Archive for the 'Film and other media' Category
Seldom can we point to a moment when a movie convention is born. When, exactly, did crosscutting for suspense start? (Not, apparently, with Griffith.) What was the dissolve first used to convey the passage of time? What film first updated us on story developments by whipping newspaper headlines up to the camera?
We’re rightly discouraged from asking such questions. For one thing, we probably can’t answer them; too many films are lost. And what may matter is not the first time a technique is used but the process by which it becomes normalized and widespread. That’s when it achieves significance in the history of film forms.
Still, occasionally we might be able to pinpoint a crystallizing moment, when the convention assumes a distinct identity. The problem then becomes tracing the uptake, the process that makes the convention standardized enough to be understood by audiences.
In working on Hollywood narrative conventions of the 1940s, I’m drawn to moments in earlier decades when certain storytelling devices seem to emerge, although maybe only in partial or bastardized or confused forms. Here’s an example.
We don’t usually look to the MGM of this period as a hotbed of innovation. We think of it as the star-glutted studio that under Irving Thalberg turned out plump, well-upholstered productions of classics like David Copperfield (1935) and Romeo and Juliet (1937). Yet the search for prestigious productions led two releases of 1932 to become benchmarks of cinematic storytelling. Those two films launched conventions that are still with us.
The one I’ll consider today involves voice-over sound. I’ll examine a second one in a later entry.
The voice within
The Fallen Sparrow (1943).
Like most terms of craft, voice-over has several meanings.
In one usage, voice-over is what we hear when a narrator recounts information during a flow of images. An external, voice-of-God commentary like that opening The Roaring Twenties (1939) is one example.
Or a character in the story may be recounting what happened in the past. As we see a flashback, we hear the voice of the character in the present. Perhaps the character is talking with another character, or writing a letter or diary entry.
In each of these conventions, the voice-over sound isn’t coming from the action onscreen. We don’t see a source in the scene, and typically we don’t see the external narrator speaking, or the character who is hosting the flashback. Moreover, the sound has a different timbre; it’s miked more closely and without ambient effects. Another cue that the voice is “over” rather than “in” the images is the choice of verb tense. In a flashback, a character narrator will use the past tense to describe the action we’re seeing, and usually an impersonal narrator will as well.
There’s another type of voice-over, though. Here the voice is not sensed as “over” the action but “in” it. The voice is representing a character’s thoughts at the moment. The cues for this are likewise pretty clear and redundant. Again the voice is closely miked. It accompanies a medium or close shot of a character, and the words are spoken by the character’s own voice. But the character’s lips aren’t moving.
We understand that the sound represents the thoughts in the character’s mind. Using the literary term, we can call this convention interior monologue. Unlike voice-over commentary, the interior monologue is marked by the present tense. The character will refer to himself or herself with the pronouns “I” or “you.” In the sense I mean, the character isn’t a narrator; the character’s thoughts are what is narrated, by the convention I’ve picked out.
Both conventions of voice-over are strongly associated with Hollywood cinema of the 1940s. Call Northside 777 (1948) opens with the external narration of a detached, documentary-style voice.
In the year 1871, the Great Fire nearly destroyed Chicago. But out of the ashes of that catastrophe rose a new Chicago. A city of brick and brawn, concrete and guts, with a short history of violence beating in its pulse.
The narrator goes on to describe a crime that took place in 1932.
The Fallen Sparrow (1943), by contrast, starts in a train compartment, with Kit McKitrick opening his suitcase, taking out his gun, and looking out the window. As the train goes into a tunnel, the windowpane becomes a mirror, as above.
Over this image we hear Kit’s inner monologue.
All right. Go on. Let’s have it. Can you go through with it? Have you got the guts for it? Or did they knock it out of you? Made you yellow?
The screenplay’s indications are as follows: “Kit stares at the reflection of his own eyes. Softly, barely audible over this, though Kit’s lips do not move:…” There follows a slightly longer version of the voice-over text.
The inner monologue is a venerable literary technique, used in novels for decades, and plays for centuries as the soliloquy and the aside. So you’d think that early American sound filmmakers would have adapted it quickly and without fuss. Actually, they don’t seem to have done so.
You can find auditory flashbacks (another device some would call voice-over). In City Streets (1931) while Nan stands by the bars of her cell we hear a fragment of an earlier conversation. To venture outside Hollywood, there’s the famous example from Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) in which the heroine seems to hear “Knife!” emerge from casual breakfast talk with increasing volume. Here, I’d suggest, we’re getting an impressionistic filtering and exaggeration of a word that’s repeated in the action of the scene. Both passages are subjective, but neither is an interior monologue. And both are rare examples in early sound cinema.
Hence the interest of Strange Interlude, which MGM made in the spring of 1932.
Thinking out loud (very)
It’s based on a 1928 play that won Eugene O’Neill his third Pulitzer Prize. Like many of O’Neill’s projects, the drama was massive and experimental. It consists of nine acts lasting five hours, with a dinner break after the fifth act. The production was surprisingly successful, running over a year on Broadway and touring to packed houses around the US.
The action seems fairly skimpy for such a long play. At the start, Nina Leeds is grieving over the wartime death of her beloved Gordon. An older friend of the family, Charles Marsden, is secretly in love with her. Nina plunges into nursing work at a veterans’ hospital, and a doctor there, Ned Darrell, is concerned about her careless promiscuity. Darrell himself is attracted to Nina but resists falling in love with her. Instead he suggests that she consider marrying Sam Evans, a bright but good-hearted college boy she’s seeing.
She does, but she learns from Sam’s mother that there is a strain of madness in the family, and if they have a child, the lunacy is likely to be passed along. The mother brazenly suggests that Nina find a new partner and pretend the love child is Sam’s. The target father becomes Dr. Ned, and of course he and Nina fall in love.
The sexy situation surely drew notice; there were censorship rows in some cities. In addition, the play’s undertones attracted an audience who was starting to hear about Freudian theory. The men are all displacements and substitutes for Gordon; Nina even names her son for her dead sweetheart. At the end, when Nina relaxes in Charlie’s arms, she confusedly calls him “Father,” which is all an up-to-date 1920s intellectual needed to hear.
The formal innovations of Strange Interlude stem from what some critics considered O’Neill’s urge to create a “novelistic” drama. This explains not only the play’s extreme length, but its span of over two decades. Years pass between acts. O’Neill sought, he claimed at the time, to trace the complete history of a woman’s life, in a way that would show facets of the “Eternal Woman”: innocence, passionate youth, early marriage, infidelity, motherhood, and eventual acceptance of old age.
Another facet of O’Neill’s “novelistic” ambitions was the expansion of the old-fashioned theatrical aside into a string of inner monologues. A character speaks his or her thoughts aloud, and while the other characters can’t hear them, we can. All the major characters are given at least one passage of inner monologue. A great many of these run very long, over a page in the play script, and they were largely responsible for the vast length of the show.
Like a novel, the play gives us omniscience, gaining access to several characters’ minds. The thematic thrust of the device was that we often think things that are the opposite of what we say. We wear “verbal masks.” The inner monologues tell us about the characters’ real thoughts, and these tumble together in contradictions and associations. Here’s a short example from the first scene, when Nina’s father complains to Charlie that Nina has become a brittle young thing.
PROFESSOR LEEDS (absent-mindedly). Yes.
(Arguing with himself.) Shall I tell him? …no…it might sound silly…but it’s terrible to be so alone in this…if Nina’s mother had lived…my wife…dead!…and for a time I actually felt released!…wife!…helpmate…now I need help!…no use!…she’s gone!…
This passage is tame compared to the fleeting feelings and contradictory attitudes that scamper through Nina’s monologues. The effect is to suggest characters whose surface politeness conceals both shameful secrets and volcanic feelings.
As you’d imagine, there were problem making these interludes work onstage. The solution hit upon was to have the silent characters freeze in place while the “thinking” character delivered the monologue and moved freely around the set. The difficulties were compounded when O’Neill packed a series of monologues close together; at some moments, characters’ monologues seem to reply to each other. The choreography of the first productions must have been something quite dazzling and may account for the play’s success with audiences.
On the track of monologue
Strange Interlude was one of several Broadway properties bought by Irving Thalberg and his story editor Samuel Marx. There were censorship constraints, so that Nina is no longer promiscuous and doesn’t abort her and Sam’s child. Still, in the film she does bear Ned’s child, and they mislead Sam into believing he’s the father. The plot is propelled by the lovers’ reunions at long intervals and their hesitation about revealing their secret to Sam, to Charlie, and to the grown-up Gordon. They rekindle their passion but decide not to run off or tell Sam the truth. If Nina is punished at the end, it’s because she’s never able to join Ned as his life partner.
The script cuts the action down to fit a 112-minute running time, largely by dropping or condensing monologues. Very long speeches in the play become two or three lines in the film. There remained the question of how to present the monologues on film. In the early talkie days, people weren’t certain what to do.
MGM publicized the menu of options being considered. Director Robert Z. Leonard largely rejected the play’s tactic, that of having the thinking character turn slightly to the audience and speak in a different tone of voice. For a time, the production team thought of using superimpositions. A ghostly double of one character would appear at the proper moment and utter the thoughts while the tangible character stayed silent. Alternatively, Leonard considered having the ghostly doubles entirely replace the actors during the monologues. Given the pace at which the monologues bounce around the scene, the superimpositions would have been throbbing in and out pretty often.
The solution was the one that’s obvious to us. We simply see the thinking character and hear his or her thoughts, more closely miked, while the actor’s lips don’t move. Why did Leonard and his colleagues even consider other options? Partly because rerecording was not yet established as reliable enough to allow inserting lines, some mere interjections, into the flow of the recorded dialogue.
In production, the problem was solved in a mind-boggling way. The film was shot twice. The first go-round recorded the entire text, dialogue and monologue, for each scene. The dialogue was timed to fractions of a second. Then the monologue portions were transferred to phonograph discs. Then the film was rehearsed and re-shot, with the discs used as playback guides for the actors’ pauses. And the playback was recorded on the set, with the dialogue.
When the film was finally cut, the cleanly recorded monologues from the first go-round were cut into the shots of the actors thinking. They were amplified and, I think, spruced up a little in mixing to yield a more intimate sound field. Often they’re whispered, or at least delivered in a subdued tone.
Today the technique looks fairly conventional, at least at any given moment. At the time it seems to have struck observers as a novelty. “It is a technique admirably suited to the audible screen,” remarked the New York Times critic, musing, “I wonder whether these spoken private thoughts will inspire another picture with them?” Variety mocked Strange Interlude as a critic’s picture, a natural for “discourses on academic analyses of the contemporary ‘art of the cinema.’”
Both opinions strike most of us as deeply wrong. Today Strange Interlude looks a misbegotten monster, opposed to nearly everything we would celebrate about Hollywood sound cinema. Just when films were starting to pick up the pace, this movie goes lugubrious. Perhaps in the theatre O’Neill’s monologues wrap the action in a rhetorical micro-dramas, but in the film they expose the plot as a relentless tango of bourgeois self-absorption. The monologues drain the film of curiosity, suspense, surprise, and affect. There is no mystery in it. Everything is said, every question answered in advance. It must be one of the most absolutely explicit films ever made.
Yet if we argue that poor works of art can have worthy historical influence, I’d submit Strange Interlude as Exhibit A. Its purpose was misguided, and it bungled achieving even that, but it threw up an important convention that would eventually enhance cinematic storytelling.
Keep it to yourself, and to us
As a novelty, the filmic inner monologue ran risks. The Los Angeles Times critic worried that the movie version could confuse people who hadn’t seen the play. The ballyhoo for the release talked it up as “the first to pioneer in a new field of the talkie; namely, the presentation on the screen of hidden thoughts as well as the regular spoken dialogue.”
To assist viewers with the convention, the film has a foreword implying that we won’t see lip movements.
In order for us fully to understand his characters, Eugene O’Neill allows them to express their thoughts aloud. As in life, these thoughts are quite different from the words that pass their lips.
The opening scene immediately reinforces the point. Charlie walks down the street, greeting a one-legged soldier. This reassures us by displaying normal dialogue.
Charlie comes to the camera and pauses at the gate, musing aloud, “This pleasant old town, dozing. What memories it brings back.”
Then we get the film’s first inner monologue. His voice clear, his mouth closed, Charlie eyeballs the camera in a confiding way no one else will in the film. “Queer things, thoughts. Our true selves! Spoken words are just a mask to disguise them.”
The device is bared. It has been sharply contrasted with external dialogue and spoken monologue, and the theme of hidden thoughts is blatantly announced. Soon enough, after embracing Nina, Charlie’s voice-over reminds us: “How she’d laugh if she could only read my thoughts.” In the film’s first moments, its unusual sound device is flagged with Hollywood’s customary redundancy.
Throughout the film, Charlie is the only character who will occasionally play to the camera, in an echo of the stage production. The gesture reflects his role as an ineffectual observer of the Nina-Sam-Darrell triangle. In the film’s first sequence, which corresponds to the play’s first act, Charlie is also a crucial force for exposition, getting the lion’s share of inner speeches. In earlier plans for the play, he was intended as a chorus or stage manager.
So the film introduces its narrational device very explicitly. But as a film it offers a chance to coordinate the dialogues more tightly than was possible on the stage. With one character speaking while the others freeze, there was an inevitable slackening of pace. The movie camera, however, can isolate the thinking character. We can’t see what the offscreen characters are doing, so often they more or less cease to exist during the monologues. Concentrating on one character, we forget the others.
Probably O’Neill intended the fragmentary quality of some of the monologues as an equivalent of the stream-of-consciousness technique that Joyce had brought to literature with Ulysses in 1922. But by linking voices in a fairly linear way, Strange Interlude achieves the effect of an older novel in the Balzac-Dickens-Tolstoy line. In these works the omniscient literary narration shifts among characters within a scene. The film firms up this sense of gliding from mind to mind by isolating characters in singles, cueing us to expect a monologue at any moment. Sometimes, however, the film dares to interweave its dialogues and monologues within a sustained shot. At one point an aside from Nina in a two-shot is echoed by one from Charlie; she passes the ball by lowering her eyes, while he lifts his head.
The interpolations become quite fast and precise, as you can see from this extract.
It seems to me that film uses the technique more judiciously than the play does. After Charlie’s ruminations have provided exposition, Nina and Ned, the furtive lovers, get most of the monologues. Occasionally the drama adds new characters, such as Sam’s mother and the little boy Gordon, who seems to intuit Nina’s guilty thoughts. The film stages some climaxes as a ping-pong game of monologues, often without the cushioning of dialogue bits.
Here the characters seem to be conducting telepathic conversations.
But enough about me
Today the inner-monologue technique in Strange Interlude seems at once familiar and peculiar. I think that’s because the convention, in both fiction and film, didn’t develop along the choral lines the play and film laid down.
Today novelists are advised to stick to only one point-of-view character per scene. A current manual warns: “If you simply jump from head to head as the mood strikes you, the voice becomes a fractured mess.” Manuals of O’Neill’s time gave the same advice. Critic Clayton Hamilton admitted that a viewpoint could shift from scene to scene or chapter to chapter (the so-called “limited omniscience” technique) but he stressed that within a scene, the author should stick to rendering only one character’s viewpoint.
This is what we have come to expect in mainstream cinema. Not only inner monologues but all channels of subjectively tinted information are usually slanted toward one character per scene. So a film might have several point-of-view characters in its overall running time (e.g., Psycho), but any given scene is likely to be anchored around one.
When inner monologue doesn’t do this, comedy can result. Cuddling on a sofa in Me and My Gal (1932), Danny and Helen discuss a picture he remembers as “Strange Innertube.”
Ten years later, in A Yank on the Burma Road, the same gimmick was yielding flat-footed comedy.
Perhaps because it seemed a bit silly, very few 1930s filmmakers seem to have picked up the inner monologue device for serious drama. When they did, the multi-voiced version seems more common. In The Life of Vergie Winters (1933), the main characters attend a political rally, and each one gets a bit of interiority.
Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town (1938) not only presented a commenting narrator in the form of a stage manager, but included a scene of a wedding ceremony that assembled thoughts issuing from the minister (played by the Stage Manager) and the bride’s mother. For the 1940 film version, other characters’ inner monologues were added.
