Beggars of Life

Directed by William Wellman.
With Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen.
US, 1928, DCP, black & white, silent, 91 min.
With music track.
DCP source: Kino Lorber

A gruesome discovery followed by a sordid tale of sexual abuse—recounted through an ingenious double-exposed montage sequence—introduces Richard Arlen’s hungry tramp to Louise Brooks’ fugitive disguised as a boy. From that dramatic opener, the couple steals off into a blue-tinted night and reluctantly joins a band of vagabonds. Immediately, the presence of a woman in the midst of a group of desperate men adds an unsettling disturbance to the film and to their tenuous coalition. Wellman steadily maintains this air of horror and humor as the motley, volatile crew travels from land to train with the lord of the hoboes, Wallace Beery’s unpredictable Oklahoma Red, who revels in intimidation as a means of entertainment—even holding an absurdly elaborate “kangaroo court” to decide the fate of the interlopers. In this hardscrabble atmosphere, the appearance of love is so unusual that it acts as a kind of deus ex machina, stunning the plot and sending it off and away down Wellman’s mysterious, dark tracks.

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The Legends of William Wellman