This coming November, Michael Chapman, ASC will receive Lifetime Achievement honors at the CamerImage International Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland. This annual event often allows me the honor of gathering quotes and reminiscences about the Lifetime laureate from colleagues and admirers in the cinematography community. Christopher Chomyn, ASC is one such admirer of Chapman, whose story was worth retelling here in a longer form.
To this day, Chomyn has never met Chapman in person. But an email interaction was inspired by a scene from The Front, a lesser-known 1976 feature directed by Martin Ritt and photographed by Chapman that tells the story of a cashier who “fronts” for blacklisted television writers during the McCarthy era. The cast includes the incomparable Zero Mostel as defamed writer Hecky Brown and Woody Allen (who also wrote the play upon which the script was based) as unlikely hero Howard Prince.
An hour and a quarter into the film, the screen cuts to black, which is penetrated by the light of an opening hotel room door. Mostel’s character is escorted into the suite by the bellhop. The camera dollies with Mostel as he explores the space. There is a knock. The camera again returns to the door with Mostel, whose manner communicates a certain lightness. A room service waiter has arrived with Champagne, and the camera pans with him. After accepting a tip, the server leaves, and the camera stays with Mostel, dollying with him back to the Champagne, and staying with him as he crosses the room to look into a mirror and toast himself. He steps out of frame and the camera stays. We hear the sound of a window sash opening, and a curtain blows into frame from camera right. The camera pans toward the billowing curtain as the camera dollies back, we are left with an image of the open window, and Mostel’s Champagne bottle on the window sill. After watching him for 2.5 minutes, we know he has jumped. It’s a chilling scene, and amounts to near perfect cinema.
Here's the clip:
Note that Chapman's camera team on the picture included operator Fred Schuler (also a future ASC member), 1st AC Tibor Sands, 2nd AC Bill Johnson, gaffer Richard Quinlan and Key grip Robert Ward.
Moved by the simplicity and clarity of this shot while understanding how difficult it can be to create such a perfect moment, Chomyn went to the Writers Guild library and found the first registered copy of the script. On page 107, the scene read:
INT. HOTEL ROOM – NIGHT
Dark, as the door opens and a bellhop puts on the light and precedes Hecky into the room. He takes the key from the door and hands it to Hecky, who gives him a very generous tip.
The bellhop thanks him and leaves. Hecky takes off his jacket and carefully hangs it up. He goes into the bathroom and return with a glass of water, which he places on the night table next to the bed.
He takes several vials of pills from his pockets and empties the pills on to the table.
He looks at them and arranges them neatly in a row. Then he starts taking them, one after the other, washing them down with water.
When he has finished, he lies down on the bed. After a moment, he sits up and takes off his shoes, then lies down again in his stockinged feet. He looks up at the ceiling, eyes open.
Then he turns on his side. He draws his legs up. His eyes close. All his problems begin slowly to slip away.
“Of course, the problem with the scene as written is that we know the ending long before we get there,” says Chomyn, who wrote the following email to Chapman:
I hope you don’t mind my writing to you to ask you a question about your work on The Front. Although we haven’t met, I have been inspired by much of your work.
Specifically, I’m curious about the scene in which Zero Mostel commits suicide. I found the first draft of the script at the WGA library, in which his character swallows a fistful of pills. I find the scene as you filmed it to be infinitely more interesting, layered and evocative. I am curious at what stage in the process was the scene changed to what ended up in the film? Was it a subsequent draft? Was it decided in rehearsals? Did it evolve on set? Was it something handed to Martin by Woody? Was it something Martin came up with? Or was it something that you all discovered in the blocking?
To me, the scene is one of the greats. It represents the power of cinema and the power of imagination. It fulfills the promise of the narrative in a way that would not have been served by the originally scripted scene.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope to have the honor of meeting you sometime.
I look forward to reading your reply.
Two days later, he received this email from Chapman:
The Front was shot many years ago and my memory is shaky. I don’t remember there being a version where Zero took pills. As I do remember, Zero and I worked it out and showed it to Marty and he said OK and we shot it. It’s been literally decades since I’ve seen the film so I can’t totally trust my memory, but after a certain point isn’t it all one shot, with Zero and the camera crisscrossing each other until finally the camera stops on an empty frame and then the curtains blow in from camera right, meaning that the window was opened and Zero had jumped? I remember being quite proud of it, especially that we made it up on the spot. And I guess it still works. Thanks for reminding me of it. I hadn’t thought of it in a long time.
Chomyn sent him one final response:
Your memory of the scene is exactly right. Zero’s performance as you crisscross the room, draws us in, and the reveal of seeing the open window with the bottle of Champagne on the sill as the realization that Hecky has jumped is the perfect resolution. Whenever I watch the scene, or even when I describe the scene in detail to someone, I get the chills.
Thanks to Chomyn for sharing this glimpse into the mind of a master of cinema, and a reminder of one of the ASC’s purposes — to share with colleagues valuable insight into the choices that visual storytellers make. That insight will no doubt be passed along to younger filmmakers by Chomyn in his role as a teacher of cinematography at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
I would only add that Chapman’s recollection of making the shot in collaboration with the great actor Mostel serves as another reason — just one more among so many — that the Lifetime Achievement recognition from CamerImage (not to mention his 2003 ASC Lifetime Achievement Award) is so richly deserved.