Unmastered

How does he do it? In the book Cut to the Chase, Polanski’s editor Sam O’Steen talks about Polanski’s tendency to not always shoot masters. The master shot is the wide shot that covers the entire scene and establishes the space and where everybody is. There are filmmakers who ONLY shoot masters — Polanski has been known to play out entire scenes in single shots. And there are directors who tend not to shoot masters. Even though he made ROPE as an experiment in long takes, Hitchcock was famed for his “damned jigsaw cutting,” assembling his scenes from fragments that don’t cover the whole action. Close-up of one actor saying one line, close-up of someone else reacting, a hand, a landscape, a POV.


Polanski does something that seems even riskier. I flashed on the opening scenes of CHINATOWN, neither of which offers a true establishing shot or a master. Polanski doesn’t prove to us that Curly (Burt Young) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) are inhabiting the same space in scene 1, even when JN passes BY a whisky. He relies on eyelines and dialogue overlaps, plus there’s some movement of the curtains behind Gittes that suggests the distressed Curly has gone from trying to eat the Venetian blinds (just installed Wednesday) to clutching the drapes.

Polanski MAY have shot something showing the two men in one frame, but he cut it out, jumping ahead to Curly’s exit from the outer office, which finally shows both characters together. Then Gittes gets the news that “Evelyn Mulwray” (actually Ida Sessions, an impostor played by Diane Ladd) is waiting for him in another office.AGAIN, Polanski cuts his master-shot in two — making it no master at all.

As you’d expect, the scene begins with Gittes entering — but Polanski doesn’t show this at all. We hear it, and Sessions and the operative she’ been talking to look up. That’s it.Then we see Gittes in a separate shot, with another op behind him. These guys are chosen to contrast with Gittes and thus help characterise him. One is oldish, to emphasise Gittes’ youth, the other is a crass gum-chewer, to point up Gittes’ slickness. Incidentally, this guy is standing as Nicholson enters, for no reason at all — except to allow us to see him in a shot that’s framed to show a standing man. The height of the camera position is midway between Gittes and Sessions, so it looks down on her and up at her, and this helps tie the shots together. Not much else will.

At this point, there’s a pleasing mirroring, with Gittes screen left, Sessions screen right, and the ops positioned opposite.Now, as Sessions spins her tale about her husband cheating, Gittes and his op each cross the screen, the op going behind his desk, Gittes heading for a chair. Polanski had to stage all this carefully because O’Steen has to cut for key dialogue and reactions, but also to keep track of the men’s movements, otherwise you get an INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED teleportation situation.When Gittes pulls up a chair, the camera descends to sitting level, pulling in until Nicholson’s head almost hits the lens, and settling into an unusual composition: Gittes gets little nose-room, and his op is now positioned behind him. When we cut back to Sessions, the camera is lower and closer to match Gittes’ shot, a change so subtle it’s almost unnoticeable, but essential to create a sense of matching. And now we have the shot/reverse shot pattern that will prevail for the rest of the scene. Sessions’ close-up is a little bigger, and her op is screen right, just like Gittes’, which means she has all the nose-room she could wish for, and even space to wave a gloved hand with a long cigarette holder.And that’s IT for this scene. Polanski never shows the two main characters together in one shot. He never establishes the office in a wide (perhaps because that would tend to make it look like a set). He never gives Sessions’ op a shot where he’s in focus. (Gittes being slightly further from the lens, mostly, means his op can be acceptably sharp when he gets his one line.) We tie the separate images together in our mind’s eye and it feels like a coherent space and scene.

The right way to shoot a scene (or *A* right way) is generally the most economical. Not just because time is money, but because in a scene shot with economy, the audience senses that everything they’re shown has a purpose. Polanski has just covered a long, talkie scene involving four characters with just three set-ups, one of them involving a small camera move. (It’s always possible that the two Sessions angles were once joined together by a small move two, which would make the scene two set-ups long, but I’m certain this wasn’t the case. Polanski knew he would be on Nicholson for that reframing.) In its quiet, no-nonsense way, the result is radically different from the standard master-and-two-singles approach often used as a cookie-cutter by unimaginative directors.

Now, imagine this scene in a big Hollywood film today.

