Histoire d’un crime (1901)

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*. Directed by Ferdinand Zecca for Société Pathé Frères. A pretty simple and conventional tale of crime and punishment, made almost incomprehensible by the primitive state of the art.
*. A burglar kills another man and steals money from a safe. He is apprehended in a bar and put in jail, where he dreams about the train of events that brought him to this pass. He is taken from his cell and guillotined. Running time: a little over five minutes.
*. Apparently the film was based on a series of waxwork tableaux then showing in Paris, but even if you knew the story I think you’d have trouble following the events. Personally, I felt some confusion over where the first scene, the burglary, was taking place. A bank? The door says “CAISSE” on it, but if it is a bank why would the guard be sleeping, in a bed no less, by the safe?

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*. Then there is the matter of the inset dream visions (which were not original to this film, as pointed out by Kino’s helpful introduction). What is going on? From what I’ve been able to gather from other sources what we’re seeing is a man losing his respectable life (job, family) through drink. But that’s not clear from the brief tavern vignettes we see. Would contemporary audiences have understood better? On what evidence? What visual cues or clues am I missing?
*. The thing is, telling even a simple story like this is hard to do given the limitations in editing and camera placement at the time. For example, we’re too far away from the burglar to be able to identify his face so it’s hard to maintain any sense of continuity in his character. It’s just not clear if we’re seeing the same guy.
*. There was nothing new about the concept of a flashback — they’d been with us since Homer — but translating a flashback to the screen hadn’t been figured out yet. The dream inset was a clever idea, but it doesn’t really work (and hasn’t been used much since except in a humorous way). Just a couple of years later Porter’s Great Train Robbery would be a far more successful story of a crime that made no use of flashbacks, instead using editing to tell a single well-paced action narrative. That’s why you know the name Edwin S. Porter today and have probably never heard of Ferdinand Zecca.

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*. The perspective painting through the arch to the guillotine in the distance is quite convcincing until the priest raises his cross in front of it and you can clearly see the shadow being cast on a surface that should not be there. A shame, as the subsequent beheading is effective. Cutting heads off of dummies is something that film learned to do well right from the beginning, through the use of the stop trick.
*. Crime stories are perfect entertainments: sensational and exploitative, yet moral and didactic. A final judgement on the wages of sin is what we want to see, even if we can’t always credit it.

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