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Conversations in Cars and Elevators

If you watch many movies you will see a disproportionate number of conversations set in elevators and cars. Of course people converse in such settings sometimes in real life, but why is it so common in the movies?

Both cinematically and in terms of acting, the ordinary way people talk to each other — face to face — often isn’t ideal for film. Audiences don’t want to look at the back of an actor’s head, so the director usually cuts back and forth between the two actors or shoots the two actors in profile. The former approach doesn’t let the audience see the reactions of both characters at the same time. The latter gives the audience more of this, but if the characters are far apart it can be distracting for the audience to switch attention back and forth as in a tennis match, and even worse when such conversations are shown on television with pan and scan rather than keeping the original aspect ratio, sometimes the back of each character’s head gets cut off to fit everything in the same shot.

Directors try to work around this by having both actors face the camera, particularly during critical conversations. Otto Preminger and his frequent cinematographer Joseph LaShelle did many such shots. Here is one from Where the Sidewalk Ends. This can work to a point, but risks take the audience out of a scene if they start to think “If someone was facing my back and proposing marriage/confessing to murder/revealing the secret of King Tut’s tomb, wouldn’t I, you know, turn around and look at them?”. In the generally good film noir The Big Combo, Joseph Lewis staged so many of the film’s key conversations that the artificiality eventually works against the grittiness of the story.

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The easiest way to resolve this problem is to shoot dialogue scenes in the few places where human beings have conversations while they face the same direction in real life: when they are driving, seat belted in and looking at the road, and, when they are in an elevator looking at the door/floor indicator. The tight physical location means that it’s easy for the viewer to take in each participant and all their actorly non-verbals.

Scene Deconstruction - Drive - Elevator
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Blogs on Film

Overused Movie Trope #82: How Long Has That Villain Been Standing There?

I watched one of the usually good English-language adaptations of Wallander (The Swedish detective show), which ended with a painfully predictable stand off as the hero bursts into a room and finds the villain holding a gun to someone’s head.

Which raises the usual question: How the hell long was that guy standing there with the gun to the hostage’s head to ensure that the hero would come in while he was in that threatening pose? By the storyline it seems to have been at least an hour. Doesn’t the bad guy get tired or hungry or have his attention wander?

Another example: In Max Payne, which I watched on an airplane because I had nothing else to do, and was so bad that I was tempted to walk out of the theater, Mark Wahlberg is striding through a snowy cityscape. Suspecting some trouble up ahead, he darts down a back alley, goes around a few dark corners and waits. And then Milan Kunis tells him to freeze because she has a gun to his head.

Does she live in that back alley? Isn’t she cold, staying there day after day? Why is her make-up still perfect when she lives out of doors in winter? How did she know that our hero would ever even walk by? Are other back alleys filled with withered corpses of villains who passed away after waiting for years for different heroes to dart down their alley and then conveniently turn their backs?

But the worst ever example is the Michael Caine stinker The Black Windmill. It opens with two little boys playing with a toy airplane near their school. They wander across a field and come to an abandoned government airstrip. They decide to sneak in. They go into a hangar. And there they encounter a group of bad guys who have long planned to kidnap one of the boys. They are wearing soldiers’ uniforms to fool the other boy they somehow knew would be with the victim so that he would tell the authorities that soldiers did it.

I imagine the villains sitting there year after year, tired, alone and bored.

Lower level bad guy: Do you think the boys might come here today? — it’s been 5 years now and…
Boss bad guy: Shut up! Be a professional.
Lower level bad guy: Why don’t we actually, like, go to them instead of just waiting here in this abandoned building at an abandoned airstrip miles from where they are?
Boss bad guy: It just isn’t done. You’ll understand when you’re older.
Lower level bad guy: What if we went to the kid’s actual house and just got him. Same day service, no muss no fuss. You know, he will be old enough for college in a few years and could move away…
Boss bad guy: You just don’t get it, do you?

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Overused Movie Trope #152: The Completely Ransacked Room

ransackedroom

If you love movies as much as I do, you probably watch a lot of them. Generally that’s a joy, but some overused movie tropes can eventually to wear down even the most devoted cineaste, such as people yelling no-o-o-o-o-o-o!! in slow motion and the tell-tale cough of death. Another one that always gives me a chuckle and that you — fair warning — will not be able to “unsee” once you know about it: The completely ransacked room.

