Before Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler set the deeds of the murderous barber of Fleet Street to song in 1979, Frederick Hayward's play was brought to the screen in an el cheapo production by British B-movie producer/director George King, starring the iconic (and appropriately named) Tod Slaughter, a veteran actor appearing in his second feature film after a long career in theatre.
King's version of the play is bookended by a contemporary episode that has a present day gentleman coming into Sweeney Todd's hair cutting salon, and as he glances at a curious picture of the salon's namesake, he's treated to the legend of Mr. Todd, kick-starting the film, and Hayward 's play.
The acting is largely mediocre, the camera rarely moves, and the dialogue is sometimes starchy and bleeds with an ancient brand of British politesse that grates like nails on a blackboard, and yet perhaps due to its efficient running time of just a few hairs above an hour and Slaughter's charismatic performance, King's film endures as a really fun B-movie.
No blood is actually seen onscreen – the closest we get to Todd's devilish actions is his loony cackling, and his customized 180 degree barber chair, which flips over and dumps the poor victim into the cellar where Todd finishes him off with his strait-razor. Even the contents of Mrs. Lovatt's popular meat pies is inferred rather than clearly explained, though it is fun to see snotty folks take hefty bites from pies held in high local esteem.
Also of note is the occasional weird subtext which has Todd a bit too giddy when a young orphan boy is presented to him as a suitable shop assistant (it's those hungry eyes and Slaughter's vile grin…), and a bizarre episode set in the south seas where a local colonialist calls his black manservant “Snowdrop.”
There's no doubt Slaughter owns the role in this version, given he performed the part on the stage as well, and the actor is convincing in creating a vain, repulsive human leech whose deeds are purely to feed his monetary greed; spilling blood and sticking it to upper class snots are just part of the perks, as is what could be read as a prior, if not periodic, liaison with his co-conspirator, Mrs. Lovatt.
As a discretionary couple, they enjoy a criminally symbiotic relationship, and instead of Todd being a husband who sneaks around or imbibes more than he should, raising the ire of the Missus, the main conflict comes from his pinching extra gold before Lovatt gets her hands on the latest dead man's purse, taking her cut before dragging the body off for formal pie-processing.
It's vintage melodrama, and the film also showcases the nascent sound technology of the era, Visatone, a lesser-known system ‘under license from Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Co. Ltd.' as the main titles declare.
Apparently a sound-on-film system, Sweeney Todd has an exceptionally schizophrenic sound mix: of the two short music cues uses in the film, the first is often spliced in an endless, interminable loop during the film's early scenes, and each film edit is often affected by a massive dropout, as though whole sound takes were recorded onto the camera original, and scenes were assembled using the negative with nothing available to soften the hard sound edits. Cuts become thunderous during some quiet dialogue exchanges, including two sequences where King intercuts parallel events to create a bit of irony between Todd and the young lass under his oppressive gaze.
While a low-budget production, the sets do evoke a grungy Victorian period, and it is fascination to compare the filmed play to Tim Burton's recent filming of the Sondheim-Wheeler musical, which took the basic story, reorganized some of the characters and their relationships, and added a more convincing backstory to eliminate Todd's one-dimensional persona.
Just as striking is a bizarre south seas sequence that has the film's hero attempt to rescue a colonialist from muttering natives, and receive a fortune in pearls when the landowner dies from act an of outright stupidity and lame plotting. Whereas the musical has Todd arriving in London with wealth from his travels, enabling him to re-establish his salon, the south seas incident establishes how the hero and Todd's nemesis acquires money to return home to his beloved before Todd can marry her.
King's lackluster direction and Slaughter's performance style are decidedly B-level, and given their contributions to early British film are barely audible on home video, it's unlikely there's much of an effort to find a decent print for a better DVD release. This particular transfer from Alpha Video is adequate, given the source print has loads of wear, distorted & noisy sound, and active compression, and it's probably the most economical source to grab this film.
As a sampling of Slaughter's work, however, and a record of the original play (albeit compacted for the B-movie market), this elder version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is perfect fodder for a late night.
Fans of Todd Slaughter's work (and the curious) should check an excellent website devoted to the actor in the link below, and if anyone has any foresight, now's the time to assemble a Slaughter set, timed for the inevitable DVD release in 2008 of the Burton film.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan