“I can make criminals confess their crimes and good men tell of their good deeds.”
The Bells was a fairly well-known melodrama from the nineteenth century derived from a play “Le Juif Polonais” by Alexandre Chatrian and Emile Erckmann. It was first staged in 1871 and then appeared as the subject of a number of silent films and three early sound versions. The best known of these is the 1926 silent one under consideration here. It was a production of Chadwick Pictures Corporation, a company that was mainly active in Hollywood during the mid and late 1920s.
Image Entertainment has now made The Bells available on DVD by arrangement with David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates.
Mathias, the owner of an inn and mill in a village in Alsatia, is eager to become the local burgomaster. Despite owing money to Jerome Frantz who threatens to see Mathias put out on the street if he’s unable to pay up, Mathias readily extends credit to the villagers hoping to curry favour with them.
One winter night, wealthy traveler Baruch Koweski stops at Mathias’s inn and after some wine, boasts of the gold he is carrying with him. Recognizing an opportunity to solve his own financial difficulties, Mathias follows Koweski from his inn, kills him, and takes the gold. He later accounts for having the gold by claiming that he has received a legacy from a recently deceased relative.
Mathias discharges his debt to Frantz and soon prepares to hold an elaborate wedding for his daughter. Then, Koweski’s brother arrives in the village hoping to track down his brother’s murderer. Assisting him is a mesmerist who, in a previous visit to the village at the time of the annual fair, claimed he was able to reveal men’s good and evil deeds simply by putting them in a trance.
Mathias meanwhile is increasingly plagued by images and sounds (the bells of the dead man’s sleigh) reminding him of the murder, and that combined with the presence of Koweski’s brother and the mesmerist, puts increasing pressure on his guilty conscience.
The story is supposedly inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same title, but in reality suggests only a Poe-like mood and that owing more to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (with its emphasis on the effects of a guilty conscience) than anything else. That said, The Bells is quite an entertaining and atmospheric film that moves quickly and is graced by several fine performances.
Chief among these is that of Lionel Barrymore as Mathias. If you’re used to seeing Barrymore’s more folksy persona of the late ’30s and ’40s when he was increasingly confined to a wheelchair due to arthritis and playing roles such as Mr. Vanderhof in Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You (1938, Columbia) or Dr. Gillespie in MGM’s Dr. Kildare series, you’ll find a different actor here. Barrymore gradually transforms himself from a fresh-faced, cheerful, glad-handing publican to a haggard-looking, haunted murderer very believably. Assisting in the transformation are some effective double exposure effects depicting the ghost of the murdered man.
Equally billed with Barrymore on the DVD is Boris Karloff who plays the mesmerist. The part is small in terms of screen time, but it is an important one that Karloff makes the most of. The effect of his dark attire with cape and top hat framing an inscrutable face with thick glasses and long curly hair is very reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, Germany). Compared to Barrymore, Karloff underplays his role substantially and this adds greatly to the mystery of his character. It is the image of Karloff that probably lingers longest of any in The Bells.
Gustav von Seyfferlitz is appropriately evil looking as Frantz, but his character is never really developed fully and so an opportunity was missed to make more effective use of one of the great character actors of the time. A short, rotund actor whom I was not able identify provides amusing comic relief as an inn patron without money during the first half of the film.
The Bells is digitally mastered from an original tinted and toned 35-mm nitrate print and the image on the DVD is amazingly good. For a film 75 years old, age-related deterioration and defects are relatively few and even speckling is minor. The tinting and toning, mainly sepia for daytime interiors and exteriors and blue for nighttime exteriors, is nicely rendered. The image is full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio and is divided into 12 chapters.
Accompanying the feature is a 19-minute short “The Crazy Ray” (AKA “Paris Qui Dort”) directed by René Clair in 1922. The version included here actually has an English title “At 3:25,” English inter-titles, and is sepia-tinted. The print is littered with scratches and speckles, but is quite viewable otherwise. The story, which involves Paris being brought to a stand-still at 3:25 one morning by the use of an experimental ray, is very well told through the eyes of a handful of people unaffected because they were at a high elevation when the ray started up. The acting is quite naturalistic and the incidents between the affected and unaffected people are humorously portrayed.
If I have anything to complain about with The Bells, it is the musical accompaniment. The score compiled by Eric Beheim and played by him and “The William Pratt Players” (William Pratt was Karloff’s real name) often doesn’t seem to fit the tale. It conveys no feel of an Alsatian village during the first part of the film and later seems to do little to enhance the darkening mood of the story. The accompaniment on the short did more for it than did the accompaniment on the main feature.
The abrupt resolution of both feature and short may disconcert some viewers. For me, this concern was more acute on the short as the sudden ending tended to spoil the mood built up by the first quarter hour of the tale.
As with an earlier silent film that I reviewed (Oliver Twist), The Bells would also serve as a good introduction to silent films. The story is an interesting one and well-acted by a uniformly good cast. The DVD presentation is particularly pleasing, at least visually, for a film of its age. David Shepard and his company Film Preservation Associates are to be commended for their efforts in transferring the title and making it available for DVD. The addition of the René Clair short is a nice bonus.