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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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.

VERTIGO (1958, Hitchcock)

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Kim Novak revealed in VERTIGO.

Like the previous post about Scorsese, this shot is staged with great originality and really bares the stamp of the director. Kim Novak’s famous entrance in the film is so simple, restrained, elegant, and full of weight. The placement of the actors, the color design (the colorless extras, the red walls, her vivid dress), the famous music cue, the elegance of the camera movement, all tell you to pay attention, something life-altering is happening to our main character (Jimmy Stewart) – we’re meeting what will become his obsession.

There’s something about this shot that is beyond its design and beyond explanation; simply the effect is greater than the sum of the parts, in my opinion.  Especially when you think of all the millions of ways he could have chosen to reveal her, makes you thankful he picked this way!

The Reveal: One of Hitchcock’s specialties

If I had to pick one thing about a shot that I think is most important, it’s the reveal, ie, the surprise, the beat of the story unexpectedly exposed. This reveal here is so brilliant. How can Hitchcock do this with such restraint and yet so obviously? It really engages the viewer – startles you (or at least it did me) – because you feel like you’re spotting something on your own. This is what great filmmaking does, lets the audience deduce and discover on their own.

As with most great stagings/shots, this one works economically on so many levels: Stewart and Novak’s characters become clear, we see he’s an outsider as we learn what world she inhabits, exudes; he’s spying, so are we; we’re also bathing in the sense of supernatural mystery that surrounds her; get a dose of his foreshadowed feelings for her; and experience the gravity both he’s experiencing and that is sneaking up behind her (or so we are lead to believe).  And let’s not forget the suspense of the shot, which maximizes the reveal’s impact; this is, after all, Hitchcock we’re talking about.  (Thanks to Jeremy Cole for reminding me of this last point in his comment below!)

I’m trying really hard not to swear here to emphasize how much I admire this shot!  The whole rest of the clip is awesome, too.  How about the light that comes up behind Novak’s head when she strikes a pose? No rule says you can’t.  Or the two shots of Stewart, one on his right and one on his left, as she passes him, each conveying a distinctively different moment.  Very fine.  And then the thematic two-of-her as she passes the mirror!  Hitch was into the details.

Behold! Shot starts at :06 –

Next week I’ll do another shot from Vertigo. I wonder if you can guess which one? If you do, I will make the next Vertigo shot the official post of “your name here!

HARD PILL (2005, Baumgartner)

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This is a shot from my dogme-styled feature, a oner that was inspired by the lateness of the day and the large number of actors in the scene, like my theory in the previous post on Willy Wonka.  In the scene, our main character, played by Jonathan Slavin, is throwing a birthday dinner party with Susan Slome and Scotch Ellis Loring.  He’s invited sexually-ambigous Matt (Jason Bushman) from his office, determined to make his romantic intentions clear, until a complication arrises.

This scene was shot at one in the morning after an already long shooting day. We had just filmed a lengthly dinner scene (which proceeds this scene in the movie) with this same group, which meant lots of director-brain-energy had been used to get all the right coverage, let alone make sure the 180 line was making sense.  (Incidentally, around this time I had been watching a lot of, of all things, Spielberg’s dinner table scenes in E.T. – great examples of finessing the line with a group at a table which can be very tricky and easily a disaster.)

Once all the actors were on their feet and it was time to block, I realized that if I designed single shot coverage for everybody I was not only going to have to block five actors standing and moving in a room, keep track of the line vis-a-vis who was talking to whom, and take the time to shoot singles for each of the five actors, but that we’d also be there another two to three hours.  And I was running out of steam fast.  But I also had the realization that this was the perfect opportunity for a oner.

So we blocked with the cast and camera (I was running camera, so it made it quicker) and rehearsed over and over till we got the timing down.  I’d say we blocked and rehearsed for 45 minutes, and then shot maybe five takes.  It’s take two that made it into the movie.

I think the shot plays very fluidly and works well with what follows; the next scene is standard coverage at the dinner table, everyone sitting down. This, I think, offers a nice contrasting intro to that scene, while wrapping for the shooting day well before dawn.

Here’s the shot:

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CHILDREN OF MEN (2006, Cuarón)

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In terms of current work, Alfonso Cuarón is my favorite director.  There I said it.  Whether he’s posing for a faux promo pic (he’s above, right), directing a tiny character piece (Y Tu Mama Tambien)  or a huge franchise (Harry Potter), or spouting off on film theory, it’s honest, surprising, insightful, heartfelt, hilarious and/or terrifying and more often than not, just plain brilliant. Even his least successful film, Great Expectations, is worth the price of admission just for its first half.

I recently read a short interview with him in The Bagger’s New York Times article from 2006 when Children of Men was released.  I include this excerpt here, not particularly apropos to today’s post, but because once again Cuarón perfectly articulates something I’ve believed for a long time, but never boiled it down so succinctly.  It’s part and parcel to the intelligence and artistry he exhibits in today’s shot.

Alfonso Cuarón on Theme in Cinema

“What I hate is when cinema is hostage of narrative… let cinema breathe…narrative is an element of the cinematic experience, but it’s [just] an element, as acting is an element, cinematography is an element. Music and decors, those are elements. But right now? Cinema becomes just about seeing illustrated stories as opposed to engaging audiences in an experience in which you don’t explain [too] much….[it is a film’s exploration of themes, as opposed to its narrative, that determines its ultimate success.]”

I think that’s such an important point to make. If a film’s story is its body, then its themes are its nerves  – and a good director needles those nerves until by end credits, he’s hit them so directly as to light up the whole experience; make the body jolt to life.  If you ever want to enjoy what I think is a perfect exploration of theme, it’s Eastwood’s Unforgiven.  Gorgeous.

So, on to the shot.  Not to necessarily be pre-occupied with oners, because there are so many other elements (to borrow Cuarón’s phrasing from above) that go into to an amazing shot, but here’s another incredible example nonetheless!  In a single shot, Cuarón creates an entire experience, with beginning, middle and end.  It’s gripping, weighty, and exciting.  I’ll admit, the part with the ping-pong ball is a bit weird, but it does its job in the structure of the sequence.  This shot is so rich in action and story beats that upon first viewing of the movie, it’s nearly impossible to clock this scene’s all going down in one shot.  At least that was my experience.  There’s just so much being accomplished!

I would suspect this sequence wouldn’t be quite as impacting had there been cuts in place of the horrible nightmare that unfolds and escalates in real time before our eyes.  What do you think?

As Shakespeare wrote, “So quick bright things come to confusion.”

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958, Welles)

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Most people know about the beautiful master shot at the top of this film, but Welles always spoke of another long oner in this film that he was more proud of.  It’s the apartment interrogation scene from this stylish noir – a B picture elevated to classic status by the artistry of Orson Welles.  (Funny, not only was this guy one of my dad’s heroes, but he kinda looked like him.  A case of life imitating art combined with too many hamburgers.)

During post production, this film was famously butchered by Universal; Welles was deservedly on the outs for his decadent and mercurial ways (no pun intended).  But thankfully the film was restored to Welles’ vision in 1998 by Walter Murch, using 58 pages of editing notes that Welles had left behind.  (You can read the thing here, thanks to Wellesnet.com: WELLES TOUCH OF EVIL MEMO – If you do nothing else, watch the opening 20 minutes of both versions and you’ll see a phenomenal case study on not only the brilliance of Welles, but also the power of intercutting two parallel story arcs, a design that Universal had refused to stick to when the film was released.  Restoring it to Welles’ intent is an improvement that’s hard to overstate.)

Back to today’s shot – Welles was just the best at blocking these long master shots.  He could create organic blocking for actors, each move beautifully motivated, keep the camera in the most interesting places, and deliver an amazingly nuanced performance of his own.  How fun would it have been to see what was going on behind the scenes as walls flew, camera assistants ducked, and tape marks littered the floor.

Hitchcock did an entire movie in one shot, but not nearly as dynamically, seamlessly, cinematically or organically as what Welles pulls off here, if you ask me.  Again, it’s about the to-and-from-camera blocking of the actors that gives Welles’ scene such nice depth as well as Welles’ characteristically low-camera makes for especially interesting compositions.

