[22 August 2012]
In the 66-minute The Devil’s Needle, directed by Chester Withey, Norma Talmadge plays an artist’s model who has been addicted to shooting herself up with a drug ever since her nursing work in the war. When the older artist (Tully Marshall) tries it for a quick fix of inspiration, he immediately becomes an addict. “Every vestige of manhood gone,” explains a card, he now “cringes and begs for the drug like a whipped cur.” The drug is never named. It could be morphine, to which many medical personnel and patients became addicted, or it may be cocaine; at one point we see it in powder form when the near-maddened artist throws it into his own face.
One year after his hasty marriage to a society woman, he goes to the country for “nature’s own cure”, which consists of plowing the fields behind a horse until he’s well. The artist has meanwhile kicked the habit herself. Despite the melodramatic format, the events are reasonably credible until the perils-of-Pauline finale which suddenly used D.W. Griffith-esque cross-cutting.
This print (the only one in existence) is marked by nitrate decomposition that flickers ectoplasmically before the image for most of the running time, becoming frightful only in the final minute. That said, the image is otherwise clear and sharp, such that you can see not only the full facial expressions but even cloth textures, the wallpaper, and what’s beyond the windows. Although re-edited for its 1920s re-release, the style is consistent with its 1916 origin, with the camera nailed to the floor as the action takes place in carefully composed depth before it, although each scene is a sequence of many shots edited together. The action always remains in the middle distance with almost no close-ups.
On the other hand, the film from 1913, Frank Beal’s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, has a more sophisticated visual vocabulary, with a frequently moving camera and close-ups. It’s a half-hour public-service docudrama on prostitution and a warning to young ladies against lying cads. The longest and best film, John H. Collins’ Children of Eve, uses the melodrama of a capitalist’s lost daughter (Viola Dana) to expose child labor and sweatshops, climaxing in a horrific fire inspired by the famous Triangle Factory disaster. I’d have made it the headliner here, but what matters is that these rare items are now available for public consumption, coming on to 100 years after release. They’ve lost some sparkle but haven’t entirely given up their relevance.