Outlaws on screen in London’s lost cinemas

The piano began to play, sickly-sweet, Never again, never, not ever, never. Through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea…

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

In Voyage in the Dark, Anna goes to the cinema in Camden Town High Street. The film is starting as she enters, the lights went out, the screen flashed. Showing is ‘Three-Fingered Kate, Episode 5, Lady Chichester’s Necklace.’ In the book, Anna opens her eyes:

On the screen a pretty girl was pointing a revolver at a group of guests. They backed away with their arms held high above their heads and expressions of terror on their faces. The pretty girl’s lips moved. The fat hostess unclasped the necklace of huge pearls and fell, fainting, into the arms of a footman. The pretty girl, holding the revolver so that the audience could see that two of her fingers were missing, walked backwards towards the door. Her lips moved again. You could see what she was saying. ‘Keep ‘em up….’

The Exploits of Three-Fingered Kate were a real series of silent films, of which only one episode survives. In these episodes, Kate is played by the French actress Ivy Martinek, who was a circus performer in her childhood. The BFI describe the films as a crime and adventure series in which Kate is pursued by a detective, Sheerluck Finch, who she constantly outwits with her daring acts. At the end of each episode she defiantly raises her hand to the camera to show her missing fingers. She is portrayed as ‘an arch-criminal and mistress of her own destiny’, and a ‘daring, ironic, proto-feminist criminal, far ahead of her time.’

When the police appeared everybody clapped. When Three-Fingered Kate was caught everybody clapped louder still.

‘Damned fools,’ I said. ‘Aren’t they damned fools? Don’t you hate them? They always clap in the wrong places.’

In Voyage in the Dark, Anna identifies with Kate who is framed as an outsider and anti-hero. She also places herself at a distance from the audience who respond with suspicion and hostility to the foreign actress on screen; the representation of a troublesome woman. For Rhys heroines, the cinema is often a sanctuary, somewhere to escape the streets and public spaces, or they go to the cinema to kill some time; but in Anna’s case her response to the film and the audience is a complex one. The cinema can therefore be seen as an in-between space, in which the presence of the audience create a sense of being seen, as well as seeing.

As well as forming a subject for Rhys’s fiction, her work also responds to cinema in its form and style. The techniques of film find their equivalent in modernist style and the concerns and ideas of modernist literature. The use of techniques such as montage, flash-backs, close-ups, panning shots and cross-cutting reflect and are reflected by modernism’s preoccupation with interior vision, visual impressions, thought processes, perception, time, fractured and fragmented experience. In the case of Rhys, her fiction shows an interest in visual distortion and fractured identities, framing the self in mirrors and reflections. Rhys uses montage, cutting and reordering material, and her fiction is often concerned with time and space, and with mimesis, the doubling of reality.

I leave Anna on the streets of Camden and continue walking. I am trying to locate the site of the cinema she may have visited in the book. Some quick research suggests there at least two possible sites for cinemas on Camden Town High Street, one opening in 1909 and the other in 1912. The first ‘cinematograph’ shows in London took place in 1896, and it wasn’t until around 1906 that the idea for establishing permanent venues for showing films began to gather pace. Early films were shown in a variety of venues, and often existing buildings were converted into cinemas, such as variety and music hall theatres or skating rinks. In 1909 there were 133 cinemas in London and its suburbs, rising to 349 in 1911, and to 522 by 1914. This included several cinema circuits such as Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. who controlled 16 cinemas in the London area by 1910, including on Camden Town High Street, where Anna sees Three-Fingered Kate. (Source: http://www.londonssilentcinemas.com/history/ )

It seems likely that the cinema was located at 211 High Street, Camden Town, in a building which opened as a cinema in 1909 and became the Britannia Picture Palace in 1919, was renamed The Plaza in 1928, and finally closed in 1994. Returning to these sites, there are no real traces remaining of the location of these cinemas, unless you happen to know that they were once there. I walk along, looking upwards, this is always a very busy area and culturally has changed more rapidly in recent years than many other areas of London perhaps. Yet it is still possible to feel a sense of what the area may have been like at the beginning of the twentieth-century. In looking for this cinema, I come across Sam Nightingale’s project to photograph the cinematic past in Islington, and his imagining of these sites as ‘spectral spaces’, where traces remain of their memories and histories.

The lives of these urban buildings and spaces, often temporary and vanishing before us, offers a way of thinking about my project – that the past may leave a trace and co-exist with the present through city spaces and what has come before. Representation of the city was a crucial forum for the encounter between literature and film in modernist culture; with its view of the city in motion, passages through the streets, the fleeting and the momentary. In her writing on modernism and cinema, Laura Marcus suggests that the continuous present can be seen as the tense of cinema. The cinema too was presenting a world that is past, ‘a world which has gone beneath the waves.’ (Virginia Woolf – quoted by Laura Marcus)

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