12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)

Road To Perdition (Mendes, 2002)

"With Road to Perdition, you could virtually take every frame of his (Conrad Hall) work and blow it up and hang it over your fireplace. It was like Rembrandt at work"
- Producer, Robert Zanuck



Road To Perdition is set during the 1930s and depicts the journey of a father (Michael Sullivan, played by Tom Hanks) and his eldest son (Michael Jr, played by Tyler Hoechlin) who are both forced to flee their home and go on the run after Jr witnesses a job carried out by his dad. Sullivan's boss is the mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman), who's own son Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) is incompetent, brash, violent and uses the situation as a reason to murder Michael's wife and youngest son to keep them quiet about the hit. Sullivan vows revenge on the two of them and wanting to keep his last remaining child safe, travels to Perdition where he is shadowed all the way by hired killer Maguire (Jude Law).

Some of the insights come from the special features from Sam Mendes that are found on the DVD - director commentaries are after all the absolute best tool for understanding the thought process that goes into the making of a film. 

The relationship between father and son is the most clear cut theme that runs in the picture, and the development between the three main relationships is something that is shown visually rather than through dialogue. It is obvious that John (who gave the Sullivan family everything that they have) loves his surrogate son Michael more than his own biological one, and it's this which causes conflict with the jealous Connor. Meanwhile, Michael Jr who is unaware of his father's criminal deeds at the start is unable to really have a meaningful relationship with his dad - who doesn't want his son to grow up to become a killer like him. To show this, Mendes and Hall would take advantage of the fact that film was viewed from the boy's perspective and show Michael Jr looking at his father through doorways in order to reflect their lack companionship at the start.  In fact the whole picture is book-ended by similar shots; the very first and last time we see Michael Sr (In his home and in the beach house) it is through the frame of a door. In the second image half of the screen is obscured by the wall, showing only two of the characters and blocking off the younger son and the wife - perhaps a foreshadowing of what is the befall them when they're murdered. 



We can also deduce the state of the relationship that Sullivan Sr has with his son compared to his surrogate father from the early stages of the picture by looking at these shots above from the wake scene. Notice how Michael Sr is not in the foreground of the frame with Jr when praying by the coffin like he is with John when playing the piano. Differences of scale are played with here too, famously in Citizen Kane, Charles is reduced to a insignificant figure when playing in the snow as a child but upon gaining power, his stature shifts and takes up more room in the frame - see how more dominant the figures are in the right picture. In the latter Sullivan Jr is in the background and out of focus simply looking on at the two of them, like most sons he's in awe of his father and respects him in some ways but is also distanced from him because he can't understand what it is he does for a living. Instead of these two shots being presented head on both of these are filmed in a profile shot, Hall always tried to frame the characters in the 'appropriate emotional context' and this side on view seems to suggest that we've still got alot to learn about these characters.                              

Tom Hanks in Road To Perdition
An example of characters being placed within their 'appropriate
emotional context: After Michael Jr witnesses the murder the two of
them are separated by the pillar on the car and have different eye-lines

As we can see, framing and composition of son and father for the first hour of so of Road To Perdition shows us the wedge driven between the two of them. The moment when Michael Jr's relationship with his father changes is in the conversation following the diner scene with Maguire. After escaping the hitman the two of them argue in an empty field - a scene which is punctuated by one of the few hand held camera shots of the whole film. After this, Michael explains to his son how he won't be able to escape their predicament without the two of them working together. It is from this point on when their affection of each other starts to truly show itself; a lateral tracking shot shows us the progression of Michael Jr slowly getting to grips with driving, lending a vital hand when his father starts to rob banks. (View this scene here - this whole shot is effective because instead of using a series of cuts and making it into a montage, the camera movement is seamless and dynamic, helping to visually articulate the distance they've traveled on the road). Furthermore, when ever the two of them are sitting in a car upto this point, Michael Jr is sat in the back seat (bar one short example, above) - his Dad has to either turn around to face him or talk to him while looking through the rear view mirror. It's another way of showing how the two of them are unable to meaningfully communicate with each other; only when the father has put his trust into his son do the two actually start to bond and are literally brought together on the road. This aforementioned track ends in this shot with them next to one another, solidifying how much the two have developed:


