The following is my entry in The Silent Movie Day Blogathon, co-hosted by Crystal at her blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lea at her blog Silent-ology, on Sept. 29, 2021. Click here or on the above banner, and read bloggers’ variety of tributes to National Silent Movie Day!
I’ll bet you didn’t know that some major actors performed in a silent movie in 1991. I wouldn’t have known it myself if PBS hadn’t broadcast the movie on “Great Performances” two years after the movie was released.
The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez is written and directed by Peter Sellars (no relation to the actor Peter Sellers), a theater director who is famous for his unconventional takes on operas and plays. One example was his 1980 staging of Don Giovanni as a “blaxploitation” movie, with the title character shooting up heroin at one point. Opera News called the production “an act of artistic vandalism.”
Dr. Ramirez is likely to inspire similar complaints from anyone who is expecting a mainstream film. Basically, the movie grafts the Expressionist themes and look of the 1919 German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari onto the setting of late-1980’s Wall Street.
Peter Gallagher and Joan Cusack play two young stockbroker/lovers whose personal and business lives are not going so well. That makes them easy bait for mysterious and fiendish Dr. Ramirez (Ron Vawter) and his even stranger partner-in-crime Cesar (Mikhail Baryshnikov).
In an introduction to the movie, director Sellars makes lofty claims about the movie laying waste to Wall Street’s barren greediness. I don’t know about all that. To me, the amazing thing is that this story is told with no dialogue, not even subtitles — a word-free conceit that hadn’t been attempted since F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) — and Sellars makes it work. The movie really makes you work for its pleasures, but the actors are so good, and the staging is so well thought-out, you can really make the connections.
The movie is far from perfect. Its score by John Adams is bombastic at some points, a few close-ups are held way too long after they’ve made their point, and the film’s climax flies all over the place. Yet I could never take my eyes off the movie.
In a movie world where it seems every bit of exposition must be clearly laid out for the dimmest yahoo in the audience, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez flies its freak flag proudly…and lucidly. For that alone, it deserves a place in cinema history.
Below is Part 1 of the movie. The movie is available for free on YouTube in five parts.