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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 1 (July-August 1950)

If Those Eyes Could Only See…

If Those Eyes Could Only See…

How Depressing it IS to find that I have been championing such a film as Saraband. Still, it was worth rescuing from the oblivion to which it had been consigned by a particular brand of misleading journalism that parades in New Zealand and elsewhere as film criticism. The particular qualities that made Saraband pleasing are too infrequently seen—and all too consistently damned by blind critics.

I can recall, for instance, the howls of derision which greeted Rouben Mamoulian's Blood and Sand. Rita Hayworth was indeed ridiculously, if unintentionally, funny in a sequence when with heaving chest she seduced Tyrone Power by pretending she was a bull and he a matador. But Blood and Sand had qualities superior to Saraband. It was not only pleasant but exciting to look at. The individual pictures it contained—tableaux of formalized Spanish life with Tyrone Power posturing in a variety of colourful matador's costumes—were visually complete, compensating for the creaking plot and musty characterization. More notable, however, was the way in which Mamoulian used colour to intensify the final, brilliant, sun-lit scenes of death and passionate despair in the bull-ring. I have never before or since (except perhaps in an unknown little documentary called Steel) seen colour better employed than in the concluding sequence of Blood and Sand. The film's dated, poorly-acted story was suddenly lifted to tragic heights.

The impact of this sequence owed something to the colour composition of each shot but was, I think, principally due to editing. The nature of the film suddenly changed. Until then it had been, like Saraband, little more than a succession of pleasantly composed coloured pictures. In this final sequence, Blood and Sand shifted very noticeably to the exclusive visual methods of cinema. Colour lent emphasis to the special arrangement of the pictures.

The implications of my views are not, I trust, too elusive. I go to the movies to see pictures. If they are embellished by first-rate acting, appropriate sound (dialogue, music, natural sound) historical fidelity, an intelligent plot and all the other qualities the critics waste words on, so much the better. But as I go to see pictures my opinion of a film usually turns on the quality of the composition of its individual pictures and on the editing of them, the way in which they have been arranged in motion. The quality of the dialogue and the skill of the actors is primary on the stage. On the screen, the visual sensation is all-important. The cinema can, and occasionally does, liberate itself from its dependence on the drama and other arts by concentrating on its visual nature.

Let's look at the manner in which John Huston's recent film, We Were Strangers, ingeniously established its political atmosphere and framework by relying on pictures alone. The opening shot was of the Cuban Senate discussing a bill to prohibit, in the interests of civil peace and public order, the public assembly of more than three citizens. As Senators, rose to record their affirmative votes, opulent complicity, aristocratic reluctance, liberal hesitancy and fear, and working class treachery were graphically indicated not solely by the expressive faces of the Senators but also by the angles from which their faces were photographed and the varying speed at which the camera moved from one face to another. The result of the Senate's vote was immediately revealed by a straight cut to an open car driving slowly through the streets while two young men threw out handbills denouncing the Government. Crowds gather to read them. A policeman sees the car. It accelerates and, after an exchange of shots, gets away.

Meanwhile, mounted police are savagely swinging truncheons and sabres among the crowd that has gathered. Now the director, John Huston, has a good reason for showing these events at the beginning of his film. He wishes to gain certain effects and he does so by the way in which he arranges the pictures of the events. He has an overall design for his film and a special design for the events he records at its beginning.

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Hence, while the car is driving slowly through the streets, its engine quietly throbbing, Huston has used mainly long and medium shots with some closer tracking shots. At the sight of the police, the sound track accentuates the roar of the accelerating motor and the sequence is thereafter filled with the sound of shots, horses' hooves, the shrieks of the crowd. The visual tempo is also accelerated. Close shots of the car, close-ups of its driver and of the two men in the back trying to dodge police bullets are alternated with varied shots of the police and the frightened citizens who are being attacked. At the end of the sequence there is a dissolve to a long and sustained shot of a quiet scene in which some of the principal characters of the film are introduced.

But before the main plot gets under way, the director has already established by simple and brief visual methods his theme of political rebellion in an oppressive police State. The audience is now aware of the road along which the film will travel and is receptive to the details of plot which follow. An atmosphere of tense, nervous, calamitous conspiracy has been generated. The symbols of impending disaster that have been stated so economically in the true language of the cinema pervade the rest of the film.

