David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

David Bordwell

March 2010

William Cameron Menzies (photo by Karl Struss)

William Cameron Menzies was a wunderkind. He started working on films in 1919 when he was twenty-three; ten years later he won an Academy Award. By the time he died in 1956, he had participated in over seventy films. Why has nobody written a book about him?

Don’t look at me. After several years sporadically tracking his career, I’m aware that this is a mammoth task. Here I want just to float some ideas about a filmmaker as distinctive, and sometimes as delirious, as Busby Berkeley. Like Berkeley, Menzies shows that a strong imagination can yank the screen away from weak directors. Like Berkeley, he shows that the studio system gave considerable leeway to flamboyant, even peculiar imagery, as long as it could be somehow motivated by story and genre. Just as important, he shows how exceeding the limits of that sort of motivation can seem daring, or maybe just cockeyed.

Pictorial beauty and early talkies
Menzies is today remembered chiefly as Gone with the Wind’s production designer, a term and role that originated on that production. He had already earned acclaim as art director for Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (1924, below), Barrymore’s Beloved Rogue (1927), and The Dove (1927) and The Tempest (1928), which jointly won him his first Oscar. His prestigious projects included Rosita (1923), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Korda’s Thief of Bagdad (1940), Meet John Doe (1941), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Spellbound (1945), and Arch of Triumph (1948). He took up directing as well, signing Things to Come (1936), the more cult-friendly Invaders from Mars (1953), several shorts and B-pictures, and portions of films signed by others, notably Gone with the  Wind. At the start Menzies made his name with monumental sets, often stylized in what he called “romantic” fashion. These sets were well-suited to costume pictures and period fantasies.endnote1

After these triumphs, he felt confident enough to declare that the art director was not merely the person who designed the sets. A stage designer could concentrate on setting and leave the moment-by-moment unfolding of the action to the director. But cinema was a pictorial art, built out of motion within the frame and a rapid succession of shots. So composition took on a special importance. Each shot had to have “one forceful, impressive idea.”endnote2 The art director should sketch the phases of the action, and indicate the camera’s viewpoint, the lens used, and any trick effects. Once the set was built, the final filming “reproduces the composition line for line.”endnote3

Sound movies had lost the pictorial splendor of the great silent era, but Menzies thought that could be recovered if someone coordinated the overall look of the film, including lighting (traditionally the province of the cinematographer) and figure movement (a task for the director). In 1929–1930, Menzies began to campaign for this new production role by giving lectures, signing articles, and publishing his drawings of film shots. Unlike most set designs, which show empty settings or people in undramatic poses, Menzies’ drawings look more like what we now call storyboards.

Magazines were happy to publish these dynamic images, and sympathetic journalists took up Menzies’cause. A New York Times article from 1930 notes that he makes sketches that follow the script “as closely as possible. These drawings not only will show the backgrounds for the action but also suggest the action itself, so that the eye for composition that an artist has will not be wasted on mere back-drops.”endnote4 Two visitors to Hollywood praised his dynamic images and spared a sneer for those who didn’t understand them.

We must regret that often in the production of the films with which he has been associated the supposed needs of the story have prevented him from exercising his full artistic powers in the direction of more vivid picture-making. The number of directors who know the value of true pictorial art in the movies is yet limited.endnote5

Menzies’ work convinced these writers that the set designer could become the master planner, “the illustrator of the film.”endnote6 Significantly, Menzies began his working life as an illustrator of children’s books.

To show the power of his new conception of pictorial design, Menzies gravitated toward certain types of imagery. Neither his writings nor his drawings addressed the demands of dialogue scenes, which in early talkies were necessarily blandly, even awkwardly composed. Filmmakers relied on shooting with multiple cameras, a tactic that worked against that single bold design that Menzies thought every shot ought to have. Instead, his imagination sparked to atmospheric shots and action scenes.
In The Bat (1926) he had already experimented with frames slashed by diagonals and wrapped in shadows.

In this frame, it’s not the prowling Bat but his shadow that opens the door.

We shouldn’t be surprised that such images recall German Expressionism. Menzies acknowledged his admiration for Caligari and The Golem, and he claimed to have held Murnau in special regard. He was also probably influenced by his mentor Anton Grot, a set designer who specialized in chiaroscuro and laid out sets by calculating what lens would be used.endnote7

Anton Grot sketch for A Ship Comes In (1928).

By 1929, Menzies had decided that the cinematic illustrator could show his stuff in passages of violence and “melodramatic action.” Such scenes achieved greater emotional vibrancy with bold lines, stark tonal contrasts, silhouettes, extremely high or low camera positions, and—a Menzies favorite—forced perspective. (From his first film with Grot, The Naulakha, 1918, he learned that drastic foreshortening could make sets seem bigger.) He also advocated using wide-angle lenses and building ceilings on sets to permit low angles.endnote8

To exploit such heightened visual expression, Menzies turned to the crime film. Three films from early sound years show this side of his talent. The least distinctive is Raffles (1930), an amiable crook melodrama. The bulk of it doesn’t live up to its flashy opening, in which the gentleman thief breaks into a jewelry store safe.