Both Vergie Winters and the Our Town film also include moments focused on a single character’s inner monologue. Still, it’s remarkable how few films of the 1930s pick up on device at all. I speculate that storytellers became more comfortable with it as it became more common on radio late in the decade. The strategy was emphasized by Orson Welles and especially Arch Oboler. By 1939 Oboler was building entire plays out of what he called “stream of consciousness” technique. Soon the inner monologue as we know it started to be heard in talk-filled films like Angels over Broadway (1940) and noirish tales like The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940).
Perhaps it took radio to teach filmmakers the dramatic power of the inner monologue. It was certainly suited to many genres, from crime and suspense stories to melodrama and even comedies. Since it crystallized in the 1940s, the technique, while rare, has never really gone away. Ingenious filmmakers, from Resnais to Wong Kar-wai, have revived and revised it.
More generally, I suspect we should thank radio and the stage, including plays as ungainly as Strange Interlude, for urging filmmakers to try for more. These models pushed narration beyond the momentary shove and tug of character-in-a-situation and overlaid a speaking voice that undertook the task of remembrance, commentary, and confession. Novelistic cinema, of a certain kind, was launched.
A later entry will consider another convention launched by an MGM movie in 1932. But you have probably figured out what that is.
A big thank-you to Michele Hilmes and Shawn Vancour for helpful guidance in the literature of radio. I’ve also learned from Neil Verma’s Theatre of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Thanks as well to Kat Spring and Luke Holmaas for suggestions on 1930s sound.
On the staging of the play, see Philip Moeller, “Drama Makes Regular Stops,” Los Angeles Times (17 March 1929), C14. O’Neill’s novelistic intentions are discussed in “Origin of Drama Traced,” Los Angeles Times (3 March 1929), C16-C17.
I mention Ulysses as an influence, but surely O’Neill read Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, and other modernists too. The idea of a split-vocalizing character was explored in earlier avant-garde drama. One precedent which O’Neill might have known is the “monodrama” of Nikolay Evreinov. Eisenstein points out the parallel in his memoirs (Beyond the Stars, BFI/ Seagull, 1995), 521. (Thanks to Yuri Tsivian for the lead.) Joseph Wood Krutch defends the play’s novelistic introspection in The Nation (15 February 1928), 192. In all, Strange Interlude strikes me as an amalgam of the older novelistic tradition with the emerging stream-of-consciousness technique. Some, probably including me, would call the play a piece of middlebrow modernism.
On the making of the film, see “Filming ‘Interlude,’” New York Times (13 March 1932), X6 and Edwin Schallert, “Mute Stars to Speak Words,” Los Angeles Times (9 March 1932), 7. Lea Jacobs points out that re-recording practice in Hollywood faced problems of exact timing. Not until 1935, with the advent of “push-pull” tracks and click sheets, could filmmakers control in postproduction the tight interweaving of sources that Strange Interlude created through playback in production. See her Film Rhythm after Sound: Technology, Music, and Performance, discussed in an earlier entry. On Thalberg’s strategy of buying Broadway hits, see Mark A. Vieira’s Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince (University of California Press, 2010), 161-198.
The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall reflected on the inner-monologue technique in “At the First Night of a Worthy Film” (11 September 1932), X3 and “The Screen: Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Strange Interlude’ Is Engrossing and Compact in Film Form” (1 September 1932), 24. The ballyhoo mentioned comes from Sid Grauman, who claimed he was going to embed a print of the movie into a wall niche of his theatre as a permanent memorial. See “‘Interlude’ Print to Be Sealed in Theater,” Los Angeles Times (23 July 1932), A7. The Variety review comes from 6 September 1932, 15.
The inner monologue is one type of what we call in Film Art “internal diegetic sound.”
Loyal Marxians will recall Groucho’s address to the audience in Animal Crackers (1930): “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.”
Arch Oboler employs “stream-of-consciousness” in some of his 14 Radio Plays (Random House, 1940); his glossary explains the device as “Thoughts in the mind of character; method of delivery should be quiet, semi-monotone, with far less coloring than ‘conscious’ speeches” (257). The definition would cover flashbacks, but clearly some of Oboler’s 1939 plays such as Baby and The Ugliest Man in the World use the inner monologue. The former is printed in 14 Radio Plays, and the script of latter is available here. Go here to listen to both.
It seems clear that critics’ demand that viewpoint be restricted for an individual scene, however much it may shift between scenes, stems from the influence of Henry James. James argued for the unity and power of a limited point of view, often conceived as “seeing” the action from a certain character’s “vantage point.” “There is no economy of treatment without an adopted, a related point of view,” he writes in the preface to The Wings of the Dove. “I understand no breaking up of the register, no sacrifice of the recording consistency, that doesn’t rather scatter and weaken.”
What Joseph Warren Beach called “the well-made novel” trend that followed James placed great emphasis on this economy. See Beach’s neglected but astute The Twentieth Century Novel: Studies in Technique (Appleton Century Crofts, 1932). My paraphrase of Clayton Hamilton comes from Materials and Methods of Fiction (Doubleday Page, 1917), 1228-129. The contemporary advice I quote is in Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not to Write a Novel (Penguin, 2008), 164.
A bold use of O’Neill’s abruptly spliced monologues comes from a different author named James. In one scene of her detective novel Cover Her Face, the late P. D. James gathers several suspects waiting to be questioned. “All of them sat in essential isolation and thought their own thoughts.” James’ third-person narration is omniscient with a vengeance, leaping from mind to mind, quoting the thoughts in parallel blocks. The force of the scene comes not only from the jumps in viewpoint but also from the way they violate a cardinal convention of detective stories. The culprit, we have been told, “must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been permitted to follow.” Do James’ plunges into interiority clear these people of suspicion? The formulation comes from Ronald A. Knox, “A Detective Story Decalogue,” in Howard Haycraft, ed., The Art of the Mystery Story (Grosset and Dunlap, 1947), 194. Of course this rule applies to the puzzle-oriented story in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, not the thriller or suspense tale. For more on the difference see my web essay “Murder Culture.”
P.S. 22 March 2015: You never stop learning. I just discovered that George Meredith’s novel Rhoda Fleming (1888) contains a passage that prefigures, in all its awkwardness, the device of Strange Interlude, both play and movie. Rhoda and Robert are talking, and Meredith’s omniscient commentary shadows their lines with parenthetical indications of their thoughts. These mental interjections often contradict their spoken words.
“I’ve always thought that you were born to be a lady.” (You had that ambition, young madam.)
“That’s what I don’t understand.” (Your saying it, O my friend.)
“You will soon take to your new duties.” (You have small objection to them even now.)
“Yes, or my life won’t be worth much.” (Know, that you are driving me to it.)
“And I wish you happiness, Rhoda.” (You are madly imperilling the prospect thereof.)
And so on. This to-and-fro passage occurs in Chapter XLIII. And yes, the book isn’t called Rhonda Fleming, more’s the pity.
The Limey (1999).
Here’s a story, so far not finished.
Chapter 1: You can’t put ten pounds of mud in a five-pound sack (Dolly Parton)
Once upon a time, before home video and cable, movies were broadcast on television. They might be drawn from local TV stations’ 16mm collections or transmitted from the networks on “movie of the week” shows. When the film was a widescreen film, especially in anamorphic processes, it was adjusted, as we now say, “to fit your screen.”
That TV screen was in an aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 (4 x 3), like pre-1950s commercial films. But the film to be shown might be 1.75, 1.85, or 2.35. How to show it?
You could retain the whole original frame with letterboxing at top and bottom. This was done more often in Europe than in the US, I believe. Our TV system had 100 fewer lines, so the tiny picture area became quite degraded. And then (as now) there were people who persisted in believing that those black bars at top and bottom were somehow taking away part of the movie.
Far more common was the tactic of somehow making the wider image fill the box. This tactic came to be called “pan and scan.” It gained the name because in preparing the TV version, an engineer would sometimes swivel the TV frame across the original image, carving into it and sliding to and fro. The term pan and scan covered another tactic, simply making two shots out of one. We might call it “cut and scan.” Here’s an instance from an old VHS tape of Advise and Consent, one of the most daring American widescreen films. The slightly fatter faces are due to the distortion of the CRT monitor I shot from.
Sometimes there was neither scanning nor cutting, just simple cropping. The engineer would find a 4×3 chunk and extract it from the bigger image. To keep things simple, that chunk was usually around the center. This “center-cutting,” as it was called, could yield some funny results, as in the protruding nose in a 16mm TV print of Tarnished Angels.
