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Bonnie and Cylde: Slow motion and overlapping action

by Michael Frierson

A well-known example of overlapping action comes from a groundbreaking film of the 1960s, Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967). The historical drama concludes with the bloody, violent, slow motion, rapidly cut depiction of the bank robbing couple’s death in an ambush set up on a country road by lawmen that are pursuing them.

Connected by the overwhelming staccato of machine fire in the track, we first see Clyde standing, hit multiple times with bullets. The editor (Dede Allen) shows two different shots of Clyde hit by bullets in approximately this standing position, intercut with the gunmen firing, and Bonnie’s body beaten against the car seat in slow motion as the bullets strike her. Allen then cuts to to three overlapping shots of Clyde’s fall in different scopes – shots that are also in slow motion -- to create an extended, :03 second “fall to the ground” that is visceral in its impact. The graphic violence of the film was unprecedented, and signaled a break with the traditional Hollywood approach that marked screen events like gunshots with moans.

Penn’s film, and particularly the amount of blood shown, brought immediate changes in the depiction of screen violence that continue to reverberate today: its slow motion/overlapping action techniques are now pervasive in action films.

His Girl Friday: Temporal expansion by overlapping action

by Michael Frierson

Overlapping action, replaying a portion of what has been shown extends time in tehe syuzhet (the plot unfolding on screen) and running time by inserting the action again. David Bordwell gives a classic Hollywood example of this from His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) when Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack) the girlfriend of the escaped murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen) is driven from the room by the callous conversation of the newsroom reporters. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) leaves with Mollie, and the reporters know they have behaved badly. When Hildy opens the door and returns to the room, Hawks cuts from the long shot of the group to a plan américain of Hildy repeating the action, addressing them sarcastically as “Gentlemen of the press.” This overlapped action, Bordwell argues, “accentuates the pause and Hildy’s muted denunciation. This instance shows that manipulation of duration in editing often requires controlling the frequency of the syuzhet event – repeating or not repeating a particular action.” from Narration in the Fiction film, p. 84.

Seven Samurai: Slow motion death sequence

by Michael Frierson

The influential Japanese filmmaker Akra Kurosawa brought aestheticized violence using slow motion to the attention of the world beginning in 1954 with The Seven Samurai (Kurosowa, 1954) which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for two Academy Awards. The scene that caught audiences’ attention, and evolved in to a cinematic trope in action films, was Kurosawa’s use of slow motion to suggest the death of a thief. Apparently unarmed, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an oldlerl rōnin, approaches the barn where a child is being held hostage by a theif, and lifts the door open. The camera remains in a continuous shot from outside the barn as Kambei tries to reassure them he is only a priest with food for the boy. The thief tells him to throw the food in, which Kambei does. Waiting for a beat, he then rushes in. Kurosawa now begins to cut back and forth between the the barn and the horrified crowd. We see the crowd surge with alarm, and the next shot of the empty barn door extends time, holding it for what seems like an interminable moment—in actuality :03 seconds--before we see the thief stagger to the through the threshold in slow motion. As the child continues to cry off camera, time slows almost to a halt, as five shots come in quick succession, alternating between crowd looking on in shock, and the thief staggering forward in slow motion, unbalanced on his feet and rising to his tip toes to try to stop his forward motion. A closer shot of the thief stunned, trance like, holds him in slow motion, before we cut to the child’s mother who rushes forward to the barn. Kambei emerges, hands her the baby, and drops a bloody sword to the ground. The thief collapses in a heap, and Kambei becomes the focus of admiration. The pacing of this scene, the feeling of tension and release created by the thief’s slow motion stagger, alternating with the regular speed shots of the onlookers, and ultimately his collapse, is remarkable.

The Wild Bunch: Final Shootout

by Michael Frierson

Peckinpah’s style of cutting – mixing slow motion shot at different frame rates with normal footage, fast cuts, crash zooms, and incomplete actions – evolved from the creative input of his editor Lou Lombardo, a young editor who had experimented with this techniques on a television series called Felony Squad. From the lineage of Seven Samurai and Bonnie and Clyde, the extended bloodbath of Wild Bunch creates a fluid, elastic sense of time from very fast cutting, varied lens length and camera distances, and slow motion.

The Matrix: slow motion and "bullet time"

by Michael Frierson

Slow motion continues to evolve as a style element in science fiction films like The Matrix (Wahowski Brothers, 1999) where “bullet time,” a profound alteration of time in which one element is slowed while the virtual, CGI “camera” moves through space in normal time.

Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau): slow motion

by Michael Frierson

Jean Cocteau uses slow motion for a dream effect in the French classic, Beauty and the Beast (1946), when Belle (Josette Day) comes to the Beast’s castle for the first time. Here, the use of slow motion coupled with the movement of Belle on a rolling platform provides a low-tech but profoundly enchanting quality to the sequence

Bonnie and Clyde: Final ambush scene

A well known example of overlapping action and slow motion violence comes from the groundbreaking film Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967).

from Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Creator: Arthur Penn
Distributor: Warner Brothers-Seven Arts
Posted by Michael Frierson