Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Drama of Looking - The Rains Came (1939)

I recently enjoyed Jason Bellamy’s visual analysis of carefully considered close-ups in Hitchcock’s Psycho for its insightful examination of Hitchcock's dramatic use of close-ups as well as for its serendipity, for I had just purchased The Rains Came on DVD, not just because I like any movie that interrupts vain human longings and petty frictions with a rousing earthquake and flood, but because I adore the film's black-and-white cinematography, and I especially admire one beautifully filmed and edited scene that includes the same sort of judicious use of close-ups for dramatic effect mentioned in Jason's post. In addition, the scene includes a fine example of the drama of looking - the simple visual device of a character looking at and seeing an object that has dramatic significance - a device also mastered by Hitchcock in many of his films.

Clarence Brown's The Rains Came (1939), one of the numerous films of the British-in-India genre popular in the 1930s, features Myrna Loy as Lady Edwina Esketh, a notorious high society woman who finds new meaning in life and a chance to change her ways when she falls in love with a handsome Indian doctor played by Tyrone Power. George Brent plays Tom Ransome, a cynical alcoholic, similarly outcast in India by his notoriety. But the film’s famous set piece is the earthquake, followed by a flood, that devastates the state of Ranchipur and changes everything for Lady Edwina and Tom Ransome.

Films of this type portray British occupation of India as a matter of fact and a jolly good thing. I digress here, but I’ve often wondered why they were such popular Hollywood fare. While they glorify Queen Victoria and seem to pay tribute to a British sense of order, they boldly accept British imperialism and often portray Indians as caricatures, but when I was a boy I loved them for their action, adventure, and exotic settings, ever since I saw The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), with Gary Cooper, one of my favorite films of the 1930s.

The scene I examine here takes place in the hospital where Major Rama Safti (Power) is treating victims of a bubonic plague epidemic caused by the disaster. In an act of self-sacrifice designed to atone for her wastrel existence, Lady Esketh takes on work there as a common nurse, willing to scrub blood from the surgery floor and tend to plague victims.

WHAT FOLLOWS IS A SPOILER:

Lady Esketh pours water for a plague victim ...


Look at the beautiful composition and lighting in this shot ...


She sees the fan coolie faint and she calls for help ...



She sets the glass of water down in the wrong place, nicely lit by the lamp. Note that the "right place" is illuminated on the other side of the frame.



She disinfects her hands. Note the pitcher lit in the background. Thus, we know what she has done wrong and what is going to happen. But the suspense and drama lie in her looking and seeing what we already know and dread.


Back at her station, she gets thirsty and pours a glass of water and drinks ...



She doesn't see the other glass ...



Her eyes fall on the other pitcher without its glass ...


The camera pans quickly ...


Close-up on the other pitcher. Lady Esketh says, "The glass."


She knows - we know - her fatal error, but the suspense lies in her looking for the final evidence of that error ...


She looks and sees the glass and the pitcher, but is it the glass?


The camera pulls around ...


... slowly revealing ...


... the uncontaminated glass - highlighted by reflections of light - behind the pitcher ...


She reacts in horror ...


Then, masterfully, the camera pulls back from the close-up to reveal the whole, tragic tableau.


Only four words have been spoken during the entire episode. The scene builds tension and achieves impact by using the camera to look and see what the character sees. If only more films nowadays took the time to set up shots that achieve as much.

3 comments:

Mrs. R said...

One of my favorite films.

It should be noted that "The Rains Came" beat out Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz for the Special Effects Oscar.

Also, one of its stars, Tyrone Power, ranked higher on the top ten box office chart than Clark Gable did in the year of "Gone with the Wind." Power's film "Jesse James" was #4 at the box office in 1939.

Mrs. R said...

Thank you so much for writing about The Rains Came, one of my favorite films.

As a point of interest, this film beat out Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz for a Special Effects Oscar. One of its stars, Tyrone Power, placed higher than Gable in the top ten box office for 1939. Power's film, Jesse James, was #4 at the box office that year.

Hokahey said...

Mrs. R - Thanks for your comments and your film notes. I was aware that The Rains Came had been nominated in a number of categories and that it won for Special Effects - though I wish the special effects of the earthquake and flood had not been somewhat obscured by the fake streaks of rain.

1939 was quite a year for films, and it says a lot for Tyrone Power's draw that he ranked higher than Gable. As for Jesse James - I love that film.

We could use another film year like 1939!