A Walk Among the Tombstones
Fans of the hardboiled detective, rejoice. Screenwriter-director Scott Frank and actor Liam Neeson, adapting the splendid work of crime novelist Lawrence Block, have brought a…
We tend to remember long takes that call attention to themselves as such: the opening shots of "Touch of Evil" or "The Player"; the entrance to the Copacabana in "GoodFellas"; all those shots in Romanian movies, and pictures directed by Bela Tarr and Jia Zhangke... And then there are the ones you barely notice because your eyes have been guided so effortlessly around the frame, or you've been given the freedom to explore it on your own, or you've simply gotten so involved in the rhythms of the scene, the interplay between the characters, that you didn't notice how long the shot had been going on.
For this compilation, "Deep Focus," I've chosen eight shots I treasure (the last two I regard as among the finest in all of cinema). They're not all strictly "deep focus" shots, but they do emphasize three-dimensionality in their compositions. I've presented them with only minimal identifications so you can simply watch them and see what happens without distraction or interruption. Instead, I've decided to write about them below. Feel free to watch the clips and then re-watch (freeze-frame, rewind, replay) the clips to see what you can see. To say they repay re-viewing is an understatement.
Part I: Crowds
1. "New York, New York" (Martin Scorsese, 1977) Robert De Niro's Jimmy Doyle -- the guy in the "Hawaiian" New York shirt -- disappears into the VJ Day crowd... but not for long. The mise-en-scene relocates him for us, via a red neon arrow. This is the last shot in a brief prologue that sets up Jimmy as a compulsive scene-stealer and scene-maker who must command the limelight in any situation. Notice all the little dramas and sight-gags in the teeming throng: the sailor lifting up and twirling the woman in the red dress; the Yellow Cab "Taxi Driver" reference; the folks holding up the "WAR OVER" tabloid headline; the way the two sides of the theater marquee repeat the movie's title: "New York, New York"...
2. "Playtime" (Jacques Tati, 1967) Tati's masterpiece is what 70mm (and big-screen Blu-ray) were made for -- probably the favorite film of more film critics and academics than any other. This is the third shot of the movie, after an establishing shot of a steel-and-glass building cut off above the ground floor and a pan through the tinted windows that follows the nuns. The visual strategy of the entire movie is presented here (and it's followed by a reverse angle toward the other end of the concourse). The choreography is exquisitely timed, but you're free to follow whomever you like. My favorite moment is when the anonymous couple (foreground left) lock eyes with the blue-jumpsuited janitor (middle-distance, right).
3. "Caché" (Michael Haneke, 2005) SPOILER WARNING. If you've seen the movie, you know that this is the final shot. (It's also the only one in this series that I've abbreviated; as far as the movie is concerned, it "ends" exactly when the credits begin to roll.) The shot is fascinating for several reasons. It repeats an image from earlier in the film, only this time two minor characters (or characters who have been considered relatively "minor") appear together for the first time. If you haven't seen the movie, you might not see them -- or, at least, won't grasp the significance of what you're seeing. (Indeed, many who watch the movie from the beginning don't notice them.) And even if you do follow recognize the characters, what does this encounter mean? What I love most about this shot is how many things are happening in it -- any one of which could be meaningful if you knew more about the individuals you were looking at. Watch it a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth time and choose different characters to follow...
Part II: Two men and a bike... and a dog and a cat.
4. "Moonlighting" (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1982) I couldn't think of how to categorize this shot, so it gets one of its own. The "plot" function comes from the internal monologue of Jeremy Irons' character, heard in voiceover as he rides his bike down the street. As he coasts away from the camera, a man on the sidewalk is walking toward us with his leashed dog. Then a cat appears from out of frame on the right. Irons remembers he's forgotten something. The cat proceeds across the frame, and just as he jumps up on a small retaining wall on the left, the shot ends. Magnificent. This is the kind of thing Skolimowski -- and Eastern European (but especially Polish) filmmakers in general, from Ivan Passer to Roman Polanski -- have a feel for: bringing images to life by choreographing even the most mundane details of daily existence into an absurdist ballet.
Part III: Two-shots
5. "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (Preston Sturges, 1944) An entire date in one shot. It begins with Trudy (Betty Hutton) and Norval (Eddie Bracken), passing through the picket-fence gate of her house on their way to the movies, with strict orders from her stern father (William Demerest, of course) to come straight home afterwards. They're both a little nervous because they both have high hopes for the night ahead. Just different ones -- as is apparent from the way they initially talk right past each other. As the situation develops, we don't really notice that the conversation is transpiring in one unbroken shot. But we do feel the finely-tuned comic rhythms of the writing and performances, and sense the characters' passage through the neighborhood as they pass residential, industrial and retail/commercial real estate (single-family homes, boarding house, hospital/clinic, auto mechanic, lending library, office supply store, movie theater showing patriotic war pictures, featuring: "The Private and the Public"). Dramatically and comedically speaking, the scene turns just as they round the corner and Norval says: "Why Trudy, that's almost all I live for. Except for maybe getting into the army I can't think of anything that makes me more happy than helping you out. I almost wish you could be in a lot of trouble some time so I could prove it to you.." Be careful what you almost wish for. By the end of the shot, Trudy's agenda for the evening prevails, and Norval's hopes are dashed.
