Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Fatal Glass of Milk

I watched William Wyler's These Three (1936) this morning and found myself admiring Wyler's staging even when having problems with the narrative. In particular, I loved a scene a third of the way through when Miriam Hopkins paints the legs of a table while recounting details of her childhood to Joel McCrea. Wyler frames Hopkins in a medium shot as she sits on the floor. McCrea is just offscreen to Hopkins's right. The shot offers us three details to pay attention to. Firstly, there's the most kinetic detail, Hopkins painting the table legs, the visceral action that keeps the scene from being just a moving photograph of a person talking. Secondly, Hopkins herself, as she talks to McCrea (whom she's in love with) about her childhood. And lastly, a glass of milk, just behind Hopkins's left shoulder, and tucked further back into the frame, very unobtrusive but still very much part of the composition. One assumes that Hopkins's monologue constitutes the most significant narrative element, but in fact it doesn't inform us of anything important, and as McCrea's character has fallen asleep out of frame (which we don't discover until cut after Hopkins finishes her monologue), it does nothing to move the relationship forward. In fact, it's the unobtrusive glass of milk which is the most important thing in the frame. When, a few cuts later, McCrea knocks the glass over, he sets the entire plot in motion. It reminds me of Hitchcock's famous desire to make a suspense movie entirely about objects, but I'd say Wyler beat him to the punch in 1936.


Brian Doan said...

Speaking of Hitchcock, I immediately thought of the glowing glass of milk Cary Grant brings Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.

Paul, I nominated you for a blogging award. Please feel free to play along with the meme or not, but part of the "rules" is letting winners know, and I certainly think you are deserving. Hope all is going well in G'ville!

Brian Doan said...

Bleagh, I think I copied the wrong link over in the previous comment-- sorry! Here's the proper one: