Mise-en-scene & Concentrated Exposition in John Huston’s
In This Our Life
1942’s In This Our Life has become a footnote in John Huston‘s esteemed filmography. Coming after the knock-down drag-out success of his first film, The Maltese Falcon—its powerful, and historically unusual, portrayal of institutional racism is electrifying, but it is this subplot alone that garners any and all critical affection the film receives.
This last, as a matter of fact, is the one exceptional component of the film—this brief but frank allusion to racial discrimination.—Bosley Crowther in his contemporary review
However, if the evaluation of a movie rests on the analysis of its techniques and the purposes they serve, then any judgement of In This Our Life must mark it a striking victory, and among the full gamut of film techniques that Huston deploys in the service of effect, mise-en-scene is dominant. The plot unfolds a convoluted story with multiple back and sub plots, and most of this is accomplished visually through costume, make up, and principles of frontality, figure placement, and eye movement.
Forgotten out of prejudice…against Melodrama!
The film is impressive in even a most basic critical criterion like unity. The stylized performance of Bette Davis fits with her heightened costumes and makeup, the cinematography’s emphasis on in-depth composition and high-key lighting fits in with the narrative’s overall omniscience, the soundtrack’s gloomy sentimentality fits with the script’s emotionalism, and so on. In fact, the one disunifying element is the realistically portrayed black character and his realistically portrayed predicament. Laudable though it is, it stands out in the movie’s hyper-stylized context.
I don’t think the film’s critical neglect reflects poorly on the artistry of its creators. There was—and is—merely a tendency among critics to dismiss mere melodrama out-of-hand. There’s more than a little sexism in this proclivity—for years the Melodrama was the only refuge for “women’s issues”, but I also think that there’s another, more aesthetic bias at work here.
Melodrama is a highly mimetic genre. It longs for the plasticity of film. Its situations cry out for exaggeration, its stock characters cry out for caricature. It is an intensely visual genre, one that relies heavily on a character’s “look” to convey narrative, emotion, and meaning. And finally it is a profoundly effective genre, one that attempts to violate your personal boundaries and physically disturb you—in the form of sobbing. In This Our Life embodies all of these—theatrical, mimetic—tendencies, and it stands in contrast to the pseudo-literary impulses of Huston’s more revered films.
Good Sis/Bad Sis
In This Our Life is the story of the Timberlake family. Asa, the patriarch, is timid and kind. His brother-in-law William Fitzroy is aggressive and hostile, and he steals the family tobacco business away from Asa. Asa’s two daughters—curiously named Roy & Stanley—are each happily in love: Roy—the good daughter—with Peter the handsome surgeon and Stanley—the hellcat—with Craig the liberal lawyer. Stanley also appears to have a less-than-innocent relationship with Uncle William.
On the eve of Stanley and Craig’s wedding she runs off with Peter! The devastated Roy slowly turns to Craig and over time they both get better and help Perry—the Timberlake’s maid’s son—become a paralegal in Craig’s office. After Stanley’s constant cruelty drives the poor Peter to suicide she comes home and tries to steal Craig back. Frustrated by her repeated failure she accidentally runs over a mother and child, and then she blames Perry for her crime. Roy and Craig work out the truth and confront Stanley who tries to turn to the dying Uncle William for support. He ignores her pleas, and in her hasty flight she crashes and dies.
Huston wields each film technique with force to advance the story’s maximum effect, but its his use of mise-en-scene (setting, costume/make up, lighting, and staging) that most drives the narrative and reveals the film’s subtexts. By the end of Act I all of the characters, props, and settings that will be important to the climax have been both introduced and richly contextualized, and by the end of the film patterns that have been developing in the mise-en-scene since the opening moments are fully realized.
The first scene illustrates this well. In the first two minutes we get an onslaught of visual information, beginning with the sign on the warehouse wall. Dramatically zoomed in on, it reveals a huge portion of the back story in one shot. While we don’t yet know that they’re brothers, we do know that Timberlake lost to Fitzroy.
On the walk home with Perry—who himself becomes a central plot element—Asa stoops to look at the family crest that once adorned his factory’s wall.
The script doesn’t bother to tell us that the Timberlake family is not what it used to be. The mise-en-scene shows it to us. And that’s not to say that the script isn’t working overtime in these first few moments. It’s just that the script and the mise-en-scene are working different beats. The script revs up certain causal chains concerning Perry’s intelligence and Stanley’s driving, and it establishes an appointment with William as a dangling cause to link this scene with the next. Under, over, and around this verbal exposition however, the mise-en-scene slips in these huge details describing the situational context leading up to this moment.
Little Things Mean A Lot
Ms. Stanley takes after her mom and Uncle William—the Fitzroy side. Now you, you just like your Grandma, Mrs. Timberlake.—Minerva, the Timberlake’s servant
The next two short scenes add texture and establish a few recurring motifs. Minerva—Perry’s mother—compares Roy to a portrait of her Grandmother on the Timberlake side. This is visually repeated at various points in the film, and Roy is frequently framed under the painting.
