I like dutch angles. Use them quite often in my own work. It’s often not even about creating disorientation, or angst, I just generally like the way compositions look when I tilt my camera, even slightly. Mind you, I do appreciate the fact that many people dislike the technique, and often can show plenty of evidence of abhorrent use of the dutch angle. And in many modern mainstream films the technique is used like sugar is used in cooking; it’s often over-the-top, unnecessary and ruins the original qualities of the primary ingredients.
Yet, as much as I agree on the bad use of the technique, I cannot help but love it when it’s used properly. And you’d be surprised how many examples I could cobble up of good usage of the dutch angle. I like the usage of the technique, for example, in The Lord of The Rings Trilogy (2001-2003), where it heightens the otherworldly terror of the Mordor-segments and generally gives a nice comic-like visual dynamic to the movies which really makes them more interesting to watch. It feels quirky and unique in those films.
Likewise I loved the usage of dutch angles in Do the Right Thing where it really complimented the extremes of the mise-en-scene in that film. High contrast saturated colors, the high-energy performances, the music and the setting, it all fit together.
On the other hand, Mission Impossible (1996) has this famous dialogue scene where I feel it’s overused. Titling the camera anymore would have made the vertical lines perfectly horizontal. It took me out of the movie, and felt cheap and forced.
Fast forward to 2011’s Thor and I feel that dutch angles had no valid reason of existence in that movie. Not only did it feel forced, it didn’t serve any narrative purpose. It might have been intended to make the cinematography more comic-y but instead I remember it mostly made the movie look like a cheap TV-film.
So…some good examples of use and mis-use of the dutch angle. But I write this post mostly as a tribute to the technique, to illustrate how it can be used in a unique and artistically valid way, and should never be relegated to the category of ‘cheap trick’. How do I illustrate that? By grabbing a One Shot from the film-noir classic The Third Man (1949), by many considered to contain the greatest usage of dutch angles.
The Third Man is a typical film noir, maybe one of the best examples of the genre, most certainly in its visual language. It’s a classic story of an outsider in a foreign environment who gets mixed up in shady mysteries and schemes. The outsider in question is Holly Martins, an American who ends up in Vienna shortly after the second world war. He’s there to meet his old friend Harry Lime, who can help him get a job, but finds him deceased by the time he gets to Harry’s apartment for a meeting.
What follows is a perfectly crafted story of suspense where Holly slowly starts to uncover the secrets behind his friends’ seeming death. And yes, to write this post I have to delve into the obvious spoiler area to mention that Harry, in fact, is not dead, but still running a racketing scheme in the shadows of the corrupt city.
It’s a great story, that nowadays feels familiar, because it’s been copied hundreds of times since, but the quality of the writing holds up, even now. But what has remained even more powerful 65 years after its release is the spectacular cinematography.
Filmed by Australian cinematographer Robert Krasker, under the direction of Sir Carol Reed, The Third Man relishes in it’s angular, high-contrast almost surrealistic look. Its shots are full of sharply composed lines, shadows, and off-angle compositions. Layer upon layer of shadows are placed within the frame and architecture tilts in every direction. Clearly inspired by the german expressionist cinema, Reed and Krasker turned Vienna into a mysterious and incomprehensible environment with no seemingly stable center.
And dutch angles are everywhere, right from the start. The first few shots are straight and stable, but the moment Martins knocks on Lime’s door and hears of his passing from the housekeeper, the camera starts twisting and turning. And though it’s not true the whole film is dutch-angled, in general it never lets up, and when the tense finale in the sewers comes to pass, we almost slide off our seats as viewers, so disorienting becomes the cinematography.
The thing is, it works. Brilliantly. Not only does it look amazing, it also enhances the story and connects to the characters in meaningful ways. How come?
The visual effect of the dutch angles
First of all; visually, I believe the movie is helped a lot by being in black and white. In comparison to color, black and white imagery already seems more surreal and less dimensional. I am often amazed to see how much depth is taken aways when shooting/photographing in black and white. Of course, there is still perspective, but the image feels ‘flatter’ without color. That lack of color subdues the intensity of the dutch angles, making the image seem more subtle.
