Burlesque Suicide No.2 (1902)
This short film from Edison challenges certain truisms about early movies and their techniques and subject matter. It also demonstrates the ways in which narrative fiction could establish suspense without using editing.
The film consists of a mid-shot of a man sitting in front of a table. On the table in front of him is a decanter with a dark liquid, a glass, half full of the same liquid, and a revolver. He alternates between reaching for the glass and the gun, never quite taking a drink or putting his finger on the trigger. He pantomimes his despondency and sense of loss. At the end, he picks up the gun and begins to point it at his head, when suddenly he bursts into laughter and points at the camera.
Every now and again you’ll come across an over-simplified history of film that claims that all movies were shot full-figure prior to Griffith or until 1914 or some such nonsense. While it’s true that close-ups were fairly rare in the early days, you can find examples of films showing people in mid-shot and other close ranges going back to the very beginning. In this case, Porter and Fleming have taken advantage of the closer view in order to allow the actor to convey his emotions using his face, rather than overly large, theatrical body language. Another interesting aspect of this movie is the actor’s breaking of the fourth wall in order to convey the “burlesque” (meaning parody at this point in history). He laughs at the audience for believing in his determination to kill himself, reminding them that what they see on the screen is not real but illusion, and also making the dark subject matter less threatening. Still, we spend most of the movie anticipating the possibility of this grim act, wondering whether he will pull the trigger, and waiting to see how it can be resolved. The suspense of this film relies entirely on his performance, and on the intimacy of the camera to the actor.
Directors: Edwin S. Porter, George S. Fleming
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Run Time: 1 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).