EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, Press Play features Part III of Jim Emerson's In The Cut series. This video essay compares Hollywood's current approach to cinematic action as typified by Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to what came before it: Don Siegel's The Lineup, Peter Yates' Bullitt and William Friedkin's The French Connection. In The Cut Part III: I Left My Heart in My Throat in San Francisco delves deep into the history of the car chase scene itself, tracing how the visual language of such scenes developed and thrived, eventually smashing its way into America's cultural consciousness. Next week, Press Play will further examine the evolution of the cinematic car chase through its golden age, from The French Connection to that other Friedkin classic To Live and Die In L.A. To view Jim's piece about the police caravan scene in The Dark Knight, click here. To watch his video essay about the freeway sequence in Salt, click here.
By Jim Emerson
Press Play Contributor
Part III of In the Cut briefly recaps the action techniques previously examined in Part I (The Dark Knight — rapid chaotic cutting for impact, quickfire changes of direction) and Parr II (Salt — emphasizing spatial relationships within the frame and between shots), with a succinct comparison to the famous chase in William Friedkin's 1971 The French Connection, in which (as in TDK) two vehicles are traveling in parallel directions. Only instead of them being side by side, one is above the other.
From there, we move to the twisty streets and roller-coaster hills of San Francisco and two of the best car chases in American movies: the justly celebrated Ford Mustang vs. Dodge Charger contest in Peter Yates' Bullitt (1968), and a lesser-known but similarly accomplished pursuit from The Lineup, a 1958 film noir by Clint Eastwood's directorial mentor, Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers — the one in which villain Ronald Reagan infamously slaps Angie Dickinson — Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz, and many others).
The method I've used in this three-part series — subtitled "Piecing together the action sequence," though "Taking apart…" might be more accurate — has been to start off looking at every single thing I have always found confusing about the first chase; contrast it with the radically different strategy from another recent (2010) mainstream cinema action sequence; and then to cast an eye back to notable action set-pieces from the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Fasten your seatbelts. It's gonna be a bumpy and exhilarating ride.
In response to the first two parts, some have complained that "nobody looks at movies this way" — which is demonstrably untrue, since the evidence is right here in front of you. What they are really saying is that they don't want to look at how action sequences are put together this way, and that's fine. Nobody is forcing them to. (In addition to pressing PLAY, you can press PAUSE or go to another page.) Far worse are the movie-nannies who are saying: "I don't want to look at filmmaking this way and neither should you," an attitude that's as insufferably arrogant as it is absurd.
To reverse the old "forest-for-the-trees" metaphor, if you always looked at the forest from a distance, you'd never discover all the different kinds of trees it's composed of. You don't examine the individual trees exclusively, or every single time you behold the forest, but you can learn from examining the elements up close. As I've said before, studying film is like studying literature or music or painting: it's helpful to look at words, sentences, paragraphs; notes, bars, passages, movements; brush strokes, colors, compositions… and how the pieces relate to one another.
Can a bad movie have some good filmmaking in it — or vice-versa? If you have to ask that question, you haven't seen very many movies. In the Cut focuses on one thing and one thing only: the construction of action sequences. Those sequences were chosen not because these are the greatest (or worst) movies ever made, but because these specific sequences offer opportunities for illustration and discussion.
Sure, this approach is not for everybody, but I've been gratified by the enthusiasm of the responses — including the articulate rebuttals and alternate views. It's been fun, I've learned quite a bit (from the movies and from the commenters). And I think I might like to do it again sometime.
You can watch In The Cut: Part I: The Dark Knight here and In The Cut: Part II: Salt by Phillip Noyce here. Jim Emerson is a Seattle-based writer, critic, editor, blogger, video essayist, gardener and pedant. He is the founding editor of RogerEbert.com, where he also maintains his blog, Scanners.