Convict 13

Film Review by Dean Duncan Feb 17, 2015

I’m watching this film on Kino’s three disc blue ray compilation of Keaton shorts. (Here: This is an exemplary release of vintage film material, and the picture quality on this particular movie is, in places, quite sorely lacking. Convict 13, or more properly this print of Convict 13—over which superb technicians laboured long and hard, and which we’re very grateful to have!—clearly demonstrates what happens to silent films after the passage of time and the decomposition or loss of the original elements. The degraded image had me thinking that the film was a bit generic, a bit strained. Maybe that does apply to the exposition, and to Buster’s golf pratfalls in general. (Mind you, that fish gag is kind of funny.) But then comes the escaped convict, that deft costume switch, and the increasingly powerful exploration of the Wrong Man theme, not to mention the increasingly amazing development and execution of these physical gags.

In The Adventurer (1917) and The Pilgrim (1923), Chaplin is guilty—he really and maybe deservedly is a convict. (City Lights and Modern Times are a whole ‘nother story. So is “Verdoux,” which kind of splits the difference.) Chaplin’s main point is comedy, but his gracefulness, and the fact that we root for him, does complicate the so often melodramatic nature of film protagonism. In these Chaplin films we can, if we want, think of how much more there is to a bad guy than badness. Not so Buster. In this film, in Cops and The Goat, in Kafka, Hitchcock and the whole modern horror or anti-hero movements, Keaton doesn’t deserve it, but no one much cares. Nightmares, but waking—paranoia starts looking less pathological, more the appropriate response to modern life.

Not that any of this is fully formed yet, at least thematically/philosophically. Not so the cinematic. What a filmmaker! Or, since he’s collaborating, what filmmakers! It seems strange to say, but when it hits its stride Convict 13 accomplishes an almost miraculous combination of frantic kinesis and utter tranquility. Maybe that has something to do with an effect that was much remarked upon over at the Hal Roach Studios (Stan and Ollie, Leo McCarey and Charley Chase, etc.). Maybe these collaborators were fond of each other. You certainly get that impression from this happy concoction.

Most importantly, and most excitingly, this tranquility comes from the fact that though the script is ridden with anxiety, its enactors have everything confidently and exactly worked out. It’s the tranquility of, say, an Arthur Rubinstein, of the virtuoso who knows the material so thoroughly that he can’t even conceive of making an error. That’s a bit metaphorical, of course—films are done in takes, and retakes, and all. But look at that scaffold stuff. Look at the fluid, musical back and forth between prisoners and guards. Look at him swing that ball! (Also, take a look at Joe Roberts. As unwieldy as he looks, his movement is as apt and graceful, in a superbly contrasting and balanced way, as Keaton’s.) It’s like watching Bobby Orr. Beautiful!