Orson Welles’ Touch of Noir

This youtube clip is actually two halves of the scene separated by a fade in & out where in the movie there are other scenes intercut. Both halves of this scene are done in single takes, and what a blast they are.  Allowing big parts of the action to happen off screen not only serves to simplify the blocking of the camera/actors, but increases the tension and dramatic impact of those off camera moments.  The whole thing has a building, claustrophobic feel just right for the action.  Welles really relishes the license that making a ‘noir’ gives him – hard light, shadows, distorting lenses, clipped dialogue and a wrinkled trench coat, to name a few touches.

Hope you’ll enjoy meeting or revisiting this classic scene.

MIDNIGHT SUN (2011, Baumgartner)

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Today’s post is a simple example of what I talked about in my last Spielberg Raiders post, about tying visual beats together with a pan or a tilt.  It also marks the very first shot of my own that I’m posting.  How excited I was to type my own name in the header. Hope you’ll enjoy the shot, and the firsthand report of its design and creation.

If you blink, you’ll miss the shot – it’s in the more action-y part of this demo scene I directed for my upcoming suspense thriller Midnight Sun.  In the scene, I tried to include a widely dynamic range of moments (action, suspense, quiet performance, loud stunts, gunshots, etc) both because it can make for good cinema, but also because it was a demonstration of my range to show that I could deliver this feature.

The shot is at 3:20 in this scene – but hope you’ll enjoy the build that gets us there.  You can hit “HD” to turn HD on or off, depending on your connection.  And you can make it full screen with the 4 little arrows button at the bottom right. (Also, beware loud volume!)

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The shot in question, while simple in the scheme of things, is more complex than perhaps it seems.  8 people are working in rehearsed synchronization to make a seamless, flowing moment.  Add an office-full more if you include the tireless post-visual-effects folk at Furious FX, who created for this shot the blood splattering onto the storage bins, erased the cable, removed some frames, and did some re-timing. (They delivered about 40 effects shots for the whole scene.)

If you ask me, the pan over to the stunt player flying backward out of the galley makes the moment both more chaotic and real.  Also, it’s a Reveal, which always makes for a more compelling shot.  I think whenever you can use “in-camera” reality for extraordinary moments, the more visceral and real they play.  Watching something in real time with the actor on set lets the audience feel that something more weighty is happening.

Shooting it this way caused complications, especially for an ultra-tight schedule/budget.  Because of the challenges of the large camera rig back-peddling quickly down the narrow aisle, I was encouraged by my cinematographer, Pete Holland, to parse the moment into 2 separate shots.

I should note that Pete saved my butt countless times with his brilliant insights and suggestions but this time he was reacting to the limitations the technology & space were presenting him.  But it shows nonetheless that in the hairy and incredibly stressful crap-storm of the set, delicate artistic impulses can get squashed, and sometimes you only have the faintest lingering memory of the reason you wanted it that way.

Behind the Scene glimpse of the Stunt

But I insisted, and we figured out how to make it happen.  Slowing down the back-peddle helped Pete and the camera rig a lot (it would be sped up a bit in post).  Then the first assistant director, the camera, the actors, the stunt team & I all practiced the moves on a count down from 4, which you can see in the raw behind-the-scenes footage below.  It looks so simple here, but imagine trying to herd all the cats, er, moving parts, while being constantly reminded you have very little time left.  I’m happy to say we got it on the second take.  (How’s that for a contrast to my post on David Fincher and William Wyler?)

First is a camera rehearsal with “no jerk,” that is, no stuntman flying, and second time is the take in the movie. Rest assured, the stuntman, R.C. Ormond, was fine, even though he sounds pretty agonized right after the stunt!

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So that’s the shot.  I think it’s a good example of how tying 2 beats together can be far more effective than two separate shots cut back-to-back.  In this case, it adds surprise, excitement and chaos to a moment that was all about those very elements.

Thanks to the wonderful cast/crew that made this shot happen, including Pete, 1st AD Jim Simone, stunt coordinator Thom Williams, stunt player RC Ormond, assistant Tyler Poppe, and producer John Ferraro, among many others.

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