Monday, 17 December 2012

The Bells (1926)

In my informal list of 'weird films to watch at Christmas', why not try this screen adaptation of the play that made Sir Henry Irving the first theatrical knight? The original play in which Irving became a Victorian sensation was by Erckmann-Chatrian, one of the great writing teams in horror/supernatural fiction. The film was made by a rather small firm and might have vanished without trace. We're lucky it's still around, because it's a fascinating historical time capsule, and quite entertaining in itself.

Set during a bad winter in 1868, the story concerns Mathias, a leading citizen of a small town in the mountains of southern Alsace. Mathias harbours ambitions to become burgomaster, and is thus keen to extend credit to the customers of his tavern and his flour mill. This upsets his wife, but does indeed guarantee him the support of the townsfolk. Unfortunately for Mathias, he is no position to be generous - he is deep in debt to an unpleasant local bigwig who will soon foreclose and take his property.

What to do? Well, it just so happens that at Christmas, during a terrible blizzard, a rich Jewish merchant travelling to Paris from Warsaw happens by the inn. Baruch (interestingly, given the period of the play and indeed that of the film) is presented as an amiable soul, but he is also incautious. He reveals to Mathias that he carries large sums in gold about his person. Cue an old-school melodramatic murder. The bells of the title are the sleighbells that jingle as poor Baruch breathes his last.

Well, Matthias is in the money. Unfortunately, he is also in a fictional town where a. a young Boris Karloff is playing a mesmerist who can look into 'the secrets of your soul' and b. he is a classic Victorian character, in that he is plagued by his conscience. Cue scenes involving the bells a-jingling, the ghost of Baruch returning (in one very good effects scene the merchant and his murderer play cards), and Mathias quite clearly cracking up. This performance, by the one-legendary Lionel Barrymore, is very theatrical, of course. But he does convey the torment of a man who believes himself to be good and seeks forgiveness, as opposed to the psychopathic type more commonly found in modern thrillers.

Anyway, if you're looking for unusual seasonal viewing, this one is on LoveFilm in an excellent restored version with a good soundtrack. The version on YouTube is less good but still watchable. And here's the first part.

1 comment:

Todd T said...

Sounds very interesting, and I'd never heard of it. Thanks for the tip!