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J. Searle Dawley
After watching the two Leonce Perret films in the Gaumont set released by Kino, the word that seemed to sum him up for me is "cerebral." I don't mean that there's psychological depth such as you might find in Scandinavian films of the teens here; the characters in both are more or less the standard two-dimensional types of Victorian melodrama, vigorously portrayed by French actors with obvious stage training, but types nonetheless.
But the films take a cool, methodical approach to melodramatic tales that others (not least of them Perret's coworker Louis Feuillade) would have made more lurid. That's both their weakness and their strength, for movies of 1912-3; they are carefully worked out, logical, and thus unusually credible for melodramas of their time. If the delight of Feuillade's serials is the sense that any social order could be overturned at any moment, part of the satisfaction of Perret's is this sense that his world is so solid.
Both films on the set are crime films, that genre which simultaneously presents a vision of the world's proper order and of its subversion. In The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, which runs about 45 minutes, a guardian (played by Perret himself) conspires to steal his ward's fortune in a manner that turns violent; she winds up in a sort of catatonia, and to jog her memory, a film is made of the events and shown to her (and us). More could have been made of this theme of a film within a film, how true what we see is, etc., but it's pretty remarkable that it's being done at all in 1912.
The one major flaw in this film is Perret's own casting-- plump and genial-looking, he's a natural comedian (which he was, in fact), and he doesn't exude the cold Victorian heartlessness the part wants. Still, the open air photography and the clinically precise staging of events in medium shot make this an unusually fluid and lucid film for 1912, that could easily have come from five years later.
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