The portrayal of violence in Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir. Arthur Penn) remains one of the landmark films marking the start of the New Hollywood era, breaking many cinematic taboos, especially in the portrayal of crime, sex and violence. With improvements in technology, cameras became lighter and easier to carry around, as well as creating new ways to film (such as the zoom lens creating dramatic zoom effects). Penn uses these new possibilities in camera movement and filming along with editing techniques prominent in French New Wave to not only overwhelm and shock the viewer, but also portray it realistically – Bonnie and Clyde was notably one of the first films to use blood extensively in their violent scenes. In this way, the violence is not seen as theatrics on the screen but rather one that is weighted with consequence and message – especially in the era of the highly visible and televised Vietnam War.

The first scene of ‘violence’ starts out relatively tame, and can even be argued as to whether it is ‘violent’ at all – Clyde shooting at a row of bottles for shooting practice, and then later inducting Bonnie into the act. The interesting thing about this shot is that the camera shoots from the perspective of the bottle, facing Clyde, essentially bringing the audience to gunpoint. While there is no harm done, the way the shot is framed makes it direct and confrontational, setting the ground for further violence later in the film.

The next scene where Clyde shoots is the sign of possession placed by the bank at the front of the abandoned house. Under that particular context, the shooting can be seen as an anti-establishment act of rebellion: it is here that Clyde formally declares, ‘We rob banks.’ Hence, the violence here is used as a way to cement the path of Bonnie and Clyde – their resolve is decided by their declaration, which continues to their death. It is also interesting to note the constant attention that the camera gives to signs (road signs, shop signs, etc), often devoting exclusive close-ups to them. This use of the zoom not only helps to give context for the start of each scene, but more importantly establishes symbols/places of authority, and Bonnie and Clyde as defying that authority – in their first ‘real’ bank heist, Clyde takes the time to shoot the signboard at the bank’s entrance even when they were in a haste to get away.

And all the acts of violence culminates into the finale – the camera starts off at a slow pace, alternating from Bonnie and Clyde’s point of view and establishing shots to show their car pulling to the side, while gradually zooming into their faces as they realise their predicament, distorting the viewpoint for added dramatic flair. At the same time, the shots become quicker and shorter, focusing on very short, staccatoed movements such as the actions of heads moving and turning, the flock of pigeons flying from the tree and the disturbance in the tress, intercutting between them to create a rhythmic tension to build up to the climax. This then escalates to the final shooting – where the durations of the shots become longer, the shots with the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde falling intentionally slowed down to show the extent of the violence and carnage on their defenceless bodies. Here the rhythm of the scene is replaced by the sound of the guns, keeping the height of the tension and thus allowing for the editor to play around with longer cuts. The shots also become longer and further away, to better show to movement of the corpses as they hit the ground. In this way, the camera and the editing work together in a tight montage to showcase the final escalation of violence – despite the lack of a musical score, the tension is successfully built up with the intercutting shots right until the climax, where it then gets stretched out (and played over again – the montage included shots of the same action from different vantage points and angles) for the audience to fully take in the horror of the couples’ deaths – unlike their meeting and journey together, their final death is far from romantic – and the use of physical effects and blood makes sure that the stark nature of the violence is clear. The message of this portrayal of violence seems to be ambivalent as well – is the violent end of Bonnie and Clyde their just desserts for their life of crime, or is this level of violence unwarranted for two small time robbers? Either way, the violence marks an end to their young lives and their life of romance, sex and crime.

The visualisation of gothic horror in Rebecca

Rebecca (1940) was Hitchcock’s first American project, and was itself an adaptation of the 1938 novel by Daphne Du Maurier. As an adaptation of a novel, Rebecca is interesting in the way it visualises the genre of gothic horror (or in this case, more of a thriller) for the big screen. Hitchcock uses careful camera movements, mise-en-scene, and set lighting to create a compelling narrative of tension, suspense and cinematic moments filled with visual symbolism, very much faithful to the brooding, ominous nature of the literary genre.

