Marlowe at the Movies Pt 2: LADY IN THE LAKE (MGM 1947)

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Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories are all done in first-person narrative, so it must have seemed logical to director/star Robert Montgomery to shoot THE LADY IN THE LAKE in the subjective point-of-view. Aside from a few brief narration scenes, we see everything through the eyes of Marlowe. The actors play straight to the camera, doubling for the private eye. Does it work? Well….I guess that all depends on YOUR point of view!

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“My name is Marlowe”, the film begins, as we see him sitting at his office desk. He relates the tale of how he submitted a short story to a pulp magazine, and received a reply from an editor named “A. Fromsett”. The movie is told in flashback, and now the POV changes to that of Marlowe’s for the bulk of the story. We meet A. Fromsett, who’s a gorgeous woman named Adrienne. She likes his story, but has an ulterior motive: Adrienne wants to hire Marlowe to find her publisher’s missing wife Crystal, a “liar, a cheat, and a thief” who’s run off to Mexico for a quickie divorce. Marlowe doesn’t trust Adrienne or her motives, but the perennial down-on-his-luck gumshoe takes the case.

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The effect of Adrienne speaking directly to the camera is off-putting at first and lends an artificial quality to the film as a whole. I could clearly see the actors acting, playing to the camera, and as a result I wasn’t as engrossed in the story as I was in MURDER MY SWEET. The novelty of the first-person POV wore off quicker than a Monday morning hangover. It distracts from the story, rather than pulling me in as intended. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy all those “found-footage” films of recent vintage.

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Robert Montgomery’s first directorial effort is an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. Montgomery himself is another reason I didn’t like LADY IN THE LAKE as much as I thought I would.  Even though we mostly just hear his voice, I didn’t find him sufficiently “hard-boiled” enough to be convincing as Marlowe. I would’ve preferred cast member Lloyd Nolan in the role, and had Montgomery switch off to play Nolan’s Lt. Degarmot. Nolan had plenty of gumshoe experience, playing Bret Halliday’s pulp detective Michael Shayne in seven films (including TIME TO KILL, an adaptation of Chandler’s The Brasher Dubloon). He also stood out in films like BATAAN, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, A HATFUL OF RAIN, PEYTON PLACE, THE GIRL HUNTERS (with author Mickey Spillane playing his own hard-boiled P.I., Mike Hammer), ICE STATION ZEBRA, and AIRPORT. Nolan also portrayed cranky Dr. Chegley on the groundbreaking late 60’s sitcom JULIA, starring Diahann Carroll.    

Audrey Totter (Adrienne), a noir queen featured  in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, THE UNSUSPECTED, and THE SET-UP, later joined the cast of TV’s MEDICAL CENTER as head Nurse Wilcox. Other Familiar Faces in THE LADY IN THE LAKE include Tom Tully, Jayne Meadows (better known as Mrs. Steve Allen), Leon Ames, Morris Ankrum , and Richard Simmons. No, not the 80’s fitness guru, this Richard Simmons later gained fame in the 1950’s series SGT. PRESTON OF THE YUKON. Also appearing briefly as Adrienne’s shapely secretary (who Marlowe can’t keep his eyes off of) is Lila Leeds, noted as Robert Mitchum’s accomplice in that famous 1947 pot bust (just follow this link).

Miss Lila Leeds
Miss Lila Leeds

THE LADY IN THE LAKE is to me a failed experiment in the film noir genre. I think I would have liked it better if director Montgomery had shot it in the usual objective POV, and stepped back to allow Lloyd Nolan to play Marlowe. Then again, that’s just MY point of view. I’m sure there are fans of this film out there who have their own. What do all you Cracked Rear Viewers think?

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Marlowe at the Movies Pt 1: MURDER, MY SWEET (RKO 1944)

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The first film to depict Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Phillip Marlowe was 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET. Forty year old Dick Powell had spent the past decade playing romantic leads in musicals, and felt the time was right to change his screen image. Powell did just that as the cynical, wisecracking Marlowe, under the direction of a young up-and-comer named Edward Dmytryk.  Together they made one of the best Chandler adaptations ever, closely adhering to the complicated plot of the novel “Farewell, My Lovely”.