Alibi (1929), directed by Roland West, has some passages of inert dialogue, but it is pretty adroit visually, with police-investigation transitions that look forward to M and some surprisingly flexible editing for an early talkie. There’s an occasional proto-depth shot.

Menzies’ love of monumental central perspectives is announced in the opening sequences of convicts in prison and of Bachmann’s night club.

Menzies claimed much later that Bulldog Drummond  (1929) was the first film in which he prepared “a complete layout of every camera setup.”endnote9 The dream of total preparation on paper was to become a leitmotif across his career, but even at this point it fell far short of achievement. Bulldog Drummond has many bland multicamera stretches, and nearly all its striking continuity sketches are not fulfilled in the final product. Still, many images in these films have a graphic vividness rare in early talkies. The asylum in Bulldog Drummond is more or less out of Expressionism, and claw-handed silhouettes evoke Nosferatu.

Again we find grandiose central perspectives, off-kilter angles, and objects, particularly lamps and lanterns, dominating the foreground.

Menzies’ love of the vertical dimension of the shot leads him to split the frame into halves, the top dominated by empty space, the bottom harboring an abnormally low point of interest.

Such shots subordinate the characters to the overall play of masses and edges, fulfilling Menzies’ idea that the art director can “create his design with a broad arrangement of lines and values, and then apply to these lines and values the realism of architecture, figures, and properties.”endnote10 It’s a brutally Modernist approach: Chisel out the composition as a pure play of graphic energies, and then fit your setting, props, and players into it. Even in action scenes, the human figures are dominated by the larger design. They move through vast spaces, often overwhelmed by stabbing verticals and plunging perspectives. One shot in Alibi turns a cityscape into nightmarish outcroppings, and there is a chilling moment when a fleeing crook leaps across rooftops and then falls backward into an apparently bottomless canyon between buildings.

Drummond peers into the laboratory of the asylum, and we get a shot with an outsize hanging lamp in the foreground; when he fires his pistol and extinguishes the light, his silhouette in the background pops into view.

Eyes of an astigmatic worm
The 1929–1930 crook movies look as if Menzies had struck a bargain with his directors: You handle the dialogue scenes and give me the atmospheric establishing shots, the connective tissue, and the chases. The ultimate example of the one-off effect is probably The Green Cockatoo, filmed in Britain in 1937 but not released until 1940. Menzies was brought on to direct it, but it was taken from his hands and redone by William K. Howard and Thornton Freeland, both uncredited. Only one sequence, a noirish cat-and-mouse game on a staircase, has visual flair, but it doesn’t go beyond what we sometimes find in American crime films of the era.

More thoroughgoing was Menzies’ contribution to two fantasies. For Alice in Wonderland (1933) he collaborated on the script and concentrated on creating ingenious special effects, none of which display the compositional dynamism of the 1929–1930 films. Things to Come (1936) was something else again. Menzies was given the post of director, but he worked under two powerful overseers, producer Zoltan Korda and writer H. G. Wells, who had negotiated a degree of control over the project unprecedented for an author. The film has become a classic for its vision of a world ravaged by war and healed by science and rational planning. Along with the set designer Vincent Korda, Menzies gave the city of the future an even more towering vertical thrust than we find in Metropolis.

The fantastic premise of Things to Come gave Menzies freedom to indulge his love of unusual angles. Art director Lyle Wheeler told him he was “no damn good” as a director because all he cared about were steep compositions. “He wanted to photograph ceilings and didn’t give a damn what the actors were saying.”endnote11

Menzies liked low angles because they made for cleaner design. Straight-on angles swathed the players in distracting décor, but a face seen against sky or ceiling stood out vividly. In interiors, ceiling corners and the edges of walls contributed V-shaped vectors. High angles could yield sharp diagonals just as easily.

The important thing was to avoid the neutral presentation, to charge every moment with the sort of visual energy seen in Art Nouveau or Art Deco or the Modern Style. With the aim of dynamizing every image, Things to Come imbues static dialogue scenes with a mild version of the interplay between figures and setting that we find Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. An underground cell is dominated by a huge pipe that pokes into every shot. Another interior displays vectors on rooftop and floor.

The motif is sustained later when Oswald Cabal comes forward and his head remains pinched within the wedge formed at the back of the set. Menzies was starting to conceive the scene as not simply a string of striking images but as a decorative accompaniment to the dramatic development.

