CHAPTER 5 / Part 2


Table of Contents

Table of Contents




The most important difference between the trick and fantasy attractions of R.W. Paul and Georges Méliès and the multishot attractions of G.A. Smith on the one hand and such “chase” and “rescue” films as Stop Thief! and Fire! on the other rests on different concepts of dramatic action: while the former seek to depict some form of activity, whether “realistic” or fantastic, within an otherwise inert frame, the action of the latter owes much more to the cinema’s congeniality to movement. Granted, in the case of the chase and rescue films films that we’ve examined so far, movement occurs mostly within the frame, with characters and objects bounding back and forth (as on the stage) or advancing directly at the camera (as in the actuality film). There is, however, little sense of measured, action-propelled forward thrust in time in either Stop Thief! or Fire!.

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      James Williamson, Fire!, Williamson

           Kinetograph Co., 1901: Shot 4

In Stop Thief!, for example, the third shot (Figure 5.15[4],[5],[6])—in which the thief discovers the barrel, the dogs discover the thief, the grocer discovers the dogs and the thief, and the grocer and the thief wrestle while struggling to remain within the frame—takes up the bulk of the film’s running time. Likewise, in Fire!, the length of the fifth shot is far out of balance with the more controlled lengths and rhythms of Shots 1-4. Shot 5 (Figure 5.16[4]) begins with the imperfect matching cut to the exterior shot on the ladder and continues to hold while another fireman emerges with a child; the first victim and the child then exit the scene, passing by the camera as the brigade continues to fight the fire in the background; before we finally cut away, a third occupant jumps from a second story window into a waiting tarpaulin.

“The Original Truly Narrative Genre”

The chase film, in particular, was nevertheless a popular genre by 1904. Often the film prolonged rather than condensed its action, allowing for the pursued man’s flight, the pursuer’s chase, the joining of the chase by passersby, and, finally, the capture. But although it grew longer and its material more varied (exterior locations were frequently incorporated), the action was usually linear and still adhered to the narrative model of the skit, in which the catalyst was a single, often accidental event, and not some manifestation of character motivation.

In a sense, the chase film’s frequent display of the cinema’s capacity to present contiguous spaces in separate shots had become another “attraction,” but Tom Gunning suggests that

the chase film shows how toward the end of this period (basically from 1903-1906) a synthesis of attractions and narrative was already under way. The chase had been the original truly narrative genre of the cinema, providing a model for causality and linearity as well as basic editing continuity.[30]


          Wallace McCutcheon, Personal,

          American Mutoscope Co., 1904

The Chase as Attraction and “Mini Spectacle”: Personal
  Gunning cites Biograph’s Personal (1904—Figure 5.18), an eleven-shot film that was largely responsible for popularizing the genre in the United States. A French gentleman in New York named Alphonse uses a newspaper personals column to announce his desire to wed if the right woman should show up at Grant’s Tomb at a designated time. With all of the city’s wealthy women away for the summer, he is beset by a burgeoning horde of widows, spinsters, and working girls. For eight shots, the women pursue Alphonse, who always enters the frame in the distance, rushes toward the camera, and exits in the foreground. In each shot, the women must overcome some sort of physical obstacle (a fence, a stream, and so forth) and, in so doing, expose a forbidden limb or display an enticing curve.

In many ways, this little film falls roughly midway between Gunning’s “attractions and narrative.”[31] Although editing, for example, has become the key structuring principle, the perspective of each shot—pursued and pursuers run directly at the camera—perpetuates what Charles Musser calls a “convention of confrontation”: essentially, “the shot, rather than the larger narrative, [is still] the ‘basic unit’ of film production.”[32] Meanwhile, each comic interlude, according to Gunning, “slows [the women] down for the spectator, providing a mini-spectacle pause in the unfolding of narrative”:[33] the impulse to present a miniature “spectacle” in each shot derives from the conventions of the “attraction,” but the effort to highlight and vary the “payoff” at each “pause” suggests the influence of “narrative” (at least a modest form of narrative borrowed from the vaudeville skit).

Contiguous Spaces and Multiple Shots
  Likewise, the display of character mobility is also a cue for linking contiguous spaces, and this practice results in more consistent efforts to manage two other facets of moving images linked across multiple shots:

  1. Directional continuity. As in most outdoor chase shots, although the characters in Personal enter and exit left and right in no particular pattern, they always move diagonally from background to foreground. Screen direction is thus standard throughout and serves as a cue to the fact that all the spaces through which the characters pass are contiguous. The same principle applies to the problems of joining shots made at different places and times.
  2. Duration. The decision to display the medium’s capacity for depicting multiple spaces also reflects a desire for greater length. With Personal, Biograph became the first American producer to make the move into “feature” fiction films. In this case, “feature length” meant long enough to fill half of a thousand-foot reel; more importantly, it also meant long enough to serve as a headline attraction on an exhibition bill.

