Strange Encounters at the Cinema Corral

Leone Meets Bresson

by Donato Totaro Volume 11, Issue 2 / February 2007 17 minutes (4220 words)

At times one finds parallels in the oddest of places. One such place was found quite by chance at the intersection of two films made by distinctly dissimilar filmmakers. One a grand master who is spoken of in hushed tones of reverence even by fellow filmmakers of note, Robert Bresson. And the other an accomplished breaker of genre convention and baroque stylist, acknowledged in some circles as a master in his own right, Sergio Leone. The point of intersection was a 13-week course I was teaching on film montage. With my syllabus all but filled I was still feeling remorse for not being able to at least schedule a few excerpts from Leone’s Spaghetti Western masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which would have offered a fascinating alternative to the many other editing styles represented in the course. Since I could not fit in the entire three hour film I decided I would show the long opening scene, which begins pre-credit and then runs through the credits. I felt this would work well because the opening functions like a self-enclosed short film, with a clear beginning, middle and end. But I still had the problem of finding a film to program it with which would serve a heuristic purpose. After thinking through all the films on the syllabus my eyes settled instinctively on Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), which was long scheduled into the course. Something about their mutual sparseness and elliptical cutting styles made them fit in my mind. I only realized just how well they fit –in both the complementary and contradictory sense– after watching them blocked together.

Pickpocket, loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), tells the story of a young, directionless man, Michel (Martin LaSalle), who briefly finds a sense of quite solace and accomplishment leading a life of petty crime. The decision to turn to thievery –pickpocketing– is introduced to us through a diary entry as if it were some form of a spiritual calling. In the famous opening scene at the race track –where Michel brazenly approaches a woman in a crowd from behind and tries to steal from her purse– Michel is caught by authorities, but is released after a brief interrogation for lack of evidence. From this point on Michel becomes a hunted man, continually being tracked, questioned, and challenged by the father figure/police detective in charge of his case (Jean Pélégri). To the point where Michel even leaves Paris for two years abroad (Milan, Rome, then London) in an attempt to escape the police’s trace. In one of Bresson’s most daringly provocative ellipsis’, the ‘two-year’ interlude is represented in one single, 23 second close-up shot of Michel writing in his diary, and then we see him back on the Paris train platform wearing the exact same black suit, shirt and tie that we saw him wearing when he left two years ago! (This elliptical gesture has its reverse parallel in the Once Upon a Time in the West excerpt, to be discussed later.)

While hunted by the police, Michel’s sense of confinement –suggested constantly through the film’s mise en scène of Michel’s cramped, seedy apartment, the narrow corridors of his tenement, and his eventual prison cell– can also be seen as a ‘spiritual imprisonment,’ or in the least, an emotional sterility. I do not want to get into the well-traveled critical debates over Bresson’s status as a ‘Jansenist’ director, but will merely lay the platform for the comparative analysis to follow. A great body of criticism surrounding Bresson’s works position him thematically within the religion of Jansenism, a 17th century ascetic school of Catholicism which strayed from orthodox Church Catholicism in France by believing in the principles of Fate/Predestination and Grace:

Jansen argued in favor of absolute Predestination, in which humans are perceived as incapable of doing good without God’s unsolicited grace and only a chosen few are believed to receive Salvation. [1]

Hence in Jansenism the notion of humans having a free will to choose their destination is a sham, an illusion, for “Christ did not die for all, but only for those who are predestined to salvation.” [2]

A person who feels they have done well by God or feel they have achieved salvation through their own will has in fact only ‘become’ free by picking the predetermined will of God. Although Pickpocket is by no means a case study of these Jansenist principles, there are elements in the film’s editing structure, mise en scène, and plot development which can certainly be read in light of them. For example, the film’s extensive use of pathways, portals and transitional spaces (staircases, corridors, doors, train platforms, elevators) are suggestive of the several life choices ahead for Michel, who appears indecisive in making them. Throughout the film we see Michel enter and exit numerous doors and, more tellingly, leave doors unlocked, ajar, or open. Not only do the doors and corridors symbolize Michel’s possible pathways in life, but his perplexing (and unrealistic) habit of leaving his apartment door ajar when he leaves for the day can only be made sense of in a metaphorical manner: a symbolic (or unconscious) fear of closing off possible life choices.

