Sunday, June 1, 2014

The False Faces (1918)

Director: Irvin V. Willat                                  Writer: Irvin V. Willat
Producer: Thomas H. Ince                             Cinematography: Paul Eagler
Starring: Henry B. Walthall, Lon Chaney, Mary Anderson and Thornton Edwards

There’s so much to like about this spy film that it’s actually easy to overlook its propagandist story and pedestrian direction. The False Faces is a World War I propaganda film that takes as its main character The Lone Wolf from the popular detective novels by Louis Joseph Vance. The novel it was based on was only the second written by Vance, but his series would go on to spawn dozens of films featuring stars like Warren William and Melvin Douglas playing the jewel thief turned private detective. In this outing one of D.W. Griffith’s best leading men, Henry B. Walthall, plays the hero. The film begins on the battlefields of France in The Great War, which was still raging at the time. Walthall crawls across no man’s land in the middle of the night, bombs blasting and machine guns firing while searchlights punctuate the landscape, to make it from the German to the British trenches. It’s a masterful sequence as he plays dead whenever the lights hit him. Once he reaches safety, he tells the British commander that he must get to America to foil a German spy plot.

The mastermind he is after is a German spy named Eckstrom, played by Lon Chaney. The propaganda aspect of the film kicks in when he tells the commander the story of how he had been living in Belgium with his sister and her son, and how they were murdered by Chaney and his soldiers. He knows Chaney is heading to the U.S. and follows him there onboard a ship. Of course the waters are full of German U-Boats and Chaney uses this to his advantage to signal false alarms in order to search the cabins for an important cylinder containing vital information. When Chaney nearly gets it from British lieutenant Thornton Edwards and his girlfriend Mary Anderson, she gives it to Walthall for safekeeping. But the detective is ambushed by Chaney in his stateroom and thrown overboard to die in the waves. Then, in a scene that would be copied in Raiders of the Lost Ark sixty years later, the drowning Walthall is saved by a surfacing German submarine. From there the sub heads for a secret base off of the American coast where Walthall must find a way off the boat in order to foil the German’s plot.

The film is actually quite a thrilling spy story. And while there are certainly the creaky aspects associated with silent films of the pre-twenties era to take into consideration, it does little to diminish the adventurous aspects of the story. Though Irvin V. Willat made a few films during the sound era, he was predominantly a silent film director. His work here behind the camera is decidedly average, though no more than most directors from the period. His work as the adaptor of the novel is much better. The story is an intricate one and, though the audience has no idea what is in the cylinder, it doesn’t really matter. There is action and adventure aplenty. Star Henry B. Walthall is best known for his association with D.W. Griffith and his role in The Birth of a Nation as The Little Colonel. He makes a great spy-hero in this film and is easily the reason for seeing the film. Lon Chaney, however, is also tremendous in his supporting role as the villain who seems to have no allegiance at all. After stealing the cylinder he sells it to the British, steals it back again, and intends to sell it to the Germans as well.

When the film was released in February of 1918, it was still a full nine months away from the end of hostilities and at the time there was no way to know how much longer the war would go on. As such, the elements of propaganda are eminently clear. The myth that Walthall tells to the British commander was one of the major ways of selling the war to the American public: the ruthless murder of women and children as the Germans marched through neutral Belgium. Also, the captain of the U-Boat that picks up Walthall is a drunk, and his lieutenant tells Walthall that he drinks because he is the man who shot the very torpedo that sunk the Lusitania. The scene with the captain drinking in the shack on Martha’s Vineyard is absolutely brilliant. He hallucinates tiny ghosts climbing across his table, then sees the dead immersed in water outside his window trying to get in at him. It’s easily the best scene in the film. In general, the production design is very good and if there’s a real weakness to the film it is clearly the direction. But even with that, The False Faces is an incredibly satisfying spy thriller from the silent era and well worth seeking out.

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