Thus far in this chapter, we’ve devoted our discussion to development of the multishot movie as an advance in cinematic storytelling. But do the “stories” in such films as Mary Jane’s Mishap, Stop Thief!, Personal, and even Attack on a China Mission and Fire! constitute much of an advance in the development of the motion picture as a narrative art form? This question is considered briefly in Reading 5.3, “In Theory: Making Some Sense of an Ending.”

Some Generic Uses of Action

Personal, according to Musser, is a good example of “the representational system established in the pre-nickelodeon era.” Elements of this system are also evident in two important English films, both of which were heavily pirated by American distributors in the summer of 1903. Both of these films depend exclusively on exterior settings—a policy that permits the filmmakers to demonstrate the capacity of the medium both to expand space and to take advantage of a variety of locations. Both films were sometimes called “brutal” or “violent,” undoubtedly because almost every leg of each chase is punctuated by fisticuffs and, in one, by shootings. The “action,” therefore, takes on yet another dimension, in addition to those denoted by visual movement and dramatic plot—“action” in the sense of a vigorously physical confrontation between masculine forces of good and evil. The characters are really “types”—anonymous good guys and bad guys—and both films are early entries in a genre whose energy and popular subject matter would eventually make it a staple of the British industry.


              Frank Mottershaw

Direct Cuts and Contiguous Spaces: Daring Daylight Burglary
  Daring Daylight Burglary, shot in 1903 by Frank Mottershaw of the Sheffield Photo Company, was one of the first “crime” films and one of the most successful British films up to the time (Figure 5.19).[34] It tells in ten shots the story of a break-in and the pursuit of the burglar by the local constabulary (with a little help from the Sheffield Fire Brigade). Mottershaw has varying success in matching his cuts, although he works hard to establish a sense of unified space by standardizing the movement of his characters through a series of exterior backdrops ranging from suburban roads and backyards to rocky stream-crossed hillsides and busy railway stations. Movement is always on a diagonal running from one corner of the frame to another, whether toward the foreground or the background:

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Frank Mottershaw, Daring Daylight Burglary,

       Sheffield Photo Co., 1903: Shot 7

Because all the shots in this sequence are linked by direct cuts, we readily interpret both the space covered and time elapsed as composed of contiguous components: the cut, in other words, indicates the absence of any unnatural gaps between any two points in space or any two points in time. This situation, however, changes with the cut from Shot 9 to Shot 10, both of which occur on railway-station platforms (Figure 5.19[8,9]). Unfortunately, they’re not taken at the same station, and there appears to be an unwarranted “jump” in the cut from one shot to the next. The transition fails to make adequate visual or narrative sense precisely because a gap in space and time is intended despite the use of a direct cut. The Sheffield catalogue would have explained to exhibitors that the burglar is caught farther down the line because local police have phoned ahead to warn their counterparts of his arrival. The gap would probably have been explained to spectators by a narrator.


                 William Haggar

Visual Cues and Excess Time: Desperate Poaching Affray
  Desperate Poaching Affray (also 1903) was made by William Haggar (1851-1924), a onetime Bioscope showman whose close contact with popular working-class culture is evident in the subject matter of the three or four films that he turned out each year as an independent producer.[35] Whereas the dramatic impetus of Daring Daylight Burglary is provided by a contrived chance event—a little boy spying upon the break-in reports it to the police—Haggar’s story has been set in motion before the film starts: two poachers are checking a net when they detect the approach of a group of men who are apparently hunting for poachers.

Some Lessons in Spatial Coherence
  Because Desperate Poaching Affray, like Daring Daylight Burglary, is an action-oriented crime film whose central attraction is an extended chase across a series of contiguous natural backdrops, its technical mainstay is also the direct cut, which is used to establish and exploit the spectator’s sense of spatial coherence. In this respect, however, it’s more ambitious than the Mottershaw film:

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      William Haggar, Desperate Poaching

      Affray, Haggar & Sons, 1903: Shot 7

The setup of Shot 7 repeats that of Shot 5. Although it’s not used perfectly, the strategy here reveals an understanding of the fact that visual cues, resulting from the exploitation of pro-filmic space, can be a means of supporting narrative intent. Visual cues suggest that the poacher flees toward the bottom of the frame in Shot 6 because of the arrival of the pursuers whom we see in Shot 7: while he was busy fighting off a pursuer in the middle of the pond, reinforcements have caught up with him by covering the same length of ground that he’d covered just before entering Shot 5.

