The Devil’s Needle (1916)
This release from D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts company reflects his concern with progressive social issues, although it comes across to us today in a similar spirit to “Reefer Madness” and other anti-drug propaganda movies. The version we have today was a re-release for 1923 audiences, which changed character names and other details through new Intertitles.
Because of the changes, I’m going to refer to the characters in the film by the names of the actors who played them. Director Chester Withey has followed his mentor’s lead in making the characters more like “types” than individuals in any event. Norma Talmadge, working before she became a big star, plays a model who is caught up in a sort of four-way love triangle (“love trapezoid?”) with her boss, a lanky painter played by Tully Marshall, the daughter of one of his patrons, played by Marguerite Marsh, and her suitor, Howard Gaye, who of course works for her father, F.A. Turner. Norma wants to marry Tully, but he’s infatuated with Marguerite, who is decidedly uninterested in Howard, and apparently willing to consider an marrying artist just to get out of doing what her father wants her to. This whole situation is complicated by the fact that Norma has picked up a habit that involves buying little packages of powder from a shady guy in a cap and sticking herself with needles.
Tully is painting a picture that includes two female figures, so he needs a another model to sit with Norma, but he can’t find one that fits his ideal. He realizes that Marguerite would be perfect, but when she agrees to sit for him, Howard intervenes, saying it’s inappropriate for a lady of her station. Now, Norma suggests Tully try some of the “inspiration ready-made” that she keeps in his studio. At first reluctant, Tully finds that when he’s high, he can visualize the dream image of Marguerite and finish the painting. Norma, however, can see that it’s not as good as his other work. He and Marguerite get married in a private ceremony, capsizing the plans of Howard and Turner to force her into a large society wedding. Turner turns her out and she moves in with Tully, who is losing money on his recent paintings and spending his cash on the powder.
Norma manages to clean herself up, but Tully comes to her seeking more of the powder, and she acquiesces, heading over to a local drug store with a phony prescription. Marguerite has followed Tully to this bad neighborhood, and the drug dealer stalks her, so she takes refuge in the very same drug store and uses the phone to call Howard to come escort her safely out. Of course, she sees Norma buy the drugs and she and Howard follow her back to the apartment, where they encounter Tully in a rage for his fix. They flee, but meanwhile the drug dealer has decided they are reform movement people and gets orders from his boss to kill them if they come back to the slum.
Tully’s servant now takes him to a farm in the country that apparently serves as a rehab center. After a few weeks of fresh air and sunshine, he starts to feel better. It seems that problem is resolved, but Marguerite meanwhile hasn’t been told where he is, so she goes over to visit Norma and ask if she knows anything, and of course the drug dealer spots her right off. Norma is taking a nap and fails to get up when Marguerite knocks, but slowly gets up to follow her out and sees her get nabbed by the dealer and dragged to a local saloon, where the gang locks her in a cellar and turns up the gas. Norma calls Tully, who races with his servant to a classic cross-cut Griffithian rescue, and the police finally show up and arrest the bad guys while the servant holds them at gunpoint with one hand, and holds the unconscious Marguerite with the other (I think most cops would arrest that guy, but whatever). Marguerite re-pledges herself to Tully while Norma contemplates the trouble she started by using the powder in the first place. The end.
Now, we know that the Intertitles have been changed from the original, and it’s possible some re-cutting was done for this 1923 release to make Norma Talmadge, now a big star, look like a bigger part of the movie. There’s no way to be sure, since no original print is known to exist. Modern viewers may object to the age difference in the romantic partners – Marguerite and Norma were both in their twenties, while Tully was in his fifties at the time – though this is pretty standard for the time period (and for a long time afterward). I found it interesting the way the Intertitles suggest a gendered reading of drug abuse – “all manhood” is missing from Tully when he begs Norma for the drug, but when he’s on the mend we see him engaged in the very masculine act of plowing a field. I was also surprised that Norma’s struggle with addiction was summed up in a title as “she has fought the good fight – and won.” She doesn’t seem to even need any fresh air to get it done!
Now, movies dealing with drug addiction were not new, but this is the first I’ve seen to give a (relatively) realistic treatment to the subject. Griffith’s short “For His Son” has a man addicted to a soda pop called “Dopacoke,” and the Douglas Fairbanks satire “Mystery of the Leaping Fish” uses drugs as comic devices, but this was much more grounded in a portrayal of drug culture and drug effects. We never do find out for sure what that powder is – presumably either cocaine or heroin – and its effects are somewhat inconsistent. Neither drug really produces hallucinations as portrayed in the movie, but hallucinations are a highly cinematic drug side-effect and will show up in drug movies for the next 100 years, regardless of the drug depicted. Watching people hunched over toilet bowls may be more realistic, but it wasn’t considered appealing filmmaking until “Sid and Nancy.” Most of the time, they inject the drug, but after his rampage, Tully seems content to put it on his tongue.
In general, I was impressed with the camerawork and editing. The story flows well, and we get cuts between long shots and close-ups frequently instead of static shots of an open stage. I found the location shooting outside to be more appealing than the indoor studio shots, but I typically find that so. Some of the “slum” locations look genuinely dirty and dangerous, and the streets with all the period cars are a joy to see. In addition to the cross-cutting climax, there’s a good use of editing to heighten tension when Norma takes her first shot while Tully entertains his wealthy patrons. The result is a watchable film which seems to go by faster than an hour.
Director: Chester Withey
Starring: Tully Marshall, Norma Talmadge, Marguerite Marsh, F.A. Turner, Howard Gaye
Run Time: 1 Hr, 6 Min
You can watch it for free: here.