Being an Advertising writer, I don’t normally write anything longer than a brochure, and a project rarely lasts longer than six or eight weeks. So this whole book thing — hundreds of pages, years of research and writing — is a trail I’ve never ridden before. Gets kinda scary at times.
My process, if you can call it that — jumping from film to film as sources turns up, and writing when enough stuff accumulates on a particular film — is probably unfocused and inefficient. But from time to time, things come together and I make some real progress.
Recently, CinemaScope has come up quite a bit. An interview with Nicholas Ray (thanks, John). Watching Ride Lonesome (1959) for maybe the 20th time. Reading the John Sturges biography (Escape Artist by Glenn Lovell). Researching the process itself. I’ve developed a new appreciation for it, and a better understanding of why some directors hated it. Here are some 50s Westerns directors giving their thoughts on Scope pictures.
Above: the Hilux-VAL variable anamorphic lens (rescued from a now-demolished Virginia drive-in) that adorns my office.
Nicholas Ray: “I think my appreciation for the horizontal line came through my association with Frank Lloyd Wright, and I like to compose within a horizontal frame. The artistic principal of Mr. Wright’s which has become very much a part of my thinking architecturally has been ‘Try to learn your limitations first of all, and you have to work with them and then learn how to take advantage of those limitations.’ Looked at objectively, the horizontal wide screen has certain limitations. I just try to work within those limitations and I find myself very comfortable within that frame.” Image: The True Story Of Jesse James (1957)
Budd Boetticher: “I loved it. CinemaScope was invented to get rid of television because nobody was going to the movies. And people had a different idea than I had. They thought that CinemaScope, your leading lady should be over here and your leading man should be over there and then you fill the middle with trees. I put them both together over here and it was a choice for the audience: Do you want to look at the trees or the two people in it? But I liked it a lot. And I think that the CinemaScope pictures that I made with Scott are very good.” Image: Ride Lonesome (1959)
Howard Hawks: “I don’t think that CinemaScope is a good medium. It’s good only for showing great masses of movement. For other things, it’s distracting, it’s hard to focus attention, and it’s very difficult to cut. Some people just cut it and let people’s eyes jump around and find what they want to find. It’s very hard for an audience to focus — they have too much to look at — they can’t see the whole thing.”
John Sturges: “Back in the early days of CinemaScope, the wide, wide wide screen was considered desirable only for enormous spectacles using thousands of people and mile-high sets. I thought it ought to be the other way around. Here I was with one man stuck in the desert. (Bad Day At Black Rock, 1955) It occurred to me that the way to show the isolation of this one man in the desert was to use all this space, to surround him with space. The more space you have around him, the more you isolate him. And the more you isolate him, the more suspenseful your story becomes.” Image: Bad Day At Black Rock (1955, not really a Western)