The Believers (Schlesinger, 1987)

The Believers comes with some interesting names attached: John Schlesinger (whose Day of the Locust I’ll blog on soon; I’ve written before about his Billy Liar, which I love), Mark Frost, Martin Sheen, Jimmy Smits, Robby Muller.

Jimmy Smits gives a pretty awesome performance as an undercover police officer rendered psychologically unstable from his interactions with a cult:

Screen shot 2014-09-05 at 9.08.59 PM

One of the reasons I so love Billy Liar is Schlesinger’s 2.35:1 blocking. He shoots The Believers in 1.85:1, but still gets some really efficient moments. I know, efficiency doesn’t strike as a compliment, but I think it often is when it comes to cinematography. The camera realizes its goal quickly, and in this case, interestingly and kinetically.

Marty (Richard Masur) exits his office, and Schlesinger tracks back with him-

Screen shot 2014-09-05 at 9.10.05 PM Screen shot 2014-09-05 at 9.10.18 PM

-and then quickly pans right-

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-landing in this 3-shot:

Screen shot 2014-09-05 at 9.10.52 PM

Marty brings young Chris (Harley Jamison) to his secretary’s desk (I love her performance as an extra in the background) and shows him a magic trick:

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There’s one cut, showing Cal’s (Martin Sheen) reaction shot-

Screen shot 2014-09-05 at 9.12.52 PM

-and then Schlesinger goes back to his master shot. The camera pans left as Marty gets Cal, and then quickly right with them as the two men leave the office:

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That just leaves Chris and the secretary, and Schlesinger slowly pushes in on them:

Screen shot 2014-09-05 at 9.13.37 PM

Simple and efficient. Well, deceptively simple. I think one of the hardest things about blocking like this is making it look easy. The camera movements are quick and crisp, Masur has great fast timing to move the thing along and never force a cutaway, and Schlesinger moves his characters around the small space quite a bit while still keeping their actions logical.

Here’s a later scene in the film. Cal’s housekeeper Carmen (Carla Pinza) stands on the street outside the scene of another child murder. She “feels” a presence behind her and turns. Focus pull to Palo (Malick Bowens):

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She turns back and the camera pans, reframing her, and pulling focus back to her, keeping Palo menacing in the background:

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The camera lingers on her closeup and we can just barely see Palo depart behind her:

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She turns again, and the camera again pans off of her, this time finding no one:

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This is another one of those moments that looks easy, but it’s filled with some really specific decisions: do you, at the end of the shot, pull focus to the crowd behind Carmen, revealing another person in sharp focus, but not Palo? Do you completely pan off of her or, as Schlesinger and Muller do, keep her also in frame? And before these, do you entirely show Palo leave or just hint at it? The shot has such a non-specific ending point – negative space where Palo used to be – that it isn’t an easy frame to land on.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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