(8/10) The first film based on H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man is a 5 minute short with stunning special effects and superb acting, directed by Segundo de Chomon and Ferdinand Zecca.
The Invisible Thief (Le veleour invisible). 1909, France. Directed by Segundo de Chomon & Ferdinand Zecca. Based on the novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. IMDb score: 6.2. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
In the first years of the 20th century French film company Pathé was rivalled only by American Edison Company for the seat at the top of the movie industry, and when it came to innovative cinematic trickery, no-one did it better than the pioneers at Pathé – with the exception of master filmmaker Georges Méliès, who ran his own company Star Films. While Méliès and the Lumière brothers tend to get most of the credit for early French innovation, Pathé had a huge roster of extremely talented filmmakers creating wonderful movie magic. Many of them are not mentioned on this site, since they didn’t have much to do with science fiction, and when they did, they mostly tended to copy what Méliès had done earlier. (Méliès did sell his company to Pathé in 1910, which contributed to his downfall.) Nonguet Lucien, Albert Capellani, Louis J. Gasnier, Gaston Velle, and not least Ferdinand Zecca were among the important early directors of cinema, and all worked for Pathe Frères. Zecca basically built up the artistic side of Pathé, while the brothers Pathé focused on the business side of the company.
Like many other early film pioneers, Zecca had his background on and behind the stage, as an actor, stage manager, singer and musician. In the late 1890’s he occasionally worked for Pathé as a voice artist – Pathé was at that time a phonograph company. In 1898 he was hired by Leon Gaumont, founder of France’s second largest film company, as a film actor. Zecca acted in a couple of films for Gaumont, but was asked by Charles Pathé, the head of Pathé’s film operation, to set up the Pathé pavillion at the Paris World Fair in 1900, as Charles didn’t have time to oversee the work himself. So impressed was Pathé with his work, that he hired Zecca as an assistant director, and soon a director in his own right. Quickly he became Pathé’s right hand man, as director, writer, producer and occasionally actor (often in his own films). Zecca was often appointed as co-director on other directors’ projects.
One of his collaborators was Gaston Velle, with whom he made the humorous short The Moon Lover (1905), in which a drunken man climbs up a street light and a house in order to reach the moon, until he takes off in flight, and flies into the mouth of the moon. These space travel films were hugely popular thanks to George Méliès’ pioneering work in the field, and all of the subsequent ones are heavily inspired by his. In fact, Velle was one of the most prominent Méliès imitators at Pathé: his A Voyage Around a Star was a rip-off os Méliès’ The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), and Le Petit Jules Verne (1907) was a remake of Méliès’ Under the Seas (1907, review).
One film that’s interesting for this article is his 1906 movie The Invisible Men (Les Invisibles). Both on the film’s IMDb and Wikipedia pages it is confused with The Invisible Thieves. The Wikipedia page calls it the first film based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. And while the concept was surely inspired by Wells, the film itself bears no resemblance to the actual novel. The Invisible Men is set in a historical period that looks like the 18th century, and the plot concerns an alchemist creating an invisibility potion that gets stolen by two burglars, who then go about town causing confusion. The techniques used by Velle in the movie were by no means pioneering at the time: he uses simple double exposure to make people appear and reappear, clothes and all, and there’s a brief scene of a skeleton levitating against a black backdrop, using rods. By this time Méliès had made over a hundred films with these techniques.
Zecca himself dabbled somewhat with sci-fi, as did many of the early filmmakers, although the line between sci-fi, fantasy and magic are repeatedly blurred in many of these short clips. They were mostly intended to wow the audiences with clever trick filming, rather than tell coherent stories. His short subject The Flying Machine (1901, review), a 40 second clip of Zecca himself flying over Paris in what looks like a modernistic flying bicycle, was the first aviation film. Wonderful Mirrors (1907) is a take on the much-used trope of having mirror images come to life, but this time with a science-fiction twist. However, Zecca was more interested in other subjects. Zecca was also a pioneer of feature films. In May 1903 he (along with co-director Nonguet Lucien) released the 44 minutes long The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, which was probably the first European feature-length movie, preceded only by Siegmund Lubin’s similar Passion Play (60 minutes), which was released in January 1903 for Edison in the US. One cinematographer he collaborated with frequently was Segundo de Chomon, with whom he made The Invisible Thief, among others.
Spanish late bloomer Segundo de Chomon got inspired to start making films by his wife Julienne Mathieu, who was an actress at Pathé. De Chomon started off as a distributor for Pathé Frères in Spanish-speaking countries, and was the manager of a factory for colourising their movies in Barcelona. In 1905 he began doing location filming for the company, then making documentaries, and soon got hooked on trick filming. In 1907 he moved with his wife to Paris, where he started his career as a trick filmer, and quickly became the most adept special effects photographer at Pathé, rivaling the greatness of Georges Méliès. All in all, he made over 300 films in his career, and he became a specialist in fairy tale and fantasy stories, ghosts and science fiction. He was also the primary go-to guy when Pathé needed a Méliès copy. The short Les lunatiques (1908) was yet another treatise involving the moon and pretty girls appearing from thin air, and Magnetic Removal (1908) showcased de Chomon’s knack for stop trick photography, as it featured a new magnetic invention dismantling a family’s house. The masterpiece in this genre was The Electric Hotel (El hotel electrico 1908), a sci-fi-ish story about a couple checking into a modern hotel where automated furniture and props help them unpack their luggage and prepare them for a night out by shining shoes, shaving, braiding hair and getting them dressed. The nine minute short is a masterclass in stop trick animation by way of live actors and props, a technique used extensively in the thirties and forties for transformation scenes in films about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Wolfman, et. al.
Also in 1908, de Chomon made his first major Méliès copy, Excursion to the Moon (Excursion dans la lune, review), an almost shot-by-shot remake of A Trip to the Moon (1902, review). Technically the film is in places even superior to Méliès’ original, but still a copy. He followed this by a A Trip to Jupiter (1909), nominally an original production, but still very much in debt to the French pioneer. In 1910 he made Inside the Earth (Voyage au centre de la terre), which is probably the first adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. It seems to be a lost film, but there are fragments available online, and from the looks of it, it was a very impressive film.
And finally we come to the film at hand, The Invisible Thief (Le voleur invisible, 1909), co-directed by Zecca and de Chomon. Admittedly, the above is a rather lengthy introduction to a five minute clip, but there you have it. In France Jules Verne was naturally a huge inspiration for filmmakers portraying incredible journeys and adventures. But H.G. Wells, having written his major novels in the last ten years of the 19th century, was also hugely popular in France in the beginning of the 20th century, as France was among the first European countries to translate Wells, along with Russia and Sweden. By 1909 most of his major sci-fi work, along with much other novels and non-fictions, had been translated into French.
However, compared to Verne, much of Wells’ work was a bit too cerebral and sometimes simply too complicated (or gruesome) to adapt into movies. The book that made the biggest impression on French films at the time was naturally The First Men in the Moon (1901), which had immediately inspire Méliès’ to make A Trip to the Moon. The other book that tickled the imagination of cinematographers was The Invisible Man, released in 1897 and translated in 1901. The concept of invisibility, people and objects appearing, disappearing and reappearing was one of the magic tricks that the new medium of film could perform to such great effect, that some form of it was included in almost all trick films of the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s therefore impossible to say how many films were made during this period that were inspired by the novel – consciously or subconsciously. Méliès, Velle, Zecca and others would certainly have been aware of it. But The Invisible Thief is, to the best of my knowledge, the first film which explicitly plays out scenes from the novel, and even credits Wells as the inspiration. Therefore one could say that The Invisible Thief is the first true adaptation of The Invisible Man.
