Now remembered largely for the mad/magnificent late silent NAPOLEON/’27, this previous work from writer/director Abel Gance was actually more influential (Kurosawa to Eisenstein) & more widely seen at the time. Reduced, even then, to a running time of about two hours from its original seven, Lobster’s 2008 DVD edition has miraculously bulked it back up 4+, with Robert Israel’s fine score helping to bring out its epic qualities.* It’s a big, clunky melodrama that gets the wheel rolling with an opening train crash that orphans a little girl who is then taken home by Séverin-Mars’s railwayman, raised as his daughter and playmate for his son. Both men will fall in love with her, but she’ll marry a rich older man thinking this will help them financially. From a series of small domestic miscues, Gance makes something visually epic & tragic, tying man & machine; landscape & weather to fate, a mixture of Hugo & Hardy, held together by a cinematic dazzle far ahead & far removed from Gance’s Victorian narrative sensibilities. D. W. Griffith followed a similar recipe, but where he was technically advanced for the day; Gance was advanced for now, awesomely so. Part One has most of the traditional narrative, but Part Two is even more extraordinary with the remaining plot elements cleared up in the first two reels. For the rest, about an hour’s running time, there’s little to watch but Severin-Mars slowly losing his sight at a glacial pace while ‘daughter’ Ivy Close tries to reenter his life. A combination of the numb & the sublime unlike anything else in film; until Gance sets up one final turn of the wheel that becomes one of the great privileged moments in cinema.
DOUBLE-BILL/ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The following year, Erich von Stroheim’s GREED/’24 was finished at a similar length (7+ hours), and eventually whittled down to two, just like this film. But GREED never was shown at full length, not even in a lost interim cut, prepared at Stroheim’s personal request by director Rex Ingram and running more or less as long as this new restoration of LA ROUE. Even at this length, LA ROUE shows odd continuity gaps and fistfuls of false endings toward the close of Part One. But the film feels complete. Something that can’t be said of an attempt to fill in the missing pieces of GREED with production stills. You’re better off with original 2 hour release. And Rex Ingram’s interim edit? . . . what a loss.