Home Video Hovel- The Devil’s Needle, by Scott Nye
On the long road towards making cinema “respectable,” a recurring stop has been the social problem film, in which some concern over the contemporary state of society is woven into the narrative. Usually a greater emphasis is placed on the former than the latter, and the ending will often point to some way in which we can solve these ills. More recently, one could look at a film like Paul Haggis’ Crash as a social problem film, but they needn’t all be so bad. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend examines alcoholism using a very familiar “social problem” structure, as does The Best Years of Our Lives and, overseas, Diary of a Lost Girl. Warner Brothers almost made a specialty of them in the 1930s, usually as an excuse to roll out gangster movies, along the way creating stuff as fine as Angels with Dirty Faces and, to a lesser extent, Dead End, which was at least entertaining about its didacticism.
But the social problem genre was never quite as hot as it was in the 1910s, or so you’d think from looking through the list of titles. Divorce and the Daughter, Traffic in Souls, and Where Are My Children? all illustrate that bids for respectability in the form of “big issue” dramas is hardly the mid-century invention it’s sometimes made out to be, and the invaluable new set of films from Kino, under the title The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice and Redemption, provide even further evidence. The films therein – aside from the foremost title (made in 1916), we also get The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) and Children of Eve (1915) – might not be the best examples of art or drama in their era, but they provide an important window into then-contemporary modes and mores.
The Inside of the White Slave Traffic is both the most straightforward and, perhaps because of it, morally complex. It’s more of a docu-drama than a narrative, only the latter insofar as it follows a couple of people through the inner workings of forced prostitution. You’ll learn everything from how the traffickers procure women to keep them to alert each other to potential heat – an elaborate code system is employed and explained to the audience – without a shred of hope. As much as Kino’s set hints at it, in fact, there’s little redemption to be found here. Certainly not in Children of Eve, a much more compelling look at the truly awful working conditions of the time, during which people of all ages (the title isn’t metaphorical) were crammed into factories with poor ventilation and dangerous materials for entire days (the film was released the year before the Adamson Act guaranteed an eight-hour day, and over twenty years before the more comprehensive Fair Labor Standards Act). It focuses primarily on one woman who goes undercover in such a factory to expose the working conditions to garner public sympathy, and her ensuing, rather convoluted fate. The climax, a fire at the factory, is a sort of nightmare scenario in any workplace, and effectively shows how quickly so much can go so wrong in these death traps.
The main attraction, The Devil’s Needle, is a little bit more incendiary in its portrait of addiction to an unspecified injection-based drug. Tully Marshall, as an artist intrigued and then imprisoned by the promise of “ready-made inspiration,” certainly isn’t afraid to take his performance all the way, and more compelling cinema we get for it. Add to that a dash of the fantastic – the image of young women dancing in the radio is a winner – and it easily overcomes the shackles of its otherwise moralizing tone, never mind the casual sexism inherent to its time (the artist’s wife considers it her duty to stick by her husband, despite his deplorable behavior, until he allows her to leave).
I’ll let Kino have the first word with regard to the state of these films. From their packaging and booklet:
“Derived from the only known surviving copies, some of the films presented here suffer significant wear and nitrate decomposition. This collection is a sobering reminder of the importance of film preservation…Kino Classics believes that these historically important films be preserved and circulated in spite of their flaws, lest they be allowed to disappear entirely from the cultural rader.”
Needless to say, I am entirely in agreement. I won’t lie, these are not in terrific condition. The Devil’s Needle looks on the verge of total collapse, particularly at the very end, when most frames start resembling a Stan Brakhage experiment more than a narrative film. The other two are in considerably better condition. Children of Eve is a tad faded and soft, but when it’s sharp it’s easily the best of the bunch. The Inside of the White Slave Traffic is the most consistent, bearing heavy damage across nearly every frame, but one quickly becomes accustomed to it. I noticed some occasional ghosting in the transfer of The Devil’s Needle, but otherwise Kino has done a remarkable job bringing these films to life as best they can. Utilizing prints from the Library of Congress, they’re nice and crisp, excellently representing what is available for the eye to take in.
Accompanying the films is a pamphlet with a piece by film historian Richard Koszarski, out-take footage from Children of Eve, and the raw surviving footage of The Inside of the White Slave Traffic.
As noted above, these films aren’t exactly going to knock your socks off with either their drama or their outlandish portraits of their chosen subject, but their notability extends far beyond their individual achievements, and Kino has done something of a public service by guaranteeing at least their digital archival and making those copies available to the public. After all, we’ve already lost so much – The Film Foundation has famously estimated that ninety percent of films made before 1929 are gone forever – and so little of what remains has made its way to DVD, let alone Blu-ray, that every release such as this constitutes a victory. For anyone interested in the history of cinema, these are some of the earliest films available on Blu-ray, and remain important social records.