Scene Breakdown: The Dark Knight part 1
In the second installment of my series of breakdowns, I chose something a little more modern and with a little bit more action. There were two other films that crossed my mind but I decided to hold off on them till later and went with a flick that has been sitting out on our desk for while. I knew that I wanted to look at a scene with a little bit more action motivated cutting, but at the same time didn’t think I was ready for a complete action scene. I feel this scene from The Dark Knight has the elements of action that I wanted but also has long sit-down dialogue editing as well. From numerous film editor interviews I have read and listened to, a common thread appears; although fast cutting action scenes and montage are fun to put together, the simple conversation scene can be the most challenging and rewarding. When you don’t have images flashing and speeding around to hold the audiences attention, even more care must go into the pacing and rhythm of the conversation to keep the viewer enthralled. This scene has a bit of both, an intense back and forth between our hero, Batman, and his nemesis, the Joker, as well as some quick violent action. Most of my analysis is from a film editorial perspective but there will certainly be comments that deal more with directing and the other disciplines. First, I have to give credit where credit is due.
The Dark Knight debuted theatrically in 2008. The Director was Christopher Nolan, the Film Editor was Lee Smith, and the Cinematographer was Wally Pfister. It is the sequel to Nolan’s reboot of my favorite comic book franchise, and in my opinion the better of the two new Batman movies. But this is not a review; it is a study of editing. My favorite scenes in the film to watch have to be the car chase ending in the spectacular truck flipping sequence and the section where the Joker blows up the hospital; but the scene we are going to look at takes place right after the Joker is arrested. This is the scene where he is being interrogated at the police station, and is called “Good Cop Bad Cop” in the chapter menu. It starts at the 1 hour, 25 minute and 30 second mark. Its length is just over 5 minutes, and there are around 90 shots. In a couple examples I used multiple screenshots over the length of one shot to show varying action. I, again, have to split this analysis over 2 postings due to the amount of time and shots in the scene.
The scene takes place right after the car chase, which ended in the Joker being apprehended. Batman’s liaison within the police department, Commissioner Gordon, has just received news of the arrest and starts the scene by rushing into the station.
1) Gordon bursts through the door to the observation room, breathing hard in his rush to the station.
2) We switch to Gordon’s view, which is a room full of detectives, and hear his question over the beginning of this shot. The female detective shakes her head, no.
3) Cutting back to Gordon, he is already on his way back out of the observation room. Rather than showing him react to the detective, turn, and start leaving, the editor shaves time off the scene and more importantly gives a sense of urgency to Gordon’s actions. He heads back through the door and toward the interrogation room.
4) On the cut we hear an excellent electronic door lock sound effect as the door opens. Looking over the Joker’s shoulder we see Gordon enter the extremely dark room. As he walks towards the table, the camera begins pushing in slowly and we hear the first word of the Joker’s line, “Evening”
5) Next, we see a wide shot of a very darkly lit Joker as he says, “Commissioner”. Gordon walks in and begins to sit down.
6) Cutting on the action, Gordon sits down in the over the shoulder shot. The camera slowly pushes in during this entire shot and Gordon begins his questioning about the missing character, Harvey Dent.
7) In a medium close up, the Joker reacts to Gordon’s question with questions of his own, playing on the fact that he was in handcuffs during the kidnapping and bringing up the corrupt police force.
8) We go to a stoic reaction shot of Gordon for a beat of silence, then the beginning of the Joker’s biting question, “does that depress you commissioner?” In a dialogue scene like this, reaction shots are a way to change the pacing of the lines being read, but using them when they are most effective, when the audience really wants to see the person listening, will give the most punch to a line. In this case, we go to Gordon this first time only when the Joker finishes talking about the other characters and directly references Gordon. Its gives some more strength to the Joker’s jab at him, and we can see it on his face.
9) The Joker finishes his question back in medium close up. Both shots are getting tighter and tighter as the conversation goes on, with their respective cameras continuously pushing in.
10) We cut back to Gordon’s reaction as the Joker delivers another pointed question off camera. As soon as he finishes, Gordon snaps back, “Where is he?”, and then we immediately cut away.
11) Without really acknowledging the question, the Joker says, “What’s the time?”, then another immediate cut.
12) Gordon quickly asks, “What difference does that make?” and then a third immediate cut. After a section of long shots on the Joker slowly talking, we have 3 quick back and forth questions with very hard cutting. It is a change in the rhythm we have become accustomed to so far, and draws our attention in to the next line.
13) Here the Joker delivers the important threatening line, accentuated by the rhythmic changes in the previous shots. He alludes to the fact that Harvey Dent may have time running out; and after he finishes the line the shot is given a beat, while he drives home the point with a twitch of his eyebrows.
14) In close up, Gordon mulls over the response and begins to reach into his pocket, all the while never looking away from the Joker.
15) We get a matched action cut to a wider framing of Gordon fishing a handcuff key out of his pocket. For the last minute we have been getting increasingly closer and closer in the shot framing, slowly moving from medium wide shots to close ups. Now we have pulled out again, leading us forward in the action of the scene. Gordon begins to take off the Joker’s handcuffs.
16) A quick reaction shot of the Joker as his eyes flick down to the handcuffs then back to Gordon’s face, inquisitively.
17) Returning to the wider shot now; Gordon turns and begins to exit the interrogation room. The Joker begins his next line with “Ah” right before we cut.
18) In his closest shot so far, the Joker finishes, “the Good Cop, Bad Cop routine”, with a wicked little smile as an exclamation point.
19) Now to a medium shot of Gordon, paused at the door. He mischievously says, “Not Exactly”. Just as he finishes the line we hear the loud door buzzing sound effect from earlier that makes the line pop out a little more, and he opens to door to leave. This is my first of two favorite shots in this scene, from a photographic standpoint. The other comes up in a little bit. Part of it is the fantastic lighting, with this little pool of light that falls right on the door and fades off onto the walls on either side. Also it is the framing, with Gordon smack dab in the middle of the screen looking right at us. It just stands out to me every time I view this scene.
20) The next 3 screenshots are all from the same 5 second shot, but I really wanted to communicate the changes that take place over its run and just couldn’t do that with one still. We return to the Joker’s close up, and hear the door slam off camera as his eyes flick from side to side. A very annoyed scowl appears on his face.
21) The lights snap on in the room and we see that Batman is standing right behind the Joker. I remember viewing this in theaters and jumping in my seat at this reveal, as well as hearing most of the audience jump with me. In terms of audience response, this was the moment that shocked everyone the most after the infamous pencil trick from the beginning of the film. I have to note that the sound effect accompanying the reveal is a big part of its effectiveness, as most good scares are. Think back to all the horror film moments that really made you jump, and there was a significant sound effect that helped make it possible. It starts with the sound of a switch being flicked, then a electric buzzing and hum comes in, then what sounds like a long note from a high pitched bell being played. It is just excellent sound design.
22) After the lights come on, Batman reaches up and slams the Joker’s head into the table as he walks out of frame. In the repeat viewings of this shot, it has slowed down a bit to me. I am anticipating what I know will happen, so I notice more of a pause from Batman after the light comes on and before he attacks the Joker. It felt so much faster the first couple times I saw the entire feature play out. In thinking about this, it makes sense. From the perspective of an audience seeing it for the first time, they need a second to process the fact that the bright light has turned on and there is someone standing behind the Joker. Once they realize that, then they can deal with the act of slamming him down on the table. This pause was clearly planned ahead of time, and plays out wonderfully. I don’t think I could have thought of that before reaching the edit suite. Hats off, yet again, to Mr. Nolan and crew.
23) Next we get our first view of Batman’s face, albeit covered, in a medium close up. Yet again the vertical camera placement is about head height with the Joker. Going back a little, almost all the shots so far have been from this height. It is an additional subliminal note that this scene is all about the Joker.
24) Even after being rocked against the table, the Joker is always quick to share a little joke or witty commentary.
25) Now in a brand new wide shot from behind Batman we see the entire layout of the interrogation room as he raises his arm and swings down on the Joker again. This is the second of my 2 favorite shots in this scene. It is so dynamic after all the medium shots and close ups so far. We had a wide over the shoulder shot earlier of Gordon, but it was almost entirely hid in shadows so you couldn’t see the environment. Now we get to see everything, with Batman front and center looming over the Joker. If you look at the window on the right side you can just see the reflection of the Joker looking up at Batman and on the left side you can see the reflection of both of them as Batman begins his next assault. These little things add so much to the shot as a whole.
26) We get a matched action cut, perfectly, to an extreme close up cutaway of Batman’s fist coming down on the Joker’s hand. Along with the slamming metal table sound effect there is a loud drum hit in the music that compliments the blow.
27) Rather than going straight to a pained reaction from the Joker, we go to the medium close up of Batman instead. He slightly cocks his head a bit, in a way asking, “what do you think about that?” By going to the aggressor after the act of violence, it makes him a bit more intimidating and keeps us thinking about his powerful position rather the pain of the victim.
28) The Joker looks away with the slightest grimace, and then snaps back to verbal dueling. We can see Batman beginning to sit down in the side of the frame.
29) Batman, now seated in a medium close up, says, “You wanted me. Here I am.” As soon as he finishes the last word, we cut.
30) Back in the observation room we see Gordon and the rest of the detectives watching what’s going on between the two of them. It has been awhile since we saw this room, so this is a little reminder that what transpires in the interrogation is not private. It also gives the editor a restart on the angles he has been using without disturbing continuity or axis rules. I don’t think that he necessarily needed to get around something, but it might be a reason. More than anything I think he knew he was going to be in a new type of conversation coverage soon and wanted to make us look away and come back to the interrogation with fresh eyes. Even though it is just one 3 second shot, it has the power to sort of “wipe the slate clean” so we can be drawn into the conversation again.
31) Now for a fresh close up of the Joker from just over Batman’s shoulder. After what has been a long sequence of shorter shots, the Joker gets a full 12 seconds to start off the seated conversation. The still doesn’t do the camera movement justice at all. The camera is actually on a track revolving around their backs in a semicircle, so as this 11 seconds goes on more and more of Batman’s head is coming into frame as the camera moves from right to left. Just as Batman’s head is about to cover up the Joker’s, he delivers the last part of his line, “That’s cold”, and we cut away.
32) Immediately Batman says, “Where’s Dent?” and the Joker begins the next part of his dialogue with his back to us. A similar camera move is happening on Batman, but this time it is moving from left to right. It gives even more of a back and forth motion that goes with the combative style of the conversation.
So I think this is the point to split the analysis. I wanted to give you a taste of this new conversation but not get too far into it. There is a lot to come, so give me a couple days and I will get the rest out. As always I would love to hear what you take is on the shots we looked at, and any suggestions for other films to take a closer look at are most welcomed.
Check out the rest of this breakdown Scene Breakdown: The Dark Knight part 2