These efforts seem a bit forced, I think, because Menzies simply lacks Eisenstein’s resourcefulness in finding graphic motifs to fill his frames. Things to Come’s strongest effects, it seems to me, appear in the frightening opening that juxtaposes announcements of impending war with imagery of Christmas shopping. The anxiously pitched shots, accompanied by harsh musical cuts in Arthur Bliss’s score, evoke a society dancing toward catastrophe.

It’s fitting that when the bombardment starts, the first building blown to bits is the gargantuan Modern Style cinema.

The sequences that Menzies is said to have directed of Gone with the Wind betray his signature techniques: silhouettes, diagonal masses, low-slung camera positions, central perspectives alternating with skewed ones, and brooding Gothic effects.

His fondness for a very low horizon line, perhaps inspired by Soviet filmmakers, can be seen in the “burning of Atlanta” sequence, yielding probably the most astonishing shot in the film.

It seems to rework a more stylized image scheme we find in a montage sequence in Things to Come.

Once you’re exposed to the Menzies Touch, it’s hard not to see even an apparently simple shot, like that of Rhett Butler at the foot of the stairs, as a geometrical display. Squint, and it’s easy to see the curving banister culminating in his torso while the flooring and shadows behind him mark out his head.

Beyond those sequences he actually directed, Menzies designed the overall look of Gone with the Wind, including its changing color palette.endnote12 But did he dictate the film’s breakdown into shots as well? Selznick famously advocated “pre-cutting” as a time- and money-saver, claiming in a 1937 memo, “I hope to have Gone with the Wind prepared almost down to the last camera angle before we start shooting.”endnote13

This would seem to be the ideal test of Menzies’ conception of the “film illustrator.” Yet by January of 1939, once shooting had started, Selznick had to admit that “A picture of this size in importance cannot be created to the last inflection in advance of production; there must be a certain leeway in production as we go along.”endnote14 That leeway was necessary partly because Selznick was constantly rewriting scenes, sometimes the day before shooting. By May, to hurry the schedule along, he was urging staff to “substitute simple angles that do not take time” for “elaborate angles”—of course, a Menzies speciality.endnote15 Alan David Vertrees’ painstaking study of the scripts and the surviving continuity sketches and storyboards confirms that the film often diverges from the “pre-cut” designs.endnote16

Vertrees argues persuasively that Menzies’ role was not only to secure a unifying look for the film but to serve as the producer’s representative in discussions with the director, the cinematographer, and Technicolor consultants. Menzies became in effect the hand and eye of Selznick’s conception of the movie. He was, according to Selznick in another memo, “the final word on these matters…responsible for the physical aspects of the production and for the color values of the production and any difference [of opinion among the creative staff] should be settled by him.”endnote17

On the whole, Gone with the Wind displays a much more subdued (some would say subtle) approach to design and framing than we find in Menzies’ 1929–1930 crime films and in Things to Come. The other films on which he collaborated at the time display his typical bargain: a few bursts of visual panache sandwiched within more orthodox shooting and cutting. Mr. Lucky (1943), directed by H. C. Potter, is a brisk and orthodox RKO item that occasionally spares a moment for a flashy transition or a flamboyantly centralized composition, as when the gambler Joe learns to knit. Most striking is a very early pair of shots in which Joe, the owner of a gambling cruiser, strides down a row of slot machines and finds one paying out. The reverse shot shows a maintenance man.

The shockingly low horizon lines and the perspective that seems to go on forever return us to Menzies’ love of the monumental image created by forced perspective. Chopping off the human figure and planting it at the very bottom edge of the frame is somewhat better motivated in this exchange from Korda’s Thief of Bagdad (1940), when the negative space at the top of the shot does duty for the looming djinni.

Menzies’ influence is more pervasive in John Cromwell’s So Ends Our Night (1941). Centering on refugees from Nazi-occupied countries, it took a political stand that was quite brave for early 1941. Yet for Menzies this was a film of “melodramatic escape” and so justified “violation of perspective.” In one daffy passage he explains:

If it heightened the drama to shoot a tree from the viewpoint of an astigmatic worm sitting on a leaf of that tree, or even from that of the tree looking at itself [!], we did in so far as the new 28mm lens and our imagination would permit.endnote18

The result is another film that anticipates Kane through cramped compositions, lowered ceilings, wide-angle lenses, and skewed vanishing points.

In the climax, a man’s leap from a building is shown as a faint shadow flitting down windows from landing to landing.

The film’s tight facial close-ups pay off in a graceful tracking shot in which a wife under surveillance by the authorities is followed, nearly cheek to cheek, by her husband urging her to divorce him.endnote19

Did Menzies somehow abduct these films from their named directors? Surely his stature in the industry by 1940 gave him considerable clout. By now he was frankly claiming control over a film’s look. The production designer, he told the New York Times, has the task of “coordinating every phase of the production not covered by dialogue and action of the players.”endnote20 With breathtaking casualness, he declared that the director’s job is to work with actors while the production designer supervised the cinematographer, set designer, costume designer, and other artisans. How much pressure he was able to exert on each of these productions, I can’t say, but clearly he had even more control over his work with Sam Wood.

