A secret organisation of concerned citizens sits in judgement of prominent figures in the business world and their negative influence on society. When the latest tycoon who has been accused is declared irredeemable, an assassination is arranged. But when two members fall in love with the daughter of the society’s leader everything begins to unravel…
Unusual silent screen drama starring the legendary ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ Lon Chaney. For once, his skills at the makeup box are not required as this role is not one to add to his gallery of grotesques. Farralone is just an ordinary man (despite a dodgy hairstyle) engaged in an extraordinary business. By today’s standards, I guess the ‘star chamber’ run by old man Hardie Kirkland would be classed as a gang of vigilantes at best and urban terrorists at worst. They’ve set themselves up as judge, jury and executioners; removing the wealthy autocrats who are filling their own pockets at the expense of the common people.
Trouble starts to brew when Chaney and fellow member Forrest (John Bowers) both fall hopelessly in love with Kirkland’s beautiful daughter (Leatrice Joy). She’s no wallflower, fully aware of the organisation’s activities and backs her father to the hilt. Seemingly disinterested in the attentions of either of her eager suitors, she agrees to marry the one who shows himself fully committed to the cause by taking on an assassination. It so happens that there’s a magnate in the crosshairs when she makes her promise and the job falls to Bowers when he draws the Ace of Hearts. Yes, in a similar setup to Robert Louis Stevenson’s story ‘The Suicide Club’, work is allocated on the random turn of a playing card. Joy keeps her word, and the two spend a night of bliss while Chaney sits outside in the rain. However, by the morning, the young couple has found true love and their convictions are crumbling, setting the stage for a crisis of conscience and loyalty.
This is a surprisingly modern and thought-provoking tale, pleasingly free from the melodrama which tends to form the modern public’s perspective of silent cinema. There are some excellent character moments, particularly when Chaney pets a dog who shares his nightly vigil outside the young lovers apartment. It’s almost a throwaway gesture but reveals a more human side to his nature, and provides a subtle signpost to his redemption to come.
There’s also some excellent work in the restaurant scene where Bowers plans to plant the bomb which will eliminate the group’s latest target. His resolve is weakened not be any great moral epiphany, but by overhearing the simple talk of two young lovers discussing their mundane financial and family problems. An extended, and rather clumsy, alternative ending to the film was originally planned, but was vetoed by Sam Goldwyn, a rare instance of a studio head making a sound creative decision!
This was probably a difficult sell to an audience of the time. For a start, there’s almost no background information provided about the principal characters. Also, we’re not given any details of the group’s previous activities, although it does seem fair to assume that they’ve not just been sitting around playing cribbage. The original novel by Gouverneur Morris had them as a communist secret society, but the film sits on the fence politically by sidestepping all questions of ideology. All we learn about the group’s target is that he’s a rich man who has been investigated for months and must die because of unspecified crimes against society. No doubt such ambiguity was necessary in order to avoid any possible controversy and get the film released into theatres.
As you would expect, the performances are a touch histrionic at times, but still restrained in comparison to some contemporary examples. Chaney, in particular, is excellent as the conflicted Farralone, and his emotional swings and final redemption are never less than convincing. This film was another three-way pairing of the star with director Wallace Worsley and novelist Morris; the same team who had delivered hit crime thriller ‘The Penalty’ (1920).
Although this film is not quite as distinguished a production, it’s still a worthy entry in Chaney’s filmography. Worsley was also behind the megaphone for ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923), the film that turned Chaney into a global superstar. Joy was a protege of world-famous director Cecil B DeMille and made a number of films with him, including a featured role in his epic version of ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1923).
Not a famous film in Chaney’s glittering career, and one that may not appeal to fans of his more grotesque creations, but a quietly effective picture in its own right.