Unhinged

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The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film is well and truly up and running again — my first visit to Bo’ness’ century-old cinema this year resulted in a viewing of HELL’S HINGES (1916), starring William S. Hart in one of his archetypal “good bad man” roles, as a gunslinger called Blaze Tracy  who gets religion after falling in love with a preacher’s sister. Most intriguingly, Hart’s ascent is played parallel with the preacher’s fall from grace, since the man who has been “following the wrong trail” makes a great contrast with the “bad good man” who lacks the inner grit for the role he’s chosen in life.

Music was by Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers, who did such a great job with BEGGAR’S OF LIFE last year — their skiffle/Americana approach suits the early western perfectly. I chatted with Neil afterwards and he was quietly pleased with the way the music, which is quite epic and powerful, soft-pedals the film’s hokier elements — it’s never religiose, saccharine, or melodramatic, despite the presence of a villain in a black fuzzy felt moustache. The semi-improvised score nods to Leone (whistling) and Ford (Shall We Gather at the River) and even evokes True Detective, without falling into pastiche — everything is taken seriously, and that’s enough to make you feel present at the birth of a genre, seeing all this stuff for the first time.

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Lead guitar/vocalist Mike Hammond mentioned THE SEARCHERS and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER as favourite westerns in his intro, and the “town called Hell” aspect of the latter is actually fairly prominent in Hart’s film, which ends with what a contemporary reviewer called a “Gehenna-like” conflagration. Guess it was necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.

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Very florid, poetic, slightly racist intertitles (apparently producer Thomas Ince was a great one for the faintly purple prose), which worked well. I may well find myself quoting those some more on Sunday’s post… Also, the dialogue titles had a really strong western idiom to them, more so than the dialogue in most talking oaters.

Best place to read about Hart that I know of is Ann Harding’s Treasures. It’s in French, but we have computers for that now.

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4 Responses to “Unhinged”

  1. Do YOU think Hearst killed Ince?

  2. It’s a VERY good story. And not inconsistent with what we know about the principles. Bogdanovich’s film of it is good fun. I got stalled on Gore Vidal’s Hollywood but shall return to it — Ince and Hearst are both characters so I’m curious…

  3. Recalling an odd moment from the “Hollywood” series: While discussing Hart, they ran an archive clip of Jay Silverheels — Tonto for television’s “Lone Ranger” — noting that while Hart did seem to know Native American sign language, his execution was limp and silly. This seemed to tick Silverheels off.

    Seen little of his work, but always intrigued by Hart himself: An actor of the old school, playing in things like “Ben Hur”, falls in love with the west — or the legend of same — and films what was then regarded as the grittiest and most real version. Almost a spin on the immigrant and first-generation guys like Irving Berlin who defined their adopted country.

  4. Yes, a Shakespearian stage actor who became the stoic prototype for all western heroes. With sign language “like a woman.” I was telling everyone that, and the only reason I didn’t mention it in the review is that there are no Indians in Hell’s Hnges for him to talk to.

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