THEREMINS seem to be everywhere this year: Rick Wakeman and Bill Bailey have both played them on recent tours and the whining electronic hands-free instrument used in the theme tune to Midsomer Murders also features as part of the live soundtrack to Abram Room’s 1929 film The Ghost That Never Returns, shown as part of this year’s eclectic Arts By The Sea Festival in Bournemouth.
The Russian film is set in an unnamed South American country, where a prison looking like a cross between the set of Jailhouse Rock and Metropolis is run by a club-fisted tyrant of a governor who has a problem with a prisoner called Jose Real, who is serving a life sentence having started a strike on an oil field. The governor invokes an old regulation whereby a prisoner can have one day’s freedom once he has served ten years, but if he should try and escape, he would be shot. Real is released, only to be followed by a hired hitman, intent on killing him at the end of his day of freedom. Drama follows as Real misses his stop on the train home, jumps off, and is pursued all the way home to his local saloon, only to escape and lead another strike by the oil workers.
The film has some beautiful and touching scenes, such as the build up to Real’s release – his final few hours of waiting causing him to hallucinate, and on his actual release, he painfully remembers how to walk after years of confinement in the “cooler”, and takes his time to enjoy a flowering weed growing in the prison wall. Tension builds towards his reaching home on the train, only to be met with anticlimax as he misses his stop, and a clever shot from inside the carriage looking past the profile of the sleeping Real to his wife looking into the train for any sight of him.
The accompaniment for the film is devised by The Dodge Brothers, assisted by the current King of silent film music, pianist Neil Brand, who presented the excellent recent BBC4 series Sound of Cinema. The Dodge Brothers, featuring Culture Show presenter and film critic Mark Kermode on bass, have been playing their blend of skiffle, rockabilly and bluegrass music since forming in 1996, and accompanying silent films for the past few years. With this film they use music from American union protest songs such as Which Side Are You On and Joe Hill with material from Woody Guthrie. Driving musical sound effects from banjo, guitar, snare drum, bass and piano help bring train journeys and bar-room brawls to life, and heighten tension and emotion as much as music does in modern blockbusters. The Theremin, invented in the same decade as the film was made, with its electronic whine, portrays the mental anguish of the prisoner as he waits for release, and his dream when asleep, exhausted, in the desert as part of his escape.
The Dodge Brothers are a fantastic band, full of energy, life and enthusiasm, and put together with the magical Neil Brand on keys and a thought-provoking film from 85 years ago, this was an evening of scintillating entertainment on every level, and one of which the Arts By The Sea Festival should be very proud.