Also, by virtue of the flatter image black and white produces, lines become more prominent. Especially in the high-contrast style of The Third Man, where bright highlights clash with deep shadows, the outlines of buildings and environments become much more angular and clear. The increased focus on the two dimensional composition of lines also enhances the compositional power of the dutch angles. Their effect is not so much to tilt the subjects, but to create a play of lines, of perspective, as if we’re watching a painting.
Lightning and (lack of) color therefore interplay with the camera-position and together create the compositions which work so well. Thus, the movie shows that tilting a camera is not enough to create a successful dutch angle shot, al things in the frame need to fall in line, both subject and the background.
The narrative effect of the dutch angles
Then, most importantly, the dutch angles work within the narrative of The Third Man. At first they illustrate the intrigue and mystery of Vienna through the eyes of Holly. They create a natural uneasiness and confusion which illustrates Holly own confusion and lack of firm direction. Most of the first half of the film Holly spends wandering around confused. He’s not passive per se, but doesn’t really sense the direction he’s going in either. Vienna often appears to him as a maze like environment which he never quite grasps.
When he suddenly crosses the re-appearance of Harry, who looms in the shadows one night, it’s Holly who is utterly confused and helpless as he chases Harry. Harry, on the other hand, is completely in tune with his environment. He blends into shadow, is sometimes reduced to being just shadow (as it’s mostly Harry’s shadow which Holly chases through the streets), and seemingly appears and disappears at will.
So the dissonance between Holly and his environment and his confusion are clearly linked to the use of dutch angles. But in the final part of the film, this changes. When Holly decides to betray Harry and work with the police, he gets Harry on the run. This time, instead of disappearing into the shadowy city Harry wanders off into the sewers. He does this all of the time, of course, but this time we join him. The camera doesn’t leave his side. He cannot simply vanish, as he did before.
Now Harry is caught in the very maze he so handily mastered during the film. At first we feel like we just get an inside-perspective on how Harry will use his environment to disappear again, but every time he seems to vanish in the shadows, the police -and the camera- catches up with him. And as the search party increases, the confusing likewise increases, also for Harry. Corridors lead to corridors lead to corridors, everywhere shadow and light suggests passageways, but every passage seems to lead back unto itself. Now the dutch angles come into full effect as the camera tilts in all directions and, together with the abstract decor of the sewers, turns the sequence into a dazzling stage of disorientation.
The One Shot
So, having taken you through most of the film’s narrative, which dutch-angled shot will I pick as my favorite? Tough call. Honestly; I found the cinematography on the whole to be brilliant in The Third Man, but it took me a long time to single out one specific shot. I love the constant atmosphere of the cinematography, the play with angles, lines, light and shadow, but in a certain way it all blends into one. It was difficult to find a standout moment.
Then I came upon the pivotal moment in the ferris wheel, where Harry tempts Holly to join him in his scheme. It is the moment where Holly is seduced to join the morally ambiguous side, and doubts his position. His conscience is in balance and the cinematography beautifully reflects this. Illustrated by the looping animated .gif below the tilting movement of the camera becomes even clearer.
All film long we’ve become accustomed to the dynamics of the dutch angle, so we’re not shocked when the camera is tilted in all directions during their ascend on the ferris wheel. But then comes the creative part; as they discuss the situation and Harry starts to invite Holly over to his side, the shot starts to wobble, to swing from side to side.
This of course is literally an illustration of the carriage softly swinging as it turns along the wheel, but it also works as a perfect visual metaphor for the moral balancing that starts to happen in Holly. Will he join Harry, or reject him? Constantly the camera shifts from a left-tilted angle to a right-titled angle. It’s uncertain, it could go both ways. And as my One Shot also demonstrates, the hard key-lights push Harry in and out of the shadows. It all hangs in balance in this scene.
To me it’s not the most beautiful shot of the film, but it is the most stand-out creative usage of the dutch angle in the film. It surprised me when I noticed it, because the use of the angles is also quite subtle and integrated into the reality of the location.
So my search for the perfect dutch angle shot lead me to this unique example. It’s not the stereotypical type of a dutch angle, but it shows how the technique can be used to do more than just over-stylize the image, suggest extreme disorientation etcetera. It can apparently also be used subtly, in support of the narrative.