Cinematography in On the Waterfront, Rebel without a Cause, and The Third Man

Of all the aesthetic components that stylize a film, cinematography, the way in which the camera lens is used as a creative instrument to capture the character’s actions and mise-en-scene, is the artistic pinnacle of analytical cinema studies.  Cinematography encompasses the composition, depth of field, lighting, camera movement, and angle of a shot (Bordwell & Thompson).  Forming the very backbone of film creation, there can be no motion picture without a camera just as a painting cannot exist without a canvas. The camera can be an objective third-person observer detached from the action as well as a subjective recorder of the film through distinct point of view shots. By utilizing various cinematic techniques such as point of view, the cinematography in On the Waterfront (1954), Rebel without a Cause (1955), and The Third Man (1949) invokes empathy and illustrates the protagonists’ moralistic struggles.

For the majority of the narrative, the camera acts as its own invisible character, observing unseen from a distance, watching over the characters’ shoulders or standing at their side. However, the camera is not an intrinsic unbiased device; it is a manipulated, calculated tool reflecting the directions of its operator and creative controller. In all three films, the male protagonists wrestle with moral dilemmas and must decide where their loyalty lies. Documenting their ethical struggle, all three films utilize a POV (point of view) shot to directly engage with the audience. Following the character’s line of sight, a POV shot displays a particular character’s viewpoint, oftentimes juxtaposed with a close-up of the character’s reaction (Bordwell & Thompson). By showing the action subjectively through the protagonist’s eyes, these angles allow the viewer to sympathize with and relate to their personal anxieties. This technique, described as spectator positioning, renders the camera unable to achieve neutrality by its portrayal of a singular perspective (Stam & Spence).

In On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s film about a young longshoreman torn between family mafia allegiance and worker union justice, POV shots allow the audience to better understand Terry’s experiences. During Terry and Johnny Friendly’s confrontation, Terry references his new perspective, “You ratted on us Terry!” “From where you stand maybe, but I’m standing over here now!”  After Terry and the mob leader brawl on the waterfront, Terry is badly injured and struggles to remain conscious. In a final show of defiance against the mafia leaders, Terry staggers to his feet and walks into the dock with his fellow longshoreman workers. To instill the scope of Terry’s determination, the camera frequently cuts from a medium close-up of Terry stumbling toward the loading dock to a POV shot of his perspective. Imitating Terry’s experience, the shaky camera wildly rattles around, going in and out of focus and cutting to shots of Terry walking along the waterfront. Rather than merely depicting Terry staggering on the dock, the viewer is able to see through Terry’s eyes and empathize with his feelings of fatigue and dizziness.

The melodrama Rebel without a Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray, tells the story of wayward teenager, Jim Stark, struggling to understand the emotional frustrations in his life. Insecure and lonely, Jim feels pressured to prove himself to his parents, his peers at school, and most importantly, to himself. Similar to On the Waterfront, Rebel without a Cause utilizes point of view angles to depict the male protagonist’s viewpoint and personal experience. In an interview for “Cahiers du Cinema”, Nicholas Ray described the cinematography in Rebel as such, “…what I always try to do, whenever it’s possible, is to put the camera in an actor’s place, to make it act for him and let it become the point of view of somebody for whom I feel sympathy or antipathy” (Bitsch). This camera style is easily recognizable in the film and allows the audience to feel connected to the action and characters. After witnessing the death of one of his peers when they challenged one another to “chickie run”, Jim returns home distraught and overwrought with guilt. Lying down on the living room couch, his dark shadow hangs over him like a heavy weight. Visually portraying his troubled emotions, the camera cuts to a POV shot of his vision flipped upside down as he hangs his head over the seat cushions; his world, quite literally, been turned inside out. Feeling conflicted, Jim tries to talk to his parents but a verbal fight ensues on the staircase. Like a sailor aboard a rocking ship, the camera abruptly tilts to the side as Jim and his mother cling to the banister, metaphorically expressing the inner turmoil he feels. This cinematic technique is further explored during the climax when Jim tries to rescue Plato at the Planetarium. After Jim struggles to keep him calm, Plato is spooked by the police and tries to flee as they open fire. Situated behind Plato, the camera sharply flinches when he is fatally shot and rocks back and forth as he collapses to the ground.  Because Plato is in the frame with his back to the camera, the composition is not a true POV shot as observed in previous scenes. However, the unique motion and vantage point of the camera imitates the character’s optical experience by immersing the audience into the scene.

Directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man relates the story of Western writer Holly Martins who investigates the death of his dishonorable friend, Harry Lime, in the city of Vienna. The film utilizes conventional cinematography techniques characteristic of noir genre films: low lighting, obstructed angles, shadows and silhouettes. However, the film additionally uses innovative canted, or Dutch, angles. Whether or not Orson Welles-inspired (who also stars in the film as the film’s antagonist), the tilted shots demonstrate the moral crookedness of the film’s characters, providing a literal and metaphorical skewed perspective of the world. Unlike On the Waterfront or Rebel Without a Cause, the cinematography in The Third Man reverts the portrayal of the single subjective viewpoint of the leading man by interchanging POV shots from both the protagonist and the antagonist. When Holly Martins and the Vienna police chase Harry Lime into the sewers, the camera alternates from Harry’s to Holly’s vantage point. As the detective and Holly pursue him, Lime is framed by a long shot, running further down the dimly lit tunnel away from the camera. The perspective is reversed when a close-up shot of Lime looking over his shoulder cuts to long shot of the police running toward the direction of the camera. When Lime reaches a crossroads, he frantically swings his head back and forth at each tunnel entrance and the camera cuts rapidly to a POV shot of the tunnel openings. Portraying his state of panic and distress, the montage is accompanied by Harry’s audial point of view as he listens for the shouts of police officers echoing in the tunnels. By juxtaposing the viewpoint of both the pursued and the pursuers throughout this sequence, the audience becomes emotionally invested in both sides of the conflict, simultaneously rooting for both Harry’s capture and his escape.

Through their active display of point of view shots, the films On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Third Man convey their characters’ specific viewpoints and moral struggles. This technique allows the audience to feel inserted into the film as spectator witnessing the action through the characters’ own eyes. Despite its inherently biased perspective, POV shots effectively enable the viewer to feel emotionally invested in the film’s narrative.

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