The Girl and Her Trust
In the interests of making the films reviewed in this blog as varied as possible, here's another D.W. Griffith film with 'trust' in the title. (Actually I'm just trying to stick to films in my DVD collection, and it was either this or "Nicholas Nickleby".)
This is a great little film though. From the hammy theatrics and already-tired camera trickery of just a couple of years ago, suddenly the craft of film-making seems to have grown up.
A remote railway station is run by a man ("Jack" the Railroad Express Agent, according to Wikipedia) and Grace, the telegraph girl. In the first scenes, we can see that there's some romantic chemistry between them but he upsets her by stealing a kiss and she orders him out of the office.
A message comes in that there's a shipment of cash arriving on the next train. The train pulls in and Jack brings the box into the station, making up a little with the girl as he does. However two villains, who have hidden under the platform, have seen him, and when he wanders off they sneak up to the station. There's some wonderfully tense moments when both Jack and Grace almost spot them peering menacingly in through the windows. When she does see them through the window of her office, she tries to shut them out of the station but they overpower her. She makes it to safety in the office - they try to break in there too as she has the key to the cash box - but she scares them off by wedging a bullet in the keyhole and setting it off with a hammer. They take the cash box and make their getaway on a railway handcart. Grace gives chase and ends up on the handcart with them as they head off down the track. Jack sees them but is too late to catch them.
Grace had managed to telegraph for help, though - "Help...tramps...quick.." - and the station down the line send a locomotive. (Tramps can only mean trouble, apparently.) As it passes his station, the porter jumps on and we get a beautifully filmed railway chase, with tracking shots following both the cart and the engine.
The thieves eventually collapse with exhaustion and are easily apprehended. Then Jack and Grace cosy up on the front of the engine (even though he didn't really do a lot to help) as it backs away into the distance.
It's a simple enough story, and dozens of variations of it were probably being released every year by now, but the interplay between the leads is well thought out in a truly cinematic way and gives them real personality. The elements of film grammar and editing are all in place with use of perspective, close-ups and cross-cutting. There's an effective buildup of tension as the thieves encroach on the station. Proper film acting has really been achieved here too - everything is communicated in subtle looks and gestures - nothing is overplayed.
I'm making it sound like this was a landmark film, but Griffith alone released 70 films in this one year, which makes the quality shown here even more impressive.
Incidentally Nicholas Nickleby, by George Nichols of the Thanhouser Company of New York, is worth a look if only to see how Dickens adaptations have moved on since "Oliver Twist". Nicholas's stand against the brutal schoolmaster Squeers at 13.50 is as good a scene as any. (It's on the BFI DVD "Dickens Before Sound" but the one on YouTube seems to be more complete.)