Cahiers: For ten years Cahiers said that mise en scene existed. Now one has to say the opposite instead.
Godard: Yes, it's true. It doesn't exist. We were wrong.
—"Let's Talk About Pierrot," Cahiers du Cinema 171, October 1965, reprinted in Godard by Godard, edited and translated by Tom Milne, 1972
As per Wikipedia, "mise-en-scene has been called 'film criticism's "grand undefined term"'" and while it's arguable that its literal French definition denotes something reasonably specific, over the years the term has become a kind of amorphous shorthand pertaining to visual language and directors we like. I recall a friend who went to NYU film school in the early '80s (one of her classmates was future video director and Two Lovers co-screenwriter Ric Menello) telling me about a faux-catechism that circulated casually among the students: "Who is [director X]?" "[Director X] is an auteur." "Why is [director x] an auteur?" "Because he has mise-en-scene." And there you had it. The non-specificity with which the term has tended to get thrown around enabled those fine fellows David Kamp and Lawrence Levi to make some good-natured sport of cinephiles in their delightful bagatelle The Film Snob's Dictionary (no links, sorry, that would be meretricious). And yet, it persists, kinda sorta, in part because, to borrow a notion Christy Lemire recently put forward w/r/t Apichatpong Weerasethakul, it's fun to say!
Yesterday I trekked over to the Film Forum to catch a double bill of early '50s Universal programmers directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Robert Ryan, and it did not begin auspiciously. The print of the first picture on the bill, 1952's Horizons West, while visually better than okay, had a completely fucked up soundtrack. What came out of the speakers were a lot of optical track artifact, almost nothing in terms of sound effects and music, and dialogue so thoroughly muffled and scratchy that even when paying very close aural attention, it was largely undecodable.
This state of affairs produced considerable disapprobation on the audience's part. The film was stopped, equipment was adjusted, and the film was started again; same bad result. This is a rarely screened picture and a lot of the New York cinephile usual suspects who are sometimes cited as lacking in social and hygienic graces were becoming discomfitingly restless; eventually the film was stopped again, management deigned to cancel the screening and substitute The Naked Spur in the double feature...and a few in the audience, myself included, suggested that since the immediate alternative would have been a dark theater for about an hour, why not complete the screening of the print, inaudible sound notwithstanding? "It'll be pure mise-en-scene," I remarked to a critic acquaintance who was sitting behind me. "It's not as if we're watching this for the dialogue," he noted. (The script and story were by Louis Stevens, a stalwart whose filmography dates back to the '20s.)
Indeed not. The lack of sound compelled, maybe even forced, us to watch the film with a different sort of concentration; to focus on what the visuals were telling us, shot by shot. The story is of a couple of brothers, Ryan and Rock Hudson, coming home to Austin, Texas after Civil War defeat, and how Ryan turns ruthless rustler and land-grabbed and brother Hudson is eventually forced into a position to bring his older brother to justice. Now Horizons West is not particularly noteworthy in the respects that mise-en-scene originalists might value; it was a low budget studio B-picture made using the resources available to said studio. The cinematography was by Charles P. Boyle, then in the middle of a multi-year run at Universal; he'd soon be tapped by Disney to shoot the Davy Crockett pictures. The set design...well, not to put too fine a point on it, but what Variety would call the tech credits are all executed at a level of professionalism that was a point of pride with name studio product. As for what Boetticher was bringing to the table, this picture was one of a bunch he made in the early '50s after his 1951 passion project Bullfighter and the Lady and it's kind of clear that he was doing these jobs as jobs but at the same time at least trying to enjoy himself a little. As such, the film plays like an exercise in solid, unobtrusive directorial craft. "A very quiet, elemental camera," was how Andrew Sarris described the Boetticher stylistic signature, hastening to add "elemental but not elementary." In Horizons West, it's both elemental and elementary. The pacing and alternation of a series of camera setups that's limited by constraints of time and budget is what we might call textbook excellence. The relationships between the characters is instantly established via the way they're placed in medium establishing shots, and as a given scene progresses, a simple cut to a tighter shot, combined with the acting (Ryan's squint on horseback, along with his dusty gray uniform, convey a not-poignant but rather cynical sense of postwar disillusionment, and comes to define his character) pushes those relationships and the action further. A quite beautiful example comes in a poker game that Ryan's character joins with Raymond Burr, playing a ruthless cattle baron whom Ryan eventually turns the tables on. The dealing and raising is shown via a couple of angles around the table; then, as Julie Adams, playing Burr's wife and, natch, a frustrating love object of Ryan's, walks in to the scene the camera settles on a simple straight-ahead medium shot of the three characters. And then something is said that slightly provokes Burr. The next setup is of a medium close-up of Burr, looking irritated. I infer that in shooting this scene, Boetticher knew that he had a limited number of setups he could execute, and in the approach to the terminus to the scene, every setup had to count. And so, while the editors cut away once or twice from the medium closeup of Burr back to the "master," Boetticher and Burr pack a lot of "action" into that medium closeup, including Burr giving a menacing squeeze of Adams' arm.
So it goes for the rest of the picture. There's a bit of visual poetry when Ryan first infiltrates the camp of dissolute war veterans that he's going to turn into his gang, a descent-to-hell resonance that's extremely pleasing...but for the most part, it's clarity and momentum and the necessary information placed in the correct space with little sense of fuss or strain. Which could, in a sense, be mise-en-scene.
UPDATE: In comments, I am chastised (not, thankfully, in the manner suggested by Emile Meyer's Lt. Kello in Sweet Smell of Success) by a concerned soul for not spelling the term under consideration properly. Honest, officer, I never could figure out how to work the accent grave on my Mac keyboard, try as I might. But this morning, before seven a.m., through dedicated research and application, I finally cracked it, and so, comme ça: mise-en-scène! And now, without hyphens: mise en scène! Unitalicized: mise en scène! And while I'm at it, Buñuel!