Mad Rooms: Shot Composition in Two Films of Bernard Girard

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Shot Composition in Two Films
of Bernard Girard

-Main Title-

For nearly three decades, Bernard Girard has been one of the invisible men of the American cinema. Briefly lionized for his independent feature A Public Affair (1962) and hesitantly applauded for Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966), he has remained otherwise unrenowned if not altogether unknown. In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris begins Girard’s career 18 years late (of twelve films in which he was involved between 1948 and 1966, Girard wrote nine and directed five) but properly assesses an aura of bleakness in the director’s approach:

Bernard Girard has made an interesting debut as writer-director of Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, but it is difficult to imagine where he can go from here. Dead Heat seems complete and definitive as the expression of a chilling sophistication in the treatment of the big caper genre. There is something so inhuman in the directorial attitude revealed that Dead Heat seems like a dead end.

The following year, reviewing Girard’s The Mad Room for The Village Voice, Sarris came closer to defining that bleakness: “The point in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is that we are all more or less crooked, and in The Mad Room that we are all more or less crazy, two considerable half-truths that require plots of more originality than Girard has thus far availed himself.”

In fact, originality or none, Girard is a director who has done his most memorable work trying to breathe fresh life into old genres. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and The Mad Room, which remain his two most-seen films, are built on the respective foundations of the bank-caper gimmick and the horror-of-personality idea. If he has not had the success that many other genre-oriented directors have enjoyed, it is due largely, I think, to an inability to establish an effective relationship between plot development and montage. Girard simply is not a montage director; and—odd for a screenwriter—he is not an especially literary one, either. His films just don’t hold together well enough, either sequentially or thematically (although, in this regard, his objections to producers’ final cut of The Mad Room should be recalled).

But what impresses me consistently about Girard is the occasional brilliance of his mise-en-scène. He possesses a painterly sense of composition which, though it emerges only now and again, enables him admirably to fit an entire story into his frame and still leave room to breathe. This sensitivity for composition extends not only to framing but to camera movement as well; Girard’s shot composition becomes, at its best, a kind of kinetic painting. And, lest it be objected that the composition could be the work of a competent cinematographer, since Girard himself seems mediocre in all other aspects, I must hasten to point out that similar compositional techniques of the highest quality may be observed in both Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and The Mad Room, products of two different cinematographers (Lionel Lindon and Harry Stradling Jr., respectively).

-Frame 1-

Iris-open on a group of human shadows cast against a stone wall. As we hear voices discussing philosophical, psychological, and moral questions, the camera tracks right along the shadows, ultimately revealing the figures of the shadow-casters: participants in a group therapy session.

The overtones of Plato’s “Cave Allegory” in the opening shot of Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round are far from accidental. The sequence which follows the opening shot introduces Eli Kotch (James Coburn), whom we recognize immediately or eventually, according to our own perceptions, as a con-man and bullshit-artist par excellence. In this scene he tells a heartrending (and, we soon come to suspect, fabricated) story about a trauma from his youth: the discovery of his mother’s faithlessness to his father (in fact, the particulars of the story bear a remarkable resemblance to the plot of a 1958 film written and directed by Girard, entitled The Party Crashers).The montage of the sequence gives us evidence that Kotch is creating this kitsch in order to have an effect on therapist Dr. Marion Hague (Marian Moses). Then, as the scene ends and the patients leave the room, we learn that they are—literally—prisoners, and the play on Plato’s image is complete.

James Coburn as Eli Kotch

The opening shot is symbolic of the film’s whole effort; for Girard delights in the things-are-not-what-they-seem situation throughout Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. The irony of the opening, in which earnest participants in a group therapy discussion turn out to be convicts, at least one of whom is playacting, is exactly reversed later in the film, in a shot in which a line of convicts is gradually revealed to be a group of costumed Central Casting hopefuls, at least one of whom (Paul Feng, played by Michael Strong) is a real criminal.

