The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice and Redemption

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): The Devil’s Needle - *** ½
Children of Eve - ***
The Inside of the White Slave Traffic - *** ½

Kino Lorber’s The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice & Redemption compiles three very early (and very odd) melodramas. As time capsule pieces, they’re a priceless look at how very serious social issues were viewed at the beginning of the twentieth century. As entertainments, it’s typical to grade these sorts of works on a bit of a condescending curve. However, in many ways this compilation proves that the movie-as-polemic hasn’t much changed – a film like The Whistleblower (2010) or Biutiful employs the same emotional cattle-prod that was used nearly a century ago. More significantly, these films illustrate how timeless their subject matter remains. Women are still exploited, workers are still manipulated by conscienceless plutocrats, and the siren song of narcotic-fueled oblivion still wrecks many a life.

The Devil’s Needle (1916; however this is a 1923 recut) tells the story of an ill-tempered artist (Tully Marshall) who hits a creative brick wall while working on a painting commissioned by a woman he’s deeply infatuated with. A free-spirited model (early film megastar Norma Talmadge) introduces him to heroin, resulting in a frenzy of creativity that quickly dissolves into howling madness.

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Given the time period’s penchant for overstated performance, Marshall’s turns as the gutter-bound artist wouldn’t be out of place in a modern telling of the same story. He plays both sides – stiff-necked perfectionist and wild-eyed opiate fiend – without descending into crude pantomime.

Talmadge – who starred in nearly 250 films during the silent era – is given the awkward dual role of both the antagonist AND savior. Before she can be vilified for setting the artist on his path to destruction, she quickly reforms and makes it her goal to help him beat his addiction. The plot whiplashes in a way that’s certainly endemic to the era: in the span of a few minutes, the artist paints his masterpiece, seduces the object of his affection, marries her, and descends into full-blown junkiedom. (Within this series of events, there’s a great match cut from his beaming new bride to his miserable, bedraggled wife one year later.)

Ultimately, the film derails a bit, devolving into a typical damsel-in-distress plot once the artist rehabilitates. But The Devil’s Needle remains both a fascinating piece of history while still making good as an absorbing “tale of vice and redemption.”

Fortunately, Kino (in partnership with the Library of Congress) has rescued it from the maws of obscurity – and not a moment too soon. Much of the film is fogged and wrinkled but this somehow adds to the discombobulating effect of the drug hysteria. At times, the dancing parameciums created by the nitrate damage turn it into something that might be projected on the wall at a Warhol factory happening.

The next film on the disc is Children of Eve (1915) which paints with much broader strokes than Needle. The social ill addressed this time is child labor and the film – which is only 73 minutes long – takes nearly an hour to get to the meat of its plot, opting instead to labor over a backstory/setup that’s as dull as is it is preposterous. A captain of industry (Robert Conness) falls in love with a woman of ill repute only to be abandoned by her when she realizes she can never live up to his standard. Flash forward several years and the man’s heart has hardened to the point where he almost seems to delight in the fact that his factories are fueled by the sweat of suffering minors.

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Long, lugubrious story short: a young woman (Viola Dana) decides to infiltrate the factory, dressed as a child, to report on the horrible conditions. Through some plot gymnastics, we learn that the young woman is, in fact, the factory owner’s illegitimate child from his romance with the woman that left him. And his illegitimate daughter is in love with his heir apparent, an adopted son who wants the tycoon to forget his evil ways and become –

It really doesn’t matter. What’s worth mentioning about Children of Eve is its shocking conclusion (and, no, I really don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything here), a terrifying sequence wherein the factory begins to burn down with the children inside of it. Even after 100 years of systematic desensitizing via film violence and horror of all kinds, the factory fire is an extremely harrowing – and extremely effective – bit of filmmaking (it apparently is a reenactment of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, a watershed moment early in the workers’ rights movement). Children of Eve is recommended solely on the merits of this scene.

Last on the disc is The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913), an ugly portrayal of prostitution which, according to a lengthy preamble, was based on fact and endorsed by “every sociologist from the Atlantic to the Pacific, without any exaggeration or fictional indulgence.”

The film is mercifully brief, quite fascinating, and even includes a glossary of street slang used by the nationwide network of pimps who seduce and enslave naifs. The process by which the white slavers snag their female property is complicated and seems a bit absurd. They marry women they’ve “dishonored” (slept with outside of wedlock) and then annul the marriage after they’ve set the woman up at a brothel. The film’s depiction of the era’s sexual mores is especially revelatory. The protagonist, a thirty-something young woman, is thrown out onto street by her parents after she fails to show up at home for twenty-four hours. The only thing left for a woman to do after such a disgrace, the film implies, is to fall in with her pimp.

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The specter of grey-haired parents still lording it over their thirty-something children is more depressing than the actual white slave content – whatever the drawbacks of our modern permissive society, at least a grown woman can stay out all night without being abandoned by her parents and forced into prostitution. But, like the other films provided here, The Inside of the White Slave Traffic is an enlightening look at just how little the American cultural landscape has changed over the century.

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