Zodiac (Fincher, 2007), The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971), Serpico (Lumet, 1973)

It’s not always a good idea for me to watch films while writing a script, but in the course of a current draft I rewatched a few of my favorite cop films for inspiration.  Some of these are short notes, with an extended look at two scenes from Zodiac at the end.

The French Connection

Thoughts I had immediately after watching The French Connection for the 20th or so time:

-Why is Roy Scheider’s Detective Russo so sympathetic?  Is it just because he’s next to the manic Popeye (Gene Hackman) the whole time?  Russo doesn’t have many lines, but he seems like a good guy and in the final scene (“You shot Mulderig!”) I felt for him more than I have in other viewings of the film.

-The sequence that leads to Russo coming into Popeye’s room to find the latter handcuffed to a bed is great.  1) Popeye wakes up on a bar in a pool of whiskey, clearly dazed.  2) Popeye drives, staring at the back of a girl on her bike.  3) Russo comes to Popeye’s door.  Popeye: “Let yourself in.”  Russo uses his credit card to slide the lock – a great character development moment (these guys have done this before).  4) Russo opens the door to a bike.  Popeye’s not the kind of guy who would own a bike, so…whose bike is it?  This sequence gives us all the insight we really need into these two.  It’s fantastic.

-In the commentary, Hackman says they took 21 days to shoot the famous car/train sequence.  I was counting coverage in the car.  It’s somewhat simple, but so, so good.  Friedkin really relies mostly on three shots: Popeye in CU shooting through the windshield, Popeye in profile CU with the camera in the car, Popeye’s POV as he drives.  There are other shots sure – a quick low angle as Popeye turns, several wides for orientation, etc – but Friedkin gets so much mileage out of these shots.

-The weight difference of the car – the clue that leads to the drug discovery – is so simple, but so good.  It comes close to feeling like hackneyed writing (maybe too easy), but it’s not at all.  I was really struck on this viewing as to how simple that clue was, and that the point really is to tear the car open and then to find it.  How they find the drugs is almost immaterial – it’s the process that’s important.


-I forgot how funny Serpico is.  My favorite part: Pacino’s title character comes in dressed as a rabbi.  It’s never explained; we never see that case.  We just have to assume it’s another one of his undercover gigs.

-Why start the film with Serpico having already been shot and then go back in time?  I was trying to think how this film would be different if it was entirely linear.  I supposed Lumet and co. wanted to throw that danger angle in right away, and also wanted the nice dramatic juxtaposition of grizzled, shot-up Serpico with fresh-faced, newbie Serpico.

-I’ve used Serpico in a lot of classes for the editing, and I’ll probably continue to use it.  It’s edited so quickly.  Some scenes last 10 seconds.  We jump almost harshly from scene-to-scene in as ragged a way as Serpico chases some criminals.  My favorite edit is a quick one.  Serpico asks an informant, “Where’s the drop?”  Hard cut to a POV of a wall.  That’s the drop.  The edit answers the question.  Lumet and editor Dede Allen (!) really accelerate this thing.  I’d love to see how much was left on the cutting-room floor.


Zodiac was unfairly overlooked in 2007.  Not that it didn’t get any acclaim, just that it deserved more.  When Fincher is on, damn is he on.  Below are looks at two scenes that use two different visual/coverage strategies.

Cartoonist-turned Zodiac killer obsessive Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) accosts Inspector Robert Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) outside of court.  Fincher starts us in a medium wide, as Toschi approaches Graysmith:

Picture 1 Picture 2

The two agree to talk and Fincher dollies back with them, landing in a profile 2-shot, before both men exit frame left:

Picture 3 Picture 4 Picture 5

He then cuts to a new shot, another dolly back, again landing in a 2-shot, this time slightly over Toschi’s left shoulder:

Picture 6 Picture 7

Here Fincher continues to get a lot of mileage out of single shots.  In the same frame, Toschi walks away and turns, causing Graysmith to turn.  We’re now over Graysmith’s right shoulder:

Picture 8

Fincher dollies in to a tighter over-the-shoulder-

Picture 9

-and then pans as Toschi walks away, changing Graysmith’s position from frame-left to frame-right:

Picture 10

This is strategy #1 that we see in Zodiac.  It’s economical.  Only two total shots here, but those two shots encompass a lot of different frames with small dolly moves and slight shifts in the blocking.

Here’s the second way that Fincher blocks a scene.  This is possibly the best scene in the film where Graysmith pays a visit to a Robert Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) who might have info on the zodiac.  In the brown-palette that a lot of this film favors, we start here in Vaughn’s kitchen, with a medium wide 2-shot.  Graysmith is in the foreground and Vaughn moves frame left to right, and back to left again:

Picture 11 Picture 12 Picture 13

Fincher then goes in to shot-reverse:

Picture 14 Picture 15

Vaughn thinks of something and walks behind Graysmith.  Fincher cuts to a wide-shot behind Graysmith-

Picture 16

-and then dollies slightly away from him:

Picture 17

Fincher cuts to another new angle, now establishing a new 180 line between the two men, as Vaughn approaches Graysmith with some film reels that might contain clues:

Picture 18

In a CU on Graysmith we see Vaughn moving back behind him again-

Picture 20

-which brings us back to our initial position.  Now Vaughn again moves, but this time not to the other side of Graysmith as before, but directly behind him:

Picture 21 Picture 22

Fincher cuts to the first true CU of the scene.  The shallow depth with Vaughn in the background is great – it’s one of the few times here that the men are placed rather closely together in the same shot.  Gyllenhaal’s reaction is spot-on.  I also love how many areas Vaughn walks into around Graysmith (in front of him, to the other side of him, behind him):

Picture 23

A new CU as Graysmith turns-

Picture 24

-and Fincher goes into these eerie POV shots, on a rather wide lens, squishing both men into the center of the frame between the looming walls:

Picture 25 Picture 26

By my count, if you include the master shot as one, this is 9 total shots.  A far cry from the earlier scene described above.  That master shot – meaning the shot that establishes the initial positions of the actors and is usually run for the majority of the scene – is the first wide that then dollies back.  I love how, between these two scenes, Fincher demonstrates how he can get tension from a lot of coverage (this scene here) and also get tension from minimal coverage but with precise movement (the scene above).  It’s a testament to the power of both methods.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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