In discussing the film in Film Comment (Spring 1972), Stuart Byron echoes—perhaps unconsciously—the Platonic motif when he says that “Everyone in the film is just a little ‘off,’ putting on an act, somewhat tending toward some unknown ideal.” In the film, Kotch—alias Henry Silverstein, poet—defrauds and exploits several well-off women in order to finance a well-planned bank robbery at Los Angeles International Airport. The robbery is timed to be executed while security measures—under the guidance of Milo Stewart (Robert Webber)—are amply preoccupied with preparations for the arrival of a visiting Soviet dignitary. In the end the robbery succeeds, Kotch and his associates flee to Mexico, and he never learns that the naïve young woman (Camilla Sparv) he had married for cover and quickly deserted in order to bring off the robbery has fallen heir to a seven-million-dollar fortune. But the irony of the ending is undercut by Kotch’s last remark: In response to Eddie Hart’s (Aldo Ray) assertion that “What I want to do now is spend it,” Kotch smiles, “It all depends on what you need.” The implication is that the fraudulent game itself, and not the money, is the source of Kotch’s satisfaction and his happiness. As Byron puts it, “It is the search itself and not the goal that matters to Eli.”

-Frame 2-

Everyone in the film both defrauds and is defrauded; but the film’s central fall guy is Milo Stewart, who plays a crucial role in what Byron sees as the film’s essential conceit:

Girard’s film, presented in the form of a comedy thriller, clearly postulated what the others of its type merely implied. That both criminals and Establishment share the same corrupt values is not a mindless suggestion in this movie but its very point. The cynicism of the genre thus became, in Dead Heat, a very real and very deep despair—a despair about the nature of American society…. There is really no difference between Eli Kotch, who acts only as a mask, only for the game, only to pretend—and whose fabulous bank haul is performed more for fun than for any monetary gain—and the masters of power, who likewise live but for the effect and perpetration of an “image.”

Milo is a frightened man who cannot afford to allow anything to go wrong, and we share his concern that the United States not be “embarrassed” by the occurrence of any violent or insulting public behavior toward the Soviet general. To make sure all his security systems are organized properly, Milo insists on a “dry run” of the general’s arrival. He has devised a plan whereby only a handful of trustworthy individuals will know in advance through which airport gate the general’s motorcade will pass, thus heading off the possibility of a demonstration’s being mounted against the visiting dignitary.

Robert Weber and dignitaries: ‘Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round’

Milo’s methods are grudgingly approved by the hesitant, untrusting Russian advance-men, and the dry run is carried out. Just when we think things are going smoothly Milo and Federal and Soviet security agents round a corner toward the appropriate gate, designated at the last moment and known to only a few, to be suddenly framed by an indistinct foreground aura. Lionel Lindon’s camera racks focus to bring into brutally sharp clarity the gate, locked shut with chains and adorned with a hangman’s noose, hung as a protest against the general’s visit. The confining quality of the frame itself is repeated in the noose, which frames Milo, and is further reinforced by Girard’s placement of Milo in a group, trapped, his failure made embarrassingly public.

The shot has all the more significance because, as the noose comes into sharper focus, Milo—in the center of the shot, his head “in the noose”—becomes blurred. Because he visually “hangs himself” by moving into the shot from the background, we receive a profound and immediate impression of Milo’s guilt—an impression which we do not grasp literally until a later scene, in which the dialogue reveals that Milo himself was the “security leak” who gave away the identity of the designated gate. By telling a relative where to post herself and her children in order to get a good view of the general’s motorcade, he had, via grapevine, given the vital information to the protesting reactionaries.

His guilt extends further, of course, in the larger context of the film itself; for if anyone is responsible for allowing the airport bank to be robbed, it must surely be the director of security, Milo, whose elaborate precautions for the Russian’s arrival overlooked normal security measures in other parts of the airport. Milo, of course, is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t; his position is quite untenable on the film’s own terms, and this is the ultimate meaning of the noose shot.

