' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting a Scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark

Monday, June 14, 2021

Dissecting a Scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark

This past Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Considering we are as far from its original release as the movie was from the adventure serials that it inspired it, it’s remarkable to note just how well “Raiders of the Lost Ark has held up. It has held up despite the parts, as Brian Phillips noted in his commemorative piece at The Ringer, that very much do not hold up. That, I think, is a testament to Spielberg’s filmmaking, if not also Michael Kahn’s crack editing. In fact, in some way, given the sameness and CGI-dependence of so many modern movies, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” has looped back around to feel new, like a breath of fresh air. And rather than explore that idea by examining the Bigger Picture, I wanted to drill down, to a single scene and go over it, as we do, in our ongoing nod to the late Roger Ebert and the Conference of World Affairs, shot-by-shot.

It is not one of the action scenes; it is one of the intimate scenes; it is, perhaps, the most crucial scene, if, as Phillips notes, Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood is critical to humanizing what otherwise might have been a cartoon character in Indiana Jones. It’s a scene this blog has dissected before, in fact, though that was during the blog’s middle ages, when we were just beginning to figure things out. This scene is so good, it deserves so much better. Let’s get to it. Here’s looking at you, “Raiders.” 

Phillips writes that “There’s a moment for everyone when that ahh hits them...the moment you know you’re in for something special, a story where every scene, every set piece, every throwaway line, every happy accident of filmmaking, are going to conspire together in the interest of sheer delight.” For me it’s when Indy first takes flight across the Pacific and we follow his flight path via the map superimposed over the screen. It ends here, in Nepal, the map bleeding into an image of mountains and the Raven, the saloon Marion runs. Even the segues crackle with absolute glee. 

The scene begins with a long take. And while I’m sure Spielberg is showing off to some degree, he does not look like he’s showing off, to paraphrase another Harrison Ford character. Indeed, the take just makes sense. It begins high in the bar, seemingly in the rafters, setting up another shot for later but also setting the scene, The Great Patan Drinking Contest of 1938.

The camera keeps gliding, in closer to the table and to the left...

...where the credited Australian Cimber (Patrick Durkin) downs a shot.

The camera then follows the Climber’s hand to the center of the table, where he turns the glass upside down-

-and watches as Marion’s hand enters to the frame to take her next shot glass. 

She drinks the shot.

But when she finishes, her body language suggests a beaten contestant, this instant evoking how this dramatic sequence is shrewdly chock full of micro-moments of drama, which is what keeps the whole movie churning, over and over.  

That seeming defeat is denoted in the exchanges of cash among the surrounding betters that suddenly fills the frame. 

But then those hands all pull back out of the frame as Marion tells everyone to hold on just a damn minute. 

Her lips twist into a smile. This contest ain’t over. And how about that extra? She isn’t just smiling too; she looks like her horse just won the Kentucky Derby. 

The camera follows Marion’s hand back to the center of the table where she turns her shot glass upside down. 

And then the Climber’s hand is re-entering the frame, though in the way it sort of burrows through the other empty glasses rather than nimbly avoiding them, it evokes motor skills on the wane.

And here’s where we should pause a second to return to Phillips’s observation of how everything conspires together in the name of sheer delight. Do you need to know this guy is an Australian Climber? No, not really - nay, not at all. It’s the face. The face imbues all the character you need. You know everything you need to know from a single expression, like this one right here, indelible smug I Got This inebriation. 

He drinks the shot...

...and finishes it, that face improbably growing in intoxicated complacency, the second false ending simply in the space of this single long take. 

Because the Australian Climber’s sobriety gives way as he passes out in the arms of the betters. 

Now Spielberg and Kahn cut, going high again to put Marion at the center of attention as she stands and collects her winnings, seemingly sober in an instant, suggesting her about-to-lose moment of drama was gamesmanship. Maybe?  

As she counts the money, revelers begin filing out...

...underlined in the shot of the front door where this guy ushers people out. 

Then back to Marion, now alone, her back to the door.

Though the camera subtly pulls back just a little, leaving space in the wall in front of Marion so you-know-who, entering from behind, can fill it up with his shadow in the shot I once tried - really tried - to duplicate in my parents’ basement with my VHS camcorder and a few table lamps. 

But first things first. A cut back to the door so that we see the doorman escorting out the last patron, visually denoting that now Marion and Indy are alone. 

At which point Indy says Hello, causing her to spin around and face him, though we still only see him in shadow. 

And when she sees him, she closes her eyes, just for a second, almost like she wants to appreciate that this moment has come to pass before it passes. 

And then she takes a few steps toward the camera, filling the frame so that her physical presence is now identical to his, the camera putting them on equal footing. “Indiana Jones,” she says. “I always someday you’d come walking back through my door.” It’s a line teasing heartbreak as much as love. 

Indy, though, he just hears the love. When she says that, the camera cuts over Marion’s shoulder, to finally let us see Indy, whose grin feels real, less mischievous than Marian’s.

But then she moves toward him, asking him what he’s doing in Nepal. 

She might be genuinely curious, but it feels like a set-up. Because when the camera reverses, her smile is conspicuously gone and Indy is on to business, explaining he needs an archaeological piece, a medallion, of her father’s. 

He turns away, which Ford sells by sort of making it look like Indy is looking around, taking in the place, giving Marion that opportunity to rear back. 

