Monthly Archives: August 2010

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Director:  Mervyn LeRoy

USA,  1932

So begins the gritty prison drama, or at least an early incarnation of the genre.  Paul Muni stars as James Allen, a young man freshly back from WWI who wants to make a name for himself.  Instead of returning to his job at a factory, he hits the road looking for an engineering job.  He soon arrives in New Orleans, where he is falsely accused of stealing $5 and change.  He is sentenced to work on a chain gang.  The inhuman conditions eventually drive him to make a daring (and painful) escape.  He moves to Chicago where he finally gets a job as an engineer.  He works hard for several years, continually being promoted.  He ends up being one of the most respected members of Chicago society.  Along the way he meets a girl who discovers his past.  She uses this blackmail him.  He finally calls her bluff when he wants to marry the girl he loves.  The blackmailer turns him in to the police, who want to send him back to the chain gang.  The city of Chicago does not want him to go.  They feel he had paid his debt to society.  The prosecutors from Louisiana promise him that if he willingly returns, he will be pardoned after 90 days.  He agrees, as he merely wants to move on with his life.  Once back on the chain gang, the prison system soon recants on their promise.  He escapes once again, this time doomed to spend the rest of his life on the run.

It is imminently clear that this film has a social message.  The story is based on the true memoirs of Robert E. Burns.  He had hoped to expose the cruelty of the chain gangs.  One scene in particular that is highly effective is where Allen his plotting his escape.  The prisoners are working on removing railroad tracks.  He asks a fellow prisoner to hit the shackles on his ankles so that they will bend.  He will then be able to slip out of them.  This means that his ankle is being hit with a sledge hammer.  His desire to be free and the escape the torment of the guards is so strong that he is willing to endure this.  In the end it is implied that the injustice of the system has turned him into a fearful, desperate criminal.  He is willing to do almost anything to stay alive and free.

One particular movie that is of the same vein is The Shawshank Redemption.  Both are about a man wrongly accused.  Both are about a corrupt system.  Both involve escapes.  Shawshank is much more about the people and their friendships.  IAAFFACG is more socially aware.  It is effective at making us empathize with the convict.  Paul Muni does an effective job in his role.  He has almost a boyish quality about him.  In this movie it makes him seem like an innocent everyman.  Muni was also in Howard Hawks’ Scarface.  In that film, Muni’s boyish quality makes seem a childish truant, which is what his character essentially is–a heartless, sadistic one at that.

LeRoy’s direction is very good.  His visual style is not overly complicated, but it is nicely creative at times, and far from mundane.  There is a scene where footage of the chain gang working is overlapped with the picture of a calender.  The men are singing and swinging their hammers in time with the music.  The pages of the calender turn with each strike of the hammers.  I thought this was an interesting touch.   The final scene is also very memorable, as James Allen gradually faces into darkness.  Very effective.

Rating: 8/10


A guide to the camera as a storyteller

Film is a visual medium.  It is at its best when it utilizes visual storytelling techniques.  Some of these are similar to other artistic media, such as theater and painting.   Some of them are indigenous to film.  Understanding these techniques can enhance the film-watching experience.

When we talk about “storytelling”, we mean much more than plot or narrative.  Storytelling certainly involves both of these, but it involves much more.  Many times the “story” being told is a theme or an idea.  Sometimes it is just a mood or an emotion.  Story is what the film has to say, and storytelling is how it says it.


Composition is the way the elements are arranged within the frame.  That is a basic and utterly insufficient definition.  Composition involves many different elements.  We could break it down further into set-design, lighting, camera angles, lens selection, and more.  It might be the most complicated aspect of storytelling.  There are composition principles that have evolved for centuries within painting.  There are other principles that are much more recent in genesis.  And, like any “artistic-principle”, there are ways to contort the established principles for a desired effect.  Composition is much more noticeable for certain filmmakers.  You can hardly watch an Welles’ film without thinking about composition.  With others it is far more subtle.  For Bresson, composition is extremely important, but not all that drastic.

Barry Lyndon–opening

This is one of the most exquisitely composed films.  Tremendous care went into setting up each and every scene.  This opening scene is as beautiful as a fine painting, which is exactly what it is supposed to be.

Playtime–window cleaning

Playtime is a wonderfully funny and brilliantly directed film  Every frame is filled from edge to edge, corner to corner with witty and significant elements.  This scene is an example of how Tati using composition for an amusing visual gag.

Movement within the frame:

This type of movement is borrowed directly from theater.  In theater, there is essentially one frame, and all the movement must be within that frame.  Much early film focused primarily on these techniques.  They were much more theatrical than cinematic.  Over the years, filmmakers have devised ingenious ways to make movement within the frame more cinematic.

The General–canonball scene

Buster Keaton was amazing.  Few comic actors have been as subtle and athletic as he.  Notice how he uses the frame and the action within the frame to tell a very humorous story.  As the commentator on the clip notes, that is a real train that is really moving the track, and this is really Keaton doing all the stunts.

Singing in the Rain–the dance

There is nothing for me to say here.

click here

Movement of the camera:

Only in film can there be this type of storytelling.  No other medium allows for it.  This is possibly the most misused technique.  Many filmmakers (i.e. Michael Bay) move the camera in every scene for no discernable purpose.  With all these techniques, there must be a motivation behind them.  The story is not the fact the the camera is moving.  There must be something more behind it.  With the great filmmakers, the camera moves for a reason.  Not coincidentally, many of the filmmakers that are good at moving the camera are also good at not moving the camera.
Mirror–fire scene

Tarkovsky moves the camera often.  He uses many long, slow tracking shots.  They allow for much thought and observation.  They give you chance to enter the time-universe of the film.  This is a beautiful, wonderfully choreographed scene.

Touch of Evil–opening shot

This is the tracking shot of all tracking shots.  It is one of the best opening scenes.  Everything you need to know about the border town where the film takes place is in this shot.


Editing is another technique indigenous to film.  Early filmmakers noticed you can imply many things by juxtaposition.  They also learned that precise editing allows for a smooth flow of the narrative.  We normally associate editing with action scenes, where it is most often misused (i.e. Michael Bay, again).  Editing is also very important in dialogue scenes, maybe even more important than in actions scenes.
Psycho–shower scene

Because of the brilliant set-up and editing of this scene, you think you see more than you actually see.  I think this one scene took several days to shoot.

Raging Bull–final fight (Warning: graphic and intense)

Scorsese used the same shot set-up and sequence as in the above scene.  Notice also how he uses camera movement and composition.

This list is far from exhaust.  The scenes included are far from the best examples.  They happen to be the best examples I could think of and find on YouTube.  Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

If you have not watched the movies, you should.  They are all very good.