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Stop Thief! (1901)

British Film Institute

Main image of Stop Thief! (1901)
DirectorJames Williamson
Production CompanyWilliamson Kinematograph Company

A tramp steals some meat, but gets his come-uppance thanks to the butcher, a barrel and a number of dogs.

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Although Hove-based pioneer James Williamson seems to have spent much of 1901 making trick films (judging from his output from that year that survives), Stop Thief! shows him developing and extending the cinematic vocabulary he first showed in the groundbreaking Attack on a China Mission the previous year.

One of the first true 'chase' films made not just in Britain but anywhere else, Stop Thief! features three sequential shots depicting continuous high-speed dramatic action and a fully worked-out narrative with a clear beginning (the tramp's theft of the joint of meat), middle (the chase through the village), end (his violent comeuppance after hiding in a large barrel), dramatic irony (the joint is reduced to a bare bone by the dogs who are ostensibly helping the butcher) and a witty punchline (the butcher uses the bone as a club with which to prolong the tramp's agonies).

Another relative innovation is that despite this relative complexity (at least for the time), Stop Thief! is completely comprehensible without any intertitles or accompanying context-setting explanation, the film's title summing up both the situation and giving voice to the only words uttered on screen.

It was first released in October 1901, alongside the five-shot rescue drama Fire!, both films indicating the direction Williamson would take over the next few years, as he refined this new film grammar to tell stories of unprecedented narrative and emotional sophistication.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (1:06)
Production stills
Attack on a China Mission (1900)
Fire! (1901)
Reservist, Before the War, and After the War, A (1902)
Williamson, James (1855-1933)