Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Silent Man

The Silent Man (US 1917). William S. Hart (“Silent” Budd Marr), Vola Vale (Betty Bryce). She does not know it yet but he has saved her from a fate worse than death. Photo: Diane and Richard Koszarski Collection.

The Silent Man.  William S. Hart (as “Silent” Budd Marr, prospector) and Robert McKim (as “Handsome Jack” Pressley, boss of a sinhole called Bakeoven).

L’uomo taciturno.
US 1917.
regia/dir: William S. Hart.
sogg/story, scen: Charles Kenyon.
photog: Joe August.
asst dir: Lambert Hillyer.
cast: William S. Hart (“Silent” Budd Marr), Vola Vale (Betty Bryce), Robert McKim (“Handsome Jack” Pressley), Harold Goodwin (David Bryce), J. P. Lockney (“Grubstake” Higgins), George P. Nichols (“Preachin’ Bill” Hardy), Gertrude Claire (Mrs. Hardy), Milton Ross (Ames Mitchell), Dorcas Matthews (Topaz).
prod: William S. Hart Productions, supv: Thomas H. Ince.
dist: Paramount-Artcraft.
uscita/rel: 26.11.1917.
copia/copy: DCP, 56’41”; did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: Library of Congress Packard Center for Audio-Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.
Preserved by the Library of Congress in cooperation with the Academy Film Archive.
    AA: Information in the main titles: from a 35 mm fine grain (LoC) and a 16 mm print (Academy)
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    William S. Hart
    Grand piano: Maud Nelissen.
    Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in Italian by Underlight, 10 Oct 2019.

Diane Koszarski (GCM): "The Silent Man (the second of Hart’s Artcraft features produced, but the first to be released) was welcomed by fans after a long summer without a new film from their favorite cowboy star. Hart had finished work for Triangle in May 1917, then waited for the smoke to clear as Ince’s Triangle connections dissolved in acrimony. The producer was hustling to secure a new base for the distribution and financing of his product, using his presumed personal bond with Bill Hart, box office gold, as a strong bargaining chip. In spite of lucrative offers from Goldwyn, Zukor, and others for an independent deal, Hart supported Ince’s campaign and by July 26 they settled together on a generous contract with Famous Players-Lasky. “Supervision by Thomas H. Ince” was specified, maintaining the producer’s prestige. Ince also received an equal partnership in William S. Hart Productions, splitting 35% of the profits, and was paid over $250,000 per year as producer for that unit."

"Charles Kenyon, a freelancer who had written for Biograph, Fox, Universal, and Ince since 1915, built up a short J. G. Hawks storyline into a plot chock-full of popular Hart incident, though his scenario lacks the central narrative drive so prized in the Ince brand. Nonetheless, there are many rewarding new characterizations, such as a very jovial “Silent” Budd Marr, really enjoying his long drink of water at the Hello Thar dance hall, and his “abduction” of Betty Bryce (played with spirit by winsome Vola Vale, another Biograph alum), managed with charming comedy and due respect for all the proprieties. Marr shows a fury towards capitalist claim jumpers that may well have reflected Hart’s growing sense of grievance regarding his own work. He is creating “gold” for movie moguls with his labor and skill, that gold now being siphoned off through legal and financial finagling. Triangle had quickly begun flooding the market with dozens of retitled versions of his old pictures, damaging the Hart brand and forcing his new films to compete with these low-cost reissues."

"The Silent Man is a portrait, not of the Good Badman, but of a “’bad” Badman, an inconsistent and repentant Badman. He is scarcely the ruthless Nietzschean superman posited by the opening titles. Rather, we meet a hardworking, humorous, even religious prospector, “a helping sort of hombre.” His expertise in the desert does not prepare him for the human snakes met in Bakeoven. Though he is a savvy fellow, their perfidy operates at a scale he cannot imagine."

