If Méliès’ Trip to the Moon was significant for its fantastical escapism, Edwin S. Porter’s masterwork the following year made a strong case for realism in cinema. Remembered today as the medium’s first true Western, The Great Train Robbery caused a sensation during its day for its revolutionary film effects. The movie executed two successful pans, introduced on-location shooting and a complicated (for its time) narrative arc. Today, it sits in perpetual competition to Méliès’ Trip to the Moon as the finest film of the 1900s.
Porter, a former Edison cameraman, was impressed by crime films of the day, and set about making his own. Favouring a rustic feel over the artificial in-studio production, Porter took his crew to locations just outside Edison studios in New Jersey. The result was a grittier adventure that showed the landscape as it actually was, not as elaborate set decorations interpreted it. Furthermore, the movie presented “real” people and real consequences, a true descendant of the documentary form pioneered by the medium’s first filmmakers. Although still clinging to the standard theatricality of the day, Porter’s rendition of the crime narrative was a landmark development in the burgeoning style of realism.
The Great Train Robbery is also notable for its fourth-wall-breaking finale. After the story wraps up and the bad guys have been taken care of, the closing shot portrays one of the outlaws (Justus D. Barnes) firing point blank at the audience. It is a unique ending, and maintains is stylistic flourish even to the modern viewer. In the context of its time, I predict that this ending was a relic of the old Edisonian filmmaking style. This shot closely matches Edison Studio’s documentary shorts of the late 1800s, and I assume it was meant to replicate that style. Whatever the origins, the shot is striking, and appears to pre-date the French New Wave movement of the 1950s. It is yet another example of the experimental nature of early cinema: an artform that is devoid of pronounced standards, and relishing in it.
Ferdinand 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.