The story of Suspense, a one-reel thriller, is a simple one—a tramp threatens a mother and child, while the child’s father races home to their rescue—but the techniques used to tell it are complex. Weber and Smalley employed a dizzying array of formal devices: for example, the approach of an automobile is reflected in another car’s side-view mirror; we catch our first glimpse of the tramp from the same angle as the mother does—from directly above, while he glares straight up; and three simultaneous actions are shown not sequentially but as a triptych within one frame.
Weber and Smalley began their film careers as a husband-and-wife team acting under the direction of Edwin S. Porter at New York’s Rex Motion Picture Company, one of the many early independent film studios established to combat the power of the Motion Picture Patents Company, a conglomerate of the major producers and distributors in the United States. By the time Porter left Rex, in 1912, Weber and Smalley had graduated to directing and were fully responsible for the small studio’s output. Suspense is one of the very few films made at Rex that survives, and its staggering originality raises a tantalizing question: Is it a fascinating anomaly or a representative sample of the studio’s overall production?
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)