Phil Johnson on a silent film given the live music treatment - or vice versa
Though Caligari (directed by Robert Wiene, Germany, 1919) is a canonical film classic, ever present in the must-see lists of world cinema, one can't help feeling this is a view more honoured in the breach than the observance. Though it famously deals with somnambulism, it's also a film with an almost unequalled ability to send its own audience to sleep, and this was the first time in three or four viewings that I managed to stay awake throughout. Yes, the expressionist sets are wonderful, but for how long can one look at a set? The modernism of the decor is at odds with the Grand Guignol acting style, and the narrative is less driven than parked in a lay-by for most of the time. Wiene, one suspects, was no Fritz Lang, and the scratchy print and indifferent projection at Midlands Arts Centre did not flatter his masterpiece.

Indeed, at one point, the light of the projector burnt through the film and a frame melted before our eyes, like the apocalyptic (but pre-printed) ending of Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop. As far as re-presentations of silent cinema go, this was a brand-new concept: as well as seeing the film and hearing a specially commissioned soundtrack, we could actually smell it, too. While the projector was switched off, we all turned and looked expectantly at the musicians. Would they improvise against a blank screen? Well, no, as it happens. They waited in silence until the necessary splice had been attended to.

The music, composed by the New York bassist Mark Dresser, accompanied by Michael Moore on clarinets and saxophone, and Denman Maroney on piano, was more diverting than the film. Unlike, say, the Matrix Ensemble's masterly accompaniment to Hitchcock's Blackmail, which is keyed to the relentless momentum of the narrative, Dresser's music provides a kind of atmospheric commentary on the text. This makes sense as the film is less dependent on narrative than the spectacle (such as it is) of the post-Cubist Gothic mise-en-scene. Cue, therefore, eerie noises of double-bass glissandos, wind-assisted squeaks and moans, and the plinky-plonk of piano wire to create percussive effects. Pianist Maroney spent most of his time under the bonnet of his instrument, tinkering with the engine of the keys and hot-wiring a series of disconcerting noises that sometimes sounded like fingers scratching down a blackboard. Moore, who was part of the wonderful Clusone trio with Han Bennink and Ernst Reijseger, was particularly fine, billowing up Brecht-Weill tango lines with great finesse.

In the few moments of cinematic climax, as when the somnambulist Cesare (looking worryingly like Robert Smith of The Cure) goes on the rampage, or the marvellous closing asylum scene, the music made a fittingly hysterical mood-enhancer to the images but, really, it was an unequal match. "Dresser 3: Caligari 1" would seem a fair estimation of the result.

Repeated at the Purcell Room, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) on Monday, 7.30pm

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