Tuesday, May 10, 2005

I'm Consumed With Apathy

Bad Day at Black Rock is finally out on DVD (unfortunately, without the superb John Sturges commentary from the Criterion laserdisc, which WB was unable to license; the commentary by critic Dana Polan isn't bad, though). DVD Journal's review of the disc and the film says much of what I wanted to say, including a nod to the superb use of CinemaScope by director John Sturges and cinematographer William Mellor.

When Black Rock was made, CinemaScope had been around for only a couple of years, and while almost every studio jumped on the widescreen bandwagon -- except Paramount, which developed the non-wide VistaVision process instead -- few directors had figured out a sensible way to compose for that big, wide frame, which was even wider then than it is now (Black Rock's aspect ratio is 2.55:1, almost twice as wide as the pre-1953 movie screens). The solution of most directors was either to fill the screen with as many people as possible, as in the big historical epics, or to compose the way they always did, which is why some scenes in early 'Scope films feature characters bunched together in the middle of the frame with acres of space on either side of them. Compositions in most early 'Scope films are flat and dull; imaginative camera angles and camera movements were almost lost.

And then there's Bad Day at Black Rock. Sturges seemed to sense something that most filmmakers hadn't realized: even though CinemaScope was billed as a spectacular, eye-popping format, best suited for epic subjects and images, it could actually be used to achieve greater intimacy and greater psychological insight. When filming a single character, Sturges doesn't waste the rest of the screen space; he uses props, sets and camera angles to place the character in the context of the setting, so that a character can look comfortable with the setting or dwarfed by his surroundings depending on what the mood of the scene is. And when more than one character is in the frame, the placement of the characters within the 'Scope frame helps to emphasize how they relate to each other: unlike other early 'Scope directors, who just had characters talking to each other from opposite ends of the frame or huddled together in the middle, Sturges puts the characters close together or far apart depending on what suits the mood of the scene. An obvious example is the scene in the restaurant, with the famous karate fight. When Ernest Borgnine starts needling Spencer Tracy, it's in a long uninterrupted shot, with Tracy surrounded on all ends of the frame by hostile characters. After Tracy socks Borgnine, we cut to Tracy framed against the counter, dominating the shot, in charge; the only other person in the frame is the owner of the restaurant, in the back, looking insignificant by comparison.

At a time when 'Scope was making movies look bloated and heavy, John Sturges showed how the 'Scope format could actually increase the tension and suspense in a movie; I don't think the scenes between Tracy and Robert Ryan would have the tension they do if it weren't for Sturges' manipulation of the 'Scope frame and the shifting distance between the characters within that frame. It's a brilliant piece of moviemaking, and a real lesson in the effective use of the wide screen.

The other 'Scope movie in the new "Controversial Classics" set, Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent, is also one of the classic examples of how to use 'Scope effectively, though Preminger uses it more for the ability to show many characters in a scene without having to cut.

No comments: