A Rare Antiquity: 10 Thoughts on Steven Soderbergh’s Black-and-White Reimagining of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’
“At some point you will say to yourself or someone THIS LOOKS AMAZING IN BLACK AND WHITE,” Steven Soderbergh wrote about a movie yesterday. He was referring to — wait for it — Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dr. Soderbergh had performed a new experiment at his lab over at Extension 765. First — after explaining that he wasn’t sure any of this was legal — Soderbergh drained Raiders of the Lost Ark of its colors. Then he swapped out the famous John Williams score for moody Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross music from The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Our favorite rip-roaring adventure has become a dreamlike silent film. But Indy, my friend, what can this teach us about a movie we’ve seen a million times before?
1. A lot of things, actually. One, after this and the famous shot-for-shot re-creation, Raiders has entered the Fan Edit Hall of Fame, its plaque mounted between The Shining and The Phantom Menace. With the Soderbergh cut, you can really see why. We all love to rewatch Raiders for the staging of the truck chase or the fight on the Flying Wing. But here the interstitial stuff gains its own amazing power.
For instance, fast-forward to the scene (around 19:20) in which Indy explains the power of the Ark to two Army intelligence officers. Under normal viewing, the scene is pure exposition, the setup for the Map Room visit and the power-of-God payoff. But without colors and dialogue, you notice new stuff. The long shadows that fall across the blackboard. The framing of the fat Army man’s face. Denholm Elliott’s creepy, Hammer Horror smile — a little dash of Peter Cushing, and a preview of the smile that would cross the face of the Nazi torturer Toht. I’d watched that scene over and over and I’d never appreciated its spookiness.
2. You know what else is striking in dialogue-less black-and-white? Harrison Ford’s face. “Is Ford a good actor?” is a graduate seminar for another time (probably conducted by Dr. Wesley Morris).
But without Lawrence Kasdan’s dialogue to fall back on, I kept picking out Ford faces. The shock-upon-learning-of-Marion’s-“death” face (42:13). The coming-to-grips-with-it face — already famous — as he drinks through the pain with his pet monkey (42:37). The smug, juts-out-his-lower-lip face after the Nazi failure with the Ark (1:45:39). It’s not a secret that Ford could do the subtle expressions well — in his recent movies, he has taken subtlety to the brink of non-acting. But here you can appreciate just what made him great.
3. I never watched Raiders for the love scenes. As a kid, they were filler; these days, they seem like the ultimate Steven Spielberg PG-rated affair, in which our hero is too “tired” from killing bad guys to have sex.
In the Soderbergh cut, they work. Ford and Karen Allen’s exaggerated reaction shots could almost be taken from a silent movie. Start with Indy and Marion’s reunion in Nepal (around 27:38). When Indy leaves the saloon, the little jerk he gives with his shoulders could be an imperfection in an old film reel.
4. Wouldn’t it be great if Soderbergh took the silent-movie conceit a step further, and gave us Raiders with intertitles? Imagine, Sallah’s mouth moves and we see a card:
5. Soderbergh calls out the “stark, high-contrast lighting style” of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, an old pro who’d shot Kind Hearts and Coronets. The hiring of “Dougie,” as Spielberg called him, had an odd resonance; Slocombe, a London native, had traveled to Poland during the Nazi invasion. He photographed synagogues and the local gauleiter’s muscle-flexing. He then lived long enough to see history’s greatest monsters become the stuff of American pulp: “The Nazis have discovered Tanis!” Slocombe is 101 years old now and, according to the BBC, nearly blind.
6. Soderbergh wants us to use the black-and-white Raiders to “think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are.” OK. So how about the way the Nazi plane spreads its wings to the edges of the frame (1:16:08), and then the way Spielberg’s camera moves downward to find Indy and Marion hiding behind oil drums?
Or the way Spielberg neatly frames two mountains in the background when Indy is being dragged behind the truck (1:28:23)?
Or the shot of Belloq and the two Nazis as they open the Ark (1:45:29) — the faces reflecting, respectively, anger, heartbreak, and weirdly-not-unhappy glee?
That’s a small amateur sample — I’m making this up as I go. It’s a credit to Spielberg that we could find 500 more details like this. At least.
7. My god, the Map Room (50:57). A scene that relied on light and shadow, it plays even better in black-and-white.
8. My god, the busy-ness of the scene outside the steamer (1:30:36). Never noticed that before.
9. My god, the way the Nazis jiggle in the back of a moving truck (1:22:56). Never noticed that, either.
10. Your mileage — as Indy would say — may vary. But I can almost guarantee you’ll waste a whole afternoon with this. Score another one for Dr. Soderbergh. I hope his next lesson is “Aspect Ratio — Very Dangerous.”