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When we first meet Marlowe, he’s wearing a blindfold and being grilled by the cops for a murder rap. The sleuth states he’s gonna give the lowdown on what really occurred, and the LA bulls are all ears as Marlowe relates the tale through flashback. The gumshoe was sitting in his office, minding his own business, when big Moose Malloy walks in and asks Marlowe to “find someone’, a red-headed dame named Velma who Moose had a thing with eight years ago before getting sent up the river. The big lug’s pretty persuasive, so Marlowe accompanies Moose to Florian’s, a gin joint where Velma was once employed as a singer. No one in the dump recalls Velma, so Marlowe tracks down Mrs. Florian, the widow of the late owner. The booze soaked old broad tells him Velma’s dead, but Marlowe isn’t quite so sure. Next day a dandy named Marriott shows at Marlowe’s place and hires him as a bodyguard. Seems there was a stick-up involving a woman Marriott’s been seeing, and her jewels are being held for ransom. That night Marlowe and his new employer take a ride to a desolate location, and the detective gets knocked on the noggin by a blackjack.

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“A black pool opened at my feet. It had no bottom”. When Marlowe wakes, he finds Marriott dead in the backseat. Things get pretty thick from here, with beautiful dames, a phony psychic, and a rich old man all involved in the chaos, Moose Malloy lurking around, and the coppers always looking to play pin the tail on Marlowe. Marlowe gets beaten, shot at, deceived,  and drugged as he puts all the pieces together and solves the mystery, getting the girl in the end as a bonus for his troubles. A Raymond Chandler plot is always pretty dense, and I won’t spoil all the twists and turns along the way. The film’s never boring and you may figure it out before the sleuth, but you’ll sure have fun doing it.

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Dick Powell’s great as Marlowe, quick with a quip but hard when he needs to be. After years as the fair-haired boy in musicals like 42ND STREET, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, ON THE AVENUE, and IN THE NAVY, this movie gave him a new lease on life as a noir antihero. Films like JOHNNY O’CLOCK, PITFLL, and RIGHT CROSS put Powell back on top. He branched out into television, forming Four Star Productions with pals David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Ida Lupino in 1952. Powell himself was host of two successful anthology series, ZANE GREY THEATER and THE DICK POWELL SHOW. He also became a film director, with some hits (the submarine drama THE ENEMY BELOW starring Robert Mitchum) and misses (THE CONQUEROR, with John Wayne as Genghis Khan!).

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Sultry Claire Trevor nearly melts the screen with her smoldering sexiness as Helen Grayle, who’s not all she seems to be. “Queen of Noir” Trevor’s been discussed here before (BORN TO KILL, STAGECOACH), and she’s never been better than in MURDER, MY SWEET. Lovely young Anne Shirley (Anne) started as silent child star Dawn O’Day, changing her screen name after playing the title role in 1934’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. She was Oscar nominated for STELLA DALLAS, and this was her last movie role. Suave Otto Kruger (Anthor) did his villainous thing in Hitchcock’s SABOTUER, director Dmytryk’s HITLER’S CHILDREN, the noir 711 OCEAN DRIVE, and Universal’s JUNGLE CAPTIVE. He had a rare hero role in 1936’s DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. The Grand Old Dame of Noir Esther Howard (Mrs. Florian) is on hand, as she was in DETOUR, CHAMPION, and the previously mentioned BORN TO KILL. Miles Mander (Grayle) was a character actor noted for THE THREE MUSKETEERS, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES.

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We’ve discussed Mike Mazurki’s background before here, so let me just give him a round of applause for his Moose Malloy. It’s his biggest role, and probably his best work on film. The massive, dim-witted Moose has a one-track mind, and that’s to find his Velma. Moose looms large both physically and figuratively in MURDER, MY SWEET, and Mazurki gives his all. Don’t let the man’s size and blank expression fool you, Mike Mazurki could act when given the opportunity, and he shines here like a rough diamond. Hats off to the former professional wrestling giant!

