Monday, July 27, 2009
Analysis of a Scene: Alfred Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man"
Having just seen Alfred Hitchcock's “The Wrong Man” for the first time, I was particularly taken by one sequence early in the film. Hitchcock was often known for his distinctive and often stylized filmmaking, but “The Wrong Man” is not at all a typical Hitchcock thriller but a more straight-forward drama based on the real life case of Emmanuel 'Manny' Balestrero, played by Henry Fonda, who was arrested for a string of robberies he did not commit. One doesn't necessarily expect a film about social injustice from Hitchcock.
The style of the film is very simple, shot almost documentary-style in black & white, even though this movie was made between "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Vertigo". This scene shows that great sequences in film can be effective with precise camera placement and editing.
In this scene, Manny is first recognized at the life insurance company by several of its employees who are convinced that he is the man who has robbed them twice. This is a shot by shot analysis of this scene through stills with the scene itself presented at the end, first silently with shot reference numbers and lengths, then textless with original sound.
Shot 1: (10 seconds & 3 frames)
LS. Manny walks down a shadowy hallway towards the bank entrance. Manny's innocence is not fully revealed until the end of the film (though we clearly accept that he's innocent). So Hitchcock sets up his entrance as very stoic and somewhat menacing to play with our expectations. Fonda adjusts the right side of his coat, which will set up a moment later when we almost doubt his innocence.
Shot 2: (7s:15fr)
LS. Manny walks into the office very slowly, the expression on his face a little too serious. Just before this scene, he is coming here to get money from his wife's life insurance policy to pay for dental work she needs. The length of the shot invites us to see a man we have spent time with as somewhat shift-looking.
Shot 3: (3s:16fr)
LS. Manny's POV. Establishes the location and space.
Shot 4: (6s:14fr)
MS. Cuts to closer shot of the teller and cuts out as soon as she looks up to see Manny.
Shot 5: (2s:5fr)
MLS. POV of the teller, as Manny is looking away. Hitchcock shows Manny behind the bars, which obviously foreshadows his fate later on in the film. This will also be the first shot of several where he is seen over the shoulder of someone else in the frame.
Shot 6: (1s:18fr)
MCU. The cuts become quicker. The teller gets scared and looks down.
Shot 7: (1s:16fr)
Repeat of shot 5, this time Manny looking in the teller's direction, as the customer speaks to her.
Shot 8: (2s:23fr)
Repeat of shot 8, except now the teller is more visibly nervous and tries to keep her attention on both the customer and Manny.
Shot 9: (2s:23fr)
3rd shot of a row with Manny behind bars. This shot the same length as the teller's previous shot, both lasting longer as the teller recognizes Manny. This time, he moves up the teller window.
Shot 10: (1s:11fr)
Back again to MCU of the teller. More visibly scared that Manny is closer.
Shot 11: (1s:8fr)
Manny moves up from a MS to MCU to the window, his hand reaching into his coat, but his face halfway over the bars, obscuring his facial expression.
Shot 12: (1s:3fr)
CU of the teller. She now grows more anxious.
Shot 13: (1s:6fr)
POV of the teller. The scene visually commits to the teller seeing Manny as a criminal by focusing on his hand reaching into his coat, an act not dissimilar from the adjusting of his coat in Shot 1, which would appear to be innocent at first, but suspect in retrospect.
Shot 14: (1s:13fr)
A repeat of Shot 12 to reaffirm the teller's growing unease.
Shot 15: (2s:5fr)
The continuation of action from Shot 13, revealing that all Manny is reaching for is the insurance policy.
Shot 16: (1s:17fr)
Back to the same shot as 12 & 14, but now the teller lets up only a little in her anxiety because Manny didn't pull out a gun.
Shot 17: (4s:6fr)
The first two-shot of Manny and the teller together in the same frame (the only shot in the scene both of their faces will be visible together onscreen except, for very briefly, in Shot 21), which also tends to emphasize his size as compared to her. His head from the nose up sees right over the bars, looking down at a woman whose head reaches 2/3rds up in the frame. Manny's hat just touches the top of the frame, his body size somewhat intimidating.