What to Do about Dead Time
  More importantly, we did not watch the poacher as he crossed the space in question: the cut between scenes has maintained the tempo by eliminating what really amounts (in the director’s opinion) to excess dead action. The effect, however, is achieved unobtrusively. In this respect, Haggar has prefigured one of the cardinal laws of classic cinematic syntax: excess dead time must be smoothed over, either by cutting away to another element of the scene or, as in the sequence in question, by changing the camera angle in order to underscore a different perspective on the scene. To understand the application of this law, imagine the effect of the alternative—simply deleting unwanted footage from a the midst of a single shot taken at a single angle.

Expanding Space from the Reverse Angle
  The transition from Shot 5 to Shot 6, with the poacher running left to right out of the top of the frame and then reappearing at the bottom of the frame, still moving left to right, is a notable attempt at making a matching cut on movement. The transition between Shot 2 and Shot 3 reflects the sense of how yet another visual cue can be exploited:

Again, the effect is not perfectly achieved, but the intent is clear: Haggar has attempted what amounts to a reverse-angle shot—a shot taken from 90 degrees to 180 degrees from the opposite side of the subject (see Figure 5.22 [36]). The technique occurs also in Shot 4 and Shot 5, both of which continue to alternate entry-exit points between foreground and background. Typically, the purpose of such a shot, especially when inserted on movement, is to achieve one or both of the following effects:

  1. To legitimize the extended space of an action by integrating it according to the spectator’s point of view.
  2. To bring the action back into a more manageable distance from the camera. Here, the technique actually manages to do a little of both. In particular, the sense that the action is doubling back upon previously seen space (as in Shots 2 and 3) before spilling out into unfamiliar territory (Shots 4 and 5) lends itself to the theme of desperate, futile flight.

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        Desperate Poaching Affray: Shot 1

A Little Pro-Filmic Realism
  Finally, with Haggar drawing so much attention to the medium’s capacity for manipulating space through separate shots, it’s easy to overlook a quite different but equally legitimate use of the camera to reinforce the appreciation of pro-filmic space. The first shot of the film shows the poachers as they examine an empty snare (Figure 5.23[1-1]); suddenly, they stash the snare in the underbrush and conceal themselves in the dense foliage immediately behind them, slightly to the right of frame center (Figure 5.23[1-2]); two sets of pursuers enter, survey the evidence
(Figure 5.23[1-3]), and then plunge into the forest, heading right to left (Figure 5.23[1-4]); the poachers re-emerge from the foliage and exit in the opposite direction, left to right (Figure 5.23[1-5]). The camera, however, does not cut to pick up the activities of either group. Rather, it pans left to right with the fleeing poachers, holding on them until they reach a fence in the distant background (Figure 5.23[1-6]); as they scale the fence, their pursuers enter the frame newly established by the camera, running left to right into the background, where they, too, climb the fence (Figure 5.23[1-7]). Then comes the first cut, to Shot 2, as described above.

We must remember that the use of separate shots to reconstruct a viable pro-filmic reality always manipulates the action and the world in which it occurs. As an art of creating contrasts, affinities, tensions, and ironies, the strategy is a means of communicating an imaginary reality. Conversely, the panning of the camera—moving it laterally on an imaginary vertical axis (see Figure 5.24 [37])—signals its determination to preserve the integrity of certain actions occurring in real space and time: it reflects an insistence upon the spectator’s attending to the “reality” of the scene and thus the “realism” of what transpires in it. In a sense, the organic connection of Poaching Affray to the physical and natural world is asserted at the outset,[38]) and there’s a certain aptness to this assertion in a moving picture which, in addition to telling a brutal little crime story, also surveys a nice cross section of the local countryside.

By 1906-1907, films like Fire!, Daring Daylight Burglary, and Desperate Poaching Affray had made British movies successful on the international market. Their innovative techniques also caught the eye of both filmmakers and critics. British films, however, exerted little direct influence in the United States, largely because they were produced by small firms that sold them through larger distributors. In turn, these distributors sold them to American sales agents. In fact, during the era under discussion, not one British film company opened an agency of its own in the United States. As a result, the duping of unprotected films by American distributors was more common than the legitimate distribution of copyrighted films. Edison, for example, sold only surreptitiously acquired dupes of foreign movies, and Biograph copyrighted only the films of British Gaumont, the English producer with which it maintained a reciprocal agreement to distribute one another’s films.

