Paris paralyzed on film

Time stands still for The Crazy Ray

The nutty sci-fi flick The Crazy Ray (a.k.a. Paris Qui Dort ) (1925) gave moviegoers their first ever taste of the now-popular “frozen in time” trope. Short and silly this landmark French film from director Rene Clair features the night watchman in the Eiffel Tower rising one morning to find the City of Light magically immobilized. He descends from the tower and walks the empty streets of Paris occasionally coming across people standing perfectly still in tableaux often in the middle of some kind of activity including a policeman chasing a pickpocket.

After a bit of amazed wandering an airplane lands and the watchman is joined by a small group of confused travellers who are similarly free to move around the paralyzed city marvelling at the unexplained phenomenon that has brought Paris to a halt. Once they become used to their predicament the gang begins to loosen up and have fun with the place. They barge into fancy restaurants drink all the wine and steal other people’s jewelry. In a scene reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead (1978) the gang plays poker with a huge pile of stolen money before finally realizing that money is useless and folding the banknotes into paper airplanes to toss off the top of the tower. For the first few days the men are content to let the watchman woo the pretty airline passenger until they clue in that she’s the only unfrozen woman available and a fight begins. In the midst of the confusion the source of Paris’ suspended animation is revealed to be a wacky invention created by a mad scientist….

Never mind the scientific explanation; the real thrust of The Crazy Ray is the central image of a small group of fun-loving Parisians having the run of the city. The concept of a protagonist wandering freely among people frozen in their tracks has become a science fiction staple (as seen in Twilight Zone Outer Limits and even The Simpsons ) as has the image of a deserted metropolis ( The Quiet Earth I Am Legend Vanilla Sky etc). The Crazy Ray did it first and most importantly did it briefly. This is quite a short movie well under 50 minutes at most film speeds (35 minutes is typical) and director Rene Clair avoids the mistake of thinking that even an original idea like this one needs a two-hour story attached to it. We get an intriguing concept a few aerial views of Paris a lightning-fast romantic subplot and a couple of modest chuckles and then we’re done.

Still the idea of interacting with time-locked human statues is worth revisiting if only for the opportunity to play some ridiculous pranks. What would you do in a city full of temporarily motionless people? Find somebody looking at a mirror and shave off his moustache? Fill a taxicab full of cats? Move a sleeping person’s bed into the furniture department at Sears? Write a dirty limerick on a man’s face and then put the incriminating sharpie pen in his girlfriend’s hand? Perch a seagull atop a policeman? Put Rick Santorum on the lead float at a gay pride parade? The possibilities are endless.