Chapter 2: Shoot, protect, screw up
Some widescreen processes from the 1950s onward didn’t frame the image wide during filming. The image would be captured “full frame.” The result might later be “hard matted,” or letterboxed, during printing, as in the shot from The Limey surmounting today’s entry.
Sometimes, the 35mm theatrical prints would retain a 4:3 image, or something even squarer. The frames in a 35mm print of Do the Right Thing are about 1.19:1. Note the extensive headroom in the left image, from a 35mm print. For screenings the projectionist would mask the image to the proper proportions—typically 1.85. Here’s the version on the Criterion DVD, at 1.75 for widescreen monitors.
The full-frame image was available for cropping to 4:3 TV viewing. Many cinematographers used the “shoot and protect method” by composing for both 1.85 and 1.33.
There were problems with this “open matte” process in theatres. I recall a mis-framed version of Jerry Maguire in which the locker-room scene showed more of Cuba Gooding’s goodies than was intended. And a full-frame print of Godfather II reveals the duct-taped marks on the set floor (as if Pacino would ever hit them).
The same problem would appear in full-frame TV versions that were carelessly transferred from film. Microphones, unfinished stretches of the set, and other production elements might jut in. Some cinematographers didn’t consider TV versions important enough to worry about. “Fuck TV,” was heard occasionally.
More basically, the full-frame result wasn’t faithful to the “original” theatrical version, which was designed to be shown wide. Purists objected that TV versions, even if shot full-frame, didn’t fulfill the intention of the director.
Chapter 3: 16 into 9 won’t go
Actually, pan-and-scan hung on quite a bit. Many laserdisc editions weren’t letterboxed. Airline versions offered cropped images, and still do. (Those tiny screens, after all.) Some DVDs were released in pan-and-scan versions, while others offered a letterboxed version of the film on one side of the disc and a full-frame version on the other. But serious cinephiles could assume that the general public was starting to understand that films intended to be seen at a certain ratio should be shown that way.
As the new disc formats emerged, so did a plan to standardize High Definition video for a 16 x 9 display. The European Union promoted it during the mid-1990s, and over the next twenty years it became accepted for both computer monitors and video displays. The new format developed in sync with the gradual replacement of analog broadcasting by HD transmission.
The problem is that 16:9 is a ratio of 1.77:1, close enough to 1.85 for most purposes but far off the ratio of 2.20:1 (many 70mm films) and 2.40 (anamorphic widescreen after about 1970). Yet maybe this isn’t a problem. Why not just letterbox those wider images within the 16:9 format?
If only things were so simple.
Chapter 4: Slightly off, and more
Today, at least 77% of US households have HD monitors. (Surprisingly, 41% of TVs still in use are Standard Definition, many presumably comforting children and old people.) Broadcasters make concessions to the 4:3 ratio by keeping the key action centered and cropping the 16:9 image.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and TV monitors apparently can’t bear blank space. So some purveyors of movies on video have updated pan-and-scan for the HD age. Cable, for instance.
It’s been years since I clicked my cable remote to the Sundance Channel and the Independent Film Channel, now known as IFC. Seeing them a couple of weeks ago was a mild shock. Now each boasted a bug in the lower right corner, and swarming over the image were lots of texts plugging other programs. Worse, there were commercials for weight-loss scams, Burger King, and Portlandia. More to the point here, these services give us a new version of pan-and-scan.
Thanks to the center-cutting method, I found plenty of examples of anamorphic 2.40 films sliced up to fit our monitor. Here are a couple of examples from IFC’s version of Jaws. In the first pair, the wider image gives Bruce room to move, and Brody is more salient. In the second pair, Hooper is speaking, but in the IFC image he’s even more peripheral than Mr. Nose in Tarnished Angels.
In rare cases, IFC seems to run full-scope prints; I spotted one of Chinatown. But it doesn’t seem to be the norm. Maybe IFC’s New Age pan-and-scan is trying to live up to the channel’s slogan: “Always on. Slightly off.”
Many films of the early widescreen era are compromised even at 16:9. The nose shot from Tarnished Angels would be a bit cramped in a 1.77 format, and many other shots would suffer as well.
When the wide format was still new, filmmakers were exploring what they could do it, and that included scattering important information throughout the frame. Preminger was all over the place in the Senate and Committee-Room scenes of Advise and Consent. What would you do to fit these shots into 16:9? I make a silly stab at center-cutting.
Films like this remind you of how the technology of home video has made our filmmakers less daring in their compositions. Would anyone today risk the bold composition that Richard Fleischer uses in the mortuary scene of Compulsion? As you can see from the image at the end of the entry, the crucial pair of eyeglasses rests on the lower frameline, as if on a shelf. ‘Scope nudged some directors toward quite intricate shot designs.
By the time Tootsie was made, with home video on the rise, filmmakers were pressed to shoot and protect better. So here there’s plenty of unused space on the sides, and most action will fit into any old frame proportions. In the shot below, the 1.33 version (available on the flip side of the DVD) is extracted from the Scope version (and slightly squeezed as well). The 1.77 version I grabbed from the Sundance Channel is also extracted from the wider framing. Both reframe the image to emphasize Michael and Jeff, the comic duo. The original 2.35 image centers the food counter and for some reason gives equal space to the inconsequential aisle and stove on the right.
Obviously, composition isn’t particularly important here. Solid as Tootsie is at the level of writing and performance (“Oh, God, I begged you to get some therapy”), we wouldn’t point to it as a model of pictorial finesse.
Moreover, pan-and-scan isn’t just a matter of retaining the action in different framings. Recasting the image changes the scale of the things in it. Old TV pan-and-scan, as in my first Advise and Consent example, makes the figures chopped out of the composition seem closer to us. Sometimes today’s pan-and-scan makes the figures seem smaller. That’s because the full-frame original image offers a bit more space at the top or bottom than we see in the anamorphic version, and that gets incorporated into the 1.77 or 1.33 version. (You can see it in the Jaws example above, with the space above Quint’s head.)
The push-pull of different versions is particularly noticeable in close views. The center-cut (and perhaps slightly squeezed) IFC version of The Matrix keeps Cypher prominent in the foreground, with the car crash in the rear. Yet do you see him and the crash as closer to us in the wide original? I do. Maybe it’s because both Cypher and the background plane are larger in the second frame.
By contrast, several shots in the IFC version of The Matrix have areas at the top and bottom not visible in a wider-frame DVD. In any case, extracting from an anamorphic frame or here, pulling the 1.77 version out of a full frame, can subtly alter the scale and perspective relations within the shot.
In the old TV days, networks would show credit sequences in full widescreen, as they were obliged to make all the contributors’ names visible. So you often had the odd situation of a widescreen credits sequence that would end a movie shown in 4:3. Sundance has updated the technique. Tootsie’s penultimate shot of Julie is at 1.77, but as she and Michael walk off, we cut immediately to a final shot at 2.35 letterboxed, over which the credits roll.
Another old trick has been revived. Back in 1960s TV, you’d have an obligatory widescreen image with credits information, but the shot might go on to show story action. Then the TV framing would close in on the wide image and gradually fill the screen with a 4:3 composition. Damned if I didn’t find the same thing happening last weekend on Sundance. The opening credits for The Graduate were in full ‘scope. That shot dissolved to the famous shot of Benjamin sitting in front of his aquarium, blankly facing the camera.
To retain the credits and keep the dissolve smooth, the engineer slowly enlarged the original shot to 16:9 proportions as Ben’s father comes in. (You can see the Sundance bug lift slowly into the lower right of the image.)
The result is a camera movement, a zoom in, that isn’t in the original film. In the original framing below, the shot scale on Ben isn’t much different, but the little scuba diver remains prominent in a way he isn’t in the 16×9 image.
Chapter 5: VOD = Variants On Demand
On cable TV we Americans can go to TCM for a purer experience of widescreen from the old days. But the more recent films shown on IFC, Sundance, Pivot, and other cable channels are likely to be hacked up in the new way. In this respect as well as others, cable has become the network TV of the new age. We get shows of all types, not just sports and movies but original series, except that now we get to pay to watch commercials.
Surely things are better with streaming?
