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Friday, November 9, 2007

The Unseen Hand (originally published 5/00)

Few things are as unsettling as a secret organization. Economic entities and publicly chartered private groups can be kept in check by government regulation, and governments, in turn, can be reined in by the electorate, but an organization that operates in secret avoids such limitations by willfully keeping itself off the radar screen of any higher authority. When any such entity goes to elaborate pains to mask any official acknowledgment of its existence, it's difficult to avoid the assumption that they must be up to no good.

That's certainly the case in "The Skulls," the currently playing film in which Joshua Jackson plays an Ivy League pre-law student who learns that the secret society into which he has been inducted regards itself as above the law. Indeed, the Skulls are a law unto themselves. This is by no means the first film to build a plot around the existence of a secret society. In fact, the earliest examples of the premise on the screen extend back to the early silent film era. Here are a few examples to look for on home video.

"Les Vampires" (1915). One of the pioneers of French cinema was director Louis Fueillade. His acknowledged masterpiece was a ten-part serial called "Les Vampires," the total length of which exceeds seven hours. It isn't a serial in the familiar cliff-hanging sense, however. It's more like a modern television series with self-contained episodes featuring continuing characters and a common narrative framework. The title refers not to Count Dracula's minions, but rather to a secret society of criminals known by that name who terrorize Paris. At the center of the organization lies the sinister and fascinating Irma Vep, her name itself an anagram of "vampire," a dangerous woman who is equally capable of seduction and murder.

"A Study in Scarlet" (1933). Before Basil Rathbone donned the deerstalker cap to become the movies' definitive Sherlock Holmes, the role was taken on by Reginald Owen in this production for Fox. Because the producers had purchased rights only to the title, not the story, this film actually bears no resemblance to Arthur Conan Doyle's novel beyond the characters of Holmes and Watson. The plot revolves around a London organization called the "Scarlet Ring," the purpose of which is shrouded in mystery. When members of the society begin to fall victim to a series of murders, Sherlock Holmes is brought in by Scotland Yard to crack the case.

"The Black Legion" (1937). During the Thirties, Warner Brothers established a reputation as the Hollywood studio that portrayed America's social ills in a realistic way. One of the best of their socially conscious dramas was this early vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. He plays Frank Taylor, a factory worker who is passed over for promotion in favor of a younger man with less seniority in the company. The decision is clearly based on merit but, because the man's name is "Dombrowski," an embittered Taylor is quick to ascribe the promotion to a plot to give to "foreigners" jobs that rightfully belong to Americans. Taylor then falls in with a secret society known as the "Black Legion." Using terrorist tactics, the Legion drives Dombrowski and his family out of town. Sad to say, this 63 year old film remains every bit as relevant today as the day it was released.

"The Lords of Discipline" (1983). In this adaptation of a novel by Pat Conroy, David Keith stars as a cadet at a large military academy who falls afoul of the secret organization that seems to wield virtually unlimited power on the campus. "The Ten," as the shadowy secret society is called, disapproves of the admission of the institute's first black cadet, and has dedicated itself to washing him out of the program. Keith's character, who has been assigned to watch over the black cadet, therefore finds himself in an impossible position. Although only a cadet himself, he has become the point man in a deadly struggle against a powerful, implacable, and anonymous foe.

The idea of an elite concentration of power, unelected and unaccountable, manipulating unseen the lives of honest citizens is such ideal fodder for a movie narrative that it's tempting to assume that it only happens in the movies. As long as none of the producers of "The Skulls" meets with a bad end, I plan to continue to bask in that reassuring assumption.

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