April 8, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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Seduction, jealousy, murder — and that’s all without a single word being spoken. Ewald Andre Dupont’s Piccadilly remains one of England’s greatest silent films because it demonstrates how powerful cinematography can effectively hold an audience’s attention.

Piccadilly opens within a popular London nightclub of the same name. Made famous by its two star dancers, Mabel (Gilda Gray) and Victor (Cyril Ritchard), Piccadilly is owned and operated by Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). All is well until tension between Victor and Wilmot causes a vacancy in the entertainment line up. When a certain Chinese scullery maid named Shosho (Anna May Wong) with a particularly entrancing sway in her hips usurps Mabel’s position as the star of Piccadilly, trouble and disaster soon follow.

While many aspects of Dupont’s film possess a dual nature, he skillfully uses these frequent contrasts to his advantage, making a greater impression on viewers. For example, all indoor shots are filmed with a yellow tint, while all outdoor shots are tinted blue. On a deeper level, Dupont plays up the differences in personality between his characters. Mabel’s dramatic, diva-esque fits are juxtaposed along with Shosho’s subtly seductive suggestions.

Wong is a dangerous femme fatale who understands the power of mildness and moderation. When Dupont introduces audiences to Shosho, he pans the camera up her body as she dances with abandon in Piccadilly’s scullery. With movements slight and eyes closed, it is no wonder that Shosho captures the attention of Wilmot.

Similar to the persuasive power of his leading character, Dupont also maximizes the possibilities of being subtle. Despite the lack of spoken dialogue, Dupont never forces his characters to exaggerate their movements, instead laboring over close-ups of slight actions. The camera lingers as Wilmot lovingly strokes Mabel’s arm, or when a multitude of expressions flit across Mabel’s face as she hears the audience’s thunderous applause following Shosho’s performance. Dupont also experiments with what audiences do not see. What is not visible often has great influence, and much of Piccadilly’s crucial action is communicated only by shadows on walls and well-timed black outs. Specific details of each scene, such as when Shosho conceals her face behind a wide sleeve with only her eyes visible, also convey the power of the hidden. As Shosho slowly lowers her sleeve to reveal her features, audiences, as well as Wilmot, are unable to look away as they are caught under her spell.

Proximity, both physical and emotional, is frequently evident in the film. Dupont plays with second person camera perspective to heighten audience involvement. Victor and Mabel end up “dancing with the audience,” since the camera takes the perspective of each dancer’s partner. When Mabel is deep in contemplation, Dupont frames the scene with Mabel as the central figure, her surroundings slightly blurred. We are seeing her in a private moment not meant to be seen by outside eyes, and thus audiences achieve closer psychological proximity with Mabel.

With a delightfully jazzy soundtrack, Piccadilly effectively establishes the mood of its era. Each character is constructed as a slightly different variation on the overall musical theme, and this uniqueness stems from Dupont’s ability to pair different parts to form a coherent whole. Technological shortcomings in no way hinder the sophistication of Dupont’s filming style. In one shot, Dupont sweeps the length of an entire bar counter with his camera in one continuous shot with only the hands and drinks of patrons visible. Deliberate and innovative in his craft, Dupont demonstrates the power and lyrical depth of effective cinematography.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang