Hey, ready for an 86th Academy Awards post-mortem? Yeah, me neither. It’s a little late now for that to be a “hot” conversation, anyway—though I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you back to November, when I told you that 12 Years a Slave was going to be your Best Picture winner. Yes, you may now feel free to point out that I botched the Best Director call; that was clearly going to happen once Alfonso Cuaron took the Director’s Guild prize, the certain signal of an upcoming Oscar win, but that’s OK, because Gravity wasn’t just one of my Top 10 Movies of 2013, it was my favorite movie of the year, and I have been a Cuaron fan ever since A Little Princess.
To get the best of the rest of Oscar fever out of your system, go John Travolta-fy your name, and then come on back and let’s get on with some new material.
My official 2014 viewing has begun; I haven’t caught up with The Lego Movie yet (I’ll be dragged to it kicking and screaming, and then probably like it), but I have seen the excellent documentary Kids for Cash, and the movie that has inspired this post, In Secret—an enjoyably trashy adaptation of French writer Émile Zola’s 1867 creepy Gothic romance Thérèse Raquin.
Star Elizabeth Olsen (about whom I also made a future-oriented Oscar prediction that I have yet to abandon) is a compelling presence in the film, holding her own up against a scenery-gobbling supporting turn by Jessica Lange—who has blissfully entered what I’ll call the Baby Jane phase of her career—and the film’s ripe passions should more than satisfy devoted fans of the genre despite critics’ overwhelmingly negative appraisals, but what I will take away from the screening is how it reminded me of the pleasures to be found in the individual shot. The single frame that can arrest, delight, or horrify the eye; the isolated image that can move the soul.
In the Olsen film, this happened for me during the shot you see above. Ingmar Bergman observed that the work of film “begins with the human face,” and in this case, what caught me by surprise was a moment of purely pictorial beauty—this golden lamplight rippling along the edges of Olsen’s cheek, warming the flesh in an otherwise cold atmosphere, giving me a delicious thrill. It wasn’t an “important” shot in the scheme of things as I remember; yes, something dramatic was happening, but it was more of a passing moment. Seeing this well-crafted image just got to me, as fleeting as it was, and reminded me of the painstaking work of cinematography, of its occasional happy accidents (spectacular images that are captured unplanned), and of the physical toil required in image-making…the sheer amount of imagination and work that goes into crafting what you see so that it appears inevitable and effortless and un-manufactured, even though there’s all kinds of artifice involved in achieving that, going on just beyond the borders of the frame.
So my gratitude goes out to In Secret cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, whose work previous to this film was unknown to me. Below, I’ve quickly picked out five more of my favorite shots from films to remember—but I simply won’t confine those choices to just pretty pictures, because that would be a disservice to illustrating how complex a phenomenon the impact of “the shot” really is. Mostly what I mean by this is that it’s all about the “Kuleshov Effect” (we all learn about it in film school)—the notion that the meaning and power of cinema, and any single shot, is derived more from the whole than from the parts. Meaning some of my favorites here take their greatness not just from the images we are looking at, but by how they have been arranged within the images and sounds that come before and/or after them.
When the manimals created by Charles Laughton’s Dr. Moreau decide to abandon “the law” and have at their whip-wielding master, this climactic sequence of the film begins with a nifty series of shots where the creatures are storming right at us. Director Erle C. Kenton and cinematographer Karl Struss (who would later go on to shoot the marvelous Chaplin feature The Great Dictator) deliver a series of shots that start blurry and move into sharp and shocking focus, giving us scary close-ups of the forward-charging monstrosities. Then the camera executes something different to put an exclamation point on our terror, tilting quickly downward to show us how one of them walks with one foot…and one hoof. So, so creepy a moment.
Here’s one of those cases where there’s a shot I love principally because it comes as the payoff to a spectacular buildup. Robert Redford’s introduction as the Sundance Kid comes in an extended closeup of him, and only him, clear in the frame as he plays cards. He wins and is accused of cheating; the loser gets up from the table and makes the charge, but we don’t cut away, we stay on Redford. When Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman—does anyone not know this? Why did I bother writing that?) enters, we don’t see him either, we just hear his voice. We only see Butch when he squats into view, leaning into Sundance’s ear to dissuade him from trying to hold onto his winnings. We still haven’t cut to a reverse angle as Butch approaches the sore loser about to draw his pistol—who abruptly sticks out his arm to push Butch away. Butch turns back, says “I can’t help you, Sundance.” And now, we cut to Card Player #1 (played by
Paul Bryar Donnelly Rhodes, as corrected by a MFF reader; an error well-spotted!).
His eyes dart over to Butch, and then back to the Kid.
“I didn’t know you were the Sundance Kid when I said you were cheating.”
It’s a pants-wetting moment to treasure.
Now, in Ye Olden Days of Screenwriting, the screenwriter used to indicate cuts and all sorts of other camera directions that the director and cinematographer might (or, as you may expect, might not) follow to the letter. A quick consultation of William Goldman’s brilliant script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reveals that this is not the way Goldman envisioned this scene being cut together at all—so, whether or not the scene was originally shot with coverage conforming to Goldman’s script, we can definitely look to the genius of George Roy Hill’s direction and the editing choices of John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer for the keys to this magnificent shot. Not to mention the sumptuous images realized by legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall.
