There’s hardly a frame in the 1929 film “A Throw of Dice” that doesn’t provide a surge of visual pleasure. Produced by the German director Franz Osten and the Bengali lawyer and crusading nationalist Himansu Rai, the movie itself seems poised between two cultures, balancing the highly developed technique of German silent filmmaking and the rich iconography of Indian tradition. Jungles and palaces, elephants and tigers, princes in silk and servants in rags were photographed on location in Rajasthan and presented with the meticulous lighting, enveloping depth effects and rhythmic editing patterns of the Weimar cinema at its height.
Based on an episode from “The Mahabharata,” the ancient Indian epic, the film tells the story of two kings, the open-hearted Ranjit (Charu Roy) and the devious Sohat (played by Rai himself) who, during a hunting expedition, fall in love with Sunita (Seeta Devi), the beautiful daughter of a wise man who lives deep in the wild. Ranjit wins Sunita’s heart, but on the day of the wedding, the conniving Sohat lures his rival into a game of chance using trick dice. Ranjit loses her, along with his kingdom and his personal freedom, and returns to Sohat’s palace as a slave. Chance has led Ranjit to this dreadful pass; chance, perhaps, will rescue him.
Largely forgotten until a restoration by the British Film Institute made a splash last summer at a screening in Trafalgar Square in London, “Dice” was the third film produced by Osten and Rai. (The first, “The Light of Asia,” has been restored by the European cultural channel Arte.) All three seem to have been substantial successes in Europe and Asia, a phenomenon explained partly by the decision to cast Indian actors (although Ms. Devi, born Renee Smith, was Anglo-Indian) rather than the European performers in dusky makeup who had populated previous German visions of India, like Joe May’s 1921 film “The Indian Tomb.”
Though hardly free of the colonialist curse of Orientalism, “A Throw of Dice” seems less concerned with presenting its characters as exotic/erotic “others” than with creating a common ground of artfully presented spectacle. Osten returned to India in 1935 to work at the studio Rai had created, the mellifluously named Bombay Talkies Workers Industrial Co-Operative Society, where he directed 15 more features — a run that came to an end during the production of “Kangan” (“The Bangle”) in 1939, when Osten, a member of the Nazi party, was arrested by British colonial officials and held through the end of the war.
The new disc, originally produced for British release by Tim Pearce and Nadine Luque, features an appropriately cross-cultural score by Nitin Sawhney that blends Western orchestrations and Indian motifs. (Kino International, $29.95, not rated)
Columbia Pictures thought so little of its serials that it apparently didn’t bother to maintain the copyrights for many of them, and it has fallen to individual collectors and enthusiasts to keep them in circulation, often in substandard prints.
One of the independent companies fighting the good fight is Restored Serials (restoredserials.com), which a few months ago came out with a digitally cleaned and polished version of one of Columbia’s most entertaining efforts, “The Green Archer” (1940). Based on a 1923 novel by Edgar Wallace, its 15 lively chapters describe the epic battle between Spike Holland (Victor Jory), a passionately dedicated insurance investigator, and Abel Bellamy (James Craven), a waspish antiques dealer whom Spike suspects of heading a gang of jewel thieves.
The main setting is Garr Castle, a sprawling edifice that serves as Bellamy’s headquarters and is honeycombed with a satisfyingly large number of secret passages and trap doors. The Green Archer of the title is a mysterious masked figure who materializes whenever Holland needs a hand or the plot needs advancing, popping up to pump arrows into bad guys or deliver crucial clues.
“The Green Archer” was one of four Columbia serials directed in 1940 by James W. Horne, a veteran filmmaker best known for his comedy shorts and features starring the likes of Laurel and Hardy (“Way Out West,” 1937), Charlie Chase (“Looser Than Loose,” 1930) and Buster Keaton (“College,” 1927). Like all of his serials, “The Green Archer” is a frequently hilarious exercise in self-conscious camp, created decades before that concept entered the mainstream with the television version of “Batman” in 1966.
Carried along by the surprisingly deft performance of the unknown Craven (whose first film this was), Horne turns the villainous Bellamy into a study in slow-burning, comic frustration. Like the perennially exasperated Edgar Kennedy of the Laurel and Hardy shorts, Craven’s Bellamy stares in disbelief as his bungling minions mess up his most elaborate plans, his temper eventually erupting in torrents of sarcasm. At one point Horne shows three of Bellamy’s hulking henchmen engaged in a fierce game of tiddlywinks.
Stunts like that could have gotten you fired over at Columbia’s chief rival, Republic Pictures, where serials were taken seriously. In his engaging 1995 autobiography, “In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase,” the Republic director William Witney describes exactly that happening to one of his colleagues, Alan James, when he tried to slip a much tamer gag into “S.O.S. Coast Guard” (1937). Republic believed in its serials, even when they weren’t believable, an attitude that might benefit many of today’s popular filmmakers, even as they continue to exploit Republic’s basic formulas. (Hello, Indiana Jones.)
Working with John English, Witney created many, if not most, of Republic’s best serials, among them “Daredevils of the Red Circle” (1939) and “Drums of Fu Manchu” (1940). (The two directors would alternate behind the camera, one filming while the other prepared for his shoot the next day.) Recently the independent distributor VCI (vcientertainment.com) added English and Witney’s rare 1938 “Dick Tracy Returns” to its catalog of digitally restored serials, and it’s a pip: 15 chapters of magnificently staged, marginally plausible action, starring Ralph Byrd as Chester Gould’s pointy-jawed comic-strip cop.
Tracy’s nemesis, as was the custom in the newspaper strip, is a stylized version of a notorious gangster then in the news, in this case, one Pa Stark — a sort of Ma Barker, complete with killer brood, recovered for the patriarchy. Stark is played by one of the most identifiable actors of the form, Charles Middleton, who lent his long, sour face and grand, Shakespearean diction to Ming the Merciless in the three “Flash Gordon” serials.
“He was always cast as the head of the orphanage,” Witney wrote about Middleton, “the one who loved to beat little kids. In real life, he was the nicest, most gentle person imaginable.” (“The Green Archer,” Restored Serials, $19.95, not rated; “Dick Tracy Returns,” VCI Entertainment, $29.99, not rated)