A fascinating piece of film history, Kino’s The Devil’s Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption presents three films from the 1910s. Heavy both on moralizing and melodrama, each confronts a hot-button social issue of the day with a bluntness one might not expect from the era. Mastered in HD from Library of Congress archival 35mm elements, the films are preserved reasonably well here, offering an invaluable link to some of the popular progressive cinema of the past.
The disc’s headliner is 1916’s The Devil’s Needle, directed by Chester Withey and supervised by D.W. Griffith. The film was rereleased in 1923 to capitalize on the subsequent success of star Norma Talmadge and to tie in with the recent overdose death of actor Wallace Reid, and that is the version presented here. Talmadge stars as Renee, model, muse and lover of painter John Minturn (Tully Marshall). After he marries a more respectable girl and begins to feel the pressures of career and marriage, Renee introduces him to her habit of shooting up morphine, and it’s not long before he’s a raging addict.
1913’s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic exists in an incomplete version, and is presented here with a number of recreated inter-titles and running only 28 minutes. Directed by Frank Beal, the film focuses on the rampant sex slave circuit taking place within the United States, using real red-light district locations. The docudrama stars Virginia Mann as an innocent victim who falls into the trafficking circuit via a false marriage, and the repercussions that stick with her even after she manages to break free.
1915’s Children of Eve is the strongest and most melodramatic of the three, starring Robert Conness as an unsympathetic factory owner who blithely uses child labor and ignores calls for safer working conditions. In a decades-spanning tale of heartbreak and regret, Conness is rejected by the woman he loves and is later investigated by that woman’s child for his immoral behavior, her identity unbeknownst to both. While the melodrama is often too convoluted for its own good, there’s no denying the technical acumen of the film’s climax — a massive factory fired inspired by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster.
The Blu-ray Disc
Each film is presented in 1080p high definition in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. As The Devil’s Needle begins, it’s somewhat astonishing the level of clarity and detail present beneath the numerous scratches. Unfortunately, the middle section of the film is racked with extensive nitrate decomposition that occasionally swallows almost the entire frame. The Inside of the White Slave Traffic is plagued with constant deep vertical scratches, but beneath the damage, it’s often a sharp, detailed image. Children of Eve has significantly less damage than the other two films, although its image is much softer throughout. All three films are granted 2.0 stereo audio with new scores by Ben Model for White Slave Traffic and Rodney Sauer for the other two.
Eight minutes of raw, silent outtake footage from Children of Eve shows a good deal of unused footage from the factory fire shoot. The raw surviving footage of White Slave Traffic is also presented, without added inter-titles and presented at a speedier frame rate. Historian Richard Koszarski contributes brief program notes in an included booklet, but it’s a shame his thoughts aren’t more extensive, as these films really beg for in-depth historical context.
The Bottom Line
A must-own release for film history buffs and certainly worth a look for anyone fascinated by early silent film.