Histoire d’un crime (1901): Realism in Victorian Cinema

15histoire_dun-zeccaFerdinand Zecca’s Histoire d’un crime is the longest and most complex film that we’ve watched thus far. The movie comes in at over 5 minutes, contains about 5 scenes and has a sizeable cast of characters. Furthermore, the film makes use of some novel visual effects that were unparalleled at this stage in the cinematic story.

Given its complexity, Zecca’s film is also rather confusing to the modern viewer. The movie depicts the tragic arc of a would-be thief, whose failed heist leaves a guard dead and police in pursuit. The  robber escapes to a cafe where his peculiar spending draws attention and leads to his arrest. The man is brought to a jail cell, where a series of flashbacks, superimposed above the subject, expose the path that led him to crime. In a controversial finale, the man is executed via guillotine.

Histoire d’un crime is as notable for its storytelling innovations as it is for its subject matter. Zecca’s feature is among the first crime dramas to appear on the screen, and its subject matter has a lot to do with the converging cultural mores between the 19th and 20th centuries. Histoire was released in the dwindling years of the Victorian era, where the prim facade of industrial Europe was giving way to a seedy reality. After the Jack the Ripper murders terrorized London, the Western world was equally shocked and fascinated by this new breed of evil. Newspapers capitalized with a stream of sensationalist crime reporting, and a Gothic renaissance dominated the world of popular literature. It was also during this period that advancements in psychology and sociology dictated a new understanding of the criminal element, as well as the environment that fostered him.

Ferdinand Zecca’s production company tapped into the paranoia and sensationalism of the period to create their early crime masterpiece. Histoire is technically significant for its on-screen violence, camera tricks and multi-scene structure, but its real revolution is in its surprisingly progressive criminal assessment. The movie comes at a time when realism dominated the art world, but nonetheless personifies an archetypal Romantic hero. The criminal protagonist is certainly an unsavoury fellow, but he is not some faceless monster operating on a whim. Flashbacks depict a man working hard to provide for his family, and a wife who he embraces in admiration. Through a series of circumstances and poor decisions, the man is dropped into a life of alcoholism and burglary, resulting in the robbery that is the subject of the movie. The man breaks down in despair when he realizes the extent of his debauchery, and his climactic execution by guillotine leaves the audience despondent. It is interesting to see how advancements in the social sciences permeated society in such a way as to effect popular entertainment. Zecca’s movie is a product of its time, but its ripples can be seen today in any tragic crime archetype.



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