You can say a thing a lot of ways. That’s why we watch silent films, isn’t it? To see how, when the sound’s taken away, some great artist got his or her point across. To be reminded of all the options.
Imagine, for example, that you’re watching the story of a man and his wife, both young. They were married under pretences the male party now considers false. They’ve grown estranged. Now he is out on a job and she is home. An intruder muscles his way into the house and attempts to take her away. Realizing, finally, that she would rather stay with her husband than move on, she dispatches the intruder. As his heavy body hits the floor, two dinner plates, set askew on the table behind her, slide into an even stack.
There is no intertitle to tell us their marriage is saved. But it is. The plates said so.
There are several scenes like this in The Wind, director Victor Sjöström’s silent era psycho-drama, and one of the last silent films MGM released. To describe them is to praise the subtle hand and breadth of sensitivity of the film’s director, and equally of its star: Lillian Gish. But it is also to belie something. The Wind is not a quiet, nor a pensive film. It is big, at times hysterical, occasionally (appropriately?) overblown. Most of the time, these qualities work in its favour.
Gish plays Letty, a Virginian woman headed west to live with her cousin and childhood friend, Beverly (Edward Earle), his wife (Dorothy Cumming) and their three children. Beverly lives in a remote patch of land fifteen miles from his nearest neighbor. The region is blighted by powerful winds, the worst of them called “northers,” which locals warn have the power to rip a man’s limbs from his body. Though the term is never used in the film, these northers are sandstorms, and they deliver their cargo in much the manner a blizzard does, and to the same dramatic effect. Why Letty’d leave Virginia for a place like this, we’ll never know. All we do know is that she’s leaving for good. So we suspect the rest.
Maybe the wife knows more. She’s a stern-faced woman, proficient with a butcher knife, who appears to take no shit. And she truly loves her husband. She sits coldly while Beverly welcomes the beautiful Letty into their home — Gish looking somewhere between 17 and 25 here, her powers of attraction at their peak. She practically glides into Beverly’s space.
Gish played a lot of pure-hearted, mistreated women. Not this time. Her Letty is a flirt, and a brazen one. And maybe not a bright one, because if she gets kicked out of this house, she’s got nowhere to go. Not for at least fifteen miles.
This love triangle gets The Wind off to a strong start. It sets up Gish in the atypical role of an anti-hero, and establishes Letty’s surroundings as something she’s not well suited for, physically or emotionally. It also gives Sjöström an opportunity to craft some elegant imagery. My favourite scene—really, sequence—comes in these early minutes.
It starts with a sandstorm, some weeks or months after Letty has moved in. We see the window of the house first, with the sand striking it like a slashing blade. We think of grit, coarseness; of scoured skin. Then Sjöström cuts to Letty’s delicate hands. She is trying to iron; she rubs her raw and tired fingers. Now we see Beverly’s wife, her hands bloody—splitting open a side of beef with a large knife. When Beverly returns, she hugs him, blood and all. Isn’t that magnificent?
I wish this dynamic had lasted longer. But soon Letty is living somewhere else—married to a kind young farmer named Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson), who loves her very much. Letty, by this point, needs money and a roof. So she loves him too, for that. But when Lige tries to kiss his new wife, she rejects him brutally.
This is a remarkable scene for anyone familiar with Gish’s other major roles. After the film ended, I spoke to a friend about how strange it was to see her enraged: teeth-bared, wild eyed, bitter and cruel. We’d both seen Gish play angry, even crazy characters, but this was something else. The only comparison I could make was to Mikio Naruse’s Repast (1951), in which Setsuko Hara, immortalized as the saintly Noriko in Ozu’s films, plays kind of a bitch.
But Letty suffers from more than just a bad disposition. The constant howl of the wind is tipping her over the edge. And it gets worse as her marriage withers and she’s left alone in the cabin, in silence but for the shrieking outside, scraping her dinner plate clean with the sand itself, which sits in a pile in their sink. Just imagine that. This place might be Purgatory for Letty, assuming she’s capable of reform.
I haven’t mentioned Wirt Roddy, the travelling cattle buyer Letty meets on her train ride from Virginia. It’s not because Montagu Love does a poor job of playing this character—oily, would-be rapist that Roddy is. He’s the film’s only true villain, and a believable one; presenting a serious threat to Gish’s character late in the story.
But Roddy is also a plot device—an obvious means of imperiling Letty and facilitating her redemption, if redemption is to come. In a film that, in its best moments, can transport you to a world of madness and lust, evoked through visual poetry on par with Von Stroheim’s, well… it’s frustrating to be pulled back from that world by an ending so easy to predict.
We shouldn’t ask more of a film than it was intended to give. Sjöström and Gish (and Frances Marion, who adapted the screenplay) made The Wind a crowd-pleaser with moments of true artistry. But in the spirit of that effort, I wished they’d gone even further. There are many ways to send an audience home fulfilled. A happy ending is only one of them.
The Wind was screened this past April 3rd, at Innis Town Hall in Toronto, part the 2014 Toronto Silent Film Festival. All of TSFF’s screenings are a treat, but this one especially so, because The Wind is a tough film to see on video. And also because it was introduced, via pre-taped vignette, by Silent London’s own Pamela Hutchinson. I’ve heard Pam’s voice, and seen Pam’s face, but I’ve never heard her and seen her at the same time. It was a pleasure. She taught us a lot, as always.