They All Laughed: The Wordless Opening Sequence

In the piece I wrote yesterday, They All Laughed: Eyelines, Points of View and Three-Dimensional Space in the Algonquin Hotel Sequence (I could use some help with my titles), I took note of Peter Bogdanovich’s use of multiple points of view and camera angles to show the machinations of the characters, all while perambulating in a space which becomes inherently three-dimensional, despite all of the use of closeups. Closeups can, when used too often and not well, disorient the viewer, in terms of knowing where the characters are in space, but here: with precision and clarity, Bogdanovich orients his three main characters in space, and creates a sense of the tension between the three, pulled taut as a wire across the plush lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. So much easier said than done. That is a difficult sequence to pull off and the end result looks effortless.

Bogdanovich told Wes Anderson in a multi-part interview about They All Laughed that he had always wanted to do a film that opened with no dialogue. He loved the opening sequence of Rio Bravo for that reason, which unfolds with no explanatory words, and yet by the end of it, every character has been set up, every plot-point that will be developed, you understand everything and no one has said a word. Come to think of it, the crazy opening sequence of What’s Up, Doc? unfolds with very little dialogue – we see Streisand, O’Neal, Michael Murphy, and all the others, strolling through San Francisco, and we get the gist: So-and-so is chasing so-and-so, so-and-so is spying on so-and-so … and everyone appears to have the same plaid carrying-case. Hmmmmm…. But Bogdanovich wanted to develop that “wordless opening sequence” idea further and here, in They All Laughed, it is a full 6 minutes before anyone says a word (that we can hear, anyway). Many characters are introduced. We don’t know anyone’s name. We don’t know who is connected to whom. And, like I mentioned in the Algonquin Hotel scene, so much of this movie is about looking and the act of looking. People are always glancing at someone over to the left, and then moving their eyes over to the right to look at someone else. Their thoughts remain incomprehensible, but you know that everyone is “up to something”.

The opening sequence is a classic “welcome to New York” opening.

A gorgeous cabbie (played by Patti Hansen) drives a glowering bearded man (George Morfogen) into New York. We see the skyline, the World Trade Center. There is a lot of glances through the rear view mirror at one another. He disapproves of her smoking. She eats an orange, looking back at him. She’s got a lot going on in her face, but we have no idea what it is yet. The cabbie pulls into the helicopter pad on the East side of Manhattan, right on the water. The bearded man gets out and meets another man (Ben Gazzara) in front of the cab. They have some sort of conversation that we can’t really hear, although we get fragments of it. There seems to be some intense eye contact thing going on between Gazzara and the waiting cabbie. Then a helicopter approaches and lands, and out of it come Audrey Hepburn and what appears to be her family, another man, and a young boy. The bearded man runs over to greet them. Ben Gazzara watches from afar. When Bogdanovich goes in closer to Audrey Hepburn (who is unaware that she is being watched), we wonder what that means. Is this Ben Gazzara’s ex-wife? Has he fallen in love with her on the spot? Who the hell is Ben Gazzara? Meanwhile, the bearded man keeps looking back over at Gazzara. It is some sort of standoff. The cabbie looks on at all of this and seems to see the entire thing: the bearded man’s suspicion, Gazzara’s gaga expression when looking at Hepburn, and Hepburn’s oblivion to the entire thing. Gazzara looks at the cabbie and there seems to be an understanding between them, or, deeper than that, a recognition: Yes, yes, I see you, I know what’s going on, yes, yes. Audrey Hepburn and her family are ushered into a gleaming black car by the bearded man, and Gazzara watches as the car drives away. We are now 5 minutes into the movie. It is confusing, and yet you immediately trust that all will become clear. Eventually we will understand what is going on. Gazzara then gets into the back of the waiting cab and (first line) tells her to follow that car, essentially. She does. Then begins the dialogue, as they ride neck-and-neck with the gleaming black car, getting glimpses of Hepburn inside, and the bearded man (who is still suspiciously looking out the window at the cab trailing them). The dialogue between Gazzara and the cabbie is eloquent in an emotional sense, full of innuendo and sexual banter, but it becomes clear that no, they do not know each other. This is a first meeting. She says, “Your guy with the beard is weird.” suggesting that she has seen it all, she knows the score, she knows that Gazzara is up to no good. Eventually, he has her drop him off and she watches out the window as he greets two little girl (both played by Peter Bogdanovich’s actual daughters), picking them up and swinging them around. The cabbie and Gazzara say goodbye to each other, and as she drives off she calls out the window, “Bye, Daddy!”

