tongue-tied lightning

Hell Needs This Town
September 25, 2009, 7:36 AM
Filed under: film | Tags: , , , ,


I was turned on to Hell’s Hinges (1916) by friends of mine, The Caledonia Mission, they wrote a great song for Esopus Magazine titled “The Ballad of Blaze Tracy” which was inspired by the film.  You can listen to it here, and I encourage you to do so.  The film was a bit tough to track down, but eventually I found it, and it ended up being worth the effort.

Hell’s Hinges establishes itself as a very religious film from the very first scene, which features a preacher who enjoys preaching more for the thrill he gets from performing in front of hiscongregation than any divine inspiration.  The head of the church, sensing this and his potential to succumb to temptation, decides to send him to a church in the country “where people live simply and closer to God.”  His sister, none-too-subtly named Faith, accompanies him to Hell’s Hinges, which it doesn’t seem could be any further away from God.  As the title card declares, the good people of the town are “a drop of water in a barrel of rum.”

The town is run by “Silk” Miller, who runs a saloon slash whorehouse slash gambling parlor, and the outlaw “Blaze Tracy”, portrayed here by William S. Hart.  A quick aside, William S. Hart was apparently was one of the first American movie stars.  In the 1910’s his star-power and critical acclaim rivaled that of Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin.  Unfortunately many of his films have been lost and his star seems to have faded over the years, while Chaplin’s has grown and eclipsed the other icons of the era.

Back to the film, Silk Miller and Blaze Tracy have sworn to keep law and religion out of Hell’s Hinges.  So when the priest arrives and starts a church they conspire to undermine his efforts.  This works until Blaze sets eyes upon Faith, “One who is evil, looking for the first time upon that which is good.”  He, seemingly more in devotion to her than God, decides to stand up against Silk Miller and protect the church.  Miller schemes to discredit the preacher, Blaze attempts to come to terms with God, and it all builds to an exciting fiery climax.

Hell’s Hinges has quickly become one of my favorite westerns as well as one of the best silent films I’ve seen (an area in which I’ll gladly admit I’m lacking).  Hart didn’t get into film until he was in his late 40s, and part of his inspiration was his displeasure with Westerns at the time.  He revamped the genre, and the influence of the stark, emotional, moralist brand of Western he pioneered can be seen even today in films like Unforgiven, which in many ways bears a strong resemblance to Hell’s Hinges.

It is rumored that while Charles Swickard received the directing credit, Hart shouldered much of the load.  He would go on to direct many of his films,  and I am very eager to check out more of his work.  If he’s somewhat unconventional in appearance, he has a very strong screen presence nonetheless. There are some arresting shot compositions in Hell’s Hinges, and it’s a powerful story.  The skewed moral sense it has and the third act reminded me very much of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.  Whether he was influenced by Hart, or influenced by those who were influenced by Hart is hard to say.  Either way, based solely on Hell’s Hinges, Hart is a pioneer who deserves greater recognition today.  I give this film my highest recommendation.


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[…] 9. Hell’s Hinges One of my absolute favorite Silent dramas.  Reviewed here. […]

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