René Clair’s first film is a 35-minute contemplation of filmic movement versus stasis, a stylistic leap derived from Sennett that gazes toward Cocteau. The young watchman (Henri Rollan) wakes up in the clouds at the top of the Eiffel Tower, below lies a mysteriously dormant Paris. The clocks have all stopped at 3:25 a.m., the streets are deserted except for the occasional stilled person, frozen mid-action: A vagabond slumped on the park bench, a gendarme about to seize a pickpocket, a luckless soul ready to leap into the Seine. A batch of air passengers just in from Marseilles -- a pilot, a tycoon, a Scotland Yard sleuth, a thief, a flapper -- join him as seemingly the city’s only mobile denizens, and frolic accordingly amid the tableaux vivant. At a restaurant, they help themselves to wine, baubles and furs, splashing at the Place de Concorde fountain and playing cards on the Tower’s spiral staircase soon follow. But "what good are riches when you’re bored," franc bills eventually become paper planes tossed out the window and the men get into a scuffle over the group’s sole woman. Cinema as reverie, cinema as rhythm: Are the characters dreaming of this petrified world, or are they the dream itself, the cavorting freedom projected by a slumbering city? The answer may rest with the filmmaker’s absent-minded proxy, Professor X (Charles Martinelli), a sort of blobby, benevolent Gallic cousin to Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang who can control the freeze-frame by simply throwing a switch (a soupçon of animation illustrates the process). A rich vein of fantasy and science-fiction, thoroughly mined over the years by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), Buñuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), and more zombie movies and Twilight Zone episodes than can be counted. With Louis Pré Fils, Albert Préjean, Madeleine Rodrigue, Myla Seller, and Antoine Stacquet. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce