By the Law, Hippfest 2017 (4 stars)

By The Law

A gem of silent film that sparkles thanks to RM Hubbert's sensitive live score

Receiving a world premiere at the 2017 Hippodrome silent film festival, RM Hubbert's original score for Soviet-made melodrama By the Law offers a fresh interpretation of a classic feature rarely seen on Western screens. Hubbert is best known for his work on the Chemikal Underground label, including Thirteen Lost & Found, which won the 2014's Scottish album of the year title. For this Hippfest commission, Hubbert uses his guitar to pick out a series of simple, hypnotic rhythms which synchronize admirably with the on-screen images.

By the Law itself requires some introduction; while the work of Sergei Eisenstein is easily explained within a simple political context, Lev Kuleshov's 1926 Yukon drama adapts a popular Western text, Jack London's short story The Unexpected. Aleksandra Khokhlova vamps it up as Edith, a glamorous prospector who arrives in rather desolate mining territories with other stakeholders. Their group includes an Irishman called Dennin (Vladimir Fogel), who takes offence when his discovery of gold is ruthlessly exploited by the others, and lashes out in a shocking act of violence. A sense of moral turpitude rises with the icy waters which cut their simple shack off from civilization, and as tempers fray and tobacco runs out, Edith's husband Hans (Szergei Komarov) feels Dennin must be punished for his crimes. Edith insists that they behave 'by the law', a compromise that leads to the unforeseen consequences London's title suggests.

By the Law is essentially a three hander, played in the familiar silent style of wide-eyes and grand gestures; by stripping Edith's backstory out of London's story, Kuleshov's characters seem to have been fashioned to carry an obvious political message. But the twist ending resolves the conflict in an abrupt and amusing way; while By the Law is a relatively unknown silent, it's got a rather unique selling-point, fusing London's mordant humanism with the strident grammar of Soviet agitprop cinema, and ending on a note of cheerful liberalism.

Seen nearly a century after their heyday, works like By the Law can feel like a quaint meditation for modern audiences, but Hubbert's live score helps draw the audience into the drama. Some images, like a dying man slumped at a dining table, his head lodged against a plate as the food runs onto the floor, have retained substantial power, and Hubbert keeps his accompaniment sparse enough to allow space for Kuleshov's compositions to be fully appreciated. By the Law is something of a hidden gem for silent film admirers, and Hubbert's careful, sensitive score makes the film sparkle like a diamond in the rough.

Viewed at the Hippodrome, Bo'ness, at Hippfest, 8pm, March 25th 2017.