And sock him right in the face, Max Baer-style, Allen gritting her teeth, making it seem like Marian has waiting been to throw this punch. 

And here’s were shot-by-shot dissections come in so handy. Because that Ford Face, that’s a gem that speaks for itself. 

She half-circles around him, declaring she’s learned to hate him in the last ten years, though I thought, for years, that she said she had learned to hit him in the last ten years. 

And now leaving him alone in the frame, where he issues the standard-issue dude apology of not meaning to hurt her. 

Now a cut back to Marion, where her telling him she was a child, hinting at an age-inappropriate love affair turns the whole scene on its head. 

And when he blows that declaration off, claiming she knew what she was doing, he walks toward the bar-

-as the door opens in the background and someone enters, leading Marion to admonish him to get out. It’s not essential, really, though it also is, background business that makes the whole scene feel that much more lived-in.

As the guy in the background leaves, Indy half-circles around, just trying to push past his misdeeds of the past, remorselessly acknowledging them, asking for her help now, as if that somehow squares things. 

A cut to a longer shot from a different angle so that Marion can walk to the table, where she starts gathering up shot glasses. More movement to keep the scene fresh.

As she does, Indy approaches, explaining the piece he’s looking for, demonstrating its size, wondering if she knows the one he means. 

Yeah, I know it, she says as the angle switches again, striding right past him as Allen effuses this So effing What? energy. 

The camera tracks with her to the bar, and so does Indy, who asks where her father is. She closes her eyes again, bracing against the truth. She tells Indy her father is dead.

When she does, he comes around to to tell her he’s sorry to her face, even if she’s pointedly not looking at him.

“Do you know what you did to me, to my life?” she rhetorically asks, eyes closed but tilting her head back and sort of shaking her shoulders as she says it like she’s trying to shake him and their past off. 

And when he says he can only say sorry so many times, she jerks the tray, sending the shot glasses flying, telling him to say sorry again. 

Then a cut back to the longer as she heads back to the table for more glasses. 

“Everybody’s sorry for something,” she says.  

And then she returns to the bar, briefly, just for a second, yielding this shot, which looks more like something out of “Barfly”, framing them like two lonely souls wallowing in everything they’re sorry for. 

And then a cut to the angle behind them again as he asks, again, if she’s going to give him the medallion. 

“Maybe,” she says, going back to the third table a third time, clearly using this as a way to control the rhythm of the conversation. “Maybe I don’t know where it is.” 

“Maybe you could find it,” he says, turning and producing a wad of cash, three thousand bucks. 

She walks back toward the bar, semi-dismissing his offer as not enough. 

At which point, he takes hold of her and turns her toward him.

Into a medium close-up, the first close-up of the entire sequence, suggesting how cagily Spielberg deploys them rather than just making the whole scene out of them, their faces eerily illuminated by the fire. 

And then a close-up of Indy. “It’s important,” Marion, he says. “Trust me,” a cool, cocky line reading by Ford that seems to suggest he should not be trusted, evocative of the sly dimension. He’s supposed to be the hero, remember!

But when she turns away, he grabs her again, a little rougher this time.  

And she tries to ring his bell again, that smile on Allen’s face suggests Marion is almost having fun.

A close-up of Indy again as she shoves the cash into her hand, the look on Ford’s face in this moment damn near unhinged. 

Marion looks at the money. 

And then Allen erupts into this glorious shit-eating laugh. Dammit, she is having fun. She tells him to come back tomorrow. 

Why? Indy asks, a line reading that really seems to indicate he doesn’t quite know what she’s up to. 

Because I said so, that’s why. Taunting him, now. 

Then back to the angle behind them as Marion returns once more to the table. 

And into this side shot of Indy as he pushes off from the table, making it seem for an instant like he’s going on the attack. 

Cut behind Marion in lockstep with the above shot as Indy veers off instead toward the door, though not without giving her a look, like a boxer retiring to his corner. 

See you tomorrow, Marion bellows, Indiana Jones, the best recitation of his name in any of the movies because it’s the one that both acknowledges the iconic status of the moniker even as it cuts that icon to pieces. And the shot! The woven window of the door casting a shadow, just leaving that white eye, putting the hero on his heels. Obviously you’re going to see him again but, God, this shot, on its own, its sending him off into the unknown, like you really might not see him again.

The door closes. Indy’s gone.

And back once more to that wide shot from the ceiling. Now, finally, Marion is alone. 

She gets up from one table and walks around to another. 

Framed through the flame of a candle, she reveals the medallion in question, tucked away beneath her shirt. 

She examines it. And as she does...

...the flame emblematically flickers, as if for you-know-who. 

That flicker catches Marion’s eye and Allen’s expression here...it’s subtle, like she’s catching the universe’s vibe but not necessarily buying it. 

A shot from the side where she seems to contemplate the money. 

And then breaks into yet another grin as she looks back toward the medallion, which doesn’t suggest a decision on whether she’s going to help Indy or not as it does something more like, yeah, I’m totally inside that jackass’s head. 

The succeeding shot, though, this is her most plaintive moment in the entire scene. In the end, there’s just a little more on her mind.

Then she hangs the medallion around the wooden centerpiece in the middle of the table, dangling there as set-up, each sequence surreptitiously designed to lead to the next. 

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