Monday, August 15, 2011

This, that and then that.

The reason the sequence of the payroll robbery in Siodmak’s The Killers is one of the greatest in all of cinema is because it, at first, teeters succinctly between, and later, encompasses aesthetic approach(es) required to fulfill successfully: news reel reportage, crowd-direction, dirty action sequence, a thrilling getaway and finally, a moment of human compassion. Siodmak’s decision to shoot the entire bank-robbery in one single-take has major repercussions; it is definitely, and above all, a technical victory of the crane, but the variety of critical notions it invokes is staggering: simultaneously, the Bazinian notion of ‘realism’ without relinquishing ‘style’, the Cahiers notion of the film director as the controller, master, choreographer of the universe, the Penelope Houston notion of cinema being about ‘human emotions’ and most essentially, the Daney notion of the image being what ‘we see’, or what the director ‘shows’.

An insurance detective (O’Brien), to strengthen his belief that the murder of a two-bit Swedish hustler deserves more time because there ‘is more’, asks the boss of his insurance company to read a newspaper report from five years ago about a payroll-robbery in a hats factory – the boss, entirely unconvinced, begins reading. As soon as he does, the image eagerly fades into a flashback where we can see the events of the robbery first-hand. The narration of the boss reading the newspaper report (written, always, in simple past) in the movie-present is superimposed over the sequence of the robbery that takes place in the movie-past. The players perform within the image as and when the audio track provides them with a certain cue; if you were to watch the film with subtitles on, the subtitled text slowly becomes the caption of the image you ‘see’. As such, Siodmak lays bare the most essential function of modern-day, Jamesian notion of writing: invoking a series of visuals, or to assist the reader in ‘visualising’ what he reads.

Of course, as captions go, Siodmak shows only the fleeting moment in time that is most integral (or is the best visual representative of) to what line of text the ‘to-the-point’ newspaper report the insurance boss is reading.  

Such generous respect is extended to simple-minded causality throughout the film. It is like making a film in the short-hand : to show, what is ‘essential’ (Dassin), while pretending to possess a vantage-point that can see ‘everything’ (Ophuls). The story of the film begins, infact, with three shots that do not play in quick succession, but still, fulfill the most basic tenets of the Japanese woodblock paintings that form the basis of the Soviet Montage. The first shot is of two men driving, the second of a street-sign which reads ‘Brentwood’ and the third of the shadows of two men lurking on the streets of a foggy-old nondescript town. Once you take the first and the second together, it is easy to deduct that the two men have now reached Brentwood.

Other instances of meticulous causality, or relevance of the small-moment is strewn throughout the film. In this one, the insurance detective points his gun (those were simpler times, simple etiquette dictated that whoever had the gun would control the conversation) at one of the members of the payroll-robbery party, Dum-Dum. Dum-Dum answers his questions for a while and then asks for his permission to smoke. In a very careful and crucial moment, he decides to rest one of his leg onto the other – this small move will determine who will control the conversation next.

While on the topic, see also: this.

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