Victory (1919)

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 07/20/05 16:07:13

"Ricardo is one of Lon Chaney’s most ambiguous early villains."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Joseph Conrad’s 1915 novel “Victory” was well-filmed four years later by director Maurice Tourneur for Paramount, working from a script by Stephen Fox (Jules Furthman). All of Conrad’s exotica made it intact to the screen, and star Jack Holt (father of Tim Holt and model for Dick Tracy’s solid, square jaw) embodies the novel’s protagonist, Axel Heyst in appearance and basic nature.

Heyst lives a solitary but not lonesome life on the island of Samburan. No one knows much about him, but gossip has it he killed a man and is hiding out. He has to make occasional trips to a neighboring island on which lives a hotel keeper named Schomberg (Wallace Beery) who, for undisclosed reasons—a very Conradian touch—despises Heyst.

On one of these visits, Heyst listens to a concert performed by an all-female orchestra. The lead violin is a twentysomething named Alma (Lena in the book) who has attracted the unwanted attentions of the married Schomberg. To escape him, and the dreary life of a traveling musician, Alma asks Heyst to take her with him when he returns home. He agrees and they sneak off the island, infuriating Schomberg.

Back on Samburan, Alma (Seena Owen) discovers that Heyst is not particularly interested in her company. His philosophy is that pity leads to involvement, and involvement leads to disappointment and pain.

Despite this, they soon find mutual ground for affection and begin to quietly fall in love.

But as time passes, Schomberg retains his hatred of Heyst, and when three menacing figures check into his hotel, he tells them, casually, that Heyst has a fortune that he is keeping hidden away. The three gamblers decide to pay Heyst a visit and are greeted cautiously when they arrive.

Their leader, Mr. Jones (Ben Deely, looking like Andy Warhol) tells his right hand man Ricardo (Lon Chaney) to look for the girl Schomberg told them shared the island with its owner, while his man Pedro (Bull Montana) does some scouting around. Ricardo finds Alma and begins flirting with right away. When they first arrive on the island, Ricardo hangs around Mr. Jones like a loose scarf. Like Richard III, he smiles and smiles and is obviously a villain. But with Alma, he is much more aggressive and wastes no time in asking her to run away with him.

Alma encourages him, and we are not sure of her motivation. Is she really attracted to this bad boy, still upset at Heyst’s lack of passion, or is she just buying time for Heyst? And how willing is Ricardo, really, to abandon his partners in crime to abscond with the girl?

We find out quickly. Mr. Jones fakes illness to draw Heyst out of his house. He thinks he is giving Ricardo time to search for the fortune. When he realizes that Ricardo is in fact pursuing Alma, he flies into a possibly homoerotic rage. Ricardo is killed and Mr. Jones is dispatched by Pedro.

Director Maurice Tourneur uses the eye he developed while an assistant to Auguste Rodin to good effect. Working through cinematographer Rene Guissart, and art directors Ben Carre and Floyd Mueller, Tourneur fills every frame with things from the exotic islands. Images are frequently framed by palm leaves. Costumed locals move in and out of the shots.

The early images underline the solitude of the characters. Heyst is seen sitting on his veranda reading. The medium shot puts him in the center of the screen, surrounded by empty space. Inside the house, we see that the walls are lined with bookshelves, volume after volume testifying to time spent in the singular act of reading.

On Schomberg’s island, we frequently see silhouettes of heads in the foreground, their features hidden by the dark, while the primary action occurs in the background. When Heyst is listening to the orchestra, he sits downstage and the orchestra is behind him and seen in the upper half of the screen, as if it were a thought balloon in a cartoon.

The film contains a pair of matching moments as brutal as anything on screen in a modern thriller. In a flashback, we see Mr. Jones and Ricardo trailing through a South American rain forest with two native guides. Suspecting that the Indians are plotting his death, Mr. Jones shoots one of them. The dead man falls face first into the campfire. We later learn that Pedro was the second guide and that the murdered man was his brother. He gets revenge on Mr. Jones after Ricardo’s death by tying him to a chair and lowering him, face first, into the fire place.

Holt is excellent as Heyst. We see him battling himself over questions of involvement vs. emotional distancing, and the dependency of love as opposed to the self-sufficiency of living alone. The performance is so good, it makes you wonder how Holt ended up stuck starring in “B” westerns and in supporting roles in major films.

But I suspect most viewers will come to the film as fans of Lon Chaney. Chaney could be the most subtle of actors, but his Ricardo is mostly a broad, swarthy villain/assassin. He is the most kinetic performer in the film, and not always in the best way, but he never loses that feel for menace just below the surface that would become a trademark.

“Victory” is a visual treat and a compelling examination of what it takes to become a complete human being. Fans of Lon Chaney will not be disappointed by his performance, but they probably will finish viewing the film with the belief that his best work, foreshadowed here, is ahead of him.

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