There were grounds for criticizing We Were Strangers. But how impudent are critics who fail to see what is good and mislead the public by pointing out that back projection in this sequence wasn't too good, that in another sequence the idea of digging through a grave was too grisly, that one of the cast gave a bad performance, or that when the revolutionaries did take over the government of Cuba they were just as bad as their predecessors. Interesting comment, no doubt, maybe even worth saying, but not of much value as film criticism.

I think that film criticism betrays both itself and the cinema when it ignores the good and makes easy game of what is obviously inferior in many films. Critics get into a habit of labelling films. ‘William Whitebait’ of the New Statesman, recently showed the inadequacy of such a method when he dismissed the film Force of Evil as just another American crime film and gave a passing nod to the smooth slickness of technique that was only to be expected, he said, from Hollywood. The delicate human relationships depicted, the poetic conception of unpromising material (the numbers racket), and the impressive acting and directing that gave Force of Evil such unusual force and subtlety were quite ignored. It is a pity that blinkers are all too easily drawn over the eyes of those more or less intelligent members of the public who bother to read film reviews.

For the upshot seems to be that when the intelligentsia visit the movies they take along preconceived opinions an are incapable of perceiving that within are established conventions of movie plots acceptable to the box office, many directors—especially in Hollywood—are obtaining greater freedom for themselves and are turning more and more to the exercise of their art. Give me the ‘splendours and miseries of the suburban circuit’ anytime! The Western, for instance, is such a staple diet of the mass audience that directors, especially John Ford, have felt free to rhapsodize cinematically on its established themes and have made such good films as Stagecoach, Blood On The Moon, Red River, My Darling Clementine.

In the milieu of crime and violence, what a number of films have recently been made that, by concentrating on the importance of their pictures, try to transcend the limits of their formulated themes. Occasionally, they succeed. Thieves' Highway, for instance, or Naked City, Brute Force, Double Indemnity, Knock On Any Door, Cry Of the City, or Crisscross.

The latter film, Crisscross, barely deserves inclusion. In many ways it was a deplorably vicious, degenerate and sadistic film. It worked over the old themes of crime and violence with a relentless savagery and a good deal of pointlessness. Doublecross succeeded doublecross with such rapidity that in the end one couldn't care less who got bashed and bludgeoned. At least the director seemed to realize this, for in his final scenes he left as grand a litter of corpses on the screen as ever strewed an Elizabethan stage.

Yet Crisscross had a few sequences of considerable merit, sequences that gained strong, almost overpowering effects from the juxtaposition of moving pictures. One of the sequences illustrates the way in which a director's selection and arrangements of shots, and his timing of them, can be expressive in a functional, not merely a decorative or descriptive way.

In this sequence, the hero (played by Burt Lancaster) sees his wife (Yvonne de Carlos) in a seamy dance hall. He has been separated from her for some years. He sees her across a crowded dance floor. Oblivious of his presence, she is ‘giving’ herself to the frenzied rhythms of the dance band's ‘Afro-Cuban’ number. The music gets louder, shriller, more frantic as the sequence progresses. Shots of the band and the soloists are interspersed with shots of Lancaster watching his wife dancing. Long shots of Lancaster and his wife give way to mid-shots, then closer and close-up shots as the sequence reaches a climax of passionate, tense frustration. No words are spoken and neither Lancaster nor Yvonne de Carlo have to ‘act’ during the sequence. Yet the inner currents of their earlier life together, their emotions and characters are conveyed with precision and economy. The hero is tired, drifting, aimless; he still languishes with love for his fickle wife. His loneliness and melancholy at seeing her is underlined by the shoddy, artificial gaiety of the dance hall and the brittle yet animal voluptuousness of his wife.

Both in this sequence and in the one from We Were Strangers, meaning is conveyed by visual methods with sound intensifying its impact. In both of them, pictures tell the story. It seems to me that every time a film tries, if only in part, to tell its story either by attending to visual composition, to the movement and grouping within each picture, or by its editing, its arrangement of selected pictures, it is taking one small step towards defining a specific idiom of the cinema; and the cinema draws a little nearer to finding its own particular style of perceiving and illuminating subject matter which it shares with other arts.