Lois Weber directs and stars in a stylish short of, well, suspense. She is a young mother alone in a remote house trying to fend off a home invasion robbery while her husband listens on the telephone. It’s a Grand Guignol tale of terror and done rather well.
It was a dark and story night… Hold it… I have been informed it was a bright and sunny afternoon
Next to Alice Guy, Lois Weber is probably the most famous female director of the silent era. The writer and director of over a hundred silent films, Weber spent much of her career sharing co-director credit with her husband, Phillips Smalley. Suspense is considered to be one of their best short films and it is one of the few to survive and be made available to the general public.
Quite a few fine film historians have written about the technique in Suspense and so I see no reason to retread old ground. I will simply say that the film lives up to its title and it looks amazing while doing it. Weber combines closeups, off-kilter angles, split screen, mirrors, inventive point-of-view shots, bold compositions and other devices to create a disturbing and stylish film. It’s a powerful showcase for the numerous filmmaking techniques that were available in 1913 but rarely employed simultaneously and with such skill.
Instead, I would like to focus on the emotional aspects of the film and how Weber’s understanding of human nature pays off in small details that add to the overall believability of the hoary narrative.
Weber plays a wife who is left alone with her baby in a lonely house. The housekeeper has left without notice—what servant would stay in such an isolated location?—and has left her house key under the doormat. As the housekeeper makes her way down to the road, a passing tramp (Sam Kaufman) spots her and decides to investigate the house.
The husband (Val Paul) calls and says he will be working late. That’s just fine… until Weber sees the tramp lurking outside. She calls her husband for help but the phone lines are cut mid-sentence. The husband is hysterical and rushes out of his office. He steals a car and roars off to the rescue with the car’s owner and the police in hot pursuit.
Meanwhile, Weber has taken refuge in the bedroom, the door barricaded with furniture. The tramp has found the housekeeper’s key and is searching the house for valuables and slowly but steadily making his way closer to her hiding place. Will the husband arrive in time to save his family? Find out in Suspense.
The story is hardly original (more on that in a bit) but Weber infuses it with small details that make the film more believable and the characters (stock characters, really) more human. When she discovers that the housekeeper is gone, Weber goes to the telephone to call her husband but changes her mind. Why bother him with such a small detail? However, before she does anything else, she locks all the doors and windows, a detail that is not present in other versions of the story. (The tramp has not been spotted yet, remember.) Any woman watching will tell you that this is exactly what we would do under the circumstances. Instead of reacting with stagey mannerisms, Weber acts like a real human being.
When the tramp finds the key and enters the house, his first priority is not rape and pillage but the sandwiches he finds in the cupboard. Another humanizing detail that helps build the suspense to an almost unbearable level. He’s hungry for food, what else is he hungry for?
The performances are generally good, Weber is likable in what could be a thankless role, though Kaufman overdoes his menace a bit. He seems unsure as to whether we can see him in the back. Val Paul is suitably concerned as Weber’s husband and there’s also a rumor that Lon Chaney… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, we’ve covered the film itself. Now it’s time to look at three interesting tangents.
The Physician of the Castle on the Telephone to a Lonely Villa when an Unseen Enemy Strikes
Many film historians confidently state that the Smalley-Weber film was a riff on D.W. Griffith suspense films, particularly The Lonely Villa (1909) and An Unseen Enemy (1912). Actually, the formula (family in peril uses telephone to summon aid, cross-cutting the race to the rescue) pre-dated Griffith, as is proven by the 1908 French suspense film The Physician of the Castle.
In fact, the plot is even older and can be found in the 1902 play Au Téléphone (some sources list 1901) by André de Lorde and Charles Foley, which was performed in both English and French during its first year of release. Some historians claim Au Téléphone as the sole inspiration for The Lonely Villa but this ignores the fact that the play ends with the husband hearing his wife’s brutal murder over the telephone and his anguish at the fact that he is too far away to help. The race to the rescue is not present in the play but it is to be found in The Physician of the Castle. (The play had previously been adapted by Pathe in 1906 as Terrible Angoisse and this version apparently retained the tragic ending. The 1908 Edison version, Heard over the Phone, was directed by Edwin S. Porter and also appears to have kept the original ending.)
Neither Terrible Angoisse nor Heard over the Phone are available for viewing but The Physician of the Castle is and I was also able to compare the Biograph films and I must conclude that Suspense is a superior film to both The Lonely Villa and An Unseen Enemy. In The Lonely Villa, the villainous performers overplay shamelessly and practically have signs saying “Bad Guys” pinned to their chests. In order to believe that they will fall for the villainous ruse, we are obliged to believe that the family is entirely comprised of idiots and this makes empathy for their plight a challenge. Further, Griffith removes agency from the mother by having her ignore her own telephone! I know, right? A home invasion robbery and no one thinks to call for help? We have to wait for the father to call home? This is already a pretty damsel-prone scenario and making the mother a complete dodo doesn’t help matters.
Then once the father is on the line, he seems in no hurry to actually save his family. “Look, I’m awfully busy, dear. There’s a revolver in the desk, can’t you shoot them yourself? There’s a good girl.” It is only when the telephone line is cut that the father feels the need to head home. He eschews his motor car in favor of commandeering a fortune teller’s wagon because, apparently, a timely rescue is not one of his priorities. Also significant, The Lonely Villa is the only available version of the tale that expressly makes rape and not robbery the primary motive of the villains. Squicky Griffith, everyone’s favorite rancid magnolia, strikes again!
Suspense is better than An Unseen Enemy because the stakes are always on the rise. While the Griffith film has the Gish sisters threatened by a robber pointing a gun through a hole in the wall, Suspense features the tramp getting closer and closer and closer still. The villains inAn Unseen Enemy are out to scare the girls so they can rob in peace and the shots they fire are not really aimed at the film’s heroines. The tramp in Suspense means to kill.
As for the strange assertion that Griffith’s films have more cuts, therefore he wins, I will say only this: This isn’t hockey. This isn’t soccer. Every cut is not a gooooooooooooooal!
Could Weber have based Suspense on the Griffith films? Certainly! The cutting of the telephone wire, for example, is found in both The Lonely Villa and Suspense. I just want to point out that the story was hardly unique to Griffith and that it was quite popular as a subject for stage and screen. (The idea of a one or two room play with the telephone linking its characters to the outside world has remained viable, as proven by Sorry, Wrong Number and Phone Booth.) When discussing Suspense, referencing the French origins of the tale is a must.
Isn’t that… Lon Chaney?
While the husband is chasing off to rescue his family, he engages in a bit of reckless driving. One of the victims is a hobo who gets run down. It’s not a huge scene but there’s something about that man…
Some historians believe that the hobo was played by none other than Lon Chaney. Others pooh-pooh the notion, including esteemed Chaney historian Michael F. Blake. I am absolutely hopeless at identification but, for what it’s worth, I don’t think the hobo looks like Chaney at all. What do you think? Here is a scientific poll. (It’s not scientific.)
How much Smalley, how much Weber?
The simple answer: we don’t know for a certainty. What is known is that after their marriage dissolved, Smalley abandoned directing and writing for acting while Weber continued her career behind the camera. I don’t intend to waste time debating matters that cannot be conclusively proven one way or the other but I should note that Smalley-Weber were very much taken as a team, which would be unlikely if her contributions were deemed insignificant. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Weber was very much the boss of the duo.
Examination of the Smalley-Weber body of work is further complicated by the fact that many of their films were distributed by Universal, as nice a collection of philistines as you will ever see. (Still are.) Universal lost much of its early output in a 1920s vault fire and then destroyed what was left in 1948. Now they are making a huge fanfare about preserving their cinematic history. Forgive me a sardonic chuckle. As much of their surviving silent output is in the public domain and has already been released by outside sources, I’m not sure what is to be gained. Universal has an ongoing corporate culture of artistic destruction and I’ll believe these preserved films are real when I see them.
Per Universal: “The company understands its responsibility and need to preserve our silent film legacy. This early art of filmmaking is the foundation on which Universal Pictures was built more than 100 years ago, and it’s important we honor our rich history.”
Universal burnt that foundation decades ago and destroyed a good portion of the cinematic legacy of Lois Weber along with it. This is like Exxon patting themselves on the back for its nature conservation programs in Alaska while never, ever mentioning the Exxon Valdez. It’s gross. It’s infuriating. It’s so, so typical.
Don’t leave us in Suspense
Suspense is an example of silent film technical virtuosity. While the plot was a bit tired even in 1913 and the villain overplays his menace, we are still left with a powerful and stylish film; one of the best-looking available productions of 1913.
This is not just a woman-directed film, it is a brilliant bit of crowd-pleasing that just happens to have been directed by a woman. Essential viewing.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray as part of the Early Women Filmmakers box set from Flicker Alley. You can also find it in the box set Saved from the Flames. The whole set is full of intriguing goodies, many of them deliciously obscure.