Tag Archives: the film experience

Arrivederci

The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series takes a trip to Venice this week for David Lean’s bittersweet romance Summertime (1955). My favorite shot from the film is a simple one. To set the stage: less than ten minutes of movie are left, and Katharine Hepburn’s wistful American tourist has an announcement to make. “Listen, Renato,” she tells her Italian beau, a gentle man played by Rossano Brazzi. “I’m leaving today.”

This two shot, lasting roughly two minutes, contains the whole of their final conversation. “I shall always love you,” confides Renato, leaning toward her. She gives a little rolling nod and tries to stiffen her jaw, tears quickly pooling in her eyes. “Yeah,” she sighs, and the syllable has unexpected gravity thanks to her inimitable New England accent. This is a very tight shot, but Hepburn shifts whatever would normally be said with body language into her face, which is rigid, then loose; distraught, then opening into a melancholy smile.

All the while, water ripples in the canal behind them. These surroundings are quiet and out of focus, keeping all our attention on the couple in the foreground, but still the water and brick pillars linger as a reminder of of the Venice she’s about to leave behind—and as the hypotenuse of a loose right triangle that further tightens the shot’s emphasis on its actors. This shot isn’t showy, but it is beautiful. It advances the plot and showcases Hepburn’s acting while still providing us something rich to gaze upon. This is how you stage a break-up: with visual modesty and minimal fuss.

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Straight Down the Line

Inviting me to select my favorite image from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), as The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series has done this week, is a little like asking that I single out my favorite limb. I’ll make the choice eventually, sure, but it’ll be a reluctant one and involve lots of nervous glances from hand to foot and back again. What I’m trying to say is that Double Indemnity is an unusually beautiful film noir, shot by cinematographer John Seitz as a tapestry of shadows and key lights—a lustrous labyrinth of insurance offices and Venetian blinds leading “straight down the line,” as Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale repeatedly puts it.

But, well, the challenge is to pick one shot, so I picked one, and it’s at least pretty emblematic of Wilder and Seitz’s technique throughout the whole of the film. See, for example, the inventive patterns in which they’ve scattered light across the frame, drawing our eyes straight to the space between Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. The lighting supplements the actors’ already white-hot chemistry, suggesting a downward sloping line from his face to hers and a region of the screen that’s buzzing with sexual magnetism. Mere seconds before this, MacMurray was pacing the room, going on and on in voiceover about how “the hook” (read: his own cock) was pulling him toward her,

so at 8 o’ clock the bell would ring and I’d know who it was without even having to think, as if it was the most natural thing in the world…

And there she is, lit up like a vision from heaven (or elsewhere). The curls of her blond wig are shimmering and her body assumes an irresistible pose beneath that heavy trench coat. This is her about to cross the threshold into his dark bachelor pad, about to make the relationship between them more than just one of flirtatious salesman and client. It’s the seed of her anklet blossoming into adultery, and murder.

I suppose that’s why this shot—which, incidentally, lasts a full minute and fifteen seconds, this image emerging roughly in the middle—calls out to me: it’s so tentative, so teeming with potential. Double Indemnity is like the tale of the scorpion and the frog if it were about two scorpions trying to ferry one another across a river, and this is a shot of those deadly predators, each sizing the other up, separated only by a doorway. A couple other details I enjoy here: the shadow of the rain outside, barely visible on the seat of MacMurray’s pants; and that picture of a bare-knuckle boxer just to the right of the door.

Three more similarly framed prints grace the wall above his couch, and while I’ve never been able to fully integrate them into my reading of the film, they suggest to me an antiquated notion of brawny masculinity. Perhaps they hint at a kind of visceral thrill that MacMurray’s Walter Neff, this bundle of machismo and libido stuffed into a white-collar job, is pursuing whether through his relationship with a married woman or his attempt to “crook the house.” Those boxers, always lurking in the background, could signify the primal man lurking inside the skin of a mild-mannered insurance salesman.

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Didn’t She (Blow Your Mind This Time)

As soon as I learned that the subject of this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), a thought struck me: “I’m probably going to choose an image of Pam Grier being a badass.” And here we are! The above is part of a rat-a-tat-tat shot sequence, timed down to the millisecond courtesy of Tarantino’s late editor Sally Menke. Jackie scans a list of tenants and dials the number for Bridget Fonda’s Melanie, whose voice snaps out of the intercom: “What?” Jackie retorts with her own name, as if reciting a password. That sharp delivery, the way she sidles up to the intercom during this roughly two-second shot… it’s become cliché to call Tarantino’s characters “cool,” but I don’t know another word that would fit her so well.

That coolness has a special power here, too, because Jackie Brown is by far the lowest-key of Tarantino’s movies. Although he’d already aestheticized the bullshit small talk of L.A.-area criminals in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, here that inclination toward the mundane is pushed even farther. Stylized dialogue and genre movie homage—the latter represented mostly by Grier’s mere presence—take a backseat to scenes of Jackie and bail bondsman Max Cherry doing business, killing time, and awkwardly getting to know one another. This is a very autumnal story, one that’s frank as can be about the ages of its stars, so moments of intense cool like this take on a new significance.

In light of the weariness that pervades Grier’s performance, right up through that heartbreaking lip-sync to “Across 110th Street” in the final scene, shots like this come to feel like anything but movie star posturing. This is Pam Grier: genuine badass. Her image is burnt into the composition, with her matching red nails and dress balanced against the muddy blue of the intercom. The shades suggest glamour, mystery, while the glint of her gold earring and the hair flowing out toward the edge of the frame put me in mind of classical sculpture. Jackie Brown may break down the iconography of Grier’s 1970s performances, but as she leans against that intercom you can see it rising stronger than ever before, phoenix-style, from the ashes.

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Beautiful Wickedness

Nothing much happens during “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Judy Garland leans against some hay, then walks, leans against this wheel, walks some more, then sits down. Five shots, about two and a half minutes, and that whole time we’re listening rather than watching because hers is the most wistful voice in all of human history. But minimalism or no, this shot is still surprisingly dense. It’s cut in half diagonally by Judy’s arms and by that wheel, whose arc across the frame guides our eyes toward the upper right—the same off-screen space Judy’s gazing at and singing about. Furthermore, the wheel gives her something sturdy to rely on as she sings her heart out, and its spokes work with the fence in the background to make her look especially imprisoned by Kansas farm life. But of course, like my favorite shot in Easter Parade, this is all about Judy’s eyes, and the sepia is even lightest around her head to accentuate them. Yes, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and this is one of my three favorite images in the movie.

This is another of them, though about as far removed from Auntie Em’s farm as you could get. It’s a matte shot of the Wicked Witch’s castle that’s only onscreen for about two seconds, yet can have a colossal impact on the psyche of a child watching it. The Wizard of Oz overflows with marginal details that suggest sprawling, untold stories: What was the Witch of the East like? Where did the red brick road go? What exactly are the Winkies chanting, and why? Similarly, this shot suggests an impossibly tall fortress sprouting out of a chasm that threads its way around a mountain range, none of which ever actually existed. It’s just a single painting by the uncredited Warren Newcombe that nonetheless arouses the viewer’s curiosity and imagination, with reverberations that are tangible decades later in fantasies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. This shot is visual magic, expanding the film’s already epic scope. (Speaking of camera tricks, I was surprised to realize on this rewatch of Oz that several of my favorite shots involve lap dissolves.)

Finally, sticking to the Witch’s castle, here’s my favorite shot. I really love Margaret Hamilton’s somewhere-over-the-top performance in this movie, and although she’s facing away the camera right now, she’s still oh god so terrifying. Here she’s at the height of her magical authority, screaming “Fly! Fly!” and gesturing broadly to whole squadrons of her simian slaves. This is one woman giddy with unbridled power, using it to exact revenge for her sister’s death. Like that matte painting of the castle, this shot suggests a gray vastness beyond the Witch’s fingertips, but here it’s framed within a picture window. Here we’re privy to the Witch’s war room, whose foreground is dotted with objects—vulture statue, candle, crystal ball, gyroscope—that call to my mind Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. This shot is an intimate portrait of evil, the kind the Witch herself might hang on her wall, with the camera stationed on the inside and gazing out. It’s a vantage point scarier than any lion, tiger, or bear.

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Paradise Lost

Nothing else is quite like Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It’s a gothic horror story, showbiz satire, and pastiche-heavy musical that somehow fuses camp and pathos; a movie whose style I can only describe as “everything and the kitchen sink.” Phantom draws us into a parallel world, a warped vision of 1970s decadence that’s as hellish as it is seductive. And although De Palma’s manic visuals may lay the foundation for this world, it would all fall apart without the tragic heft of Paul Williams’ music.

Therefore, I’ve written an encomium to Williams’ Oscar-nominated score for The Film Experience. It’s hard to overstate how much Williams’ songs, which double as catchy pop ditties and incisive autocritiques, do for this movie. Not every song is a keeper—I’m lukewarm on “Special to Me” and “Life at Last”—but several of them (e.g. “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye,” “Faust,” “The Hell of It”) are damn near sublime. They’re as pleasurable and eclectic as De Palma’s camera technique, each one flying off in its own lyrical directions but all of them rooted in the same Nixon-era cynicism. Frankly, they’re awesome.