"Hart’s films often referenced evangelical Protestant values, as embodied in the characteristic figure of an itinerant preacher, sometimes criticized, sometimes valorized. “Silent” Budd Marr is close friends with “Preachin’ Bill” Hardy, an estimable populist pastor, acted by Griffith regular George Nichols as an earthy, compassionate, and devout figure. (This positive portrayal leads the strict Methodist minister played by Fredric March in the 1941 film One Foot in Heaven to change his mind about the sinfulness of this new medium after he sees The Silent Man at a local nickelodeon.) Marr sees his old friend’s church and cabin burnt by Pressley’s desperados, and he himself almost kills his sweetheart’s little brother with a hasty shot. He is appalled by the destruction his vigilante quest for justice has generated and chooses Christian surrender rather than continued violence to end the catastrophe. He allows himself to be captured, a man of sorrows, to deliver reward money to Hardy and little Davie Bryce in compensation for their suffering. Fortunately for the fans, Marr is also capable of diving from a second-story window, lassoing the villain and dragging him in the dust to justice!"

"Was production rushed to fill the exhibition gap left by the delay of The Narrow Trail? Editing of the dramatic showdown at the dance hall card game is rather jumbled and the courtroom finale suffers from clumsy blocking. Some small but useful expository scenes referenced in the press book synopsis are missing in this print (Pressley bribing a government agent to change Marr’s claim details; a threat to Betty’s reputation if Marr explains himself in court). Hart’s preference for separation from Ince had a downside, because these are rough edges the producer would not have tolerated, and this tension would color Hart’s work through the rest of his Artcraft contract." Diane Koszarski (GCM)

AA: The Silent Man is a film of greater complexity than the earlier ones screened in Pordenone's Hart retrospective this year. The Silent Man, The Narrow Trail (a film which I did not visit this time) and Blue Blazes Rawden are also the latest chronologically in the selection.

There is an openly mythical approach in the opening: we enter "a region that God cursed", witnessing "primordial desolation" in the "huge waste". After years of hardship the prospector "Silent" Budd Marr (William S. Hart) has discovered a rich claim.

Still fighting rattlesnakes, he now enters Bakeoven, "a town of uncouth sin" and its Hello Thar dancehall. He orders a full pint – of water, and then another, and nothing else.

When he proceeds to file his claim he confronts rattlesnakes worse than those in the desert. Their boss is "Handsome Jack" Pressley (Robert McKim). They are immediately at him. Budd hears the story of Topaz a dancehall girl (Dorcas Matthews) how Pressley had imported her for marriage and then "made me work in the dance hall".

Via reflections on the glass of the lamp above Budd observes the secret signals of Topaz at the gambling table. A fight ensues, Budd loses, and, back at his claim, finds it already jumped. Budd turns into a bandit to recover the gold taken from his mine. In the process he kidnaps a woman, Betty Bryce (Vola Vale), whom Pressley is about to marry, that is, about to employ as his new dancehall girl.

Refuge is given by a pastor (George Nichols), but Pressley's men burn his church to the ground. The situation is desperate, and Budd turns himself in to face a crooked trial, but help emerges in the figure of a federal marshal who has been gathering evidence against Pressley. There is a classical wedding ending.

Despite the happy ending the lingering impact is of a close call in the terrifying circumstances where might is right.

There are interesting nuances and variations to the standard William S. Hart narrative. His character orders water in the saloon; usually his choice falls for stronger drinks. The explicit religious presence is rare, as is the intervention of a federal marshal (a bit of a deus ex machina, but also a justified reminder that there is a society based on law and order beyond Bakeoven and Hello Thar). The love story between Budd and his horse Fritz is foregrounded. In a touching and humoristic sequence we observe Budd's transference of tenderness from his horse to Betty.

The rough realism of the landscapes and the locations is caught by Joseph August's magisterial camerawork.

Maud Nelissen interpreted sensitively the moods of the adventure, including the desolation of Topaz the dancehall girl, the suspense at the gambling table, and the romance between Budd and Betty.

The visual quality of the digital transfer was from good (the 35 mm source) to variable (the 16 mm source).


AA Facebook capsule:

The vision of exploitation is mythical and existential in The Silent Man. Forces of society at large, including religion and federal law enforcement, are called to the terrain where every man is for himself, and women are fair game at the "dance hall" of the Big Boss. William S. Hart at his best. Given a blessed touch by Maud Nelissen at the grand piano.

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