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21 Responses to “Unmastered”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    Love it! The lack of an establishing shot is also something the audience feels, even if they don’t realize it. They all have grown up watching films and tv and expect to be shown where they are and invited into the space. Polanski’s choice is the perfect visual for the “in media res” of the scene. We have come in in the middle of the action, so we have “missed” the establishing shot. Also, we are put in to the shoes of the detective. Forced to figure out what is going on and “who we are” by the clues we are given.

  2. You’ve just outlined why Polanski is a great director. He gives you what you need to know on his terms — and nothing more. He assumes you’ve seen the standard issue ways and doesn’t need them to deal with actors props and setting. This economy is even more marked in his best film to date (IMO) “The Ghost Writer”

  3. See my analysis of the car scene in “The Ghost Writer” in Masters of Cinema: Roman Polanski

  4. Chinatown is a “closed narrative” detective story like Mastese Falcon and Big Sleep so we only know what Gittes knows and he’s in every scene. Which is why you need someone like Bogart or Nicholson who is interesting to watch over a long stretch, without getting on your nerves.

    Polanski’s personal-classical style is exactly the sort of approach you’d expect to get more relaxed and confident with age, and he has. Absolutely no visible effort, just occasional bits where he gets more excited.

  5. Chinatown is also fundamentally a subversion of the Noir, and especially the Bogart-detective figure. So the lack of master-shots and intense subjectivity also ensures a certain detachment.

    In classic films, or rather the classic style of editing (since not all old films followed that pattern), the editing emphasizes not only the hero’s point of view but also that the hero’s point of view is…right, and objective, imbuing it with an authority. Chinatown is against that authority, the authority of the hero, and the entitlement of that hero.

  6. I think the lack of any establishing shots also makes the film seem dreamier and more disorienting – and makes umages like the sheep entering or the corpse entering the frame all the more shocking. And great point on the economy: on the opposite end of no master shot, there’s no pointless cutaways.

    A question: Martin Scorsese was fired from The Honeymoon Killersby his own admission for filming everything in master shots, meaning his film would run for over four hours. From what I remember of that harrowing masterpiece, most of it was done in single shot setups. Hoe different would Scorsese’s have been? Why do other films shot in master shots (like Ophuls or Mizoguchi’s or Anderson’s) not have that length problem? Does that just Scorsese wasn’t shooting coverage, or am I misunderstanding what a master shot is? Thanks for any help with this question!

  7. There’s one particular POV in Chinatown which signals Gittes’ fallibility — something glinting in Noah Cross’s salt-water pond, which looks like one thing but turns out to be another.

    I think Scorsese said he was fired from The Honeymoon Killers because a film that’s all sequence shots COULD end up four hours long, in theory, and all you can do is chop scenes or chop starts and finishes of scenes. If the script is written at 90 pages, though, that’s unlikely. The bigger problem for producers would be not having anything to play around with. The start of THK is all masters, so I always assumed that was Scorsese’s stuff…

  8. The movie is full of those details and moments. For me the big thing is when near the end of Chinatown, we come and meet Curly, the client at the opening, we go to his house and it’s opened by his adulterous wife and she sports a weary recent looking black-eye, and in that moment we get a whole history that undermines all of Jake Gittes’ pretensions, i.e. that him being a detective is somehow honorable when in fact he’s an enabler of an abusive husband victimizing his wife. That somehow there are no consequences even when he does a good job. That line delivery where Curly’s wife sneers at Jake, that yes she knows him is incredible, because after following Jake all this time we feel implicated with him, that we are complicit in what he does. I mean Chinatown is remembered for the movie where the villain wins, but what it does is assault the notion of heroism. Gittes at the end of the day, is to quote that famous line from Godfather II, “part of the same hypocrisy” as Cross. I mean Evelyn Mulwray didn’t die at Cross’ hands, she got killed by the cops and she would have succeeded had Gittes not betrayed her.

  9. …and then tried to rescue her. It exactly illustrates his story about Chinatown, where he tried to stop someone getting hurt and ended up making sure they got hurt. The law of unintended consequences. “As little as possible.”

    I think there’s a deleted scene where Jake is taken to task by another client’s wife, in front of Evelyn, which probably made this TOO explicit.

  10. So the fact that 15 seconds into the clip you posted, where the camera pulls out from the surveillance photos of Curley’s wife, we see Jake in the right background and Curley in the left foreground of the same shot, doesn’t count as an “establishing shot”?

  11. Yeah OK, I’ll give you that one.

    It’s very brief by the time we see both of them, but it establishes the spatial relationship in one frame. It’s an establishing shot. It would only be a master if Polanski covered the whole scene from that angle, which we can’t know for sure, post-edit, since the purpose of coverage is to mostly be discarded. I rather doubt he did, though. It’s also unconventional since it’s over Curly’s shoulder, favouring Jake, rather than establishing what both of them look like.

    Still, faulty observation on my part, I didn’t rewatch that whole scene.

    The Sessions scene is genuinely masterless.

  12. All this talk about the subversion of the noir hero in CHINATOWN made me think of KISS ME DEADLY, which kicks the private eye in the balls.

    I think CHINATOWN makes Gittes into a flawed, very real person. His efforts to solve and to fix things, his anger at injustice is thus all the more moving.

  13. Yes, there are at least three forms of revisionist PI story:
    Kiss Me Deadly: the PI is a louse.
    Chinatown: the PI is a flawed human who can’t defeat the powerful forces of evil.
    The Long Goodbye: the PI is still a white knight, but that renders him absurdly out of time and ineffectual.

  14. GOODBYE pushes the absurdity of Marlowe in the modern world, and it becomes a movie about Hollywood and PI movies. Altman saw the character as a loser, “Rip Van Marlowe”. Because I love Chandler and the genre, the ending has always rankled me. But I respect that it was Leigh Brackett’s idea, who thought Marlowe and the genre would be seen as cliché in the 1970s. And Brackett has more than enough noir credit.

  15. The important thing about Chinatown is that it showed the hero lose…and lose badly. Whereas we don’t get that in Kiss Me Deadly or in any of the classic noir. We don’t get to see the morally decent, generally good guy utterly lose. And The Long Goodbye has Marlowe turn vigilante…Like Kiss Me Deadly it wouldn’t have mattered if Mike Hammer did lose because he’s a terrible person. So to me the ending where he might have died of the suitcase nuke or the one where he walks out for The End…it doesn’t matter which is better because I don’t care for him (I do care for the movie).

    Chinatown shows the hero losing and the villain getting away and the former has to live for the rest of his life knowing that. I mean it would have been better if Gittes was whacked by Cross to tie up loose ends, but he’s so unimportant and inconsequential that he isn’t worth the effort. I mean The Ghost Writer has a happier ending…Ewan McGregor got whacked because he was an actual threat to the state so existentially he has validation, whereas Gittes isn’t worth the effort. That is something you don’t get in any classic noir despite all the hints, and sly insinuations. I mean Dashiell Hammett at the end of The Thin Man novel said that killing someone doesn’t change anything and it only affects the victim and sometimes the murderer, but Chinatown actually puts that up front showing us what it means. Like Evelyn Mulwray’s death for all its grandeur isn’t going to have the tragic apotheosis of Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat. It’s just unredeemed and unavenged.

    There are parts of Chinatown that goes further than what noir movies did or could actually do. There’s a tendency among people to make noir films bleaker and darker than they actually were at least the classic ones. But you know fundamentally most of them were safe. Majority of them focused on fall guys (usually white working-class men, at least the lead figures) and pivoted on male entitlement hence femme fatales, fall women and so on. It was the Westerns and Melodramas that was dealing with real outsider viewpoints in that time, whereas noir films were largely validating and preaching to the choir. Chinatown is a pretty thorough takedown of the misogyny and sexism of the genre, and also the racism and the class views, which you know makes Polanski’s off-screen reputation ironic since so many people don’t get what the movie is about, or what Polanski is about.

  16. Kenneth Tynan’s profile of Polanski had him down as a very traditional kind of chauvinist, freaked out by the feminist movement, but that;s ironic if true given the way his films always empathised with oppressed women. It’s a little like Hitchcock. And you don’t really get the sense that RP is getting off on his heroines’ suffering, eg in Chinatown or Tess or Repulsion. He’s like an instinctive, unconscious feminist or something.