Where to put the camera
Sam Wood was older than Menzies by several years, but he started directing at about the same time as the young set designer began his career. From A City Sparrow (1920) on, Wood became known as a reliable journeyman at Famous Players-Lasky before shifting to MGM in the late 1920s. There he turned out comedies and sports movies before taking charge of the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). After directing Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) in England, Wood left MGM in 1939 to go independent. He made Raffles (1939) for Sidney Howard’s independent company and Kitty Foyle (1940) for RKO.

Wood had seen Menzies’ prowess at full stretch on Gone with the Wind, for which Wood shot several sequences. After Sol Lesser acquired Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Our Town, William Wyler was slated to direct but had to drop out. Lesser turned to Wood, and the production design went to Menzies. This began a three-year collaboration on five films that are among the most visually striking, not to say narratively peculiar, in Hollywood cinema.

In Our Town (1940), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Kings Row (1942), The Pride of the Yankees (1942/1943), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) Menzies’ pictorial imagination reigned. We have testimony on one project from James Wong Howe:

Kings Row I loved doing. William Cameron Menzies designed the sets and did the sketches for the shots; he’d tell you how high the camera should be. He’d even specify the kind of lens he wanted for a particular shot; the set was designed for one specific shot only, and if you varied your angle by an inch you’d shoot over the top. . . . Menzies created the whole look of the film; I simply followed his orders. Sam Wood just directed the actors; he knew nothing about visuals.endnote21

Menzies, according to a contemporary, put it more abruptly: “Sam Wood never knew where to put the camera, so I told him.”endnote22

But what did Menzies tell him, through his drawings? As we’d expect, silhouettes, big settings, and bold perspectives—some maniacally centered and others skewed, but all driving the eye toward a visual node.

But now Menzies seems to be playing with solutions to a lingering problem: How to give dialogue sequences the visual punch that he applied to transitions and scenes of physical action? How to give conversations pictorial beauty? “He could take the most ordinary thing in a picture,” noted art director Ted Haworth, “and make it so cinematically fascinating.”endnote23

One sign of this impulse is Menzies’ effort to rethink the close-up. In the Wood collaborations of 1940–1943, the camera is set rather close to the players. (This may have been one of Woods’ contributions to the pair’s style.) Formerly a director of big sets and hollow spaces, Menzies now builds vigorous compositions around the human face.

The films Menzies directed gave such shots a special thrust by cutting abruptly from a long shot to a rather big close-up without the way station of a midsize shot. A cameraman once said to him: “Let’s pull back to a long shot now and show the chin and hair.”endnote24 Sometimes the faces are vastly enlarged. Haworth again: “Bill Menzies’ philosophy was that if you were going to show a close-up, make it closer than any close-up has ever been.”endnote25

Even when the faces are not preternaturally large, to a greater degree than in Things to Come or Gone with the Wind they are caught within the same V’s of setting and lighting that were formerly reserved for long shots. Most conservatively, that means letting corners or radiating shadows in the background give prominence to a player.

But sometimes that means having diagonals slash not across a landscape but across a face.

Instead of canting the camera, Menzies lets lighting and wall edges create quasi-abstract diagonals.

Another way to dynamize dialogue is through depth. That can be accomplished through the sort of big foreground and distant background that Welles and Toland made famous.

More often, Menzies prefers to use the wide-angle lens to jam several faces in the frame rather close to one another.

Aggressive depth would of course become a common compositional strategy for other directors in the 1940s, but Menzies was playing with unusual forms of it fairly early. The Wood collaborations recast shot/reverse shot in somewhat eccentric ways.

Perhaps most startling is his habit of pushing faces to the very bottom of the shots, in the way he would handle bodies in long shots in the crime films.

Perhaps one shot in Our Town sums up the emerging Wood-Menzies look. A pattern of light and architecture creates a wedge in which a face and a shadow stand out starkly, while the low angle and the calculatedly unbalanced framing let the traditional center of interest—Emily, who may be dying—at the very bottom edge.

In all these tactics, the frame edges play unusually strong roles, cropping visual elements and chopping up the scene’s space. Menzies had little use for camera movement, so his shots, the result of his hundreds of sketches in the script margins, come to resemble panels in comic strips.

Our Town takes a drama usually performed on a bare set and steeps it in Gothic chiaroscuro. It’s a useful reminder that this play, so often taken as a hallmark of middlebrow affirmation, is actually shot through with foreboding; early on, the stage manager tells us that a character we’ve just met will die some years later. If Copland’s score brings out the poignancy and yearning in the story, the imagery is far grimmer. Perhaps Menzies and Wood decided that if the movie version of the play had to have props and settings, those should be stylized somehow. So everything looms.