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Edward Dmytryk worked his way from the editing room to directing B features with sleuths Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf, and horror flicks with Boris Karloff (THE DEVIL COMMANDS) and John Carradine (CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN). MURDER, MY SWEET was his big break, followed by hits like BACK TO BATAAN and CROSSFIRE. Dmytryk was blacklisted and did prison time as one of the Hollywood Ten during the House Un-American Activities “Red Menace” hearings, and it seemed his career was over. But in 1951, he named names, and was soon back in Hollywood’s good graces. Ironically, he directed the court-martial drama THE CAINE MUTINY, which had some parellells to the HUAC investigations. Dmytryk’s other later films included THE YOUNG LIONS, Harold Robbins’ soapy Hollywood story THE CARPETBAGGERS, and the Richard Burton black comedy BLUEBEARD.

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Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely filmed once before, in a 1942 adaptation THE FALCON TAKES OVER, with George Sanders’ sophisticated sleuth standing in for Marlowe. The story was remade in 1975 as an homage to noirs past, with icon Robert Mitchum stepping into Marlowe’s gumshoes. I haven’t seen the Sanders/Falcon take on it, but I’ve watched both the Powell and Mitchum versions. I couldn’t say which I liked better, because they’re both worth watching. MURDER, MY SWEET was the first Philip Marlowe flick though, and that alone is reason to watch it. The performances are all good, there’s plenty of hard-boiled dialogue to savor, and the RKO noir magic is on display. There’s only one thing better than a Philip Marlowe movie: read the books!       

PREVIEWS OF COMING ATTRACTIONS

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One of my favorite fictional characters has always been Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe. The wisecracking Sir Galahad of the streets inspired a plethora of imitators, and has been portrayed onscreen by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, among others. This week, we’ll take a look at three films featuring the iconic detective:

Dick Powell in MURDER, MY SWEET

Robert Montgomery in LADY IN THE LAKE

Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE

Plus: Philip Marlowe on the small screen!

A Star is Born in Monument Valley: John Wayne in John Ford’s STAGECOACH (United Artists 1939)

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If you think the characters and Western tropes in STAGECOACH are familiar, you’re right. But let’s be clear… STAGECOACH introduced many of these now-clichéd devices to film, and is one of the enduring classics of the American West. Director John Ford was well versed in Westerns, having cut his professional teeth on them during the silent era. This was his first sound Western and Ford was determined to reinvent the genre, with much more adult themes than the usual Saturday matinée kiddie fare. He succeeded with a daring story featuring an outlaw and a prostitute as his heroes, and exceeded his goal by creating a brand new Hollywood star in the process: John Wayne.

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Wayne had been a football player for the USC Trojans when an injury caused him to lose his scholarship. Through some university connections, he was able to gain employment in the film industry as a prop man and extra, working with cowboy star Tom Mix and director Ford, who took a liking to the young man. Wayne was noticed by Raoul Walsh, who cast him as the lead in his 1930 epic THE BIG TRAIL. The movie flopped at the box office however, and Wayne was relegated to budget Westerns and serials at Monogram Studios, then later at Republic. His career was going nowhere fast when Ford offered him the part of The Ringo Kid in STAGECOACH. It was a fortuitous move on both parts, and led to a long and prosperous screen teaming for both men. When that camera zooms in on Wayne early in the film, you knew right then and there this young actor was destined for great things. Wayne always credited Ford for making his career, and he’s right. Without John Ford, there is no John Wayne, at least not the Wayne we’ve all come to know through his movies. Wayne was Ford’s cinematic alter ego, what the director wanted to be, and Ford was Wayne’s movie muse, compelling him to give his best.

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STAGECOACH takes its characters on a perilous journey through hostile Indian territory while the renegade Geronimo is on the warpath. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a prostitute being run out of town, as is the drunkard Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell in an Oscar-winning performance). Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) is an Army wife seeking her husband as she’s about to give birth. Major Hatfield (John Carradine) is a proud Southerner and professional gambler. Peacock (Donald Meek) is a whiskey “drummer” from Kansas. Local banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is leaving town with embezzled money. Stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is joined by Marshal Curley (George Bancroft) riding shotgun, searching for escaped convict The Ringo Kid (Wayne). Ringo joins them when his horse goes lame, and he’s taken into custody by Curley. They’re given a cavalry escort to the halfway point, where another regimen is to take over. But the other troop is engaged in battle with the Apaches, and the stage has to go it alone to reach Lordsburg alive.