There are, therefore, three kinds of tension at work here. Between the purely literal tension of Milo’s position in the plot of the film and the purely visual tension of the foreground versus the background of the shot itself falls the all-important tension of the shot against the plot, the visual versus the literal: Milo, who according to the terms of the plot is a well-meaning if not wholly competent nice guy, is suddenly indicted, convicted, and metaphorically executed in the visual terms of a single shot. And the incrimination inherent in the shot’s composition is not explained literally until later, when we learn that Milo was indeed even more to blame for the breach of security than the virtue of his position of responsibility made him.

-Frame 3-

A similar composition in The Mad Room works against the film’s plot in the same way, and reveals the same three tensions at work. Ellen Hardy (Stella Stevens) has come to a mental hospital to meet her teenage brother and sister, who have been committed there for twelve years following the brutal knife-slaying of their parents. As Ellen enters the room from a door in the background of the shot, a huge foreground hand points an accusatory finger at her from the right edge of the frame. As the camera tracks back and Ellen moves forward, the room is compressed to normal perspective and we see that the pointing hand is but one of several such figures which form a mobile suspended from the ceiling. That first frame composition cues us, on a not quite subliminal level, to Ellen’s guilt of the crime for which her brother and sister were committed—a guilt which the plot does not reveal literally until considerably later, and which schizophrenic Ellen herself does not recognize until very near the end of the film.

The room she has entered at the hospital is her brother’s and sister’s “mad room,” a room which a psychiatrist has encouraged them to occupy and decorate as they see fit, and to which they retreat for both security and freedom when they feel at odds with the world around them. In this sense, then, the room is informed by the presence of Ellen’s siblings, and the mobile’s pointing finger prefigures their discovery of her guilt. On the plot’s terms, each of the younger children suspects the other of having been the sole perpetrator of the crime, and they come to realize Ellen’s guilt only when a new murder presents incontrovertible evidence that neither of them could have been involved.

The “clinical explanation” of Ellen’s psychosis, late in the film, is that she killed her own parents out of jealousy of her younger siblings, and effectively transferred her guilt to them, both in her own mind and in the public interpretation of the crime. So by an intricate process of association the pointing hand may be seen in retrospect not only to implicate Ellen but also to transfer the guilt of the crime from the shoulders of the falsely accused children back to their psychotic older sister.

-Frame 4-

Notified by the hospital authorities that George (Michael Burns) and Mandy (Barbara Sammeth) are ready to be released, Ellen persuades her employer, widow Gladys Armstrong (Shelley Winters), to take them into the mansion where Gladys lives. Also residing at the mansion are Ellen, who works as Gladys’ private secretary; Gladys’ stepson Sam (Skip Ward); another secretary, Chris (Carol Cole); and a homely dog named Major. Ellen has not, of course, revealed to Gladys the true reason for the children’s long absence, but has instead made up an absurdly ornate lie which will trap her sooner rather than later. Ellen, in fact, because she is living a lie, has become a compulsive liar, preferring fabrications to truth even when nothing is to be gained thereby.

‘The Mad Room’

In Ellen’s room at the Armstrong mansion, Ellen interrupts Mandy in the process of going through her older sister’s dresser drawers. The two have a brief clash, and the dialogue works at cross-purposes, with Ellen primarily concerned that Mandy and George go along with the lie she has created about their past and a recently deceased uncle, and Mandy insistent that she and George be allowed to have a “mad room” somewhere in the house. Ellen has her back to the camera. She faces a mirror, positioned at its screen-left edge so that only half of her image is reflected in the mirror. Mandy is at the other side of the dresser mirror, not reflected but standing in profile to the camera and facing her sister. As they talk, with Ellen’s reactions visible on the half of her face reflected in the mirror, George enters the room through a door behind the camera; his entrance is seen entirely in the mirror.

