Before the week is out I want to clarify an issue of burning interest to film hogs, critics, scholars and other lower forms of life. There seems to be a sudden interest in “deep focus” and its original Hollywood practitioners. It’s a simple cinematic technique, and yet its history and meaning are somewhat misunderstood even by such cinephiles as The New Yorker’s film critic, David Denby.
Writing in the current New Yorker (2/13/06) about “how clear and sharply focussed the wide-screen image was” in Steven Soderbergh’s new, low-budget picture “Bubble,” Denby marvels that the “focus is not only sharp; it’s sharp deep into the shot, at distances of thirty feet or more from the camera.” And then he gets into a discussion of the French film theorist André Bazin, whose influential writings in the 1950s assigned “an almost moral importance” to “the commonplace photographic measure of depth of field.” Denby points out:
In the Russian silent movies, and in the American cinema of the thirties, depth of field — the amount of the frame that was in sharp focus — was generally shallow, and filmmakers used lighting and editing to direct our attention to the most significant part of the action; the rest was blurry, mere background. As Bazin noted, however, such directors as Orson Welles, in “Citizen Kane,” and William Wyler, in “The Little Foxes,” both working with the cinematographer Gregg Toland, greatly expanded depth of field — expanded it so much that the audience was suddenly free to direct its gaze to the foreground or the middle distance. It could follow an actor as he moved through the set or not. Deep focus, Bazin said, liberated the spectator from the coercion of montage.
All true, but — and there are several “buts” — Welles and Wyler used deep focus in opposite ways. Bazin stated this himself in a seminal essay in 1948. He recognized that Wyler exploited deep focus to achieve an “invisible” style that prized realism. By “invisible,” as I wrote in my Wyler biography “A Talent for Trouble,”
Bazin meant his signature was honest, democratic and stripped down, in contrast to that of Orson Welles, which he regarded as mannered, even sadistic. Wyler’s point, Bazin wrote, “is not to provoke the spectator, not to put him on the rack and torture him. All [he] wants is that the spectator can (1) see everything; and (2) choose as he pleases. It’s an act of loyalty to the spectator, an attempt at dramatic honesty.” Bazin compares the neutrality and transparency of Wyler’s staging — “un style sans style” — with Andé Gide’s literary technique, which maximized clarity, immediacy and directness. … [L]onger, therefore less deceptive, shots … allow the audience to choose what it sees. Unlike Welles’s use of “deep focus” to create effects (such as foreshortening perspective or heightening suspense), Wyler makes functional use of the technique. … [H]is first and only worry is to make the audience understand …”
Welles wants to dazzle — and he does, of course — as often as not with exotic effects that give the viewer no choice but to submit to their impact. You can prefer Welles or Wyler, but you can’t put them in the same bag just because they both worked with the same cinematographer whose technical and artistic skills helped them perfect the use of deep focus.
Bazin went to the trouble of counting the number of shots in Wyler’s most famous deep-focus picture, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), to prove how streamlined his style was. (He noted that Best Years used roughly 190 shots per hour, compared with 300 to 400 for the average picture.) But for all Bazin’s theorizing, which remains the essential analysis of Wyler’s body of work, he was basically echoing and elaborating on Wyler’s own intentions as expressed in an essay, “Magic Wand,” which was published in 1947 in Screen Writer magazine. Referring to his collaboration with Toland, Wyler wrote:
We decided to try for as much simple realism as possible. We had a clear-cut understanding that we would avoid glamour close-ups and soft, diffused backgrounds. … [And] since Gregg intended to carry his focus to the extreme background of each set, detail in set designing, construction and dressing became very important.
But more important, “carrying focus” in black-and-white cinematography provided crisp images with “good contrasts and texture … establishing a mood of realism.” Also — and this was paramount — it not only allowed Wyler greater freedom in staging his scenes but imposed a more rigorous, fluid and involving aesthetic.
I can have action and reaction in the same shot without having to cut back and forth from individual cuts of the characters. This makes for smooth continuity, an almost effortless flow of the scene, for much more interesting composition in each shot, and lets the spectator look from one to the other character at his own will, do his own cutting.
As useful as the technique was, however, Wyler’s concern really lay elsewhere. “I have never been as interested in the externals of presenting a scene,” he pointed out, “as I have been in the inner workings of the people the scene is about.”
Something else I’d like to clarify. Whenever The Little Foxes (1941) is mentioned in the context of deep focus, per Denby, the scene usually cited as the perfect example of the technique is the so-called “staircase scene.” In fact, that scene — with Bette Davis as Regina, and Herbert Marshall as her ailing husband Horace — was purposely NOT shot in deep focus most of the way through. As I noted (bear with me), here’s why:
[The scene] begins with Regina telling Horace, who is sitting in his wheelchair, that she never loved him but married him only for material gain. What she cannot see, but we can, is the pained expression on Horace’s face, as her remarks precipitate a heart attack. He tries to take his medication, but the bottle drops and breaks. …
When he pleads for her help, she recognizes an opportunity and sits stock still not lifting a finger or blinking an eye. Horace staggers out of his wheelchair toward the staircase behind her. He struggles up toward the bedroom where he has more medication. But the camera doesn’t follow him. It remains fixed on Regina’s stony face, which is rigid with anticipation in the foreground. She listens keenly for his collapse in the background.