The movie opens with the static shot of a moon slowly shrouded with clouds, before fading to a shot of the Menderley manor gates. The gate to the Menderley manor looks elaborate and old, yet sinister with a sense of foreboding, further amplified with the setting of the shot being at night. The voyeuristic shot peering through the branches to look at the house is reminiscent of the ominous scene setting shots at the beginning of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but Hitchcock takes that shot one step further. As the scene proceeds with a young woman’s narrative voiceover (Joan Fontaine), we are slowly led into the manor through the gate and into a long twisted lane, filled with fog that slowly part to reveal the grand Menderley manor. It is interesting to note that this slow-moving, roving long shot through the gate and the grand reveal of the manor is paired faithfully scene by scene with Joan Fontaine’s voiceover of a dream that she had of her walking into the place, e.g. from her at first being unable to enter (coupled with the hesitant movement of the camera at the front of the gate) before slowly moving in. Coupled together, the visuals and the sound produce an eerie, first-person viewpoint as if that of a spirit, allowing the viewer to be the in the shoes of the young woman experiencing the dream itself, creating a surreal, dream-like suspense that builds the atmosphere of the film. With this opening shot alone, the viewer is able to understand – this is not a plain romantic film, rather there lies deeper undercurrents within.

This sense of foreboding is carried into the next shot of the film – the first meeting of Maxim de Winter and the young woman starts with a shot staring straight at Maxim’s shoes at the edge of the cliff, as if he is about to jump. With the escalating music, it seems so until his concentration is broken by the young woman, who he then brushes off brusquely as he walks away. This less than romantic encounter (or rather one could even say ominous) gives a hint of the tension between the two people as well as the general mood of the film, once again playing very well into the gothic horror genre.

The scenes of Maxim’s courtship of the young woman stay generally cheerful, but take a stark turn as they arrive back at the manor after the honeymoon. The Menderley manor is typical of the gothic genre – old and historical and possibly harbouring lots of secrets, and Hitchcock successfully uses the grandiose set to create an effective juxtaposition with the helpless naiveté of the new wife. In the manor, everything seems to be built larger than life – the large doors that servants open for her, the huge windows and staircases that seem to loom over her, the tables laden with lavish silverware, even the table where she has breakfast at – seems to be built so much larger that Joan Fontaine’s figure shrinks in comparison. In the scene where she has breakfast right after she arrived at the manor, the camera follows her figure from the spread as she walks to her seat, before panning out to show the audience the full scale of the grand dining table of which she only takes a corner of. This careful planning and execution of camera movement, along with the lavish mise-en-scene, effectively exaggerates the scene to highlight the metaphorical displacement of the young woman in her new and unfamiliar environment.

As the story develops, the uses of lighting and mise-en-scene become more dramatic. In the scene where the heroine views some films strips with Maxim, the scene seems to tighten in tension unknowingly. As the heroine converses with Maxim, the light of the film projector flickers on their faces, showing only momentary glimpses of facial expressions. Along with the flickering noise of the moving film strip, the scene slowly builds tension until Maxim abruptly stands in front of the projector, essentially blocking most of the only source of light and creating strong and stark silhouettes on his face, showing only one side. This dramatic shift in lighting also brings about sudden change in mood, leading to the climax of the scene – where Maxim visibly angers and demands to know of the ‘gossip’ that the heroine speaks of. With the harsh lighting on Maxim’s face, he develops a menacing side previously unknown, throwing new possibilities to the viewer – is it possible that Maxim holds secrets that he does not want her to know? With this effective use of lighting to create a sudden shift in mood, along with the eerie soundtrack and flickering sound effects, Hitchcock builds up the scene much like how a gothic novel would, subtly and slowly to build up tension only to heighten to a dramatic climax. The coupling of lighting and sounds also contributes to the general ominous mood of the film as the heroine slowly learns more about her new spouse and the narrative moves on.

Thus, by carefully planning out the camera movement, mise-en-scene and the lighting of each shot, Hitchcock is able to slowly build a world of dream-like world of secrets and suspense that not only escalates the tension towards the climax, but also expresses visually the mental state as well as the relationships of the characters in the film.

The expression of the psyche in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The post-war (WWI) era saw a continued boom in film production and distribution all over the world, from Hollywood to beyond. With the streamlining of both the production and distribution of film, along with the value of film finally being recognized as being a form of media beyond fairground entertainment, film directors were given the chance to explore and execute more daring ways of planning, filming and editing films.

Compared to the early slice-of-life films created by the Lumiere brothers, Dr Caligari (dr. Robert Wiene) presents an odd and almost parallel presentation of the possibilities of portrayal in film: the Lumiere brothers aimed to recreate reality, making it as naturalistic as possible, while Wiene aimed to subvert it, creating a very subjective viewpoint of reality from an individual’s point of view. In fact, the success of Dr Caligari comes directly from how it managed to successfully express one’s internal psyche in a visual way – from that of a mass mob such as that of the German public, down to the exploration of the human’s inner self, something that has never really been explored in cinema before.

