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Phoenix "sleepwalking murder" recalls silent screen somnambulist

"Was it I that hurried to the deed? No. It was the daemon that possessed me. My limbs were guided to the office by a power foreign and superior to mine. I had been defrauded, for a moment, of the empire of my muscles. A little moment for that sufficed. . . . Were my hands embrued in this precious blood? Was it to this extremity of horror that my evil genius was determined to urge me? Too surely this was his purpose; too surely I was qualified to be its minister."
These aren't excerpts from recently convicted murderer Scott Falater's testimony, but from Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, a 1799 gothic by the first important American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown. They show how far back the "I was sleepwalking" defense, used in what is probably the most celebrated murder trial in Valley history (see story on page 14), goes.

Sleepwalking killers also go back at least as far as 1919 in the movies, with Robert Wiene's pioneering work of German expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

In this hugely influential film, the resident of the title enclosure is poor Cesare, a chronic somnambulist in thrall to the evil carnival mountebank Caligari. A pair of young men go to the carnival, where they run afoul of the sinister mesmerist and his slave--the latter, in his trancelike state, predicts that one of the friends will die before the next dawn, and, sure enough, that night the guy is stabbed in his bed.

The twisted plot, which leads to Cesare's abduction of a lovely young woman, and, later, to the revelation that Caligari is the head of a mental hospital, established many archetypes of movie melodrama. The mad doctor, his zombielike servant carrying off the helpless heroine, the angry mob in pursuit--this movie made all of them indelible.

Seen today (it's available on video in many editions, the most authoritative from Kino Video), it seems like a prototype--everything that horror movies didn't get from two other German masterpieces, Murnau's Nosferatu and Paul Wegener's The Golem, they seem to have found in Dr. Caligari. What really elevates the film to the stature of masterwork, however, is less its plot than its experimental use of bizarrely unrealistic sets, designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rshrig.

Decades after Caligari, Werner Krauss, the actor who played the title role, became an even more popular star onstage under the Nazis, through his odiously anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock. But Conrad Veidt, who played Cesare, took a career route that was more admirable--he left Germany when the Nazis came to power, and then spent the WWII years playing them in American films. Most famously, Veidt played the Nazi officer, felled by Bogey's bullet at the end of Casablanca, of whom Claude Rains blandly remarks, "Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.

 
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