Space, Action, and Syntax

Let’s return for a moment to films such as Grandma’s Reading Glass, As Seen through a Telescope, and Sick Kitten. Although such films belong to the “cinema of attraction” rather than to the narrative cinema, we should remember that they contributed to at least one important advance in the conventions of film technique. As popular attractions, these films demonstrate that by the time they were made, it was no longer sufficient for the moving picture to show subjects whose only virtue was the fact that they moved. The attraction in even these elementary exercises lay in a more complex property of the “cinematic” medium: namely, the fact that different pieces of filmstrip—shots—could be joined with one another, or edited, to produce scenes. This property is the basis of cinematic “syntax.”

As in grammar, syntax refers only to the systematic arrangement of certain small units, such as words and phrases, into larger, more meaningful units, such as sentences. Some sentences, of course, are more eloquent than others because they go beyond syntax to take advantage of the rhetorical power of language. So, too, with the sophistication of “style” in the cinema. With this principle in mind, let’s examine three films that display some of the emphases on storytelling that emerged as filmmakers turned their attention to certain basics of cinematic syntax.

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              The Physician of the Castle

      A Narrow Escape, Pathé-Frères, 1908

The Possibilities of Parallel Editing: The Physician of the Castle
  We saw in Chapter 4 that when shots are made of different actions, perhaps in different locations, and then edited to suggest that they’re occurring simultaneously, the technique is a form of crosscutting known as parallel editing. It’s obviously an important tool for the filmmaker who wants to tell a story with any complications in its plot. Parallel editing is a significant feature in The Physician of the Castle (or A Narrow Escape), which was released by the French production company Pathé-Frères in Britain and the United States in spring 1908. Its French title is unknown, as are its French release date and the names of the people who made it. It’s common knowledge today, however, that Pathé melodramas of the time made common use of cut-in close shots, point-of-view shots, reverse-angle shots, and other narrative devices whose earliest appearances were once attributed to later films made by such U.S. companies as Biograph and Vitagraph.[39]

The Physician of the Castle uses 31 shots (including titles) to tell its story. Two men who plan to rob the house of a well-to-do physician lure him away with a telegram. They break into the house but are seen by the doctor’s wife, who barricades the door to the living room and then, taking up her young son, a second door to the study. She phones her husband, and the rest of the film—six shots—records the efforts of the doctor to rescue his wife and child as the criminals work to break through the barricaded doors (Figure 5.25). The plot is much like that of hundreds of early shorts that explored the possibilities of parallel editing:

Significantly, the story of The Physician of the Castle was changed from the one-act play on which it was based. In the original, the husband must listen helplessly over the telephone as his wife is murdered. Arguably, the change in the Pathé treatment—the heroes arrive on time—is inspired entirely by the properties of the new medium: in effect, the wife is saved because the filmmakers saw the advantage of putting all their technical energies into recording the rescue process and substituting a climax appropriate to the excitement that it generates.

Applying Crosscutting to Movement: Rescued by Rover
  Tom Gunning suggests that “A Narrow Escape creates suspense through parallel editing, using the pattern to create an agonizing delay,”[40]. It seems clear, however, that although their handling of parallel editing reveals the relevance of two significant properties inherent in the technique, the film’s makers paid elatively little attention to the possibilities afforded by these properties—namely:

  1. The pace at which their drama proceeds.
  2. The audience’s general sense of the complete space in which the story unfolds.

                       Cecil Hepworth

Although it did so on quite elementary levels, Rescued by Rover (1905), codirected by Lewin Fitzhamon[41] and producer Cecil Hepworth (1874-1953), had already demonstrated certain means by which the director could exercise a significant degree of control over these properties of film syntax.[42]

Rover begins as a baby is stolen from its carriage by a gypsy when his nurse is distracted by a policeman in the park. The film’s display of editing technique begins only after the nurse has returned to the parents’ home and reported the kidnapping. Fitzhamon and Hepworth, however, serve up two displays of cinematic experimentation even before Rover, the family’s faithful collie, is introduced:

Ultimately, however, we probably don’t need to—narrative context is sufficient to clarify matters after the fact—but the effort to condense time is not entirely successful on this occasion. As we indicated earlier, the estimation of excess dead action is a director’s judgment call, and if (as here) the cut is not sufficiently unobtrusive, the problem is a matter of technique: if the camera doesn’t show us the cause of the protracted time that must be condensed (which is the nurse’s discovery of the crime, not the gypsy’s commission of it), certain elements have been omitted from the continuity of coverage that one expects to be delivered once the camera has taken over the task of showing us pro-filmic space and what happens in it.

