There are those who claim we’re all actors in some way, but I don’t know the first thing about how to do it. I love actors and recognize a great performance when I see one; I’ve also been privileged on many occasions to have witnessed deeply moving efforts from just a few feet away. But my first grammar school play proved that I don’t have a drop of the thespian in me.
That’s why I marvel at what actors are capable of. And having seen so many of them deliver the goods with seemingly casual ease for so long, they’ve come to occupy the same pantheon in my mind as major league athletes and brain surgeons. They make what they do seem so easy to accomplish that you start to believe anyone can do it. Trust me – that’s nonsense.
In last Tuesday’s post I mentioned a few aspects of their craft that don’t get much attention. Since then I’ve thought of a few others worth sharing. All the moments I’ve cited happen to be drawn from the film noir canon because I’ve been on a bit of a binge lately; there are many other instances to refer to across every genre. But it’s no coincidence that they’re bunched in the 1940’s through the 1960’s. The people mentioned here were experienced professionals with long and honored track records. They were studio trained and highly disciplined. But their ability to embody a character while maintaining a self awareness outside the performance is what really astonishes me. Check out the following examples and you’ll see why this’s so important to a cinematographer.
At the 01:32:00 mark of The Killers (1946; Robert Siodmak\Elwood “Woody” Bredell, ASC), Ava Gardner visits on-the-lam Burt Lancaster in a dumpy rooming house. The blocking has them reposition themselves several times as they engage in their dialogue. Each time they move Lancaster stops in a spot that causes him to completely shadow her face…and each time she subtly slips out of the shadow and into her light. In fact, she does it so well that it seems an organic part of her performance. I don’t know what higher compliment I could offer though I’m sure Woody Bredell, ASC could think of a few.
Then, at about the 01:18:51 mark Edmund O’Brien and Sam Levene (who plays a detective) are having a chat on a moving passenger train. The camera is placed low and holds them in a single shot as they move to sit down. Aware of the requirements of the lens, both men do so in perfect unison and in the exact – reasonably slow – manner. If they hadn’t been paying attention and drifted even just a short distance apart on their approach or if they dropped onto the bench seat at a normal speed, the shot would’ve been ruined. With lots of spare negative on hand that wasn’t a problem for the camera department. But an inattentive goof up in this form would perhaps have trashed an irreplaceable performance, and that wasn’t something to be taken lightly.
In Odds Against Tomorrow (1959; Robert Wise\Joseph Brun, ASC), there’s a great moment between Robert Ryan and Ed Begley that takes place in the older man’s apartment at about the 00:04:50 mark. Toward the end of the scene Ryan is heading for the door but pauses when he hears Begley’s pitch regarding a big heist. Though it may have been part of the intended staging to have Ryan dip into the shadow and then return to his key light, I always get the feeling he overshot the runway and made a spectacular save. If indeed that was the case, it’s made even more remarkable by the way in which he reveals his eyes.
Having spent my entire adult life chasing perfection in my work, scrutinizing images in this way has become second nature. I hope you’re enjoying the results. But every once in awhile even I have a moment during which the question comes to mind: Am I crazy to be noticing these types of things?