Spotlight: Invasion-Call-Rescue Plot Formula

Spotlight: Invasion-Call-Rescue Plot Formula

Racing to restore repression

From its earliest days, motion pictures evoked melodramatic tension by displaying an attack on the system of repression euphemistically called "domestic tranquility", and then racing to restore it. Attack on a China Mission (1900) used this technique to create a sense of immediacy to news of current events in a distant land. Rescued By Rover (1905) combined the technique with a fictional story, dog tricks, and editing to create a blockbuster hit.

But once the infant technology of film, with its seeming transcendence of space and time, infused the technique with other new transcendental technologies - automobile and telephone - a formula was born that is still a reliable workhorse in the stable of plot formulas: the invasion-call-rescue formula.

The Archetype: Physician Of The Castle

Credited with introducing this formula is a 1908 film from France: Physician Of The Castle (Le médecin du château), also called A Narrow Escape. In it, two men execute a scheme for robbing a doctor's home. First, as a ruse to get the doctor out of the house, they send a bogus telegram claiming the doctor is needed at the castle. Then, after taking the maid down for the count, they force their way in. Meanwhile, the doctor's wife and son coolly set up barricades that slow the attackers, giving her time to phone the castle. The doctor races home with police, where they capture the attackers. The doctor then ever so briefly salutes his wife for maintaining a stiff upper lip (blink and you'll miss it), completely ignores his traumatized son, before taking care of the important business of escorting the police out and giving the finger to the attackers.

No credits have been found for the film, so cast and crew are unknown. The film is cited as one of the first screen appearances of the telephone. For a complete plot summary, fascinating detailed analysis, and discussion of who made the film (suggesting Lucien Nonguet), see The Cine-Tourist. As stated there: The film has two strong themes at its core: threats to bourgeois comfort and communication over distance. Key motifs for this last theme are the motor-car, the telegram and the telephone.


In fact, the newly invented telephone is central to the story. The book Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company demonstrates this in its discussion of the related (but now lost) Edwin Porter film that followed this one, Heard over the 'Phone, August 1908:

Heard Over the 'Phone is the story of a family living in the suburbs... The father, after discharging his hostler for brutal treatment of a horse, goes to business, leaving his wife and child alone. The hostler, in revenge, enters the house to rob. The wife observing his approach, calls her husband over the phone, but she is attacked by the robber, drops the phone and is murdered, the sounds of the conflict and tragedy being carried to the ears of the horrified father at the other end of the wire.

It then provides this lineage for Physician Of The Castle/A Narrow Escape: The film [Heard Over the 'Phone] was based on Au téléphone, a play by André de Lorde, which was first presented in Paris in November 1901 at the Théâtre Antoine. An English version, At the Telephone, opened in New York City during October 1902 as a curtain raiser. Subsequent revivals were likely: the play offered a challenging role to the male actor, who conveyed the wife's murder through his changing expression as he listened on the telephone. In March 1908 Pathé released the film A Narrow Escape in the United States; it was based on the same play but substituted a last minute rescue for the bloody ending. Six months after the release of Heard over the 'Phone and a year after the release of A Narrow Escape, Griffith made The Lonely Villa, which was indebted to the Pathé film.

In The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, Guy cites Au téléphone as a source, but no additional info on the resulting (probably lost) film is known. In addition, A Companion to D. W. Griffith adds another work to the film's lineage: Terrible Angoisse (1906, Lucien Nonguet/Pathé) which, like Heard over the 'Phone, retains the grisly ending of the original horror play of André de Lorde, who was known as the "Prince of Terror" for Grand Guignol works like L'Horrible Passion (The Horrible Passion), about a young nanny who strangled the children in her care.

Au téléphone and Grand Guignol posters

So Physician Of The Castle/A Narrow Escape was the first to add the rescue and happy ending: key elements that transformed the story from its dark roots in horror and helplessness, to a positive confirmation of male protection of the home from threats to bourgeois comfort, and thus enabled the survival of this plot formula under patriarchal bourgeois rule. The table below summarizes the film's antecedents.

Year Form Title Place Creator Ending
1901 Play Au téléphone France André de Lorde Murder
1902 Play At the Telephone USA André de Lorde Murder
Unknown Film Unknown France Alice Guy Unknown
1906 Film Terrible Angoisse France Lucien Nonguet/Pathé Murder
1908 Film Physician Of The Castle/A Narrow Escape France, USA Pathé Rescue


D.W. Griffith's Biograph films contain multiple variations on this home invasion/phone link/race-to-rescue formula, where both the communication technology for the distress call and the method of the race to the rescue are key features of the films.

Also, in their titles, The Lonely Villa and The Lonedale Operator highlighted another common aspect of invasion-call-rescue films: isolation - which makes the invaded more vulnerable (and the invasion thus more terrifying), and serves as an obstacle to the rescue.

