Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed is a gem, a minor miracle of a movie that is so delicate, so perfectly put together, and yet somehow so fragile that if you remove one element, one take even, the entire thing would unravel. It’s a whodunit, I suppose, with various characters running around New York following each other and spying on one another, but Bogdanovich seems to think that that is the secondary plot of They All Laughed, the first being just putting all of these crazy people into the same movie and seeing what would happen.
There were other elements, too: these were all Bogdanovich’s friends. He wrote the movie for each one, specifically, utilizing many of their real-life qualities and quirks. So-and-so has a bad back and was doing crazy back exercises, okay, then let’s put that in the movie. These strange details give the film a haunting (I mean that literally – the movie walks around beside me) energy, combined with the title, which is supposedly joyful but clearly in the past (“laughed”). They All Laughed has a manic screwball vibe (no one is sane, everyone is on the make, and everyone is falling in love willy-nilly), but the keen of nostalgia is at times unbearable. There’s a magic to creating that specific blend of qualities. It requires you to be very very honest. I think that’s part of the key. Honesty. Truth.
It unfolds mysteriously as well, which takes a great deal of trust on the part of Bogdanovich. We don’t even learn characters’ names until 20, 25 minutes into the thing. There are a lot of characters, and although we start to guess how they are related, it is not at all clear what the connections are.
The first 5 minutes of the movie, which has a lot going on, including a helicopter landing and Audrey Hepburn’s first appearance, unfolds with zero dialogue. You overhear snippets of a conversation through the cab window, but nobody actually says anything intelligible until well into the 6th minute. That is crazy! Who is the hot cabbie, played by Patti Hansen? Does she know Ben Gazzara? It seems that she must with the looks they pass back and forth. Who is the bearded gentleman and why does he keep looking over at Gazzara? What is Gazzara’s wink all about? Why does he nod silently across the helicopter pad? What does that mean? And still, 6 minutes in, as the cab starts to tail the sleek black car carrying Hepburn, we are not given the answers. The answers don’t come until way WAY into the movie.
The plot isn’t the thing, as I said. It’s about these people. Directors say that all the time about their movies (“this is a character-driven movie”) but then you see the actual movie in question, which is all plot that the characters are hinged onto, and you think, “Methinks you need to look up ‘character-driven’, bub.”
While They All Laughed is the opposite of aimless, and while it may seem that the plot is the most important thing (especially because it is revealed so late what the hell is going on, creating tension in the viewer to understand) … what is really important here IS Patti Hansen. And Gazzara. And Hepburn. And John Ritter. And all the others.
Much of the film involves people spying on one another, sometimes in vast outdoor spaces like the middle of Times Square. John Ritter and Blaine Novak are following Dorothy Stratten (we have no idea why). They track her through Times Square, Ritter on one traffic island, Novak on another, Stratten 3 feet away from Ritter. Bogdanovich plays this out with no dialogue, and a masterpiece of looks and glances – Ritter to Novak, Ritter to Stratten, Novak to Ritter, Novak to Stratten – with dueling points of view – that is so much harder to accomplish than it looks. This so easily could have been a mess, with the audience not knowing where to look, or who is looking at whom – especially because it takes place in one of the busiest intersections on the planet.
Bogdanovich holds back on the closeups, too, in classical style, so that a real close-up actually means something, has some emotional impact. Most of it is medium shot, Ritter looking at Stratten, glancing across the intersection back at Novak, who makes a gesture. Ritter looks back at Stratten, and suddenly we are in a closeup with Ritter. The next shot we see is an ethereal medium shot of Stratten, unaware she is being followed, talking to her friend as a bus passes by behind her. Because we have gone into a closeup with Ritter, we know (because we understand visual cinematic language, even if we don’t know that we understnad) that he is staring at Stratten in a completely gaga way, blown away by her beauty, love at first sight. All of this is very very calculated on the part of Bogdanovich, and each scene is a mini-masterpiece of not only editing but forethought. Bogdanovich didn’t create this in the editing room, he filmed what he wanted to see, knowing in his head that the triangulation of glances needed to be as clear as possible, especially because we have no idea why these two blokes are following this dame. It’s even more extraordinary when you know that They All Laughed was filmed on a bare-bones budget, no money for extras – so the actors were actually placed smackdab in the middle of Times Square and had to play this all out in the middle of real passersby. But never for a second do you not know who is looking at whom.