In the spot-checking I did on Amazon and Hulu Plus, I didn’t find instances of cropping. In particular, the Criterion films I checked retain their proper aspect ratios. Netflix is another story. At this point we must thank the anonymous genius behind What Netflix Does. This site exposes a great many ways that the most popular streaming service has relied on pan-and-scan, with different crops for different markets.
In fairness, once the anonymous genius contacted Netflix, some deficient versions were replaced by proper ones. But several of the more recent examples have not been changed. Who knows how many others remain panned and scanned because the alterations haven’t yet been detected?
In the light of all this, I’m wondering if filmmakers have been protesting this mangling of their work. During the early days of TV broadcasts, directors complained about cuts and commercials, and in more recent years we’ve learned that directors were won over to digital projection in theatres because then “the film would be shown exactly as the director intended.” With many more people seeing the film on video platforms than see it in theatres, you’d think we’d have heard more from the creative community. Once more their movies are being jammed and lopped to fit whatever box they’re put in.
I’m tempted to say that when we want to get the movie in a form close to the ways its makers wanted it to be seen, we need to see it in a theatre or get it on DVD/Blu-ray. There are exceptions, of course. Theatres can botch aspect ratios today just as they have in earlier decades, chiefly by using the wrong masking. And we have filmmakers who alter the aspect ratio on DVD, usually to expand the field from 2.35:1 to 1..77 in hopes (vain) of evoking the Imax effect (Tron: Legacy, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).
Without getting into technicalities, some of the 1.77 versions you’ll see have a bit more area at the top and the bottom of the frame than we find in the full anamorphic image. In many cases, like the shot of Cypher in The Matrix, it’s because the film was shot in Super-35. This very full-frame capture format allowed filmmakers to extract a 2.40-proportioned image, or a 4:3 image, or images in other aspect ratios. The Wikipedia entry on Super-35 is very helpful on this and other aspect ratios, both for cinema screens and TV. Some shots in the IFC Jaws had a little more vertical area as well. I assume that’s because the ‘scope image on the DVD cropped a tad off the top and bottom of the full-frame image on the film.
Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for pointing me toward the site What Netflix Does. More general thanks to James Quandt for our long-running conversation about aspect ratios. Other entries on aspect ratio on this site involve Fritz Lang, Jean-Luc Godard, and Wes Anderson. I set out some ideas on CinemaScope aesthetics in this video lecture.
P.S. 28 January: Thomas Zorthian was ahead of the curve on this. Back in 2011 he noticed the Netflix pan-and-scan.
Your article hit home for me as I have been trying to bring attention to this problem for a while. I even wrote Roger Ebert hoping he could use his influence. He was kind enough to publish my letter: http://www.rogerebert.com/letters/netflix-stream-sometimes-overflows-the-banks. I have also written to HBO and am considering a petition to ask them to show movies in the proper ratio before HBO GO becomes a standalone service. This would enhance the value of this new service.
Thanks to Thomas for corresponding!
To Each His Own (1946).
Old friend and student, and proficient blogger, Paul Ramaeker writes:
I’m in the middle of Slayground now. In his Stark guise, Westlake as a writer really is as fearsomely directed and effective as Parker himself. I was thinking about the particular narrative pleasures here, like the way that delayed exposition works with the perspective switches between different sections. There is such precision to the way he builds certain effects in a systematic way, the way that we see Parker making plans, going around Fun Island doing things, but Stark not telling us what, exactly. I really did not get the logic of painting white circles in the house of mirrors–I thought of them as targets. Then, [spoiler excised] it makes so much sense, and becomes such a pure hit of storytelling, producing such a rush of pleasure in the reading.
That’s the way Donald E. Westlake worked. With Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain, he was one of the top crime-action writers to emerge in the postwar boom in paperback originals. He wrote a huge number of novels and some screenplays (The Grifters, The Stepfather). Several films, notably Point Blank, The Outfit, The Ax, and Made in USA, were taken from his books.
I’ve paid tribute to Westlake’s prose in this entry, but why not another Richard Stark passage to show how it’s done? Many of the novels start with a “When” clause, and upon relaunching the series in 1997, Westlake picked a dilly:
When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.
The “When” clause hooks you in firmly, with the last word of the sentence locking in a framework that explains the opening. Here’s a simpler prototype Westlake himself picked, from Flashfire:
Parker looked at the money, and it wasn’t enough.
Anybody else would have cut the and and put in a period. This is better, I think because it quietly leads us to expect something more: a piece of action, a demand for more money. Anyhow, once we’re arguing about whether to put in an and, we’re talking about a real writer.
Slayground is one of those nifty experiments Westlake tried, this time putting two books in a divided POV arrangement. Both Slayground and The Black Bird begin with the same action, a getaway described almost identically in each one. Parker and his sidekick Grofield separate. One book follows Parker’s fate and other follows Grofield’s. I want to read both right now.
Before I do, though, I must signal (a) the University of Chicago Press’s brilliant idea of reprinting all the Stark novels; and (b) Levi Stahl’s wonderful compilation The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. This consists of essays, memoirs, and interviews, running from 1960 into the 2000s. There’s even a recipe for tuna casserole contributed by Dortmunder’s girlfriend May.
You learn a lot about Westlake’s life, of course; for one thing, you learn how Made in USA became unseen in USA for several years. A career-survey interview with a convicted bank robber is alone worth the price of admission. Stahl adds in fragments from an autobiography (“I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 12, 1933, and I couldn’t digest milk”).
Westlake was a thoughtful observer of his tradition, and he offers historical surveys and close readings of his hardboiled predecessors. He compares the prose of Black Mask writers Hammett and Carroll John Daly, and calls Raymond Chandler “a bookish, English-educated mama’s boy whose raw material was not the truth but the first decade of the fiction. This is not to denigrate Chandler, or at least not to denigrate him very much.” He praises Richard S. Prather for his “bonkers” style (“She was as nude as a noodle”) and registers his admiration for lesser-known contemporaries like Peter Rabe. He offers the best analysis of George V. Higgins I know, and his appreciation of Rex Stout warms the heart. Acknowledging the cunning ways that Stout hides plot gaffes under Archie’s patter, Westlake notes that perhaps Stout had “an affinity with those Indian tribes who deliberately include a flaw in their designs so as not to compete with the perfection of the gods.”
You also learn about the market. Westlake was a “fee reader” for Scott Meredith literary agency, one of the most prestigious around. He became a self-supporting writer in 1959, when he churned out over half a million words, all published. Writing an Avalon paperback in 1960 would earn you $350, or $2800 in today’s money, but writing a serial for a magazine like Analog could net $450 for only 18,000 words. There’s a marvelous letter from that year in which a twenty-seven-year-old Westlake complains to a top publisher that he can’t get his best science fiction accepted, and that specific editors traduce the work of writers he knows. Stahl calls it “one of the most spectacular acts of bridge burning in the history of publishing.” Again, the author’s gesture recalls Parker’s chilly recklessness, but with jokes.
Popcorn and Red Vines
In his recent interview with the New York Times, Patton Oswalt included the Stark/Westlake Man with the Getaway Face as one of his favorite books of all time. It comes as no surprise that this gremlin polymath gets Stark/ Westlake. Those who know his fine Zombie Spaceship Wasteland will find more of the same in Silver Screen Fiend: Learning about Life from an Addiction to Film. As ZSW traced his early standup career and its intertwined relation to nerd culture, this quasi-memoir traces his early years in LA, writing for MadTV by day, honing his comedy act by night, and watching movies obsessively at all other times.
Despite his fondness for sitting far back (I’m down front) and mixing popcorn and Red Vines (I’ve been a Dots man for sixty years), Oswalt has left us the best memoir I know of being a sheer headbanging movie geek. A sort of nonfiction Moviegoer (Walker Percy), or a prose version of Cinemania, that disconcerting documentary in which everything reminds you of you, Silver Screen Fiend takes us into hard-core hell-for-leather filmgoing.
Filmgoing is the operative idea, not just film viewing. The book is set on the cusp of the DVD revolution, when the big-screen experience was so much better in contrast with VHS. There are descriptions of favorite theatres and fetishized experiences like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and a Hammer movie marathon. At the same time, this “sprocket fiend” was also a “stage ghoul,” trying to out-kill the other standup comics at the Largo. The two obsessions fed each other, as when Oswalt arranged public readings of the script for Jerry Lewis’ legendary Day the Clown Cried.
