Monday, August 26, 2013

An Unseen Enemy (1912)

The Gish sisters first film is a key moment in the development of cinema. It was childhood friend Mary Pickford who brought them to D.W. Griffith's office one day in 1912, Lillian nineteen (though claiming to be sixteen) and Dorothy just fourteen. An Unseen Enemy is a key moment not because it employed Griffith's ground-breaking use of storytelling techniques (although it does) but because in it his camera discovered Lillian Gish. And cinema was never the same again. It was the beginning of arguably the first director/muse relationship, that symbiotic double-act that inspires the best work of both. Film history is littered with examples; Browning/Chaney, von Sternberg/Dietrich, Godard/Karina, Scorsese//de Niro. Four years earlier Griffith had worked with cinema's first real star Florence Lawrence, although she remained uncredited at the time, known simply as The Biograph Girl. Since then she'd left Biograph to become famous under her own name for the publicity-savvy Carl Laemmle. With Pickford establishing herself at this time too, the powerful connection between faces on screen and the audience watching in the dark was beginning to dawn on filmmakers. That Lawrence and Pickford could project winning personalities that audiences wanted more of, identified with even, was one thing though. What Gish brought was something else. Just imagine Griffith looking through his camera and seeing her through it for the first time; natural, unhurried, with graceful hands and pre-Raphaelite hair. Pretty yes, a Renaissance princess, but with something else, something chaste, a hint of Puritan heritage. She seemed an ideal, instinctively unworried about the camera's gaze. No mugging, no desperation to please. There were secrets behind that reserve. The camera wanted to know her. It was clear, or implied, already, that her presence demanded more than potboiler quickies, more than pantomime gestures. So everything changed, even if no-one was fully aware of it. At the time, though, this was just another Griffith film, one of dozens he made that year. A doctor's death orphans his two young daughters. (Interestingly, it was only months since the Gish's real father had died). Their older brother (Elmer Booth) converts some of the estate into cash and stores the money in the household safe. But the 'slattern' housekeeper sees an opportunity. She phones a criminal friend to come help her rob the safe. They lock the girls in a room and threaten them with a gun through a hole in the wall. One of the girls manages to telephone their brother who rushes to the rescue. It's all absurdly watchable, even now (especially with the right music. I recommend Deep Waters by The Dirty Three). Griffith's direction is full of vitality and suspense. And it's fair to say Dorothy's good too. Griffith didn't rate her, more or less ignored her around the studio. But that prudish eye-roll at the end suggests the comic potential she had. There are many lovely moments in its short running time; the natural light through the sisters' hair, the gun pointing at the camera, at us, the anticipation on Dorothy's face as she closes in on the gun, her fabulous faint, the man in a straw hat dancing at the lobby desk (amazingly this is Erich von Stroheim), and while Booth's performance is fussy and over the top at times, right at the end, there's that little bit of comic business, the fingers to the lips, the tap on the belly. Lovely detail.

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