The Ex-Convict (1904)
Edwin S. Porter adapted a popular vaudeville story to the camera, and made an early “message picture” at the same time. While it may seem a bit melodramatic to our tastes today, it stands out among its contemporaries as an unusually effective drama.
The movie begins by showing us an apparently “normal” nuclear family, of mother, father, and daughter, as the father leaves home in the morning for work. All seems well, but the next Intertitle tells us, “That Man is an Ex-Convict.” We see him working in front of a shop on an urban street, moving some large crates and then painting words onto one of them. As he works, a bearded policeman walks up from behind him, examines him, and goes into the shop. The store owner comes out with the policeman, and the two speak for a moment, and the ex-convict is discharged. Evidently the policeman warned his boss about the man’s criminal past. The next scene is titles “Have You Reference?” and it shows the ex-convict joining a line of hopefuls in front of a warehouse that has a sign reading “Wanted 10 Men.” Each man shows the foreman a piece of paper, which is examined closely before he is admitted, but the ex-convict has no paper and so gets no job. The story suddenly leaves the ex-convict and we see a small girl being escorted by a maid in a wealthy neighborhood. The maid stops to speak with a man on the street corner, but the little girl goes into the street without her, then turns and stamps her foot to show that she is annoyed at the delay. Suddenly, the ex-convict comes running from off screen, grabs the child and dives to the ground. A moment later a car speeds through the spot where the child had been standing. The maid and other bystanders congratulate the ex-convict for his heroism, and he is given a bandage for his head (apparently he wounded himself in the fall).
Despite this act of courage, however, the ex-convict returns home to find his wife and daughter hungry, the girl in bed without any supper (possibly we are meant to understand that she is ill). He feels the desperation of his situation, then goes back out into the night. He walks the streets in the snow without an adequate coat, and tries to tell his story to passersby who have no interest or sympathy. Finally, looking at a low window to a rich house, he makes the desperate decision to attempt burglary. The next scene shows the inside of the house, where a mother, a father, and a child live in bourgeois comfort. The child is the same one that the ex-convict saved earlier. She drowses off, and the mother and father take her up to bed. Then, the ex-convict enters the empty room. The father catches him instantly, and holds him at gunpoint. The ex-convict offers no resistance, and the father leaves the room to call the police. The ex-convict considers flight, but at that moment the child comes back downstairs and recognizes him. The two of them speak to each other, and soon the child is sitting in the ex-convict’s lap, while he tells a story. The father comes back in and observes this, and puts his gun away. Soon, the police arrive and the ex-convict puts out his hands for the cuffs, but the child intervenes and the father sends them away. The ex-convict is grateful to them both for the second chance.
The movie clearly supports a progressive attitude that people should not be stigmatized for their social condition or past actions. If a man can’t get a job after his release from prison, by the logic of the film, he will have no choice but to return to crime, and people should be given the chance to redeem themselves, as the hero does when he saves the child. In contrasting the comforts of the rich home with the simplicity and squalor of the man’s apartment, Porter also makes an argument about class in America. As is often the case with early films, I found the location shots more interesting than those in the studio, particularly the images of the workplaces: the store and the warehouse. These would have been shot in New York or possibly New Jersey, but they could have been anywhere with a reasonably urban appearance. The editing structure is simple but effective. It’s not quite clear whether we’ve “jumped back” a bit in time when we move from the snow-covered (studio) street into the bourgeois home, but this could be an example of early parallel editing, if we assume that the ex-convict is waiting outside for an opportunity to come in when the living room is empty. All of the scenes of this movie are shot in long-shot, so that we never get a clear look at the actors’ faces, but there are some interesting angles. The rescue scene involves the ex-convict running onto screen diagonally from behind the camera, and the car zips past at a different diagonal. The camera also pans slightly to follow the child into the street at the beginning of that scene. It’s not a brilliant movie, but it is an interesting entry in Porter’s portfolio.
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Run Time: 10 Min
You can watch it for free: here.