William S. Hart is back in the saddle with one of his most villainous roles. He plays a bandit betrayed by his own lieutenant and out for revenge. We have holdups, posses and plenty of brooding between the action scenes. In short, a Hart film.
Hollywood has always been a young actor’s town. Conventional wisdom says that if a performer has not hit the big time by “that certain age,” well, they may as well pack up and leave. Of course, there have always been exceptions.
Names like Alan Rickman, Lucille Ball and Charles Bronson are often brought up when the subject of late bloomers comes along. I would like to add another name to the list: William S. Hart.
I should mention that Mr. Hart did not struggle along in minor films before hitting it big. He was a successful stage actor, winning roles in such famous titles as Ben-hur and The Virginian. He is rumored to have reprised his villainous role in the 1907 unauthorized film version of Ben-hur but this myth does not stand up to scrutiny, alas.
International fame, the kind that only movies could provide, came to Hart in 1914. He was fifty years old at a time when harsh lighting added decades to the faces of motion picture performers. That didn’t matter too much. You see, Hart had the idea that the movie-going public was starved for gritty, realistic westerns and he meant to deliver. His aquiline features were ideal for the harsh, dark and often villainous characters that he specialized in. He was dubbed “the good bad man” and the public clamored for his films.
I’m not going to lie. Hart is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of actor. Some viewers can’t get past his rather Victorian persona and florid intertitles. Each to their own, of course, but I love Mr. Hart’s grim-yet-romantic vision of the American west. (And, for the record, I am not an enormous fan of the western genre in general.) I think his grit and menace will be something of a revelation to western fans who think that the genre was all white hats and black hats before the mature offerings of the fifties, sixties and seventies.
The Toll Gate is often listed among Hart’s finest films. It was made in 1920 and Hart was just shy of turning fifty-six. He was still popular but his place as king of the cowboys was unsteady. He had flashy rivals like Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. Epic westerns like The Iron Horse and The Covered Wagon were on the horizon. Soon, Hart’s curious blend of austerity, brutality and affectation would be banished from the screen. (It was reborn, in a somewhat mutated state, as the spaghetti western.)
Did Hart still have his magic or were his best years behind him in 1920?
The first thing to know about Hart films is that, with very few exceptions, they all followed the same set of formulas. Hart was either a villain or a good man driven to villainous acts. His character is then redeemed by the example of a good woman, a noble mentor or the lure of hearth, home and children. He then either settles down, cured of his wild ways, or nobly gives up what he desires most.
We tend to scoff at formulaic movies these days but I firmly believe that some actors can pull them off. You guessed it, I considered Hart to be one of those actors. The formula is like an old familiar song, you know what is coming but you enjoy it all the same. And Hart was a clever enough actor, writer and director to add just enough variety to keep things interesting.
Hart’s character in The Toll Gate is Black Deering, the roughest toughest he-man stuffest hombre who has ever crossed the Rio Grande. Why is he called Black? Well, that’s the only color he wears when he is going about his business and his business is robbery. He has a large gang (called the Raiders, insert football joke) and they are loyal to the death. This is partially due to the fact that Deering always manages to grab rich loot and partially because he looks out for his men and will not lead them into danger.
Of course, there is a rat in the gang. Jordan (Joseph Singleton, who had a small role in Douglas Fairbanks’ 1916 send-up of Hart entitled The Good Bad Man) is tired of splitting his take with dozens of other bandits. He knows there is a price on Deering’s head and he means to pocket it. As the gang’s man on the outside, it is easy for him to set up his friends. He tells them that there is a fortune in gold on an upcoming train. Deering feels the job is too risky but he is outvoted and goes along reluctantly. Of course, Jordan has arranged for nothing less than the U.S. Army to be guarding that train.
Oh, that sneaky snake! Jordan’s plan works perfectly. Deering and his gang walk into a trap. The gang is slaughtered by the soldiers and Deering is captured. Of course, this does not sit well with our hero. In fact, he wants to tear Jordan apart. Very nearly does it, too. The soldiers guarding Deering can’t have him ruining the floor with Jordan’s yellow guts so they save the hapless traitor. They are not too happy about it, though. No one likes a Judas.
Deering finds himself tied up and loaded on a train bound for… well, a hanging, that’s for sure. But as luck would have it, some of the soldiers recognize Deering as the man who saved an entire fort back in the day. He rode for 80 miles to warn them of an imminent Apache attack. The soldiers decide that such a man should not hang.
Oops. Now who left that door open? Oh well, let’s leave it that way. The train will be slowing and there’s a nice cool breeze. I said the train is slowing. We certainly hope no one jumps out at this very slow point. This very, very slow point. La la la. We’re just looking the other way now and…
Hey, that Deering feller is gone. That is a shock.
Things aren’t so easy for the newly-freed Deering. All his friends are dead. He is a wanted man. Most of all, though, he wants to track down Jordan and finish what he started. (Removing the aforementioned yellow guts, that is.) But his first stop has to be Mexico, where he can shake any pursuers and come up with a plan.
On his way there, Deering happens upon the cantina that Jordan purchased with his reward money. Deering tries to shoot his nemesis but ends up gunning down two of Jordan’s pals instead. Things escalate from there and Deering is once more on the run, this time with the sheriff (Jack Richardson) and a posse at his heels. Jordan is also hunting Deering with his own band of hired men.
Deering’s horse breaks its leg and he has to shoot it. It looks like all is lost. At this point, Deering stumbles onto the cabin of Mary Brown (Anna Q. Nilsson), a grass widow who is raising her toddler son alone. Deering stops his flight to save the child from drowning. Then he realizes that he can borrow the identity of Mary’s missing husband to throw the posse off the scent.
