Movies are, on a base level, a collection of scenes woven together by a narrative. Like a sweater, comprised of many stitches. Or a sandwich, composed of many layers. And when you break it down even more, and strip more elements away, a film can be reduced solely to images – and some images can remain burned into the eye of the viewer forever.
Take this image, from the final scene of the acclaimed 1956 western The Searchers.
As I’ve admitted before, I’m not a big fan of westerns, and I’m even less a fan of John Wayne movies – but The Searchers is one of the few exceptions. As in, it’s on my all-time “greats” list, thanks to being forced to watch it in film class. And a huge portion of my admiration for this film is rooted in this one image.
The film features more than one threshold/doorway shot, though the final one is the most poignant. By showing several scenes framed in a doorway or through some kind of entrance, the film is allowing the viewer an inside look to see something that might not normally be seen – something that is behind closed doors, or cut off from the world. It is also showing a separation of the “inside world” and the “outside world” and the distinctions between the two.
That makes Ethan’s final scene significant – he is framed in the doorway, but does not go in. He is a creature of the “outside world” and does not belong in the “inside,” which is why he is not shown entering the house after the conflict is over, and ultimately walks away. If The Searchers was a stereotypical western, he probably would have entered the house and they would have had a big ol’ family dinner, and Ethan’s position as a “savior” would be solidified. But Ethan is wild and unpredictable like the rambling western landscape, a restless wanderer, and by going inside, he would be chained down – and he does not belong in a place like that. The “open door” also illustrates the moral ambiguity of the film overall, as Ethan’s reluctance to settle, and his inability to join that “inside” world, is an example of his conflicted “hero” status.
This final shot is the spine of the film – at least for me. A beleaguered man walking away from door, rejecting a fresh start, left to reflect on what he has done. A “hero” who does not get a celebration, because perhaps his deeds are just as bad as the “villain’s.” And that’s how this single image is so powerful – I still reference it whenever I spy a good threshold shot in a movie.
Any other shots from different films come to mind? One that can define the entire film as a whole? Let me know!
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