The Third Magician: Gaston Velle and Burglars at Work
Note: This is the twenty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1904 film, BURGLARS AT WORK, directed by Gaston Velle.
As I’ve been researching these earliest years of film, I sometimes feel like I’m missing huge chunks of worthwhile pioneers and their creations. To be clear, I am often tangentially aware of these fringe, yet important and enjoyable, bodies of work. Nevertheless, I feel like many do not get their due diligence, but then again, this exercise and list is in regards to the best of film, or my favorites. This is really a roundabout way of rationalizing my strange, sad feelings about the obscure yet inventive people that really serve as the entire support system for an industry, those that found success for a time but were not destined to outlive said time. Gaston Velle is one of those people.
Some might argue that the loss of knowledge about certain filmmakers or their work is a sort of natural selection process; the best and brightest rise to the top and remain relevant today. There is often correlation between great work and its popular reverence, but there isn’t necessarily causation from the former leading into the latter. Sometimes, great work goes unnoticed, especially in today’s choice-rich world. In 1904, there were a lot fewer media choices, and Velle found success to rival his magician contemporaries Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón because of it. The three’s active lives in the film industry ended around the same time; both Méliès and Velle retired from the screen while de Chomón ceased production of his own directorial works and worked on visual effects for others’ films beginning in 1913.
I compare Velle to the two titans of trick films because, well, he also made trick films. His visual style was a variation on the féerie, but at some point, his films did take on a calmer, slower pace than his peers. Like Méliès, Velle took on film as an extension of his stage magician career, which was most likely inspired by the work of his entertainer father Joseph Velle. Gaston got his start working under the Lumière brothers, then moved on to Pathé, where he was set to work on films expressly designed to compete with Méliès and the rash of imitators doing the same. Eventually, the comparisons made themselves (although with a subtly distinct flavor, as mentioned earlier), but Velle actually began his tenure at Pathé with a decidedly unique comedy: BURGLARS AT WORK (1904).
First of all, BURGLARS AT WORK is certainly not a féerie film. It’s not even really a trick film; it doesn’t use substitution splices or over-the-top fantastical camera feats. It’s just a very short little “dark” comedy that sees a pair of burglars break into a house from the roof, waking the occupant, and sending him frightfully into the night for help. While they get together a good amount of loot, the victim arrives with a policeman in tow…well, on the handlebars of the resident’s bike. As they rush upstairs to catch the thieves, the couple sneak out the window and use the bike as a convenient little getaway vehicle. The end.
While there were certainly more macabre stories in other media, and even in film, by 1904, the story’s point of view and conclusion are a little more “mature” than you would expect from the more conservative or “morally proud” society of the early 20th century. BURGLARS AT WORK is an early example of a crime film played from the perspective of the criminals, and like the best of those crime films, it renders its repugnant heroes somewhat likable.
The goofy occupant and the flustered policeman are made to look foolish by the clever and quick burglars, and their success isn’t curtailed by any kind of “crime is bad, you know” message. The happy ending is theirs, and the audience isn’t necessarily drawn to the fact that the burglars are truly bad people. Of course, the movie isn’t meant to be anything more than a fun caper, but nevertheless, the roots of the likable cinematic criminal may be traced to BURGLARS AT WORK.
Technically, BURGLARS AT WORK is also pretty impressive. Much of the film utilizes a beautiful silhouette style reminiscent of the animation style of Lotte Reiniger, and its pairing with moody blue tinting to represent the night is a much more ethereal look than you might see in a film by someone described as a Méliès peer. The film also utilizes a lot of the continuity and editing techniques that the British and American filmmakers were especially exhibiting at the time. The burglars climb through a hole in the floor in one shot, and in the next, they’re emerging from the ceiling in the room below. These composite edits, in which a continuity is implied rather than explicitly shown linearly, pop up a few more times throughout the film, and cross-cutting is used extensively to compare and contrast the actions of the burglars and the occupant of the house, respectively.
BURGLARS AT WORK is a neat little film that exhibited a greater spin on Méliès than Velle is often given credit for, mostly because the movie isn’t really a trick or fantasy film at all. It owes much more to films like James Williamson’s FIRE! (1901) or Edwin S. Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) (which coincidentally and very explicitly does not condone the actions of its criminal main characters) than something like A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902). That being said, Velle would eventually make more obvious, if not any less enjoyable films in competition with the popular style and filmmakers of the day. Ultimately, BURGLARS AT WORK is an amusing and quietly inventive start to a worthwhile yet obscure body of work, and demonstrates the value of the small successes of the era even today.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.