What’s a little murder between friends?
Lionel Barrymore is Mathias, a kindly Alsatian innkeeper who is being crushed by debt. Unable to deny his friends loans or his loving daughter small luxuries, Mathias is on the edge of destitution. When a rich man stops briefly at the inn (with a fortune in gold on his person), Mathias drunkenly robs and murders him. All his problems are solved. Except for that little thing called a conscience…
No, Mr. Poe.
Before starting the review, let’s do a bit of debunking.
In spite of what has commonly been written (even on the DVD cover art!) The Bells was not based on the poem of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. It is instead an adaptation of a popular Victorian stage play that was itself a translation of an 1867 French play. The film’s theatrical heritage is even mentioned in the opening titles but the temptation to link the film to Poe seems to have been too strong for some critics. Admittedly, its content of murder, guilt and madness would have been right up Poe’s alley but credit must be given where credit is due.
Lionel Barrymore was a gifted actor but he did not have the matinee idol looks of his younger brother, John, and was therefore most often used in supporting roles. The Bells is on of the few silent features available to the general public that features Lionel as the solo lead. Let’s see how Lionel does when the entire film depends on him.
Mathias (Lionel Barrymore) is a generous innkeeper who nurses an ambition to be the burgomaster of the charming Alsatian village in which he resides. His wife, Catherine (Caroline Frances Cooke), tries to rein him in but to no avail. Meanwhile, Jerome Frantz (Gustav von Seyffertitz) watches Mathias spend money with glee. Mathias borrowed a large sum from Frantz and Frantz means to take Mathias’s inn if he defaults. Gustav von Seyffertitz seems to have had it in for the Barrymore boys. He worked against John Barrymore as the Borgia’s poisoner in Don Juan and as Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes.
Mathias and Catherine’s daughter, Annette (1925 WAMPAS Baby Star Lola Todd), has fallen for the new gendarme on duty, Christian (Eddie Phillips), and Mathias wants his daughter to be happy. Frantz offers to cancel Mathias’s debt, which he has no hope of paying, if he is given Annette in marriage. Mathias indignantly refuses but the walls are closing in. He will soon be reduced to poverty and his family with him.
Then a fateful visitor arrives. Baruch Koweski (E. Alyn Warren) is a prosperous Jewish gentleman on his way home to Poland. He takes refuge from a blizzard in Mathias’s inn and Mathias spots his guest’s hidden fortune in gold. Drunk and desperate, Mathias follows Koweski and kills him with an ax. The money he steals from his victim is more than enough to pay his debt and provide a generous dowry for his daughter. But Mathias has a conscience and soon he is driven to the brink of madness by his guilt. He imagines nooses everywhere and keeps seeing his trusting victim. And, most maddening of all, he keeps hearing sleigh bells, the kind his victim held in his hand as he was murdered. To make matters worse for Mathias, Koweski’s brother Jethro (also played by Warren) has arrived in town accompanied by a mesmerist (Boris Karloff) who claims to be able to draw a confession from anyone. Will Mathias pay for his crimes or will his own conscience punish his first?
The Bells is an unexpectedly dark tale with an extremely conflicted protagonist. Mathias is a charming and generous man but his generosity is in equal turns genuine and calculating. He has no compunction about buying the votes of his fellow citizens in his quest to be burgomaster.
After the murder, Mathias’s attempts to cover his crime are themselves cruel. He is quick to use Jethro’s status as a stranger and minority to block him from investigating the murder of his brother. And Mathias’s quick accusation of witchcraft aimed at Jethro and the mesmerist is particularly troubling. The film is set in the 1860′s and witch burnings had only ended a few decades before. The film does not shy away from the repugnance of Mathias’s actions but it also does not make him a two-dimensional villain. Instead, his terror and debilitating guilt are played out for the audience to see. He hates himself for what he has done and what he continues to do but he feels has gone too far to stop.
I do feel that the film does not do a good enough job of showing Mathias’s desperation before the murder. While money is tight and Frantz is threatening, Mathias still has his loving wife and daughter. Further, his father-in-law owns a flour mill so it is unlikely that they would become beggars. And because the film hinges on the idea that Mathias is a basically good man who gives in to a drunken impulse, it is is especially unforgivable that his motivation is not stronger. It’s a classic case of “Help! Help! I’m being inconvenienced!”
No fault can be found with Barrymore’s performance, however. He is charming and easygoing at the start of the film but he becomes steadily more frenzied as the guilt and terror of discovery begin to overwhelm him. Barrymore played his share of charming, put-upon men and he played his share of villains. This film gives him the rare chance to do both at once. His acting is intelligent and well-planned. He is casual, friendly and easygoing during the first half of the tale and slowly grows more hollow and frenetic as the guilt begins to weigh down on him. After reviewing two of his performances from 1912, I am astounded to see how much he grew as an actor in 14 years.
Now, what about Mr. Karloff? Well, it has been well noted that the costuming of the character is heavily indebted to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (The Bells also snags a few shots from Caligari.) Further, the mesmerist’s role is considerably expanded from the play. The character is given a long carnival sequence (more Caligari) and is shown aiding Jethro in his investigation. Karloff plays his character to the hilt. He creeps and grins and grimaces. In short, he makes the absolute most of his comparatively small role.
Director James Young is probably best remembered today for taking the helm of The Unchastened Woman, one of very few Theda Bara films to survive. He also provided the “Young” to ex-wife Clara Kimball Young. Young’s direction is competent if derivative. I don’t want to say he copied but watching this film back-to-back with Caligari is, shall we say, illuminating. Most of the movie, though, has a charming storybook quality that nicely contrasts with the darkness that is coming. And the murder itself is handled quite subtly, with a few tasteful sprinkles of blood on snow telling the story.
In the end, The Bells has enough minor flaws and derivative elements to prevent it from being considered a true classic. However, it is a well-made film and Lionel Barrymore delivers a powerhouse performance. Plus, it is fun to see a pre-stardom Boris Karloff cutting his teeth on the scenery.
Where can I see it?
The Bells is widely available on DVD.