Throughout, the movie madness emerges as another channel for the explosive energy of a young man burning with ambition. At the theatre the splendid lunacy might be onscreen, or in the row behind you, where Lawrence Tierney was talking loudly back to Citizen Kane. The moment pulsates because Oswalt wanted to be in movies too, maybe as a character actor.
The book hits one of its high points in telling of his big break, in Down Periscope (1996), where he utters one line as the camera sweeps past him. He describes the process of filmmaking as hammering slowly away at the movie that isn’t there yet. It’s like “blasting a tunnel through a mountain. Or brushing every grain of sand off of a fossil. You attacked it relentlessly.” Oswalt squeezes pages of entertainment out of brooding over how to deliver “There’s a call for you, sir. Admiral Graham.”
Rest assured that every movie you see where an actor delivers just one line? They’ve put this kind of thought into it. Sometimes you can see it. Sometimes they can hide it. But everyone who gets in front of that lens has this inner conversation. I was having mine now. I was about to speak on film.
The moviegoing spiral ends on 20 May 1999, when Oswalt sees Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The postmortem at a dinner marks the moment when the addiction subsides. “It hits me, sitting there with my friends, that for all of our bluster and detailed, exotic knowledge about film, we aren’t contributing anything to film.” He realizes that film should be one ingredient in the fuel for your life. “But the engine of your life should be your life.”
The epiphany is movingly described. (I wish I could say I’ve learned the same lesson.) Oswalt implies that film frenzy was a phase he went through, and now he’s grown up. (I wish I could say the same for me.) Yet I’m encouraged that Oswalt has not gone cold turkey. He’s passed from gourmand to gourmet. “My love of movies has turned into a love of savoring them.” And he can’t resist movie comparisons when describing that day-and-date release sometimes called Life. “Faces are scenes. People are films.”
In the back of Silver Screen Fiend are thirty-three pages listing all the films Oswalt saw across four years, along with the theatres where he saw them (New Beverly, Nuart, Tales Café et al.). Plenty of pure storytelling hits there. Far from makeweight, these pages create a new list of the kind he obsessed over in Danny Peary’s books. How many twenty somethings will start checking off the titles here?
Charles Brackett, Gloria Swanson, and Billy Wilder.
On his very first night at the New Beverly, Patton Oswalt caught, and was caught by, Sunset Blvd. and Ace in the Hole. He mentions they were “co-written and directed” by Billy Wilder. He doesn’t identify the other half of the co-.
Nor do most people. In the case of Sunset Blvd., that fellow was Charles Brackett, who now stands revealed as not only a gifted writer but the Samuel Pepys of classic Hollywood. “It’s the Pictures That Got Small,” edited by Anthony Slide, is an absorbing chronicle of a tempestuous collaboration and the lifestyles of an era. A Harvard-educated WASP from Saratoga Springs, Brackett became a novelist, was made drama critic for The New Yorker, and sat at the Round Table with the likes of Woollcott and Parker. After some of his fiction was adapted to film, he moved to Los Angeles.
Brackett’s early work seems to have been undistinguished, though I’d defend at least Picadilly Jim (1936). Eventually he wound up at Paramount partnering with Wilder, and under the aegis of Lubitsch they clicked for Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939). There followed Midnight (1939) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941) for Leisen, and Ball of Fire (1941) for Hawks–an early title of which, we learn here, was Dust on the Heart. Then came Wilder’s directed pictures, from The Major and the Minor (1942) to Sunset Blvd. (1950). Brackett was active in the Screenwriters Guild, became a producer, and continued to write scripts for his producing projects, including the delirious Niagara (1953) and the insufficiently delirious Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). The Uninvited (1944), Brackett’s first solo production, remains charming, and To Each His Own (1946) is an interesting wartime weepie, with Olivia de Havilland massively frumped up. Miss Tatlock’s Millions (1948) also has its defenders.
“It’s the Pictures That Got Small” is a plump album packed with tiny but revealing snapshots. Although Brackett wrote entries nearly every day, he often made do with very brief mentions. Slide has edited them judiciously and arranged them chronologically, with some stitching to fill in events. A 1936 entry strikes a warm chord:
I am to be teamed with Billy Wilder, a young Austrian I’ve seen about for a year or two and like very much. I accepted the job joyfully.
By 1943, Brackett is recording something much more rankling:
My consciousness that, after years of partnership, his first free act was to stab me in the back…my conviction that he’s turned into a second-rate director…my knowledge of the awful thinness of his mind, his stupidly limited interests. Alas, alas. And my knowledge that I am as little stimulating for him as he is for me.
During this supposed phase of creative drought, they were working on The Lost Weekend.
Apart from charting this bumpy collaboration, Brackett gives us a lot of information about how films got made. We learn about studio differences (Paramount less disciplined than MGM) and the importance of telling stories to others, face to face. I found plenty to feed my act-structure appetite. I was happy to find how often moviemakers went to the movies. Brackett attends dozens, both premieres and regular shows, and he records how easily screenwriters could summon up an older picture to be screened, even at a rival studio. This from 1947:
In the afternoon Billy and I saw Mr. Deeds at Columbia to check on certain similar situations in The Hon. Phoebe. It proved helpful and an excellent picture despite curious non-sequiturs and at least one horrible scene, Cooper absolutely charming. I could see some loathsome Capra characters beginning to unfold, but still in the lovely promising bud stage.
As a writer, Brackett is no less captivating than Westlake or Oswalt. We can rejoice in his Algonquin acidity.
Chaplin seems to me as repellant a human being as I’ve ever been in the room with—a thin, reedy voice, a show-off-hog face, and hysterical protestations of liberalism.
Jean Arthur called us, worried about the fact that there’s another woman in the picture [A Foreign Affair]. “I have sex appeal,” she said calmly, but inaccurately.
Greeted at the office by a nasty little note from Charles Jackson [author of the novel The Lost Weekend]. I had addressed him as “Birdbrain” in a telegram, something I could do to any friend—but an unsafe term to use to a man five feet tall.
And there are flat-out funny stories. Here’s just one, reported by Wilder.
[Von Stroheim] has always thought Swanson too young and desirable for the role of Norma. “Look at her,” he said. “I would like to fuck her now.” “I,” said Billy, “would rather fuck you.” “You have,” von Stroheim retorted.
If it didn’t happen, I want it to have.
In short, three more items for your shelf—repositories of good stories in themselves, prods and teases for your own thinking about story-making.
The University of Chicago Press has mounted a fine infographic on Westlake/Stark’s Parker novels here.
P.S. 19 January 2014: Thanks to David Cairns for correcting a slip. My original entry said that Brackett co-wrote Ace in the Hole with Wilder. Actually, the collaborators on Ace were Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman. Be sure to check David’s excellent Shadowplay site.
Down Periscope (1996).
The Little Foxes (1941).
For me, shooting is a struggle where you only get to be happy for five minutes before you start thinking about the next problem to solve.
Ruben Ostlund, on Force Majeure
One of the most famous shots in American cinema occurs at a climactic moment in The Little Foxes (1941). Regina Giddens has just learned that her sickly husband Horace has let her brothers get away with a business deal that double-crosses her. They will reap all the rewards of bringing a factory to town, while she, who engineered the deal and expected Horace to fall in line, will get nothing. Horace is already not far from death, and their quarrel in the parlor precipitates a heart attack. He spills his bottle of medicine and needs some from his upstairs supply.
Regina refuses to go fetch it, and instead Horace must stagger up and out. While she sits, fiercely waiting, on the sofa, he tries to pull himself upstairs, but he collapses on the steps. Once he has fallen, and perhaps died, she stirs to action and rouses the household.
Lillian Hellman’s original play had been a Broadway success, and this was one of the most notable scenes. How did Wyler stage it? Very oddly, as the frame up top suggests. We can’t really see Horace’s struggle on the stair. Not only does the camera put Regina in the foreground, but Horace is out of focus in the rear, at least until she rises whirling and runs to the background, the damage done.
Why did Wyler stage it this way? It depends, as Bill Clinton might say, on what your definition of why is.
