Sunday, 22 June 2014

Breathless… Suspense (1913)

This film shows another side of the multi-talented Lois Weber’s film-making being a terse exercise in drama designed to agitate the audience in a rather different way to her more political outings. Directed by Weber and husband Phillips Smalley from her own script, there’s a wealth of invention and incident in its eleven adrenalized minutes.

The film packs a lot of shots and cuts into this time, maybe not quite as many as Griffith (and someone has counted…) but enough to show that he was far from the only gunslinger in town whilst Weber adds and adapts some stunning innovations of her own.

Lois Weber and baby
Lois Weber plays a young mother living in quite isolation on the edge of town. As she tends to her baby her housekeeper decides she’s had enough and sneaks off leaving the house keys under the front door mat. Weber’s camera is angled cleverly here,  showing the maid from an acute overhead angle which creates a sense of distance and vulnerability around the house.

As the housekeeper walks off she is replaced in shot by the figure of a tramp (Sam Kaufman) who, putting one and one together decides to investigate the possibly empty house she has just vacated.

Changing places... the Maid and the Tramp
In one of the film’s signature shots, Weber creates a triptych of triangular shots that show the wife on the phone to her husband (Valentine Paul) at his workplace, whilst the tramp edges nearer to the house in the top left. It’s a clever device and takes telephone split screen device on step further to build up the tension.

Now all alone the wife begins to sense that something is happening and, pausing from putting her baby to bed, looks out of her bedroom window to see the face of the tramp slowly, horribly, lift upwards! A master stroke and then as now the audience quickly computes how things can play out for good or bad.

The view out of the window!
The wife calls the husband in another triple exposure and we see the tramp cut the telephone wires – gosh he’s cunning! But there’s just enough for the husband to work out what’s happening and then rush off to the rescue…

His gallantry takes an unusual course as he steals a car and is then followed by the police who are now trying to catch him. So, double jeopardy and there are three races against time… as the tramp breaks down door after door in pursuit of the girl, the man races to evade the police who follow on in hot pursuit of the car thief.

Cops in the mirror and in pursuit...
It’s all very slickly edited and does indeed hold up well against Griffith’s action shorts from the same period. So few of Weber’s films from this period survive and we may never know if this quality was representative or not save to assume that DW was not alone in driving the medium forward.

Lois also acts of course and turns in a fine performance as the threatened mother – she looks exhausted at the end and who could blame her.

Suspense is available as part of the Flicker Alley Savedfrom the Flames box set which features four discs of early cinema rescued from various remote archives. It is to be hoped that there’s more out there.

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