In my prior posts about instances when filmmakers refrained from editing unnecessarily, I wrote about Laurel & Hardy holding a shot for the full impact of a joke and how Yasujiro Ozu’s unobtrusive camera enabled a documentary-like use of space and performances. And today it’s about a shot in Frank Oz’s 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a shot where the blocking of the actors replaces the needs for edits.
This is going to be a short post—and this shot may not be the best example of my point, to be perfectly frank—but with the director himself explaining it so succinctly in his commentary, it’s hard for me to pass up.
Here’s the set-up: Laurence Jamieson (Michael Caine) and Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) are two conmen duking it out in the South of France. A turf war. By this scene, their animosity reaches its crest, and they realize that neither is going to back down. Here’s the clip, followed immediately by the same scene with Oz’s commentary.
“This is what the movie’s about.”1 Accomplished in a single shot. Well, sustaining it for thirty seconds and having three “shots” in one, ending in an extreme close up, certainly makes it unignorable to the audience that something important is happening.
And while their blocking is a little stagy (i.e. Michael Caine stepping up that last step into his ECU), I think that when it comes to traditional, male territorial behavior, it does matter who’s standing on the highest step. In other words, I’d believe that these characters would end up at the top of a staircase, staring each other down.
So, does Oz prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space?2 Hell yeah. It’s clear from Oz’s entire commentary that he gives this kind of thing a lot of thought, whether it’s for a comedic or dramatic purpose. (More below on that commentary.) Moreover, his Director of Photography was Michael Ballhaus. Before the German DP ever met Oz, he was mentored in his youth by director Max Ophüls; and shot sixteen Fassbinder films in the 70s and three Scorsese films in the 80s. In other words, Ballhaus is no slouch when it comes to use of space, and Oz relied heavily on Ballhaus’s sage advice. The result is one of the more intelligently-shot comedies of the 80s.
Next in the When Not to Edit series: Francis Coppola’s use of the camera as an extension of his character’s state of mind.
By the way, I had originally planned to write at length about Oz’s commentary for this film, but I’m saving that for another post. It’s one of my favorite commentaries. Oz intelligently illustrates ways to direct comedy, as well as thoroughly explaining the necessary collaborative process, especially when it comes to Steve Martin. In fact, the post will be about Steve. (Also, I was lucky enough to be the session producer for this commentary, and I’ll write about how that went.) Be on the lookout for it.
BACK TO POST 1 While I think it’s cool that he points out that “this is what the movie’s about,” it is a little troublesome that this happens at the film’s 45 minute mark. I’m not gonna lie to you: I love Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but I do wish it were a reel shorter.
BACK TO POST 2 In the early 30s, when Eisenstein taught film direction at the Moscow State Cinema Institute, he challenged his class to shoot an entire scene in a single static shot. His idea was simple: through a combination of camera placement, lenses and blocking, the dramatic impact of the scene can be accomplished without editing. He strongly believed that a filmmaker must exhaust all possibilities within the shot before resorting to an edit. He called this mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).