The Bells (1926)
Director: James Young
Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Caroline Frances Cooke, Gustav von Seyffertitz
Synopsis: An innkeeper murders a wealthy guest to pay off his debt, but his conscience will not allow him to get away with the crime so easily.
It’s 1878, and congenial businessman Mathias (Lionel Barrymore) hopes to become the Burgomaster of the quaint village in which he lives. He’s much liked by the townsfolk, but this appears to be down to his generous nature when it comes to extending credit to the patrons of his inn, something which he feels compelled to do so that they will vote for him to be elected Burgomaster. However, all this generosity is pushing Mathias further and further into debt, much to the distress of his wife (Caroline Frances Cook) and father-in-law (Lorimer Johnston) who runs a mill also owned by Mathias.
Mathias is already deeply in debt to Frantz (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who plans to assume control of Mathias’s business once payment is due, unless he agrees to allow Frantz to marry his daughter Annette (Lola Todd). With no likelihood of being able to repay his debt to Frantz, Mathias is compelled to murder a travelling merchant (E. Alyn Warren) who stops briefly at his inn and unwisely reveals he has a money belt full of gold. But having finally resolved his money problems and got Frantz off his back, Mathias is tormented by ghostly images of the man he murdered and the sound of the bells the dead man was holding when he was slain.
The Bells is a typical silent melodrama, based on a popular stage play of the 19th Century. It was so popular, in fact, that there were seven versions made of it up to the 1930s. It all seems a little quaint and slow-moving today, but boasts a fine performance from a young-ish Lionel Barrymore. However, his character’s transformation from avuncular host to crazed killer is a difficult one to believe in, even in Barrymore’s capable hands, simply because the early scenes make it difficult for us to believe he is capable of murder, and he doesn’t appear desperate enough to follow such a desperate course of action. The Bells is also noticeable for an early appearance from horror mainstay Boris Karloff as a fairground mesmerist whose heavy cloak and thick-lensed spectacles are strongly reminiscent of Dr. Caligari. While The Bells is no Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it does provide passable — if simple — entertainment while remaining a relic of a bygone era.
(Reviewed 7th August 2013)