If anyone doubts that corruption has always been present at the highest levels of our government, I’d advise them to have a look at The Best Man. Directed by Franklin Schaffner and photographed in glorious black and white by the legendary Haskell Wexler, ASC, this film proves that not much has changed in politics during the nearly sixty years since it was made.
But this post is about something much more interesting and important. To wit: the amazing precision and sensitivity with which many of the scenes are staged. I point to one in particular that has the main characters engaging a final showdown in a basement area of the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Their party’s convention is in full swing and both men are determined to win the presidential nomination; the conflict that has been building to this moment hinges on the allegations of a third party who joins them. In reviewing the scene you’ll find that the lens is as much a creator of the tense atmosphere as Gore Vidal’s superb writing.
Very simply, this scene has it all. Long takes anchor the proceedings in which the camera subtly adjusts to the actors’ movements, allowing them to create their own close ups at the right moments. There are also strong compositions that are staged in-depth…there’s even a powerful silhouette and a Dutch angle! But pay close attention to the way in which the other close ups are treated. Rather than cut to them out of boredom or a misguided urge to generate energy (as so many of today’s filmmakers are prone to do), Schaffner uses them strictly for dramatic emphasis. It’s a shame this might somehow be thought of as old fashioned; to do so would be to ignore its elegance. It would also deny the effect the close up was always intended for – that of a Sunday punch.
This seven minute scene goes by very quickly; the accompanying clip shows about half of it and will illustrate my point. The performances of Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Shelly Berman surely have a lot to do with that, but it’s Schaffner and Wexler’s photo-economy that carries the day.
It would be nice to see a revival of this approach in modern films. Maybe one of the superhero movies would be a good place to start…