Naked Spur, 1953
DVD released 8/15/2006
Watching Naked Spur, or any of Anthony Mann’s movies from the era before 1954, at which point the frame doubled in width to a grotesque vastness, I scream “Down with CinemaScope!” Revisiting Mann’s deep and vertical compositions begs a return to the squarish, 1.33:1 aspect ratio, within which directors had to choose what they wanted to look at and trace movement in depth rather than lean on all-encompassing long shots featuring figures scattering on the screen trying to figure out where they belong.
Perhaps this sounds counterintuitive. So much of our movie-thinking has to do with that rectangular frame. It’s how we think about movies, and it has accomplished its initial commercial conceit: to differentiate movies from television. But as widescreen, flat televisions are being mounted to more and more walls, and television shows are being shot in a widescreen format, that distinction is breaking down, and it’s worth considering the merits of the formats in the context of their filmic associations rather than arbitrary or commercial ones. It’s been on my mind since I saw an earlier Anthony Mann movie at Film Forum, 1949’s Reign of Terror, an expressionistic frenzy of a film about the French Revolution in which the jagged forms that surround the characters are composed vertically, which I was astounded to realize I found unfamiliar.
The fiftieth birthday of CinemaScope passed recently, and it received some complimentary articles and a tasteful series of screenings at Walter Reade devoted to great widescreen works like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Pierrot Le Fou. But at the time of its inception, not all of our great directors received the innovation with great enthusiasm. Howard Hawks in Interviews With Film Directors in 1956:
We have spent a lifetime learning how to compel the public to concentrate on one single thing. Now we have something that works in exactly the opposite way, and I don’t like it very much … You don’t have to bother about what you should show – everything’s on the screen.
Along with ruining the sacred art of the close-up and making vertical movement on screen a troublesome task, the invention of CinemaScope (and any number of widescreen variants) gave directors an obligation to lateral movement, taking away the more filmic concern with depth. CinemaScope is an outward-sprawling canvas; it’s Monet’s Water Lilies. It’s almost intrinsically flat. It opens the frame so wide that intimate scenes either contain ineffective negative space or imported clutter that’s supposed to occupy the otherwise-empty portions of the frame. The academy ratio feels more like the extension of the lens, which is only as wide as it is tall. It’s more suited for peering than painting. Deep framing can give a stronger sense of space, because a director has to move through a space. Figures in Naked Spur tend to move from left to right to open a shot, then either towards the camera or away from it. Even though Mann sometimes uses mattes, the pleasant realism comes from the feel of movement across more spatial planes than just lateral ones, a must for a trail movie (western variant of road movie) like Naked Spur. Even in the non-traveling scenes, the square is where it’s at: a sequence in which Jimmy Stewart falls from a mountainside is energized by the verticality of the frame; cliff-edge wrestling matches are edgier, set into relief against treetops below, enhanced by the frame’s freedom from wideness. CinemaScope would cover too much of the ledge without an awareness of height.
Manny Farber was the critic who got me to watch and understand Mann’s movies, and the release of Naked Spur on DVD makes available the four trail movies made with Stewart that were shot in the square format: Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), and The Far Country (1954). Farber was obsessed with space in movies, and I think that the way Mann used the academy ratio has everything to do with Farber’s appreciation of him. The academy ratio necessitates depth of field because the only way Mann can get everything he wants in the tight frame is to use three spatial planes. He does it everywhere, even in dialogue scenes. Next to a campfire, Robert Ryan tries to turn Millard Mitchell against Stewart. Ryan is in the middle. Stewart is pushed to the back of the frame, which is appropriate, as he always wants to avoid conversations about character. Mann’s compositions are commentaries on Stewart’s amoral behavior (in the beginning of the film, he enlisted Mitchell to help capture Ryan by entertaining the misunderstanding that he was a sheriff). Mann gives Stewart nowhere to go but back, where we’ll still see him, and he boxes him in on the left and right, making him uncomfortable, less trustworthy. Mitchell’s in the foreground, trying to figure out what side to take, and it works well because the camera is shooting past him, avoiding a sentimentalization of his character’s quandary. These particulars are lost in CinemaScope, as Howard Hawks pointed out in the above quote.
The essential qualities of movies are found in their treatment of time and space, elements unique to the medium, and in a trail movie like Naked Spur the space game is heightened. The sensations of movement in Naked Spur come from its sense of travel through the frame, into it, rather than across it. There isn’t enough room to create a sense of space alongside the characters (see Eastwood’s Unforgiven); Mann has to do it behind them or in front of them, which is when he’s at his best. The loving portraiture of the landscape becomes psychological, the movement self-perpetuating. The movie itself becomes a journey by expanding into itself, deep into the frame, while collapsing the audience’s distance from the places portrayed. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the only CinemaScope Mann-Stewart western, The Man From Laramie, is their most stationary. Manny Farber said that John Ford “doesn’t give a fuck about the country out there … He has no curiosity about land or ground.” But Mann’s frames and affections run deep, and his sense of movement, landscape, and emotional geography show that there has not been a better director of westerns.