When THE DEVIL’S NEEDLE was originally released, a review in VARIETY complained that the market was already flooded with drug-addiction themed pics. In 1916! Who’da thunk? Now, this is one of the few to survive, most likely due to a 1923 re-release cashing in on the recent drug-related death of film star Wallace Reid, as well as the cresting popularity of its now forgotten star, Norma Talmadge. It’s still pretty fascinating, in spite of serious nitrate deterioration, and by-the-numbers helming from debuting director Chester Withey. Norma Talmadge, 22 when he made this, and less the grand lady than she’d become, plays an artist’s model who takes the occasional shot of cocaine to ease boredom & the blues. But when her painter proposes to a society dame, Norma’s hopes are dashed and her casual habit grows. It isn’t long before the painter (Tully Marshall) starts nicking her stash, hoping for some quick inspiration. (Watch for an irresistible title card where Norma notes the lack of depth to his drug-aided work.) Soon, Marshall is even trying to force the needle on his new bride! Everybody kicks the habit in act three, but the film loads on a faintly ridiculous gangster kidnapping plot for a ginned-up ride-to-the-rescue finish. It may be dramatic hokum, but this part of the story does give us a chance to see some long gone L.A. slum neighborhoods.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Kevin Brownlow’s typically fine BEHIND THE MASK OF INNOCENCE shows just how much ‘untouchable’ subject matter got ‘touched’ in the silent era.