*This post is part of Nathaniel’s Hit Me with YourBest Shot series and contains GRAPHIC IMAGES.
I’ve always thought Sam Mendes’ second feature doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. There is so much to admire, from performances that transcend the characters they inhabit to a story that, while never fully exploring its potential, manages to dig deeper than the machinations of the crimes at its centre. But among all the film’s powers, legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning work takes the cake.
Choosing a favourite shot from such an abundance of options isn’t easy. Hall’s somberly lit atmosphere captures the era beautifully. His lens gives a poetic quality, however colourless, to the violence. It’s the type of cinematography that attracts attention to itself, but when it seems so fitting, so elegant, it isn’t something to complain about.
As is often the case when I participate in this series, my favourite shot in the film is one that’s been etched in my memory from previous screenings. It’s from an early sequence in the film. Michael Sullivan Jr. has hidden in his father’s car to ride with him and Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) to a meeting. As his father (Tom Hanks) and Connor confront their associate Finn McGovern (Ciaran Hinds) things get out of hand, Connor shoots Finn and Sullivan Sr. is forced to gun down his guards. Michael witnesses the proceedings through a hole in the wall.
The scene, which is significant in the narrative since it really sets the story off, is shot through the hole with reverse shots of Michael peeking in.
It’s an intense way to introduce Michael to the brutal world his father lives in and it’s framed perfectly. What makes this sequence most striking is the way it draws inspiration both from the graphic novel of the source material and gangster films of the pre-code era. The chiaroscuro effect of the illustrations is achieved through the hard lighting and slow motion, and the shot-reverse-shot structure creates a similar dynamic. Vicious as the scene may be, one can't help but pause and admire the beauty of Hall’s work.