Silent Cinema

Detective Film

This series took place onFrom to

Modern crime fiction originated with the investigations carried out by the amateur detective Auguste Dupin, created by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841, and reached its peak with Sherlock Holmes, invented by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887. The Industrial Revolution prompted the development of the big cities during the nineteenth century, harbouring delinquency and crime, and leading to the depersonalisation of human relations. In this context, danger could be lurking in every alley way and a neighbour could be a potential criminal. It is not surprising that Dupin operated in Paris and Holmes in London, the two most populated cities in Europe at the time. Film inherited the list of themes associated with the idea of insecurity very early on and the 1901 Pathé production company catalogue recommended that the last scene from Histoire d’un crime, in which the bank robber who also murders a guard was executed by guillotine, be cut during screenings attended by children. Although the use of props was awkward, as was characteristic of early film, the scene was considered to be excessively cruel and shocking for children.

Film, like literature, diversified its subjects and the ways in which they were handled in this thematic area. There were films about astute detectives and films about oddball criminals, such as the main characters in The Penalty and The Hands of Orlac, two of the films programmed in this series. Sometimes they were inspired by real life characters, such as the British serial killer Jack the Ripper, who is reflected in The Lodger, by Alfred Hitchcock, which is also included in the series. And from 1927, the figure of the gangster was exalted in Underworld –another film included in the program–, which would sometimes be presented as a social rebel with a romantic aura. But it would be several years before the emergence of the category known as “film noir” that would originate with the talkies, on the verge of World War II, although preceding novelists (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler) stood out during the transition from silent film to the talkies.

The main pillars on which this broad genre are based are crime –very often murder–, the mystery of who committed it, and the anxiety caused by the potential threat of a dangerous criminal roaming free under the protection of the urban shadows. Their plots chop and change these three motives, unfolding in elegant high society (such as The Cheat), or an old mansion (such as The Cat and the Canary), the colourful world of the circus (such as Variety), or the disturbing world of experiments using hypnotism (such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), all of these films being present in this cycle.

Román Gubern (series coordinator)

Sessions in this series