The Battle of Algiers is a black-and-white historical drama released in 1966 and directed by Gillo Ponticorvo. The film chronicles the period from 1957-1962 when Algiers was in the midst of a war for independence against its French occupants.
The following post will look at formal elements in the film’s opening scene in a shot-by-shot analysis. Camera distance, lens types, camera movement, lighting (high vs. low key), framing (tight vs. loose) and foreground/background relationships will be covered for each shot.
Algiers 1957. A handful of French soldiers surround a shivering thin man in a room used for torturing. The man has cracked under pressure and “finally come clean.”
A wide-shot, the subject (thin man) is seen at the center of the frame as soldiers surround him in a half-circle. A wide-angle lens is used to create a sense of distance from the action, furthering the intimidating power of the half-circle. The camera is still throughout. This gives the film a documentary look and feel. Natural-key lighting is used to emphasize the documentary feel given off by the static camera, and perfectly balances the differing contrasts caused by high- and low-key lighting. Through small flourishes in the lighting, the thin man is brightest lit, while the French soldiers, though not smeared in darkness, hover over their victim with faint shadowing emphasized by the decision to keep them under lit. Tight framing emphasizes the cramped room and the smallness the thin man feels against the towering, intimidating soldiers. Rusty metal tools, a metal bed, a dirty faucet, and cracked walls are present in the background. The items and the soldiers forming the half-circle appear slightly out of focus to convey the staggered feeling of the subject after being tortured. A large washing bucket is emphasized in the foreground as a visual indication of the means by which the thin man was tortured (one would assume water torture, since he is shivering and only wears a towel around his waist).
A medium-shot, the subject is now fully surrounded by a cluster of soldiers as he is offered a cup of coffee. A telephoto lens creates a tighter relationship between the soldiers and the subject to emphasize the supposed offering of peace symbolized by the coffee. A still camera and natural-key lighting still emphasize the documentary feel. In the last seconds of this shot, the camera tilts upwards in unison with the French soldiers as they lift the thin man and have him standing up. Tight framing captures the subject in the center of a cluster of soldiers and heightens the intimidation and hopelessness he must’ve felt prior to the scene taking place. The tightness captured in the frame also helps victimize the subject, succeeding in earning the audience’s sympathy along the way. Two standing soldiers are in focus from the waist-down in the background, heightening the intimidation and looming force the soldiers have against the subject. In the foreground, however, are the out of focus shoulders of two soldiers. The subject is seen between these two shoulders, creating a sturdy exterior to the half-circle.
A long-shot emphasizes the puniness of the thin man against the French soldiers, who are in a tighter cluster that captures a claustrophobic vibe. A wide-angle lens captures a wider-angle of vision that is greatly altered because of the cramped positioning of the soldiers. The camera is still but the lighting is low-key as the thin man is brightly lit and the cluster of soldiers are dimly lit or heavily shadowed if near the thin man. Tight framing augments the diminutiveness of the thin man. The soldiers in the background appear in focus, while the soldiers in the foreground appear slightly out of focus. This complicates the established identity the audience had prior to the third shot. It adds complexity and texture to the soldiers, nearly humanizing them. There is a slight movement within the z axis as a soldier keeps gesturing for the thin man to take the cup of coffee.
A medium-shot captures the sudden entrance of the French captain. A telephoto lens keeps the captain and the thin man in focus, while all the other soldiers are slightly out of focus. The attention is deliberately placed on the thin man and the captain. The camera pans to the right and captures the captain’s sudden entrance and his approaching the thin man in a single move. High-key lighting brightly lights the thin man’s entire body and most of the captain’s face (his body is shadowed). The soldiers in the background are also lit brightly, carrying on with the theme of humanity presented in the shot four. Loose framing makes the relationship between the captain and thin man oddly casual, as if both men were allies. This framing emphasizes the satisfaction on behalf of the French for the thin man’s choice to “finally come clean” with what he knows. The background shows three of the clustered soldiers and has them in focus. The bright lighting emphasizes their youth. In the foreground are two apparently older soldiers who were also part of the cluster, but they are out of focus and dimly lit. One would assume their veteran positions with the French army have given them an unintentional loss of innocence. A slight movement in the z axis is caused by a young soldier who is ordered to take his hands off the thin man.
A medium close-up on the thin man gets his reaction to the French captain ordering him to dress as a French soldier in an operation to capture Ali La Pointe, an Algerian revolutionary. A telephoto lens keeps the thin man as the object of focus. The camera is still. High-key lighting keeps a bright glow on the thin man. Tight framing keeps the thin man’s reaction as the sole emphasis of this shot. The background slightly displays out of focus soldiers. The foreground is mainly the thin man’s chest, which looks disproportionately bigger than usual. This foreshadows a future event in this scene.
This shot is identical to shot four in camera distance and lens choice. The lighting is low-key, with a small glow on the thin man and shadows on the French soldiers. Tight framing emphasizes the claustrophobia caused by the shadows on the French soldiers. The camera is still though faintly shakes (an emphasis on the hand-held nature of the documentary feel it embraces). The background has French soldiers but they’re barely visible not due to focus issues but because of the foreground’s emphasis on the thin man and the captain. The thin man and the captain are in focus.
Close-up on the thin man as he’s dressed in soldier fatigues. He turns towards the camera without looking directly at it. A mournful expression is on his face. He shakes his head and screams “NOOOO!!!!” to illustrate the change of heart he’s had for betraying the Algerian cause. A telephoto lens is used to keep the thin man, positioned to the right of the frame, as the main subject of the shot. The camera is still and captures the thin man’s transformation by analyzing the actor’s expression. Low-key lighting casts a brighter light on the thin man and a greater shadow on the soldiers, particularly the captain. Tight framing captures only the thin man as he’s surrounded by the soldiers and is stared down by the captain. The framing is so tight on the bodies the room is barely visible. The background shows soldiers out of focus and heavily shadowed. The foreground presents greater emphasis on the thin man’s face and his reaction as he goes through a sudden change of heart.
A medium shot captures the subject heading for the window in an attempted suicide. This is prevented by a French soldier who pulls him down, slaps him, and escorts him out of the room. Wide-angle lens usage illustrates the intimidation and power the French soldiers have against the thin man by keeping the soldiers in focus with the thin man, while the world around them is blurred, as if made to seem unimportant. A hand-held pan to the left of the screen assists in emphasizing the French soldier’s escorting of the thin man. It creates a hectic immediacy for the following scene and prepares the viewer for the opening credit sequence (which is frickin’ awesome). Natural-key lighting usage creates a balanced humanity to the soldier’s reasonable escorting of the thin man. The soldier is somewhat humanized after slapping the thin man, in part because he nicely tries to reason with him by using kind words. Natural key lighting establishes a balance in power between the soldiers and the thin man, and indicates that he’s now one of them. Tight framing emphasizes the constricted space created by the soldiers as they wait for the thin man to be escorting out of the room. Nothing in the background is out of focus. The soldiers are in focus and serious. This helps heighten the seriousness of their mission and inadvertently risen the stakes as to what is at play throughout the film. The foreground presents the soldier and the thin man in sharp focus and larger than what they appear on screen. The attention is on them, and the sharpness of the focus assisted by the foreground helps make this point clear.