All of this is tremendously weird and since it is the opening sequence you really feel you must continue watching to try to put it all together.

What the opening sequence does is immediately land you in the movie: it introduces many of the main characters, it introduces the tension (always expressed across space) between various people, and it locates itself specifically: New York, a specific KIND of New York: romantic, mysterious, and full of wacky characters who may be eccentric but who are connected deeply to their own desires/wants/needs. It’s complicated, yet simple.

And there’s also a sexual energy expressed here in a charmingly retro way, reminiscent of His Girl Friday and other screwballs of the 1930s. Gazzara calls the cabbie “Sam” even though that is not her name, and she calls him “Boss”. Why? Is it a way to let off steam, a way to express attraction (always on equal footing), or is it a secret signal between the characters meant to say, “Listen, buddy, I see you and I know exactly what is going on with you”?

Figuring all of that out is the main pleasure of They All Laughed.

Our gorgeous cabbie glancing in the rear view mirror at her passenger as she drives over a bridge.

Her suspicious passenger giving her the eye.

Pulling into the parking lot, the passenger gets out and the cabbie watches him get out.

Same take, she glances through the windshield to watch what happens next.

Bearded man meets up with Ben Gazzara and they have some kind of conversation (we hear only fragments of it), and it is clear that they know each other.

Closeup on cabbie watching this interaction.

Bearded man walks away, and Ben Gazzara suddenly looks directly at the cabbie.

This is her response. Fantastic. But what does it mean?

She then glances beyond him.

We see what she sees. A helicopter approaching. So far, this entire sequence has been strictly from her point of view.

Point of view switch. Ben Gazzara stares up at the helicopter approaching. This is obviously not from the cabbie’s point of view. This is a subjective shot, completely in his world.

He then glances down a bit, but we already understand the spatial relationships of this helicopter pad. We know somehow that he is not looking at the cabbie.

We are right. We see what he is looking at.

A standoff? The helicopter lands, and we see Audrey Hepburn and her entourage get out.

Gazzara, seen with a bit more distance now, looks on.

We see what he sees. The bearded man has gone over to greet Hepburn and the others.

Closeup now of Gazzara. A closeup in a Bogdanovich picture always signifies something. He does not just use them to be efficient. He uses them as a clue that we are about to go into the character’s inner world.

So it is no surprise that we now go in closer to Audrey Hepburn. We are seeing her as he sees her. (Add to that our own sentimental associations with Audrey Hepburn the movie star.)

Meanwhile, the cabbie looks over at Gazzara and seems to perceive the entire situation. (She’s one step ahead of us!)

Gazzara feels her glance and looks over at her.

He moves a bit closer to the cab, and stands watching Hepburn and her group, with the bearded man, going towards a waiting sleek car. He is filmed here with an interruption in our eyeline, so he is seen in fragment, which gives us the sensation of spying, peeking around corners. Things are not revealed to us wholly, and we have to make sense of the pieces.

Same interruption with our view, only now we see what Gazzara sees: Hepburn getting ready to get into the car. There is something in the foreground, the top of the taxi cab, obscuring parts of her, making very real the sense that Gazzara is spying (in plain view).

Next we see the bearded man, leaning around to see Gazzara who is partially hidden by the cab. Intense eye contact.

Gazzara gets into the back of the cab, and both cars pull out onto FDR Drive. They drive side by side. We get glimpses still, of the bearded man, sitting in the back, staring out anxiously at Ben Gazzara in the next car.

The cabbie smokes. Gazzara, staring out at the car beside them, engages in banter with the cabbie (the first dialogue in the movie). She seems to be getting a kick out of things.

Gazzara keeps staring out the window, and now we see what he sees. Another fragment, his vision narrowing down to its one focal point, cluing us in to what this movie will really be about.

Gazzara and the cabbie appear to reach an understanding almost instantaneously (it happened with their first glance).

She drops him off and leans out the window, watching him.

We see what she sees.

It is an eloquent opening sequence that tells you nothing and everything at the same time. They All Laughed bears up great under multiple viewings, because once you know the plot (it’s insanely complicated), you can see what everyone is working at, what everyone’s angle is, but the movie works, too, on the first time, because each shot, each take, is so strange and full that you wonder what the hell everyone wants, because it is so clear that everyone here wants something so badly it aches.

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5 Responses to They All Laughed: The Wordless Opening Sequence

  1. Shelley says:

    The master of “tells you nothing and everything at the same time” is the man who changed my life: Horton Foote.

    Interesting post: I want to see the movie now.

  2. sheila says:

    Tracey – I know. Weird.

  3. sheila says:

    Definitely.

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