Daybreak Express (D.A. Pennebaker, 1953, USA)

D.A. Pennebaker, the American documentarist and proponent of direct cinema who made such iconic films as Don't Look Back (1967), started his career with a short film called Daybreak Express. Set to the song of the same title by Duke Ellington, the film shows the soon-to-be-demolished Third Avenue elevated subway station. The film opens with shots of the city against blazing orange sundown, and the sound of a subway car passing along the tracks. The subway car comes to a stop, and we see people exiting the subway platform as Duke Ellington's music begins.

Much of the film up until this point appears in silhouette, with the architecture of the subway station set against the blazing orange sun. The bustling jazz music sets the musical rhythm of the film, as Pennebaker captures verite shots of various riders of the subway. We see shots from across a platform as the train passes by. Then we are treated to a view from the subway car, to seemingly infinite stretches of construction, then buildings. The images of the city appear in almost sepia tones. Pennebaker experiments with perspective, shooting a segment of the film with the camera facing upward toward the sky. We see the buildings stretching out to the sky and it creates a sense of wonder and awe at the enormity of it all. 

There is dancing, and an almost ballet-like quality to the film as the camera spins around for a time. Those familiar with New York City will undoubtedly recognize some of the landmarks along Third Avenue. It is interesting to watch the film both for its technical experimentation, but also as a remnant of a city long past. Pennebaker would establish himself as a great documentarian later on, but his film nevertheless is an excellent foreshadowing of his talent.



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