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Four Heads Are Better Than One (1898)

Un homme de têtes (original title)
Much to our amazement, an elegant and masterful illusionist detaches his own head effortlessly from his shoulders for a once-in-a-lifetime performance.



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One of the greatest of black art pictures. The conjurer appears before the audience, with his head in its proper place. He then removes his head, and throwing it in the air, it appears on the table opposite another head, and both detached heads sing in unison. The conjurer then removes it a third time. You then see all three of his heads, which are exact duplicates, upon the table at one time, while the conjurer again stands before the audience with his head perfectly intact, singing in unison with the three heads upon the table. He closes the picture by bowing himself from the stage. Written by Edison Catalog

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Release Date:

28 November 2009 (Portugal)  »

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Four Heads Are Better Than One  »

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Superimpositions and Stop-Substitutions
27 January 2008 | by See all my reviews

"The Four Troublesome Heads" is one of the earliest surviving films by Georges Méliès to employ the multiple exposure technique, or superimposition effect. He used the technique earlier in "The Cabinet of Mephistopheles" (Le Cebinet de Méphistophélès)(1897), but it appears to be lost. (There's also a brief superimposition in "The Magician" (Le magicien)(1898), for a head on a stand.) It's uncertain whether Méliès or George Albert Smith introduced the trick to cinema, although what seems to be the earliest relevant film that I know of is the aforementioned film by Méliès. Smith tried to patent "the invention of double exposure applied to animated photography", but that was frivolous since the technique was already in use in still photography. Somewhere from around July to October 1898, Smith made at least six films that employed the trick. In "The Corsican Brothers", "Photographing a Ghost" and "The Mesmerist, or Body and Soul", Smith used multiple exposures to make transparent ghosts. He also used the technique, coupled with a masked camera lens, to create a scene-within-a-scene vision in "The Corscican Brothers", "Cinderella", "Faust and Mephistopheles" and "Santa Claus". In regards to masking the camera, Smith, indeed, seems to have introduced it to motion pictures. Méliès would later use masking for his multiple-exposure trick films, such as "A Mysterious Portrait" (Le Portrait Mystérieux) (1899) and "The One-Man Band" (L' Homme orchestre) (1900). Nevertheless, the uncertainty is somewhat moot given that Méliès and Smith are known to have had discussions around the time of these inventions, and both filmmakers were leaders in exploring the possibilities of motion pictures.

The superimpositions of "The Four Troublesome Heads" are not for ghosts, but, rather, are for four cloned heads of same texture; this effect of same texture is achieved with the black background. In this film, Méliès accomplished the headless and no body effects by masking himself with black clothing. Additionally, a dummy head was used while the Méliès with a body moved the heads to the table. For these transitions, Méliès employed his second essential trick of stop-substitutions (a.k.a. substitution splicing). The camera operator stopped the camera – the scene was rearranged – and filming resumed. They are essentially jump cuts touched up by post-production splicing. Méliès had already used the stop-substitution trick in such films as "The Vanishing Lady" (Escamotage d'une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin) (1896), and it would continue to be probably his most used trick during his film-making career.

Yet, these tricks are only of a technical and filmic history interest without Méliès's unique showmanship and enthusiasm, which was largely responsible for the immense popularity of his films in his own day and the preference of today's audiences for the films of Méliès over those by other early filmmakers. Méliès was, indeed, more cultured and absorbed with theatrical traditions than were his contemporaries. Later, filmmakers would surpass much of his theatrical style, but at the time of this film, he was leading the way with it.

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