Hell Bent (1918)

Directed by John Ford
Written by John Ford and Harry Carey & Eugene B. Lewis

Admittedly, there were will be a number of films like Hell Bent which are sprinkled throughout the marathon. Is this really a poker movie? No. Does it feature poker? Kinda, but again, not really. But it is a great opportunity to explore an early John Ford film that was once thought to be lost to the world until a print was discovered deep inside a Czech film archive. Since then, it has been restored and made available once again for public consumption, which is a great thing for film geeks like myself who realize the importance of John Ford to the history of American moviemaking. I think pretty easily, Ford is a top 5 most important American filmmaker. His camera told stories of the gritty west and the horrors of World War II, all with a deft touch of story and scenery. While not all of his films can be masterpieces like Stagecoach, The Searchers, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, they each have something to give in showing the evolution of the filmmaker, as well as an encapsulation of the time. Before his notable work with John Wayne, Ford also collaborated closely with Harry Carey on a number of important silent films as well. Hell Bent may not be among the most important, but it does feature the duo delivering a compelling western tale.

After leaving the saloon quickly after being caught cheating at a game of poker (sound familiar?), Harry (Harry Carey) flees across the river, out of the county and to freedom from his transgressions. Entering the nearby town, he quickly makes a friend in ruffian Cimarron Bill (Duke R. Lee). But when Bess (Neva Gerber) must take a job in the dance hall to support her incompetent brother, she becomes the apple of many a cowpoke’s eye, including Harry and deceitful Beau Ross (Joseph Harris). When Beau and Bess’s brother Jack attempt a robbery, Harry is once again there to stop them, but repeated attempts result in a gold rush, including Beau kidnapping Bess and riding off into the desert. Harry follows in an attempt to rescue his sweetheart, resulting in a duel between the two suitors. With just one horse to carry the three out of the desert, the men agree Bess must ride to freedom, leaving Harry and Beau on the precipice of death with an inbound sandstorm threatening their final breaths. But Cimarron Bill mounts up in an attempt to rescue his new friend.

The fact that I included this in my poker movie marathon is definitely sketchy, but here we go. So the film opens on an author who reads a note from his publisher suggesting his latest project feature a man who is both good and bad, more like a normal person than the virtuous heroes of his previous works. This, along with a painting entitled “A Misdeal”, inspire the story we quite impressively dissolve into. The author imagines this painting coming to life and we are immediately inserted into the scenario of Harry cheating at the game and escaping away across the river. This specific event doesn’t really ever come back up in the story, and once again no actual poker is shown (unless you count Harry dumping the numerous aces out of his pockets once he’s escaped). However, I think seeing this story through the lens of Harry being a poker cheater, and that he is an ambiguous figure morally speaking is interesting. From a poker perspective, he’s a bad actor, a player who doesn’t use his intellect and skill to win at the game, but rather decides to cheat. That’s the proverbial bad part of Harry. But he’s also a lover, as we soon learn with his relationship with Bess and subsequent hero mission to rescue her from an even worse man; he’s a friend, as we see his budding friendship with the otherwise snarly Cimarron Bill. So by the end of the film, Harry is our hero, but he’s still a poker cheat.

So how does this represent the game and those who play it? Again I think not well, but there is added nuance in this depiction since he is otherwise a good man, or at least the ambiguous, everyday type the author at the beginning is looking to turn a tale about. None of his actions can wholly make up for his earlier transgressions at the poker table, but I guess the question becomes did Bess make him a changed man? Now with a lady on his arm, are his cheating days behind him, or is he still part good and part bad? It’s perhaps impossible to tell, but it’s an evolution in the depiction of poker players as perhaps being a little less wholly evil and now more ambiguous. It’s a start at least. What this movie might have shown me as a result of this is that maybe just three movies into the marathon and I may have already cracked the case on why poker movies suck in general. You never see, or hardly ever, a good, clean game of poker because unless there is a scandal (such as cheating), or such high stakes as to be compelling, the game of poker is just not interesting to the uninformed observer, creating an inherent problem with poker movies: they’re never realistic. Sure, I would watch a movie that features a home game among friends playing for low stakes with no cheating, but most people wouldn’t. Being able to appease both hardcore fans of the game and casual viewers has become the crux of a successful poker movie, and one not many have been able to overcome.

As for the movie itself, removing any commentary on poker, it just an okay film. While the framing device of the author/painting provides rich text for us to explore as it pertains to poker, in terns of how to film utilizes this framing device, it seems added on and unnecessary. The storyline starts from this place of a poker cheat and evolves into something else entirely where the actions of Harry in the beginning are of no consequence for the remainder of the movie. No lawmen after him, no reoccurrence of his ill intent. There are plenty of elements here to be entertained by, however, mostly thanks to the genius work of John Ford. He captures these impressively dazzling shots for a silent film in 1918, almost exclusively the exterior shots that highlight the western landscape and canyon passages in ways it seems only Ford can. You can see the seeds planted in this film for his stunning vistas of the west which would become his hallmark. Carey is also strong in the lead performance. But in general, the film falters behind its structure, but is not without its redeeming qualities.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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