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Cecil Hepworth / Lewin Fitzhamon, Rescued

        by Rover, Hepworth Mfg. Co., 1905

The heart of the film—just under 20 shots—depicts Rover’s quest for his master’s baby, his return home to summon his master (played by Hepworth himself), and the return of dog and father to the kidnapper’s lair (Figure 5.26). This sequence displays considerable mastery of certain possibilities inherent in editing as a storytelling technique:

At least as important as either of these decisions, however, is the directors’ realization that both pace and overall sense of narrative movement are enhanced by two other practices that we saw at work in both Daring Daylight Burglary and Desperate Poaching Affray:

Coupled with the rare—though appropriate—use of low angles throughout (this is, implicitly, a film made from a dog’s point of view), the use of all these techniques in a seven-minute film has helped secure the reputation of Rescued by Rover as one of the earliest efforts to apply sophisticated editing techniques to the continuity of a narrative film. In fact, the film’s attention to the relationship between point of view and camera angle indicates the key to the success of this effort: if Rover represents a technical and stylistic advance over the other films that we’ve examined so far, perhaps it’s because it exhibits an intuitive understanding of the commutative relationships among the elements that the surreptitious camera is capable of synthesizing.

Finally, the influence of Rover and films like it, especially those made in Britain in the years between 1903 and 1907, was twofold:

  1. Their success gave impetus to a new direction toward genre and style—toward structured or narratively coherent realism.
  2. As they turned hefty profits (Rover required two remakes because the sale of nearly 400 prints ruined Hepworth’s original negative), they encouraged the making of films that benefited from bigger budgets and better production facilities. Gradually, the interest of both filmmakers and audiences turned toward the distinction of specific films and away from the novelty of movies in general as an entertainment phenomenon.

For more on the life and work of Cecil Hepworth, see Biographical Sketch 5.1: Cecil Hepworth. We focus on Hepworth’s stylistic preference for high-quality photography and pictorial imagery featuring the English landscape, as well as his narrative preference for English subjects and films in an English idiom.

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“The First Dramatically Creative American Film”: The Great Train Robbery
  Today, it seems logical to follow such commentators as French film historian Georges Sadoul in enshrining Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (Edison Company, 1903) as “the first western.”[43] A set of finer distinctions, however, is drawn by American historians George N. Fenin and William K. Everson, who observe that Porter’s little adventure story

has often been erroneously described as “the first story film,” “the film that introduced narrative to the screen,” “the first Western,” and the “film with the first closeup.” It was actually none of these things, but it was the first dramatically creative American film, which was also to set the pattern—of crime, pursuit, and retribution—for the Western film as a genre.[44]

In its time, The Great Train Robbery was really a crime film with sagebrush train robbers substituted for urban bank robbers. It was inspired by the popularity of films re-enacting contemporary news events, borrowed its title from a well-known stage melodrama, and belongs squarely in the genre of the violent crime film popularized earlier in the year by such British imports as Daring Daylight Burglary and Desperate Poaching Affray.[45]

Shots, Scenes, and Ellipses
  Counting a final medium closeup of a bandit firing point-blank at the audience, there are fourteen shots in The Great Train Robbery. For the moment, the important term here is shot, which we’ve already defined as a separate piece of filmstrip that can be joined with others to produce scenes. The first seven scenes of The Great Train Robbery are produced in single camera setups that follow actions more or less from their beginnings to their logical conclusions: the beginning of one action proceeds from the end of the previous action without any gap in time. In these episodes, in other words, one shot equals one scene. In analyzing the film, we’ll use the Edison catalogue description of each scene. Scenes 1 through 9 depict in great detail the robbery and the bandits’ getaway:

Scene 1—Interior of railroad telegraph office. Two masked robbers enter and compel the operator to set the “signal block” to stop the approaching train, also making him write a fictitious order to the engineer to take water at this station . . . [Figure 5.27(1)].

Scene 2—At the railroad tank. The bandit band are seen hiding behind the tank as a train stops to take water (according to the false order). Just before she pulls out, they stealthily board the train between the express car and the tender [the car, just behind the locomotive, carrying fuel and water].