The plot itself is rather silly: A man picks up a copy of “G.H. Wells’” novel L’Homme Invisible at a bookshop, and then retires to his hotel room on the third floor to read it. In the book he discovers the formula for the invisibility serum, and proceeds to manufacture it. After drinking the formula he starts to take off his clothes piece by piece, thus gradually revealing his complete invisibility. When the patrons and staff of the hotel are out, our protagonist goes downstairs and starts looting the cupboards for silverware and documents – still in his invisible form. He then hides his loot in his room, where he again dresses and puts on a mask to pass as visible, after which he proceeds to the street, where he mugs a rich couple. Spotted by the police, he is chased back to his hotel room, but when the officers try to catch him, he slips out of his clothes and starts battering the police with chairs and other furniture. Overpowered by the invisible foe, the officers roll down the stairs, followed by flying furniture and debris. The end.
So what we basically have here is a super-distilled version of the first half of Wells’ novel, with three different wow-moments for audiences. The first one is naturally the scene where the protagonist undresses to reveal his invisibility. This was done by the exact same principle used by the special effects team led by John P. Fulton in the making of the classic Universal film The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale in 1933 (review), and which is basically still used today in a refined form blue and green screen photography. In essence it relies on combining two different shots in one frame by rendering parts of at least one of the shots translucent. In the days of de Chomon and Zecca this was almost always done as a so called in-camera double exposure or superimposition technique – basically using the other image as a matte. de Chomon would have had the actor (who unfortunately remains anonymous) dress in a black suit covering his entire body, and then film him against a black background. If lighting conditions were kept right, this black against black shot would render the film strip completely black, in other words unexposed. The actor would be dressed in his “normal” clothes on top of the black suit. The bright chequered suit that the actor wears would ideally be the only thing exposed on the film in the camera, while the rest of his body, draped in black, would remain unexposed. When stripping off his clothes so that only the black suit remained, he would, in effect, become invisible to the camera.
The camera would then be cranked back, and a second scene would be filmed, with only the background against which the character would be seen on film, in this case his hotel room. Because the film was previously unexposed, except for the clothes, the room would then be exposed normally everywhere else in the frame, including on the actor wearing the black suit, meaning that the room would so to speak be superimposed over the actor, leaving just the startling effect of his bright clothes seeming to float in thin air.
Ideally the “background shot” would be as dark as possible in the area where the actor moves, and the “foreground shot” with the floating clothes should be as uniformly bright as possible, or there would be a danger of bright background elements superimposing themselves on dark patches in the foreground. Unfortunately de Chomon has given the actor a chequered suit with bright white frames around dark rectangles, meaning that the room does show through the dark parts of the clothes, although the shot is short enough, and the actor moves enough, for the error not to become obvious. Even so, the effect isn’t perfect. Because of the very bright lights needed for filming back in the day, and perhaps a sub-standard material used for the black suit, the light bounces off the black suit here and there, creating subtle, but clearly visible outlines of the actor as he undresses, almost like a ghost image.
But these small imperfections probably wouldn’t have bothered the audiences at the time, most of who would have had no idea how the effect was achieved. Considering what an impact the exact same sequence had when it was used in 1933, it must have seemed like complete magic for an audience in 1909. The effect is no more than 12 seconds long, but it is what makes this film stand out. I’m honestly not sure how new the technique was – of course Méliès would have been aware of the principle, and one would surmise that used it to some extent when he was making films of his own disembodied head(s). But he almost always had his characters appear and disappear either through stop tricks, fades or other editing tricks. like extensive use of matting parts of the lens. de Chomon and Zecca turn a character invisible in a continuous shot without any editing, simply by undressing. While I certainly haven’t seen all of Méliès’ films, I’m pretty sure that he never did anything like this. And getting one over Méliès when it comes to trick photography surely is a badge of honour for any filmmaker.
