Monday, 27 July 2015

The league of extraordinary gentlefolk… The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Chaney in torment
After only a few weeks I’m playing off the Queen of Spades with The Ace of Hearts, although, with Hearts being trumps, the former wins this round. The Ace of Hearts is close though and is the kind of dark mystery melodrama you’d expect more from Europe than Hollywood.

Secret societies, death pacts, hidden agendas… all undermined by love – human weakness defining human strength in the face of ruthless and cold-hearted, organised killing in the name of progress… the more things change…

The Brotherhood of the greater good...
The film is a compelling pulp fiction in ten chapters that are economically-focused by director Wallace Worsley, he of The Penalty and The Hunchback… (both with this film’s star, Lon Chaney), who here brings Gouverneur Morris’ adventure novel to life on screen.

Farallone (Lon Chaney) belongs to a secret society along with several well-dressed middle-aged men, Forrest (John Bowers) and a lone lady, Lilith (Leatrice Joy). We’re never given much background on the group’s reason for being but we do know that the members are devoted to the cause – a dig at contemporary extremism perhaps in the wake of the Great War?

The Group monitor and then dispose, as required, of degenerates who are in breach of their moral code a modus operandi expressed by vague references to their targets’ short-comings. For their latest mark Forrest has been working as a waiter in the restaurant frequented by the “person who has lived to long” whilst friend Farallone has been painting his painting for three months.

The ”Brotherhood” use non-specific phrases: we don’t know who they are fighting against and what their “enemies” have done but, we give them the benefit of the doubt as they seem to be the good guys… Which reminds me of a Mitchell and Webb sketch in which they play SS soldiers with one turning to the other and, pointing to the death’s head on their caps, asking whether they might be, you know, the “bad guys”?

John Bowers, Leatrice Joy and Lon Chaney stride into the wind and rain
The Brotherhood’s target has had the power and opportunities to make the world better… but he has “made it worse”. It is not explained how and why but the Brothers and Sister are convinced they have this right and that the man has “lived too long”.

Grimly they pass round the cards and the one who gets the – you guessed it – Ace of Hearts – will have the duty of committing the act and terminating the life of this individual and making the World in general better for his exclusion.

At a time when individuals – tsars, kings, kaisers, generals, priests and revolutionaries – counted arguably more than they do now, you can sense the root appeal of this logic especially form a country in which assassination has been attempted so often on their president.

Here it acts as a curious means of forcing the hands of the three central characters who had previously been locked in an unresolved triangle of affection. Forrest gets the Ace and Lilith offers him her hand in eth hope that love will make him lucky; not just love of “The Cause” but for each other! Now, this would exclude all third parties and Farallone is especially concerned about that…

He is heartbroken and in a moving sequence watches the newly-married couple’s new home all night, standing looking up in the forlorn hope that something will change in his favour. No one stands in sorrow quite as well as Lon Chaney and here he is drenched through for good measure: there’s no singing but it is raining.

It should have been him…

Game's up mate...
Preparations are made and Forrest just has to bide his time until the appointed time to place the bomb that will kill the target and possibly him as well. But the couple’s union has brought a change of perspective and Lilith says: “Hatred seems so wrong - now that we have love.”…

But Forrest’s resolve seems strong and as he encounters an exhausted Farallone on their steps he reiterates his conviction and asks the other man to look after Lillian if he doesn’t survive.

The tension mounts as Forrest sets about his preparation in the café and Lilith goes to Farallone for help, Worsley cuts between the two scenes as Farallone realises his love for Lilith could never really be reciprocated whilst Forrest witnesses two young lovers sat right next to where his target will sit… In the face of such romantic innocence can he complete his task to kill he who must be killed at the cost of their lives…

Finally The Menace (Raymond Hatton) arrives and takes his regular seat. Forrest stands over him his mind in turmoil. If he doesn’t kill the man he knows his own life will be forfeit, the Brotherhood have strict rules so, who does he kill, the Menace and Young Love or his own chance for happiness?

No spoilers… The Ace of Hearts follows its own romantic arc as love for The Cause is challenged by love for each other with passion, compassion and loyalty all rising up in the face of the cold-blooded accountancy of the Brotherhood who are every bit as bad as the men they judge. In the end the Ace of Hearts trumps all else and that’s as it should be.

You may think that’s a bit soppy but I don’t think the position has changed much between the post-war years and modern conflicts in which automatons play an increasing role in despatching “high priority” targets.

The central cast all perform well In spite of John Bowers occasionally reminding me of David Walliams. Leatrice Joy (the future Mrs J Gilbert) shows a good range as the woman who finds love runs far deeper than any mere “cause” whilst Lon Chaney is as extraordinarily expressive as ever in showing that true love involves sacrifice as well as conviction.

Whaddaya mean Davd Walliams?!
I watched the DVD from the TCM Lon Chaney set which is enlivened by a stirring original score from Vivek Maddala. It’s available direct or from Amazon.

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