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The frames that sink the broker

The Evidence of the Film

1913. Thanhouser Studios. Directed by Lawrence Marston and Edwin Thanhouser. With William Garwood, Marie Eline, Riley Chamberlin, Florence la Badie.

What a great title: The Evidence of the Film! It could introduce a whole category of stories—Keaton's The Cameraman is one, Lang's Fury is another—where a motion picture camera helps ensure that justice is done by providing a record of "what really happened." So many self-referential films reflect on the ability of movies to misrepresent and mislead, but there is this small subset where the camera is squarely on the side of objective truth.

It's the story of an unscrupulous broker who has defrauded a client. When she threatens to go to the police if he does not refund her money, he devises a dastardly scheme. He ostentatiously puts $20,000 into an envelope in front of his staff, and has his secretary give that envelope to a messenger boy to deliver to the client. But the broker has prepared an identical envelope full of cut-up newspaper. He follows the messenger, pretends to bump into him, knocks the kid down and pulls a switcheroo. The client gets an envelope full of worthless paper; the broker's staff swears that they sent the money; and the messenger boy goes to jail.

However, as Dr. Crippen found a few years earlier, new technology can trip up a criminal. In his eagerness to ambush the delivery boy, the stockbroker fails to notice a movie crew (from the Thanhouser Company, as a matter of fact) doing some on-location filming across the street. And he does not know, as we do, that the victimized boy has a sister who works in the Thanhouser editing department. A few days later she is examining rushes in the cutting room and she notices a startling piece of film. In a terrific denouement, she has it projected in front of the judge, the police, and the broker: undeniable evidence of the broker's crime and her brother's innocence.

The screening of the incriminating footage makes for a great denouement. The broker seems not to understand what he is looking at or how it came to be. In 1913, how many people had seen moving pictures of themselves? It might be divine retribution: his sin somehow recorded brought back to convict him.

Additionally, it gives us in the audience a chance to compare the exterior film (The Evidence of the Film) and the inner film (that scene inadventently captured by the inside-the-movie crew). When we see the broker knock down the boy for the first time, we see it from behind them (so that we can also see the film crew working across the street) and it's not clear exactly what has happened. The second time we see the action, in the film presented by the sister, it's from the front of the characters. The envelope-substitution that we inferred the first time, is unmistakable.

Finally, there is at the heart of this movie a dual vision of what film is and how it works. The same mechanism that has created for us a completely fictitious world is also accepted as providing a glimpse of objective reality when the plot calls for it. Audiences certainly understand that, for most of The Evidence of the Film the camera is showing us people pretending to be who they are not involved in events that never happened, but this understanding never conflicts with our accepting that the film-within-the-film can be counted upon as "evidence."


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein