Monday, February 9, 2009

Now That's Composition!

Fortunately, in the ninth year of the twenty first century I seem to be a man of my word. A few weeks back I made some New Years Resolutions. And it seems that I am already making good on some of them. Or at least one of them. In accordance with Resolution #1, I have recently watched A Fistful Of Dollars which was made in 1964.

What? You've never seen it Piper? (ALLOW FOR PROLONGED GASPS)

I have not.

Seriously? You haven't? (MORE GASPS OF THE PROLONGED KIND)

Like I said, I haven't.

And you call yourself a lover of cinema?

Look, get off my back already.

The truth is I've never been much of a 'Westerns' kind of guy. Not really sure why, I just haven't. I'm sure that we all have a few skeletons in our closets as it relates to must-see classics. But what I've found is that in finally watching them, they rarely live up to the years of hype. The "I can't believe you haven't seen it" and "you must run home and watch it this instant" and "your life isn't complete without it" and "it's the most wonderful movie ever." All this praise usually leads to a letdown of the monumental kind. And then I remain silent with my criticism and walk around in a shroud of shame convinced there's something wrong with me.

This is not the case with A Fistful Of Dollars. It's a fantastic movie for all the reasons stated: great action, great scenes, Clint is a baddass, etc. But more than any of that, what really got me was composition. Frame after frame of art. The still of the moving picture. It was magnificent. And it made me realize how this craft is lost in most movies today. Too many fast cuts and shaky cameras. In an effort to appear more real or more different, we have lost the art of making movies. Please join me in celebrating these wonderful compositions.


brian said...


While you're at it, finish the trilogy.

"High Plains Drifter"

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly."

You won't be disappointed.


brian said...

I think Wes Anderson still knows how to compose a shot. But you're right, it's become a lost art.

Ed Howard said...

Great stuff. One of the things I love about so many of the great Western directors -- Mann, Ford, Leone, Boetticher, Hawks -- is how formally precise they are, how the Western genre with its wide open spaces and tense standoffs seems to bring out a certain compositional genius in these directors.

Now you should check out The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West next.

Christian Toto said...

My dad's favorite movie is "Shane," a western from the '50s. Haven't seen it in a while ... I do remember that it's long, but the last 20 minutes can't be beat for poignancy and action.

Moviezzz said...

I've always been "EHH" about FISTFUL. It is probably my least favorite of the trilogy (and Brian, A FEW DOLLARS MORE is the second part, and then GOOD BAD UGLY. DRIFTER is a later, non-Leone film). But do see the rest.

Anonymous said...

You make a great point about (lack of) composition and the quick cuts in movies today. Some were and are better than others, but in my book nothing beats a movie where you could take virtually any frame and well, frame it.

There are a great many films I have yet to see. I'm too embarrassed to even admit to them. And compared with all the movies I HAVE seen in recent years, it's high time I go back and see what I've been missing. I've had this idea in my head that old movies could never be as good as new ones, like language suddenly got better, or people learned to talk.

I'll do my best to get caught up.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you, Piper. Almost every time I see an older movie lately, I'm struck by how well shots are composed in depth - there's very little depth in shots these days. Directors now are much more likely to just cut between characters in different planes rather than show them all together. That can be effective, but it seems most directors these days have lost the spatial ability to compose in depth.

Anonymous said...

Hey Brian,

You are a DUMB ASS.

It's "For a few dollars more," not "High Plains Drifter."

If you are going to contribute to this blog, at least get your facts right.

What a joke.

PIPER said...


Wes Anderson is all about composition.

Michael Mann also does a good job of composition, not so much in how he stages the characters, but in his close-ups.


I'm going to check them all out. I've been a fan of Hawks for really only one reason: that reason being that John Carpenter was such a fan of his and my favorite Carpenter films have all been inspired in one way or another from Howard Hawks.

The other thing that interests me so much with Westerns is how they continue to remake the same plot over and over again. It's pretty fascinating to see how tweak here and there to make them different. The two plots I've seen over and over again is 1) Bad guys haunt town and one person or a group of people come in to save the day 2) Rival families split a town and a stranger comes in wreaks havoc.

PIPER said...


The fact that you think this is the weakest of the bunch makes me anticipate the others even more. I really did love A Fistful of Dollars. I'm kind of angry with myself though, there's a sweet Leone boxed set that I can pick up for about $50 that includes all of the movies, only I've already purchased a pretty good edition of A Fistful of Dollars.


There are a great number of films a lot of us have yet to see. It's impossible to say that you've seen them all. What fun would that be? I would say that in my experience it's about 50/50 on whether I truly feel the movie is better this many years later.


Depth is a perfect word to use here. No one really explores depth anymore.

PIPER said...


Couple of things.

1) You give other Anonymouses a bad name because you hide behind that word. You want to take someone on, have the balls to put a name to it.

2) I appreciate criticism. But not your kind of criticism. To be angry about something is one thing. To take the time to actually write that which in turn serves no point whatsoever. Sorry, the joke is you.

Neil Sarver said...

Allow me to join Moviezzz and, not to put too much anticipation on the following movies, but I think Fistful... is easily the least of them.