1941 was the breakout year of deep-focus filmmaking in Hollywood. Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Kings Row, Ball of Fire, I Wake Up Screaming, How Green Was My Valley, and several other films set the pace for a new stylistic option. In this style, the action is staged in depth rather than perpendicular to the camera, as most scenes in Hollywood cinema were. And the camera lens creates depth of field, in which even fairly close foreground planes are just as sharp as the action in the rear. Such images weren’t unknown before; we can find them in silent cinema. But from 1941 on, depth staging accompanied by depth of focus would be increasingly common in Hollywood dramas, from thrillers and melodramas to film-noir exercises. Not all shots would be designed for maximal depth; continuity editing and closer views would still be used. But we do find such imagery becoming more common, particularly at moments of tension.
Cinematographer Gregg Toland is usually cited as a main source of this trend, and his work on Kane and Ball of Fire, as well as Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Long Voyage Home (1940), became models of the new look. Toland also worked with Wyler on several films, including The Little Foxes. But even without Toland, Wyler had in some films cultivated a deep-focus look (as had Ford). Coming when it did, The Little Foxes proved a powerful demonstration of the deep-focus style.
Three aspects stand out. First, there’s a certain economy of presentation. As Wyler and others pointed out, depth imagery permits directors to minimize editing. Instead of cutting from action to reaction, we see both at the same time.
Wyler suggested in publicity of the period that this gave the viewer more freedom of where to look, and André Bazin seized upon this rationale as part of his aesthetic of realism. Just as in the real world, in some films we must choose what to pay attention to.
But The Little Foxes went beyond the moderate deep focus of Stagecoach and other films to create very aggressive images. This is the film’s second novelty. Several shots place the foreground very close to the camera. As a result, we get looming faces or objects in the front plane, and we still see well-focused dramatic elements behind.
A third source of power is less noted. In The Little Foxes, Wyler found ways to make deep shots comment upon the plot. For instance, the action offers Regina’s daughter Alexandra, usually called Zan, a choice of being more like her mother (tough and vicious) or her father (tolerant and gentle). At other points Zan is paralleled to her ineffectual, alcoholic aunt Birdie. At one point, Birdie has predicted that Zan may wind up like her.
In a theatre production, there would be many staging strategies that would create these parallels, but Wyler uses a particularly striking one. One evening, while Regina and her brothers plot their scheme, Birdie has been relegated to a chair far from the discussion.
The composition diagrams Birdie’s situation in the scene and her place in the family. Then Wyler cuts in to her.
This might be seen as a bit of heavy-handed emphasis, but actually he’s doing two things. He’s making manifest her reaction, a numb resignation to being excluded. He’s also setting up, thanks to another depth composition, the chair in the hallway by the staircase. At the climax, it’s Zan, as beaten down as Birdie, who slumps in that chair.
Thanks to depth staging and deep-focus cinematography, the second image emphasizes Birdie’s solitude and prophesies Zan’s.
Which only makes my first question more pressing. Some shots of the quarrel leading up to Horace’s collapse on the stair exhibit flagrant deep focus.
We know from other shots in the film, like the Birdie/Zan comparison, that Wyler could have simply shown us Regina on the sofa in the foreground, in long shot or medium shot, while keeping Horace in focus in the background. In fact, Wyler tells us that Toland said, “I can have him sharp, or both of them sharp.” Why opt for shallow focus that makes Horace’s staircase seizure blurry and hard to see?
Fun with functions
Asking why? about something in an artwork actually veils two different questions.
The first is: How did it get there? The answer is a causal story about how the element came to be included.
The second sense of why is: What’s it doing there? That’s not a question of causes but of functions. How does the element contribute to the other parts and the artwork as a whole?
Take the second question first. You can imagine many functional reasons for Wyler’s choice. Exactly because the rest of the film keeps image planes sharp, this moment gains a unique emphasis. Horace’s collapse is marked as a major turning point in the plot. In an ordinary film, we wouldn’t notice an out-of-focus background. Here, by reverting to the more traditional choice, Wyler makes shallow focus stylistically prominent. For once in a film, a dramatic high point isn’t given to us with maximum visibility.
Another function is character revelation. In the film as a whole, we haven’t been consistently restricted to any one character. Here, Wyler could have concentrated on either Horace or Regina, or he could have given them equal treatment. An obvious choice would have been intercutting shots of Horace crawling up the steps with shots of Regina, impassively turned from him. Probably most directors would have done it that way.
Alternatively, we might have been attached to Horace, letting us see Regina in the distance. That would have diminished her reaction and played up Horace’s suffering.
Wyler’s choice puts the emphasis not on the action—thanks to the distant framing, Horace’s collapse can almost be taken for granted—but Regina’s reactions, or rather non-reactions, moment by moment. We’re made to see her turning slightly to listen to his struggles, while her staring eyes suggest that she’s visualizing the action with a horrified fascination. It’s as if her denying him the medicine was an experiment in seeing how far she could go. Now she knows. Her straining face is virtually willing her husband to die.
Keeping both this monstrous woman and her victim in focus would have divided our attention, then, and Wyler wants it squarely on Regina. He seems to have said as much in interviews.
We said we’ve got to stay on Bette all the time and just see this thing in the background, see him going in the background, but never lose her.
I wanted audiences to feel they were seeing something they were not supposed to see. Seeing the husband in the background made you squint, but what you were seeing was her face.
The second remark suggests another functional result of Wyler’s choice. By making the collapse almost indiscernible, we become very aware of what we can’t see. Thanks to selective focus, Bazin remarked, “The viewer feels an extra anxiety and almost wants to push the immobile Bette Davis aside to get a better look.” The dramatic tension of the scene finds its counterpart in our frustration to see what any other film would show us.
Finally, we should note that the staircase is an essential element in the film’s drama. Horace’s collapse is only one major incident taking place around and on it. Significantly, when Zan finally breaks free of Regina and the rest of the family, the matriarch learns of it standing on the stairs. Having all but murdered her husband there, now she sees her daughter abandon her.
Shoot my good side
The Bishop’s Wife (1948).
There are other functions we, as good critics, might seek out. For all of them, there is probably a loose causal story we’re relying on: Wyler and his colleagues made some choices that bore fruit. Some of those choices may have aimed at fulfilling the functions we notice. Other functions we notice may come along as bonuses—unintended but still benefiting the scene. Unintended consequences, good or bad, come up in art as elsewhere.
There remains the other implication of why-did-they-do-it questions: the one that seeks out quite specific causes that govern the scene. How do we tackle that?
In my book On the History of Film Style, from which some of these Little Foxes observations are drawn, I argued that we can make stretches of stylistic history intelligible by thinking in terms of problems and solutions. Art historians have done this for a long while. Assuming that you want to suggest that something in the picture is farther away than something else, how do you do it? One way is through overlap, as in Egyptian art. Here the fishermen overlap the background, their legs overlap each other’s, and the strings of fish that one is carrying overlap some legs.
Later image-makers suggest variable distances through size variations, placement in the format (a little bit of that here, with the river above/behind the men), tonal contrast, atmospheric perspective, linear perspective, and other techniques. These can be considered solutions, available to artists of different times and places, to the problem of suggesting three dimensions on a flat surface.
A problem/solution way of thinking can clarify some developments in the history of filmmaking too. If you have to represent two actions taking place simultaneously, how can you do it? Crosscutting, as Griffith and others showed in the 1910s, solves that problem. It offers spillover benefits too, such as controlling pace. Similarly, there’s the problem of representing spoken dialogue. Silent films solved this in various ways—through a commenter in the theatre (the benshi in Japan), through actors voicing the roles behind the screen, and most commonly through intertitles. Later, synchronized sound solved the problem in a more thoroughgoing way.
These are very general answers to the how-did-it-get-there question. Occasionally we get more concrete information about problems and solution. For example, some Hollywood stars believed that one side of their faces was more appealing than the other. The stars with the most power could insist on being filmed on their good side, which led directors to make particular staging choices. (Claudette Colbert insisted her left side was her good side, so she’s usually positioned on screen right, with her face turned toward screen left.) David Butler knew that Edward G. Robinson likewise favored his left side, so Butler needed to stage Robinson’s one appearance in It’s a Great Feeling (1949) with him entering a scene from right to left and playing in that position.
One vain star is problem enough, but what happens when you have two who prefer being shot from the same side? According to Henry Koster, the demands of Cary Grant and Loretta Young led to the staging of the scene shown at the top of this section. (For my reservations, see the codicil to this entry.)