  17. Liv Ullman once said that Ingmar Bergman was the biggest male chauvinist she ever knew and yet he wrote women better than anyone, according to her. So it’s one of things about art. I don’t think Polanski is…woke or whatever, no more than Hitchcock or you know Mizoguchi but it’s I guess an instinctive thing.

    And you know just because you feature sympathetic women doesn’t necessarily mean you are a feminist because in the case of Polanski, the women are invariably white gorgeous women. So there’s aquality about missing white woman syndrome that’s there in his movies. I mean independently of whatever else in his life that’s there in his movies, although ironically I think Polanski is suffering from a side-effect of that same tendency and mentality.

    A lot of the time when people praise male directors for giving good roles to actresses it’s largely praise for the super-gorgeous or conventionally attractive women. For instance, Antonioni has a reputation for being more feminist than Fellini, but you know the latter made Giullietta Masina a star and gave her major acting roles that weren’t generally feminine or relied on her looks, that had a range of tones and had her be a female Chaplin, whereas Antonioni’s women are goddesses like Lucia Bose, Monica Vitti, Jeanne Moreau, Vanessa Redgrave and Fellini is far more upfront about male entitlement than pretty much any other director in history. Someone like Anna Magnani for instance would never get the kind of roles or become a movie star today that she did back in the 40s and 50s.

  18. Maybe, Polanski saw that, even though brief, the pull out from the photos had successfully established to the viewers that Curley and Jake are in Jake’s office, and once this was done Polanski could then go on to other things? As the movie opens, we the viewers already know that Jack Nicholson, at the height of his popularity at the time, was in this movie. And, we knew he would be playing a private eye. So one can anticipate that the opening scene could very likely be set in the detective’s office. A genre convention. The photos set this up and pulling back to see Nicholson sitting in the background establishes to the viewer that the big name star is indeed in this movie, is playing a detective and he is talking with a client in his office. I’m guessing, that at this point, a master shot of the two characters talking would distract the viewer from what Polanski needs to do at this time. Which, I believe, is to introduce them to Curley. In a prolonged two shot the viewer’s attention would be on Nicholson and not on the character actor, Burt Young. Instead, Polanski, knowing that this is the only time he will get to establish Curley with the viewers, holds on Curley. Keeping him and Nicholson in their own shots. So that Young’s presence is not diluted by the presence of Nicholson. This needs to be done so that later, when Jake needs someone to take Evelyn and her “daughter” out of LA, the pacing is not interrupted by having to introduce a new character. Jake just goes into this house and there is the man from the start of the movie.
    Polanski also distracts the viewer in these opening shots of Curley with a jokey film noir reference to venetian blinds: the source of the genre’s signature shadow motif. A motif which dominates the next scene as Jake interviews “Mrs Mulwray”. Here again, as you say, the master is cut in half, with Jake and the new client in separate shots. Polanski is again leading the viewer by what he is showing. In the last scene we’re looking more at Curley than at Jake, so that the viewer can get a good look at Curley. Here, our attention is on Nicholson, the star of the movie, as it should be at this point. He is the focus of the film and we are properly introduced to him in this scene. We are also introduced to his two assistants, who will come back to deliver the film’s ending.

  19. Let’s credit Robert Towne with the venetian blinds line. He did work very closely with Polanski though, and described him as the best collaborator he ever had, “annoying little prick that he is.”

    What’s striking about not shooting masters is not just the uses to which Polanski can put his fractured approach, nor the motivations for doing it that way, but the fact that it;s so uncommon. Nearly everybody shoots one wide of the whole scene to get started. Polanski undoubtedly rehearses the whole scene — that’s how, he says, he decides what to shoot. “I just look at what my eye is drawn to, and film that. It’s CHILDISH.” Not it isn’t.

  20. My college teacher said she found Fellini’s women embarrassing but his portrayal of childhood sublime — maybe for the same reason, because he views women from a childish perspective, hence all those giantesses.

    Liv has said that her role in Bergman’s later years was to occasionally make fun of him and remind him he wasn’t a god.

    Given the fate of Polanski’s mother, even before we get to Sharon Tate, the missing white woman syndrome is certainly understandable.

    Hmm, Repulsion passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, I wonder how many others do?

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