The Fog (Carpenter, 1980), He Who Must Die (Dassin, 1957), and many others

John Carpenter’s 1970s and 1980s filmography is pretty incredible.  Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982)…up through They Live (1988).

The Fog is maybe the least of these films listed above, but it’s still strong.  Ghost pirates, plenty of atmosphere, and a relatively late Janet Leigh performance make it worth the watch.

One of the things I love about Carpenter’s “golden era” (can I call it that?) is his set-ups.  All of the films listed above, even when there’s a slight variation on the form, follow a similar pattern for the first 20 minutes, and The Fog is no exception.  I’m not talking about the opening campfire story, but the way that Carpenter introduces us to location, which always figures so prominently in his films (think of the small-town in Halloween, the barren base in The Thing, etc).

Here are some parts of his intro, post-prologue, to The Fog.  A tilting down establishing shot of the church-

Picture 6

-cuts to inside.  Close-up on a radio, which dollies out revealing a worker at the stairwell:

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The camera pans with this man as he walks out to the still-lit church-

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-and dollies in, along the pews to him as he turns lights out:

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A cut moves us into a back room where we reveal the priest (Hal Holbrook).

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Here’s Carpenter’s way of introducing the police station.  After an establishing shot, the camera slowly pans left to right:

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And immediately following this, we get some more strange stillness of the California town:

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That first shot features a moving camera to introduce the space of the church – very important to the climax of the film – and a major character.  The second shot also features a moving camera and functions to introduce the space of the police station and a major character.  These final three shots above are all static shots and go for location over character.

But what all of these have in common, aside from an emphasis on space/location, is a sense of eeriness and vague connectivity.  No one has been tied to anyone else just yet.  It’s a loose smattering of people in an oddly silent place.  We’re being told who is important and where is important, but Carpenter, unlike other directors, really takes his time to tell us why all of this is important.

Now, to be fair, the prologue takes care of some of that – and I believe that this film would be much stronger without the prologue – but still, it’s this combination of slowly moving camera to reveal relatively still characters, and an atmosphere that’s dominated by stasis (calm before the storm) that characterizes many of Carpenter’s set-ups.

He Who Must Die

Still working my way through Jules Dassin’s filmography.  To this point, having seen about 40% of his films, I’d rank his top five as such:

1. Rififi

2. Up Tight!

3. Brute Force

4. He Who Must Die

5. Phaedra

I know that those last two take some heat.  I’ve already written about Phaedra, so no more defense of that one.  He Who Must Die is a solid film.  In some ways it reminds me of a religiously tinged Ace in the Hole or Jean de Florette.

A small Greek village put on their annual Passion Play, which is echoed in real life when a vagabond group of Greeks comes to town looking for shelter.

Dassin staple (and wife) Melina Mercouri plays basically the same role she’ll play three years later in 1960’s Never on Sunday, there’s some on-the-nose religiosity, and the end is a bit heavy-handed.

Still, for all its religious iconography and its semi-transparent parable, it’s a film about charity and resistance, no more.  Yes, it glorifies the biblical story, and makes the Turks look like jerks, but it glorifies less in a proselytizing way than in the way that highlights the best of those biblical fables.

Why do I like Dassin so much?  I don’t always this he’s the best writer (he has co-writer credit for He Who Must Die), though he’s solid.  The performances he gets (with exceptions: Mercouri in Phaedra; Jason Bernard in Up Tight!) are good, but not like Wyler-level-good.

I like Dassin because he has a certain touch that makes his films unique, immediately recognizable as his, and that utilizes the frame in an accomplished way.  His staging and framing reminds me a bit of Preminger’s.

Much of this has to do with Dassin’s penchant for the fluid master.  A fluid master shot is an establishing shot (i.e. a shot that, generally speaking, tells us who, where, when) that is also a moving shot.

Here’s a good example.  The camera starts in a medium-wide as a priest conducts a group of singing children:

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The camera pans right, and in the background (frame left with the beard) emerges the Judas figure from the Passion Play:

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The camera tracks backwards with the priest-

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-revealing more important characters in the foreground

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As the priest walks to camera we continue to track backwards, finally landing in the ending frame, and revealing other major characters frame left.

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Some directors might choose to simply start on the ending frame here and then cut in.  After all, this ending shot basically accomplishes what the fluid master does – it shows us who, where and when.  Dassin’s fluid master, however, gives life to the scene.  It also adds a layer of suspense – who is present becomes important in He Who Must Die.  And it certainly works to show a certain level of interconnectedness and communication within the town (something I referenced when discussing a sequence shot in De Sica’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow).

Dassin’s control over the frame is at once classically Hollywood (traditional composition coupled with an overriding sense of clarity), though the blacklisted director had already left Hollywood, and fairly progressive in its roaming camera.  Far from the first director to push this technique, Dassin is one of its earliest masters.

Lots of Others:

Like a previous post, I’m going to play a little bit of catch-up here with 1-3 sentence thoughts on other films I’ve seen:

Headhunters (Tyldum, 2011):

Norwegian thriller that is nearly guaranteed to be remade in the US.  Dark comedy that has some images that are unexpectedly (and disgustingly) funny such as a panicked man driving a tractor with a dog impaled on its front.

Great World of Sound (Zobel, 2007):

I mentioned Craig Zobel’s Compliance recently, and that film will come up again in my end-of-year list.  This is a good precursor to Zobel’s world of charlatans and mistrust.  Not as rigorous or formally accomplished as Compliance, still a strong low-budget film.

Yesterday Girl (Kluge, 1966):

Interesting mixed technique from Alexander Kluge including voiceovers, narration, plenty of drastic temporal ellipses.  Anita G. is the German Anna Karina.  New German Cinema was more than Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders (have I said that before on this blog?).

The Art of the Steal (Argott, 2009):

Fun, well-made, biased Philly documentary on the Barnes Foundation.  It’ll get the blood boiling, but I’ve heard other sides of this story.  Still, when it comes down to it, it’s a shame that Albert Barnes’ wishes (and will!) weren’t met.

Billion Dollar Brain (Russell, 1967):

The third in Michael Caine’s “Harry Palmer” series, Billion Dollar Brain is goofy fun.  A colder, more hard-boiled James Bond directed by controversial director Ken Russell.

Dr. No (Young, 1962):

Might as well go to an actual Bond film here.  The first entry, with a young Sean Connery. Iconic Ursula Andress, endlessly parodied in the first Austin Powers, choppy directing from Terence Young…but still Bond.

The Color Wheel (Ross Perry, 2011):

Trendy pick as “best indie” or “best undistributed” film from 2011, Alex Ross Perry’s sophomore feature has hints of Louis Malle, a good bit of awkward pacing and framing, and some truly hilarious scenes.  Here’s my interview with the director:

The Iron Giant (Bird, 1999):

Underrated Brad Bird animation, The Iron Giant is like King Kong for kids (although I suppose King Kong is kind of for everyone).  Vin Diesel’s best performance?  Heartwarming in that 2D animation, great kind of way.

Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (Greenaway, 2008):

I’ve seen Peter Greenaway speak two times now and have come away with three things: he’s insanely pompous, he repeats himself way too much, and he’s really interesting.  J’Accuse is my favorite film of his in years, and should be shown in any art or imaging class.  Greenaway’s fascination with “anti-cinema” might get a bit annoying, but it totally works here.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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