Scene Breakdowns: The Wild Bunch part 1

First off I have to apologize. In my excitement to start doing these breakdowns I chose a scene from a movie I had seen in the last couple days. That is not why I am apologizing. I have gained a lot from doing this exercise; there is a lot of power in analyzing something shot by shot that you don’t get from just watching the scene play out as a part of the whole feature and even from watching the scene over and over by itself. I am apologizing because it’s a long one. It wasn’t till I was fully entrenched in this particular scene that I realized how many shots were in it. I’m going to be making this a 2-part post because it is too many stills to present all together and there is a perfect emotional divider in the scene as well. So, I hope you can bear with me, because this may take a while.

This scene is not the first one that comes to mind when I think of The Wild Bunch. Usually it is the opening or the final battle. But there was a moment while watching this scene where I was really grabbed by what they were doing from a tension perspective and that is why it came to mind when I was pondering which scene to get this breakdown ball a rolling with. 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 Wild Bunch debuted theatrically in 1969. It was directed by the great Sam Peckinpah and edited by Louis Lombardo. The scene in question takes place after the opening robbery and gunfight where the remaining members of the gang are about the divide up their score. I could have given a long synopsis of the film, but all you need to know is that it is a glorious western and you damn well need to see it. This scene is the first to really introduce us to the players left and is the starting place for the rest of their story. We have seen them in action but don’t know them or where they stand in the pecking order, except for the leader, Pike.

The scene starts at around the 24 minute mark but I didn’t start it till after some of the traveling shots that lead to, what I see as, the dramatic beginning of the scene. I began at the 24:41 mark. The scene is a little over 4 minutes long and I stopped studying it after the resolution comes at the 28:50 mark. In these 4 minutes there are 76 shots.

The men have just ridden into the camp and gotten off their horses.

1) It begins with the widest shot of the scene, from behind Pike with a clear view of everyone’s placement. It’s informing us of where everyone is as well as the action of the men dropping the loot in the center of the camp.

2) Next we go to a medium shot of an old man. The scene’s true beginning started with a tracking shot of this old man moving through the camp to meet the approaching riders. We know he is important to this scene due to his screen time so far and with the way he speaks at will with Pike but know nothing else about him or his involvement in the group at this point. This medium shot endears him more to the scene because he is the first character we are seeing from a closer perspective as he looks out at the group.

3) We return to the wide shot to see the younger Mexican character walk past the 2 men in the center of frame.

4) There is a cut on action to a medium two shot of the men as the left one turns to watch the younger character. Seeing them first in this two shot makes us associate them as a pair and in agreement with each other as the scene progresses.

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5) We follow his gaze to see the boy crouch down and look up at him.

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6) Now this shot I don’t really know about. This is the only time it is used in this scene and doesn’t really tell us anything about this group or further the story. Maybe it is there to give us a lay of the land and show us that there are others around as the group interacts. I just don’t know.

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7) Now back to the 2 shot for the instigating dialogue.

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8) This is a new wide shot that has a casual balance that compliments the casual response from Pike. I like that it is not looking directly in Pike’s face and is not a direct opposite to the master from the other direction. Also, I don’t know why this stupid smiley face shows up instead of the number 8, keep trying to get rid of it but the editor wont let me. I guess WordPress likes this shot.

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9) This is where you really understand how the 2 shot compliments these characters. By already having a subconscious connection because of the shot choice, its gives more impact to their intentions.

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10) As the line is being said we see a cutaway of the boy who he is talking about.

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11) The line is then finished back in the 2 shot. After this character, Lyle, finishes, his friend, Tector, begins to call out the old man featured earlier for his size of the take.

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12) As he is speaking we cutaway to the second wide shot where you see a slight head nod by the old man as he reacts to being criticized.

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13) Then we return to the 2 shot for the end of the line delivery.

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14) In the old man’s medium shot he looks from the 2 men to the ground and spits in response to the statement, then glances away in Pike’s direction.

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15) The 2 men look at each other as if to assure each other of commitment to this idea, then verbally reiterate that they don’t feel the shares are fair.

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16) Right on the last word of the line, “fair”, we cut to a new medium shot of Pike. This time it is much less of a profile shot and dictates more power with the eye line close to the camera. It prepares you for Pike’s authority that he is about to unleash on the 2 men.

