A Guide to American Silent Crime Films

A Guide to American Silent Crime Films

A Guide to American Silent Crime Films

A Guide to American Silent Crime Films


The immense popularity of movies has its roots in the silent films of the early 1900s, this being especially true of the crime genre. This extensive guide features the entire history of the crime genre during the silent era, including more than 2,000 film entries, complete with names of directors, screenwriters, and major players, and offers a wealth of data supported by plot evaluations and occasional thematic commentaries. For the serious student of crime films, this work provides a comprehensive treatment of genre, but, most importantly, it revives an almost forgotten genre for generations of students and movie fans both old and new.


Imagine a world without serial killers, without gangs or gang wars, without child molesters, without deranged killers who slash or disfigure or dismember their victims, and a world virtually without guns and senseless mass killings. This was the world portrayed during the early years of silent films. The directors, writers and film studio moguls of that period were not oblivious to the more sordid aspects of crime; however, most of the crimes planned and committed on screen were relatively mild if not nonviolent. Those who created the early crime films experienced a different world from that which we see today; they did not feel the need to temper the violence of the period, but rather reflected the criminal activities they witnessed.

The Small-Scale Crime Film

The earliest crime films focused chiefly on bloodless offenses, including burglary, petty thefts, scams and prison escapes. Thomas A. Edison ARREST IN CHINATOWN, SAN FRANCISCO, CAL. (1897), for example, simply shows two policemen placing a Chinese man into a horse-drawn wagon labeled Police Department. CHICKEN THIEVES (1897) also treated the subject of crime lightly, as did THE BURGLAR (1898), THE BURGLAR IN THE BED CHAMBER (1898) and THE BURGLAR ON THE ROOF (1898), all produced by Edison. That same year Edison varied its crime subject with FAKE BEGGAR (1898). Biograph contributed to the burgeoning cycle of burglar films with THE OLD MAID AND THE BURGLAR (1898), another harmless little trifle. In TENDERLOIN AT NIGHT (1899), a woman in a saloon steals his wallet. The subject matter of these dramas suggests that the filmmakers did not wish to exploit violence.

With the turn of the century, however, the films begin to deal with more serious offenses. THE KIDNAPPER (1903), for instance, depicts the abduction of a child. When the child tries to escape, the kidnapper undresses him and begins to beat him. He then leaves with the tot's clothing. THE GENTLEMEN HIGHWAYMEN (1905) is one of the earliest crime films to deal with both a kidnapping attempt and a car chase, the latter soon to become a staple of the . . .

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