A scene from The Bells (1926) is optically reprinted and edited to Michael Gordon¹s 7 minute composition. A meditation on the fleeting nature of life and love, as seen through the roiling emulsion of an film.
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Mathias, an Alsatian innkeeper, murders a rich Pole staying at his inn But Mathias' conscience will not let him rest, and the murdered man's spirit drives the innkeeper nearly mad. The victim's brother calls for an inquest and brings with him a sideshow mesmerist supposedly able to read minds. Mathias, as burgomaster, is called upon to conduct the inquest, but under the intuitive eye of the mesmerist cannot resist torment of his own conscience. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Immediate inspiration for the Sept. 1926 film seems to have been the April 1926 New York stage adaptation (one of many). On Broadway that April, director Rollo Lloyd also acted the lead role of Mathias (played by Lionel Barrymore's in the film) and Edward Loeffler played the mesmerist (Boris Karloff in the film). J.M. Kerrigan (later seen in a number of John Ford films) on Broadway '26 played Father Walter. See more »
Contrary to the title and to popular belief, this 1926 feature is not based on or inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Bells," which, truth be told doesn't offer much literal plot material for a film adaptation. Instead it is based on a stage melodrama very popular in the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth. From what we can tell here, despite its fall from popularity, it was so popular because it is damn good as a melodrama -- a disturbing and tense psychological tale of the motives for a murder and the consequences of that same murder.
It is most famous now as an early appearance of Boris Karloff in a significant macabre role, but it is really a vehicle for the talents of Lionel Barrymore, who gives as extraordinary performance as Mathias, the innkeeper who wants to be generous with credit despite the wishes of his wife and father-in-law so he can win enough goodwill to become Burgomaster, but who is driven to murder to pay his debt and then tormented with guilt. He gives a very subtle and multidimensional performance as Mathias, constantly (and increasingly) worried, but still charming. He's perfectly underplayed by still expressive early, so it is so much more effective later when he plays up.
It's essential that he manages to convey the innkeeper's tortured thoughts about his debt before the murder itself, because no time is devoted to the decision itself, and Barrymore's acting makes it unnecessary.
Karloff, in a smaller but important role as the mesmerist who haunts Mathias with his supposed ability to cause criminals to confess. He's very powerful, magnetic, and harrowingly weird. As a mysterious man who may or may not have dangerous powers of the mind, you can't get much more effective.
The direction sometimes seems a little plain in a few of the scenes, but this is more than made up for in a good number of symbolic shots (plain objects coming to resemble nooses) and trick scenes that memorably show what is inside Mathias' mind (blood appearing on his hands as he retrieves some of his money, a argument with a spectral appearance of his dead victim).
As this is a silent film adaptation of a stage play, however, some of the talkiness inherent in the stage medium and impossible in the silent film medium has to come through some outlet. This leads to some unnecessarily wordy title cards that tend to distract. In addition, much of the acting, apart from that of Barrymore and Karloff, is overplayed to an unnecessary degree that begins to detract. The ending, while goodhearted, is indeed quite rushed, and leaves several plot threads hanging. It would have been much more satisfying if the film had been extended past this point for a little while.
This is a flawed but still very memorable film with elements that make it highly compelling, and one that will hold up very well for most viewers.
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