December 16, 1909 [The House of Cards]

A tale of the West, with a twist—literally of a snake's tail, as young Tom gambles away his boss's money, and the hapless embezzler tries to make things right by gambling even further—with two rattlesnakes: Sheriff Rattlesnake Jim and an actual serpent in a box on the table between the two men, waiting for some version of the Western's "one false move."

Stagy and implausible; nonetheless, something stirs here (and I don't mean the snake). The moment is tense and promises a simple, devastating denouement. The fact that justice-by-rattler doesn't pan out (the love-interest turns her attention from Tom to Jim, and the snake never has to lunge) doesn't lessen the impact of the waiting, but introduces yet another source of tension—a third serpent, perhaps: the girl in the story, not calculating her next move but simply turning with each change, rightfully discarding Tom (whom she dissuades from robbing the saloon to replace the embezzled funds) and supplanting the rattler's role in the outcome. Is she yet another Eve? Poor Woman, blamed for so much: After all, both she and Adam were only trying to please themselves and each other. And the girl here (played by Mary Fuller, her character, intriguingly enough, unnamed) falls into the same paradox, vainly trying to do the right thing all around—when all the while the right thing by its nature forces choice, thwarts love's desire to give and take all we can.

The more cinema strives for tension, the more it will need such moments—crowded, to be sure (two men, two crimes, one woman, and a snake, all in the space of a quarter-hour)—but that's part of the tension, the choices multiplying, the allegiances shifting. Our life-dramas are played out amidst many possibilities—and every choice is fragile, and every hand shakes a little. As contrived as it may be, The House of Cards captures the ease with which things can tumble down.


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