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  Edwin S. Porter, The Great Train Robbery,

          Edison Mfg. Co., 1903: Scene 3

Scene 3—Interior of express car . . . The two robbers have succeeded in effecting an entrance. They enter cautiously. The messenger opens fire on them. A desperate pistol duel takes place, in which the messenger is killed. One of the robbers stands watch while the other tries to open the treasure box. Finding it locked, he searches the messenger for the key. Not finding it, he blows the safe up with dynamite . . . [Figure 5.27(2)].

Scene 4—The fight on the tender. This thrilling scene was taken from the mail car showing the tender and interior of locomotive cab, while the train is running forty miles an hour . . . [Figure 5.27(3)]

Scene 5—The train uncoupled . . .

Scene 6—Exterior of passenger coaches. The bandits compel passengers to leave coaches with hands aloft and line up along the tracks. One of the robbers covers them with large pistols in either hand, while the others ransack travelers’ pockets. A passenger makes an attempt to escape but is instantly shot down . . . [Figure 5.27(4)].

Scene 7—The escape. The desperadoes board the locomotive with their booty, command the engineer to start his machine, and disappear in the distance.

Scene 8—Off to the mountains. The robbers bring the engine to a stop several miles from the scene of the “Hold-Up” and take to the mountains.

Scene 9—A beautiful scene in a valley. The bandits come down the side of a hill and run across a narrow stream. Mounting their horses, which were tied to nearby trees, they vanish into the wilderness.

The end of Scene 7 signals a shift in storytelling technique: the cut to the bandits’ arrival at their horses in the woods clearly constitutes an ellipsis—a gap in strictly sequential time that can nevertheless be mentally filled in by any reasonably attentive viewer. In the continued use of ellipsis we recognize one of Porter’s most important insights into the mechanics of narrative in the dramatic film: he constructs his narrative not by observing the logic of the stage or the unities of time and space, but rather by taking advantage of the very nature of celluloid to arrange scenes composed of dramatically incomplete actions. Ellipsis, for instance, governs the progression in Scenes 10 and 11 as they follow from Scene 9:

Scene 10—Interior of telegraph office. The operator lies bound and gagged on the floor. After a desperate struggle, he succeeds in standing up. Leaning on the table, he telegraphs for assistance by manipulating the key with his chin and then faints from exhaustion. His little daughter enters, cuts the ropes, and, throwing a glass of water in his face, restores him to consciousness. Arousing in a bewildered manner, he suddenly recalls his thrilling experience and rushes forth to summon assistance.

Scene 11—Interior of a dance hall . . . Typical Western dance house scene . . . Suddenly the door opens and the half-dead telegraph operator staggers in. The crowd gathers around him while he relates what has happened . . . The men secure their guns and hastily leave in pursuit of the outlaws [Figure 5.28(1)].

From Scene 9 to Scene 10, Porter jumps back in time to revisit the telegraph operator, who’s been lying in the station office since Scene 1. From Scene 10 to Scene 11, he jumps in space from the station office to the dance hall. With Scene 12, he jumps in both time and space in order to bring together his two lines of narrative action (the bandits’ escape, the discovery of the crime and the reaction of the forces of law and order):

Scene 12—The posse in pursuit. Shows the robbers dashing down a rugged mountain at a terrible pace, followed closely by a large posse, both parties firing as they proceed. One of the desperadoes is shot . . . [Figure 5.28(2)].

The Effect of Omitting the Inessential
  By omitting the inessential, Porter has counted on his audience to make the appropriate links in spatial and temporal continuity. In effect, he has achieved what, in the system of découpage classique, is called “invisible cutting”: excess dead time can be smoothed over by simply cutting away to another scene (or even to another element of the same scene). The technique works because the cut itself implies that the continuation of the first scene or scene element continues to transpire offscreen. The spectator, in other words, experiences no disorientation because the technique satisfies the innate criterion of psychological validity.

Likewise, the principles of découpage classique presuppose that such cutting is dramatically effective because it invites the spectator to continue piecing together events and their interrelationships.[46] Arguably, the principle of “invisible cutting” is at work here on the more complex but analogous level of narrative ellipsis: the ellipses in Scenes 10 and 11 correspond to the important twofold question that the audience should have been pondering since Scene 1, in which the latter storyline originates:

  1. How will the crime be revealed? (The operator’s daughter will enter the telegraph office for unstated but by no means implausible reasons and find the operator.)
  2. How will the robbers be caught? (The girl and the operator will report the crime to the citizenry, who will form a posse.)