You know the set up: Our hero/heroine has hidden the black bird/legendary cumbersome diamond/exonerating evidence/incriminating photos/only copy of Great Uncle Casmir’s will in his/her room. But upon returning, s/he gasps as the camera shows us that the room has been tossed! All the drawers are open, the cushions on the couch are slashed, the floor is cluttered. The protagonist runs to the hiding spot, opens the box/drawer/envelope and says “Oh no — It’s gone!”.

What’s wrong with this picture? The room is invariably completely ransacked. But unless the bad guys have the bad luck to always look in the right place at the very end of their search, this wouldn’t happen. As soon as they found the black bird/legendary cumbersome diamond/exonerating evidence/incriminating photos/only copy of Great Uncle Casmir’s will, they would stop searching, leaving the rest of the room in a pristine state.

I imagine the exchange:

Senior bad guy: I found the treasure map!

Junior bad guy (stops stabbing the cushions): Right let’s go!

Senior bad guy: No way, keep stabbing those cushions while I toss the bedroom!

Junior bad guy: But…

Senior bad guy: You aren’t a scab are you?

Junior bad guy: No, I’m a member of the Loyal Brotherhood of Thugs, Yeggs and Second Story Men, just like you.

Senior bad guy: Then what the hell are you doing throwing away a good hour of work just ’cause we found the map? Remember, it will be 5 o’clock soon — that’s time and half for both of us!

Junior bad guy: Yippee! I don’t know what I was thinking. Can I pull up the linoleum after I finish with the cushions?

Senior bad guy: Good thinking, kid.

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Black Actors Break the Oscar Ceiling

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, African-American actors had a boomlet of Academy Award acting nominations. Many predicted at the time that the civil rights era had finally come to Hollywood, and that Black nominees and winners would become a fixture at the Oscar ceremony.

It was a false dawn. Nomination droughts set in for Best Actor (1972 to 1986), Best Actress (1974 to 1985), Best Supporting Actor (1969 to 1981) and Best Supporting Actress (1967 to 1983). Black actors were rarely given good opportunities to showcase their talents, and when they did, the Academy ignored them.

Basic Black: Oscar Goes to Halle Berry and Denzel Washington

In 2001, Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress and Denzel Washington won for Best Actor. Again, many predicted that Hollywood had changed forever. Enough time has gone by to evaluate whether 2001 was a turning point or a blip on the radar.

The second time was the charm. Since the Academy’s creation in 1929, African-Americans have been nominated for acting awards a total of 78 times. The majority (54%) of those nominations occurred from 2001 onward. The change is even more impressive if the analysis is restricted to winners: 13 Oscars in the 21st century, versus only 6 over the preceding 72 years.

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Blogs on Film

My Favorite Line in Casablanca

Everyone has their favorite quote from Casablanca – so many to choose from: “Round up the usual suspects!”, “I’m shocked, shocked, that gambling is going on in this establishment”, “Are my eyes really brown?” etc. After about 10 or 15 viewings, my favorite switched to a lesser known line. I love it because of how it’s said, how it’s the key to the love story, and most of all how it’s untrue.

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As in a Shakespearean romance, there’s a young couple who are a foil to the central romance (between Rick and Ilsa). Jan and Annina Brandel are just-married Bulgarian refugees, desperate to get to America. Annina Brandel (Joy Page) comes to Rick for advice.

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She is considering prostituting herself for exit visas but worries about her husband’s reaction. She asks Rick if “Someone loved you very much and your happiness was the only thing she wanted in the world and she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?”.

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Whence comes my favorite line. Rick says “Nobody ever loved me that much”. Bogart delivers it with a perfect mixture of hurt, bitterness, and vulnerability. Underneath his cynical shell, Rick’s still standing at that train station with a comical look on his face because his insides have just been kicked out, thinking that Ilsa never really loved him.

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And of course he’s wrong! Casablanca’s love story is fundamentally about Rick realizing that Ilsa did indeed “love him that much”, so that they both “get Paris back”. Casablanca in many stories at once, but at least for the love story, this is the line upon which it turns.

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p.s. This as you might have guessed was originally a Twitter thread, and one of the nice things about putting it there is that I got a kind comment from Monika Henreid, daughter of Paul, who played Victor Laszlo.

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Why Did They Bother to Explain That?

I once watched the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco, and the audience started laughing when these words appeared on the screen.
Surely superfluous, they must have thought: who wouldn’t recognize San Francisco with all that stock footage of the city’s essentials? But San Francisco was a much smaller, less culturally significant city back then and many American movie goers would not even have heard of it much less been able to recognize it by sight.

I enjoy these “unnecessary explanations” in old films as historical curios. Another of my favorites is in the 1948 criminal investigation classic Call Northside 777. A suspect takes a lie detector test and a scientist explains what the machine does at what to modern audiences seems like inordinate length (after all, even in films like Deceiver that revolve entirely around a lie detector, there is no such lengthy exposition). The scientist is Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the lie detector, a machine that audiences would not have heard of in 1948 and probably wouldn’t have taken as a credible plot point without all the sciency lecturing.

Similarly, another great police procedural of the same period, He Walked by Night, includes a detailed explanation of what a police composite sketch artist does because of course audiences at the time wouldn’t have already watched a million episodes of Law and Order on television.

Another notable example are “nature documentary moments” that appear in many films prior to the era of widespread television ownership, for example 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines. The characters in such films have plot-irrelevant conversations of the form:

Stay back, it’s a snake!!!

Hero or Heroine: “What on earth is that?”

Grizzled Guide Who Knows the Local Terrain: “That is a leopard”

Hero or Heroine: Wow!

Pretty boring if you’ve seen a Jacques Cousteau special or virtually any hour of what plays on the Nature channel all day long. But audiences back then couldn’t watch television nature documentaries and few of them had access to exotic zoos or international travel either, so as dull as these bits of cinema are to us today, they amazed viewers at the time, and they teach discerning viewers about the period in which the movie was made.

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Blogs on Film

De Niro’s Greatness (Guest Essay)

London-based Ian Jentle had a long and successful career as an actor; Americans are most likely to know him as Josef Goebbels in the epic War and Remembrance television mini-series. I asked Ian to explain from an actor’s point of view what makes a great film performance, and he has kindly agreed to do so using the example of the legendary Robert De Niro. Over to Ian:

When people ask me, as a retired actor, what I think constitutes great acting, I tell them to rent Raging Bull (1980) and The King Of Comedy (1983) and watch them back to back. Both are directed by Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro. In the former, De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a man of immensely powerful physical presence who is emotionally unstable, intellectually limited and sadomasochistic. He is huge, lumbering, frightening, and yet pathetic. In the latter film, De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a small, weasely loser obsessed with other people’s fame, a stage door hangabout whose very presence is sphincter-clenchingly embarassing. If you removed the credits from both films and showed them to somebody who had lived a cinema-free life, I would bet a large sum that they would not believe the same actor played both roles.

First, De Niro has that strange quality known as presence or charisma. Film professionals will say of a particular performer that “the camera loves him/her” and it is true. But screen presence is not always linked with great acting skills: Charlton Heston had tremendous presence, but his acting was rarely better than wooden, and although one could not accuse John Wayne of creating a wide range of characters, he undoubtedly had presence and was always believable and entertaining. De Niro clearly demonstrates his presence in the scene in Raging Bull in which LaMotta is thrown into a prison cell.

But De Niro brings much more to the screen than mere presence. What marks De Niro out as a truly great actor is the integrity of his approach to his characters, the depth of his observation of human behaviour and the skill he brings to the performance of these characters in the context of a film narrative. Two more clips, one from each movie, demonstrate these skills.

In the clip from Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta repeatedly challenges his brother, played by Joe Pesci, to hit him in the face. Here, De Niro gives his character the objective of “control”. He tries several strategies to persuade his brother to hit him in the face: simple request, provocative insult, older brother authority, even slapping. By the end of the clip his brother demands “What are you trying to prove? What does it prove?” De Niro’s triumphant smile and brotherly tap on the face show that he has “won”, which is the whole point. As he does repeatedly throughout the film, Jake LaMotta uses violence, even the receiving of violence, to exercise psychotic control over others.

