First Female Director’s Thriller SUSPENSE Unnerving and Online
By Alex Cranz
As I’m still a little obsessed with Lois Weber I thought I’d go ahead and point out one of her better short films available on YouTube. For those not in the know, Weber was a writer, director and actor with similar output to D.W. Wright. Among film historians they share the title of Hollywood’s first auteurs. While other directors and writers made their films to sell tickets and make their studios money these two were attempting to encourage activism and thoughtfulness in their audiences. Wright did so with the terribly misguided Birth of the Nation and the obscenely offensive and disjointed Intolerance (a great example of white male privilege too!).
Weber’s political ardor was inspired by her life as a woman and as a former homeless Christian evangelist. She was staunchly “pro-life” but never at the cost of the mother’s welfare. At an age when Lysol douche was acceptable, condoms were a novelty and many people didn’t know what sex was until they were partaking in it Weber was encouraging sex education and birth control.
She was also very active in portraying the poverty that much of America lived in. While most films happily glossed over the lives the average American led Weber’s films reveled in the mundane and normal. But they also explored societal taboos. She was especially fond of showcasing gentile poverty. The “good” people brought down by luck.
But she wasn’t above showing more traditional people stricken by economic downturns. In Suspense she gives us a frightening villain the form of an average looking homeless man wandering the outskirts of an unnamed city. Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s loveable tramp the homeless man in this film is entitled and dangerous. In contrast to most early cinema villains the tramp of Suspense is surprisingly naturalistic. Silent film required a great degree of stylized acting. Working without the luxury of sound meant every physical action had to be bigger and bolder. Make up highlighted the eye and the movement of the mouth so actors could easily pantomime every word that normally would have been spoken.
This tramp largely lacks the heavy stylization employed by the other actors. With the exception of some extra makeup around a stunningly haunting pair of eye he appears as any tramp on the street would. He moves through the film casually. It’s this stark reality versus the more traditional silent film motifs that make him so frightening. He’s like the train rushing towards the screen–so real that he could leap out and suddenly be in your own home.
Despite the dread instilled by the tramp there is something almost playful about the film. Weber was a true innovator and Suspense features one of her most memorable innovations. Something that would later be regularly employed in talkies and comics. The three-way split screen.
It is one of the earliest instances of split screens on film and for my money it is the most striking. A tramp breaking in, the fearful wife reacting and the husband forced to listen to it all from a phone in his office across town all split across three triangles painted onto the screen.
What would nowadays be shown with flashy smash cuts is instead all shown concurrently. By presenting all of the action and leaving nothing to chance Weber helps build the dread. It’s also why she doesn’t hide the film in dark and moody shadows. She wants you to see every moment and desperately pray that some deus ex machina will swoop down and change what you’re seeing.
From the terrifying image of the brightly lit villain lurking in a window to the final sound of gunshots as the tramp advances on the woman (Lois Weber doing triple duty as actress and director and writer) the film builds and eloquently earns it’s title, Suspense.