The Kleptomaniac (1905)
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Cast: Aline Boyd, Phineas Nairs, Jane Stewart
Synopsis: Two women, one wealthy, the other impoverished, suffer different fates when each is caught shoplifting.
Just one decade after its birth, and the cinema had developed to the point where it was able to provide its audience not only with an entertainment, but also a barbed comment on the prevalence of social injustice, as is evidenced in The Kleptomaniac, Edwin S. Porter’s sophisticated (for the time) tale of the different fates suffered by two shoplifters. The first culprit is a well-to-do lady (Aline Boyd) who is wealthy enough to be able to travel to Macy’s in a chauffeur-driven carriage, clearly indicating that she has no reason to carry out the crime she’s about to commit. While in the store, she steals a fur piece, but her actions are spotted by an eagle-eyed sales assistant and she is politely asked to accompany the store detective to the superintendent’s office. The second story, which Porter chose to insert after the first instead of cross-cutting between the two, sees a poverty-stricken mother of two young children (Ann Eggleston) opportunistically stealing a loaf of bread from outside a grocery shop in order to feed her hungry tots. She, too, is caught red-handed, and promptly frog-marched to the police station by a passing cop.
The social commentary in Porter’s movie comes mostly in the final two scenes in which we see a judge dispensing production-line justice on a variety of defendants. Needless to say, the wealthy woman, able to employ a lawyer to argue her case, is let off her crime, while the impoverished woman is summarily sent to prison, despite bringing her little daughter to the court to beg for mercy on her behalf. Porter’s final shot shows blind Justice holding a pair of scales upon which sit a heavy bag of money on one side and a loaf of bread in the other. Of course, the scales have tipped in favour of the money. It’s not exactly subtle, but it gets the message across, and is actually quite effective despite, what is to us today, a thuddingly obvious presentation.
In fact, the message is quite an ambitious one for 1905, and it’s a shame that its delivery is just a shade confusing at times. While the scene inside Macy’s in which the wealthy lady commits her crime seems to go on forever, there are so many people busily milling around that we’re never sure where we’re supposed to be looking, and so it’s never clear exactly what is going on. In fact, it would be quite easy for the audience to miss the lady’s crime altogether. This same confusion also obscures the courtroom scenes. Film technique was still in its infancy — it would take the arrival and ascent of D W Griffith before film language began to flourish — and although Porter made use of some panning shots, most of the story is told in tableau form, which means it lacks detail and depth. Nevertheless, The Kleptomaniac is still superior in all departments to most movies being made in 1905.
(Reviewed 24th September 2014)