Mary and Deering form an unlikely family unit and the tough bandit seems to be softening. But will the posse be fooled? And what will Deering do when he discovers the identity of Mary’s missing husband?
William S. Hart liked his characters to have a dark side and Deering is one Hart character that really skates close to the villain line. Even skates over it on occasion. Like, way over.
Deering saves his sympathy for his friends, kids and horses. Everyone else is fair game. To prove the point, he shoots his way through two men who had the misfortune to stand by Jordan. He burns down not one but two saloons full of reasonably innocent civilians. Later, he threatens Mary and very nearly turns his violent temper on her. Even after Mary’s contagious goodness has rubbed off, he strangles a man in cold blood and then throws his body off a cliff just to make sure.
This behavior is obviously villainous (really, really obviously) and may come as a shock to viewers who have never seen Hart in action. What is even more unusual about the film is the willingness of other characters to let Deering off the hook. Basically, he is a sick criminal but he is marginally better than the other sick criminals.
Of course, Deering is well aware of this. He knows that all he is good for is crime. He makes a half-hearted attempt to go straight after his first escape but soon gives up and returns to his thieving ways. What he can do, though, is attempt to redeem himself with a few busts of heroism. Fortunately for him, he lives in a version of the wild west that values grand heroics over mundane goodness. That being said, Deering even seems to frighten himself with his capacity for violence.
For an example of this, I wanted to discuss the scene where Deering finds out just who Mary is. The sheriff is not convinced by their marital ruse and decides to stay the night in the cabin to see what will happen. While Mary sleeps, Deering attempts to sneak away but every exit is watched. While he is waiting to see what will happen, Deering stumbles across Mary and Jordan’s wedding picture. Enraged at the revelation, he considers forcing himself on the poor woman. She wakes up, sees his angry expression and simply says that she trusts him. Deering composes himself and then walks out and reveals his true identity to the sheriff, turning over his guns and some of the money he stole in town (he has already given the rest to Mary).
This disturbing scene does not make sense unless you realize that Deering knows the depths of his own evil. (He had just been perusing some pertinent scriptures in the family bible.) He cannot escape immediately but he is not sure what he will do if he stays. So he takes the third option, he gives himself up. Hart plays the scene extremely well and (for a change) with a minimum of title cards. It’s a dark sequence and I can definitely understand it being too dark for some viewers but Hart does sell it.
This is a case where I do not think that a younger actor would have been able to get the job done. Hart’s craggy face speaks of weariness and the sort of hardness that only comes after years and years of ignoring one’s conscience. He is too set in his wicked ways to change and he knows it. He may atone for a sin here and a sin there (passing through the toll gate) but he is doomed to be a bandit until he dies. Deering enjoys his brief flirtation with domesticity and bonds with Mary’s son but he knows that he can never fit into the civilized world.
The other performer who deserves a lot of credit is Anna Q. Nilsson. A former model, Nilsson was in demand for the entire silent feature period. Her career derailed in the late twenties when she was injured in a riding accident. She never regained her star status but worked steadily (most notably as one of the waxworks in Sunset Boulevard) until her retirement in 1954.
What I like about Nilsson is that she brings an understated dignity and a naturalistic acting style to any film she appears in. The role of Mary was a challenging one. The character does not appear until near the end of act two and she must then make the audience believe that she is falling for the violent bandit who burst his way into her home. She knows that he endangered his own escape in order to save her son from drowning but her loyalty to Deering goes above and beyond what would be expected from mere gratitude.
Nilsson captures the wistfulness and lonesomeness of an abandoned wife with a few touching close-ups. She is clearly starved for affection and adult companionship. This aching loneliness makes her eventual near-romance with Hart considerably more believable than it would have been in the hands of a less skillful actress.
The film also has the good sense to end on a bittersweet note. (Spoilers for the remainder of the paragraph.) When you watch the film for the first time, you fully expect Deering to settle down with Mary. Instead, he kills Jordan and then sends Mary back to town with the posse. (The sheriff respects Deerings guts and conveniently decides that his quarry made it across the Mexican border.)
While having the bandit be reformed through love was a common theme in Hart’s westerns, Deering has gone to far to simply shed his nature overnight. It is much more satisfying that a pat happy ending. (Personally, I think Mary should consider the sheriff. He’s legally employed, has a sense of humor and seems to be a good sort of man. Sure, he’s no oil painting but she did marry Jordan so maybe she will not mind.)
The Toll Gate is directed by frequent Hart collaborator Lambert Hillyer (he also has writing credit) but Hart was known to keep tight control over any movie he appeared in. The camera work is not fancy but it gets the job done. The story takes place in the great outdoors for the most part and there are some very fine shots of men silhouetted against hills and posses on the hunt.
The plot does rely a bit too heavily on coincidence and there are some unfortunate intertitles but the film deserves its reputation as one of the better Hart offerings. It is certainly the darkest of his vehicles that I have seen to date. I am holding final judgment until I see The Poppy Girl’s Husband, in which he constructs a custom branding iron to use to disfigure his unfaithful wife. Sounds like Mr. Hart was heading deep into Lon Chaney territory. (A print is held by the Museum of Modern Art.)
The Toll Gate is not for everyone but I think fans of later, grittier westerns will find plenty to appreciate and even non-western fans (like me) may find themselves Hart devotees.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Toll Gate is available on DVD in several editions. The Flicker Alley release is the best. It is identical to the now out-of-print Image edition. (Alas, the source print is damaged in several sections, particularly the final reel. Thank goodness is was preserved in time!) I have not reviewed the Alpha budget disc but it is likely of far lower quality than the Image release and Alpha has the habit of cutting out footage and intertitles, which is quite annoying.