The Sunday Intertitle: Your sins shall find you out

The reassuring smile of Boris Karloff

Weird coincidences. We have a great view of the moon from our front window, in the early evening. During the full moon, we had a double bill of John Carpenter’s THE FOG, which turned out to take place during the full moon, a fact we had forgotten (fun, and I hadn’t seen it since the days of my school film society) and PRINCE OF DARKNESS (not so hot), whose very first shot is the full moon.

Last night, looking for a spooky silent film to cull an intertitle from, I plumped for THE BELLS (James Young, 1926). Which turned out to have a much more disturbing contemporary relevance. I sort of thought I knew the story from having watched Bill Morrison’s THE MESMERIST, which is based around decayed fragments of the movie, but I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that the plot (by fantasy writers Erckman-Chatrian, a sort of second-string ETA Hoffmann), centres on the murder of a Jewish traveler. The film’s attempt to find sympathy for the guilt-tormented murderer played by Lionel Barrymore fell on somewhat deaf ears, since I was preoccupied with thoughts of the anti-semitic terror attack in Pittsburgh.

The film attempts to enlist compassion for Barrymore from the start, even though he’s attempting to ingratiate his way into political office by giving away free beer. When this leads his finances to a desperate state, he murders the traveler on New Year’s Eve in order to steal the money belt full of gold the guy rather injudiciously shows off. Now, Barrymore has been depicted explicitly as NOT anti-semitic, as he welcomes the traveler at his inn when others are more hostile. But that sort of kindness only goes so far. With my sensibilities perhaps heightened by the day’s tragic and horrible news story, I couldn’t escape feeling that while Barrymore doesn’t hate the Polish Jew for who he is, he is able to see his way to murdering the guy because he’s Not One Of Us.

So I’m afraid I couldn’t really get behind his quest for redemption.

But my, it’s a beautifully made movie. And features an early exploitation of Boris Karloff’s unique physiognomy. And Barrymore is good. There’s also an early iteration of that trick with filters made famous by Mamoulian in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (and also used in SHIT! THE OCTOPUS!), where Lady Macbeth-style phantom bloodstains appear and disappear on Lionel’s hands, all in one shot (revealed and concealed by a red filter. If you ever carried a Coke can into a dark room and watched half the design disappear when the red light made the red and white parts of the can look the same, you’ve seen this rather uncanny effect in action).


But a creeping discomfort about the film’s attitudes remains, and the intercession of a plaster Virgin doesn’t alleviate it.


5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Your sins shall find you out”

  1. Actually that’s “Shh– The Octopus” though your typo us understandable.

    Barry more played a Jewish lawyer quite brilliantly in Wyler’s amazing film of Elmer Rice’s “Counselor-at-Law” with Bebe Daniels as his faithful secretary and a huge cast that included Thelma Todd and Mayo Methot

  2. Oh, I always call it Shit! The Octopus! See original review.

    John Barrymore played Jewish, yes, when Paul Muni refused to. Brilliant film. But this is Lionel.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, I’ve seen that film and Bebe is excellent. My retired Law Professor friend Mike Nevins has told me that it is the best film on Law ever made because most of the drama takes place outside the courtroom. Orson Welles’ 1930s Mercury Radio version is well worth a listen.

  4. Intriguing ruminations. Karloff, imitating an earlier horror star (Werner Krauss)…in five years,would-be horror stars would all be imitating him. And what a depressing connection to modern America, nine decades later.

  5. Just noticed that Michael Myers in the first Halloween sits up without using his arms (good abs) — a move originated by Karloff in The Black Cat. In which he scolded his director for suggesting it: “Aren’t you ashamed to do something like this, that has nothing to do with acting?”

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