The Barefoot Contessa (Mankiewicz, 1954)

A minor Bogart, Gardner, and Mankiewicz work, The Barefoot Contessa is nonetheless a decent look at late Bogart, three years from death.  I talk a lot in this blog about blocking.  That’s largely because it’s one of the more interesting points from a directorial standpoint.  It’s the director’s job.  I like blocking that visually tells or reinforces emotions and psychology.

I remember a professor when I was in grad school who warned us against making “couch films.”  By that he meant, films where people just sit and the scene plays out.  In short – films with no blocking.  Side note: he used to use Jarmusch as an example of these.  I’m a Jarmusch fan.

The Barefoot Contessa is full of classical blocking.  Newer films block the characters less, it seems to me.  I’d wager that’s for a number of reasons: 1) scenes tend to be shorter in modern films, and frequently less talky, 2) many modern directors aren’t classically trained in the sense of serving apprenticeships under “master directors” or learning under the tutelage of a studio system.  Instead you have cinephiles and music video directors, 3) there are different (or lesser) constraints on films nowadays, where visual effects, lack of real censorship and other things can take the place of what was once verbal exposition.

The Barefoot Contessa is well-written and features hilarious quotes like this one, spoken by Jerry (Elizabeth Warren), Bogart’s on-screen wife, to a drunken woman at a part:  “What she’s got you couldn’t spell, and what you’ve got you used to have.”  Zing.

It is also, in my opinion, almost over-blocked.  Almost.  I want to look at a long scene to see how Mankiewicz moves his actors and camera to make a point.  This begins below, simply enough, as Gardner’s Maria and Bogart’s Harry, exit her mother’s house.

Lots of profile 2-shots in this film.  In the same shot, Harry walks past her:

And then we get a cut to her reverse shot:

And a new frame for his reverse, back:

This next series is all one shot, as Harry walks to her, offers her a cigarette, continues past her and sits, the camera dollying back with him.  She walks to him.  Then off to the balcony:

We go back into a new shot-reverse-shot:

And after she sits, they both lean forward and we’re back to a profile 2-shot:

Maria stands and walks to Harry.  The camera dollies in on them:

He also stands and the camera again dollies.  There’s a pause (attraction? Reluctance?) and then he continues past her.  Notice in the second image above how Maria’s shoulder is just barely in, frame-right.  It’s because she steps slightly to her right to allow Harry to be in full view.

And now we’re in shot-reverse-shot again, almost in the same positions as how they started the scene.

After Maria sits, Harry also sits.  And we’re back to the earlier, sitting profile 2-shot:

Maria again stands in this shot from behind Harry, and walks over to him:

After they talk for awhile here, she turns and walks off to her right, occupying the same basic space that Harry has already occupied twice:

New shot-reverse-shot:

And then in a medium close-up, Maria again walks towards Harry:, though they are now bisected by the pillar, frame-right:

Harry stands and talks to her from the other side of the pillar (frame-left, below):

She now walks past Harry and the camera pans with her.  He turns, at first framing her in a relative over-the-shoulder, before we enter yet another profile 2-shot.

Still in the same shot, she turns and walks away.  He also turns towards camera, as the camera pans and dollies back:

Shot-reverse-shot beginning with Harry’s reaction:

Maria sits down in a close-up, and now there’s a new eyeline for Harry, though it’s the same shot:

After Maria has an introspective moment while seated she stands back up and walks to Harry.  The camera slowly dollies in on them into – you guessed it – a profile 2-shot:

There’s a cut to over Harry’s shoulder, and then, in the same shot, Maria walks off, the camera panning with her:

She turns in the same shot:

And then, of course, we get Harry’s reverse (noticing how many 180 lines there are in here?):

Finally, there’s a cut out to a wide-shot, revealing the entire space for the first time.  Harry and Maria walk off:

Whew.  All told, that’s a nearly 10-minute scene, with a whole lot of movement from these actors.  As I mentioned already, Mankiewicz really likes the profile 2-shot.  My guess is because it’s a fairly easy camera setup and allows for a lot of shots (shot-reverse, over-the-shoulders, etc) from it.  Also, it’s commonly said that the profile, as it hides half the face, hides half of the emotion and psychology of the characters.  That’s particularly true here, and specifically for Maria, who is so enigmatic.

The general plan of action here is, simply put, to have the characters walk away from each other and then meet again, walk away, meet again, walk away, meet again.  Because this is a film about chasing and aloofness, the blocking is therefore very appropriate.  Throughout, Harry and Maria are talking about, among other things, simplicity of life, Maria’s potential for a career in Hollywood, her relationship (or lack thereof) with her mother, and evil.  Some deep, heavy subjects.  It’s as though Mankiewicz wants his characters to retreat (this would be a beat) and recover  – just as the audience might need to – as they move swiftly from one topic to the next.  The literal retreat, that is, when Harry and Maria walk away from each other, is therefore not only a pause in the action for our benefit, but also sort of a reset moment for the characters.  Once they’ve reset and they’re ready to tackle a new issue head-on, they walk together and closer.

In addition to all of this, the constant movement allows Mankiewicz to utilize a lot of angles in order to keep a 9-10 minute scene visually stimulating.  For a small set, that’s a whole lot of camera setups and a whole mess of differing frames.  He does hold on some shots – ie when Maria sits and has her “introspective moment” – for 30 seconds or so (a rather long time in terms of average shot length), but for the most part it seems that the blocking and shot selection here are as much about character psyche as about aesthetic variance.

There are some more classic elements at play here: lots of sitting and standing back up.  Generally the one standing over the other is the dominant.  There are frame dividers (the pillars) indicating momentary, and both literal and figurative, separation.  There’s also that final wide-shot that not only finally reveals the space, but also indicates visually that the scene has come to a close.  We, the audience, get some separation from the characters with whom we’ve been so close during the entire scene and the frame indicates the ending before the characters do so.

Imagine shooting this.  The amount of prep work – lighting setups, rehearsal, varying master shots, marks hit, etc – is astounding.  Even very small things – Maria taking a few steps to her right so the frame can find Harry; Harry turning around towards camera instead of away from it as she walks past him – add up to keep the characters towards frame in an identifiable, and cinematically pleasing way.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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One Response to The Barefoot Contessa (Mankiewicz, 1954)

  1. Pingback: Daisy Kenyon (Preminger, 1947) | dcpfilm

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