Shot 18: (4s:3fr)
Now the shot of the teller frames her behind bars. Her wrongful recognition of Manny as the man who robbed their office is suggested by this shot. Just as she becomes sure of who he is, the shot subtly suggests the guilt is on her end, especially with..
Shot 19: (1s:23fr)
Compare this shot with the more sinister Shot 11. In that previous shot, Manny's head is cut in the middle by the top of the bars. Now, his head is framed above the bars. Though he is giving the teller a clean look at his face, we start to see him as less dangerous. He has nothing to hide, though Hitchcock doesn't give it away by holding on this shot as long as the shot before and after it.
Shot 20: (4s:15fr)
A repeat of Shot 18, as the teller begins to put on a performance. Though she thinks Manny is a criminal, the teller is the only one lying in this moment, her face now becoming obscured by the bars.
Shot 21: (14s:7fr)
This is a key shot and demonstrates how to cover a move and change in the scene with the camera doing just an 180 degree pan. The shot actually begins with the same framing as Shot 19, before panning to a CU of the teller's face as she stops hiding how worried she is about this man. The camera then follows her with a pan, as she walks over to a co-worker's desk. This move also lays out the space behind the teller's window which will be utilized for the next set of shots.
Shot 22: (18s:1fr)
In what will surely blow people's minds used to today's editing, Hitchcock follows up a 14 sec. shot with an 18 sec. shot. This shot is focused on the teller telling her co-worker that the man who robbed them is standing at the window. What really sells the shot to me is the third woman at the bottom of the frame who overhears this and turns her suspicious eyes in Manny's direction. Though there is no cut to Manny when this woman does this, as the space has been laid out in the previous shot.
Shot 23: (3s:6fr)
This is probably the most well-known shot of this scene and establishes the motif of looking at someone through an obstructed point of view. The camera is behind the teller's shoulder as her co-worker just barely peeks both of her eyes over it to look at Manny. How her eyes are slowly revealed is a wonderful touch. It also demonstrates the effectiveness of cheating space a little in the shot, as it closes up the gap between the teller and the co-worker established in the previous shot and frames the co-worker perfectly against the window, which the co-worker isn't that near.
Shot 24: (1s:9fr)
The next 2 shots then work together. First, we get the POV of the co-worker, seeing Manny right over the shoulder of the teller. Though he is unobstructed, Manny is still a good distance away to be seen too clearly. That said, this POV paints him as guilty.
Shot 25: (3s:17fr)
But, then, this shot cuts to a more objective angle directed from another corner of the room a good distance away from the suspicious workers at the insurance company. At the end of the shot, Manny looks in the teller's direction somewhat innocently.
Shot 26: (5s:18fr)
We can take this shot as Manny's POV, which gives a less obstructed view of the office more so than Shot 3, as we're going to introduce another co-worker of the teller.
Shot 27: (39s:5fr)
Yes, you read that right. Back in those days, they would let a shot play out to nearly 40 seconds! This shot is all about how the seed of suspicion has now spread. The first two women hovering over the third one, letting her know the man who robbed them twice before has returned. This also has the first camera move that calls attention to itself. Previous moves had been following action through tracking and panning. This shot is a distinct dolly in to frame the three women tighter, as their suspicion takes over their behavior. The dolly does not cover the entire shot. Only from 10 seconds in to 20 seconds in, but, during that time, the third woman is convinced by the other two that Manny is the robber without turning her head and actually looking at him!
Shot 28: (11s:6fr)
Leaving any shot of Manny out of this sequence for nearly a minute, this is a much tighter reframing of the previous shot, focusing on the third woman. The heads of the other two women trying to work their way into the frame, almost burdening the third woman before she even works up the nerve to look in Manny's direction, brings out the tension in this scene.