In the clip from King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin sneaks into a car with his comedy hero Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis, to ask for help in becoming a comedian. Once Pupkin invades Langford’s car, he embarks upon non-stop babble with the objectives of impressing Langford with his comedy potential and recruiting his support for his non-existent career. What he reveals is an embarrassing blend of passionate desire to succeed with not a shred of comedic talent. He tries to behave as if Langford is his equal while saying that Langford is his hero. The scene is shot head-and-shoulders but with only his face, shoulders and arms De Niro produces a painfully recognisable character.

For me, these two movies demonstrate De Niro’s ability, flexibility and imaginative range, but don’t take my word for it based on these few clips. Watch the two movies back to back and they will make the argument much better than I can.

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In Film, Words Aren’t Everything

Great dialogue has been in decline in Hollywood for a long time, even though a few masters (Sorkin, the Coen brothers) keep the flame of Preston Sturges alive. As the movie-going audience came to comprise a larger share of teenagers and the international market (much of it not fluent in English) became more important, the demand for complex, smart, language usage in film declined.

However, as the Silent Era directors knew well, you don’t need dialogue to create emotionally powerful scenes. I have written here previously about Madeleine Carroll’s fine, extended and wordless scene in The 39 Steps.

More recently, Pixar hit it out of the park with Up’s achingly sweet montage about a marriage. Curl up with your mate and have a good cry.

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Establishing Character and Plot Elements in Film: The Prisoner

A remarkable number of films absolutely botch their opening moments by introducing way too much information/needless detail or by providing essential information in a clumsy fashion. The worst ever example in the movies was David Lynch’s Dune, which had such an incoherent opening narration that when it played in the cinema, audience members were given an explanatory handout sheet with their tickets (And it didn’t help. Very disappointing given the greatness of Frank Herbert’s book).

At the other end of the spectrum, In a Lonely Place (recommended here) takes less than 5 minutes to show who Bogart’s character is and what drives him, and you can’t help being pulled into the story by both lapels.

A television series that opens its story as well as any is Patrick McGoohan’s brilliant (if uneven and occasionally maddening), The Prisoner. I re-watched a number of these recently and greatly admire the creators for trusting the audience by using a 90 second opening with no dialogue. The images make clear what the series is about economically and cleverly. The next 90 seconds of the opening were substantially the same each week, but included some tailoring for the episode at hand. It’s an arresting and innovative way to begin telling a story and it has great background music as well.

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Finding and Enjoying Older Movies

My knowledge of recent pop culture does not go much beyond being excited about this Bob Bailey guy who recently took over from John Lund in the lead part of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Most of my film recommendations can thus sometimes be hard to find. When I was writing for Washington Monthly magazine, some people would write me and ask for suggestions about where to find older movies. Let me offer a few ideas.

First, although I do not myself watch television, I am given to understand that there are channels that regularly feature older films. One of them is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which also has a website packed with reviews and commentary on the films the channel shows. Another, American Movie Classics, has broken away from exclusive reliance on showing old films but still includes hours a days of classic film programming. A third possibility is IFC, which shows a mix of classic films as well as arty, offbeat and independent productions, including a number I have recommended.

Second, a number of fine films have had their copyrights lapse and are available for free viewing. One place to find most of them is The Internet Archive. I have recommended many public domain films, including Railroaded!, Nanook of the North, And Then There Were None and He Walked by Night.

Third, there are services on line that show films either in exchange for watching a few ads, or, charge an annual entry free that gives you unlimited access to their library. Examples include Hulu.com, Imdb.com, and Crackle.com. I personally sign up each year for Amazon Prime, which has let me discover or re-watch many films that I have recommended or plan to recommend here. Netflix doesn’t seem to carry as many older films, as far as I can tell.

Fourth, consider buying DVD amalgamations of old movies. Here is one of many examples: 100 mystery movies for twelve bucks! Sure, some of them are stinkers, but if even only a third of them are good you are gaining fine movie viewing for less than a buck a film.

When sifting through old films that you purchase in this way or see scheduled on TV or a pay for service website, how do you pick the ones you will like? Rotten Tomatoes is one of many sites that provides useful guidance at no charge, as can a used movie guidebook (e.g., by Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert) which you can usually find in bookstores for a couple bucks. Also of course, you can go through this site’s list of recommendations for ideas.

Happy viewing!