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This simple story is the peg on which Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols hang their character studies, turning the stereotypes on their ear. Outlaw Ringo has broken out of prison to find Luke Plummer and his brothers, the men responsible for killing Ringo’s father and brother. Booze soaked Doc shows great compassion toward Dallas, while the mannered, courtly Hatfield is filled with contempt. Upstanding citizen Gatewood is a loudmouth and a thief, but whiskey peddler Peacock is a soft-spoken family man. Whore Dallas is treated with scorn by Mrs. Mallory, but when Mallory has her baby, it’s Dallas who takes care of it. Marshal Curley is sworn to uphold the law, yet sets Ringo free to ride off with Dallas at the film’s conclusion. Ford and Nichols give us a reverse view of these individuals, rejecting the notion that everyone’s either a good guy or a bad guy. As in life, the characters in STAGECOACH are colored in shades of grey, not starkly cast in black and white.

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This was Ford’s first film to be shot in Monument Valley, Utah. The breathtaking scenery of this Colorado Plateau, with its majestic mesas and long, lonely plains, gave the director the perfect canvas on which to paint his American West masterpiece.  Ford would return to the Valley numerous times to give his films the authenticity they’re known for, including MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and THE SEARCHERS. Other filmmakers followed suit, and Monument Valley can be seen in such diverse works as Wayne’s ANGEL AND THE BADMAN, the counter-culture classic EASY RIDER, Kubrick’s 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY, Eastwood’s THE EIGER SANCTION, and Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP. Rumor has it the backgrounds in all those Road Runner cartoons were also based on Monument Valley!

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Any good Western has to have action, and STAGECOACH is no exception. The almost ten minute chase scene features one of the most exciting and dangerous stunts ever performed on film, when Yakima Canutt jumps from his horse onto the coach’s tandem, falls between the horses, and gets trampled over. This stunt was done in one take, and it’s a wonder Canutt didn’t get killed. The former rodeo rider handled the stunt action in over 250 movies, as well as acting and second-unit directing on numerous films. He was given a well-deserved honorary Oscar in 1966 for his contributions to the motion picture industry.

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Besides John Wayne, the players here shine in their respective roles. Claire Trevor received top billing, her name meaning more at the time than Wayne or  the rest of the cast. She was one of Hollywood’s best “bad girls”, later becoming “Queen of Noir” in films like KEY LARGO and BORN TO KILL . Mitchell won his Oscar here,  though he could have just as easily won for the same year’s GONE WITH THE WIND (or as Uncle Billy in 1947’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). Carradine again shows why he was one of the great character stars, before becoming a B horror star. Platt is rather stiff as Mrs. Mallory, but that’s exactly how the part was written. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task, with a special shout out here to loveable Andy Devine. Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, and Chris-Pin Martin have minor roles, and if you look closely you may spot Dorothy Appleby, William Hopper, Paul McVey, Woody Strode, and Hank Worden.

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STAGECOACH is probably the most influential film in Ford’s canon. It’s been said Orson Wells watched it over and over, studying its composition and pacing before he began working on CITIZEN KANE. It’s been remade twice, in a 1966 all-star version (with Ann-Margaret and Bing Crosby, among others) and a 1986 TV Movie featuring Country Outlaws Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. Neither film comes close to matching the greatness of the original. Movie fans of all genres need to watch this one, for its strong acting, beautifully shot scenes, exhilarating action, and the birth of a true Hollywood icon, John Wayne. Do not miss an opportunity to see this extraordinary piece of Americana.

THE LITTLE TRAIN ROBBERY (1905)

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Edwin S. Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is one of early cinema’s best known films. More obscure is 1905’s THE LITTLE TRAIN ROBBERY, Porter’s parody of his own film, with a cast of kids robbing a miniature train, kind of a precursor to Keystone comedies to come. So by popular demand (awright, one person!), here’s THE LITTLE TRAIN ROBBERY:

 

How The West Was Fun: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (United Artists 1969)

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SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! is played strictly for laughs. It’s broad performances and slapstick situations won’t strain your brain, but will give you an hour and a half’s worth of escapist fun. Easy going James Garner has the lead, with solid comic support from Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Jack Elam. Director Burt Kennedy made quite a few of these, and this is probably the best of the bunch.

