RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981, Spielberg)
It was just a matter of time before I came to this, of course, and no better reason than this film’s 30th birthday this month. And I have 2 Raiders shots I’m posting (the second next week), both oners that I have spent many a minute marveling over. Today’s is the scene in which Brody gives Indiana Jones the go-ahead and issues his ominous warning that the ark is “like nothing you’ve gone after before.”
Instead of an uninteresting scene with much exposition to unload, in this single shot we’re given a snappy, dynamically blocked (lots of to-and-away from camera), short dialogue scene packed with info, which behaves exactly as a good oner should. We get wide shots, CUs, singles, OTSs (over the shoulder), 2 shots, dramatic pans & push-ins, and, of course, one well-placed insert shot. Also look how the wide angle lens stretches the room at the seams – a very useful and typical lens choice for a good oner.
Spielberg Picks up the Pace
For directors, losing control of pacing is always a fear in committing to a oner. If the scene lags in your cut of the film, you’re potentially stuck. But note how Spielberg & actors avoid this by making the dialogue really clip along, taking no chances by employing that old Hawksian technique of barreling through the exchange.
One common and useful “oner” trick is to have both the actors facing the same direction. I love how Spielberg does that here with Harrison Ford packing his bag at 1:00 — a perfectly natural motivation for an otherwise unnatural blocking. The PUSH IN to Brody when the moment turns supernatural in tone is inspired! So simple, effective and organic.
The music really guides us beautifully through the shot, too, transitioning us from moment to moment. Just as Indy ponders Marion, her haunting theme evokes his history with her (that theme slays me), and then no sooner segues into the ark’s ghostly motif, making us just as apprehensive as Brody (and what a performance moment from Denholm Elliot). Man, John Williams scored that impeccably and provides some important glue to this single shot of many ideas.
Sometimes oners can seem too showy or forced, but every actor and camera move here is perfectly motivated, and this oner seems to fit effortlessly with the content of the scene. As a director, I think such scenes pop out at you as oners from the script. If you obey that instinct, it usually works out well, though getting some inserts here and there for pacing insurance — to allow you to trim if necessary — can be a good bet.
What’s more, the cut-away insert shot of the gun reveal, in addition to being the perfect punctuation of the beat, might have allowed Spielberg to get the pistol’s landing position in the suitcase exactly right; it’s reasonable to hypothesize that Ford tossed the weapon a half dozen times to get it to lay just right The insert shot provides a break in the master, so Spielberg wouldn’t have to film the scene from the top with each throw of the gun.
I first saw this movie when I was 10 (story here if you haven’t read it already), the perfect age to experience it. While it’s surely a timeless movie, nothing will compare to that first, thrilling viewing. Would love to hear your stories of seeing this amazing movie for the first time.