Nonlinear Representation
  At the same time, however, we must remind ourselves that the larger narrative structure of The Great Train Robbery is modeled on the practice of nonlinear representation, not on that of cutting to continuity. Scene 3, for example (the robbery of the mail car), and Scene 4 (the fight on the tender) occur simultaneously. That fact is obscured by Porter’s presentation, and the reason is twofold:

  1. The two scenes are shown successively rather than by means of intercutting.
  2. There are no continuity cues (such as the repetition in How They Do Things in the Bowery and Life of an American Fireman—see Chapter 4) to indicate that we’re watching the nonlinear representation of simultaneous events.

Intercutting back and forth between the two scenes would have been among the best solutions to any problem in orientation caused by Porter’s recourse to nonlinear representation (Figure 5.29). An analogous, though much more elaborate, structuring of scenic fragments would be necessary to deal with the same problem on a larger scale: namely, the fact that, once both are set in motion in Scene 1, the storyline pursued in Scenes 2 through 9 and the storyline resumed in Scenes 10 and 11, which also occur simultaneously, are reintegrated only in Scene 12, in time for the climax played out in Scene 13:

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       The Great Train Robbery: Scene 13

Scene 13—The remaining three bandits, thinking they [have] eluded their pursuers, have dismounted from their horses . . . [and] begin to examine the contents of the mail bags . . . The pursuers, having left their horses, steal noiselessly down upon them until they are completely surrounded. A desperate battle then takes place. After a brave stand, all of the robbers and several of the posse bite the dust [Figure 5.30(1)].

Scene 14—Realism. A lifesize picture of Barnes, leader of the outlaw band, taking aim and firing point-blank at each individual in the audience. (This effect is gained by foreshortening in making the picture.) The resulting excitement is great. This section of the scene [that is, the film] can be used either to begin or to end it, as the operator may choose [Figure 5.30(2)].

Today, the medium closeup of actor George Barnes pointing and firing his pistol at the audience is almost invariably placed at the end of The Great Train Robbery. Charles Musser suggests, however, that it may have been more effective when placed at the beginning. The Great Train Robbery, he observes, took particularly successful advantage of the “railway subgenre,” a variation on the travelogue in which spectators sat in mock passenger cars and watched passing scenery shot from the front of a train. In the popular Hale’s Tours, which embellished the adventure by causing the car to sway and clatter, the opening shot of the bandit would have constituted a playful invitation to the audience to share the fictional role of victim with the passengers depicted in the film. In this sense, placement at the beginning makes more sense than placement at the end, after the railway subgenre conventions are abandoned in Scene 9.[47]

A Little Technological Virtuosity
  Finally, Porter demonstrates some noteworthy visual flair in The Great Train Robbery. On two occasions, for example, he uses panning shots to clarify and/or highlight the nature of his action:

Porter’s camera also manages to capture some of the beauty and sweep of his exterior location (actually a span of track along the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad near Dover, New Jersey), especially in the shot of the bandits’ ride through the woods. Scene 5 (when the bandits make the engineer uncouple the locomotive) and Scene 7 (when the bandits board the engine and then make their escape) both contribute visually pleasurable detail in the depth of field captured in the frame.

There are also two instances in which Porter makes particularly effective use of superimposition to enhance his realism:

In each case, two images have been combined to create the illusion that they belong to the same scene. The in-camera matte was achieved in Porter’s day as follows (see Figure 5.32):

Naturally, The Great Train Robbery is also bound by its share of contemporary conventions. The interiors, for instance, are staged in single setups and photographed by a fixed camera. As they would under the proscenium arch of a theater stage, the actors move simply from left to right or right to left. Even here, however, two exceptions are worth noting:

For more information on the subsequent career of Edwin S. Porter, see Biographical Sketch 4.2: Edwin S. Porter. Reading 5.4, “In Theory: ‘You Don’t Need to Show Everything’: Actuality Filmmaking and the Development of Editing,” discusses the role played by early “documentary” shorts in the development of continuity techniques in both actuality and fiction filmmaking.


in-camera matte  Technique, accomplished by hand-cranking the filmstrip backward, for superimposing an inserted scene on an unexposed (matted) portion of a master shot

panning (or pan shot)  Lateral movement of the camera on an imaginary vertical axis

point-of-view shot  Shot that shows what a character sees

pro-filmic space  Fictionally articulated space that stands in for and denotes spatial reality

reverse-angle shot  Shot taken from 90º to 180º from the opposite side of a subject

shot  Separate piece of filmstrip that can be joined with others to produce scenes


[30] “The Cinema of Attraction,” p. 68.

[31] See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 375-78; Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction,” p. 68; Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, pp. 203-04.

