Saturday, June 25, 2011

Stop Thief -1901

American movie. A lad from a butcher shop is carrying a tray laden with a roast or a leg of lamb. A hobo grabs it and runs. The boy gives chase, joined by dogs, as neighbors watch the spectacle. The hobo jumps into a large rain barrel, followed by the dogs. The boy arrives on the scene and pulls out the dogs, one at a time, until he reaches the bottom of the barrel. He's in for a surprise.
The crime chase film was a popular genre in the early history of film, and it perhaps began here, with James Williamson's 'Stop Thief!' Many of these films, including this one, are notable for their fluid succession of shots to create (at least at the time) an exciting continuity of action. Demonstration of this can be seen in three 1903 crime chase films also included on Kino and the BFI's programs--they being 'A Daring Daylight Robbery', 'A Desperate Poaching Affray' and 'The Great Train Robbery'. Later, D.W. Griffith expanded upon this genre with his last-minute rescue films, such as in 'The Girl and Her Trust' (1912). Also, Williamson created one of the earliest comedy chase films, 'Our New Errand Boy' (1905). Pathé and Keystone comedies, notably, but also just about every other studio, continued the tradition of chase comedies passed the early stages of cinema history. By the 1920s, there was still Buster Keaton making some exceptionally funny slapstick chases, including the one in 'Cops' (1922).
'Stop Thief!' is a three-shot film and appears primitive compared to the chase films that followed it. It involves a vagabond stealing a loaf of bread; he's then pursued by the baker, or deliveryman, he stole the bread from. Some dogs also enter the chase. The thief hides in a barrel, but unsuccessfully, as his pursuer pulls him out and begins assaulting him. The continuity editing interestingly doesn't follow the modern rule of the axis of action. In the first shot, the characters exit the frame at the left side in the background. They enter the second shot from the left, which they had just exited from. After exiting the second shot at the right side, they then enter the third shot from the right. Following the modern continuity rules of direction across the screen, that's all backwards. In 1901, however, the rules hadn't been invented--because film pioneers like Williamson had only just begun to establish them. Another 1901 movie made by Williamson, 'Fire!', obeys this rule of continuity, as do his later films 'An Interesting Story' (1904) and 'Our New Errand Boy'. In addition, Michael Chanan ("The Dream That Kicks") makes an interesting suggestion that in 'Stop Thief!' Williamson was following theatrical continuity.
The other continuity element here is the direct cuts, which have continued to be the preferred transition between shots throughout the history of film. That's a given nowadays, but Williamson and other pioneer filmmakers were faced with conscious decisions on such elementary matters back then when there wasn't an established history of film grammar.

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