An Unseen Enemy (1912)
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Elmer Booth
Synopsis: A housekeeper and her criminal acquaintance attempt to steal the inheritance of orphan sisters.
D. W. Griffith’s 1912 crime melodrama An Unseen Enemy sees the debut of both Lillian (Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) and Dorothy Gish (The Musketeers of Pig Alley, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ) in the type of role which, for the next decade or so, they would both regularly repeat for the pioneering director. The girls have a wistful beauty about them as they comfort one another following the death of their father but, while they’ve been mourning, their enterprising brother (Elmer Booth) has been selling off part of the estate in order to raise much-needed funds. After sharing the good news with his sisters, he places the money in the safe and sets off for work. However, the presence of a large amount of money in the house hasn’t escaped the attention of a character whom the titles refer to as a ‘slattern maid’ (Grace Henderson), and no sooner has the brother left for work than she’s on the phone to some unsavoury character (Harry Carey — The Musketeers of Pig Alley, Duel in the Sun) with the news.
It’s not long before the maid’s accomplice arrives, and while he goes to work on cracking the safe, the slattern maid, who has helped herself to a copious amount of the family booze, locks the girls in a neighbouring room. To ensure they don’t get up to anything, the maid pokes a gun through a stove port in the wall, waving it in a drunken fashion that alarms the girls like you wouldn’t believe.
Unusually for Griffith, An Unseen Enemy has some prime examples of over-acting, not only from the inexperienced Gish twins, but also the more experienced Elmer Booth. To be fair to the girls, their over-acting is largely due to the fact that they’re forced to make their plight look a whole lot more dangerous than it really is. Disarming the maid couldn’t be simpler, seeing as how she can’t see where the girls are and all they have to do is sidle up to the hole through which the gun is poking, and overpower her. But then, if they did that, we wouldn’t have much of a movie — in fact, we haven’t anyway, to be honest, but that’s beside the point — so the girls are called upon to dither about like a pair of simpletons.
Griffith’s sure hand with pacing is as evident as always, and he manages to generate a fair degree of suspense as the action cross-cuts between the girl’s predicament and the desperate attempts of their brother to come to the rescue. Otherwise, An Unseen Enemy is an unremarkable movie notable only for introducing the Gish sisters to the movie-going world.
(Reviewed 13th May 2014)