The period when Dr Caligari was created was a bleak time for the German public – Germany had just lost WWI with astronomical human and financial losses, leading to sky high inflation and terrible living conditions back at home. Coupled with the horrors of trench warfare experienced in WWI, the general mood of the German people was one shrouded with pessimism and trauma. Instead of providing a rosier alternate reality as a mode of escape from the harsh postwar realities, however, Dr Caligari creates a set and lighting that intentionally shows a twisted, distorted version of reality; the mise-en-scene is done such that the world in Dr Caligari appears to be visually harsh and even menacing. Thus, the expression of the filming is not turning inwards i.e. escapism from harsh postwar realities but rather outwards, openly expressing the sense of desolation and torment Germany faced after the war. The actors’ silhouettes and shadows are intentionally elongated with the carefully prepared lighting, and the set design itself is done expressively rather than naturalistically –rather than shooting the film on scene, an entire set is built, much like a theatrical setup. The landscapes of the set itself are also painted expressively – the buildings are done with no regard for visual perspective and often skewed to create rough, jagged edges and asymmetrical shapes, with streaks of light directly painted onto the set to heighten the dramatic effect. The jagged touch is also reflected in the style of the intertitle cards, with typography that was similarly jagged to contribute to the mood of the film. In a way, this sense of chaos and foreboding in the mise-en-scene of Dr Caligari is reflective of the state of anarchy Germany was in after the war.

At the same time, Dr Caligari presents an interesting exploration into the inner psyche of the individual, especially with the twist ending. With the reveal of the unreliable narrator, an interesting shift is brought into the telling of the story – the perspective of the narrator contributes to narrative itself, and the inner psyche of the narrator is made concrete, affecting the way the audience interprets the narrative itself.

Dr Caligari opens with the introduction of the narrator of the story – we see him telling the story to his companion, with an iris effect (a ring of blackness surrounding a small area) employed to reduce the focus to his face, before shifting and expanding to reveal the landscape in which the story was going to take place. This effect is used multiple times in the introduction, to ensure that the viewer is clear that the narrative of the film was shifting into that of the storyteller. With the reveal of the twist ending, this device becomes even more poignant – the iris effect essentially makes it such that the viewer slowly shifts into the perspective of the (unreliable) narrator, and thus experiences the subjective reality from his (inner) point of view. The set design and mise-en-scene furthers this ambiguity between reality and subjective vision – as mentioned earlier, the set is designed in a non-realistic way, and the lighting is used to emphasise that – low- key lighting is used in many of the scenes to create harsh contrasts and dark tones and shadows, both on the set and the characters, using a Chiaroscuro technique to raise the drama of the scene. This use of lighting also emphasises the makeup used on the actors – most of them having pallid, pale faces with strong dark circles – and the strong lighting casts strong shadows that makes them look more haunting and menacing. The actors also perform in an unnaturalistic manner, with their actions often exaggerated and jerky. Altogether, the mise-en-scene builds up a universe that is similar to but unlike reality, thus continuing the subjective viewpoint of reality from the mad man’s point of view.

Thus, Dr Caligari employs a strong, expressive visual style, attention to mise-en-scene and subtle transitions to build an uncanny world radiating with tension and foreboding, thus being able to convey anxieties and trauma of the German public, as well as to explore the subjectivity of an individual’s inner psyche.


My favourite work from Iskandar Jalil’s “Clay Travels”


Out of all the works there, it was extremely hard to pick one true favourite as there were many works that stood out to me and piqued my interest. In the end, I decided to pick this piece – I like how it is unassuming at first glance, with its earthen textures and dull colours, but a closer inspection of the work reveals a teeny little frog sitting on the wooden edge, adding a whimsical flair to the work. Much like the concept of wabi-sabi, this work must be carefully observed for one to gain a full appreciation for it. I also love the use of both treated material (as seen in the cut and treated wooden handle) and the material in its natural state (as seen in the piece of wood propped on top of the handle). The juxtaposition of the two different states of the same type of material is very interesting to me.

An image that I did not take

The image is a high contrast black and white photograph of a dog turning around to face the camera. The dog takes up the entire frame, with the background details blurred out. The dog seems to be a mongrel, with stout legs and frame, short ears and a short snout. The dog’s fur looks matted and unkempt, with its tail down between its legs. Its ears are turned down, and its mouth slightly ajar. It looks a little sad, somehow.


Haiku by Matsuo Bashō.