A pump broods over a kitchen counter, and chickens look monstrous when seen from below. The monumental fantasy sets of Menzies’ youth have become a gigantism of the homespun.

The dominant strategy for the dialogue scenes is tightly framed depth, with faces pressed close to one another.

Call this “compressed deep space”: The frame is packed with elements arrayed in marked depth, but the distances between planes are not great.

Broader shots exhibit the same jamming of the frame. The two primary households in the town are cramped, and the crosscutting between them not only sets up narrative parallels but invites us to see them as extensions of the same low-lying architecture. In these interiors the figures scarcely have room to move; even Emily as a ghost has to slip in between her mother and her earlier self.

True “deep-focus” imagery is reserved for the graveyard hallucination, with mother and dead daughter in the same frame. Anticipating the special effects in Citizen Kane, this shot was accomplished with a split screen.

In plot, Kings Row is the anti-Our Town. “A good clean town,” says the sign under the credits, but you wouldn’t know it from the contagion of madness that sweeps through the movie. “A good place to raise your children”? The respectable fathers of Kings Row lock up their wives and daughters and amputate the legs of the lads who dare to come courting. Class warfare is rampant, old women weep powerlessly, and the girl loved by the timid young physician behaves like one demented. She will be poisoned by her father.

This inspires the young doctor Parris to head to Vienna to study psychiatry. Returning to Kings Row, he will find plenty of business, and his reward will be a new version of his beloved. The childhood scenes are shot straightforwardly, but as adulthood pulls the characters into a spiral of hysteria, the film introduces hard-edged shadows, thunderstorms, canted angles, oppressive ceilings, oversize lamps, big close-ups, and a flagrant deep-focus technique. When Parris calls on his ailing grandmother, we get an image more complicated than the celebrated shot of Susan’s suicide in Kane.

The carafe is a decoy, taking up a huge chunk of the frame but inconsequential compared to the syringe. That grows in importance as Parris lunges forward to discover it.

He realizes that the old woman’s care has passed to the palliative phase, but the framing hides his face. At this point the nurse Anna enters the background.

As she comes forward to explain that the disease is cancer, the camera tilts up and her head fits perfectly into the vectors formed by the ceiling corners.

They close the door as Anna tells Parris that his grandmother will die in a few days.

Anna moves offscreen to cry as Parris returns to the bedroom to stare down at his grandmother.

A less flamboyant but equally moving scene takes place around another bedside, when after recoiling from the woman who has nursed him, the anguished amputee Drake clutches the bedstead and then acknowledges his need for her by stretching one arm into the distance. The wide-angle lens exaggerates the burst of his arms to the foreground and then accelerates the thrust of his right hand back toward Randy.

Shot in the summer of 1941, after the spring release of Citizen Kane, Kings Row looks as if Welles’ film had given Menzies permission to push further in the expressive and Expressionistic direction taken in Our Town. Yet the extremes are motivated to a considerable degree by the melodramatic fluctuations of the action. As the plot moves toward resolution, the florid style abates and we’re back to the more orthodox technique of the childhood scenes.

Between Our Town and Kings Row, Wood and Menzies made a comedy, and its visual style is even more offbeat than what we see in its mates. The Devil and Miss Jones centers on workers’ agitation at a department store. The owner, the pompous and life-denying mogul John P. Merrick, goes undercover disguised as a new salesman. Soon he comes face to face with his store’s petty bosses, obtuse policies, and quarrelsome customers. He admires Mary Jones and her coworker Elizabeth, whom he will later start to romance. The ebullience and self-sacrifice of Miss Jones and her agitator boyfriend Joe lead Merrick to embrace their cause. At one point he ends up picketing himself.

The film continues the compressed deep-space look of Our Town, with several faces packed alongside one another, but what is most striking is a tactic of unbalanced and decentered framing of those faces.

Menzies is one of the few filmmakers (apart from Ozu and Mizoguchi) to give the bottom third of the frame its due. We saw one example in the Mr. Lucky slot-machine battalions above, but there it was a one-off flourish. The Devil and Miss Jones, made two years earlier, supplies so many instances that you start to see this compositional oddity as normal.

At one point the key event, Mary peering under Merrick’s elbow, lies almost flat along the bottom frameline.

It’s hard to provide a robust functional explanation for these shenanigans. I’m inclined to take them as pure experiments, since they create a sort of visual rigidity that is hard to integrate with comedy. (The relevant comparison here might be the way that Gregg Toland’s deep-focus schemas somewhat freeze up the players in Hawks’ Ball of Fire.)

The decentering strategy is perhaps better motivated in the film that followed Kings Row, Pride of the Yankees. This story of Lou Gehrig follows one conventional biopic arc: Origins—Striving—Success—Personal Happiness—Tragedy of a Career Cut Short. (Another example is The Glenn Miller Story, 1954). But there’s nothing ordinary about the film’s visual design. We get the Menzies bottom-heavy look from almost the start, with the second scene shoving the boy Lou’s face down against the frame edge.

Shot/reverse shot is even more off-balance than in Miss Jones.

And where another film would play out the pathos of Sam’s response to Lou’s final address in a close-up, Wood-Menzies tucks it into the lower left corner, highlighted by architectural diagonals and the other sportswriters’ stares.

Again, this pictorial strategy is hard to square with traditional genre motivation. It seems to be an effort to create a deliberately offbeat style that not only binds the film together but serves as an authorial signature. (If you think the handwriting might have been Wood’s, consider that his other baseball yarn of the period, The Stratton Story of 1949, bears no trace of these techniques.)

For Whom the Bell Tolls changes the game somewhat. A large amount of it was filmed in exteriors (the Sierra mountains doing duty for Spain), and in Technicolor. In some respects, it is Menzies’ most flamboyant achievement of the era, a feast of pictorial design laid over a somewhat static plot.

Given three days to prepare to blow up a strategic bridge, Robert Jordan, an American fighting for the Republican cause, must join a band of guerrillas. Among them is Maria, a refugee who was raped by the Nationalists when they took over her town. The nominal leader of the guerrillas is the shifty Pablo, but the driving force is his wife Pilar, who can mobilize the men vigorously. Robert and Maria fall in love quickly; the drama is provided by the band’s efforts to plan the demolition and Pablo’s wavering support of the mission.

From the very first shot after the opening title, we are in Menzies territory. Characteristic jet-black silhouettes, tightly packed into the frame, are even more striking in color.

The huddled gatherings of the band are remarkable for sustaining depth of field with the slow Technicolor process, and action scenes are propelled by stark vectors provided by rock formations or logs.

Menzies’ eye for expressive color remains remarkable; when Robert crouches over the dead Anselmo, smoke curls into the frame like a shroud.

Most of the scenes between Robert and Maria are shot straightforwardly, as if setting off their relationship from the war maneuvers filmed in low angles and steep perspectives.

But the decentered framing, which can look so arbitrary and showoffish, becomes a motif associated with the couple and reaches a kind of climax in the film’s final stages. We get the decentering when they reconnoiter, and much later when they’re reunited after the firefight.

At the end, when the wounded Robert urges Maria to go, she is turned and pulled away by Pilar, and the two women sink below the frameline.

This sort of downward departure has been a signal of closure in earlier Wood-Menzies efforts. Lou Gehrig steps down into a block of shade as he retires from baseball, and the Stage Manager of Our Town leaves by literally dropping out of sight.

Going solo
Each of the Wood-Menzies films of 1940–1943 deserves more detailed analysis than I can supply here. There’s also the matter of their last collaboration on Ivy (1947), a more pictorially restrained enterprise. endnote26 But I’ll conclude by considering the films of the 1940s and 1950s that Menzies directed.

Two of these, Drums in the Deep South (1951) and the 3-D effort The Maze (1953), are of striking banality (except for the occasional decentered head). By contrast, Invaders from Mars (1953) indulges in Menzies’ eccentricities of set design and composition pretty freely. Admirers of the film point to the Caligaresque forest and the forced perspective of the jail cell.

There are as well his customary bare walls and strenuous viewpoints.

Once seen, Invaders from Mars isn’t forgotten, but the stylistic signatures don’t seem to me to compensate for arid and schematic designs, lugubrious pacing, and special effects of a pretty jejeune nature. The fantastic plot offers no ballast for Menzies’ urge to float into abstraction. I’d argue that two other films that he signed benefited from realistic constraints on his pictorial imagination.

In The Whip Hand (1951) a journalist on a fishing trip to a Minnesota town discovers a nest of Soviet scientists bent on poisoning Chicago’s water supply. The mystery is reasonably well-sustained, despite an over-explicit opening scene showing Russian officers pinpointing the town on a US map. The film employs solid character players, particularly Raymond Burr as a hotelkeeper exuding false bonhomie. Menzies’ predilictions are somewhat toned down now because his more moderate solution to the problem of enlivening dialogue had become standard practice. Thanks to Kane and perhaps the Menzies/Wood films, the tight, deep-space imagery of the conversations were stock in trade of American cinema of the period.

What looked striking in 1940 had become commonplace ten years later. But Menzies was still able to invoke bursts of graphic tension, as when the innkeeper and a lab technician are caught in a hail of bullets and a pattern of striped shadows.