This incredibly complicated shot becomes a “mad room” in itself , to which Girard retreats in an attempt to sort out visually the character relationships which will emerge literally later in the film. The shot gives us two Ellens—or, more precisely, two “half-Ellens”: before the mirror, we have the back half; reflected in the mirror we have one side of her face. Even without recourse to the rest of the shot’s content, we have already a classic image of the schizophrenic personality; and though she faces the mirror, she spies there only half of her own image. Her back to the camera only serves to reinforce her unwillingness—or more accurately her inability—to face her true self.

Simultaneously echoing and opposing this “half-in, half-out” image is Girard’s placement of Mandy and George in the shot. Mandy is entirely outside the mirror; George, once he enters the room, is seen entirely in it. In that sense neither of the two is “split” the way Ellen is. At the same time, the fact that one sibling is in the mirror with half of Ellen and the other sibling is outside the mirror with the other half suggests an affinity between the two teenagers and their older sister. The exact nature of that affinity is defined only in retrospect, since at this point in the film the naïve viewer still believes (on the plot’s terms) that Mandy and George killed their parents. The real relationship which ultimately emerges is that Mandy and George are publicly guilty and privately innocent of the crime of which Ellen is privately guilty and publicly innocent.

-Frame 5-

A key shot at the climax of the film repeats this public/private motif using a window instead of a mirror.

Soon after the previously described mirror scene, Ellen agrees to let Mandy and George use as a mad room the private study of Mrs. Armstrong’s dead war-hero husband. Gladys soon discovers the intrusion, learns the truth about the children’s past, and insists that they be made to leave the house. The same night, Gladys is slashed to death with her dead husband’s sabre. Ellen, believing that she is covering up for her siblings who have murdered again, disposes of the body; but she doesn’t know that the dog, Major, has carried off Mrs. Armstrong’s severed hand (a grimly whimsical image of the dog’s “biting the hand that feeds him,” a joke which broadens with the recognition that Major is not fond of his mistress, and that she also keeps a team of huskies chained up in the forest and has made them vicious and mad by underfeeding them to keep them in shape for sled-dog competitions).

When, during the course of a tea party, a distraught alcoholic neighbor (Beverly Garland) repairs to the Armstrong bathroom and slashes her wrists, the sight of the blood again awakens primitive feelings in Ellen. After the woman is rushed to hospital and the guests have left the house, Mandy and George discover on the walls of the bathroom childish drawings done in blood—the same sanguinary graffiti which had adorned the walls of their parents’ bedroom and which had served to convict them of the crime. Only at last the literal plot catches up with the visuals and shows the grisly artist to be Ellen.

The next day, Ellen gazes out a picture window, watching a group of builders whose halting efforts to get a start on the historical museum Mrs. Armstrong wanted to erect to her husband’s memory have throughout the film counterpointed the gradual, fitful but inevitable reemergence of Ellen’s long-suppressed second self. We watch from Ellen’s point of view as she catches sight-simultaneously of Major trotting toward the house with Gladys’ hand in his mouth, and of her own horrified face, reflected in the window. Point of view is important: we don’t see the “real” Ellen at all—no “back to the camera” this time—but watch only her reflection in the window, watch her expression change dramatically as once again her murderous alter-ego emerges. The reflected Ellen faces us, and the dog moves toward us: in terms of direction, position, and distance, the two are united, not opposed. The camera does not move, nor does Ellen: only the dog moves, and so dominates the frame; so that what unites Ellen with Major is the truth about the murder of Gladys. In the picture window shot, Ellen’s private personality confronts and utterly defeats her public personality.

-Frame 6-

Ellen resolutely pursues the dog, lures him into the basement, and produces the sabre, proceeding to hack the poor beast to pieces. She is still slicing furiously, long after any need for slicing could possibly remain, when Sam—Mrs. Armstrong’s stepson and Ellen’s would-be suitor—enters the basement door and stands watching, his expression not so much of horror as of understanding, as if something which had eluded him all along has finally begun to make sense. On a medium close shot of Ellen as she turns in mid-slice and sees Sam, Girard freezes the frame and rolls his end titles. As long as we sit and watch, we see this final image of despair. Sam, one possible protagonist, becomes the means by which his sweetheart must now face justice. Ellen, another protagonist, is finally caught with her horrible secret self totally exposed. This time, she knows, no lie will cover her. She can’t even lie to herself. And she faces the choice of either relenting and standing judgment, or of killing yet another bystander, her love-interest, and probably standing judgment anyway. Hope—if there is any at all—lies with Mandy and George, and with the other secretary, Chris. None of these appear in the final moments of the film.

-Frame 7-

But perhaps the best visual definition of the world of Bernard Girard remains the final shot of Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round. Kotch, in abandoning his young wife Inger, had told her some story about being involved in military operations, so she has gone to military authorities in an effort to trace him. Of course, no such trace is possible, and two officials decide between themselves that the poor woman has clearly been deserted. Too bad, too: all that money that this husband-on-the-lam will never get his hands on … and as they talk the camera moves up and away from them to gaze down at Inger, sitting in a waitingroom, hoping for news of her husband, a frozen look of worry and sadness on her face. She is seen in part-profile, draped over the cold waitingroom furniture, and from a slightly higher than human angle. The look on her face tells us that the truth is beginning to dawn on her. “It all depends on what you need,” and what Inger clearly needs is not the seven million dollars but something which only a certain man—not Eli, but the mask that Eli was to her—can give her. She waits, then, not for someone who will never return but for someone who never existed. Girard poses her like a Renaissance Virgin Mary in her chamber, stood up by the Angel of the Annunciation.

-End Title-

Conferral of auteurship on Bernard Girard would be a bit ill-advised, in light of his consistent faultiness in getting his plots, themes, and vision into some appropriate, effective form. It is also not unreasonable to assume that if he were destined for directorial greatness he would surely have shown more by now than these occasional flashes of compositional brilliance (though, again, it is likely that he has more than once been the victim of myopic studio cutting). Still, the flashes are worth noting. They show us that something more than a hack director of genre programmers is at work. And at their very best they reveal an intense and grim personal vision, struggling fitfully—and sometimes successfully—to find its own best mode of expression.

‘Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round’

The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable research assistance of William McCallum.

(includes theatrical releases only)

(“SP” indicates that Girard received a screenplay or story credit.)
1957: Green-eyed Blonde. 1958: As Young as We Are, Ride Out for Revenge, The Party Crashers (SP). 1962: A Public Affair (SP). 1966: Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (SP). 1969: The Mad Room (SC, with A.Z. Martin). 1972: The Happiness Cage (The Mind Snatchers). 1975: A Name for Evil.

1948: Waterfront at Midnight, The Big Punch. 1950: Breakthrough. 1952 This Woman Is Dangerous. 1953: Jennifer. 1958: The Saga of Hemp Brown. 1959: The Rebel Set.

Screenplay and direction: Bernard Girard. Cinematography: Lionel Lindon. Art direction: Walter M. Simonds; set decoration: Frank Tuttle. Editing: William Lyon. Production: Carter DeHaven, for Columbia Pictures. (108 minutes)
The players: James Coburn, Camilla Sparv, Robert Webber, Aldo Ray, Michael Strong, Severn Darden, Nina Wayne, Todd Armstrong, Marian Moses, Rose Marie.

Direction: Bernard Girard. Screenplay: Girard and A.Z. Martin, after a screenplay by Garrett Fort and Reginald Denham, from the play Ladies in Retirement by Denham and Edward Percy. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr. Art direction: Sidney Litwack; set decoration: Sid Clifford. Editing: Pat Somerset. Production: Norman Maurer, for Columbia Pictures. (93 minutes)
The players: Stella Stevens, Shelley Winters, Michael Burns, Barbara Sammeth, Skip Ward, Carol Cole, Severn Darden, Beverly Garland, Lloyd Haynes, Lou Kane, Jennifer Bishop, Gloria Manon.

Copyright © 1976 by Robert C. Cumbow

Leave a Reply