THE GODFATHER (1972, Coppola)

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I think you should watch the scene first! (Though if you haven’t seen The Godfather yet, move along, there’s nothing to see here.)  In this famous scene, to protect his family, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who is a squeaky-clean war hero turned civilian, is to murder his dinner-mates and enemies – Sollozzo and the bastard Captain McCluskey – which will doom him to a life working with “the family.”

The gun to do it with has been planted in the restroom…

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I’m obsessed with 70’s Coppola right now.  And what’s not to be obsessed with; this scene from The Godfather is a piece of perfection (as I consider the whole movie), down to the tiniest detail.  Today’s post continues the theme established in The Elephant Man post – ie, a brilliantly calculated close up coupled with amazing sound work.

I’ve been reading Walter Murch a lot lately.  Murch did the sound design on this film (and the groundbreaking sound work on Apocalypse Now, to name just a few of his more famous jobs) and this scene is a revelation of what inventive, imaginative design can do.

Coppola & Murch make no beautiful music together

To point – the absence of music (Coppola’s idea) and the screeching subway train (Murch’s idea).  It’s amazing to think about the fact that the train was a complete fabrication by Murch in post.  There is no train established nearby, no mention of it, and not one bit of visual proof.  And, what’s more, it sounds like it’s ON TOP of us when the murder’s going down. But no matter – it’s emotionally exactly right.  In fact, I don’t know how many times I watched this scene before I consciously noticed it.

And now the shot, which slowly pushes in on Michael Corleone (Pacino) seconds before he builds his nerve.  No suspense music, no cut-aways – just a slow push in on a brilliant actor after all the minutia of character and situation have been meticulously set up in the scenes & moments preceding.  And the fact that Italian is being spoken and is not being translated — because at this point, we know, words don’t mean a thing — THAT’S. SO. BRILLIANT.

This incredible shot, coupled with the lack of music and the exquisite use of sound create an indelible, gripping moment in an equally amazing sequence. Here’s a favorite quote of mine by Murch on the use of music, which he brings up in the book The Conversations, when discussing how they held off the music till after the emotional punch, especially in this sequence, but also throughout the whole film:

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[This scene] is a classic example for me of the correct use of music, which is as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than a device that creates emotion…Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids.  There’s no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music — just like steroids build up muscle.  It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

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I love that — after all our emotion is built and spent with no artificial aid from music — the score kicks in with full-blown operatic grandeur once the deed is finally done and Michael’s fate is sealed.  At that point, we not only believe it, but we’ve actually experienced it with him.  That’s so rare in film.

Al-Pacino-The-Godfather

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VERTIGO part 2 (1958, Hitchcock)

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As promised, we’re back for one more shot from one of my favorite Hitchcock films, Vertigo.  This shot really knocked my socks off when I saw it in the theater last year at the Egyptian in Hollywood.  (I really should go back there and find those socks.)

It’s another really assured moment. This one, for some reason, reminds me of Sergio Leone in its boldness.  I guess because it’s just so out there, while still so emotionally effective.   For the sake of revealing minimal spoilers, let me set it up this way: [Minor Spoiler alert] Stewart is in love with a woman, Madeline, who’s now dead at this point in the film.  When he comes across her doppelganger (also played by Kim Novak), he begs her to dress up as his former love and then kisses her.  Sounds healthy enough.  I mean, if I had a nickel.

The shot is here at 1:10, but as usual, you got to watch the whole thing!  Once again Hitchcock plays the suspense, building it as we await her grand reveal, now dressed like (dead) Madeline.  We’re right there with Scottie in anticipation.  (Hitchcock described this moment to Truffaut as Scottie metaphorically waiting for the woman to undress and come out naked, that Scottie is getting an erection in this waiting.  True story.)  Then there she is, at first revealed as a ghost as Bernard Hermann’s crazy gorgeous score hits us now full-blown with the same theme we first heard – only timidly – in that restaurant when they’d first met.  (For that scene, see this post here.)  Hope you’ll watch this video before reading on:

Hitchcock sends us back in time

In this one shot, Hitch throws us into the emotions of an obsessed man, shooting us back in time & space from the neon-sign-lit hotel room to the livery stable at Mission San Juan Bautista where he’d kissed Madeline for the last time and declared his love.

For me, this moment resonates so well because it’s a surprising and wholly unexpected peek into our heroes psyche and, technically — ie camera work and staging — it’s just so damn cool.  I had two different reactions to this shot upon first and then second viewing.

Sitting in the Egyptian, I found it so heart-rending that Scottie would be obsessed and hung up on that last intimate moment with her – but nothing’s ever been said about this before in the film. It’s like a surprise and truthful glimpse into his head that makes total, heartbreaking sense. We’re able to deduce all this on our own.  We go back to this moment because Scottie is trapped in the past (the main theme of the whole film), and as an added-bonus detail, an antiquated buggy is just the symbol for that.  I love that Hitch conveys all this with a bold, unexpected use of silent staging and (even then) old school in-camera special effects.

But then sitting at home watching the DVD, I had a different response.  Maybe it’s because I knew it was coming. Suddenly the moment in this shot when Stewart seems to realize his surroundings jumped out at me (1:36 in video above).  Has this kiss been her undoing, is it in this moment that he realizes exactly who she is, that it’s the exact same kiss from the stable?  Is he connecting the dots, realizing that perhaps it’s no mere coincidence this woman is the spitting image of Madeline? (I love that he soon doesn’t care – back to the kiss!)  Again, all conveyed in one “silent” shot.

I would love to hear what you think.  Which way did it hit you: a mix of both or someway altogether different?  It seems like my two interpretations aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but each certainly shades the shot in a completely different light.  Speaking of which –

How about the whole scene being bathed in green light?  (Is it just me, or is green often associated with the supernatural?  Maybe I’m just thinking of the ghost in David Lean’s Blithe Spirit.) Green is Novak’s characters’ color and the room in this scene is drenched in it, the color of the iconic dress she wore in the red restaurant when she was first revealed! (see this post here)  Hitch’s carefully designed visual cues all point us in an evocative direction – cutting out the middle man, the conscious brain, and going straight to the emotions.

Oh, silent cinema, how I love thee.

P.S. I just came across this and had to add it as a bonus.  Get a load – a commenter on this video states that Hitchcock created these repeating editing patterns to demonstrate the emotional loop that Stewart’s character was stuck in.  Shut up!  So cool.

DELIVERANCE (1972, Boorman)

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Some creepy ass shit.png

Sorry, no dueling banjos in today’s shot, but it’s no less creepy.  Here’s an example of a oner that builds incredible, terrifying tension in no small part because it’s unbroken.  Now, I don’t think it’s entirely successful, I’ll explain in a bit, but when it does work, it’s awesome.  Whenever I watch this and think of the terrible situation Ned Beatty and Jon Voight’s characters have fallen into, I get really tense.  My brain keeps yelling at them “Run!” or “Grab the gun!” as if I could change the terrible outcome.

The spot-on casting of the hill folk is half the reason this scene is so effective.  I mean, I’d shit myself if I ran into these two in the city, let alone the back woods.  Add to that skillful writing, the pitch-perfect set-up in the preceding minute, and this wonderful, lingering, relentless shot and we’re really cooking.  (Possum, I assume.)  Joking aside, this is a truly horrible predicament and I think the shot choice maximizes its tension.

Boorman builds a (tense) shot

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the blocking works 100% of the time.  To me, it sometimes feels a little inorganic, which takes its toll on the actors here and there. (Not to say there aren’t some awesome performances and directing here.)  I’m not sure what circumstances Boorman was battling when he shot this.  Maybe he only had a half day to get the whole scene.  Maybe there was a guy with a chainsaw making noise across the river who’d only give them an hour of silence.  Maybe he was so excited about the tension he was building that he didn’t care about the believability of all the blocking. Who can say?

Reminds me of a story Lumet relates in his book Making Movies:

“I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran in a particular way. His answer was that if he he’d panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he he’d panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport – neither of which belonged in a period movie.” 

So who knows what was going on behind the scenes, but one thing Boorman accomplishes for sure, the tension really builds, and how.

A fave bit: Ned Beatty’s reaction when he first realizes the guys are assholes.  Priceless.