Suspense (1913)

US / 10 minutes / bw / Rex Dir: Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley Scr: Lois Weber Story: Au Téléphone (1902 play; vt At the Telephone) by André de Lorde Cast: Lois Weber, Valentine Paul, Douglas Gerard, Sam Kaufman, Lule Warrenton.

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A short but—just as it says on the label—surprisingly suspenseful silent movie.

Mamie the maid (Warrenton) walks out on her job because she’s fed up of living in the middle of nowhere. She leaves behind her employer, the Wife (Weber), and the Wife’s small baby; the Wife’s Husband (Paul) is at work—at a guess he’s a banker. Finding Mamie gone, the Wife gets a bit nervous, especially when she looks out the window and discovers that a sinister-looking Tramp (Kaufman) has approached the house and seems intent on breaking in.

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Mamie (Lule Warrenton) can’t stand it any more.

She phones the Husband and manages to tell him some of her concerns before the Tramp cuts the line with her own carving knife. Armed with the knife, the Tramp climbs the stairs to the bedroom where the Wife is hiding with her infant . . .

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Gazing down from an upstairs window the Wife gets her first sight of the Tramp (Sam Kaufman) — and, no, this screengrab isn’t the wrong way up.

Meanwhile the Husband has stolen a car to try to reach the house as quickly as he can. Unfortunately he’s pursued by the car’s owner and a cop (or taxi driver?) in another vehicle. The tension ratchets up as we cut back and forth between the car chase and the scene at home, where the Tramp is discovering the Wife’s hiding place.

During the phone calls between wife and husband there’s some intriguing and very early (in fact perhaps the earliest) use of split-screen work; amid the second of those two conversations there’s a good creepy moment when suddenly the Tramp enters the field-of-view of the upper-left triangle of the screen.

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Interesting early use of split-screen as the Wife (Lois Weber) speaks to her Husband (Valentine Paul) while the Tramp (Sam Kaufman) arrives at the door.

Lois Weber wrote, starred in and co-directed (with husband Phillips Smalley) this movie; she may very likely have produced it too, although the piece’s limited credits make no mention of a producer. Weber has been compared as an early movie auteur—and sometimes favorably so—to D.W. Griffith, having made a similar number of movies (none of which extol the virtues of the Ku Klux Klan), even though the vast majority of them have been lost. An early feminist and advocate of birth control—her The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1917) empurpled elderly reactionaries all over the land—Weber was among the first to experiment with the new medium of sound movies.

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The Wife (Lois Weber) tries to find a way to protect her baby from the intruder . . .

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. . . even as the Tramp (Sam Kaufman) ascends the stairs.

There’s a bit part in Suspense of a young man, seemingly a hobo, who gets knocked down and picked up by the Husband during the car chase. It’s thought this role was played by an uncredited Lon Chaney Sr. Also uncredited, Lule Warrenton, who has a cameo role as the departing maid, Mamie, was the mother of the celebrated cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton. This was just her second screen role; she’d go on to appear in scores of movies, and also to direct a few.

I was guided to this intriguing early suspenser by “Old Boy” of the excellent website Movies from the Silent Era. Many thanks to him!

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3 thoughts on “Suspense (1913)

  1. A really important pioneering work – great to see it celebrated, thanks John. I think I first saw clips in the Kevin Brownlow series HOLLYWOOD circa 1980 and then finally caught up with it in my student days – an amazing film, thankfully not lost to the nitrate bonfires of the past!

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