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September 14, 2008

Silent Reflections – The Bells (1926)

by HELEN GEIB

The Bells is an entertaining melodrama about a man who suffers from the torments of conscience, and the apparition of his victim, after he murders a stranger for money. It is adapted from a popular play that was well-known to the contemporary audience (among other reasons, this is the most prominent of several silent film versions). It suffers from a slight sense of over-familiarity today less from its particular derivation than from its general type. The fundamental story is one that has been a staple of stage, screen, and page for many years, and that is still told. This telling is distinguished by its starring performance by Lionel Barrymore and impressive special effects.

Barrymore plays Mathias, innkeeper and mill owner in a prosperous town in French Alsatia. He is a contented husband and father, is liked and respected by the townsfolk, and looks forward with anticipation to being appointed town burgomaster. However, his life is clouded by a large debt to a vindictive neighbor who covets Mathias’ daughter. As the deadline to repay the debt draws close, Mathias is propelled by desperation and wine to kill a traveling merchant for his gold.

The Bells is very much a starring vehicle for Barrymore. His character and performance dominate the film, and the film owes most of its success to the strength of that performance. There is a romance subplot between Mathias’ daughter and the town’s gendarme that is very charmingly played by Lola Todd and Eddie Phillips, some amusing comedy bits by the inn’s regular patrons, and Gustav von Seyffertitz and Boris Karloff are suitably creepy as, respectively, the moneylender and a Caligarian itinerant mesmerist who claims the power to unmask hidden evil. Nevertheless, despite the strengths of the supporting performances, everything else is basically embroidery on Mathias’ story.

A film like The Bells is the bread and butter of 1920s silent films. It is a well-made production, but one that is undistinguished in its visual and technical aspects except by the special effects. The effects are very good, advanced for their time and imaginatively executed. The increasing frequency of the apparition’s appearances, and increasing duration of the visits, are result and marker of Mathias’ loss of self under the cloud of his guilt. A sequence where Mathias first hurls verbal abuse (and his wine glass) at the apparition and then sits down to play cards with it is particularly striking.

Note: The Bells is available on DVD from Image Entertainment in a lovely color-tinted print. I would not rate the musical accompaniment as more than adequate, partly because it incorporates sound effects when the titular bells are rung. Sound effects are a device I almost invariably heartily dislike, and this is not the exception.

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