Year Title Invaded Link Linked Racer
1908 Physician Of The Castle/A Narrow Escape Home Telephone Husband<>Wife
Physician's racer Maximize icon
1909 The Lonely Villa Home Telephone Husband<>Wife
Lonely Villa racer Maximize icon
1911 The Lonedale Operator Workplace Telegraph Boyfriend<>Girlfriend
Lonedale racer Maximize icon
1912 The Girl And Her Trust Workplace Telegraph Girl<>Coworkers
Girl Trust racer Maximize icon
1912 An Unseen Enemy Home Telephone Teen sisters<>Elder brother
Unseen Enemy racer Maximize icon
1913 The Telephone Girl And The Lady Home Telephone Working girl<>Wealthy matron
Telephone Girl racer Maximize icon

The 1913 Weber-Smalley film Suspense/The Face Downstairs returned to the original formula (home invasion/husband wife linked by phone/automobile race-to-rescue), but utilized startling techniques to achieve a new level of dramatic tension.


The invasion/distress-call/rescue pattern soon achieved sufficient renown to be parodied by Mack Sennett (who wrote and performed in Griffith's The Lonely Villa), in Help! Help! (1912), and then again in The Bangville Police (1913), where the rescuers are an early incarnation of the Keystone Cops. Both featured Mabel Normand as the damsel in distress.

Max Linder also took at least two shots at the formula, first in Max and Dog Dick (1912), where the threat to the happy home comes not from an attacker, but the invasion of the paramour of Max's unfaithful wife arriving to carry on their affair - thus making this parody a forerunner of invasion/call/rescue films to come in the latter half of the century. The distress call (which uses a triptych, as Suspense later did) is sent out by the family dog. The formula was parodied again in 1924 as part of the Abel Gance/Max Linder film Help (Au secours).

Year Title Invaded Invader Link Linkage
1912 Help! Help! Home Burglars Telephone Husband-Wife
1912 Max and Dog Dick Home Wife's lover Telephone Husband-Dog
1913 The Bangville Police Home Burglars Telephone Girl-Police
1924 Help (Au secours) Home Monster Telephone Husband-Wife

Later Developments

The second half of the twentieth century saw a subtle, yet radical, shift away from using the formula to promote the myth of the bourgeois happy home, towards using it to counter the myth - chiefly by exposing the moral flaws of the husband and the infidelities of the marriage.

Dial M for Murder (1954)
The home invasion is planned and arranged by the husband, whose phone call is the cue for his hired killer to murder his unfaithful wife. In a parallel to Au téléphone, he listens to a killing in helpless horror.
Five Minutes To Live (1961)
The intent of the home invasion is robbery, not of the home but of the bank where the unfaithful husband is an executive. The wife is used as hostage, to force her husband to hand over money at the bank. The first distress call confirms that the home's been invaded. A later call would confirm the success of the robbery. But the second call must come within five minutes, or the wife will be murdered.
The Shining (1980)

The prevalence of ambiguity in The Shining has resulted in so many wildly different interpretations that it becomes essential to begin any discussion with a statement of assumptions. For the purposes here, only two assumptions are necessary:

  • The wife and child were actually under attack - and not delusional.
  • The attacker was physically manifest as the husband/father - and not ghosts.

With that understanding, it can be seen that The Shining completely turns the formula on its head: the husband/father, rather than being the rescuer, is the attacker. And in this most isolated of home-invasion environments, not only are both the communication link and the escape vehicle sabotaged, but also the rescue attempt (that is summoned by a telepathic call) is thwarted. Escape is only possible through the ingenuity of the child.

Moreover, the film suggests (but leaves ambiguous) that the attack may be driven - even aided - by supernatural forces of the home itself. So instead of presenting a reaffirmation of patriarchal order and the sanctity of the home after it is threatened by evil, it is the home and its patriarch that are presented as the evil threats - with no happy ending.

In short, The Shining returns the invasion-call-rescue formula to its dark roots in horror.

Domestic bliss, revisted
Domestic Bliss: from Lonely Villa to Overlook Hotel
Cape Fear (1991)

The home invasion in Suspense is unplanned: when an impoverished passerby sees the maid leaving the house with luggage, he suspects the house may be vacant, thus offering an opportunity to grab some grub. But all other of the above home invasions were planned, and preceded by surveillance. In Cape Fear, the invader's planning and surveillance is rocketed to a new level, weaving a web around the family that they seem incapable of escaping - all without entering their private property for the first three quarters of the film (and not entering at all in the 1962 original). Instead, the invader dominates their public space, while the husband and his official proxy "rescuers" are helpless - harking back to the helplessness of the husband who hears his wife's murder over the phone in Au téléphone. At the same time, the invader also controls their internal psychological space, correctly perceiving, and then permeating, every fissure, and filling them with terror.

As in Heard Over the 'Phone, the invasion in Cape Fear is motivated by revenge against a perceived offense committed by the husband. And, as in Physician Of The Castle/A Narrow Escape, the maid is the first (human) to go down.

Year Title Husband's Flaws Invasion Goal
1954 Dial M for Murder Hiring murderer Murder of wife
1961 Five Minutes To Live Infidelity Bank robbery
1980 The Shining Alcoholism, abuse, insanity and/or collusion Indeterminate
1991 Cape Fear Betrayal, infidelity Punishment for betrayal

Link: Works featuring "invasion-call-rescue"