The Little Foxes production provides evidence of another very specific problem. In staging the staircase collapse, Wyler faced an unusual difficulty. The actor playing Horace, Herbert Marshall, had a prosthetic leg.
Marshall lost his right leg, from the hip down, in World War I. Through practice he managed to stroll quite smoothly nonetheless, and he became a significant star and featured player in theatre and films. He doesn’t need to walk much in The Little Foxes because his character is rolled around in a wheelchair. But the parlor-and-staircase scene was very demanding. As Wyler explains:
Now there was another problem involved with that, and that was the fact that Herbert Marshall has a wooden leg and couldn’t make the stairs, you see. This is a trade secret. I had him stagger in the background, get behind her and just for a moment when he gets to the stairs he had to go to a landing over there, and just for a moment went out of the picture. And a double came in and went up the stairs, staggered way behind out of focus.
Here you can see Marshall leave the foreground.
An axial cut in to Regina shows him stumbling behind her and going out of shot in the distance. This much Marshall could manage.
At that point the double stumbles into the frame and starts to crawl up the staircase.
Regina leaps up and runs to the rear, and the camera racks focus to the stair, but by now the double’s face is out of frame.
So the director solved the problem of the actor’s disability by a combination of deep staging, the use of a double, and shallow focus. This “trade secret” yielded a range of effects that, I think most viewers would agree, were vivid and exciting.
But there’s always more than one way to do anything. Given the constraint of Marshall’s artificial leg, or a player’s insistence on being shot from one side, or the leading lady’s overnight pimple, a director can work around it in several ways. One of the few critics to notice the implications of Wyler’s choice was Raymond Durgnat, a critic very sensitive to style.
Given a “pimple” or a “wooden leg,” different stylists will find different solutions. One changes the camera-angle; another introduces a last-minute panning shot; another will retain the original set-up, but throw heavy shadows to conceal the offending detail; another will interpose a pot of flowers or a table-cloth to conceal the trouble spot from the camera. The director has ample opportunity to maintain his style in the face of “accident.” And it’s no exaggeration to say that such stylists as Dreyer and Bresson would imperturbably maintain their characteristic style even if the entire cast suddenly turned up with pimples and wooden legs.
I’d add only that the director’s choices are further constrained. Beyond the immediate problem, the broader pressure of norms will kick in. The norms of classical studio lighting, cutting, and performance limit the ways Toland and Wyler can cover up Marshall’s infirmity. The norms of quality A-picture American filmmaking of the period militate against, say, editing the scene so that a dummy is substituted for Marshall on the stair. (We might get that in a serial, though.)
There are also the intrinsic norms set up in The Little Foxes as a formal whole. These favor handling the scene in depth in some way. Wyler reports the decision: “We said we’ve got to stay on Bette all the time and just see this thing in the background, see him going in the background, but never lose her.” Wyler’s earlier choices in the film created a kind of path-dependence for this critical moment. Deep-space staging could stay in tune with the rest of the film; but because of his actor’s infirmity, he could give up deep-focus cinematography. This solution created a vivid variant on the film’s intrinsic norm.
You can also argue that by deciding to call our attention to a distant plane in soft focus, Wyler fell back on something he had tried before. In the extraordinary late silent The Shakedown (1929), he showed a pie being stolen in a diner. First, there’s a close-up, then a shot of the main couple looking to the background. In the center, out of focus underneath the coffee urn, the pie is slipping away.
The action isn’t very discernible in my image, which is from a 35mm print; but the scene is shot quite soft anyway. I think audiences notice the gesture, slight as it is, because it’s centered and nothing else is moving in the frame. More visible is the background action in a shot Wyler and Toland used in Dead End (1937). Two gangsters are sitting in a bar debating kidnapping a child. In the out-of-focus background,we can discern a woman wheeling a baby carriage along the sidewalk. She isn’t the target, just a sort of reminder of children’s vulnerability. As in The Little Foxes, a centered background action attracts our attention and makes us strain to identify it.
Faced with a similar problem in The Little Foxes, Wyler had the chance to dramatize a soft-focus background to a much greater extent than in these films.
One more causal factor might have shaped Wyler’s decision. Lillian Hellman’s original play takes place wholly in the Giddens’ parlor and the hallway behind. The play text indicates that the staircase is in the rear of the set, with a landing offstage. The furniture sits downstage, closer to the audience. The foreground/background interaction in Wyler’s staging is already there, in a rougher form, in the play’s set arrangement.
And how does the play handle the moment of Horace’s collapse? When Horace’s medicine bottle breaks, Regina doesn’t move. Calling for Addie the maid, Horace leaves and staggers to the rear playing area.
He makes a sudden, furious spring from the chair to the stairs, taking the first few steps as if he were a desperate runner. Then he slips, gasps, grasps the rail, makes a great effort to reach the landing. When he reaches the landing, he is on his knees. His knees give way, he falls on the landing, out of view. Regina has not turned during his climb up the stairs. Now she waits a second. Then she goes below the landing, speaks up.
REGINA: Horace, Horace.
The foreground/background dynamic, as well as the frozen indifference in Regina’s performance, are written into the scene’s stage directions. Hellman’s instructions yield a further hint: Horace “falls on the landing, out of view.” Within the norms of the deep-focus aesthetic, Wyler and Toland found a cinematic equivalent for this barely-offstage action–one appropriate for their film’s particular style. They make Horace present, but he’s “out of view.”
Somebody may say: “See? You don’t need all this fancy analysis. At bottom, Wyler was forced to shoot the scene this way because of Marshall’s bum leg.” This retort assumes that causal factors always trump functional ones. Instead, I think that by considering causal factors, insofar as we can know them, alongside functional ones, we can better understand filmic creativity in history.
Durgnat’s point shows us how. Even when contingent circumstances “force” a filmmaker to change course, there are always several ways to do that. Picking any option brings in a cascade of other constraints and opportunities. Once Wyler has decided to double Marshall and sustain the take on Davis, soft focus is more or less necessary so we don’t spot the stand-in. But the soft-focus provides a nifty opportunity to create the sorts of functions and effects we’ve already noticed.
Like everybody else, filmmakers choose within constraints—some apparent, some less visible, many just taken for granted. Those constraints limit what can be done, but they also enable other things to happen, perhaps things that the filmmaker couldn’t have planned in advance. Once other filmmakers realize the results, they can plan in advance. A moviemaker today can try out Wyler’s solution, free of the pressures that drove him to it. A significant part of filmmaking’s traditions may consist of workarounds.
The Ostlund epigraph, apparently not available online, is taken from Hollywood Reporter’s December awards issue, p. 13. My Egyptian picture comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s called Fish Preparation and Net Making, from the Tomb of Amenhotep (1479-1458 BCE), as rendered by Nina de Garis Davies. I draw the stage directions in The Little Foxes from Lillian Hellman, The Collected Plays (Little, Brown, 1971), 195.
My quotations about It’s a Great Feeling and The Bishop’s Wife come, respectively from two books by Irene Kahn Atkins, David Butler (Scarecrow, 1993), 227; and Henry Koster (Scarecrow, 1987), 87. Koster’s memory fails him in his account of the Bishop’s Wife window scene. It seems likely that Loretta Young favored her left side, which is her dominant orientation throughout the film. But there’s no evidence in the film that Cary Grant favored that side of his face too. The scene at the window is too brief to count as an instance of much of anything.
When I wrote On the History of Film Style in the mid-1990s, I had the nagging memory that Marshall’s artificial leg played a role in Wyler’s staging, but I put it down as legend. (It’s a pity I didn’t pursue it, because the information would have fitted snugly into my sixth chapter.) Only when I discovered a 1972 interview with Wyler, with the “trade secret” mentioned above, did I realize there was something to the story. That interview was once online, but seems to have vanished. It’s available at Columbia University. Durgnat’s discussion is in Films and Feelings (MIT Press, 1967), 41. My other quotations from Wyler come from Axel Madsen, William Wyler (Crowell, 1973), 209.
Otis Ferguson reported on the filming of a different scene in The Little Foxes; I discuss that here. More generally, on the Bazin-Wyler connection, see this entry. Other Wyler-related entries can be canvassed here. For more on Hollywood’s development of deep staging and deep focus, see not only On the History of Film Style but also Chapter 27 of The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. As for Bette Davis’s eyelids, much in evidence here, there’s this entry.