As usual, the Americans got there after the Europeans, but did it with more scope and spectacle.
Edwin S. Porter is one of those figures that always pops up in film history textbooks for having done a whole lot of early innovation and galvanization, but in ways that are hard to articulate. He just tried a bunch of a stuff and achieved a lot of “firsts.” He’s not like Melies, who has a distinct style and few trademark tricks with a few culminating masterworks. Porter was a workhorse (like many early directors, the quantity of output is staggering — he’s credited with 250+ shorts), but not an auteur, at least by most accounts.
Porter’s most famous work, one that fits quite easily into a narrative of birthing American cinema and delivering terrific spectacle for the time, is The Great Train Robbery from 1903. It’s one of the first American narrative films, though any such distinction of “first” always has a million asterisks on it — so many people were fiddling in the field at the same time that achievement of the era was always incremental.
As you’d guess from the title, The Great Train Robbery is a very early western — perhaps a “proto-western” as we’d still want to call this a “proto-film.” Hell, you could call it a “proto-heist,” too. The story follows a group of bandits who plan and execute a train robbery only to be hunted down by a vigilante justice posse.
The Great Train Robbery’s biggest innovation is a brilliant early example “cross-cutting” editing, which would reach a mature form in The Birth of a Nation. This is a technique so basic and fundamental to our understanding of movies that it almost feels silly to talk about. Cross-cutting is editing that cuts back and forth between two different scenes. Prior to cross-cutting, in the actuality era, movies were limited to a single space and time at once, as if we were watching a stage show. But now, movies could capture an expanse of space and even time: one, a vigilante posse formulating; two, a pack of fleeing robbers; and — as if by magic — a third thing is created: an implicit tension and relationship between these scenarios.
The concept of editing as an expressive technique in-and-of-itself would take a couple of decades to fully formulate. And, again, the true innovation would take place in Europe, not America. (Although, American DW Griffith made some great strides before Sergei Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers would revolutionize editing in the 1920s.)
The Great Train Robbery has some visual pop to it: The cut I saw has some hand-coloring and double exposure — i.e. implanting multiple shots on the same frame. There are a small handful of camera pans: they are, of course, trivial in the context of modern cinema, but they contribute to the vast sense of space in some shots.
The movie’s real thrill is in its sheer spectacle: The majority is shot on location, not a studio. With live horses running towards the camera, and rolling steam engines, and convincing gunfire, it’s not hard to imagine this as a novel and visceral viewing experience at the turn of the century. There’s even some raw emotion as passengers crowd a wounded peer after the bandits run off (though the acting is wildly inconsistent — some people are stiff as boards, others use over-the-top gestures as if they’re worried the folks in the cheap seats might not spot them).
The most memorable image of the film is the mildly revolutionary close-up: An actor dressed as a bandit firing a six-gun directly into the screen. The shot is not a part of the narrative: some cuts have this at the beginning of the film; others at the end. But it’s a truly striking image — right up there with Melies’s man in the moon and the train arriving at La Ciotat as the enduring images of nascent cinema. GoodFellas among others have visually quoted it.
(I watched this as part of my chronological trek through the 1001 Films to See Before Your Die list. This is film number 2. Up next is The Birth of a Nation from 1915. Oh joy.)