Sunday, 28 October 2012

Methadone acting… The Devil’s Needle (1916)

This film is the lead title on Kino’s Blu-ray collection The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice & Redemption. Filmed in 1915 and starring one of cinema’s then rising stars, Norma Talmadge, it addresses the prickly issue of drug addiction in a surprisingly measured way.

I’d expected a melodramatic approach and a purely disapproving tone but the film’s a bit smarter than that - it’s not Reefer Madness. This is helped considerably by Talmadge’s understated and naturalistic energy but also by restrained direction from Griffith acolyte Chester Withey (I believe DW also helped to over-see the project) and a story that tries to demonise only the damage done by the needle and not the addicts themselves.
Norma Talmadge sits for Tully Marshall
It deserves credit here for giving Talmadge’s character a backstory as a wartime nurse who fell into using morphine to help cope with the stress of her situation. Then again… what we now have is a “remixed” version that was released in 1923 to cash in on Norma T’s huge popularity. They needed to beef up her role and to make her character more sympathetic.

It may also be only coincidental that this re-release followed on so soon after the death of Wallace Reed from morphine addiction? There was certainly enough of an issue when the film was originally made in 1915… and it was far from the first of its kind. Indeed, as the Variety review from July 1915 so jadedly suggested: “…It's a very commonplace story and picture in these modern days…. The drug story has been so often sheeted there is nothing left for it, unless the Fine Arts plan is to keep drilling against the evil effect of drugs.”

Tully Marshall shows Marguerite Marsh his artwork
Then as now, substance abuse was rife and I don’t think viewers have changed in their desire to vicariously experience the experience – we like to disapprove and films of bad behaviour help in this self-validation.
Talmadge plays Renne Duprez, model to artist John Minturn (Tully Marshall) who’s well of inspiration is running dry. He’s going through the motions on his latest work and badly in need of another model to complete the work.

Unbeknown to him, Renne is addicted to morphine having begun using it during her time as a wartime nurse to cope with the horrors of front line work. She keeps a stash in her changing room to pep herself up.
Minturn is visited by a businessman patron, one Marshall Devon (FA Turner), his daughter Patricia (Marguerite Marsh, Mae Marsh’s sister) and her pompous fiancé, Sir Gordon Galloway (Howard Gaye). Patricia sits alongside Renee and the artist realises that she could be his missing muse. She is hauled away by Sir Gordon leaving Minturn depressed at having missed his chance.

Tully Marshall watches the fairies in the flames...
It is now that Renne offers him the fateful opportunity to inject some “inspiration ready-made”! She persuades him to take a little morphine and quickly his spirits rise and he can imagine Patricia still in position… he can continue to paint.

In spite of her fiancé’s disapproval, Patricia sits for the artist and the two begin to form a relationship, and in a sign of his growing recklessness, the two quickly marry.

Cut to a year later and the ravages of his drug addiction are taking their toll and Patricia is living life in misery. He tries to force her to take his drug but she manages to escape. Meanwhile, Renne has managed to kick her habit and when the artist arrives to get help in scoring more morphine, she resolves to help him recover as well.

Will Minturn manage to get the monkey off his back and recover his lost inspiration? And will he be able to re-unite with his wife before the drugs or other societal ills catch up with them both?

Howard Gaye, Tully Marshall, Marguerite Marsh and Norma Talmadge,
This version of the film gives far more attention to Talmadge but she’s worth it and easily the best actor on show. Tully Marshall is also good as the depressed and then simply deranged artist. Miss Marsh doesn’t quite match them but maybe had more challenges in the original version.

Chester Withey directs well with good pace towards the rather contrived ending. It is, none-the-less, still a thrilling dénouement although, ultimately, The Devil’s Needle feels like entertainment wrapped up as a social study, a warning with a profit motive.

The final film on this disc, The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) is a more earnest attempt to educate and has the support and involvement of many noted psychiatrists listed at the beginning. The film is incomplete and only about half an hour remains but it’s enough to get across the harshness of the tales being told. It’s all based on true stories/scenarios and these don’t tend to end well… no heroic rescues here just a warning.

The set is completed by Children of Eve (1915) - covered earlier on this blog - and is available from all good Amazons.

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