The height of this technique comes in the final sequence in the country-western bar but another great example of it is in the Algonquin Hotel scene, early on in the film. Ritter and Novak trail Stratten into the hotel. We don’t know who anyone is. We don’t know why this woman is being followed. The Alqonquin Hotel lobby is a plush beautiful reading and tea room to this day, and Bogdanovich films it in a circle, the three characters in a triangle throughout the space, and because of the specificity of each characters’ eye line, we never lose our orientation. We always know who is looking at whom. Eyeline matching is one of the basic building blocks of movie-making, and without it you start to lose your perspective on where you are. It is described thus:
A term used to point to the continuity editing practice ensuring the logic of the look or gaze. In other words, eyeline matching is based on the belief in mainstream cinema that when a character looks into off-screen space the spectator expects to see what he or she is looking at. Thus there will be a cut to show what is being looked at:
Eyeline then refers to the trajectory of the looking eye.
The eyeline match creates order and meaning in cinematic space. Thus, for example, character A will look off-screen at character B. Cut to character B, who-if she or he is in the same room and engaged in an exchange either of glances or words with character A-will return that look and so ‘certify’ that character A is indeed in the space from which we first saw her or him look. This “stabilising” is true in the other primary use of the eyeline match which is the shot/reverse angle shot, also known as the reverse angle shot, commonly used in close-up dialogue secenes. The camera adopts the eyeline trajectory of the interlocutor looking at the other person as she or he speaks, then switches to the other person’s position and does the same.
The eyeline match creates order and meaning in cinematic space.
That’s what is done so brilliantly in the almost completely silent Algonquin Hotel sequence, with three characters each in their own specific space, but all looking at each other (and trying to seem inconspicuous about it).
The other complicated thing about this sequence (and the movie, in general) is that there is not one protagonist. There are many. Sometimes it’s John Ritter’s story. Sometimes it’s Ben Gazzara’s. Sometimes it’s Patti Hansen’s. Sometimes there are two points of view going on in the same scene (which is true of the Algonquin Hotel sequence, but I’ll get to that in a minute). So you have to make all of that clear to an audience. That now we are switching from John Ritter’s point of view to Blaine Novak’s. This has to be done without dialogue. It’s all visual. We know, from the camera angle, whose point of view we are supposed to be assuming. The magic of They All Laughed is that none of this feels confusing.
I don’t think I got each and every glance captured from the Algonquin Hotel scene, but I got most of them. It is an amazingly intricate scene, filmed in a real place, which imposes limitations on the filmmaker (you can’t knock down a wall at the Algonquin Hotel to make your camera moves work). You have three characters, one of whom is being followed (and unaware of it) (Stratten). You have the two followers, one who places himself in an armchair across from her (Ritter) and one who hangs out in the lobby corner on a payphone (Novak). Then you also have two other characters, who enter the worlds of both Novak and Stratten, causing a flurry of glances this way and that between the conspirators.
Let me reiterate: we don’t know who any of these people are yet. There are a tremendous amount of cuts in this small sequence, and almost no dialogue. I never get sick of marveling at it. Because we have no idea who these characters are yet, I won’t provide their names in the screengrab extravaganza below. Once you start to break it down into its parts, the scene doesn’t lose any of its magic (which isn’t always the case). If anything, the magic is heightened. The whole thing is so loopy, so funny, and yet the work behind the camera is meticulous.
Outside the Algonquin Hotel, Blaine Novak’s character watches Dorothy Stratten’s character through the reflection in a glass window across the street.
He looks across the street, seemingly at Stratten.
John Ritter, on the same side of the street as Stratten, looks at Novak and shrugs.
Stratten goes into the hotel and the two men follow. They crouch behind a glass partition and watch her walk by, her reflection clearly showing in the glass.
Then we see what they see, a dual point of view.
The two men separate, and then John Ritter peeks out at what is obviously Stratten from behind a column.
We see what he sees, Stratten telling the waiter that no she doesn’t want anything.
The camera then follows the waiter as he walks away, and there we see Blaine Novak, watching from the other side of the room. Novak is not watching Stratten, he is watching Ritter.
Ritter, still behind his column, looks across the room at Novak.
Then, in the same take, Ritter glances back over at Stratten.
We move into a closer shot of Novak, still watching Ritter. By this point, we know exactly where everyone in the room is. If Novak had been glancing slightly to his left, we would have known he was looking at Stratten. This has all been meticulously set up by Bogdanovich’s camera moves.
Ritter then moves across the room, looking back at Stratten as he does so.
Of course, because Ritter is a brilliant physical comedian (“world class”, as Bogdanovich has said), he trips over an ottoman, becoming the most conspicuous thing in the room. Cut back to Novak, who shakes his head when he sees Ritter trip, and then glances to his left, to check out Stratten again.
Ritter reaches the other side of the room and glances back over at Novak …
… before then turning to look back at Stratten.
We see what he sees: Stratten, oblivious to the fact that she is being spied on.
