Archive for May 9, 2020

Lamp Post

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2020 by dcairns

Occluding lampshades are a favourite compositional device, and this one, from Curtis Bernhardt’s MGM noir HIGH WALL, is particularly interesting, though perhaps not wholly successful.

Being an MGM noir, it’s full of hedging and excuses, and that’s what stops it being great — it’s gorgeously shot, exciting and well cast — Robert Taylor even has some excellent moments, and the miscasting of Audrey Totter as a kind of Ingrid Bergman shrink complicates things and makes the story more intriguing. There’s a natural edge and intensity to Totter which makes you not quite trust her when she’s required to be sweet…

Anyway, this lamp. Herbert Marshall has to do a lot of WALKING in this film, and he manages it very well for the most part. But you can hear his wooden leg SQUEAK, which I’m amazed wasn’t fixed.

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Towards the climax, Marshall and Walker have to engage in a vigorous fight, falling all over the furniture in Marshall’s flat, and this was obviously too challenging for Marshall to perform himself, so Bernhardt has devised a ruse. Yes, this also falls into the genre of “How to conceal Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg,” a trope most famously illustrated in THE LITTLE FOXES where he briefly exits frame on the left, so that his identically-dressed stand-in can stagger up the stairs while our main focus is on Bette Davis:

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So, here’s the scene. Marshall has shut the door, thinking himself alone, but then he hears a noise, and a dramatic shadow in snap-brimmed fedora crosses his form — Bernhardt gets to do lots of Germanic lighting in this one, which often LOOKS more Warners than MGM.

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SLOWLY he turns… and Bernhardt tracks back, the camera movement synchronized to Herbert’s pivot… and Taylor’s shoulder, side of head and hat brim slide into view.

vlcsnap-2020-05-09-14h01m03s798It’s a terrific effect: it not only reveals the intruder in a dramatic and mysterious way, it makes Marshall shrink as he becomes more vulnerable, with Taylor’s positioning making him seem, in a way, gigantic.

And Bernhardt now maintains this shot for several lines of dialogue, resisting a reverse angle and showing the kind of nerve few directors have these days.

When he finally cuts, it’s to a closer view of Marshall, showing the calculation in his expression and cueing up a POV shot which tells us that he’s looking at his revolver, across the room and behind Taylor…

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Having shown us what’s on Marshall’s mind and allowed us to guess what his plan is, Bernhardt now lets us see him execute it. The fact that we can anticipate what he’s up to is obviously good for suspense, as we can ask ourselves if he’ll succeed.

Bernhardt cuts back to the earlier over-the-shoulder framing of the cornered Marshall and pulls back as Marshall advances, Taylor finally coming into clearer view as he turns to follow his opponent’s movement…

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But now the shot gets weird. Berndardt’s camera pulls back to what should be a flat two of Marshall and Taylor, but turns into a shot of a lamp and Taylor…

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It’s one of those clever-but-stupid ideas. Because there’s no good dramatic reason for us to be observing the action half-hidden by a lampshade.

But the clever bit is, while he’s still talking, and while we can still see a good bit of his body, Marshall does a quick shuffle and steps back out of frame, letting his stand-in replace him. This happens while we can still see part of him.

By the time we get this next composition, Marshall has been replaced by his pod person:

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The out-takes must have been hilarious (and swiftly burned), with Marshall colliding with his identically clad stunt-herbert, or the substitution not happening quickly enough, so that we see both Herberts at the same time, awkwardly weaving around one another…

But the trick is done imperceptibly in the movie, the only flaw being our puzzlement about why this lighting fixture suddenly has a featured role.

So now the fake Herbert can grab for the gun, the real Taylor can leap on him, the lamp can go flying (fulfilling, at last, a discernible dramatic function) and the two men can crash to the floor and tussle.

We even get a bold glimpse of the stunt-herbert’s face, with the filmmakers confident that we won’t notice that it’s not our star because there’s too much going on, it’s too quick, and anyway, we clearly saw that it was him at the start of this shot.

The other main fake Herbert bit I remember is in TROUBLE IN PARADISE, where Herbert springs out of frame, dashing for the stairs, and Lubitsch whip-pans IN THE WRONG DIRECTION, rotating almost 360 to catch the fake Herbert leaping up the staircase two steps at a time, convincing us that the star is an athletic biped but that his director is drunk…