The Classic Hollywood Driving Shot is pretty well ingrained in the minds of the majority of film audiences. Its essential core is still with us today, though filmmakers have increasingly substituted the rear-projection process shot with a green screen digital insert. Even on location driving is often built around the same basic principle, and contains no less a degree of illusion – the car is often pulled by a trailer, so the actor isn’t doing the actual driving, despite being on the road itself, rather than in a controlled studio environment. In some ways, this represents the best of both worlds: the clear benefit of the actual location and its accompanying production value, but also the safety and precision that comes with studio intervention.
When characters get behind the wheel in Classic Hollywood films, it’s often an ordinary moment, played for an attempt at verisimilitude. There goes a busy Los Angeles highway behind the actors, or a lonely mountain road. Usually, it’s a choice governed by narrative economy and desire to communicate space. Shots like this one, from Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 lacerating movie-business melodrama, The Bad and the Beautiful, are pretty typical.
In it, we see producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), accompanied by director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), driving their way out to a mansion near the California coastline. The camera, essentially taking the place of the car’s windshield, is in just about the most traditional place you could find it in a Classic Hollywood film. On the front of the car, looking out the back, the actors the primary focus, and the rear-projection background whizzing by, while Douglas moves the wheel in simulation.
Minnelli’s film is one that is acutely aware of the conventions of filmmaking. In the scene just preceding this drive out to the coast, Shields and Amiel are at a premiere for their latest film, Attack of the Cat Man, which is a clear nod to Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur’s noir nightmare classic, Cat People (1942). They’ve worked their way around some shoddy panther-man costumes by keeping the danger in the dark, away from the audience’s prying eyes, letting their imaginations do their work for them. It’s a technique Lewton used again and again, across many of the low-budget horror films he made for RKO in the 1940s. Minnelli is drawing attention to techniques of filmmaking throughout The Bad and The Beautiful, the construction of which seems to suggest, ‘This is how we do it.’ He’s pulling back the curtain.
Here are another pair of images of driving sequences, one from early in the film, and one from near its conclusion.
The rear-projection technique is still present, but the framing is slightly off from the other, more traditional shot of Douglas and Sullivan. Notice the top image – that’s Douglas underneath the hat, but he’s also excluded from the frame-within-a-frame of the windshield that boxes in Sullivan, driving this time, Vanessa Brown, and Paul Stewart. Minnelli is showing willingness to play with the position of the camera in relationship to the car here, as he uses the framing to comment on Jonathan’s separation from the group. Under that hat, he’s hatching a plan to get in the good graces of Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) a production executive at one of the major film studios (probably meant to be MGM, Minnelli’s home studio, where the film he’s making is being produced). His friends are partying, singing, and laughing. Jonathan is up to something else.
The second image, of Jonathan (now-mustachioed, late in the movie), again behind the wheel, and his passenger, writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), is a similar frame to the one above it. Here, though, we see more of the infrastructure of the car, the base of the steering wheel disappearing diagonally off the right side of the frame. Jonathan and Bartlow have gone up to the mountains to write in seclusion, so the rear-projection offers a wooded road at night, the darkness of the background clashing with the relative brightness of their costumes. What we have here is the illusion of togetherness and trust – at this moment in the narrative, Jonathan has tricked Bartlow into going away with him to write, and has paid an actor (Gilbert Roland) to show Bartlow’s wife (Gloria Grahame) a good time, so she won’t bother them while they work. Despite the brightness inside the top-down car, there’s darkness just beyond the edge, which Bartlow will soon come to find out, quite tragically.
All this analysis of these traditional driving images in The Bad and The Beautiful is to establish a framework for thinking about a scene that is best regarded as its emotional centerpiece. There’s a girl mixed up in all this, of course – it’s Lana Turner’s Georgia Lorrison, an alcoholic daughter of a great silent film star, who’s trying to be an actress herself. Jonathan ‘discovers’ her, puts her in the movies, and inevitably, begins a romantic relationship with her. Just as inevitably, he strays from Georgia, and falls into the arms of Lila (Elaine Stewart), another actress in his orbit.
When Georgia comes to Jonathan’s house, wondering why he didn’t attend a party thrown in her honor after the premiere of the film they have been producing, she finds him with Lila. Their romantic relationship suddenly shattered, and her feelings about Jonathan thrown into chaos, she storms out of the house and into her car. I’ll include the scene below – watch it before you go any further.
Here’s why we need to think about the other moments that take place behind the wheel in The Bad and The Beautiful, and Classic Hollywood more broadly; it’s because I can’t recall a driving sequence that looks anything like this one from any other film released in this period. Author Mark Griffin, in a book about Minnelli’s films, calls this sequence a “gloriously over-the-top vehicular nervous breakdown,” and quotes critic Tom Shales, who says it is “one of the great melodramatic arias ever staged for a film” (p 157).
It starts with Douglas’ Shields looming over Georgia, casting a shadow on her white fur coat. One of Minnelli’s almost Sirkian touches is to shine light through the plant behind her, and through the spindling rails of Shields’ staircase, breaking up the solid white wall with dark, ominous shadows.
After Shields goes on a wild rant about wanting to ‘feel cheap sometimes,’ Douglas fully embraces the character’s inner torment, with Turner’s Lorrison looking on in horror, like she’s meeting Mr. Hyde for the first time. Minnelli aids this interpretation with the concluding shot of the moment inside the house, as Georgia backs towards the door, away from the increasingly tempestuous Shields, leaving him in the foreground, screaming like a madman. He’s dark, in shadow, and she’s in a frame-within-a-frame, also made up of Shadows. It’s as if Minnelli is suggesting that Jonathan’s darkness is threatening to swallow her whole, the way the shadows are creeping towards her both in the shrinking door frame and in the darkening lattice work casting onto her dress below the waist.
Against the sound of both Shields screaming ‘Get out!’ and David Raksin’s high wire score, Georgia flees, out the front door and towards her car. But Jonathan’s shadows, his darkness, are following her out. The doorway is entirely black, and the day-for-night photography in the mansion’s courtyard serves a dramatic purpose: to cast the twisted, gnarled shadows of branches on the ground below Georgia’s feet, as though Jonathan were trying to grab her and pull her back in the house.
She makes it to the car, and Raksin’s score reaches its highest point during an exterior shot of the car pulling out of the driveway. Once we’re inside the car, however, Minnelli abandons the score, leaving it back at Jonathan’s house. Instead, he fills the soundtrack with Turner’s near-uncontrollable weeping, her breathing erratic and whimpering. Suddenly, it’s pouring rain, even though it was not at Jonathan’s house. Sheets of water hit the windshield and the windows. The sounds of tires on wet pavement fight against the torrent.
The framing starts out traditionally – it’s not quite the typical through the windshield, backward facing shot like we see of Shields and Amiel earlier in the film when they’re driving along the coast. But, it’s a framing strategy we’ve seen before in this film, after the first Hollywood party, and it’s one we’ll see again, when Jonathan is up in the mountains with Bartlow. Then, Minnelli gets wild.
The camera, without cutting, starts to float from its resting position in the roughly three-quarters frame where it begins, tracking through the car, into the passenger seat, and then nearly into the back, so it comes to rest, momentarily, behind Georgia’s shoulder. Now, through the windshield, we see an effect of oncoming headlights, closer than they would appear if Minnelli was using a standard rear-projection device. He might be using rear-projection through the fog and the rain, but it’s definitely not given the primacy it is in the other driving sequences in the film, where the realistic goal of conveying setting is paramount. It’s hard to say whether there’s rear-projection in this scene at all – maybe there is, but the other elements he’s using are more important. In the frame above, with the camera perched over Georgia, the headlights of the car ahead of her seem to be heading straight for her – they’re not even in a position where headlights would normally be if she were in her lane and that passing motorist were in his.
Then, Minnelli starts to track the camera back to the front, three-quarters position where he started, this time floating in the opposite direction, still all without a single cut. The sounds of the rain and the road, its pattering and honking horns, begin to escalate. The first sounds of squealing tires start to manifest. Whatever control Georgia had of the car, she’s starting to lose it. Then, she screams, and he cuts for the first time, to:
Georgia’s foot slams on the brakes, a bright key light focusing on the whiteness of her shoe framed against the enclosing shadows around it. The screech of the tires takes over, and Minnelli cuts back to Georgia, this time from the passenger seat, on her level. The chaotic energy of this moment, as Georgia takes her hands off the wheel and braces herself against the side of the car, is driven by both the soundtrack and the visuals. First, Minnelli continues to withhold Raksin’s score, an interesting, counter-intuitive choice. One would expect, in a moment of high melodrama like this one, an overpowering rush of orchestra, but he doesn’t provide it. Instead, it’s Georgia’s screams (terror and confusion), the pounding rain (in near waves), the honking horns of passing vehicles (cars and trucks both, from the varying pitches), and her car’s screeching tires (which seem to last forever, much longer than it would take to actually stop the careening car) that draw the moment out.
Minnelli’s other visual coup, beyond the ship-at-sea tossing about of the camera, is the use of brief, brilliant flashes of white meant to capture the passing headlights of cars. They’re quick – it took me several tries to get a screenshot of one – but undeniably present, because he repeats them five or six times. The effect is totally disorienting in a way that I’ve not seen in another Classic Hollywood driving sequence. Here’s one of those flashes:
You can still nearly make out the rain, the headlights, and maybe even Turner’s hair, which means they accomplished this effect on the set, most likely, by shining a light almost directly in the lens, rather than doing it in post production. In fact, it might even be something passing by the camera, like a piece of bright paper or cardboard – if you watch closely, it seems as though it starts on the right side of the frame, and pinwheels past, moving left.
As the flashes die down, and the screeching of the tires fades away, Minnelli returns (again, still without cutting) to the angle he used to begin the scene, a relatively straightforward three-quarters shot of Georgia in the driver’s seat. Now, though, she’s a browbeaten mess, having survived the storm inside the car.
She comes to rest her head on the steering wheel, exhausted, before Minnelli concludes by dissolving to the present, with Lana Turner sitting in Shields’ office, listening to Pidgeon’s Harry Pebbel tell her what she owes Jonathan.
Minnelli himself seemed to realize he really had done something unique with this driving sequence. This film’s sort-of, kind-of, not-really, but-yes-it-is sequel, Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), contains a sequence of similar vehicular madness.
This time it’s Douglas’ actor Jack Armus behind the wheel of the car, and Minnelli spins the entire rig 360 degrees, shooting smoke and fog from the squealing tires, and harmonizing all of it with Cyd Charisse’s insane screams.
What the sequence in Minnelli’s prior film shows is his willingness to completely abandon realism in favor of emotion. That he takes a space in Classic Hollywood film that is almost always reserved for the realist reproduction of the effect of driving, and makes it into a formalist nightmare for his leading lady, draws attention to the conventions of filmmaking inside a film about filmmaking. He lays bare the craft behind the screen, and presents a moment unlike any other within his own film, to say nothing of the films by other directors that came before it.