Tag Archives: Edwin S Porter

The Great Train Robbery’s parting shot

Jean-Luc Godard felt film-makers should be free to rearrange the beginning, middle and end of their scenarios. In 1903, Edwin S Porter left it to the projectionist. Scene 14 of his The Great Train Robbery, according to the sales catalogue, “can be used either to begin the subject or to end it, as the operator may choose”.

The Great Train Robbery is one of cinema’s earliest westerns, and something of a breakthrough in the development of narrative film editing. Porter’s ten-minute movie cuts between simultaneous action in different locations, more economically than in his previous work The Life of an American Fireman (1902), and the drama gains urgency from its use of location shooting, camera movement and frequent eruptions of violence. It is based loosely on Scott Marble’s 1896 play of the same name, and also, it has been suggested, a true story from 1900, when Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall gang hijacked a train on the Union Pacific Railroad. The outlaws steal the mail and rob the passengers, exploding a safe and killing three men in the process. In real life, the Hole in the Wall Gang evaded capture that day, but in Porter’s film a posse of locals pursue the bandits on horseback, track them to a hideout in the woods and kill them in a shootout.

In scene 14, actor Justus D Barnes, who plays a member of the film’s bandit crew, faces the camera square-on, draws his revolver and fires six times in the direction of audience. With the gun’s chamber empty, he continues to squeeze the trigger, suggesting carelessness, desperation or an overzealous kill impulse. His impassive face suggests the last option is correct. The intended effect, according to the catalogue, which is what we have in lieu of a screenplay, is that Barnes is firing “point-blank at each individual in the audience”. It’s an especially violent act, both in real terms, and cinematic ones. The narrative momentum of the film is cast aside, then the fourth wall of the screen is broken by his gaze, only to be further ruptured by his bullets. Placed at the opening of the film, it might act as a trailer for the shoot-’em-up action to come. As a coda, it’s a warning to the audience that it’s a wild world out there, and the violence continues even after the case in the film’s title has been closed.

Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990)

That’s perhaps why the version of the film that has been handed down to us places Barnes at the end, a jolt of terror as disconcerting as a hand bursting from a grave. Martin Scorsese borrowed the shot for the ending of Goodfellas (1990), submerging a trigger-happy Joe Pesci into Ray Liotta’s farewell to “the life”. In that film, the bullets can be read as an assassination threat (Liotta’s Henry Hill has ratted out his fellow wise guys to the FBI) or a guilty conscience, troubling the protagonist with memories of past bloody deeds. But just as in Porter’s film, Scorsese is addressing the audience, not the internal logic of the film. With these gunshots, Goodfellas acknowledges its place in the history of the cinema’s glamorisation of violence, a process that comes full circle when Hill’s closing monologue states that gangsters were “treated like movie-stars with muscle”.

But what does Scene 14 do for The Great Train Robbery? Porter is serving his audience the thrill of screen violence two ways. The portrait of Barnes in character (perhaps a reference to a Wanted poster) is a remnant of the Cinema of Attractions, but within a narrative film. In order to contain all the action in the frame of a mostly fixed camera, The Great Train Robbery relies on long shots, often with the outlaws’ backs to the camera, so we can see their crimes as they commit them. Scene 14 adds spectacle to the storytelling, and character too. That sales catalogue bills it as a ”life-size picture”, but on even the scantiest Nickelodeon screen, it would be far bigger than that. It gives us a long cool look at one of the outlaws before he fires, and then reveals his face again and again as the smoke from each gunshot disperses.

great-train-robbery-broncho-billy

There’s another moment of spectacle in the film, a saloon scene in which the Wyoming locals perform a conventional group dance, and then a flashy “tenderfoot” routine, with “Broncho Billy” Anderson picking up his toes to avoid gunfire (there’s a nod to this Western turn in Goodfellas also, when Pesci’s character yells “I’m the Oklahoma Kid!” and shoots at Spider’s feet). The dance sequence serves as an introduction to the good guys who will chase the robbers down; a messenger interrupts the jig to share the news of the robbery.

If you compare these two pauses in the narrative pace of The Great Train Robbery, logic would dictate that Scene 14 should open the film, by way of announcing the gang. But in this early film, the trailblazer for so many movie westerns to come, narrative sense comes second to the thrill of action. The posse may have defeated the bandits, but as Barnes keeps firing the myth of the outlaw endures.

2016-02-14-endings

The top 10 silent film dream sequences

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Paul Joyce, who blogs about silent and classic cinema at Ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Cinematic dreams are a staple of the silent era more than any other, possibly because much of what was on screen had only previously been experienced in dreams for contemporary audiences. Now our dreams are founded on over a century of cinema and we’re so much harder to impress but … we can still dream on. Here’s a top ten of silent dreams with a couple of runners up as a bonus.

The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)

A madly inventive three minutes from George Méliès in which an old astronomer is bothered by a hungry moon as the object of his observation makes a rude appearance in order to eat his telescope.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

A feast of special effects in Edwin S Porter’s cautionary tale on the matter of over-indulging in beer and cheese. Jack Brawn plays the titular fiend who suffers all manner of indignities once he staggers home to his bed, whereupon his sleep is interrupted by rarebit imps and his bed flies him high into the night sky … Proof that the whole cheese-and-dreams rumour is actually true.

Atlantis (1913)
Atlantis (1913)

Atlantis (1913)

In August Blom’s classic – the first Danish feature film – Olaf Fønss’ doctor dreams of walking through the sunken city of Atlantis with his dead friend, as the passenger ship he is on begins to sink. It’s either a premonition or recognition that his true feelings have been submerged … JG Ballard was obviously later inspired to write The Drowned World.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

After being accidentally overdosed with sleeping draught by careless servants, Mary Pickford’s character falls into a deep and dangerous sleep …  As she hovers on the edge of oblivion the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her Oz-like reverie. Sirector Maurice Tourneur excels as “the hopes of dreamland lure the little soul from the Shadows of Death to the Joys of Life”.

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

Douglas Fairbanks is harassed by vengeful vegetables after being force-fed too many in an effort to drive him to suicide (yep, it’s a comedy). Directed by Victor Fleming, who later returned to dreams with Dorothy and that Wizard.
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