Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ten Frames From: Columbo: Murder by the Book

After our review of Columbo, Murder by the Book, let's look at a few shots from this uncommonly good episode of crime drama.

1. A number of things make this inconspicuous shot worthy of note. First, the whole shot works because the street is higher than the entrance to the house. It's clear the cinematographer and/or director examined the area to find the best shot and didn't simply revert to stock ideas. Second, it's a smooth, downward transition to this shot from the previous shot, which avoids cutting to a second shot, following the character inside, or shooting him from above. Third, since he shrinks in the frame, we need a way to suggest that he's dominant, since he's the murderer. Hence... Fourth, the blackly humorous sticker, "Have a nice day." Finally, the whole shot is livened up by contrasting lines:
  1. the parallel diagonals of the roofline and draped sackcloth
  2. the z-axis line of the car bumper
  3. the parallel diagonals of the curb and background mountains
  4. the x-axis upper balcony
The tension of the murder is visually recreated in the clashing lines. 

2. I like this shot simply because it shows that they bothered to shoot at dusk, and patiently wait for the right lighting. The lamplight is also a noir-ish nod.

3. One of many shots of Ken with his face half-shrouded in darkness.

4. As we mentioned, the length of this unbroken shot reflects the free-flowing information after Columbo has earned the widow's trust, but it's also dynamically blocked with movement within the frame. It's also a nice contrast to the shot/reverse shot of the previous scene.

click image to enlarge

5. This simple pair of close-ups contrasts Columbo's clumsy hands with Ken's dexterous, malevolent ones.

Once again, Columbo's ineptitude is a false front, whereas Ken's affectation is vanity.

Please note that the page after the jump includes large gifs. (about 7mb. total)

6. In Columbo's first encounter with Ken, the detective steps forth from the center background.

7. There's such tension in this shot, with Ken in the dominant position and Columbo looking up, childlike. The cinematography is quite consistent throughout, keeping Columbo understated.

8. Columbo is again leaning in, being "educated" by Ken who has taken his predecessor's seat at this writing desk. The fact that Ken killed his partner because Ken couldn't write without him is highlighted by this act of sitting in the dead man's chair. He can only sit in the writer's chair as a pretender, and as a murderer.

9. Ken gives Columbo some homework.

10. This is a darkly ironic moment, with the smooching couple in the background behind Ken and Lilly.

11. The funniest scene in the episode, Columbo silently returns Ken's books in the background, fumbling as Ken gives a serious interview.

12. This simple shot/reverse is livened up by the contrasting backgrounds. The smooth lines behind Columbo suggest his calm, and the pointy beams behind Ken suggest agitation.

13. Just a plain good-looking shot of the killer swimming ashore after another murder.

14. Here Joanna, the deceased author's wife, starts telling Columbo some details about her husband, anything that might help. The writing presents a visual problem though: what do you do with the person who is just listening? Here the director and cinematographer decided to stick Joanna in the distant background and essentially make the scene about Columbo, showing him all by himself, doing his ingenious detective work in the recesses of his mind. As he lights up a cigar, of course. 

15. Columbo wins, finally towering over the criminal.

16. The seesawing motion here is an unexpected surprise. It's also ironic insofar as it suggests a nonexistent mutual interest between the two parties.

17. This scene is nothing on paper. All it accomplishes is letting Ken know that the moving men aren't finished getting his belongings out of the office yet, which forces him to go upstairs and meet Columbo. Instead of dashing off the scene as a two-second throwaway, though, Spielberg respectively uses:
  1. a tracking shot which loses track of the subject and tracks another subject
  2. a shot of the character moving from the background into the foreground
  3. a shot in which we can only see the character to whom Ken is speaking by means of the rear view mirror.
The style and technique here not only energize a lightweight scene, but reflect the plot's development. Here, Ken's disappearance behind the truck and need to get out of his car and walk over to the driver, only to be largely ignored, foreshadow his imminent defeat by Columbo.

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