Dailies: The Sergio Leone Wide Shot in Breaking Bad

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Sergio Leone’s films continue to fascinate long after the famous director’s death in 1989. Perhaps the most interesting Leone homage in recent years is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), an Iranian vampire “eastern” directed and written by Ana Lily Amirpour. (Just compare the opening credits of Amirpour’s film and those in Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and you’ll see what I mean.)

The raw, austere, and lonesome environment of deserts—whether in the east or west—has an attraction to contemporary film directors like Amirpour, the Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men), Quentin Tarantino (Natural Born Killers and Django Unchained), and TV creators like Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad.

What better way to situate humans (and human-made technology, such as RVs) as miniscule, frail creatures than through a wide camera shot. Gilligan’s DP, Michael Slovis (see my “Dailies” for September 11), noted in a Wired article that the “wide shots come from Vince’s love of [Italian Director] Sergio Leone…One of the first things he told me was to look at…The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

Picture the final standoff between Tuco, Blondie, and Angel Eyes in the original 1966 film, and you have a good idea of Leone’s signature wide shot, which reminds us that the desert is as much an antagonist as any gunslinger. The same goes for Breaking Bad, which makes plenty of nods to Leone, including naming a villain “Tuco” (though, I think it’s fair to say, Raymond Cruz offers a much nastier version of the original Eli Wallach character). I take my hat off again to Jakub Schiller (mentioned in my last “Dailies”) who notes (in the Wired article mentioned above) that the characters, and sometimes even the cars, in Breaking Bad “are just little blips on the screen. Like the filters Slovis uses, the wide open shots help to reinforce the desolation of the desert.” (Check out the Schiller piece for some key examples.)

What comes to mind for me is that hopeless moment in “Crawl Space” (4.11) where Walt is tasered and brought out to the desert: after the grim close-up shot of him with a black hood over his head, we get the wide shot, which shows a panoramic view of two cars, two men standing, and Walt in the middle, bent over. To be sure, the perspective demonstrates Walt’s imminent “fall,” reinforced by the fact that, in his crouched position, he is literally the smallest figure in the shot. And yet Walt still approaches the situation as a “stand off,” mocking his adversaries in the face of death. Later, when Walt utters one of his famous lines, “Say my name” (5.7), we’re in the desert again; and, with yet another Leone wide shot, we’re left to ponder which of the three gunslingers from The Good, the Bad, and Ugly we’re seeing here: Tuco, Blondie, or Angel Eyes?

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