A few more scattered thoughts on Phantom:

  • “The Hell of It” invariably calls to my mind “Movin’ Right Along,” which Williams wrote for The Muppet Movie. The pacing, structure, tune… really, everything but the subject matter.
  • In addition to De Palma’s usual Hitchcock homages (like a shower scene), Phantom contains probably my favorite Touch of Evil homage, which even uses a split screen to compound the tension.
  • Another of De Palma’s auteur trademarks that pervades Phantom: screens within screens (within screens). I recently caught up with Snake Eyes, and it’s startling how similarly the Paradise and the Atlantic City Arena function as panopticons. Every space lies under layers of surveillance.
  • Lastly: Phantom is cleft, up to its closing seconds, by a crowd/spotlight dichotomy. This visual motif recurs at the climax of my other favorite De Palma movie, Carrie. The spotlight translates to power, to an escape from anonymity, and of course to death.

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Picture Perfect

It was as if the painting had sweated a dew of blood.

This has to be one of the most infamous, gruesome images in horror film history. And rightly so! Congratulations go to painter Ivan Albright for creating this indelible bit of 1940s psychedelia. It is, of course, the titular objet d’art from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), with Dorian’s iniquity embossed on its very surface.

I recently revisited the film so I could write about Angela Lansbury’s performance for The Film Experience, and I was shocked by how icy it becomes after her character commits suicide. Emphasis shifts from faces to furniture, with the camera gazing over mirrors, statuary, and tiled floors. Even the visage of Hurd Hatfield, who plays Dorian, acquires an inhuman sheen. The whole movie becomes a mausoleum, a final resting place for both portrait and subject.

A final note on Dorian Gray’s writer-director Albert Lewin: the man really had a thing for the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. (Also George Sanders, who starred in 3/7 of his films.) Observe the following, from Dorian Gray and Lewin’s later film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman:

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Cops and Robbers

This is it! The third season of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series ends tonight with a bang, not a whimper, courtesy of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). (Thankfully, HMWYBS will return in 2013.) Dog Day Afternoon’s not necessarily what I’d call a “beautiful” movie, but it is a sensational one in every sense of the word. In its efforts to recreate a failed 1972 bank robbery, the film brings a whole city block to life—sweaty, colorful life—and it’s teeming with dense, jagged shots of the bank’s interior. Shots like the one above.

I love the visual zigzagging here, from Sonny (Al Pacino) to his gun-toting accomplice Sal (John Cazale) to the bank manager behind him, and how we’re vaguely aware of background details like the flag and those blinding fluorescent lights, but the focus is squarely on Pacino and his disbelief. He’s supposed to be robbing a bank, for chrissakes, but what are the words coming out of his mouth?

All right, who has—who has to the go to the bathroom here?

It’s that sad, funny clash between efficiently committing a crime and being a basically decent human being.

I’m also a fan of this aerial shot from Sonny’s first showdown with the cops. This is the moment he goes from “bumbling crook” to Brooklyn folk hero, using hostage negotiations as an antiauthoritarian soapbox. He’s switched from shouting “Attica! Attica!” to “Put the fucking guns down!” and now a more general, frothing-at-the-mouth cry of “You got it, man! You got it!” Pacino struts and twitches like a bug-eyed rooster, his gestures so huge and angry that we can read them from the air. The shot reveals a growing ring of cops around the bank, but he’s unafraid. For once, the lone Vietnam vet has all the power.

But this is my favorite shot in Dog Day Afternoon. It’s right after Sonny’s first phone call with Sgt. Moretti, when he learns that cops have him “completely by the balls.” As the movie’s tagline says, “The robbery should have taken ten minutes”; now it’s developing into a stand-off with no obvious end game other than Sonny’s arrest or death. The news overwhelms him. He slumps to the floor. (And Sal, taking a cue from Sonny’s desperation, immediately does the same.)

The rest of the movie gives us shot after shot of a sweaty, exhausted Pacino. But this is his first breaking point, before he has a chance to get up and be re-broken. His first glimpse of how fucked he is, and how long he’s going to be cooped up in this sweltering bank. The shot makes satisfying use the bank’s architecture, too: that ugly gray flooring on either side of Pacino, and the column mercifully propping him up. This is his workplace now—his crime scene, his cage.

Head in hand, Sonny’s a one-man Pietà. And his troubles have only just begun.

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