This is a recent addition to my nitrate collection and I honestly know very little about it. I have no idea at all who the actors are or who directed the film. I can find no mention of The Explosive in any film list. It’s printed on Gaumont stock and the intertitles bear the Gaumont British logo, but the film ends with a Pathé rooster. The letters shown in the film are both dated May, 1913 and the style of cinematography is very early teens, so it seems reasonable that that’s near the release date. “1913” is also scribbled on the leader, but that might not mean anything.
Mary Jennings is a spy or secret agent of some sort in England working for a foreign power. She has a long-lost brother, Fred, and she’s just learned that, for as long as her brother lives, she’s entitled to an annuity of £10,000. Meanwhile, William Garratt, a retired officer in the British army, has completed his work on a new type of bomb and is trying to pitch it to the government. Jennings is tasked with getting the plans for this bomb.
Jennings learns from her underlings that the government has arranged for a demonstration of the bomb to be held at an out-of-the-way location at midnight. She orders one of her accomplices to follow Garratt, intercept his satchel, and rendezvous with her someplace out in the country.
The accomplice (who doesn’t have a name) trails Garratt as he enters a private compartment on an express train. He climbs atop the moving train and drops chloroform down the ventilation shaft of Garratt’s compartment, knocking him out. The accomplice then grabs the satchel, jumps off the train, and runs off into the darkness.
What Jennings didn’t know, although the audience does, is that along with the plans, Garratt put the bomb itself in the satchel as well. What she may or may not have known, but again, the audience definitely does, is that the bomb is a time bomb set to go off at midnight exactly. On the way to the rendezvous – indeed, when Jennings is almost within sight – the satchel and the accomplice carrying it explode in a spectacular manner.
Mary Jennings rushes to the body and discovers dog tags around his neck that reveal the accomplice’s name. He was – quelle surprise! – Fred Jennings.
Who? Oh right, the long-lost brother. I suppose it’s a decent twist. I didn’t see it coming, but only because I had forgotten about the whole annuity subplot by that point. The only time it’s mentioned is in a single letter that we see within the first minute of the film. But the bomb heist story that follows it is so well executed and suspenseful that, despite the short run time, the opening scenes had completely faded from my memory.
The bulk of The Explosive, as I said, was great, and it would have made perfect sense had Mary herself blown up or had Fred been the main character instead, but I’m just not sure what the annuity or estranged siblings had to do with it. Maybe if more had been done with the subplot it might seem like it’s actually part of the story, but as it is, it’s literally two lines of text that are never referenced again until the very end of the film and it just feels shoehorned in.
I wonder if this is an episode of a serial. I could see a secret agent serial with Mary Jennings as the star, and being needed for the next episode would explain why she couldn’t die at the end. Even while watching it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that The Explosive plays very much like an episode of The Perils of Pauline or The Exploits of Elaine, but then again, all the characters are introduced like we’ve never seen them before and there doesn’t seem to be any overarching story. It’s such a mystery.
Anyway, my rating: I like it.