The name G.W. “Billy” Bitzer belongs on anyone’s short list of the greatest cinematographers of all time. A true innovator, even a genius, in his field, Bitzer shot over a thousand movies between 1896 (the very dawn of the motion-picture medium) and his retirement during the early sound era in 1933. Among his considerable achievements are shooting virtually all of the major masterpieces of D.W. Griffith, including A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919), True Heart Susie (1919), Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Among the cinematographic innovations he is credited with creating and/or popularizing are illuminating a film set through artificial lighting (as opposed to using sunlight as was customary with early cinema), as well as the use of backlighting, close-ups, fade-outs, lap dissolves, soft-focus photography and tracking shots. Less well-known is that Billy Bitzer also directed seven movies himself between 1896 and 1907 (the last of which was D.W. Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dolly, on which Bitzer served as both director of photography and uncredited co-director). Most of Bitzer’s directorial credits were for “actualities,” early, short documentaries where the line between cinematographer and director was oftentimes blurred. Among Bitzer’s short filmography as director, however, one film stands tall as a masterpiece of its era: Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. (sometimes also referred to by the abbreviated title New York Subway).
Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. is a movie as interesting for how it was made as for what it depicts. It is a nearly five and a half minute short film consisting of a single unbroken tracking shot in which Bitzer photographs a New York City subway car from behind as it travels from the 18th Street station to its destination of Grand Central. The film was shot on May 21 of 1905 and, ingeniously, Bitzer illuminated the subway’s dark interior by setting up artificial lights on another train running on a track parallel to the one he was photographing. (The train with the lights can be glimpsed twice during the film, on the left side of the frame: first in the opening moments and again at around the 3:45 mark on the video I’ve included below.) Anyone who has ever ridden the New York subway will marvel at how little its interiors have changed in the past 109 years when watching this movie today. Although Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. is a good example of the popular early film genre known as the “phantom ride” (where a camera was mounted onto a forward-moving vehicle), its highest point of interest today is probably the climactic moment when the train pulls into Grand Central station and comes to a full stop. After witnessing a subway ride that feels like it could be occurring at any time anywhere in the world for approximately five unedited minutes, the camera dramatically pans left and the viewer is suddenly thrust into the New York City of the early 20th century, only months, in fact, after its subway had first opened. It is shocking to see how the passengers all appear exceedingly well dressed: the women wear dresses and hats with flowers in them, the men wear suits and bowler hats, flat-brimmed straw hats and even top hats. Poignantly, several of the men, women and children on the platform stop and stare directly into Bitzer’s camera. It is an unforgettable and precious time capsule, captured through a remarkable feat of engineering by one of the cinema’s great early stylists.
Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. is preserved in the paper print collection of the Library of Congress. There are many versions of it floating around on the web. The one I’ve linked to below, taken from the Unseen Cinema DVD, has the best image quality I could find: