farrell. As often as Trilby disrobes in private, Svengali loves to tickle the ivories in public, and he clears crowded night-clubs by performing the death march; his plan is to hypnotise poor Trilby and convince her she’s a world-class singer. Given Wolfit’s bizarre antics, it’s hard to see what Trilby sees in him as he mumbles about ‘the music of the spheres’ and offers such romantic blandishments as ‘Sing, you clumsy oaf!”.
It’s a shame Amazon couldn’t find a better print of Noel Langley’s film than this, with all kinds of marks and splatter not helping a pretty dank looking film, but the eccentric performance of Wolfit gives this Svengali all the fascination of a ten-car pile-up; notorious as one of Britain’s most famously self-absorbed actors, Wolfit’s huge, unhinged performance was probably visible from space, and his gleeful, scenery-chewing antics genuinely have to be seen to be believed.