There’s a lot to be said about using crowd in movies – Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith would be the first to testify, along with Carné of Les Enfants du paradis (1945) finale – but what Sturges gave us wasn’t a crowd exactly. His frame is full of people, but for the most time each of them has a face of his or her own. When I watched all his available movies in a row, I was struck by the careful way he and his regular DPs devised frame compositions that offered so many living portraits at once.
Consider the scene in the surgical amphitheatre in The Great Moment (1944): many a director would play the set decoration against the people in it, making their figures seem locked into this weird and perverse structure, designed to scrutinize pain, and guts, and death. Sturges, as it were, makes us see faces, lots of them (most obviously in a shot of elderly professor addressing his students about doctor Morton’s not showing up). Watching that scene I couldn’t stop thinking about Rembradt’s “The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632), with seven unforgettable faces of Tulp’s students: each different, with their gazes at cross purposes (literally, symbolically and also in terms of the painting’s mere composition).
Now, Sturges was all about reaching this same effect. There are brilliant shots in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) where one face seems literally to grow of another person’s neck, and yet another piles upon a separate group. Consider the first speech of the mayor of Oaksbridge: faces seem almost lined up for us to shift our eyes from one to another – mayor’s, his son’s , Eddie Bracken’s, his sweetheart’s, and everyone else’s in the frame, whether a character or not.
Sturges’ frame rarely – if ever! – opens up. His California (in Hail...) is no place of open spaces, as Diane Jacobs noticed in her “Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges”. Even when on location, we don’t get to see much of the world at large. The single sequence that covers most space in its mise-en-scene may be the bum first stealing from the hero in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), only to get killed by a train - but even than the space is blacked out (it’s nighttime) and our eyes don’t get to breathe, so to speak.
According to his biographers, Sturges loved the crowd; he relished at his packed-to-the-roof restaurant, and he consequently made his frame crammed, not with an excess of junk and props, but human faces. One of the pleasure of watching his movies is to let your eye wander freely and discover the richness of expressions, of beauty, of individuality he offered us to witness.