07 June 2009

Hell's Hinges (1916)

d. William S. Hart and Charles Swickard / USA / 64 mins.

Note: This review discusses details of the film's ending.

Relatively few Westerns made in America and released before the 1970s brandish the level of cynicism and despondency seen in Hell's Hinges, perhaps the first important and truly serious Western film in terms of both its scope and negation of genre principles. As early as 1911 film writers were already bemoaning the formulaic nature of the Western, but Hell's Hinges does away with many of the elements we would expect and substitutes them with an innovative structure and a disaffected hero whose every-man-for-himself moralism is broken only to save a woman his loves; the rest of the town literally burns to the ground.

From the outset it's clear we're in territory far outside the Code-friendly atmosphere the Western would mature within by the guiding hands of John Ford and others. Hell's Hinges opens with a city-dwelling minister (Jack Standing) who puts no faith in the Bible but relishes a congregation that sits rapt at his words. Church elders send him out west into the small community of Hell's Hinges — a veiled Sodom on the frontier, described as "a good place to 'ride wide of'" and whose good citizens are nothing but "a drop of water in a barrel of rum." The parson is accompanied by his genuinely pious sister, Faith (Clara Williams), and they clash with a town where a majority of residents are as godless as they are lawless.

In typical western construction, the town can almost without exception be clearly divided among its good and its bad, but Blaze Tracy (William S. Hart) occupies a moral limbo. He's a stoic gunslinger who enjoys the benefit of an unguarded community, but he drifts away from the nihilism when he falls in love with Faith at first sight. But brilliantly, Blaze is not an instant convert to anything other than his love for Faith. He pushes back against the unsettled town, protecting Faith and her parson brother; when the parson drifts into the den of iniquity that is the local saloon and begins drinking heavily and cavorting with a prostitute, it is Blaze who defends him from the upset good citizens and successfully argues to give him a second chance. In a not-so-subtle way his faith is to Faith alone, and all of his outward actions seem designed to earn her love through a humanistic chivalry. If parting the town makes her life easier, then that is what he will do; he doesn't pretend to be anything he's not, which makes his wooing both more complicated for him and for us.

The official director here is Charles Swickard, but Hart, who dominated the early western format as both its on-screen hero and its off-screen craftsman, is recognized with having unofficially directed most of the film. Hart saw the potential in the western to explore themes of good versus evil; Scott Simmon writes in an essay accompanying the restoration of Hell's Hinges that this is a movie bathed in the extreme — "extremely sentimental in its Victorian vision of the instantaneous effect of a 'good' woman on Hart's 'bad' man, and extremely harsh in its barren look and ethical judgments."

While the former element crossed over into the 1930s through the Western's heyday of the 1950s, the latter didn't. The glory in the finale of Hell's Hinges is that the hero doesn't want to save the town from itself and set the citizens right; with the town at its breaking point, Blaze lets it snap. An angry mob burns down the church, with the parson holding the lead torch. Blaze rushes to town to save Faith, and when he punishes the arsonists, it's for the risk it posed to her. The film's cinematographer, Joseph August (founder of the American Society of Cinematographers and future D.P. in some of John Ford's more expressionistic films), lets the camera move as much as it can and introduces a series of previously unseen high and low angles to make the finale gripping. He and Hart take full advantage of the incinerating church as an exterior backdrop and the fire that spreads to neighboring buildings, such as the saloon, as a claustrophobic interior.

In the end, for Blaze to save the day is to save Faith alone, to bury her brother and attempt to bring her some closure. Even in the film's final moments it's not clear that she loves him, and Blaze for the first time points his head skyward and prays for her happiness and that she'll marry him. The good people and the bad people of Hell's Hinges are punished equally through the destruction of their town. It is a backward view of civilization, the opposite direction many Westerns will take. It channels the darker corners of the soul by admitting sometimes we have no interest in saving the whole of our community; sometimes even the hero is only concerned with saving himself.


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