6. "Pauline at the Beach" (Eric Rohmer, 1983) Here's an example of the kind of thing Rohmer does all the time. Very rarely do you see standard reverse-angle (over-the-shoulder) setups in a Rohmer movie (particularly early ones), unless there's a good reason -- like the excruciating confrontation between Sabine and Edmond in the latter's office in "Le beau marriage" (1982). Rohmer often prefers to a conversation in side-by-side two-shot, or by holding on just one of the participants -- even if it's not the one who's speaking at the time.
In this scene, Marion (Arielle Dombasle), who has just arrived for a late-summer stay at her family's beach place with her teenage niece Pauline (Amanda Langlet), stops in on Henri (Féodor Atkine), with whom she has just slept the night before, partially out of annoyance with Pierre (Pascal Gregory), a friend who wants their relationship to be something more. You can feel the heat and the air circulating through the open windows as the two conduct their maneuvers around the room, sitting, standing, circling each other. The camera hovers in the center and effortlessly takes in the surrounding action. "The logistics are too complicated," she says. But Rohmer sees them organically.
Watch the way Henri moves in on Marion as she sits on the red towel in the windowsill, and the cocky, off-hand gesture with which he brushes the beach sand (and room dirt) from his bare foot before suggesting that young Pauline needs to "lose her cherry." He then stashes one hand between his legs with and his other touches Marion's hair and moved down her back. She looks off distractedly, bringing her hand to her chest. The mutual seduction is sealed with a window exit, but not the one we expect. Marion returns to the window through which she entered, when she leaves the frame we see her reflection in the pane of the open window as she goes deeper inside the house... followed by Henri.
7. "Chinatown" (Roman Polanski, 1974) If, on any given day, I was asked to choose the greatest single shot in American movies, it might well be this one -- in part because it's from the movie I often designate as my favorite, one I've seen countless times, and because I don't know when I first realized it was all in a single take. WARNING: If you haven't seen "Chinatown," you owe it to yourself to do so immediately, before watching this clip which is, in many ways, the climax of the picture.
All the movie's motifs and themes are brought together in this shot. I'm not talking about the story elements in the dialog, but the elements within the shot itself: frames (that focus vision, but mask what is beyond the edges), pairs of lenses (with one of them cracked or flawed), water (fresh for drinking and irrigation; saltwater from the sea, "where life begins"), wounds (Cross's deteriorated vision, Jake's wounded nose [blocked for most of the shot], Claude's bandaged head)... This is the climactic confrontation between private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Noah Cross (John Huston), patriarch of Los Angeles and co-founder of the Department of Water and Power. (And in L.A., water and power are synonymous.) It's also one of the many moments in the film in which the tables are turned on Jake, whose flawed vision never quite allows him to see enough of the picture to really know what's going in. There's no fancy camera movement here, just some subtle dolly work and a nearly 180-degree pan that reflects the reversal of power that occurs in the conversation itself.
We begin by looking into the past, from the patio on which Gittes and Cross's daughter, Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) have had tea and pre-coital drinks, all the way through the archways of the house and out the front, through the big, black open door that has repeatedly kept Gittes out of the family's business. A car passes through the central frame within the frame within the frame... and back out again. Then a puff of smoke blows in from off-screen left, telling us where Jake is standing, and reminding us that John Alonzo's Panavision frame is still not wide enough to take in everything that's going on here. Cross enters and moves toward the camera, all the way through the house before the first words are spoken -- and, significantly, he spots Gittes before we do: "Oh, there you are!"
I won't get into the specifics of the conversation (it's the detective movie staple in which the private eye lays out the solution to the Mystery for the audience by telling the villain that he's figured it all out). Gittes begins with a trick, getting Cross to put on his bifocals ("Can you see all right in this light?") and then confronting him with the evidence of murder (which has something to do with the fine print in a newspaper obituary column). At that point, Cross knows what Gittes has got, and takes charge of the shot, drawing the camera to the right as he soliloquizes about water and power, bringing the Mulwrays' backyard ornamental pond into the frame. Behind him, the sun dies with faint streaks of red: "You see, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place they're capable of anything."
8. "Swing Time" (George Stevens, 1936) Coincidentally, the Academy Award-winning song from the greatest of the Astaire-Rogers movies is also used in "Chinatown": Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' "The Way You Look Tonight." But that number (staged as a Hollywood glamour parody, with Fred singing to Ginger as she shampoos her hair), isn't the one we're dealing with here, perhaps the most thrilling number in the Astaire-Rogers canon because it's in one shot. Astaire was a stickler for maintaining a Buster Keaton-like integrity of space and movement within it. He and co-choreographer ("Dance Director") Hermes Pan knew darn well that if you were going to show great dancers on screen, you had to be able to see them dance: from head to toe, in real time. Otherwise, what's the point of having a great dancer -- and how could you tell?
One of the things I find so breathtaking (and I mean that as in "exhilarating," "taking my breath away" and quite literally "leaving me out of breath") about this dance, the "Waltz in Swing Time," is that the dizzying choreography and subtly sympathetic dancing camerawork create electric suspense every time I see it. I keep thinking: "What if they don't make it to the end?!?! What if they fluff the take and have to do it all over again? Moment-by-moment the pressure and the tension escalate. Ginger does not do everything Fred does, but she sure does a lot of it backward and in heels, as the old saying as it. Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and others did much to capture and create dance (from production numbers to solos) on film, but nothing has ever surpassed the high-wire daring and seemingly artless honesty of this.
If you study all eight of these shots, you should learn enough to pass any film class.
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