[32] The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 377-78. For information on claims that an Edision remake violated Biograph’s copyright on Personal (an issue which is covered in some detail in Chapter 8.1), see David Levy, “Edison Sales Policy and the Continuous Action Film, 1904-1906,” Film before Griffith, pp. 207-22; Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: Univ. of California Press, 1991), pp. 280-82, at (accessed June 22, 2016).

[33] “The Cinema of Attraction,” p. 68.

[34] On Mottershaw, the Sheffield Photo Company, and Daring Daylight Burglary, see Allan T. Sutherland, “The Yorkshire Pioneers,” in Film before Griffith, ed. John L. Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), pp. 97-98; Low and Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906, pp. 24-25, 103-04, 105-07. See also Donald Fairservice, Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice (Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 41-42; Michael Brooke, “Daring Daylight Burglary, A (1903),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 22, 2016).

[35] On Haggar, Haggar and Sons, and Desperate Poaching Affray, see Peter Yorke, William Haggar: Fairground Film Maker (Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Accent Press, 2011). See also: Fairservice, Film Editing, pp. 34-35, at (accessed June 22, 2016); David Berry, “Haggar, William (1851-1925),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 22, 2016); Low and Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906, p. 21; Brooke, “Desperate Poaching Affray (1903),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 22, 2016); Yorke, “Extant Films,” William Haggar, Fairground Film-Maker (2011), at (accessed June 22, 2016); “Top Welsh Directors: William Haggar,” Wales Arts (London: BBC, 2014), at (accessed June 22, 2016).

[36] For Figure 5.22, see Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, pp. 55-59, 208-10; David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 110-13.

[37] For Figure 5.23, see Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, pp. 227-30.

[38] See Laurence Goldstein and Jay Kaufman, Into Film (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976), pp. 140-42.

[39] OnThe Physician of the Castle/A Narrow Escape, see Barry Salt, “The Physician of the Castle,” Sight and Sound 54 (Autumn 1985), pp. 284-85; Bernard Perron, “The First Transi-Sounds of Parallel Editing,” in The Sounds of Early Cinema, ed. Richard Abel and Rick Altman (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 79-86. See also Tom Gunning, “Heard over the Phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde Tradition of the Terrors of Technology,” Screen 32:2 (Summer 1991), pp. 184-96; rpt. in Screen Histories: A Screen Reader, ed. Annette Kuhn and Jackie Stacey (Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 216-27. Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 193-95.

[40] D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (1991; rpt. Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 197.

[41] See Luke McKernan, “Fitzhamon, Lewin (1869-1961),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-2014), at (accessed June 22, 2016); Denis Gifford, “Fitz: The Old Man of the Screen,” All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, ed Charles Barr (London: British Film Institute, 1986), pp. 314-20.

[42] On Resuced by Rover, see Low and Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906, pp. 109-10; Fairservice, Film Editing, pp. 51-54, at (accessed June 22, 2016); Brooke, “Rescued by Rover (1905),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 1993-2014), at (accessed June 22, 2016); Charles Barr, “Before Blackmail: Silent British Cinema,” The British Cinema Book, ed. Robert Murphy, 2nd. ed. (London: British Film Institute, 2001), pp. 11-19; Roy Armes, A Critical History of the British Cinema (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 43-44; Sarah Street, British National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 35; Richard Howells and Joaquim Negreiros, Visual Culture (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012), pp. 215-17.

[43] Dictionary of Films, trans. and ed. Peter Morris (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1972), p. 138.

[44] The Western: From Silents to the Seventies (1962; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 47.

[45] On The Great Train Robbery, see Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 253-59, at (accessed June 22, 2016); Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 352-55; Fenin and Everson, The Western, pp. 47-53, 181-82; David Levy, “Reconstituted Newsreels, Re-enactments and the American Narrative Film,” Cinema 1900-1906: An Analytic Study, ed. Roger Holman (Brussels: FIAF, 1982), pp. 243-60. The 1904 Edison catalogue scenario is reprinted in Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History (1939; rpt. New York: Teachers College Press, 1968), pp. 43-46; it is also available at Library of Congress, “Early Motion Pictures, 1897-1920,” American Memory, at (accessed June 22, 2016).

[46] See Reisz and Millar, The Technique of Film Editing, pp. 225-32.

[47] See Charles Musser, “Porter, Edwin S(tanton),” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), p. 874.

[48] See Fenin and Everson, The Western, p. 48. On the techniques of in-camera matting, see John Brosnan, Movie Magic: The Story of Special Effects in the Movies (1974; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1976), pp. 21-25.

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