The two possible pathways in life which seem ‘predestined’ for Michel (or from which Michel must make his own ‘willful’ choice, depending on whether you read the film as Jansenist or not) are represented in the two sets of characters he shares his time with. On the one hand is the all-male, homosocial world of the pickpockets, and on the other hand the world of ‘good citizenry’ or ‘normality’ represented by his dying mother (who dies during the film), Jeanne, the lovely young neighbor who helps Michel’s mother, and a mutual friend of Jeanne and Michel’s, Jacques. Standing in-between them for Michel are the police detectives trying to track down the pickpocketing ring, in particular one detective who seems self-directed in his interest in Michel. In simplistic terms, we have a choice between a ‘life of crime’ and a ‘life of normality.’ Some critics have eschewed the traditional Jansenist reading of this film for a psycho-sexual one, with Michel’s tortured ruminations between the pickpockets and Jeanne a sign of his repressed homosexuality. So the pathway choices become ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’. The choice of homosexuality is represented in the pickpocketing scenes by the close male-to-male body contact, the sensual, almost balletic pickpocketing montages, the close-ups of male hands reaching into pant pockets; and the choice of heterosexuality is represented by his mother and the attractive Jeanne (and later embodied in Jeanne and Jacques, who have a child).

This latter reading is given a fair amount of credence in one striking scene. Michel leaves his apartment and, as usual, leaves his front door unlocked and ajar. He begins to walk down the stairs but is stopped by something he sees off screen. The camera frames him in a medium long shot, with his eyes gazing intently in the direction of the bottom of the stairs. Where we would expect a cut to what he sees, the camera stays on him, until he looks down (as if in shame) and then back up. We finally cut to his point of view: a young man, a stranger, dramatically framed through the open front door of the building. He leaves frame left, but returns a few seconds later to return the gaze in Michel’s direction. The camera cuts back to Michel, still looking at the stranger, who then slowly turns and walks back up to his room to sit on the side of his bed in deep thought. Why does he decide to return to his apartment? A few seconds later his friend Jacques and Jeanne arrive unannounced. He intuits the reason for their presence: they want him to go see his dying mother. He refuses, an act which should make us feel antipathy toward him, but which strangely does not. They leave, as he soon does (leaving his front door open), to meet with the strange man seen moments earlier. He approaches him on the sidewalk and asks, “What is it? Who are you?” The man does not respond, but merely motions for him to follow, which Michel does. The whole playing of this scene –the night time setting, the silent yet provocative gazes, the body language– suggests a male pickup. From this point on Michel meets the other male pickpockets and joins their collective. His ‘initiation’ includes a quick study in the skills and techniques of the trade. On the manifest level this scene can be read as Michel deliberating between a life of crime and a life of normality, and in saying no to Jeanne and Jacques, opts for the life of crime. On the psyhso-sexual or ‘latent’ level, this scene can be read as Michel deliberating between a life of homosexuality or heterosexuality, opting (at least for the time being) for homosexuality by joining the all-male pickpocket cell.

When Michel returns from Paris he discovers that Jeanne has had a child in the interim, but has been abandoned by the child’s father, Jacques (an act which surprises both Michel and the audience, given Jacques consistently holier than thou attitude toward Michel). He promises Jeanne that he will find a regular job and provide for them, a well meaning gesture which lasts a short while before he returns to his life of crime. Near the end of the film he returns to the initial location of the race track –the primal scene if you will– where he is followed by a police detective who sets him up by showing him a wad of bills he just won and clearly placing it in his inside coat pocket. In a telling gesture, Michel, who seems well aware of the setup, still proceeds with the pickpocket attempt, and is once again caught and, this time, arrested. His wanting to be caught can once again be read in Jansenist terms, as a form of ‘predestination.’ Once in prison –the cell and adjoining corridor which look identical to those of his apartment– [1] he is visited by Jeanne. During these visits he comes to realize his love for Jeanne, and his true calling in life. Jeanne becomes his salvation. In the film’s famous closing shot, the camera dollies in to a medium close-up of Michel and Jeanne embraced through the prison cells, while we hear Michel’s voice-over, “Oh Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.” Of note here is the shot scale, which is the closest Bresson’s camera gets to human faces in the film. Contrarily, he restricts the close-up to objects and hands. This decision reflects his choice in emphasising the minutiae of the everyday.

