Release Date(s)1922 (April 18, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Lon Chaney became known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” because of his ability with make-up to transform himself into monsters, Asians, pirates, hunchbacks, circus clowns, legless and armless people, and more. But Chaney could also take on a straight dramatic role equally well. One such example is The Trap, a melodrama that takes place in the Canadian Northwest.
Chaney plays Gaspard, a kindly simpleton who appreciates life and the beauty of nature—until he’s wronged. After Benson (Alan Hale) steals Gaspard’s mine and his sweetheart, Thalie (Dagmar Godowsky), Gaspard’s easy-going nature turns vengeful. He instigates a fight between Benson and brutish Pierre. In self-defense, Benson shoots Pierre and is arrested. Gaspard refuses to testify that the shooting was in self-defense and Benson is sent to prison. While Benson is locked up, Thalie dies. Gaspard takes her young son to live with him and grows to love the boy as his own.
Because Pierre did not die of his wounds, Benson is eventually freed. Gaspard fears he will lose the boy to Benson and prepares for the worst by setting an elaborate trap. He captures a wolf, builds a cage connecting to his shack, and leaves the starving animal inside so that when Benson opens the shack door, he will be attacked by the wolf.
Chaney takes on a complicated role as the simple-minded Gaspard, whose all-embracing love of mankind is turned into hatred by the cruelty and unpredictability of fate. His performance is a study in contrasts. When we first see him, he is extremely likable. He has heart, and his affection for Thalie is genuine. Later, he’s consumed with a desire to inflict pain and suffering on the man who has taken everything from him. Chaney elicits sympathy for Gaspard early on as we see how he interacts with children and adults and how gently he treats Thalie. Some of that sympathy erodes when he becomes obsessed with vengeance, since the law is technically on Benson’s side regarding ownership of the mine and Thalie willingly goes off with him. Gaspard is too dim to recognize any of this and becomes consumed with destroying Benson.
Director Robert Thornby doesn’t have the visual flair of Tod Browning, who would collaborate with Chaney on some of his best films, but he does give Chaney plenty of close-ups so the viewer can see how effectively the actor registers a change of emotion within a scene. There’s also a subtlety about Gaspard’s vengeance. It’s achieved through patience, cunning, and thoughtfulness. A very dark side of Gaspard emerges as events alter his world view.
The dialogue inter-titles are written in Canadian dialect to illustrate Gaspard’s heavily accented, imprecise manner of speaking. Many of the descriptive inter-titles are flowery and depend on cloying emotion. “Those small, eager fingers, clutching at the tendrils of his heart—how, he knew not, only that he felt them tugging... tugging...” For those unfamiliar with the traditions of silent pictures, these passages call attention to the style of a bygone cinematic era and distract from the flow of the narrative.
Some of the film’s working titles were Wolfbreed and The Mask, and was released in the UK under the title Heart of a Wolf. Portions of the film were shot on location in Yosemite, California.
The Trap was shot by director of photography Virgil Miller on 35 mm black-and-white film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. (This was the first Chaney film to use panchromatic film stock, which became popular in the late 1920s.) Kino’s Blu-ray release contains a 4K restoration by Universal Pictures from a 16 mm tinted print provided by the Packard Humanities Institute and a 16 mm print provided by the British Film Institute National Archive. Restoration services were conducted by NBC Universal Studio Post. Throughout the film, there are vertical scratches, which are fairly light and appear to have been cleaned up as much as possible. The color tinting adds a nice dimension to the picture. Outdoor scenes are tinted lemon yellow, suggesting bright sunlight. Interiors are a somewhat deeper yellow. Night scenes are tinted blue, and a key night scene with the wolf is especially dramatic. Miller’s camera work is fairly traditional, with little tracking and a reliance on close-ups to convey characters’ emotions.
The film is accompanied by a musical score by Kevin Lax in 2.0 Dolby Digital. “Silent film” is a misnomer since pictures of that period were never meant to be shown dead silent. In larger theaters, an orchestra accompanied the film; in smaller theaters, there was an organist or pianist playing appropriate music—romantic, adventurous, foreboding—according to what was happening on screen. This presentation of The Trap simulates that in-theater experience.
Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release include the following:
- By the Sun’s Rays (11:27)
- Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask (64:57)
By the Sun’s Rays – This 1914 Western is one of Lon Chaney’s earliest surviving films. Detective John Murdock is sent to investigate numerous gold shipment robberies from a Colorado mine. Frank Lawler (Chaney) is a clerk in the mine office who loves the superintendent’s daughter, Dora. She, however, doesn’t share Lawler’s feelings. Dora has eyes for the new handsome detective, whose identity remains unknown to Lawler. When a gold shipment is sent out, Murdock and Dora, who are hiding in the hills, observe Lawler signal the bandits with a mirror. Murdock and a posse catch the bandits while Dora keeps Lawler busy at the office, but he attacks her. Trying to escape, Lawler is killed by the posse.
Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask – In this comprehensive documentary narrated by Ronald Gordon, Chaney is referred to as a “complex and original actor ever to grace the silver screen.” Both his parents were deaf, so Chaney used pantomime to communicate, a skill that would stand him in good stead as an actor in silents. He started in show business as a musical comedy performer in a theatrical troupe. In Hollywood, he began as an extra, taking on whatever small parts were needed for the studio’s daily filming. His professional survival depended on his ability to play any role. Excerpts from several Chaney films are shown, including By the Sun’s Rays, The Oubliette, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera. Chaney made ten films with director Tod Browning, starting with crime dramas such as Outside the Law. Lon Chaney was the only star on the MGM payroll who was completely unique. Many of his roles required painful harnesses or padding to create the illusion that his body was deformed. When he wasn’t working, Chaney enjoyed camping in the eastern Sierra Mountains. Home movies show him kidding around with family and friends. Patsy Ruth Miller, his co-star in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is heard explaining his approach to acting. His peak movie years were the 1920s. He resisted making talkies but in 1930 he starred in the talking picture The Unholy Three and spoke in five different voices. Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage on August 26,1930.
The Trap is not one of Chaney’s best-known films, but it’s worth watching to see the actor’s versatility in a film that relies on acting ability rather than jaw-dropping make-up effects.
- Dennis Seuling