John Gibbs's Contribution to the Understanding of Mise-en-Scene: Critical Essay

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‘Mise-en-scene’, translated from French, means ‘placing on stage’; it refers to the surroundings in the frame of a film or the arrangement of actors and scenery on a stage for a theatrical production. Professor and author, John Gibbs, has contributed a large amount of comprehension and ideas in the world of film and media, specifically with his insightful book ‘Film, Style and Interpretation’ (2002). Gibbs defines mise-en-scene as “the contents of the frame and the way that they are organized” (Gibbs, 2002, p.5). In this essay, I will demonstrate how John Gibbs’ contribution to our understanding of mise-en-scene has helped our understanding of the mise-en-scene in many films. Focusing on and analyzing ‘The Third Man’, a British film noir directed by Carol Reed in 1949, set in post-World War II Vienna. Elements of mise-en-scene such as lighting, props, the performance of the actor, camera positioning, space, and setting will be discussed, and how ‘Film, Style and Interpretation’ by John Gibbs highlights the importance of these elements in the film.

One important aspect of mise-en-scene is the performance of the actor, and John Gibbs helps us to understand how important it is. He writes: “Whilst thinking about decor, lighting, and the use of color, we should not forget how much can be expressed through the direction of action and through skillful performance” (Gibbs, 2002, p. 12) The performance and actions of the character can help us to further comprehend the story and theme of the film. In one scene near the end of the film, we see a shot of Lime’s fingers stretching out of the sewers from under the ground. This particular frame gives the audience an insight into the desperation that Harry feels at this moment, we understand that he is desperately trying to escape. Gibbs’ idea is supported in ‘Film Art: An Introduction’ when it is stated: “Often a shot will concentrate on either the actor’s facial expression or on bodily movement... In all, both the staging of the action and the camera’s distance from the action control how we understand the performances” (Bordwell, Thompson, Smith, 2019, p. 140). The camera is at a ground-level shot and focuses on the characters’ movements, and this particular angle can give us a good idea of how Lime is feeling. Grasping his fingers upwards we understand that: “This is a movie about sin: the wretchedness of the sinner who accepts his destiny as one of the damned, running frantically through the tunnels of Vienna’s sewers as if already in hell” (Bradshaw, 2019). This idea helps us understand that in the end there is ultimately no escape for Harry Lime; he is about to meet his fate.

In the film, particular props can be used to infer symbolism within the story or character. Gibbs describes the importance of the use of props and writes: “Kievan has written about such a process of patterning in ‘Late Spring’, where he argues that particular household objects in the film collect meanings through repeated usage and develop associations throughout the narrative” (Gibbs, 2002). One prop that is seen a few times within ‘The Third Man’ is the winding staircase. Symbolically, staircases can hold many complex meanings and can convey many different themes, the ‘repeated usage’ of the spiral staircase in this case reinforces the idea of mystery and uncertainty. One instance where we see the staircase is when Holly is being chased by two thugs after revealing that he wishes to write his next book on a non-fiction murder. In this occurrence, the staircase highlights the threat that is faced by Holly throughout the film and the danger his desire to uncover the mystery of Harry Lime has caused. We witness Holly running up the spiral staircase from a low-angle shot, almost disorientating to the audience. Then, the next time we meet a spiral staircase is at the end of the film, when a badly injured Lime attempts to climb up the winding ladder to escape from the sewers. In this case, the stairs reinforce the idea of the uncertainty of Lime’s fate, because just as he is about to reach the top, he is killed by Martins. Gibbs’ observation of the significance of props is supported in one article that states: “The utilization of stairs not only compliments the epic scenes in films but also makes them seem like they are a character in the story. Memorable stair scenes create and evoke a wide array of emotions in the audience” (Acadia Stairs, 2014). This conveys how the staircase can almost be seen as a recurring character in ‘The Third Man’, which makes an appearance in times of apprehension and danger, and is memorable to the audience as it is where Harry Lime finally meets his fate.

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The introductory shot of the film is a wide view of Vienna, followed by views of beautiful architecture and intricate statues. It could be argued that Gibbs does not contribute to our understanding of this setting, a key element of mise-en-scene. Unlike other features, he does not focus specifically on the setting, he does however present the idea of the importance of the position of the camera. The position of the camera ultimately controls what is in the frame and what components of mise-en-scene the audience can see, including the setting. He says: “The point here is that the position of the camera is going to determine our understanding of the scene. It will, for example, profoundly affect the way we experience a performance. It is one of the most important means by which the nature of our relationship with the characters is defined” (Gibbs, 2002). Initially, the audience is presented with picturesque views of the city, but the next few frames are of more unappealing shots: destroyed buildings, piles of rubble, and marching soldiers. These shots and the history of Vienna are important in helping us to better understand the film and the time that the characters are living in. “Reed’s masterpiece shattered the consensus around the older ‘Viennese film’, if such a consensus ever existed, and delivered a new synthesis of Viennese characters, situations, and urban typographies. To this synthesis belongs Vienna as a transitory space, a neutral frontier city, located between the ‘free’ West and the Soviet East” (Dassanowsky, 2012, p. 7). The setting gives the audience a sense of desolation, in a post-World War II Vienna, where areas were rife with destruction, black market sellers, and the needed reconstruction of streets, with the issue of the black market being of key importance later in the film.

Another aspect of mise-en-scene that links to Gibbs’ observation of the position of the camera is his thoughts on the significance of the space used in a shot. He writes: “This might not immediately strike us as one of the contents of the frame (or as belonging to the same order of existence as the other items on this list), but space is a vital expressive element at a film-maker’s disposal” (Gibbs, 2002, p. 17). A scene that comes to mind when thinking about the use of space is the very last shot of the film when Holly waits for Anna at the end of the road after Harry Lime’s funeral. In this wide shot frame, trees sit on both sides of Anna as she walks down the long road, creating a symmetrical composition with a vanishing point at the opposite end of the road. The wide shot frame and extensive space between the two characters express uncertainty as to whether the two will unite, the use of this shot is supported when another source expresses: “Drama on screen, for example, may not even require actors if swirling desert sand, wildly lashing palm fronds, or a falling autumn leaf dynamically contribute to dramatic effect” (Lathrop, Sutton, 2014). With this observation in mind, the large amount of space between the two characters adds tension, it forces us to wait in suspense to see how they will interact with each other. Which ultimately ends in Anna ignoring Holly, and walking straight past him.

Gibbs talks about examples in which lighting is significant in revealing information about a character, such as Cary Grant’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’. He says: “We know little about this figure, but we may perhaps have identified the silhouette as belonging to the film’s male lead, Cary Grant” (Gibbs, 2002, p. 6). This relates to ‘The Third Man’, which frequently uses low-key lighting for dramatic effect. In the majority of scenes, low-key lighting, which “is often seen in horror movies and thrillers, comprising of a lighting pattern that has both bright and dark areas in the frame” (Moura, 2011, p.2), adds to the mystery of the story. Another source adds to this idea when it states: “As our examples indicate, low-key lighting is often applied to somber, threatening, or mysterious scenes. It was common in horror films of the 1930s and film noirs (dark films) of the 1940s and 1950s” (Bordwell, 2019). The repeated relation of low-key lighting and horror films indicates the dark themes that are explored in ‘The Third Man’. From what Gibbs describes Cary Grant’s character, we can see similarities between him and the antagonist Harry Lime, there seems to be a great deal of mystery and uncertainty between both characters. In the scene where it is finally revealed that Lime faked his death and is still alive in Vienna, chiaroscuro lighting, which is “an Italian term, made from two words ‘chiaro’, meaning bright or clear, and ‘scuro’, meaning dark or obscure” (Mateer, 2021), or, put simply, light-dark, puts sole focus on Lime’s face, with the rest of his figure contrasted in complete darkness. The relation between lighting and the characteristics of the persona is supported by other sources which state that “lighting can help define the setting of a scene or accentuate the behavior of the figures in the film. Overall, the ultimate behavior that Lime is exhibiting when the bright light accentuates his facial features is a mystery, and the high-contrast lighting adds to the secrecy and obscurity of the film.

To sum up, everything that has been stated so far, John Gibbs has made an influential contribution to our understanding of mise-en-scene in his book ‘Film, Style and Interpretation’. Gibbs’ contribution to the comprehension of mise-en-scene in film is of great significance to the understanding of the mise-en-scene in the film, ‘The Third Man’. Props can be used as a symbol to express the theme of the story or the particular emotion of a character, such as the winding staircase used in ‘The Third Man’ to convey uncertainty and danger. The position of the camera controls what components of mise-en-scene the audience can see in the frame and often helps us understand what age and location the protagonists of the film are living in and the use of space can indicate the relationship between characters. Gibbs expresses how focusing the camera on bodily movement rather than the facial expression of the actor can be equally as effective in communicating emotion. And finally, lighting can reveal a large amount about a character by the use of low-key lighting and chiaroscuro lighting, and can also set the atmosphere of the scene. Overall, many of John Gibbs’ ideas of the different elements of mise-en-scene have also been supported and expanded upon in many different books, journals, and academic sources. This actively demonstrates how Gibbs’ contribution to mise-en-scene has been both informative and pivotal in the world of film and media.

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John Gibbs’s Contribution to the Understanding of Mise-en-Scene: Critical Essay. (2023, October 11). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/john-gibbss-contribution-to-the-understanding-of-mise-en-scene-critical-essay/
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