THE ACE OF HEARTS (1921) is directed by Wallace HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Worsley and deals with a secret society of anarchists or communists or something (the film never specifies) who are plotting the assassination of a vicious capitalist, known only as The Man Who Had Lived Too Long. For ages the conspirators are the only characters we meet, and since they include hero John Bowers and heroine Leatrice Joy as well as uncertainly-positioned character player Lon Chaney we’re in the odd position of rooting for the Enemies of Society, or so it would seem. They draw cards to see who will do the honours and, lacking the advice of a South American death squad or Lemmy from Motorhead, they use the titular ace of hearts to signify the winning ticket. Bowers is delighted to get the role, Chaney is cast down at being passed over, and Leatrice is so thrilled for Bowers she marries him.
This is all played out very, very slowly, but compels just by the surreal inversion of conventional morality. Sadly, this is dissipated when the narrative, from a book by Gouverneur Morris (whose great-grandfather was the Founding Father of the same name) unveils its cunning ploy — after a night of marital bliss (while the lovelorn Chaney sits out on the stoop in the thrashing rain) the newlyweds suddenly lose their passion for homicide, and find themselves targeted by their former co-conspirators. Now the killers are the bad guys and Bowers and Joy are just wimpy love interest. Only Chaney retains interest, with his slouch hat and appalling Max Wall hairstyle.
The print is thinly scratched in a million places, creating a sort of rain effect even when we’re not sitting with Lon in a downpour. By contrast, the earlier THE WICKED DARLING (1919) is spotted with blobs of nitrate decomposition specking the frame in a manner suggestive of a very rapid snowstorm. Neither rain nor wind nor hail nor snow / Only nitrate decomposition can stop the show.
This early Tod Browning stars Priscilla Dean, feisty thief from OUTSIDE THE LAW, as a pickpocket who works with Chaney (as Stoop Connors — one always hopes Chaney’s criminous characters will have great nicknames) but falls for a washed-up former swell (the magnificently named Wellington Playter). There are fights (complete with nose-gouging, see below), noble gestures, and some great grotesque underworld character touches. I was very taken with the hulking Kalla Pasha, apparently a popular Mack Sennett player, here making his debut. Another great name in a film of great names.
It’s minor Browning, without the truly perverse elements of the macabre maestro’s finest hours, but pretty entertaining, and Dean’s combination of fakey play-acting and occasional bursts of raw emotion makes for an amusing central perf.