Although much more can be said about Pickpocket, the goal here is to underline the points necessary for the comparative analysis to the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West. Pickpocket runs a short 75 minutes, but is dense with activity and detail, the result of Bresson’s precise and elliptical editing style. While only 75 minutes of screen time, the story covers well over two years, with Bresson valuing minutiae over plot action. For example, we never see Michel being caught in the opening race track scene; all we get to see of the interrogation scene are the remaining few seconds where he is set free; we don’t see his mother dying (or how) and her funeral is registered in a brief two shot scene at the church, where all we see are Jeanne, Michel and Jacques seated from behind and then a cut to Michel’s teary eyed face; a scene at the amusement park is handled from a static camera position which keeps everything we would normally think in relation to such locations off screen or represented in a glass reflection and through off screen sounds; and of course, there is the compressed two year stay abroad. In many of these cases Bresson’s internal editing structure makes use of a literary technique called synecdoche, whereby a part is used to fill in for the whole. Like the way the camera closes off the surrounding space at the amusement park and church, but the sense of place is still clearly rendered through more efficient ‘oblique’ means. Synecdoche is also at work in the wonderfully fluid montage scenes of the pickpockets at work, where snippets of isolated moments of “hands at work” are captured in quick close-ups. At times the eyes become a synecdochic tool for other possible emotional or sexual feelings. As, for example, the close-up of Michel’s eyes which seem to express an almost orgiastic satisfaction at the moment when he has succeeded to gingerly pry open a women’s purse. It is for a reason that Bresson, in his Notes on the Cinematograph, wrote the phrase, “The ejaculatory force of the eye.” [2] Throughout, as suggested in my description of the ‘male pickup’ scene, eyes are the sole expressive feature on a character’s face.

These formal gestures of ‘ellipsis’ and ‘synecdoche’ can be broadly spoken of as part of what some refer to as Bresson’s ‘ascetic’ style (with some intending an allusion to Jansenism). When critics use the word ‘ascetic’ in relation to style it usually refers to directors who refrain from using the panoply of stylistic and technical tools of their trade to elicit meaning and emotion. For example, the use of a swelling, romantic orchestral score to underscore an emotional moment; or a camera dollying in quickly to a close-up of a character to underline a dramatic moment. In Pickpocket Bresson is very selective in his use of classical music, in fact never using it to solicit any one specific mood or emotion, and often using it at what would appear an inappropriate moment. Instead Bresson uses natural sounds –like footsteps, shutting doors, street traffic– which are often unnaturally heightened in volume. As already noted, Bresson makes very selective use of close-ups, almost exclusively for body parts and objects rather than faces. His actors are notoriously directed to emote the least amount of outward expression. All of this adds up to the ‘ascetic’ style (and by this one should not take this to mean ‘simple’).

I’ll now move on to the comparative analysis part of this exercise. The comparisons I see between Pickpocket and the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West are both formal and thematic. In some cases the comparison is one of similarity, in other cases the comparison is one of parallel or contrast. In some cases the end result is the same, but the means used to achieve the effect or meaning is different. For example, in both cases the mise en scène renders the feel of containment/imprisonment, but in completely different ways. In Pickpocket Bresson frames Michel in tight, small spaces, like his tiny apartment, narrow corridors, staircases, and, ultimately, a prison cell. In the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West Leone suggests imprisonment by setting his characters against vast, open spaces, with large mountain ranges in the background of shots which shuts off the horizon. Leone also evokes imprisonment in other ways more similar to the methods used by Bresson, such as the moment where Jack Elam traps a fly in the barrel of his gun (with the sound of the buzzing fly magnified), the presence of a bird in a cage being taunted by one of the outlaws, a claustrophobic shot of the camera framed from the underside of an oncoming train, or the shot when the gunslingers are boxed in by foreground and background space when the train transporting the Harmonica Man arrives on the platform.

As mentioned at the outset, the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West can function as a stand alone mini-movie, with a clear beginning (gunslingers arrive at an abandoned train station), middle (they wait until the train arrives carrying the man they have been assigned to kill) and end (a showdown is staged in which the stranger kills his assassins). Five of the six characters who appear in this scene never appear again, the sixth, the stranger with the harmonica (Charles Bronson), remains as a principal character. The three gunmen who appear at the abandoned train station waiting to kill the Bronson character, we later learn are part of Frank’s (Henry Fonda) gang. They are Stony (Woody Strode), Snaky (Jack Elam), and Al Mulock (uncredited, but coined ‘Knuckles’ for his habit of cracking them). In contrast to Pickpocket, which compresses temporality, this opening sequence, which lasts 14’35”, feels like distended time because nothing really happens in terms of action, as the three men wait stoically for the train to arrive. So while Bresson condenses action, Leone draws it out. However, like Bresson, Leone also employs ellipsis by rendering the sensation that the three men have waited far longer than fifteen minutes for the train to arrive. (We can surmise the amount of time based on what we briefly see the station master scrawl on the blackboard in the opening seconds of the scene: ‘Delays: To Flagstone 4 hours, From Flagstone 2 hours.’) This unusual and seemingly contradictory temporal perception is suggested through the characters’ sense of ennui (they appear bored beyond hope), the vast open spaces, the sparse dialogue and music, the amplified natural sounds, and the attention to minutiae (the sound of the creaking windmill, the repetitive sound of the ticker tape, the sound of water droplets settling on the brim of Strode’s hat, Mulock cracking his knuckles, the sound of the wind, etc.). In fact there is no music at all until the appearance of the Harmonica Man, who announces his arrival by a harmonica motif which will become his signature theme. All these elements –the aurally amplified natural sounds, the sparse use of music, the attention to minutiae, the elliptical cutting– are also used in Pickpocket. Like Bresson, one gets the sense of a director who is showing us precisely what is necessary and nothing more, nothing less (in principle of course every director should be doing this all the time, but one rarely feels this).

Perhaps one of the most striking parallels between the two films is the expressive and meaning-laden use of doors. In Pickpocket Michel is filmed walking through doors on so many occasions that it attains the symbolic gesture of a potential passageway in life (except for one telling time, when he first meets Jeanne at his mother’s, and does not find the courage to walk through the door, perhaps because it would signify an entrance into a world of normalcy and/or heterosexuality). In Once Upon a Time in the West the door does not attain any such symbolic meaning, but is used as an aesthetic device to frame the gunslingers against the vast, natural landscape. The effect is to instantly mythologize the characters against the historical backdrop of the western genre. This is immediately coded in its first usage, where we see Woody Strode framed in silhouette standing in a doorway as a direct referential nod to the final scene in John Ford’s The Searchers, where the John Wayne character (Ethan Edwards) is perfectly framed through an open door (Strode of course was also a performer in several Ford westerns).

Each of the three gunslingers are framed dramatically through an open doorway or window on at least one occasion during the sequence.

The way expressive close-ups are used across both films is an interesting exercise in contrast. Whereas Leone uses extensive close-ups, and at times extreme close-ups, of the weathered, craggy faces of the gunslingers to suggest their steely nerves and notorious past, Bresson reserves the close-up for hands and objects, while the human corpse is usually framed anywhere between medium and long shot range. What does bear comparison is the importance of the eye (already discussed for Pickpocket). The most striking effects of Leone’s close-ups is the focus on the eyes (by now a cliché icon of the spaghetti western). With the eyes alone Leone is able to render characterisation: ringleader Elam’s sleepy left eye, Strode’s round, dark marble-eyes, Knuckles’ deceptively marine blue psychotic eyes; the station master’s terrified eyes, the Native woman’s indifferent eyes, and Bronson’s steely, slit-like vengeful eyes. The importance of the eyes and the close-ups that feature them is corroborated by a statistical analysis which reveals that a remarkably high percentage of shots in this opening sequence are facial close-ups, 47% (54 out of 116).

An important device in Pickpocket, synecdoche, is used far less in Once Upon a Time in the West, appearing only at the beginning and end. The first gunslinger is introduced to us (by way of the gaze of the station master) with a close-up of boots closing a door shut, before the camera tilts up to reveal what was already announced by the boots and long coat alone, the presence of a gunslinger. The scene closes on a ground level close-up of the Harmonica Man’s boots and travel bag. In both cases the iconic image of the western boots stand in for the archetypical gunslinger.

To summarize this discussion of formal parallels between the two films, the style in the Once Upon a Time in the West sequence can also be described as ‘ascetic’ in its foregrounding of a handful of formal gestures –natural sound, extreme close-ups, bold framing. What gives the scene the sense of being highly stylized is that these limited formal tropes are used repeatedly without respite.

Parallels and affinities between these two films (Pickpocket and the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West) also exist at the level of theme, subject, or action. To begin, the Western is the popular genre par excellence when it comes to religious symbolism and imagery, beginning as early as 1916 with William S. Hart’s Hell’s Hinges. Religious and Biblical stories and imagery abound in the Western: the return of the Prodigal son, Christ figures, redemption stories, the west as a ‘garden of Eden,’ etc. (See Irini Stamatopoulos’s essay in this issue.) In Pickpocket I discussed the possibility of reading Michel’s decisions concerning his pathways in life in terms of the Jansenist belief in Predestination. In this reading (though by no means exclusive) the “strange path” that Michel claims to have taken to arrive at Jeanne’s love is in fact one already chosen for him by God. This fits in with all the images of imprisonment, the open doors, and prescribed physical spaces (corridors, staircases) which in effect ‘lead’ Michel to Jeanne. Jeanne becomes the light which leads Michel along the path to his salvation. In a wholly different, yet parallel sense, the fate of the three gunslingers are also predestined: a gunfighter must live and die by the gun. As many westerns dealing with the ‘tired’ gunslinger motif have already articulated, death becomes the only means of escape from a life of constant showdowns and challenges. (The exemplary model here being Henry King’s The Gunfighter, 1950). Death embodies freedom. In this respect the Harmonica Man becomes the equivalent of Jeanne: the figure who leads the gunslingers to their salvation.

Other parallels exist on a more superficial level. For example, in both cases the films feature all-male groups in a homosocial world –pickpockets and outlaws. In what could only be a fortuitous (for this comparison) fact, the two constant icons of the western genre –the horse and the ‘iron horse,’ the train– appear in Pickpocket. In the opening racetrack scene we hear the off-screen sounds of the horses running around the track, and in the later train station scenes when Michel leaves Paris to go abroad (and then returns) we see a train. Even the less constant but common western genre site of the prison cell appears in Pickpocket. As a general statement, one can say that both Pickpocket and Once Upon a Time in the West are ‘art films’ in the disguise of a popular genre (the crime film and the western). If anything, this analysis demonstrates how affinities can exist in the most unlikely of places, or, in another sense, that if one looks long and hard enough, similarities will begin to surface. My initial intuition of pairing these two films together was borne out by my class experience, with my students also seeing parallels on many different levels between the two films (on my prompting). Writing this has been an interesting exercise in ‘creative’ interpretation, renewing old viewing habits, and in cultivating the lateral thinking process; and perhaps it will encourage other film critics and writers to begin looking at films with a renewed perception and an open mind at ‘seeing’ through surface differences at strange affinities which may lurk below the threshold of critical orthodoxy.


1 Jansenism. Accessed 02/26/07.

2 Catholic Forum. Accessed 02/26/07

3 This observation is made by James Quandt in his commentary track on the Criterion release of Pickpocket.

4 All quotes by Robert Bresson are taken from Notes on the Cinematographer. 1975 With an Introduction by J.M.G. Le Clézio. Translated from the French by Jonathan Griffin (London: Quartet Encounters, 1986).

Strange Encounters at the Cinema Corral

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 11, Issue 2 / February 2007 Essays   art cinema   bresson   film style   leone   robert bresson   sergio leone   shaghetti western   theme_cinematography   western