In Understanding MoviesGiannetti writes about what the movement of the characters can teach us if the original framing is preserved during a motion. For example, this static shot below from the end of the picture shows Michael Sr returning after killing Connor and John, rather than cutting to a close up of Michael Jr's face we instead get a view of the empty corridor and door frame. Lingering on this empty space serves to heighten the son's isolation since he's unaware whether his father will survive the ordeal, we therefore understand how much of a void the dad is filling in in his son's life when he walks into the area of the frame that was previously empty. In the directors commentary Sam Mendes actually says he wished he had shot this differently, but I think this method is far more effective than it would have been with an extra cut. Throwing the original balance of the shot away with a characters movement is interesting because as viewers we instinctively look at an image from left to right, so initially our mind is engaged on the emptiness in the first half of this frame before making the connection with Michael Jr sitting down.



Whilst selective focus is usually employed to naturally direct the audience's eyes towards what looks sharper, we're inclined to look at both the middle and background in the moment on the right because of what it tells us about the state of these two relationships. Usually, depth of field 'de-emphasises the less significant parts of the surroundings' (Bordwell, 2010: 178) but here it's used for narrative effect. John walks away with his arm around Michael whilst Connor is left alone at the table, out of focus and completely stationary.  As the camera dolly's in we get a racking focus of him too (who is positioned off centre) which Sam Mendes used to show how Connor literally 'decomposes before our eyes'. Here, Mendes and Hall have created depth in their shot through the combination of character movement, camera lens manipulation as well as the colour palette (Connor's white sleeves make him stand out amongst the environment even when he's our of focus) which shifts our attention to two different planes in the frame. Set design contributes here too; the long table literally places Connor and his Dad as far away as possible from each other; when he tries to apologise for what happened the night before, Connor has to speak to him from the other side of the room - the camera too framing the individual talking from a long distance. His brazen outlook on the fact that he's just killed an innocent man - presumably not for the first time makes him everything that Michael Sr isn't (calm, smart, resourceful) the reason why his apology goes unacknowledged by his Dad. 

Speaking of characters that are 'decomposing', the strange and menacing hitman is first introduced to us with a dolly zoom. Some may see this technique now as a bit of a cliche, but combined with Thomas Newman's score it's very effective here because you're immediately brought into the psychological state of this unstable, psychopathic character. Although he's walking forward, the camera movement makes the figure appear to making no ground; whilst Maguire's actions are important in the film, he's still an extremely pathetic figure with the below shot suggesting such. 



Connor's importance, or lack thereof is shown in his in relation to others. The right picture is again, from the wake scene and happens when he's watching his father give a speech to those in attendance. Despite the fact that he's related to Rooney, Connor's positioning here hasn't necessarily been manipulated to suggest that he's his son - instead Connor is just another face in this crowd of people. Mendes uses a similar shot later on; when Michael and his son are on the run, they drive through the night and arrive in Chicago. Now left homeless and with no status, power of money to their name, Michael and Jr are ineffectual people who are lost and lonely with no idea about how to get out of the hole that they're now in. Mendes and Hall also utilise deep space during the shots of their car driving down empty highways to further emphasise this isolation even in different settings. Connor's staging a few minutes later when he moves forward to watch his father and Michael play piano, has him being placed literally apart from the rest of the crowd as he looks offscreen. With his arms crossed and a wry smile on his face the camera slowly tracks in as his smile fades; cutting to and from what he's looking at serves to heighten his sense of seething jealousy. Connor is constantly photographed in some way, apart from his father - in fact one of only two times they share the same frame is when John is attacking and berating his son for the murder of Michael's family:


Perhaps the most tension filled moment of the picture is during the diner scene between Maguire and Michael Sr. I found this moment much more interesting after watching a video from Every Frame A Painting called Who Wins The Scene. Context is important here, the two of them are trying to figure each other out - as it goes on Michael Sr slowly deduces that his life is in danger (according to the commentary Tom Hanks was able to make a bead of sweat appear down his face naturally on queue - that's how good of an actor he is!). The camera captures the instant that the Maguire reveals what he does ("I shoot the dead") - in a shot where his character looks directly into the camera as he slams his coffee down. Up to this point the the two of them are always looking slightly off screen during each single shot and the table the two of them are sat at is always in the foreground. But after this moment the exchanges between the two of them are now framed tightly on a telephoto lens, separating them from their environment as you start to wonder if Maguire is going to start shooting. It's a very effective scene; and it's great because the build up is something you can notice even if you turn the sound off and just look at the acting and cinematography. 

Although Perdition it the name of the place that Michael is trying to reach, it is of course another word for an eternal punishment after death. Besides the three main relationships it's the religious  undertones that constitute not just one of the main themes of the film but also the motivations of the characters. What Michael wants more than anything is to ensure that his son will see heaven - something that he understands will never happen to himself. 

John: “There are only murderers in this room! Michael! Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only on guarantee; none of us will see heaven.”
Mike: “Michael could.”
John: “Then do everything that you can to see that that happens. Leave.


(This conversation takes place in the basement of a Church - so the two of them literally descend before talking about Hell)



The heaven motif crops up a couple of times throughout; with the beams shining through the windows and holes in the walls at several points. They appear to resemble a light streaming down from heaven - a persistent reminder of death that happens so much in the career Michael has chosen.


Mendes has mentioned that, because of Hanks' star appeal many people watching the picture would feel like they knew him, so other than the framing through doorways mentioned before he would also use lighting to create a sense of mystery about his character. To do this we have him disappearing and reappearing from shadows constantly thought the whole film (above) - vary rarely does three point lighting eliminate any shadows from appearing open his face. It's in keeping with the whole colour palette of the picture, virtually all of it is very muted, dark and limited to largely greys and greens up until the end when Michael and his son arrive at the beach which easily stands out from everything that's come before it.

Road To Perdition lighitng

The two separate kitchen scenes take place a few minutes apart from each other - one of them after the murder in the warehouse and the shift to more low key lighting expresses the different tone now present in the household. 


In the scene above, John is debating whether or not to pursue Michael, when the implications of what this will bring with it are brought up (that he will also have to kill a boy too), he leans forward. By moving Paul Newman's character in and out of the light in this scene, and having his posture change as he juggles with different conflicting decisions, it helps to visually articulate how difficult he's finding it to go against a person whom he loves.   

It seems to have more in common with In Cold Blood than any other film that Conrad Hall shot, this may be because the two of them are structurally quite similar as they're both essentially road movies about two people on the run (most of the time in the pouring rain!), either spending driving or amongst hustling crowds in towns. Crime and the ideas of guilt and redemption also permeate throughout the two works and each has a set of reprehensible characters. Although this picture was in black and white you can see the way that he employed soft, low key lighting which bounces off the rain soaked floor onto the coats or umbrellas in both of the pictures on the left. Water is a motif that is commonly associate with Sam Mendes' work, like American Beauty it is something that crops up in various forms when death is present:
  • The melting ice by the coffin at the wake
  • The rain when Michael jr witnesses the murder at the warehouse and the massacre of Rooney's henchmen 
  • The murder of Connor and Michael's wife and son are committed in a bathroom with a running bath 
  • Before Michael is killed at the end there is no music or dialogue, instead just the sound of the waves as he looks at the sea.

Conrad Hall used rain to create an incredibly famous shot in In Cold Blood, albeit unintentionally. Before the scene in which Perry (Robert Blake) is being sent to the gallows, the positioning of his character makes it so the water streaming down from the windows was projected onto his face making it look like tears. For me this moment is most reminiscent of the section in which Michael Sr is preparing his Tommy gun before the final confrontation (above); with the raindrops and lighting resulting in an identical effect but this time upon the walls of the room. 


And again there's another similar moment between the two films; when the inhabitants look out their window onto the massacre below it echoes the scene in In Cold Blood where the inmates of the prison look down at the forecourt that holds the gallows.   


Conrad Hall would deservedly win an Oscar for his work on Road To Perdition and it's not hard to see why. Unfortunately this would be his last ever picture as it was awarded posthumously, but it stands as a great last testament to his fantastic work as a cinematographer. 


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