The second wow-moment is when the thief steals the papers and the silverware. This is done using the same stop trick photography that de Chomon used to such wonderful effect in The Electric Hotel – an absolutely painstaking animation process similar to that used by later stop-motion artists like Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen, with the exception that de Chomon doesn’t use puppets, but live-size props and furniture, and in the case of The Electric Hotel, live actors. While the technique doesn’t really require much optical trickery, the exactness involved in keeping everything lined up precisely from frame to frame is hugely impressive. In most similar animations from the era one sees an ever so slight wobble as props and backgrounds, or indeed the camera itself, shifts and moves a millimeter here or a millimeter there during the process. But de Chomon always keeps everything rock-steady.
The third wow-moment is at the end, where the thief grapples with the police officers, only to disappear in thin air, following chairs and canes flying in the air. While startling, it’s just a simple stop trick followed by another superimposition, classic Méliès.
The film itself is wonderfully directed, and avoids the sort of overtly theatrical flailing and puffing, which is often present in Méliès’ films, and which quickly becomes a bit annoying to modern viewers. The lead actor is very good, and it’s a shame that he has remained anonymous to film scholars. The use of planes and the logistic control in the film is flawless – here I would guess that we see the influence of Ferdinand Zecca, who works with a sense of direction and logical movement that many modern filmmakers would do well to study. Just the way he has his police officers fall down three floors of stairs is beautiful – and the stunts involved are superb.
There is, however, a flawed logic in the story itself, which many viewers have pointed out: the thief’s use of invisibility is all backwards. First he undresses as he goes down to steal the silverware. Why? We have just seen the patrons exit: the place is empty, he doesn’t need to be invisible. Secondly he dresses and dons makeup when going out in the street picking pockets. Again: why? There’s no use in invisibility if everyone sees you. But of course, this film isn’t about plot, it is about tricks, and the directors have naturally formed the plot to serve the use of his tricks.
In 1909 people were already making so-called story pictures, and it would only last 4 more years until out of Italy came the first blockbuster movie, Quo Vadis by Enrico Guazzoni, a movie nearly two hours long depicting the Christian story of emperor Nero and the burning of Rome, with 5 000 extras, gladiator fights and chariot races. At the same time, people like de Chomon and Méliès were still trying to cling to the upper echelons of the film industry doing what were essentially parlour tricks. But when the movie industry changed, unlike Méliès, de Chomon continued to work, and found that even if he himself couldn’t go on directing the new kinds of movies that were being made, his so-called parlour tricks could still be put to good use.
de Chomon more or less quit directing in 1913, after Quo Vadis came out, and instead took jobs as cinematographer and special effects creator for feature films (and shorts). The one he is probably best remembered for today by film buffs is the epic sword-and-sandal blockbuster Cabiria (1914), which was made following the huge success of Quo Vadis. That is because the film included history’s first dolly shot. Prior to this, almost all films were made using static camera shots. Any camera movement was generally restricted to pan and tilt, popularised by one of cinema’s great innovators, American Edwin S. Porter, who was also one of the pioneers of the sort of double exposure and matte process that was used in The Invisible Thief. Chomon decided to place the camera on a crane when filming a sequence outside a temple, moving the camera from left to right, forward and down, approaching the stairs of the temple, giving us a three-dimensional camera move, something never done before. The camera doesn’t actually move more than a couple of meters, and it’s a rather crude move by modern standards, but it was revolutionary for its time, and it was basically replicated by D.W. Griffith in his famous crane shot from the film Intolerance (1916), although Griffith’s shot was about a hundred times more epic in scale.
de Chomon also worked on a number of other films by Cabiria co-director Giovanni Pastrone, including The Royal Tigress (1916) and Hedda Gabler (1920), as well as the two best known early films featuring the strongman Maciste, The Warrior (1916) and Maciste in Hell (1925). And in 1927 he was basically dragged out of retirement to help on Abel Gance’s megalomanic masterpiece Napoleon, widely held as one of the best silent films ever made.
The Invisible Thief (Le veleour invisible). 1909, France. Directed by Segundo de Chomon & Ferdinand Zecca. Based on the novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Cinematography by Segundo de Chomon. Produced for Pathé.