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.