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The Life of an American Fireman

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 28, 2015

A thought window! A beautiful close up of the call box! Again, this lovely, extraordinarily important film has equal dramatic and documentary value. They’ve contrived it, but if that isn’t really a fire hall then those are really fire engines and fire horses. Probably firemen too, right?  There’s a tremendous long shot, taken from just the right place along the street, in which lots of appreciative people on an actual authentic street watch engine after engine gallop by. The angle on the actual burning house might be primitive perpendicular, but it’s also Tati geometrical—again, as so often, they’ve shot this from the perfect place.

Watch for the last two shots, which are grammatically defunct, and which work superbly. This is not a stumbling overlap, but rather a confident multiplication. The climactic rescue is staged twice, from two angles and two perspectives. The shot/scene from the inside feels conventionally early cinema. (Notice the Edison imprimatur hung on the wall there!) The encore from the outside is actually spectacular, in two senses of that word. The rescue is exciting, and the restoration of the little child to the anxious mother is not only obligatory and obvious, it’s appropriate. Even better is how, whether by design or accident, the eye is led through and to a number of graduated, polycentral points of interest in the frame. Not only space, but time: the call for help, the door broken down, the elapsed time between entry and reappearance upstairs—dramatic interest is aroused by and because of their faithfulness to the actual process. It’s a lot like that superb opening shot of Orson Welles’ 1942 masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons. Again, always—documentary and fictional, in equal and wonderful measure.