During World War I, a professional thief known as The Lone Wolf is assigned to steal a cylinder with important information from behind the German lines and bring it to Allied intelligence ...
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During World War I, a professional thief known as The Lone Wolf is assigned to steal a cylinder with important information from behind the German lines and bring it to Allied intelligence headquarters. However, German agents set out to stop him, headed by the man who was responsible for the death of the thief's sister.Written by
'False Faces' (there's no 'THE' in the film's title) is being marketed on video as a Lon Chaney movie. Buyer beware! Chaney plays a small role, having far less screen time than Henry Walthall and Mary Anderson. That wouldn't be bad if this were a good film. 'False Faces' LOOKS like a good film, possessing elaborately tinted colour sequences and some highly artistic intertitles, sometimes superimposed on live backgrounds. Many of these intertitles are so elaborate that they're difficult to read. (But we can clearly read the name of producer Thomas Ince in SIX different places in the credits: Ince was notorious for this shenanigan.) A far worse drawback is that this film has a plot which is both dull and extremely overwrought.
'False Faces' exploits the events of the Great War, and the movie's sympathies are very clearly drawn. The war is characterised as 'the armies of civilization beating back the wolf-hordes of a blood-crazed king'. Hmm, guess which side is which. All the Americans are extremely virtuous and resourceful, and there's no mention at all of the British (whose B.E.F. Tommies had far higher casualties than America's doughboys, and who were in the war longer). All the Germans are sub-human 'Huns', as the intertitles cry them. Don't mistake me: I quite agree that the Allies were (and still are) the good guys, but I'm deeply annoyed at attempts to demonise villains like the Kaiser or Hitler or Osama bin Laden. It's a cheap easy tactic to depict such people as inhuman monsters, because we don't want to contemplate why human beings could be capable of such hideous acts.
Henry Walthall, a very dull and stolid actor, plays American super-agent Michael Lanyard, alias the Lone Wolf. When I saw the name 'Lanyard', I got ready to make puns about Walthall's hero stringing us along, but this movie ain't worth the trouble.
The plot is downright incoherent, and features one of the most blatant examples I've ever seen of a 'McGuffin': a cylinder, allegedly containing some sort of microform, that's constantly passed back and forth among the characters. Doesn't mean a bloody thing, but everybody wants it. By the way, although Hitchcock popularised the term 'McGuffin' (which he credited to Angus McPhail), he did not create the concept that it represents. Pearl White, the queen of silent serials, had a McGuffin in many of her films, but she called it a 'weenie'.
Sure does LOOK a good film, though. Near the very beginning, there's an impressive dissolve shot in which several of the male cast members (including Chaney) are shown as disembodied heads, who suddenly sprout false whiskers that look very realistic. But this is just a camera stunt that doesn't advance the story. Much more impressive is a later sequence in which a German submarine commander (allegedly the man who sank the Lusitania) is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. First, some tiny people materialise on his table. Next, he sees children's corpses floating outside his porthole. When a ghost materialises in front of the hatchway, he shoots it ... and the ghost falls over. (This must be the only ever film in which bullets stop a ghost.) As in Rex Ingram's 'The Conquering Power' (which may have been influenced by this movie), it's clear that the 'ghosts' are manifestations of the villain's guilt complex rather than actual supernatural spooks. This sequence in 'False Faces' is excellent, but has a contrived payoff. All the scenes aboard the submarine feature spacious roomy sets, with high ceilings (not overheads), and nothing belayed nor bolted down. And if you're aboard a submarine and you want to sink it, just open the convenient hatch in the floor. Deck? No, this one is definitely a floor. The hatchways are regular doors, the overheads are regular ceilings. If the script didn't say this was a submarine, I'd think we were on a movie set. Somebody open the window.
Lon Chaney is my favourite actor, but -- unlike many people I've met whose Chaneyphilia borders on fanaticism -- I'm capable of admitting that Chaney sometimes gave a bad performance. He gives an utterly lousy one here, but that's the fault of the script and direction. Cast as a German spymaster, Chaney isn't allowed to portray the role as a human being. The character is written as a one-dimensional Hun, so that's how Chaney plays it. This film was made shortly before Chaney's stardom, when he was a hard-working utility actor who grabbed every role he could get.
The climax is so utterly bad that it's laughable, with Walthall slathering make-up on the semi-conscious Chaney. This scene puts Henry Walthall alongside Ford Sterling (in 'He Who Gets Slapped', a much better movie) as one of the few actors who had the great honour to apply make-up to Lon Chaney. Walthall and Chaney had a genuinely affecting rapport together on screen in 'The Road to Mandalay' (in which they played brothers), but not here. I realise that Chaneyphiles will want to see every Lon Chaney movie they can find; fair enough, but make 'False Faces' a very low priority on your list of the Thousand Faces of Lon Chaney. I'll rate this dull movie only one point in 10, for that atmospheric ghost sequence.
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