Archive for William A Fraker

The Imperfect View

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2022 by dcairns

The teleplay Prescription Murder (1968) contains one of the earliest manifestations of Lt. Columbo — played for the first time by Peter Falk.

Here’s a bold touch by director Richard Irving, a typically prolific TV director who worked in that medium exclusively from the early fifties to the mid-eighties, having begun as an actor and then a dialogue director at RKO.

He has a gigantic scene to cover, a two-hander played out on a single set — the set of another, unknown TV show — I would assume they thriftily recycled something already built — eight and a half minutes long. Quite hard to keep something like that visually lively enough to sustain interest, though he’s helped by the fact that people rarely really WATCH television. So if you get bored of this one set and two faces, you can look at your kitchen or something.

But Irving CARES, he does something, as I say, bold. He lets both his actors turn their backs on us, and holds on a static wide for forty-three seconds. Continuous dialogue from Columbo, who is a bit meaner here than we’re used to seeing.

Irving escapes the charge of boredom with this prolonged and sort-of inexpressive angle, which robs us of much of his capable thesps’ performances (Falk and Katherine Justice). The reason there’s no tedium seems to me that a sustained shot creates its own kind of tension — we start wondering, even if only unconsciously, how long this is going to keep up. A sustained shot with no faces in it has a redoubled power, because we really can’t believe they’re holding on this.

“Cinema is just like theatre,” said Brit director David Leland, a one-hit wonder, “only there’s only one seat, and it always has to be the best.” Which is sort of true, but only sort of. It excludes all the stuff about camera movement and editing which makes cinema quite different from theatre, and it also implies, even if Leland didn’t intend it, that the director’s job is to provide a perfect view of the action, allowing the audience to feel they have the best seat. This holds true for much of the time, but is also pernicious nonsense. Think of cinematographer William A. Fraker’s account of this shot in ROSEMARY’S BABY:

Polanski had asked Fraker to set up a shot from Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) POV looking through the doorway at Ruth Gordon. Fraker set up something he thought was pretty decent, affording a nice view. Polanski looked at it and shook his head. He moved everything until he got the above composition. Fraker couldn’t understand it at all, until he saw the film with an audience and every head in the cinema tilted to one side to try to see past the doorframe.

Both the examples are from ’68 but that’s just one of those coincidences. I’m not setting that year up as some kind of golden age of the imperfect view, although maybe such a thing is possible. Maybe the influence of, say, Antonioni, who could hold a shot and exclude stuff… But Irving may have been influenced instead by Jack Webb, who churned out Dragnet with tremendous speed and simplicity, milking his shots until they squeaked.

Yes, I’ve bought a Columbo box set, seasons 1-7. May cut into my film viewing. But hopefully it will give rise to some more observations like this one.