Ritter glances back over at Novak …
… and again, we see what Ritter sees: Novak is now placed at the pay phone in the lobby, but still looking back at Ritter, and he gives him an “Okay” gesture with his hand, down low.
Ritter nods, and then glances back over at Stratten.
Ritter then sits in the nearby armchair, opening up The Wall Street Journal.
Totally in his point of view now, we see the paper being lowered, and a glimpse of Stratten showing above the paper.
Reverse shot now. Ostensibly, we are seeing him from Stratten’s point of view, but because she is still oblivious to the fact she is being tailed, this particular medium shot doesn’t operate as a “change of point of view” like some of the others do. We are sitting in Stratten’s position, and if she looked up (which she does not), this would be what she sees. This is also an important closeup because although Ritter is obviously a detective of some kind, this particular facial expression does not show the cold calculated look of detective looking for clues. This shows a soft almost mushy fondness, illuminating that he is in love with this strange woman. Or at least very very taken with her.
We then see what he sees, Stratten reaching into her purse, surreptitiously taking out a piece of gum, and popping it into her mouth, glancing around quickly to make sure no one noticed.
Back to Ritter, who obviously melts at this tiny sign of humanity and insecurity in this angel in white. Ritter’s head has now tilted off to one side, his eyes soft and lazy, making him look hopelessly in love.
Because of that puppydog look on Ritter’s face, Bogdanovich now moves in close to Stratten, so that the closeup becomes an emotional clue: He is into her. He is reveling in her beauty. So let us revel as well.
Ritter is now startled by the waiter who asks him if he would like to order anything. In a brilliant comedic bit, Ritter flusters about, making a fool of himself, all the while continuing to glance back at Stratten, as he talks to the waiter.
The waiter finally leaves, and Ritter tries to get himself together again, never taking his eyes off Stratten.
Nervously, he looks over his shoulder back at Novak.
Novak is still on the phone, still looking back at Ritter.
Now comes a switch: a total change of angle on Ritter. Here, the point of view of the scene changes, from Ritter’s point of view to Novak’s point of view. When we see Ritter from this angle, we know that we are seeing him as Novak is seeing him.
Novak watches, as Ritter then turns back to look at Stratten from behind his newspaper.
Closer in on Novak now, who is talking on the phone, still watching Ritter.
In the same take, we see Novak glance off, beyond Ritter. We then see two completely new characters come in from an interior door into the lobby. We have no idea who these people are.
We watch the couple go their separate ways, and then Novak appears to be following one of them with his eyes.
Then we see what Novak sees. The man goes over to Stratten and joins her at the table. They obviously know each other, and greet each other with familiarity.
The camera then pans across the room (presumably the camera IS Novak’s gaze at this point) to check out Ritter, looking directly at the couple from over his newspaper.
Then (of course – we have come to expect it), Ritter glances back over at Novak.
Novak keeps staring at Stratten and the new man …
…. then glances way over his shoulder, at another angle, one we haven’t seen yet in this complicated sequence. So we know he is not looking at Stratten or at Ritter.
Then we see what he sees: the woman in the couple at the bar against the wall, turning around and coming back towards him.
As she walks by him, he asks her for a light. They have a sexually charged conversation, very very flirtatious, he wants to know what she is doing later. Could it be that he was only looking at the couple because he had the hots for this brand-new lady? Or does this have something to do with the Stratten case he is working on? We have no idea. We then see John Ritter (back in his point of view now), looking over at Novak chatting up the hot brunette.
We see what Ritter sees: Novak and brunette talking.
Then brunette walks out the door, Novak turns back, and immediately looks over at Ritter.
Ritter smirks at Novak in a way that seems to be saying, “Please keep your mind on the job”, although we are still basing all of this on very little actual information.
Then, same take, back to Stratten.
He sees Stratten and the new man picking up glasses of wine and clinking them in an obviously romantic way, before twining their arms round one another to have a sip.
Back to Ritter, again with the head-tilt, only this time to the other side. By this point, we are in full interpretation mode. The look here seems to be saying, “I love this woman, and who is this guy who gets to kiss her?”
At that moment, the waiter startles him again by coming back with his order of “tomato juice on the rocks”. The drink is left, and Ritter folds up the paper, never taking his eyes off Stratten.
Ritter’s eyes trained on Stratten, he picks up the juice, brings it up to his lips, and, of course, the straw goes right up his nose. (This must have taken so many takes to get it right.)
Ritter, flustered, embarrassed, fiddles with the straw, finally withdrawing it from his nose, and puts the drink down, looking all around the room, trying to see if anyone saw what just happened.
End of scene.
For a 45-second sequence (if that), that is a tremendous amount of cuts, takes, camera angles, and POV swaps. The sequence is a masterpiece.
And yes, you have no idea what is going on.
And no, it doesn’t matter.