"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Daybreak Express [D.A. Pennebaker, 1953]

Watch this film immediately if you are partial to any of the following: elevated trains, jazz, vintage views of New York City, sunrises, or sunsets. It ranks up there as one of the most sublime train films ever made, and the combination of the Duke Ellington’s soundtrack, upside-down-all-around angles, and lightning fast cuts make this commuter train feel more like a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone!

The train featured is none other than the Third Avenue El, which suspended Manhattan service in 1955, two years after this film was made. Pennebaker writes, “I wanted to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and it’s packed-in passengers that would look beautiful, like the New York City paintings of John Sloan.” The Ashcan artist Sloan was also fascinated by the El, and his impressionistic paintings capture the lively ambiance — if not the movement — of the train. His painting Pigeons in particular could almost be an outtake from the film.

John Sloan, Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street [1928]

John Sloan, Pigeons [1910]

But I wonder if Pennebaker was also inspired by the short film Third Avenue El, which was also made in the 1950’s and contains many avant-garde views of the city along with a diverse (and often funny) portrait of the passengers that took the train on a daily basis.

New York City’s elevated trains have made their mark on popular culture, often as a menacing symbol of an overcrowded urban landscape. But on the eve of its destruction, Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express proved that the new vantage points afforded by the towering El could also be glorious.

More on Ashcan artist John Sloan: “The fun of being a New York painter… is that landmarks are torn down so rapidly that your canvases become historical records almost before the paint on them is dry.”

More on the New York City El in photography and film, from the ICP blog Fans in a Flashbulb

Category: art + video, new york, watch online

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9 Responses

  1. this video is awesome.

  2. you could put together a pretty amazing films series featuring this bygone new york icon. from wikipedia:

    King Kong (1933)
    The Lost Weekend (1945)
    The Naked City (1948)
    On the Town (1949)
    Side Street (1950)
    Daybreak Express (1958)
    Living It Up (1954)
    The Seven Year Itch (1955)

  3. Tim says:


    Found your post through Jeremiah’s site. Amazing footage! What a great vision of an older New York. The only way you can get the same approximate thrill riding in Manhattan now is on a bike . . .


  4. Dominic says:

    They show this at IFC theater sometimes, before the feature. Fantastic to see it on the big screen.
    Otherwise, I can’t confirm this is true, but I was told that the term “shady” comes from a popular contemporary description of the activity which occurred under the dappled tracks of the elevated train in the Lower East Side.

  5. […] March 28, 2010 by cityofstrangers Ill today so can’t write a full post. But here are some links, inspired by a fine post over at cynephile with a couple of the old 3rd Ave. El. […]

  6. Jack says:

    Let’s not forget “The Little Fugitive”, quite possibly my favorite film that captures the feeling not only of old New York, but also working class New York. It’s also technically one of the first indie films to come out of the U.S. and make a significant impact elsewhere.

  7. pb says:

    Here’s the film “3rd Avenue El” btw

    I would guess, that upon hearing of the planned demolition of the last manhattan El in 1955, that many amateur filmmakers started taking movies in the short time leading up to its demise. I’m willing to bet 3rd Ave El was taken right before system shutdown, and hence, slightly after Pennebakers film, but it really doesnt matter too much, as they both are tributes of equal weight.

  8. I have seen this at IFC theater too. Such a stunning view of old NYC.

  9. Tomas says:

    Excelent work by Pennebaker and also the amazing painter John Sloan!

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