An archivist at the New-York Historical Society (they hyphenate "New-York") once explained to me that the legend about Dutch settlers purchasing Manhattan from the natives -- and supposedly cheating them out of valuable real estate at a meagre price -- has a twist: the Amerindians who accepted the Dutchmen's barter weren't natives of Manhattan but were merely visiting, so the land they "sold" to the Dutch wasn't even their tribal property. Thus the supposed victims of a swindle (the swindlees?) made a clear profit.
However, this movie 'Bluff' has a prologue that endorses the "official" version of the story: namely, that the Dutchmen cheated the natives through sheer "bluff" (the word used here in the intertitles), and Manhattan has been running on "bluff" (it says here) ever since. Fade in to this movie's main plot, which offers one such bluff gone wrong.
Betty Hallowell (Agnes Ayres) and her brother Jack (played by Roscoe Karns, very good) are poor but honest working-class strivers. Jack is struck and crippled by the car of a powerful ward-heeler (Fred Butler), who offers him $1,000 compensation (easily a year's wage for both siblings in 1924). Betty and Jack scornfully reject this money, but can't afford to engage a lawyer to sue Boss Mitchell for more. (That wouldn't happen nowadays; lawyers would take the case on a contingency basis.)
Bitty is embettered, I mean Betty is embittered by the fact that crooks (or bluffers) prosper while the honest people starve. She sees a newspaper item about a wealthy woman: a fashion designer who has mysteriously disappeared from her European salon. A news photo of this lady shows a resemblance to Betty. So, Betty decides to "bluff" that she is this wealthy designer, offering her designs for sale to the highest bidder in New York City.
The screenplay is careful to rationalise Betty's actions twice over, attempting to let her retain the audience's sympathy. Firstly, she's only doing this because she and Jack are the victims of circumstance (the car accident, which isn't otherwise relevant to the plot). Secondly, the script takes pains to establish that Betty decides only to "let on" (as Tom Sawyer put it) that she is the designer, rather than lying outright. Greedy businessmen, eager to profit from the (fake) designer Betty's seemingly generous offers (to sell what Betty doesn't own) come running. Soon she's living in a posh hotel, on tick, with credit accounts.
SPOILERS COMING. And then the cops show up. It turns out that the fashion designer vanished because she had embezzled her backers' funds; now Betty is arrested for that crime. When she tries to drop the bluff by admitting her right name, of course the police believe she's really the embezzler trying a new bluff. (Had enough bluff stuff?) Just when it looks as if Betty's bluff will earn her a prison sentence for another woman's crime, along comes a lawyer to help her. The lawyer is played by handsome Antonio Moreno, so there are no prizes for guessing how the film ends.
The under-rated director Sam Wood is not quite at his top form here, but "Bluff" shows some glimpses of his later skills, most especially in the taut pacing of the sequences depicting Betty's legal problems. The leads and most of the supporting cast (including some bit players) give excellent performances. Pauline Paquette is splendid as a French maid, although the intertitles lumber her with a "wee, wee, ma'mselle" accent. The art direction and camera- work are impressive. I'm not bluffing when I rate this above-average drama 7 out of 10.
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