Never Put Durning in the Corner

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A warning to all — never put Charles Durning at the point of an “A” composition. This may be a little academic now that Durning is no longer with us, but it’s still a valid point.

I shall elucidate. An “A” composition is a flat two-shot with a third party in the background. You can see how this forms an A lying on its back — the edges of the frame are the feet of the A, the distant figure is the point, and the eyeline between the two profile characters makes the horizontal strut of the A.

The third party can look from one principal player to another, and adds interest to the shot — you get extra depth, possibly A LOT of depth if the third character is far away, and you get someone who is full-face, which gives you more emotion than the two profiles. And by being attentive, this third character can subtly tell the audience that they should pay attention too. By looking from one profile to another, the third character can even signal to the audience which character to focus most attention on at a given time.

John Frankenheimer is a huge fan of the “A” — his live television days accustomed him to working with extreme deep focus, and he used every trick in the book to replicate the KANE-like effect in his movies, hence all those diopter shots that split the focus into two parts, or even three.

I WALK THE LINE (1970) is a pretty good southern drama with Gregory Peck straying from his usual straight-and-narrow, stalwart roles, as a sheriff who falls hard for moonshiner’s daughter Tuseday Weld. The smart, honest man is out of his depth once he falls to intrigue, and is easy prey for stupider characters, like Deputy Durning and moonshiner paterfamilias Ralph Meeker, since they’re used to living their lives in the shadows, manipulating and spying on others.

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This is a scene where Peck is under pressure from Federal man Lonny Chapman to do something about the moonshine trade. Durning suspects already that for some reason Peck is reluctant to do so. I’m not saying what he does here is wrong, precisely, but it certainly puts the entire attention on him, leaving Peck and Chapman as blurry silhouettes, featureless despite all Frankenheimer and DoP David M. Walsh’s deep focus.

Durning actually leans in, seemingly to get a better listen but blatantly just to be more clearly seen himself, and to attract our attention. And he makes a stupid, hilarious face, as if frozen in the act of eating a sandwich while grinning.

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The movie is quite good — Weld is enticing and natural as ever. Peck can do conflicted. He can’t quite do lust, and looks a bit uncomfortable as he tries hard not to seem fatherly. Estelle Parsons is touching as Peck’s wife, who does not inspire him with Tuesday Weld type passion. Never has. The marriage is very much like the bleak, lifeless one at the start of SECONDS, only Parsons quotes from Reader’s Digest to try to fill the yawning silences.

There is also a major example of the Frankenheimer Dog.

Frankenheimer, as I will argue in a forthcoming piece for Masters of Cinema (watch this space), has a particular affinity for emptiness, and he finds his ideal image in a deserted house, former home to pack’s deceased mother and sisters, which he tries to use as a love nest. The ruined residence affords Frankenheimer just all kinds of compositional pleasure.

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Music is by Johnny Cash, including the title song. All the music is in the form of songs, which, as is the way of such brilliant ideas, creates a tricky problem during one scene of trauma that just wouldn’t be helped by lyrics, no matter how gravelly. Frankenheimer dubs in a LOW DRONE — not, I think, a Johnny Cash composition. A sound like feedback from an incorrectly inserted audio jack. The sound of disconnection, of emptiness.

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7 Responses to “Never Put Durning in the Corner”

  1. For a long time I held this up as one of the few Gregory Peck movies where I don’t find myself longing for another actor to be playing the part (James Stewart in Cape Fear, anyone? ). Now I read (Wikipedia) that Frankenheimer originally wanted Gene Hackman and once again find myself thinking, Ah. Exactly. But Peck is really good here (he’s good in Cape Fear, too, for that matter). He’s just not Hackman good. // On original release, “Gentle on My Mind” accompanied a car chase to the puzzlement of the audience, including me. On a later TV viewing, the car chase had standard car chase music playing under it. I wish I could say it didn’t work better that way.

  2. woolworthdiamond Says:

    Another dog! Excitement! Perhaps soon, I will have all I need for a solid article on drunken animal wrangling: Do it Like The Pros.

  3. Frankenheimer is rumoured to have shot a cat at a dinner party (!) and here Durning shoots the dog — not for real, though, there’s a rather obviously speeded-up shot of the dog lying down.

    Gene Hackman would’ve been damn good, but maybe there’s a third choice out there that could be better. See, Peck’s stalwart, honest face is a good fit here. He just can’t strongly suggest amour fou. George C Scott? Mind you, the combination of him and Frankenheimer could be rather volatile…

  4. A real dancer in his youth, apparently. He always moved well.

  5. Crazily late, but I have to copy-and-paste Tuesday Weld’s note on Gregory Peck’s technique: “We had to do a love scene in bed and it showed my bare back. I wasn’t nude or anything, maybe a half-slip, I don’t remember exactly, but I was as nude as possible. And he got into the bed with his pants and his shoes on. Now they weren’t moccasins. They were big clunky businessman’s shoes, laced up, you know. With socks, and… what more can I say.”

  6. Ha! “Gregory Peck, reporting for duty, ma’am.”

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