Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays

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).

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