Chaney Blogathon: By the Sun’s Rays (1914)

Note: You can view the film in its entirety below, as I do discuss the plot liberally feel free to view it prior to reading.

In order to be able to participate in another wonderful blogathon hosted by Movie Silently and the Last Drive-In, I volunteered to discuss By the Sun’s Rays. This is an 11-minute short film from 1914 released in Universal’s infancy that features Lon Chaney as a villain.

The reason this was a preferable selection for me is because I didn’t manage to squeeze in a Chaney title during my last theme 61 Days of Halloween (though I wanted to) and my current theme Thankful for World Cinema features films produced abroad. Therefore, the fact that this was presented as an option allowed me to buck my theme slightly to discuss it and I’m glad I could.

Here’s a fairly succinct synopsis of the film from an IMDb user:

Frank Lawler, a clerk for a mining company, colludes with a bandit gang about the timing of gold shipments with a mirror signal system and has designs on Doris Davis, the daughter of the local branch manager. The company’s main office dispatches their top detective John Murdock, who goes undercover to expose the scheme and rescue the Doris from the unwanted advances of the dastardly Lawler.

Chaney plays Lawler, and there are a few interesting things about the film. First, the appropriately florid description of the nature of Chaney’s character may paint the picture in a reader’s mind of a dastardly, handlebar-mustache twirling lothario if they’ve not seen the film. What’s refreshing, and what makes the film work in my estimation, is the fact that Lawler’s villainy, thanks to Chaney’s portrayal, is fairly subdued. In the segment of the film where Dora (Agnes Vernon) is distracting him from his intended rounds with her feminine wiles you can, even in a fairly wide shot, read the inner-monologue of Chaney’s struggle. It’s not over-the-top but is present and convincing enough that you understand the struggle he faces.

Similarly he lurks in the background in a few frames eavesdropping and plotting, awaiting his moment. To take his reactions and manifestations of character too far would render the film far too comedic for its intended western/action tone. Therefore, even here nearly one hundred years ago a few acting styles removed from what is considered modern and acceptable practice you have here similar truths about applicable acting styles for genres.

It has also been noted that this is Chaney’s earliest extant film and that is of significance too as it is the earliest indicator, in a small dose, of his ability, and is valuable and worth examining from that perspective as well. Enjoy!

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Thankful for World Cinema- Watchtower (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

Watchtower (2012)

There are films about situations and there are films driven by their characters. There are not as many that find an interesting situation, and the right characters to place in that situation, as Watchtower does. The characters of interest in the film are Seher (Nilay Erdonmez) and Nihat (Olgun Simsek). Each has a rather different job: Nihat has just started working in a watchtower where basically he’s looking to see if anything out of the ordinary is going on in the surrounding mountains and forests in the Turkish countryside; this usually would have to do with the prevention of rampant wildfires. Nihat, meanwhile, is a hostess on a cross-country bus line. In this way their paths do occasionally intersect.

The film builds well dedicating long portions to telling the story of each of these solitary and willfully ostracized people. It soon becomes clear that each has a secret that is a great burden to them. The secrets, and their situations, will inevitably join their narrative strands. We know this.

The unfurling of the stories spins much like water going down a drain; circling ever closer to the truth of the matter. The performances, especially that of Erdonnez, are wonderful.

This film only faces one true stumbling block, and it is one that holds it back from the greatness it seems destined to achieve for much of its running time. The glimpses of the characters and their plights are riveting for how the film slowly unravels what bothers them about their predicament and why they feel they cannot share it. However, the situation they find themselves in together struggles to find a conclusion and eventually, for all intents and purposes, drops the narrative.

I’ve sat with this ending and thought on it for some time. It’s not the kind of, let’s call it an “open” ending for lack of a more suitable term; that elevates the film. Conversely it is not one that undoes a great deal of the good that was accomplished before it. However, it is still a disappointing and unsatisfactory close to the tale.

There reaches a point in a certain kind of narrative where if you move past the plot point you’re on you’ve stopped telling one tale and moved on to another altogether. Therefore, that ending has to feel like a button, and what occurs afterward can be explored in another film or in the mind of the viewer. I think that Inception would actually be a good, recent, widely-viewed example of that (not that these films bare any similarity). The point being that the last image was meant to be the last image in that film. It had to be. Here it felt a bit like settling and that’s highly unfortunate, but not ruinous to the whole.

Watchtower has characters with baggage who are in binds and meet a crossroads. It is interesting to watch them get there, and see how they interact when their paths cross. I just wanted to go on their journey a little longer, and that can’t be all bad, now can it?

7/10