it’s not often that a film’s strongest element is its art direction. anton grot (mildred pierce, sea hawk, life of emile zola) does the set design in this 1931 version of the novel, which was originally entitled “trilby” after the female lead, and it’s truly great. the art school sets are wonderfully eerie with a gothic (think “cabinet of dr. caligari”) feel to them. in one sequence wherein svengali extends his powers of control across paris, the camera glides over grot’s miniature paris rooftops. barney mcgill’s german expressionism tinged cinematography rounds out grot’s sets.
of course the most noted element of the film is barrymore’s superb acting. he shines here with a role (think an evil version of henry higgins) that most actors probably couldn’t pull off. it’s a difficult character to portray effectively because he has a sense of humor, is devilish, and yet must remain tragic because of the film’s end. like bogart, barrymore acts better with his hands than most people do with their entire body. without an actor like barrymore as the lead this film would be crap. archie mayo (petrified forest, a night in casablanca, etc.) directs.