Telling a Crime Story: Four Examples

Histoire d’un crime
R: Ferdinand Zecca. P: Pathé. Fr 1901

“In April 1900, at the Paris Exposition Universelle, Charles Pathé, in a hurry to instal the pavilion allocated to him, gave the job to Zecca. He managed it so well that Pathé appointed him as assistant to the director at his Vincennes factory. From then on until 1906, Zecca himself directed or supervised several hundred Pathé films. The first of these are obvious copies or plagiarisms of English films, for example La loupe de grand-mère or Rêve et réalité, both from 1901, to cite only two.
But Zecca was soon creating his own films. A la conquête de l’air (1901) showed a strange machine, called Fend-l’air, flying over the rooftops of Belleville. Above all, one of the first dramas, L’Histoire d’un crime (1901) was stylistically innovative in its use of superimposition. Alone or with Lucien Nonguet, in 1901 Zecca began to make fairy tales (féeries). With the indefatigable Zecca in charge, dozens of films were produced at Vincennes. These were not only comedies, trick films or fairy tales, such as Les Sept châteaux du Diable, both 1901, and La Belle au bois dormant in 1902, but also social dramas like Les Victimes de l’alcoolisme (1902), Au pays noir (1905) and reconstructed actualities, the most famous being La Catastrophe de la Martinique (1902). He also acted in many of his trick films. At the end of 1906, Zecca, assisted by the Spaniard Segundo de Chomón’s photography and special effects, started filming in colour a second Vie et Passion de N.S. Jésus Christ, in four parts and 38 scenes, 990 metres long, which he finished in 1907.”
Henri Bousquet
Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema

Les incendiaires
R: Georges Méliès. P: Star-Film. Fr 1906

“Méliès’s greatest financial successes had occurred in 1903 and 1904; by 1906, his fortunes had begun to decline as competition with other firms, such as Pathé Freres and Gaumont, became more intense. In an attempt to keep financially afloat, Méliès expanded from his usual fantasy style to try making films in the genres his competitors had made popular, including the melodramas A Desperate Crime and The Christmas Angel and the chase film The Chimney Sweep. According to the 1944 recollections of Georges Méliès’s nephew Paul, the scenario for A Desperate Crime was written by Gaston M. (Georges’s brother and Paul’s father). The film is heavily indebted to Histoire d’un crime, a 1901 film by Méliès’s competitor Ferdinand Zecca; the plot closely follows the events of the earlier film, differing only in the details of the crime itself. On the other hand, Méliès’s film is stylistically very different from Zecca’s, which uses a faster pace and a more stringent insistence on journalistic realism. Méliès’s American catalogue claimed that the crime in the film was based on a real-life incident. The actor Manuel, who directed some films for the Méliès studio in 1908, plays the main role of the bandit who is arrested and executed. Georges Méliès probably plays the executioner’s assistant. In a highly unusual move for Méliès, many of the scenes were shot outdoors on location (…)”

Rescued by Rover
R: Lewin Fitzhamon / Cecil Hepworth. P: Cecil Hepworth. UK 1905

“In dem von Charles Hepworth 1905 gedrehten Film Rescued by Rover wird (…) die einfache Fort-Bewegung des Schäferhundes Rover in die Tiefe des Bildes dazu genutzt, um räumliche Diskontinuitäten zu überbrücken und neben der Illusion einer kontinuierlich fortschreitenden Zeit auch die sukzessive Abfolge der Handlungsorte (Villengegend, Vorstadtstraße, Flussufer, Gasse in den Slums) als die eines sozialen Auf- und Abstiegs zu verdeutlichen. Ein solcher Eindruck von der ‘Selbst’-Verständlichkeit einer Handlung hängt also nicht so sehr davon ab, wie real das Gefilmte tatsächlich ist – das heißt vom dokumentarischen Wert dessen, was einmal vor der Kamera stand oder sich bewegte, obwohl gerade die heute dokumentarisch anmutenden Ansichten der Arbeiterviertel in ‘Rescued by Rover’ natürlich sehr wohl ihren eigenen Charme haben. Vielmehr ist entscheidend, ob das System, das die Bilder zu einer ‘Repräsentation’ macht, den Zuschauern verständlich ist.”
Thomas Elsaesser: Filmgeschichte und frühes Kino. Archäologie eines Medienwandels. München 2002, S. 83f.

Le Médecin du Château
P: Pathé. Fr 1908

Le Médecin du Château employed the technique of cross-cutting between a distress scene and those contacted for help as they raced for the rescue, the point of view transferring freely between the two spheres of action while action is ongoing to generate suspense and dramatise the nearing of a deadline. As with most of the race-to-the-rescue films, Le Médecin du Château used a physical connection between the two spheres of action – the telephone line – to initiate and rationalise what was widely seen at the time as the viewpoint ‘jumping’ from place to place.”
Andrew Shail: The Cinema and the Origins of Literary Modernism. Routledge 2012, p. 43.