Instead of using deep focus in this scene, which could have kept both planes of action sharply etched, Wyler chose to blur the focus on Horace in the background, where the external drama is. The camera keeps Regina in sharp focus, where the internal drama is, both to draw attention to her cruelty and to underscore her steel will.
“What is interesting here is the wife,” Wyler explained. “The scene is her face, what is going on inside her. You could have him out of the frame completely, just hear him stagger upstairs. … Gregg said, ‘I can have him sharp, or both of them sharp.’ I said no, because I wanted audiences to feel they were seeing something they were not supposed to. Seeing the husband in the background made you squint, but what you were seeing was her face.”
As long as I’m clarifying things, I might as well go all the way. Have a look at the Turner Classic Movie commentary⊗ for a recent presentation of Wyler’s Dodsworth (1936):
Wyler, for his part, was a known perfectionist in his approach to filming. One cast member recalled “one entire afternoon spent shooting a scene of a crumpled letter being blown gently along the length of a terrace. He wanted it to go slowly for a way, then stop, and then flutter along a little further.” (From A Talent For Trouble by Jan Herman). Luckily, he had Gregg Toland — whom he considered a technical genius — as his cinematographer and Dodsworth is full of stunning, deep focus compositions such as the scene where Sam and Edith accidentally meet in Naples at an American Express office.
The commentary gets it wrong when it cites Toland’s contribution to the film, and wrongly reinforces the widespread notion that Wyler was dependent on Toland’s eye for pictorial composition. Here’s the relevant passage from the book:
The cinematographer for Dodsworth was Rudolph Maté not Gregg Toland, who was working for Howard Hawks on Come and Get It. …[Maté] was a fine craftsman, in Wyler’s opinion, but no Toland. Still, if proof were needed that Wyler did not depend on Toland’s eye for mastery of the screen — pictorially or dramatically — Dodsworth provides it. Even more than These Three, it shows the spare elegance of his fluid style, balanced compositions and steady takes.
Wyler always credited Toland with being a technical genius. But his own concern with spatial arrangement of characters in a scene to tell a story or create an effect — whether psychological or symbolic — predated his work with Toland. In Dodsworth, moreover, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Wyler conceived of ‘deep focus’ shots, even without the technological means to perfect them.
A case in point is his treatment of the accidental meeting of Sam and Edith in the American Express office in Naples. The two characters, each unaware of the other, shift back and forth between foreground and background. Wyler’s pictorial division of the scene develops a sense of expectation in the viewer. Visually, if not dramatically, the configuration foreshadows the sort of pattern Wyler would use again, most notably in The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives, which were benchmarks of the Toland-perfected ‘deep focus’ technique.
Es claro? I hope so, ‘cuz just typing all of this has tuckered me out.
⊗This item originally cited Rob Nixon as the author of TCM’s “Dodsworth” commentary. Not so Nixon informs me. In an email sent today (Dec. 17, 2006), he says, “i do write for tcm’s website and recently contributed an article about dodsworth for the essentials series, in which i was well aware that gregg toland was not the cinematographer. but this is not the article posted on line that you refer to (especially since your article is dated last february, months before i even wrote the new piece). i don’t know who wrote the piece you refer to, but it wasn’t me. i’ve sent a message to the person who edits and compiles the tcm website to have my name removed from it.”
My apology to Nixon for repeating the error. TCM has swiftly updated the “Dodsworth” commentary I cited, eliminating both the Toland mistake and Nixon’s name as author. Another thing ought to be said: the TCM site is really pretty great. It offers movie fans lots of terrific info.
Postscript: David Ehrenstein writes:
Jean Renoir’s use of depth of field in “Boudu Saved From Drowning” (1932) should also be cited in any discussion of this aspect of film style. And Renoir didn’t have Gregg Toland or the sort of sharp-focussed cinematography that arrived in the ’40s.
Alan Edelson writes:
This is an interesting topic. I too believed the story that the famous staircase scene in “The Little Foxes” involved deep focus, even though I have seen the film several times.
From what rudimentary optics I know, increasing the depth of focus of a lens depends on increasing the “f” stop (i.e., closing down the iris), which requires boosting the lighting of the scene to compensate for darkening the exposure. Wide-angle lenses inherently have an increased depth of focus, but may not be appropriate for many movie scenes. Of course, the development of improved lens designs helped. These were greatly aided by the use of computers in lens design from the late ’50s on, as well as by the use of compound lenses and glass of different optical qualities.
It must have required technical ingenuity of a high order for cinematographers to achieve increased depth of focus in the “old days.” And artistic judgment by the director. I recall that a common alternative device when directing the viewer’s attention from a close up actor to one in the background was to employ a cam that was timed to switch the focus of a camera lens from near to far, or vice versa, but I was always uncomfortably aware of this artificial gimmick. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your discussion. It reminded me of the range of skills required of a really great film director like William Wyler.
Yes, Toland was regarded at the time as something of a mechanical genius. He experimented with coated lenses, high-speed film stock, Waterhouse stops, and even got into sound-deadening with a camera “blimp.” He was also very quick on the set. What took some cinematographers four hours to light took him 30 minutes, according to Wyler, who was driven to distraction by the slow ones.