Action

Because film is a visual medium, movement, which was originally the novelty of the medium, has naturally become its showpiece. Nothing better illustrates the power of movement in film than the action sequence. Action sequences are a key reason for the success of the Western and gangster genres. Whether it features a chase, a showdown, or a battle, the action sequence has a visceral appeal for audiences. This type of sequence is not confined to the genres where action seems natural, however. From the horror movie to the comedy, filmmakers have found action sequences to be a valuable device. Blake Edwards used action sequences in many of his comedies, most notably the Pink Panther series (1964-1978) and The Great Race (1965). Charles Crichton used the action sequence often in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). One of the best action sequences can be found in Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? (1972).

To set the context for the following analysis, it is important to understand the dramatic and psychological characteristics of the action sequence. The editing principles rise out of those characteristics.

An action sequence is an accelerated version of the traditional film scene. The characters in a typical scene have different goals. In the course of the scene, each character attempts to achieve his or her goal. Because the goals tend to be opposed to one another, the scene could be characterized as a clash. The scene ends when one character has achieved his or her goal. This is the dramatic character of a scene. In an action sequence, there is an accelerated movement; the urgency of each character heightens their actions and also, therefore, their opposition to the goals of the other characters. The subtleties of the typical scene are set aside for an urgent expression of those various and opposing goals. The scene plays faster, and the nature of the clash of goals is more overt. In this sense, action sequences are more dynamic than typical scenes. They are often turning points or climactic scenes in a film.

From a psychological point of view, action sequences are scenes at the edge of emotional and physical survival The achievement of one character's goals may well mean the end of another character. This is why the action sequence so often plays itself out as a matter of life or death. It is critical that the audience not only understand the goals of each character in such a scene, but also that the audience choose sides. Identification with the goals of one of the characters is key to the success of the action sequence. Without that identification, the scene would lose its meaning. The audience must be at the edge of physical survival with the character; if it is not, the action sequence fails in its strength: excitation, deep involvement, catharsis. To identify, we must go beyond understanding the goals of the characters. We must become emotionally involved with the character.

Because the moment of survival is central to the action sequence, many action sequences are fights to the death, car chases, assassination attempts, or critical life-and-death moments for one of the characters.

The editing of action sequences can be demonstrated around particular issues: identification, excitation, conflict, and intensification.

To encourage identification, particular types of shots are useful, including close-ups and point-of-view shots. Some directors, such as Otto Preminger, like to crowd the actors by placing the camera very close to them. Another factor affecting point-of-view shots is whether the camera is at the actor's eye level or is higher or lower. A camera that looks down on an actor portrays the character as a victim; a camera that looks up at an actor portrays the character as a dominant or ominous presence. A contemporary director who is particularly good at encouraging identification is Roman Polanski. His point-of-view shot is eye-level, with the camera positioned at the actor's shoulder. The camera hovers there, seeing what the character sees. Both close-ups and point-of-view shots encourage identification. A close-up can be created from an objective camera placement, for example, from the side. The close-up itself encourages emotional involvement and identification, as does subjective camera placement.

Excitation is accomplished through movement within shots, movement of shots, and variation in the length of shots. Pans, tilts, and zooms are used to follow characters moving within shots. Trucking, tracking, dollying, handheld, and Stedicam shots follow the motion; the camera itself moves to record these shots. Moving shots are more exciting when the point of view is subjective; these shots also encourage identification. Finally, using pace and making shots shorter will increase the excitement of a sequence.

Conflict is developed in an action sequence by crosscutting. For example, in a two-character scene, each character attempts to achieve a goal. As this effort is being made, the conflict is presented by crosscutting between the efforts of each character. Crosscutting is a central feature of the action sequence.

Intensification is particularly important as we move toward the conclusion of the scene, the point at which one character achieves his or her goal and the other character fails. Intensification is achieved by varying the length of the shots. Conventionally, it means shortening the shots as the sequence approaches the climax. However, variation—for example, switching between a series of shorter shots and the pattern set earlier—also produces some intensification. Most action sequences use variation. The behavior of the characters is another source of intensification.

Thus, action sequences are characterized by their use of pace, movement, and subjective camera placement and movement. Where necessary, long shots are used to follow the action, but the critical impact in the action sequence is achieved through the use of close-ups and subjective shots that are paced for intensity.

The ride of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) began a tradition of filmmakers creating action set-pieces. Eisenstein followed with the Odessa Steps sequence in Potemkin (1925) and later with the baffle on the ice in Alexander Nevsky (1938). In the same formal vein, King Vidor created a great action sequence in the mobilization to stop the advance of the railway in Duel in the Sun (1946). One of the greatest action sequences of all is the samurai defense of the peasant village in Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954).

Particular directors excelled at large-scale action sequences. Cecil B. DeMille made an extravaganza of his action sequences. Notable are his films The Plainsman (1936), Northwest Mounted Police (1940), and Unconquered (1947), although DeMille is most famous for his Biblical films, such as The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956).

Other directors were known for the entertainment quality of their action sequences. Few sequences are more entertaining than the thuggee attack on the village in George Stevens's Gunga Din (1939) or as exciting as the robbery in Jules Dassin's Rififi (1954).

Although not as critically acclaimed as the aforementioned, there were several other great directors of action films. Henry Hathaway, for example, directed a number of great action sequences in numerous genres, including adventure films (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, 1935), gangster films (Kiss of Death, 1947), war films (The Desert Fox, 1951), and Western films (Nevada Smith, 1966). Another American action director of note is Don Siegel. As Andrew Sarris says about Siegel, "The final car chase in The Lineup (1958) and the final shoot-up in Madigan (1968) are among the most stunning displays of action montage in the history of American cinema."1 Since that was written, Siegel has been prolific; the money drop in Dirty Harry (1971) should also be added to Sarris's list.

Other directors who have received a good deal of critical attention for their nonaction films have managed to produce some of the most creative action sequences, which have remained in the public memory. The final shoot-out in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952),2 the chariot race in William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959), the assassination in the woods in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1971), and the attack on the train in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) are among the most notable sequences. Even more surprising are the visual set-pieces by directors such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who is best known for his sophisticated melodramas. Consider, for example, the sequence in Five Fingers (1952) that shows the attempt to capture a spy,

Aiello (James Mason), who has been discovered stealing information about the Allied invasion of Europe. Equally surprising is Orson Welles's finale to Touch of Evil (1958), a film that begins with a 3-minute uncut tracking shot. In the final sequence, Varguez (Charlton Heston) records the sheriff confessing his crime to a colleague. The action takes place on and below a bridge, and it is cut in a remarkably dynamic fashion.

Film Making

Film Making

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