Spectre: uneven movie, great cinematography

With Roger Moore’s passing, I’ve been revisiting Bond movies. Catching up with Spectre wasn’t part of the plan. It’s overly long, with a convoluted plot, some slack action scenes, and a miscast villain. Yet in terms of camera work, Spectre is stellar. I’d rank it second only to Roger Deakins’ outing on Skyfall.

DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s lensing gives the film a different look than other Bond films. Visually it’s romantic and elegant. Yet as with Van Hoytema’s other work (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Interstellar), Spectre has a dark tone. He deepens what’s an often lightweight picture with more thematic weight. (Mild spoilers for Spectre to follow.)

To illustrate Van Hoytema’s work we’ll look at two back-to-back scenes near the beginning of the film. Bond is on the trail of terrorist Marco Sciarra, who’s killed off in the film’s pre-credit sequence. Based on a tip, Bond attends Sciarra’s funeral to investigate further.

After a wide establishing shot, the camera slowly pans left, a POV shot from Bond’s perspective. Sciarra’s widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci) catches his eye. We cut in closer, training the audience to key in on Lucia’s profile. The stillness of the camera is notable here, underlining Bond in cool, clinical “spy” mode.

There’s masterful blocking in this follow-up shot. The strong bands of light on each side of the chapel converge, guiding the audience’s eye toward Lucia in the center of the frame. Men fill the frame, mostly with the same posture – arms in front, back to the camera. The combined effect adds mystery and a hint of oppressiveness. Lucia – standout in heels from a side profile – looks “trapped” from forces around her.

Van Hoytema cuts in closer to Lucia (top left). The two men that surround her loom large in the shot. To signal Bond’s shift in attention the camera rack focuses from Lucia backward to the two men (top right). With a quick reverse shot back to Bond (bottom), it’s clear he’s noticed both of them.

There’s a satisfying rhythm and repetition to the entire funeral scene. Van Hoytema jumps between wide shots, a reverse back to Bond’s gaze, and then in a cut in slightly closer to Lucia. Camera pans and dollies are minimal. Instead, the scene relies on shape, contrast, and the occasional rack focus to guide our eye. It gives the camera a dispassionate, cool elegance to match Bond’s disposition.

Soon after we jump to a scene that evening at Lucia’s home. Again, camera movement is subtle, just a slow push towards or pull away from Lucia. What’s standout here is the how dark the scene plays, even with lights on. Van Hoytema shoots with a slightly underlit, high contrast look. It foreshadows the danger about to play out.

As Lucia moves through her home, a figure moves into frame right. It’s easy to miss with the camera’s attention on Lucia at frame center; the shallow focus blurs his entrance. Visually, Spectre isn’t overplaying its hand. This could be just a bodyguard at his post, a hitman out to kill Lucia, or both. The film leaves that uncertainty in the air for a beat until…

…Lucia continues to walk, takes a drink, and the camera reveals a second figure on frame left. The camera dollies right, making it clear the first figure actively following Lucia. Even the dolly right is fairly graceful. But given this is the first lateral movement we’ve seen the camera take, it feels like a jolt. Van Hoytema wants the audience to focus, and the change in camera and figures behind suggest something very wrong.

Lucia continues to walk out to a courtyard, stops, and closes her eyes, expecting the worst. We receive visual confirmation that each figure behind is armed, and mirroring the funeral scene from before, she’s surrounded. Yet Spectre subverts our expectations; it’s the hitmen that both drop to the ground when gunshots ring out.

The camera again dollies right to reveal Bond.

Both the funeral and night scenes have tonal consistency: natural symmetry and lighting, repetition of shots, slow dolly camera movement. It’s cool, focused visual language that matches Bond’s character. Yet Van Hoytema adds touches we generally don’t associate with big budget action movies. Shallow focus. Highly staged blocking. Underlit subjects with deep shadows.

Both scenes span less than ten minutes of screen time. Other scenes, especially action-heavy shootouts and car chases, aren’t as inspiring visually. But the deeper you look into the margins of Spectre, the more you see Van Hoytema’s skill. For instance, there’s clever visual nods to more romantic, classic cinema.

The warm color palette, dark lighting and wide angle feel like there could be riffs on everything from Murder On the Orient Express to Barry Lyndon.

A car appears out of the desert horizon, recalling Lawrence of Arabia and Omar Sherif’s entrance in the mirage scene.

As Bond enters a building, his long, hard shadow and high contrast are evocative of classic film noir.

Many can’t distinguish an otherwise lackluster movie from its visuals. It’s a big reason Van Hoytema got seemingly little buzz for his work on Spectre. Yet great cinematography enhances the story and director’s vision, even when other elements contradict that. Despite the corporate imperatives of a $245 million studio film, Van Hoytema produced impressive visual work.