' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting a Scene: Ronin

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Dissecting a Scene: Ronin

I have 7.5 million favorite movie scenes. But included in the Top 100 is the opening scene from “Ronin.” That 1998 thriller was something like John Frankenheimer’s last stand, before The Movie Of Which We Will Not Speak, a movie that earned the descriptor “gritty”, jettisoning any pretense of characters aside from archetypes that the right actors were employed to bring to life to simply focus on behavior and craft. Those last two were abundant in the opening scene, which I have adored since I first saw it, even more than the movie’s famous against-traffic car chase, or Robert DeNiro ambushing Sean Bean with a cup of coffee, or DeNiro in his immaculate matter-of-fact DeNiro-ese explaining how he once removed a man’s appendix with a grapefruit spoon.

Back in our younger days, when we had much more idle time, my friend Daryl and I would occasionally, usually upon imbibing one too many adult beverages, Watch Selected Scenes From Boogie Nights™, though we would also occasionally watch the opening scene from “Ronin.” Once upon receiving a disc from Netflix that I was excited to watch only to realize the disc was broken, I, gravely disappointed, assuaged my disappointment by watching the opening scene from “Ronin.” I love it; God help me, I do love the opening scene from “Ronin” so. This scene runs approximately seven minutes, and while we refrained from literally going shot-by-shot, we nevertheless almost go shot-for-shot, which is to say this post, particularly if you are not someone who turns to the opening scene of “Ronin” when you are feeling blue, is absurdly long. So be it. This blog does not apologize. This is as much for us as it is for you. We do not understand how clicks work. On with the dissection. (You can watch the whole scene here.)

The scene (the movie) begins with a shot of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur at night, which I respect because Frankenheimer forgoes the traditional Eiffel Tower establishing shot, and when he pans down, as he often pans down throughout, to the title...

...he places it against an impressively non-descript backdrop. That is two points for Frankenheimer already and we haven’t even had a cut!

Indeed, the camera keeps panning, down to this staircase in the midst of the Rue Drevet where you can just barely make out our main character Sam (Robert DeNiro) descending.

Finally Frankenheimer cuts closer to Sam in mid-descent.

Then Sam suddenly stops about halfway down, moving to his right into the shadows.

The reverse shot sees Sam watching this van pull to a stop below, which is the character’s default behavior throughout the scene – that is, observing, taking stock, which is underlined either with these sorts of shots from his point-of-view, or watching him as he watches.

Frankenheimer then cuts to Dierdre (Natascha McElhone), our not-so-friendly Irish operative, exiting that van... 

...and walking into the bar at the foot of the stairs.

Frankenheimer then cuts back to Sam to remind us that he has just seen what we have just seen.

The action then switches to inside the watering hole, as the bartender gives Dierdre a look of recognition.

And as Dierdre moves behind the bar, the camera zooms out just a skosh, allowing this dude, this dark-haired dude over on the right to enter the frame.

And then we see the dark-haired dude, Larry (Skipp Sudduth), of whom this blog has written before, straight on, cluing us into the fact that he is someone of importance. Also, product placement!

Then a cut back to Deirdre looking toward Larry, he gauging her, she gauging him.

Back outside as Sam is clear to proceed with people having cleared out...

...and he continues down the staircase.

Then a cut back to the street, where the camera picks up Vincent (Jean Reno) in the midst of a fairly brisk walk.

Vincent enters the bar through the same door as Deirdre, and as he does, Reno has Vincent give this stranger leaving at the same a time a half-glance, indicative of someone who is always sizing up everyone else.

And the camera follows Vincent up to the bar, where Deirdre steps forward as McElhone raises her eyebrows, non-verbally asking What Do You Want?, burying herself in the part of a bartender.

And as Deirdre pours his beer, Vincent steps back just a bit, allowing us to get a good look at Larry, having moved to a booth along the wall, in the background, eyeing Vincent, who is, in turn, eyeing Deirdre. 

Then Frankenheimer cuts to just Vincent, who eyes Larry...

...who keeps eyeying Vincent right back. Also, notice the no smoking sign in conjunction with Larrys cigarette. 

Back outside the bar, meanwhile, Sam is keeping his eye on all of them...

...evinced by this point-of-view shot, looking through the window of the bar, where he sees...

...Dierdre handing Vincent his adult beverage.

Back out on the street, where Sam continues to wait for...something.

And as he waits, DeNiro has Sam read the bars menu tacked to the outside wall, which is a detail both in tune with the character and kind of laugh out loud because I love the thought of this guy standing here in the dead of night at some dingy bar reading the menu like he's actually going to grab a bite to eat at this place.

But then, you will notice the light in the upper right hand corner of the frame is now out, which is what Sam was waiting for, for the bar to close.

And now he walks away from the bar, toward the staircase...

...and behind the staircase, glancing back over his shoulder, ever observant...

...and into the alley behind the bar. And then he stops, to survey the alley, like he surveys everything else, and Frankenheimer cuts to a medium shot before doing quick zoom into Sams face, as DeNiro just stands there, smartly letting the camera do all the work.

Frankenheimer conveys Sams point-of-view by panning quick across the alley.

Satisfied with what he sees, which is nothing much, Sam moves into the alley, peering through the bars backdoor.

Then he moves toward these crates and removes a gun which he proceeds to place behind one of the crates, the camera beginning on his right and then gradually sliding over his left shoulder.

He leaves the gun there...

...and exits the alley the opposite way. There is perhaps some sort of cineaste argument to make here about how the camera is watching DeNiro like he is watching everyone else, particularly because the camera is looking over Sams shoulder when he hides the gun, but I’m not sure I’d buy it. And I’m not sure I’d buy it because I’m pretty sure there is an alternate cut where you see Sam depart the alley, the camera sit there watching the emptiness for a moment, and then Sam coming up behind the camera and tapping it on the shoulder.

Frankenheimer cuts back to the bar, where you will now notice this woman sitting there, a woman who probably deserves her own Shout-Out to the Extra post.

Because here you see her lost in thought, like any melancholy barfly.

And here too. But. Back to the action! Because Vincents head jerks up at the sound of the door opening, suggesting he is not just there to drink and think.

Sam enters, and the whites of his eyes exude cautious determination.

And as he enters, he is told by the bartender that the bar is closed, which Sam parries by merely requesting a "small drink." And Deirdre looks at the bartender to indicate that this request should he honored, signaling who is in charge.

Then Sam asks for the bathroom, which the bartender points to, and you will notice the camera here, moving ever so slightly to the left, keeping everyone in the frame...

...as Sam rounds the bar and then passes right in front of the camera on his way to the toilet.

When he gets to the back, he walks toward the door on the right, opening it...

...finding that opens into the alley where he just was. And he looks back toward the bar, playing the part of a confused tourist.

The bartender points him the other way. 

And so Sam goes.

Back in the bar, Frankenheimer employs the mirror to show our faithful extra being greeted by her fellow barfly who ushers her up from her stool and out of the bar, departing the frame, which is when you realize the bar has, as the scene has progressed, gradually emptied apart from all the integral players which Frankenheimer underlines by moving the camera left to settle on Larry who is clearly not going anywhere.

That everyone left is supposed to be left is illustrated by the camera re-finding Deirdre...

...who removes her own gun, signaling her intentions...

...and tucking it away.

At the sound of the door, she looks up.

It is Sam, returning from the bathroom. And because we know he hid a gun out back, it is logical to conclude, if you want, that he now has a gun in opposition to Dierdres gun, though at this point who really knows whose intentions which is the whole point, Frankenheimer creating tension not with big gusts but small dollops, building them one-by-one.

He comes back around to the bar, asking for just one small drink.

But Dierdre is having none of it. Why are you rushing off? she queries.

Sam acts like he doesnt understand, which DeNiro accentuates with that Huh, What?” facial expression.

To cut to the heart of the matter, like the scene does, Frankenheimer goes to close-up. And I love McElhones expression here, conveying no-nonsense enervation at this guy’s play-acting. She says: The man from Bristol called ya.

Now DeNiro lets Sam waver between tourist imposter and guy who gets it. And to maximize tension, as to whether he gets it, Frankenheimer cuts to two quick close-ups of Vincent and Larry waiting on bated breath.

And then, Sam finally concedes, emblemized by the more gruff turn his face takes. He asks: What man?

The man in the wheelchair. To this day, I dont really have any idea what this line means. And Im pretty sure Im not supposed to know, and which argues against the camera being completely omniscient, because there are little details to which we remain un-privy, like this one, known to them, not to us.

As if on cue – which is to say, right on cue – a horn honks outside, drawing Sam’s attention.

Dierdre gives him one last look...

...and then exits from behind the bar, passing before the camera on her way to the back door...

...which she finds unlocked...

...and open.

Wordlessly, she returns to the bar.

Where Vincent and Larry wordlessly gather their things...

...and exit out the back. Indeed, it is worth noting that at this point Vincent has asked for a bière and said merci and thats it while Larry has not said so much as one word.

Dierdre looks back toward the unmoving Sam, and McElhone doesnt dress up the look with any kind of expression, knowing the mere act of looking back conveys what is necessary, which is, Make up your mind, slick, you coming or not?

And so, he does.

Frankenheimer cuts to Vincent and Larry climbing into the van that dropped off Dierdre earlier.

And as Sam exits, Dierdre asks him what he was doing in the back of the bar earlier.

Lady, he says, bending down...

...I never walk into a place I dont know how to walk out of, he finishes as he retrieves his gun.

Here McElhone sort of spins her version of McKaylas Maroneys Not Impressed face, which is sort of her default face throughout. She is so wonderful in this movie, a true screen performance, never overplaying, staying small in order to loom large, that I have never been able to figure out why she never became a Star except that I know she didn’t become a star because Hollywood is stupid and had no clue how to properly utilize her skills or was not interested in properly utilizing them. Then why would you get into that van? she asks.

You know the reason.

It’s a great capping line, if somewhat contradictory, which is what the late Roger Ebert noted in his review, writing that his character then spends the rest of the movie walking into rooms he doesn’t know how to walk out of. Ebert’s line is funny, and it’s mostly true, though in this moment, even he himself is undercutting what he just said and acknowledging it. It’s paradoxical, frankly, befitting the film’s central totem, a case that everyone wants even though no one seems to have any idea what’s in it. More than even that, however, this scene emblemizes the movie's overall emphasis on behavior.

When I first saw this movie, way back when, with my friend Caleb, he lamented afterwards that DeNiro’s character was never wrong about anything. But that isn’t quite right. He analyzes everything properly after the fact, yes, but he can’t always predict everyone else’s behavior, and behavior is what “Ronin” what boils down to, scene after scene, second after second. It might not make any sense for Sam to get into that van, and because it doesn’t, based on what you've seen, you, like Dierdre wouldn’t think him likely to, but he does anyway. And in “Ronin” each person does what he/she does, all else is irrelevant. 

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