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17) The men are both a little bewildered at Pike’s statement and look at each other as such.

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18) Before they can finish looking back at Pike we cut to a new shot of Pike, where he immediately stands up into a close up. This is the first close up so far and it is empowered with an even tighter eyeline. It gives great weight to the intense angry line Pike bellows “why don’t you answer me you damned yellow livered trash?” For some reason the subtitles didn’t show the word “livered”, but I think it is such a great line I had to type it out for you.

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19) In the 2 shot, Lyle begins to argue but Pike’s audio comes in over Lyle’s audio, overpowering Lyle’s voice and cutting him off.

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20) Pike begins to deliver his final message to these boys. This shot is only on screen for maybe half as second before cutting to a reaction.

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21) The reaction shot holds on the 2 brothers as Pike says “I either lead this bunch or…”

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22) Pike finishes his ultimatum in the same powerful close up saying “end it right now”. Again the subtitles missed one of the words in the line. After his line we hold on Pike for a beat to let it really sink in, during which we see him clench his jaw and take a breath.

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23) Just as power was added to the beginning of Pike’s outburst by going to the first close up of the scene, there are two ways that more magnitude was given to it on the tail side as well. First we cut from Pike’s close up to the original wide master shot looking out at all the players. The drastic change in shot size has a strong effect on snapping us to attention. Of the two wide shots, this one shows only the faces of the two brothers; with the eyes on them now the ball is in their court. Had we cut to the other wide shot showing Pike’s face it would have had a different emotional outcome. The second way this shot brings weight to the ultimatum is that it is held in silence for almost 7 seconds. Throughout this scene only a couple shots come even close to this length and there is very little time when one the characters is not speaking. All you hear is the wind and a chicken clucking in the background. It is such a dynamic finish to a powerful 6 shot sequence.

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24) The brothers stand down and agree to the original shares.

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25) We get one more close shot of Pike and then he moves out of frame toward the brothers. The movement is important to signify that the standoff is over and we can get rolling again.

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26) Even though we feel like the issue has been resolved, Angel reminds us there is still tension in the group by taunting the 2 brothers with cowardly chicken clucking.

27) The brothers glance back at Angel, and then Tector turns back to look at Pike. His eye movement leads nicely into the cut to the next shot. Also because he is far to the left of the screen and his eyes draw us even more to the left we are in a perfect position to be looking at Pike’s screen location after the cut.

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28) This is a new wide shot for the scene. On a practical side it allows us a good view of the action from the profile of all the characters but Angel. On an emotional side it give a balance of power to the characters by not giving any one character the focus or majority of frame. It is the right shot to further dissipate the emotions from the heated exchange and bring attention to the loot at center screen that all the characters are interested in. At the end of the shot Pike is about to start cutting into one of the money bags and instigates the cut to the next shot.

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29) Back to the 2 shot where the brother realize what Pike is doing and reach down to hack into the score as well.

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30) Now we see a cutaway of the bags of money and the brothers’ hands grabbing at them. From the corner of the screen we see Pike’s bag begin to pour out. We get a quick glimpse of metal pouring out, but something is not right about it.

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31) A quick reaction shot of Pike and his second, Dutch, where they look distinctly bewildered, not excited.

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32) The camera shows the brothers’ hands full of metal rings but doesn’t linger as it tilts back up to the 2 shot. We see that the brothers look bewildered as well. We know something is not right, but haven’t had enough time to examine what exactly they are holding. Tector exclaims, “Silver rings!?”

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33) Dutch corrects him. They are in fact washers and the gang has been set up. He throws his hat down as Pike stares into the pile in shock.

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34) We return to the profile wide shot as Pike throws his money bag down and Angel run into frame to see for himself.

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It seems the line “Bastards” is a good one to end on. There are still some 40 odd shots still to come, so check back soon. This entire scene is a series of tense and release cycles. It is all about a gang unraveling under pressure, and is done so well. I would love to hear what you have to think about specific shot choices or edit decisions; this has a lot of my own opinion infused and seeing alternate perspectives is an important part of the education process.

I have to run though; its my Fiance’s birthday and we have head-sized margaritas to enjoy. Cheers!

Check out the rest of this breakdown Scene Breakdown: The Wild Bunch part 2

4 Comments

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