Moviezzz said...

"The fact that you think this is the weakest of the bunch makes me anticipate the others even more."

I watched them all together (I wrote a paper on Leone and Spaghetti Westerns for a college Italian film class). So, they all kind of run together. But I remember the series getting better with each film.

If I remember correctly, what happens in the opening shot in FOR A FEW (how the shot changes) is one of the greatest moments in Leone.

And then it all builds to the final showdown in THE GOOD THE BAD.

Seek them out.

brian said...


I got my movies wrong. I made an honest mistake. Come out of the bushes you coward.

If ever there was an opportunity for a viral showdown at OK Corral, this is it.


Ray said...

I love you, Piper.

You are so right about the lost art of composition. Think about the static shots and elegantly long tracking shots of older films ... they are dramatic and full of energy. Now compare those shots to the quick-cut, almost nonsensical garbage of today ... so artificial and lifeless.

It's like the difference between the energy boost from sex and the energy boost from Red Bull; both give you a rush, but one of them is artificial and even bad for you, while the other is invigorating.

I'll leave you to decide which one is which.

PIPER said...

Damn Moviezzz,

you're really selling me on this. How can it live up to all this.


I'm with you. The evolution of cinema doesn't necessarily mean things get better. It sometimes mean things get lost.



I know how you feel. The first time I watched A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS I got a raging boner for Leone and quickly ripped through FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (which is WAYYYYYYY better than FISTFUL) and THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, which is the Greatest Western of ALL TIME! Seriously. If loved this movie you're going to be on overload while watching the 3+ hours that is THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.

But wait. After you're done with that trilogy, make sure and get ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which is just as good as GOOD,BAD.... and DUCK YOU SUCKER, Leone's final western. A great film in it's own right.

but also make sure and watch ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, Leone's final film.

He only made six, not including some earlier works, and all 6 are GREAT GREAT GREAT!!!!!

PIPER said...


I've seen Once Upon A Time In America a long, long time ago. I remember enjoying it, but I have to revisit it again.

And I'm telling you guys, you're really setting me up for a letdown on the rest of the films. All I'm saying is that they better be really, really good.


In order from best to worst (still great)...


I'm telling you piper, from the sounds of how much you liked FISTFUL, you will not be disappointed.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Joseph. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Piper. In heavy contention for best of the Leone Westerns is Once Upon A Time In The West. No Clint, but it has Charles Bronson as a character called only "Harmonica" as the lead. And one of the best James Coburn rolls of his career. Check it.

PIPER said...

It's done. I'm officially all over Leone now.

Moviezzz said...

"No Clint, but it has Charles Bronson as a character called only "Harmonica" as the lead"

I have to say that ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, while definitely worth seeing, with some GREAT moments, isn't among my favorites.

Mainly because, as I watched it with all the other Leone films, I couldn't help but think of how much better Eastwood would have been instead of Bronson. It was written for him, but he didn't take the role.

Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

I'm thrilled you enjoyed the film! I slugged through a huge amount of 'must see's' and 'classics' in the past few years an a lot of them were great but not stand outs.

Til I saw The Good The Bad and The Ugly. Yes, I saw the trilogy out of order but dang, all three films rock.

Glad to hear you are chipping away at your resolution list!

Anonymous said...


We will agree to disagree.

Because you are wrong.

jbow said...

Thanks Joe, Shannon and all for the must-see Western tips. I am going to have to go back and fill in some gaps in my repertoire.

Some of my best childhood memories were being allowed to stay up late with my dad to watch westerns and war movies.

What I know about movie composition could fit on the head of a pin, but I have a theory that I will now throw out to the e-universe of movie lovers who know waaaay more about movie composition than I. This theory is half-baked, but here goes: I have two sons with (normal) short attention spans. I have been disappointed more than once when I've tried to share the joy of some of my favorite old movies with them and they just don't have the patience for it. I'm wondering if the composition of old movies just seems better because they actually move slowly enough for you to appreciate it. Thinking...thinking...thinking....nah, probably not. My sons are big fans of the quick-cut garbage, btw.

One day I will tie them to chairs and force them to watch some of the old war movies I watched with my dad. I think if they stopped multi-tasking on their ipod touches, laptops and 360s long enough, they might actually enjoy them. Did anybody else watch these old greats? Sands of Iwo Jima, Bridge Over River Kwai, The Dirty Dozen and Lee Marvin in Hell in the Pacific? Anybody?

And, just to be clear and offer up my own personal disclaimer, I am in NO way a fan of war, just old war movies.


PIPER said...


I think you have to start small and be gradual.

My son is in to all those things, but he loves movies right along with me. I don't think he explores them as much as me, obviously, but he appreciates them. For example, Searching for Bobby Fisher is one of his favorites - mostly due to the fact that he loves chess. Not an action packed movie, but he will stick with it.

I have introduced him to older films as well. When Frost/Nixon came out he and I watched All The President's Men and he liked it very much.

On the flip side, he also enjoys 300. But I was pleased to hear that in his most recent re-watching of this, he didn't think it held up as well.

But I'm not sure I could get him to watch a Western. But you never know. He might dig it.