Menzies’ most worthwhile solo feature, I believe, is Address Unknown (1944). Like So Ends Our Night, it’s a wartime drama with a strong political message. Two fathers, Martin Schulz and Max Eisenstein, are partners in an art gallery. Max’s daughter Griselle accompanies Martin’s family to Germany, while her fiancé, Martin’s son Heinrich, stays in San Francisco with Max to run the gallery. Once in Germany and exposed to Hitler’s rise, Martin chooses to conform and even asks Max, who is Jewish, to stop writing to him. At the same time, Griselle is launched on a stage career but courageously challenges the censor. Out of cowardice Martin lets her be caught and killed. Thereafter he starts to receive messages, apparently from Max, that the Nazis intercept and take to be in code. Gradually Martin finds himself alone to face the wrath of the authorities. It’s revealed that Heinrich has sent the letters in revenge for the loss of Griselle. He has deliberately sent his father to his death.

Unusually for a Hollywood movie, the film doesn’t build its plot around a sympathetic protagonist. Martin nervously slips into pleasing his Nazi masters, and Griselle becomes a figure of our allegiance only briefly. It would be too much to call this a Brechtian exercise, but the refusal to tell the story through the normal arc of the Griselle-Heinrich romance and the concentration on the mechanics of correspondence give the film a drier, more detached air than we find in most wartime propaganda. The usual iconography of swastikas, flags, and armbands was deliberately omitted, so that the drama is really that of two elders, an exchange of offspring, and the contrast between a weak father and a courageous daughter in a moment of political crisis.

Visually Address Unknown is quite satisfying. No longer are Menzies’ stock images sprinkled over the screenplay; now they become part of a consistent, albeit unusual style. Menzies’ vast corridors and offices find a natural justification in the government bureaucracy that Martin joins and the official style of National Socialism.

Menzies’ beloved decenterings now serve dramatic purposes, most memorably during Griselle’s scandalous stage performance. At one point the director lurks backstage in a composition recalling Ivan the Terrible.

Likewise, treating Max’s art gallery in train-tunnel fashion risks looking ponderous until we realize that the axis running from the office to the front door of the showroom gets developed across the film. First it is a space for welcoming a customer.

But when Max learns of Griselle’s death, the looming ceilings are replaced by a floor as lonely as a plain.

Martin’s decline is played out through a cluster of motifs of setting and lighting. He and his wife move into their German estate, and patterns of circles in the windows are laid over them.

Later, as Martin starts to fear every mail delivery, Menzies uses the circular shapes to enclose the butler striding to the postal box.

As the nets close in, Martin peers through the window pane.

At the climax, however, he is caught in a new patterns of light: a strip across the eyes, a network across his body.

He watches his executioners arrive through a squarish grillwork.

This modulation in imagery is recapitulated when the epilogue reveals Heinrich as the author of the damning letters. First, he stands in the office looking down the gallery at Max, and a reverse angle presents him in a grid.

Our final shot of him offers a stripe of light comparable to that crossing his father’s face.

The motifs link the son to the father whom he has condemned to death. The pattern is simple, but it shows that Menzies had the capacity to go beyond one-off effects and build an associative chain that accompanies the drama as a sort of pictorial score. The “film illustrator” has gone beyond illustration to subtly shape the movie’s visual texture.

Legacy of an idea
You can make the case that Menzies is an overblown, repetitive illustrator. He recycles images over and over. The beakers bulging on lab tables are there early on.

The Beloved Rogue (1926)

Bulldog Drummond (1929)

Invaders from Mars (1953)

One schema, that of the plunging view through a high window, reappears in movies twenty years apart.

The Bat (1926)

A drawing for Bulldog Drummond

Bulldog Drummond (1929)

Whip Hand (1951)

As early as 1930, Harry Alan Potamkin was deploring Menzies’ “arty” impulses, “which depend for their appeal on the public’s general ignorance of the antiquity and derivation of the devices employed, expressionistic light-designs and Méliès virtuosity.”endnote27 And undeniably arty he was. Although he paid lip service to the Hollywood idea that visual style should be “motivated” and that “every shot must contribute in some manner to the story,” he makes movies of flagrant artificiality.endnote28 In the article celebrating shooting from the viewpoint of an astigmatic worm, he also says, “My work is the less noticeable the better it is.”endnote29 Like so many Hollywood practitioners, he was caught between a desire to try something wild and the need to justify it, at least in public, as fulfilling traditional purposes.

