Panorama From Top of a Moving Train

Panorama pris d’un train en marche, 1898, 1m15s
Star Film Catalogue No. 151

From the top of one of the carriages of a moving train, looking straight ahead over the roofs of the other carriages and over the steam engine pulling them, the viewer travels along a suburban Paris line, under bridges, past assorted buildings and through a station.

For those tracking Georges Méliès’ surviving films from the start, it has already become clear that for all his undoubted originality, he was also only too happy to jump on fashionable bandwagons. The self-explanatory Panorama From Top of a Moving Train is an example of a ‘phantom ride’, a surprisingly popular genre in late 19th-century cinema that capitalised on what was still the considerable novelty of the moving image.

The first ‘phantom ride’ is generally acknowledged to have been The Haverstraw Tunnel (1897), made by the American Mutoscope Company. By the following year, it had attracted dozens of imitations, all of which featured a similar principle: the camera would be strapped to the front of a moving vehicle of some kind, thus conveying the impression of forward motion. This in itself was an attraction, since most other films of the time were shot with an entirely static camera.

In essence, Méliès’ film is little different from its rivals, and there is certainly no indication of who shot it - the only clue that it’s a French film is provided by briefly-glimpsed posters on display on the footbridge over a station that the train passes through - the words ‘Vincennes’ and ‘Auteuil’ can be read, and the name ‘Bel-Air Ceinture’ can be glimpsed on the station itself. This makes it likely that the film was shot on the now disused Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture, a line that ran between 1852 and 1934 in a circle around Paris’s outer rim.

One point of interest is the position of the camera - while most ‘phantom rides’ saw the camera strapped to the front of a train, thus featuring no visual representation of the means of transport, Méliès chose to position his viewpoint on top of one of the carriages looking ahead, the panorama occasionally obscured by smoke emerging from the engine and drifting across the lens. There’s a faintly clandestine and subversive feeling to this, since the position would only be adopted in real life by someone who for various reasons (dodging fares or officials) has opted to travel illicitly on the roof. Further interest and even a modicum of excitement is provided by the low bridges that the train passes under - at times, the camera seems only millimetres away from being knocked off.

Helped by the fact that the original film was shot outdoors on what appears to be a bright, clear day, the picture on Flicker Alley’s DVD is superb: so sharp and detailed that, as we have already seen, some text on passing posters is perfectly readable. Minor print damage comes in the form of tiny white blotches and occasional tramlines, but these are easy enough to tune out. Frederick Hodges’ Debussian piano accompaniment is built around a chugging rhythm befitting its subject.

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