‘…the eccentric performance of Wolfit gives Svengali all the fascination of a ten-car pile-up…’

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.


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  1. Don’t think I ever saw Wolfit in anything where he didn’t act – over-act – as if he was on stage. Never quite took to him and I guess I will be avoiding this.

  2. Ah yes, the ‘music’ and magic of the spheres…. your delightful, snappy prose review brought back a few memories. You see, I also watched the 1930ish Barrymore version–in hopes of learning more about hypno tricks! I agree, the vic’s name is fetching, may have even spun a cottage industry, as the Trilby hat, worn by the likes of Leonard Cohen and others, become popular for a while. This is a film hard to categorize, sort of horrid, but more an early psych drama? Trilby is the name of the duMaurier novel set in boho Paris. It’s said to have inspired women to drink dago red wine and smoke brown ciggie’s. Svengali may have been based on a real relationship between a FR harpist and the composer of Home Sweet Home. The real life version had a happier ending–the composer and her former lover died, she lived on; her talent grew once free from the yoke of those men…. I will give the movie another watch. Thanks for finding the film.

    • You may not be thanking me once you’ve watched it! This is a new genre, the ‘horrid film’ as you term it. I had no idea it was based on a real relationship, I’ll do some digging myself. But this is certainly a timely story in terms of MeToo# and in it’s premature way, something of a hoot. Will be keen to find out how far down the road of hypnosis you managed to travel; do I send all this money to you by post or via email?

  3. Wait, this is where svengooli gets his name from? He even looks like svengooli! So awesome! I will have to check this out tonight.

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