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While burying an itinerant drifter, the townsfolk of Calendar, Colorado discover a mother lode of gold. The subsequent boom turns Calendar into a lawless, rowdy town that can’t keep a sheriff alive long enough to tame it. The town elders also can’t get their gold through without paying a 20% tribute to the mean Danby clan. Enter our hero Jason McCullough (Garner), who applies for the sheriff’s position “on a temporary basis…I’m on my way to Australia”.  Jason is a crack shot and fast on the draw, but prefers to use his brains over his gun. He locks up Danby brother Joe, much to the consternation of Old Man Danby.

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Mayor Perkins gives Jason free room and board to stay in town and clean it up. He’s got a klutzy daughter named Prudy, who first discovered the gold, and keeps getting into embarrassing predicaments whenever Jason’s around. Jason hires “town character” Jake as his deputy after Jake backs him up in a saloon showdown. After several attempts at killing Jason fail, the Danbys gather all their relatives to descend on Calendar. Mayor Perkins and the townsfolk cower in fear, and Jason has only Jake and Prudy to rely on in the frenetic final confrontation with the Danby clan.

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Credit director Burt Kennedy for his homages to the films of John Ford in this. Of course there’s triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan, lampooning his role of Old Man Clanton in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. There’s another nod to CLEMENTINE with Garner sitting on the porch, leaning his chair back and trying to put his feet up a’la Henry Fonda. Ford regular Danny Borzage has a bit as the accordionist at the drifter’s gravesite. And that climactic gunfight has echoes of the OK Corral, only with a much more humorous outcome.

Burt Kennedy got his start writing for John Wayne and Randolph Scott before penning and directing the 1965 hit THE ROUNDERS, starring Fonda and Glenn Ford. Some of Kennedy’s other sagebrush spoofs were THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS (1969, with Robert Mitchum), DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE (1970, featuring Frank Sinatra), and the TV movies ONCE UPON A TRAIN and WHERE THE HELL’S THAT GOLD? (both 1988) starring singer Willie Nelson. There was also a sequel of sorts, 1971’s SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, reuniting Garner and Elam. He also made some serious Westerns, like WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967), HANNIE CALDER (with Raquel Welch, 1971), and Wayne’s THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973). Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990), and directed his last film SUBURBAN COMMANDO (with Hulk Hogan) in 1991.

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Besides Garner doing his laid-back thing, the rest of the cast also gets into the silly spirit. Joan Hackett was an underrated actress who never really got her due, adept at both comedy and drama. Some of her films were THE GROUP (1966), WILL PENNY (1968), and her Oscar nominated role in Neil Simon’s ONLY WHEN I LAUGH (1981). Harry Morgan brings his comic expertise as Mayor Perkins, while vets Henry Jones, Walter Burke, and Willis Bouchey are the other town fathers. Brennan is fine as always, and a young Bruce Dern shines as his deadly but dumb son Joe.

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The standout here is Jack Elam. After many years of  playing gunfighters, gangsters, and goons, Burt Kennedy gave Elam a chance to show his comic side, and the old rascal nails it. His Jake is a simple-minded, reluctant deputy, and the perfect comic foil for sharp sheriff Garner. Elam even gets to break the Fourth Wall at film’s end to deliver the movie’s punchline. Elam went on to be a go-to comic sidekick for the rest of his career, passing away in 2003.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! doesn’t blaze any new Western trails and probably won’t make anyone’s Must See lists. It will make you laugh, though, and it’s fun to watch genre vets like Garner, Brennan, Morgan, and especially Jack Elam go through their comic paces. Recommended for one of those days when you need a good chuckle to chase the blues way.

The First Western: Edwin S. Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903)

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THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is considered the world’s first Western. Film pioneer Edwin S. Porter made this little gem in the wilds of New Jersey, with additional scenes at Thomas Edison’s studio. It’s the first film to have some kind of narrative, and features in it’s cast future cowboy star Broncho Billy Anderson. Crude by today’s standards, this history making ten minute short was a technical marvel in its time,  with Porter was the first to introduce cross-cutting and panning to the screen. So without further ado, enjoy  1903’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY: