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Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash

The New York Times - Watching Movies with Kevin Smith

July 20, 2001


The Thrill Is Just Talk


Monica Almeida/The New York Times
The director Kevin Smith gears up to watch the 1966 film "A Man for All Seasons," starring Orson Welles and Paul Scofield.

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Tracy Bennet/Dimension Films
Kevin Smith, left, and his co-star Jason Mewes in "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," Mr. Smith's latest sex-and-drugs comedy.

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"He is so subtle," Mr. Smith said. "He can communicate such disdain without ever uttering a cross word or going over the top. For instance, he never says outright that he hates Cromwell. But it's always in his voice. You can hear it back there."

By the time Mr. Smith first saw "A Man for All Seasons," he already knew Robert Shaw, largely for playing Quint in "Jaws." It was a revelation to hear him tear into Bolt's dialogue and to preen his way through this short but decisive role. "It was kind of, `Oh, my God, it's Captain Quint as Henry VIII,' " he said.

Shaw's performance, which played the king as a kind of gleefully self-satisfied adolescent, has more than a little ham in it, too. But in his case, at least, it fits the part, Mr. Smith said. "It chews the scenery in a different way than Welles did because he's playing a far more colorful character, so it fits," he said. "Look how he paces back and forth as he talks. It's what children do when they're being petulant. You know it's a great performance because he comes into the movie for one major scene, steals the movie for about 10 minutes, and then he's gone. But he's so good that he kind of hangs over the rest of the movie. In a way, he's like the shark in `Jaws.' People talk about him long before he shows up and then, boom, there's Henry."

Beating Actors to the Punch

While watching the film, Mr. Smith frequently anticipates his favorite bits of dialogue. Often, he would say the line aloud just before the actor. "You're very free with my daughter's hand, Roper," Mr. Smith would say, just moments before Mr. Scofield utters the line. Or, "I trust I make myself obscure," just moments before More uses the line to explain his strategy to Norfolk.

Most of the time, though, Mr. Smith was content simply to issue an alert. "Here comes a good line," he'd say. And then he'd glance over to gauge the reaction to it.

When Mr. Smith notes something in Zinnemann's direction, it usually involves either some subtle editing choice or the lack of visual razzle- dazzle. ("There are a lot of highs and wides in this movie, but there are no big pullbacks or big directing moments. It's way too understated for that.")

In the crucial scene between More and the king, for instance, long portions of the sequence are played entirely on Shaw's face, even while Mr. Scofield is speaking - partly because it is his big scene, but also because it's a kind of visual echo of the way everyone responds to the king's presence. He immediately becomes the center of attention.

When Meg approaches her father and says she is worried he will be imprisoned for his stance, More grabs his own cloak and responds, "This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made." Mr. Smith laughed out loud, but a little sadly. "Oh, you are so wrong, Thomas," he said. "Probably the only time he really was wrong."

In Shaw's second and final scene in the film, he is singing to his new beloved, Anne Boleyn (played by a bright-eyed and flirtatious Vanessa Redgrave). He spots a figure across the room that looks to him, and to us, like Thomas More, and hopes that it is indeed his chancellor returned to announce a change of heart. "Thomas! Thomas!" the king cries as he strides across the room.

"Watch this," Mr. Smith said. "This is such an interesting choice. Look how long Zinnemann waited to play the reveal."

We see the other man begin to turn, but the camera cuts back to the king's face before we know whether the other man is actually More. By the time we cut back to him, he has bowed low and his face is hidden. He begins to rise, but the camera cuts again just before his face is revealed, and we watch Shaw's reaction - delight melting into disappointment as the man turns out to be someone other than More.

"Zinnemann holds out so we get the reveal after the turn and the bow, so basically you see it on Henry's face," Mr. Smith said. "Such an interesting choice. This way, it really becomes so much more about Shaw's performance. My guess is that it was an editing decision, like somebody in that editing room really dug Shaw's performance and realized that if they cut it this way that his performance would become the punch line."

'A Weird Choice'

Only once does Mr. Smith have a quibble with Zinnemann's direction. It comes in a scene in which More is awakened in his prison cell by a guard carrying a torch. The camera shows the sleeping More's face, then cuts to show the torch approaching. The flickering light is out of focus, as if seen through sleepy eyes. The camera then cuts back to Mr. Scofield, whose eyes open, and back again to the torch, which gradually comes into focus.

"I always thought this was a weird choice," Mr. Smith said. "They do that first point-of-view shot of the torch, like it's More looking at it as he wakes up, but then they cut back to him and his eyes are still closed. The sequence is wrong. How can you have a point-of-view shot of More looking at the torch if he hasn't opened his eyes yet? It doesn't feel right. But it's a minor quibble in an otherwise flawless film."

As surprised as he is that so few people have seen "A Man for All Seasons," Mr. Smith is just as surprised that Zinnemann rarely turns up on the lists of the top directors.

"He's not one of these directors who you drop his name and people go, oh, that's so Zinnemann-esque," he said. "He's wonderful, and this movie is proof positive, but he doesn't have the enduring reputation that he deserves."

For Mr. Smith, Zinnemann's delicate touch is best exemplified in the crucial scene between More and the king. "Just watch this, where they're sitting on a bench and talking," Mr. Smith said. "There's a lot of tension in the scene because we know that the king wants More to go along with his new marriage and we know that More won't. But mostly, it's just these two guys talking to one another for 10 minutes. And as they sit on the bench, there is the slowest of slow dolly movements as the camera gradually moves closer to them. You have to watch the edges of the frame to even see it, it's so gradual. There, can you see it? Wow. It's so slow. But somehow, because of it, the scene does not feel in the least bit static. Genius."

In the climactic scene of More's trial before an ecclesiastical tribunal, Mr. Smith notes again and again the director's restrained approach. More is frequently shot from behind, often little more than a small figure in the middle distance. For historical accuracy, Zinnemann also places neither the king nor More's family in the courtroom with him.

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