Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Trap (1922)

Director: Robert Thornby                              Writers: Lon Chaney & Lucien Hubbard
Film Score: Stock Music                              Cinematography: Virgil Miller
Starring: Lon Chaney, Alan Hale, Irene Rich and Stanley Goethals

Because of the loss of so many silent films--estimates range from seventy to eighty percent--it’s great to see anything with Lon Chaney in it. Unfortunately, you don’t actually see much of Chaney in this film. Most of Chaney’s work today exists only in poor quality duplicate prints that are beyond restoration. Such is the case with The Trap. Much of the imagery in the film has become blurred and rounded off. In addition, the contrast is so high that most of the time the faces of the actors are completely washed out when they’re in the center of the screen. That would have been bad enough, but Alpha Video made some poor choices in attempting their “restoration.”

For one thing they created new title cards that, while they emulate the language of the originals, are so crisp and static that it doesn’t mesh well with the film. The font is also rather thin and difficult to read at time, especially in attempting to recreate the French-Canadian accent of Chaney’s character. Worst of all, however, is that the timing is off and many of the titles are onscreen too quickly to read. The second odd choice the company made is with the music. Alpha Video is well known for their shabby treatment of public domain films, though along with that comes the acknowledgement that without them many of these films would never see rerelease. While indiscriminate use of music slapped onto the soundtrack of a random silent film is sometimes maddening, in this case they chose a track of what appears to be new age piano music. It’s a very bad match with the film.

As to the film itself, it’s hard to believe that it was made the same year as The Blind Bargain or his wonderful Oliver Twist. Chaney seems to be overacting here, but again, all we see most of the time is his white silhouette in pantomime and very little of his actual facial expressions. But when we do, it’s clear this is a much better film that it appears from this print. Chaney plays a backwoods miner, working his late father’s claim. Alan Hale is the city slicker who comes in with the legal deed to the mine and not only takes it away from Chaney, but takes Chaney’s girl as well and marries her. The trap is Chaney’s revenge, seven years of sabotage on the mine has reduced Hale to poverty as well, but it has also put at risk the life of his former sweetheart who is wasting away. Once his plan has reached its conclusion Hale is in prison and his wife is dead. But they have a boy who Chaney takes on as his own.

The main problem with the story itself is that Chaney’s character seems so warped. But perhaps that is the point of the film. Chaney had a certain gruff quality that is undeniable, used to great effectiveness in Tell It to the Marines. It does have the unfortunate effect, however, of taking the edge off his pathos. His best films are the ones where he is the victim, even by his own hand, as in The Unknown. Here his character becomes so consumed with hatred that it makes it difficult to watch at times, but I would argue that this kind of discomfort is part of what makes a good film, and by the end he certainly does redeem himself. Though this is a lot of negative criticism, I still recommend the film to those who understand the flaws going in. I would say this is for Chaney fans only, or those who can deal with the technical difficulties of the film. The Trap, as is, is an interesting piece historically. One only hopes that someday a more artistically viable print will found in order to make a more genuine assessment.

No comments:

Post a Comment