November 20, 2014
Devil’s Needle, The – US, 1916
Oh, to be the muse of a great artist, to be the inspiration of an epic poem, a memorable piece of literature, or even a hit pop song. It is a glorious thing – or at least that’s what people have been led to believe. It is this erroneous belief that causes Dorothea Brooke to marry Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Victoria Page to give up being a dancer in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, and as these two tales demonstrate, it doesn’t always work out. Genius comes and goes, it starts and stops, and rarely can one person be the locomotion that drives ingenuity forevermore. Just what happens when the muse no longer inspires and a once confident genius finds himself at a loss for new ideas? In too many cases, he does what John Minturn does in Chester Withey’s audacious The Devil’s Needle – he looks for a new form of “inspiration.”
The Devil’s Needle is the story of a love affair interrupted by drug addiction, and it is a rather remarkable achievement. In the film, Minturn, played by Tully Marshall, is a frustrated artist looking for a new model that will somehow get his creative juices flowing again. “Frustrated” is probably an understatement, for at times he appears to be one the verge of a mental breakdown. In fact, I half expected him to start yanking out his hair at any moment. His normal muse is a young lady named Renee Duprez (Norma Talmadge). Renee has a pleasant, easygoing personality but is a bit too lackadaisical for an artist like Minturn. She frustrates Minturn to no end, but always manages to win him over with her charm and youthful energy. The problem is that her energy runs out quickly, and it is rapidly replaced by a degree of nervousness that is startling. To get her through these moments, she frequently turns to morphine.
Minturn has an admirer named Patricia Devan (Marguerite Marsh) who is engaged to Gordon Galloway (Howard Gaye). Galloway is the kind of person who makes all the preparations for a wedding before asking his girlfriend to marry him. To him, it is inconceivable that she would ever say no, especially after her father has already given his blessing. In an early scene, Galloway sees Patricia posing for one of Minturn’s pictures and is utterly disgusted. Decent women simply didn’t do that sort of thing back then. Patricia’s father goes one step further, urging Gordon to marry her at once before she completes her fall from grace. Back in his studio, Minturn discovers Renee’s dirty secret and chastises her for it. She in turn extols the many benefits of morphine, even using that oft-repeated line about the drug’s ability to inspire and increase one’s artistic visions. Minturn decides to see for himself.
The film is anchored by two strong performances: those of Marshall and Talmadge. Marshall has the more challenging role, for he must realistically portray Minturn at three stages of mental breakdown. He must show him to be nervous and worried early on, thereby establishing the mental anguish that could cause someone to turn to drugs as a way of coping. Then he must portray a victim of drug addiction at a time when movies tended to have rather exaggerated ideas of just what drug addiction looked like. (Think Bigger than Life and Reefer Madness, made just 13 years later.) And despite occasional moments of over-exaggeration, he performs admirably. Finally, Marshall must convey to viewers the existence of a new John Minturn, of being someone both mentally and physically stronger after his recovery. In this, Marshall also succeeds. Talmadge is called on to do slightly less, yet she is also able to competently convey the differences in her character during her addiction and after, and what she does in key moments in the film would likely have earned her academy award consideration had the film been made a decade later.
There is an odd subplot involving an illegal saloon and a major misjudgment, and for quite a while, I felt this was an unnecessary addition to the film. However, by the end, it seemed entirely appropriate and even somewhat logical to include it, even if there is little evidence earlier in the film of Minturn’s being as heroic as he is shown in the film’s latter moments. There is also the undeveloped matter of the cause of Renee’s addiction. She is referred to as having been a nurse during a war, and the film could have had something pertinent to say about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, the film does not develop this storyline, and in my opinion, it is a missed opportunity.
There is also the little matter of Minturn’s age. Marshall, who was born in Nevada City, where I spend much of my childhood, was fifty-eight when he made the film, and it takes a moment to accept the fact that the woman who loves him is so much younger. (Marsh was around 34, but looked somewhat younger.) However, in the world of artists and muses, such relationships are not entirely uncommon.
The Devil’s Needle is a testament to the talent and skill of its cast and crew, and it remains an effective film. The film marked the directorial debut of actor Chester Withey. Withey had appeared in 82 films before directing The Devil’s Needle, and he directed 32 films post-Needle. From The Devil’s Needle, it is clear that he had a knack for it. Talmadge made over a hundred and sixty movies throughout her career and was one of the casualties of Hollywood’s move from silent films to talking pictures. As for Marshall, he is credited with appearing in 195 films from 1914 to 1943. These are amazing accomplishments, and I look forward to seeing more of their cinematic accomplishments. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars