Nat Pinkerton: The Black Riders (1911) A Silent Film Review

When a bank clerk decides to make a bit of extra money by partnering with a gang of criminals, he inadvertently signs his own death sentence. Nat Pinkerton, the King of Detectives, is called in to investigate and he sets out to find the killers.

Home Media Availability: Stream free courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum.

America as it was

American adventure was a worldwide craze during the early days of cinema, with westerns made across Europe and just about every filmmaking country trying its hand at the American-style detective, private or agency. The French were particularly fond of the genre. The Éclair film company found great success with its popular Nick Carter series starting in 1908, which originally starred Pierre Bressol. Bressol was replaced but the Éclipse company launched a run of one- and two-reel Nat Pinkerton pictures in 1910, which starred Bressol, producing about forty in all. The Black Riders is one of the few to survive.

While French crime films are icons of the silent era, particularly Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, the faux American crime pictures have not received quite as much attention, due at least in part to their relatively low survival rate. As a major fan of Feuillade, I was eager to see what his contemporaries were doing in a similar genre.

The film opens with a bank clerk sneaking off to the beach, where he meets with a group of bandits in rather extravagant garb. (I presume, since the film is specifically supposed to be set in North America, that these were meant to be Mexicans in traditional clothing. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and Mexican characters were used as villains in popular American and French-produced westerns and war pictures.)

The bank clerk and the bandit.

The plan is that the gang with steal a large sum from the bank and the clerk will get his cut. It doesn’t work out that way, though, and the gang murders their ally as soon as they complete the robbery. With the money stolen and a man dead, it’s time to call for the services of Nat Pinkerton, the world’s greatest detective.

Pinkerton searches the dead man and discovers a note with the location of a rendezvous on the beach. He heads out but is quickly captured by the bandits. Pinkerton’s assistant quickly frees him but he pretends to still be tied up and is carried off and crammed into a barrel full of broken bottles, presumably as part of a Patented Pulp Villain Death Trap™.

Never let a death trap interrupt your cigarette break.

However, Pinkerton’s assistant returns with the police, the bandits are captured and all is well! Hurrah for the brilliant detective! If only the police had thought to look in the murder victim’s pockets!

Okay, I will be the first to admit that this is all very silly. Everyone seems to find it silly. Pierre Bressol played the hero and he couldn’t even be bothered to take the cigarette out of his mouth through most of the suspense scenes. Why didn’t the director stop him? Well, let me introduce you to him. His name is (checks notes) Pierre Bressol.

Hark! The villains approach!

In fact, Pinkerton’s entire plan was ridiculous from beginning to end and there was no point to any of it. If you find a note in a murdered man’s pocket with a location and then spot a criminal gang at that same location (conveniently costumed for easy recognition), I am not sure why you would need a whole song and dance of pretending to be tied up and then waiting to be stuffed in a barrel with broken glass.

You know what, though? I will roll with it. It’s so ridiculous that I am not entirely convinced that this was ever meant to be serious. This was, after all, released the same year as Nick Winter and the Theft of the Mona Lisa, which spoofed detective films (particularly Nick Carter) and featured performances not too far removed from this Nat Pinkerton film. The actors certainly mug for the camera and the EYE Filmmuseum credits Georges Vinter, Nick Winter himself, in Nat Pinkerton: The Black Riders.

The Frenchest of telephones.

I don’t think this was meant as an outright spoof itself—the marketing certainly paints it as a throbbing action picture and brags about its exact replica of North American bandits. (Spoiler: they are absolutely not authentic at all, just a copy of a copy of a bad American action film but boasting about authenticity when none exists is an international movieland tradition and considering the number of American films about the Parisian Apache, turnabout is fair play.)

I think this film falls more into the category of hokum. That is, the filmmakers and performers would pretend to take outrageous scenes seriously and audiences would likewise agree to pretend to be thrilled. Cheer the heroes! Hiss the villains! They knew it was silly but they were along for the ride. We live in an age when genre filmmaking can be a tediously serious business and fans demand gushing reviews from critics on pain of harassment, so this kind of serious-not-serious interplay may seem a bit odd but it’s really quite charming.

Solving the mystery.

While researching for this review, I tried to discover the original author for the Nat Pinkerton series but the character was more of a commodity churned out quickly by a stable of writers (not unlike the Hardy Boys series would later be produced). The German Alwin Eichler publishing company, which had purchased the rights to the Nick Carter series, launched the Nat Pinkerton series in 1907 and consisting of a whopping 400-plus issues. There is comparatively little information on the origins of the series in English, beyond the obvious fact that the character was named for the infamous Pinkerton detective agency. (One source stated that the series was “of obscure European origin.” Ain’t it the truth?)

The series (along with Nick Carter) was quickly translated into Russian, which experienced its own fad for American detective fiction. The genre’s popularity and the youth of its target audience was met with horror. (You can read more about it in Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934.)

Hatching a plot.

To make the fad even more international, the first Nat Pinkerton films were actually Danish and directed by the versatile Viggo Larsen. This was followed by the Éclipse series, made up of dozens of titles. And the Germans took back the character in the 1920s for their own Nat Pinkerton productions. Unfortunately, these films proved to be as disposable as the cheap paper the original stories were printed on and most of them are now lost. (Ironically, the disposable printed stories are still readily available from antique book dealers.)

Your mileage is going to vary a lot here with this picture. The pulpy, semi-tongue-in-cheek action subgenre is very much in my wheelhouse and I had a blast with it. It doesn’t reach the anarchic heights of Feuillade but it’s a heck of a ride. Give it a shot and see if you like it too.

Where can I see it?

Stream online courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum. It’s a beautiful tinted Dutch release print. Be sure to turn on the English subtitles if you don’t read Dutch.


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