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The Little Foxes (1941)

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Shot Composition in THE LITTLE FOXES

Besides the fascinating characters and storyline, THE LITTLE FOXES is also famous for its black-and-white cinematography by cameraman Gregg Toland (who worked on CITIZEN KANE the same year).  An important element of that photography however was director William Wyler's shot composition -- how he set up a scene and arranged the various elements (characters, sets, props, etc.) within it.  Wyler's shot composition in THE LITTLE FOXES is subtle, non-distracting, and even yet, exceptionally complex.  Although the audience doesn't necessarily notice this while watching the story unfold on film, it becomes apparent in the collection of screen captures below:

This shot of the Hubbard family at breakfast is atypical of Hollywood films of the time -- or even of films today.  Typically, such a shot would be composed with the table clearly visible in the middle, one character in a chair on each end, and one in a chair on the back side, with the camera assuming the point of view of the empty fourth chair.  Though the characters may be sitting at the table quite normally in this shot, the camera is not capturing them from the point of view of the fourth chair (which would be facing Leo head-on), but rather over the shoulder of Oscar Hubbard.  This permits the characters and the expressions on their faces to fill up the screen instead of letting the frame be dominated by the table and the space between the characters in their various positions.

This coverage shot of the living room creates three distinct planes of activity in the room: the piano in the foreground, the settee and chairs in the center, and the staircase in the background.  (Notice how all three planes are in focus.)  Each plane of activity is its own little world in the context of the scene, and yet, is still shown in relation to the whole.  All the characters and their positions in the room are clearly visible, yet they don't seem squished together for the benefit of the camera.  This kind of shot composition takes advantage of the camera's deep-focus capabilities and allows the director to show all the activity within the scene without cutting back and forth between separate shots of different characters or using distracting camera movements to pan back and forth between certain areas of the scene.

This later shot of the living room scene again comprises three distinct planes of activity, although they are not the same three as in the previous coverage shot.  The settee and chairs are again a plane (and this time, the one emphasized in the foreground), while the staircase in the background remains an unused part of the scene.  A new plane of activity has been introduced between the settee and the staircase however -- that of Aunt Birdie in a chair against the wall over Regina's right shoulder.  Again, this allows the director to focus on the conversation taking place between Regina and her brothers, while at the same time, including Aunt Birdie's quiet reactions.  If Wyler had cut away from the conversation to show a close-up of Aunt Birdie's sullen face, and then cut back to the conversation (as is typical in such a situation), he would have destroyed the subtlety of this approach.

One of Wyler's most ingenious shots of the entire film is this shaving scene between Oscar Hubbard and his son Leo.  In the Lillian Hellman play (on which the film is based), this scene takes place at the breakfast table over a cup of coffee.  But Wyler moved it to the bathroom and faced the two men away from each other -- simultaneously showing them to be very similar characters (their parallel dress and activity), but also a father and son out of touch with each other.

Again, after establishing the spatial relationship between the characters with the coverage shot above (as in the living room scene), Wyler changes angles to better capture the facial expressions of the actors.  Using juxtaposed mirrors, the shot captures not only the faces of both characters so the audience can see them at the same time, but it also captures them from the point of view of the characters themselves.  Thus, the audience sees Oscar and Leo in the same manner in which they are seeing each other.

Another shot featuring several characters but placing them in different planes so as not to crowd them together physically.  Note how each character's placement in this shot is a commentary on that character's role in the scene.  The camera is looking over David's shoulder at the conversation taking place between Aunt Birdie, Alexandra and Horace (the topical emphasis of the scene).  Thus, just as David is essentially an observer to the scene, so the audience adopts his point of view for its own observing.  Also, just as Addie (in the background plane) interjects occasional comments into the conversation, so her character is visually interjected into the scene in the natural space between Alexandra and Aunt Birdie. 

Again, two characters conversing while facing away from each other (as in the shaving scene).  In this instance however, only the facial expressions of one are visible.  The malicious nature of Regina's character has already been established, so it is not important to show the audience her face in order to demonstrate how she is intending to hurt Horace with her comments; the audience already understands this.  Instead, this shot composition emphasizes Horace's reaction to the cruel things Regina is saying to him, revealing the true effect of her words and providing the basis for the heart attack which is to follow.

Yet again, multiple planes of activity (the stairs, the three men, and the settee and table), but notice this time how Wyler places Horace's safe deposit box on the table in the foreground.  It is in plain sight, but just as the audience doesn't immediately notice its presence in the shot, neither do Ben, Oscar and Leo.  It is their discovery of the box which prompts a dramatic change of course in both the plotline and the mood of the scene, and thus, the safe deposit box's key role in the course of events is emphasized by its central placement in the shot.

Again the multiple planes, this time emphasizing how Regina has suddenly become the center of attention (because she knows Leo stole the bonds and is prepared to prosecute him).  Also, forced into the secondary plane, Oscar and Leo (now that their plotting has been discovered) have lost their equal status in the family as well as in the shot.  Ben joins Regina in the foreground because he is the only one worthy of her attention.

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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