Then Asa goes in and talks to his wife Lavinia. Later, after Peter’s suicide, Stanley is lying in bed recovering just like her mother does in this early scene (with similar gowns and lamp covers,) and at the end of the film , when William is dying and won’t listen to Stanley’s pleas for help, he’s sickly and recovering under a patterned blanket. These three characters—grouped by Minerva in the preceding scene—compose a separate, selfish family right in the midst of the “good” Timberlakes: Grandma Timberlake, Roy, and—implicitly—Asa.
Looks & “Looks”
Costume and Make up plays a crucial role in the film’s exposition. When Uncle William visits, his clothing is distinctively contrasted with Asa. In this typically cluttered frame, you can see the contrast in costume between Asa (foreground) and William (background). Asa’s modest charcoal and bookish bow-tie are set against William’s garish white suit and phallic, straight-tie. Huston uses these kinds of contrasts and carefully controlled gazes to direct our attention and reveal unspoken story information.
Then Stanley arrives, having been spoken of multiple times already, her and her black car are both anticipated and appreciated.
Then Stanley has Perry take the car and wash it. This scene visually reiterates information we heard in the film’s opening conversation, and its a crucial causal seed in the tree of In This Our Life‘s drama.
Staging in the Sitting Room
All the principles involved here—frontality, spacing of figures, slight shifts of compositional focus, actors’ body language—are simple in themselves, but they gain a strong impact by cooperating with one another…Yet simplicity shouldn’t imply simplification. Anderson’s willingness to give the shot several points of interest, some more stressed than others, creates an understated tension…a quality that Anderson admires in 1940s studio films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.—David Bordwell on There Will Be Blood [Sierra Madre was also directed by John Huston]
The next scene starts to fully explore the staging possibilities of such a large, talented ensemble. When Stanley enters the house there’s a brief sequence between her and Uncle William that’s shot with over-over-twos and continuity editing. The only extended sequence of its kind in this scene, it emphasizes their intimate relationship.
And then she gets her check. This sort of extended stretch of continuity editing is rare in the first Act, and it stands out a little here. We then move into an extended in-depth scene, with a bevy of movements, changes of position, gazes, and groupings.
This selection of images is indicative of the huge amount of purely visual information that Huston packs into the frame as the first Act develops, but there are about 24 frames per second, and I’ve left most of them out. In particular I’ve removed the few close ups he does use. While in-depth composition is prevalent enough to stand out as a stylistic motif, Huston does use medium and close ups for emphasis. Famously Bette Davis felt like Olivia De Havilland got the bulk of the close ups and good angles, but for my money Davis steals the entire film with this oh so brief shot.
When watching scenes like this its important to remember that with such busy frames you have to pay attention to eye movement, figure placement, and frontality. I’ve focused on the mise-en-scene, and specifically elements of staging and costume, as his most salient technique, but you can see that even beyond what’s placed in the scene Huston is profound in his cinematic design. The editing is particularly sophisticated, with the few close ups feeling important and distinct, and they each serve character or narrative functions. However, it is in-depth, in the mise-en-scene that most of the visual information is relayed.
Looking for Stanley
After a touching scene between Roy and Peter, Craig visits and is given the cold shoulder by Stanley. The plot often suppresses dramatic moments like the lovers’ actual escape. This is motivated transtextually by the conventions of Melodrama. Far more important than the moment of character action is the way that other characters will be reacting to that action. The next scene opens with Asa and Craig going to Uncle Williams to look for her. They’re reaction is the real action.
The staircase is a motif I haven’t mentioned yet. We first see Roy on the staircase, Peter tries to sneak up it, later Stanley straps on her sexy shoes on it, but most of all is this dramatic shot near the end of Act One.
During Asa and Roy’s heart-to-heart she vows to “not be like him” and to wear a red hat “with a black feather.” This hat comes back up multiple times as a symbol of Roy’s embrace of life. Finally, after the good daughter rebukes the good father, we move to Stanley and Peter’s new apartment.
Peter says that they must “be happy,” and its here that we have what is undoubtedly Stanley’s primary narrative goal—and therefore the narrative’s true driving force. Happiness drives Stanley. As Roy says late in Act IV, “She just wants to be happy, and she doesn’t care who gets hurt.”
Shots, directors, and entire films are often described as “painterly.” Too often this just means that the cinematographer chooses an unusual camera angle or film stock. For something to truly be “painterly” it must also convey information visually. Paintings have whole stories in their frames. Films sometimes can’t get anything across even with motion and sound!
In This Our Life is not one of them. It goes beyond just prettily filming something and finds pretty somethings to film. Its mise-en-scene, primarily through costume/make up and staging, is running a constant stream of information beneath the film’s dialogue. The first Act sets up not just the dramatic scenario, but a complex network of visual signifiers and figure-relations. Patterns that culminate in Stanley’s overturned car and burning body, and Craig and Roy’s anxious, pensive end-title hug. They are hugging—sure—but what are their eyes saying?
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