Apart from his own films, his example evidently spurred several new creative practices in studio cinema. If he did not invent the storyboard, he surely popularized it, and along with it the new role of production designer. As early as 1941, Harry Horner, production designer on The Little Foxes, was declaring that the task of the art director was that of “designing a visual score to the film manuscript. Each camera set-up should be considered according to its dramatic value, and also according to its visual artistic composition.”endnote30

Menzies’ manner of dynamizing dialogue scenes through vivid compositions was taken up by his successors. More broadly, the general 1940s trend toward locked, centrifugal images may owe something to Menzies as well as to Welles and Wyler. As Boris Kaufman put it: “The space within the frame should be entirely used up in composition.”endnote31 Menzies’ love of the vertical axis, the corners of the image, and the vital frame edges fulfill that purpose, and he may have inspired others as well. Perhaps Welles learned something from him; Anthony Mann certainly did.endnote32 More recently, those who admire the absurdly inflated portrayal of corporate life seen in The Hudsucker Proxy ought to thank Menzies for leading the way. The Coen brothers’ distended wide-angle mode, using both deep central perspective and skewed angles for 1930s-ish montage sequences, is a contemporary equivalent of his forceful images.

During the 1930s a depth aesthetic was emerging as one creative option, but while Wyler pursued its more stable possibilities, Menzies pushed it to an unusually frantic pitch. Then, as the deep image was becoming normalized in the early 1940s, he was eager to take it in unexpected directions. His oddities, pursued with zeal and a considerable degree of commercial success, don’t fit into any tradition neatly. That may be enough to guarantee his continuing value.

[For some personal reflections on my interest in Menzies, see this blog entry.]


1 : For background on Menzies’ silent cinema work, see Beverly Heisner, Hollywood Art: Art Direction in the Days of the Great Studios (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1990), 41–49.

2 : Menzies, “Cinema Design,” Theatre Arts Monthly 13 (September 1929), 681.

3 : Menzies, “Pictorial Beauty in the Photoplay,” Cinematographic Annual vol. 1 (Hollywood CA: ASC, 1930), 177. See also “The Layout for Bulldog Drummond,” Creative Art 5 (October 1929), 729–734.

4 : Anonymous, “As a Director Views the Art of Settings,” New York Times (12 January 1930), 113.

5 : Jan and Cora Gordon, Star-Dust in Hollywood (London: Harrap, 1930), 181.

6 : Gordons, 179.

7 : Fred J. Balshofer and Arthur C. Miller, One Reel a Week (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 130.

8 : Menzies, “Pictorial Beauty,” 176.

9 : Ezra Goodman, “Production Designing,” American Cinematographer 26, 3 (March 1945), 82.

10 : Menzies, “Cinema Design,” 682.

11 : Lyle Wheeler, quoted in Mary Corliss and Carlos Clarens, “Designed for Film,” Film Comment 14, 3 (May–June 1978), 57.

12 : On Gone with the Wind’s color design, see Scott Higgins, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), Chapter 7. A very thorough account of the making of the film, with superb color illustrations, can be found in Ronald Haver’s David O. Selznick’s Hollywood (New York: Knopf, 1980), 236–311. Haver’s book includes other information on the collaboration of Selznick and Menzies.

13 : Memo from David O. Selznick, ed. Rudy Behlmer (New York: Viking, 1972), 151.

14 : Memo from David O Selznick, 189.

15 : Memo from David O. Selznick, 206.

16 : Alan David Vertrees, Selznick’s Vision: Gone with the Wind and Hollywood Filmmaking (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), Chapters 3 and 4.

17 : Memo from David O. Selznick, 190.

18 : William Cameron Menzies, “Production Designed By—Mr. Menzies, Specialist in Illusion, Reveals a Couple of His Fancy Tricks,” New York Times (1 December 1940), X5.

19 : Kent Jones provides an eloquent appreciation of this shot and the film as a whole in “State of Desire,” Film Comment 43, 3 (May/ June 2007), 22.

20 : William Cameron Menzies, “Production Designed By,” X5.

21 : Quoted in Charles Higham, Hollywood Cameramen: Sources of Light (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), 88.

22 : Richard Sylbert quoted in Vincent Lo Brutto, By Design: Interviews with Film Production Designers (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 52.

23 : Quoted in Lo Brutto, By Design, 21.

24 : Quoted in Ezra Goodman, “Production Designing,” 83.

25 : Quoted in Lo Brutto, By Design, 21.

26 : David Cairns offers a discerning, more affirmative account of Ivy here.

27 : Harry Alan Potamkin, “Reelife,” Close Up 7 (December 1930), 391.

28 : Quoted in Scot Holton and Robert Skotack, “William Cameron Menzies: A Career Profile,” Fantascene no. 4 (1978), 6.

29 : Menzies, “Production Designed By—,” X5.

30 : Harry Horner, “Designing Films,” Theatre Arts 25, 11 (November 1941), 794.

31 : Quoted in Edward L. de Laurot and Jonas Mekas, “An Interview With Boris Kaufman,” Film Culture 1, no. 4 (Summer 1955): 5.

32 : See John Hambly and Patrick Downing, The Art of Hollywood: Fifty Years of Art Direction (London: Thames Television, 1979), 4, 90–97.

David Bordwell
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