Wednesday, October 16, 2013
By 1913 D.W. Griffith was in the zone. In four years he'd gone from the static tableau of The Sealed Room (1909) to the fluid cross-cutting and economical story-telling of Death's Marathon. Apparently he had to fight his distributors who thought this rapid jumping between scenes would confuse audiences. It's hard to imagine now, of course, when our brains are so used to synaptic image-flow we're more likely to be confused (or bored) by long takes. Back then people had yet to learn the visual grammer of film. Griffith, like all true artists, brought his audience with him. Death's Marathon begins with two business partners pursuing the same woman (Blanche Sweet). She marries one (Henry B. Walthall) and they have a child. But things turn sour, married life doesn't suit him and he's soon out all night drinking and gambling, their relationship increasingly estranged. Finally he steals money from his own company and loses it playing cards. 'Determined upon suicide', he telephones his wife from the office to say goodbye, holding a revolver to his head. She tries to keep him talking while his business partner (Walter Miller) races to save him. All this, remember, in under fifteen minutes. That's economy of storytelling for you. Griffith cuts adroitly between characters moving back and forth in space and time, between the worried wife, the suicidal husband and Miller's desperate race to save him. While everyone suffers from over-emphatic hand gestures, the acting is by-and-large subtle and affecting. Sweet gives the wife a care-worn, exhausted feel and her reaction to her husband's phone call is tensely emotional but never overwrought. (Amazingly she was only sixteen when this was filmed). Miller is solid in a pantomime ham way as the boring good guy while Walthall infuses his unreliable character, the wagging finger target of this morality piece, with genuine complexity. There's something almost demonic about his expression as he contemplates the gun, the manic happiness of someone who's made the decision already and all cares have disappeared. He's dead already. Around this tightly constructed tale Griffith still has time for little cameos of character detail and composition. Take the brief appearance of a messenger boy in the office. This is Robert Harron, a star of Griffith films throughout the 1910s until his untimely death in 1920 aged just twenty-seven (that most dangerous of ages for stars). He's on screen for ten seconds but he gives us the street swagger and gangly gait of a teenager in a uniform too small for him, putting his cigarette down on a table in the outer office as he enters and picking it up again on his way out, holding it behind his back as he exits. None of this is required, but Griffith films his entrance and exit anyway. Then there's the painterly composition at 7.57 with Sweet front right of the screen, the nanny behind her and the maid front left, in profile. In his documentary A Personal Journey Through American Cinema, Martin Scorsese says of Griffith that he understood 'the psychic strength of the lens'. It's a striking phrase. What exactly does he mean by it? Well, for one thing, it could read thoughts. Watch as Griffith keeps us on the faces of the actors during the final scenes, especially Walthall's. (Compare this to The Sealed Room which has no close-ups and is little more than a filmed play. You'd be hard pushed to realise the musician in that film is also Walthall). There's a lovely moment too in the first minute where the two men seem to think of their beloved simultaneously. The film cuts to a shot of her reading in her garden, a dream image, breathlessly still, (like a painting by Mary Cassatt), an elegantly spraying fountain in the background. It's a Victorian ideal of femininity both men share. Nothing tells us this is a fantasy but Griffith trusts that the images (men stop, woman in garden, men move again) will convey the idea. It's montage but also the lens capturing the meaning of thought, like a detective, a mind x-ray.