‘Captured in One Frame’ is an ongoing feature and – in part – an experiment:
The intention here is to identify and reproduce a single frame of film from a movie that articulates and represents the mood, intentions and themes of the movie it is taken from. The question posed is as to the extent that it is possible to distill the essence of an entire film-text in a tiny fragment of its body…
For each entry, a screen capture will be presented along with a few comments as to the rationale of selection. (Please note that the quality of the screen-shots will vary depending on the quality of the film-print used and the nature of the scene captured).
The Dark Knight (2008) – Dir. Christopher Nolan
In a film that explores the limits of righteousness, morality in the pursuit of ‘justice’, there is no single moment that better captures the mood and intent of Christopher Nolan’s superhero epic as the one above. In it, Heath Ledger’s Joker, after being apprehended, is left in a police interrogation room with Batman (Christian Bale). Increasingly desperate to outfox and extinguish the growing influence of his elusive, unhinged and dangerous foe, the ‘Dark Knight’ resorts to a savage, unrestrained assault in full view of Gotham’s police department – barricading himself in the cell-like, glass-walled room in order to extract information on the kidnapped Rachel and Harvey Dent’s whereabouts.
The frame above distils the dynamic of this scene perfectly: the ambiguous, capricious Joker turning, discovers his unexpected interrogator looming behind him. The framing of Batman’s body surrounding the Joker is an apt metaphor for the control the former is desperate to exude over the other, and Batman’s assault to follow becomes more an expression of his exasperation and anger than any form of reasoned inquisition, pre-empting the protagonist’s later decline into criminality in order to achieve his increasingly personal objectives at the expense of conventional morals and legal justice. This is crucial and powerful moment in a breathless narrative.
Dracula (1931) – Dir. Tod Browning
There couldn’t really be a more apt summation of Tod Browning’s era-establishing horror text than this shot above. Wandering into the mysterious Count’s castle for the first time, Renfield here at the foot of the staircase is as yet unaware of his looming, foreboding host awaiting him.
This shot is dripping with eerie gothic splendour and the framing perfectly captures the awesome scale of this strange, dark and dreamlike place – complete with long streaks of moonlight cascading across the floors and thick cobwebs festooning the high ceilings. This is arguably the quintessential image of early horror cinema, throbbing with the power and wonder that the eponymous character exerts over those he encounters.
Bela Lugosi’s Count here is perfectly positioned in juxtaposition to Dwight Frye’s Renfield: the Count will soon exercise potent control over his guest and their relative placement here – the Count elevated above Renfield – is an apt metaphor for what will follow.
This is simply a wonderful shot – akin to a painting – that draws the viewer in and is crammed with rich detail and depth.
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) – Dir. Don Siegel
The great fear lurking within the heart of ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’ is that of the usurping and destruction of conservative ‘middle’ America. Released at the height of McCarthyist anti-Communist propaganda, in Siegal’s work, the population of a small town are replaced by alien doppelgangers whose plan it is to take over the world.
What is striking about ‘Invasion’ is its examination of parochial America – in all its spit-shined, blue-skied brilliance – being viciously accosted by external forces, and in the shot chosen here, the film’s protagonist – Dr Miles Bennell – sneaks into the basement of his love-interest Becky Driscoll’s to make a horrifying discovery that a facsimile of Becky is growing there. In text so centred on the violent penetration of ‘safe’ domesticity and of ‘ordinary’ American daily life, this shot encapsulates perfectly the overriding mood of fear in ‘Invasion’ as well as being one of its most shocking moments.
Raging Bull (1980) – Dir. Martin Scorsese
Of all the menace, threat and violence in Martin Scorsese’s famed Jake LaMotta biopic, it is the gradual decline of the principal character that is the focal point and dramatic highlight. Robert DeNiro’s performance as the paranoid and volatile fighter is chillingly urgent and the actor’s transformation into the pitiable, bloated wreck that LaMotta becomes is alarming.
In this shot, taken from the film’s denouement when LaMotta is working as a stand-up comic, the ex-boxer recites lines from Elia Kazan’s ‘On The Waterfront’ and it portentous words spoken by Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy that he ‘could have been a contender’. The brutal irony is that, in the latter film, Terry Malloy was a young boxer duped into ‘throwing’ fights by his hoodlum older brother; in LaMotta’s story, it is he and he alone who has wasted his talent, lost his money and destroyed his family: this an astonishingly pertinent and widely-felt moment in the film where the viewer bears witness to the consequences of LaMotta’s actions and his inability to fully reconcile with them. The director’s choice of composition – with LaMotta quite literally confronting himself – is inspired.
Planet of the Apes (1968) – Dir. Franklin J. Shaffner
‘Planet of the Apes’ is immortalised by its startling climax, but whilst astronaut Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) realisation that his newfound world ruled by primates is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic Earth is a jarring finale, the choice here is an earlier juncture in the text which crystallises perhaps more of the raw anger and estrangement of a stranded human in a bizarre alien world that characterises this text.
Captured, examined, imprisoned and tormented by his ape guards, Taylor’s wild exclamation in the shot above that his new reality is a “madhouse” is a crucial moment which denotes perfectly the protagonist’s utter exasperation at what is all about him. Whilst Taylor’s makes more shocking discoveries and experiences greater physical pain in the film, it is perhaps this singular moment that is most reflective of the character’s emotional journey in ‘Planet of the Apes’ as he articulates his frustration, anger, confusion and astonishment in a direct, spontaneous instant of outpouring.