Shot 29: (2s:3fr)
Manny is seen for the first time in awhile, through the POV of the third woman, framed over the shoulder of the teller again. It is a more unobstructed view than Shot 23, but wasn't this woman already convinced of Manny's guilt before looking? It doesn't help that Manny is looking in another direction in this shot. The look doesn't last long, as the shot tracks back to the left at the very end of this short shot with the woman intentionally obstructing her POV.
Shot 30: (22s:16fr)
This starts out as a repeat of Shot 28, but then tilts up to focus on the two women standing, while still fighting to keep all of their eyes in the frame. These women are seeing what they want to see at this point. In the last minute and 15 seconds, Manny has only shown up on screen for 2 seconds, his narrative for the remainder of the movie being shaped by these three women.
Shot 31: (2s:3fr)
In another objective shot lasting exactly the same length as Shot 29, we once see Manny, who is doing nothing but looking down and folding his arms, as the three women now have mapped out his upcoming misfortunes.
Shot 32: (11s:1fr)
The scene takes another turn, as the camera circles around the teller, as she makes her decision to return to the window and now commit to putting on the meaningless act of not displaying suspicion. This also once again demonstrates a smooth transition of moving from one space to another, as Shot 21 did.
Shot 33: (3s:5fr)
The scene returns to the shots and cutting rhythms established before the teller walked away from the window. Once again, Manny's face is now mostly unobstructed. We can visually sense that our sympathies are to lie with him.
Shot 34: (4s:0fr)
We also return to our view of the teller, also now unobstructed by the bars. I believe Hitchcock frames her without the bars to concentrate on performance, not of the actor but of the character. The suspense comes from whether she keep her facade up.
Shot 35: (1s:5fr)
A quick reaction shot repeat of Shot 33.
Shot 36: (6s:21fr)
A return to Shot 34, the teller's shots lasting longer than Manny, as she tries not to drop her facade.
Shot 37: (3s:14fr)
The teller's POV. A very distinct tilt up of the camera, as she pushes the policy under the bars and Manny picks it up. The shot ends on his face, which is now tilted downwards with the brim of his hat casting a menacing shadow over his eyes.
Shot 38: (9s:3fr)
This shot frames the teller tighter, as Manny's "menacing" pose in the previous shot almost makes her drop her act for a couple of seconds. Also, very casually, the background of the shot shows the first woman the teller talked to going into another room, presumably to spread the word.
Shot 39: (2s:12fr)
I actually love this simple shot, where Manny moves lifts his head so that the brim of his hat doesn't cover his eyes. In the space of 2.5 seconds, you can see a man go from looking menacing to becoming completely harmless.
Shot 40: (2s:19fr)
A repeat shot of the teller, framed in the same CU as she was in Shot 38.
Shot 41: (4s:4fr)
A repeat of Shot 40, except now Manny's head is mostly kept up, his simple manner telling us he is innocent.
Shot 42: (1s:20fr)
Back on the teller, but now the cutting becomes a little faster.
Shot 43: (1s:21fr)
Back on Manny as he thanks the teller and smiles.
Shot 44: (2s:10fr)
A smile that is half-heartedly returned, as we now see the teller allows her true feelings to come out now that Manny is leaving. The change in her face almost rhyming with Shot 39, except we know that the teller is putting on an act. Her eye movement at the end of the shot leads to...
Shot 45: (2s:20fr)
The teller's POV of Manny leaving.
In the space of 4 minutes and 6 seconds, a seemingly innocent man is perceived of guilt by three people. And, as we discover (the film's title is still a giveaway), perceptions can be wrong and eventually damaging. Manny is an innocent man accused of robbery, simply because he was seen from the wrong angle.
Alfred Hitchcock employs seemingly simple camera angles and restrained cutting to present a scene that is not merely a showpiece of suspense, as what he is usually known for, but uses cinematic language that comments on how we can't trust what we see with our own eyes.
And, now the scene:
"The Wrong Man" was viewed on DVD, via Netflix.