Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Bells

Why, no need to get upthet, thir… jutht take two athpirinth and call me in the morning.

The Bells (1926) is an early example of films-claiming-to-be-based-on-a-work-by-Edgar-Allan-Poe-but-not-actually. Universal cranked out a few in the 1930s, generally pairing up Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; Hammer turned out several in the 1950s, with Vincent Price as various tortured protagonists or villains. Of all of these, The Bells has possibly the most tenuous connection with Poe, since it’s really a film treatment of a fairly famous turn-of-the-century play, Le Juif Polonaise, and Poe’s titular poem is simply a rhythmic tour de force about bells ringing. There’s a properly Poe-like theme of agonizing remorse following gruesome murder, though, complete with spectral accusers, so it rates a decent four out of five ravens on the Poe-o-meter.

It’s still one strange kettle of fish…

Initially The Bells looks as though it’s going to be a good old-fashioned melodrama. In a quaint little Alsatian village, we meet Mathias, the tavernkeeper (Lionel Barrymore). Mathias also owns the village mill and lime kilns, and is actively campaigning to be appointed Burgomaster, but he’s really a spendthrift in debt up to his eyebrows. The nasty holder of the mortgage stalks around sneering at Mathias’s pretensions, only too eager to throw him out on his ear once the debt comes due—unless he’s granted the hand of Mathias’ pretty daughter in marriage, nya-ha-haaa.

Mathias won’t have any of that. He’s too soft-hearted, and anyway his daughter is in love with the handsome young captain of the village gendarmes. He goes right on giving away free drinks to the burgomaster-appointing committee and buying presents he can’t afford. Ruin is looming on the horizon… but first a traveling fair comes through town, and with it a Mesmerist, impressively played by Boris Karloff in full Dr. Caligari getup. The Mesmerist has all kinds of powers of hypnosis, levitation and whatnot, but most particularly claims to be able to look into the hearts of men and get them to confess their secret crimes. He seems to fixate on Mathias, standing in the crowd, and summons him onstage, but Mathias departs hurriedly. A fairground fortuneteller offers to read his palm, and he sits for his fortune, but after a mere glance she jumps back and orders him out of her tent, making signs against Evil. Jeez, thinks Mathias, all I did was try to buy a few votes! 

Fast forward to Christmastime, and Mathias is throwing a huge Christmas party at the tavern for all of his pals and neighbors. No expense has been spared, but Mathias is sweating bullets: he isn’t Burgomaster yet, and his debt is coming due soon. And then—in walks a stranger.

He is Baruch Koweski, a Polish Jew and merchant, and rather than the usual fairly offensive silent-era stereotype you might expect he resembles Santa Claus, smiling as he shakes the snowflakes from his coat and wishes peace upon the tavern merrymakers. He’s been traveling a long way, it’s snowing hard, and he’d like to thaw out by the fire for an hour or two. Mathias welcomes him in and pours him a drink, as the other guests begin to wander home. He invites Koweski to get drunk with him, but Koweski declines politely and, standing to get a gold piece out of his money belt, pays for his drink. Mathias can’t take his eyes off that fat, full money belt! Koweski has apparently had an extremely successful sales trip. When Koweski rises to leave Mathias buttons up his guest’s coat with all solicitude—wouldn’t want anything to happen to all that lovely gold, would we?    

The minute Koweski climbs back into his sleigh and drives off—sleigh bells ring-ting-tingling, no less—Mathias grabs an axe and runs out through the blizzard to cut him off at the pass. Whack, crash, blood on the snow, and Koweski shakes the sleigh bells in his death throes, providing an auditory cue that will, of course, return to drive Mathias maaaad with guilt.  

He steals the money belt and disposes of Koweski’s body in a lime kiln. Next day Mathias announces an uncle has died and left him a huge legacy. His troubles are over! He pays off the mortgage, settles a big dowry on his daughter for her forthcoming marriage, and gets appointed Burgomaster. The murder is discovered, due to a couple of things Mathias forgot about, like leaving Koweski’s axe-split fur hat in the snow; but as the Burgomaster and father-in-law of the village cop, Mathias is in a great position to cover it up. Just as it looks as though he’s gotten away with it, Koweski’s brother shows up offering a reward to anyone who can solve the murder. Not only that, he’s brought the Mesmerist with him, in his capacity as forensic psychic.

The Mesmerist clearly knows exactly whodunit, giving Mathias long brooding stares and one of those bloodcurdling smiles Karloff did so well, like a wound opening in his stony face. His presence in the village, plus the fact that Koweski’s ghost starts appearing and following Mathias around sadly, and don’t forget those phantom sleigh bells ringing, begin to drive Mathias over the edge. There are a number of creepy special effects, including one surreal scene in which Mathias and the dead man sit down to a card game—Mathias dealing out real cards, the ghost picking up transparent ones. The noose tightens and tightens, Mathias loses more and more of his sanity, and then—well, I won’t tell you the outcome, but it’s one of the most outrageous cop-outs you’ll ever see on film, as well as being theologically unsound.

The Bells is still worth watching, however. It’s sort of like a dark mirror-image of It’s a Wonderful Life, if Lionel Barrymore had played George Bailey instead of Mr. Potter, and George had decided to murder somebody rather than throw himself off a bridge. It’s great to see both Barrymore and Karloff so young, too. In addition, the surviving print is clean and crisp and a joy to watch. Image Entertainment is your only choice here, with a nice musical score played by Eric Beheim conducting the William Pratt Players (That’s an in-joke, for those of you who know who William Henry Pratt was).

As usual with Image, there are no extras at all for The Bells, but oddly enough, one remarkable bit of cinematic lagniappe was added to the DVD: the truncated American release of Rene Clair’s silent SF classic, Paris qui Dort, presented here under the title The Crazy Ray with English titles by Morrie Ryskind, who scripted for the Marx Brothers. Paris qui Dort is a surreal little gem, well worth a column of its own. Meet me here next week for some Eiffel Tower madness!

Kage Baker is a science fiction writer and blogger for Tor who spent a lot of her formative years watching old Boris Karloff movies on various late-night creature feature programs.


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