After being betrayed to the law by one of his henchmen, a bandit leader seeks to avenge himself.

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Joseph Singleton ...
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Richard Headrick ...
The Little Feller (as Master Richard Headrick)
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Storyline

Outlaw Black Deering leads a band of desperadoes, but decides to give up the bandit life. Agreeing to go on one last job with his gang, he is captured when his henchman Jordan betrays the gang for the reward. Deering escapes and determines to avenge himself on Jordan. Written by Jim Beaver <jumblejim@prodigy.net>

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Western

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15 April 1920 (USA)  »

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Nevadamanden  »

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1.33 : 1
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Quotes

Woman: They may call you Black Deering, but by God, you're white!
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Featured in Golden Saddles, Silver Spurs (2000) See more »

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A Wonderful Silent Film Worth Seeing
3 October 2007 | by (Canada) – See all my reviews

This has become one of my favorite movies and certainly one of the best westerns I have ever seen. Having a soft spot for the genre (westerns are – or were, since they are no longer made very often – morality plays that too often have been denigrated by critics with intellectual pretensions), I purchased the DVD, sight unseen, because I had read enough about William S. Hart's work (much of which he wrote and directed) to pique my interest and thought I should have at least one of his films in my video collection.

I must admit that I approached the actual viewing with some trepidation. My previous experiences with silent cinema "classics" had left me feeling let down. Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera, Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Fairbanks' The Mark of Zorro were fine, but not nearly as good as their reputations would lead one to expect. They were either too long, or too theatrical, or both.

The Toll Gate, however, emerged as a pleasant surprise.

It is a story told in a simple and straightforward manner. Black Deering (played by Hart), leader of a notoriously successful outlaw gang, thinks the time has come for group to disband, before its luck runs out. He is, however, opposed by his chief lieutenant, Jordan, who goads them all into one last holdup by promising great wealth but leads them into a trap in which he is complicit. Everyone is killed except Deering, who is taken prisoner. When his captors recognize him as the man who once saved a number of soldiers and settlers by warning an outpost of an impending Indian attack, they allow him to escape. Free, he tries to find honest work but is snubbed and ridiculed and ultimately must rob again to survive. Soon, he is pursued not only by the sheriff's posse but also by Jordan (now prospering from the reward money he has collected) and his henchmen. His flight leads him to a remote cabin inhabited by a single mother and her little son. After some initial misgivings, they take him into their hearts. Deering sees a chance for a new life but, with the posse and Jordan closing in, realizes that this may not be possible.

Hart was the first great western star and the first to inject realism into the genre. As one of the pioneers of movie-making, he created many of the characters and situations that have become cliché in westerns for more than ninety years. What keeps his movies interesting, however, was his ability to go beyond the cliché (perhaps his imitators did not go far enough) so that the material appears fresh and innovative, even now. Three such instances in The Toll Gate illustrate this:

1) In one scene, his character shoots into a crowd in an attempt to kill Jordan, and kills a bystander instead. A subsequent close-up shows that he is clearly frustrated. The frustration, however, comes not from the fact that he has gunned down a man who had hitherto caused him no harm but that he missed his intended target.

2) In another, as he flees from the posse, his "borrowed" horse steps into a gopher hole and breaks a leg. Hart pulls out his gun to put the animal out of its misery but, before pulling the trigger, gives his head a sad, loving pat, as if to say farewell to an old friend.

3) And finally, after he has strangled Jordan and thrown his body over a cliff, he returns to retrieve his guns and spots his adversary's pistol lying on the ground nearby. He steps forward and gives it a swift kick before mounting his horse. It is a simple gesture but it underscores the deep loathing he feels for the man who betrayed him and his comrades.

And I love the title, The Toll Gate. It is allegorical in its implication that a man cannot begin a new life until he has paid for the sins of his old one. Deering's payment comes in the form of sacrifice. Today's more sophisticated audiences may not buy into that sentiment entirely but it can still work on you if you let it.

Viewers who like their videos in pristine condition will undoubtedly object to the DVD's picture quality, especially the badly deteriorated final reel. I don't mind at all. That a copy of this 1920 movie even exists at all is a miracle since prints of so many other silent movies have been lost. If you bear that in mind and look upon the film as a piece of history, its visual flaws are not that difficult to accept.

William S. Hart was born in 1870 in New York but grew up in the Minnesota and Wisconsin where he learned to speak Sioux and Indian sign language. He counted Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson among his friends and collected Remington paintings, so his knowledge of the West was first-hand. If his vision seems overly romanticized by today's standards, it is nevertheless rooted far closer to reality than the spaghetti westerns of the '60s and '70s and the revisionist works that followed. Both the star and his films are overdue for re-evaluation.


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