Much anticipating the long-delayed, supposedly upcoming-at-last “King Conan” movie (or whatever it’s called now) with Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to the role that made him a superstar, I recently sat down and revisited his debut turn as Robert E. Howard’s muscular barbarian. An entirely separate article could (and probably will, eventually) be written about Making a Great Entrance in the movies; Arnie’s first appearance onscreen in John Milius’ virile rendering of the Howard mythos is actually one of the last times I remember ardent applause breaking out in a movie theater for a moment like this.
Already famous as a champion bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger was still a major risk to put at the center of a big-budget film like Conan the Barbarian; when the Austrian Oak actually started talking a little later in the film, some thought his thickly-accented voice to be a liability; to me, it only added to his authenticity in the role. But cinematographer Duke Callaghan’s clean, strong shot—when Arnold looks up and Basil Poledouris’ majestic score sends in horns to trumpet (ha) our hero’s arrival as a man—is undeniably one of the great introductions of a character and star.
Most of the time, optical effects in movies have two purposes: to serve as simple transitions (fade-outs, dissolves, and so on), or to serve as invisible (or seamlessly believable) special effects. In Martin Scorsese’s wonderful 19th-century romantic drama based on Edith Wharton’s celebrated novel, there is a shot where an “iris” effect is employed, and done so in a way as to very much call attention to itself.
Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), soon to be married to May Welland (Winona Ryder), hasn’t yet had an affair with the seductive Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer)…but they are working their way inevitably towards it, and are ever on alert for their least odd behavior being spotted by the nosy-rosies surrounding them. Watching a performance together in the same theater box, Newland and the Countess have an intense tête-à-tête—Scorsese and Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus call attention to it by having the shot echo precisely what is “going on” between them and around them, by imposing an iris effect that closes in, blacking out their surroundings and narrowing our focus towards them as other sound drops away and we only hear their whispered tensions. The effect created is that the image both reinforces the secrecy they hope to preserve, while also suggesting it’s possible someone with a pair of opera glasses could be spying on them.
Scorsese is often unafraid to call attention to his authorship of the moment—see the much-talked about shot in Taxi Driver when the camera retreats from Travis Bickle and into an empty hallway, motivated by exactly nothing other than our discomfort with his pleading—and this is one of my favorite examples of how he does that very well. I remember it being a literally jaw-dropping moment of audacity to me, because I remember yes, dropping my jaw down, and leaning back hard into my seat feeling like I had to hold my breath until the tension was released.
(If you’re thinking, hey, didn’t he mention this moment before?, I’m way ahead of you. I did, back in 2012 when I asked the Academy to Just Give Daniel Day-Lewis His Third Oscar Already. They helpfully obliged, but I’ll probably be thinking about this shot from this movie a lot longer than his admittedly wonderful work in Lincoln.)
Maybe you thought I’d include the famous long take from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Sure, it’s great, but this is my list and instead I’m going to offer a nod to DP Jean Lépine’s tribute shot from Robert Altman’s acid comedy about Hollywood deal-making that actually references it not only in style, but through dialogue (Fred Ward’s security-man character talks about how much he loves the shot as he discusses it with someone on the lot). Plus, it has it over the Welles for me because it features funny cameos—to actually have writer Buck Henry pitching his script for The Graduate, Part II to executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is priceless. This could be the greatest shot-about-shots (in one of the greatest movies-about-movies) of all time.
Could be that because I’d mentioned appreciating basic pictorial beauty with the Olsen film, I prejudiced myself against thinking of chiaroscuro/”chocolate-box”-type images, shots where the lighting or focus are even the key matters of interest, or any “sweeping landscape” shots–though I’d definitely be interested to think about gorgeous landscape shots where perhaps the location is not doing most of the work.
And may I add that I feel awful having not yet mentioned Roger Deakins, who might just be the greatest working cinematographer today. (I’ll just say there are too many great shots of his, and it’s therefore impossible to single out just one) I got started loving his work with Nineteen Eighty-Four, where he made the desaturation of color to produce ugliness a truly beautiful thing. Known also for his frequent associations with the Coen Brothers, Deakins, a revered master of composing for celluloid, is a recent convert to digital cinematography—and his embrace of that technology was a major stepping-stone in the continuing evolution of moviemaking. That Deakins has never won an Oscar (he was most recently nominated for the Bond film Skyfall and last year’s Prisoners) is emerging as one of the all-time Academy oversights.
Some of my “runners-up” that came to mind: Peter O’Toole holding that match, in Lawrence of Arabia; the final shot from The Graduate (which I wrote at greater length about here), Grace Kelly’s slow-motion kiss of James Stewart in Rear Window; the super-long-take affection between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious; the heartbreaking closeup of Bergman as she listens to “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca; Bruce the Shark making his first appearance in Jaws; the iconic “gunbarrel” shot that (usually) opens a James Bond movie; the unmasking of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, and yes, the wildly impressive long-take opening of Gravity (which, despite its having originated mostly in a computer, is cinematography nevertheless)…
I put together this list in an all-fired hurry, going with the first five shots that came to mind. There are millions of shots left from movie history to name. See how you do with picking out some great ones and sharing them with us below.