Mirrors in ‘Angels With Dirty Faces

After writing on the consistent use of shadow play throughout Michael Curtiz’ work, Brian M. Faucette urged me to look at his use of mirrors, mentioning he’d written a whole master’s thesis on this subject, one I’d be eager to read. Sure enough, a cursory look at Angels With Dirty Faces proves him right. In the first set of images below, Rocky (James Cagney) is walking with Laury Martin (Anne Sheridan) when he suspects he’s being followed, pretends he’s got something stuck in his eye, and goes look in a mirror to see what’s behind him.


In the second trio of images below Rocky holds up James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) in order to see what’s in his safe. In the first image, we get an expressive use of the mirror: Bogart surrounded by a set of Cagneys. In the second, Curtiz and cinematographer Sol Polito use the reflecting surface of the safe’s door to frame Cagney’s gloating face, again offering us a set of beaming Cagneys whilst Bogart, supporting player that he is at this point, gets seen only from the back. In the third image, Curtiz uses mirrors so that the frame can encompass off-screen space and we can keep the crooked lawyer played by Bogart in the picture.


Curtiz, also uses mirrors, to enhance production values. The image below is part of a shot that begins filming a reflection, making the room look bigger and fuller and as it pans from the two women on the left re-arranging themselves cue us in on having just watched a reflection rather than the room itself.

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Mirrors are also handy dramatic devices. They can be exploded, shattered, shot at in ways that are visually exciting (see below right). Again this is part of a moving shot that tracks back (see below left) so we have an image shattered in front of our eyes, the camera tracks back and our field of vision is re-drawn, re-arranged in a dramatic manner that makes the shot richer and more exciting.


And of course mirrors frame, re-frame, create frames within frames, and thus can hide as well as reveal. here Curtiz shows a shootout which begins with Cagney drawing the gun but the camera pans to his face, framing Rocky’s reaction/Cagney’s face; moving attention from an action to a reaction,  framing feeling on an action, whilst of course creating a very striking image.

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Curtiz is indeed a visual wiz.

Thanks again to Brian M. Faucette for bringing this to my attention,


José Arroyo


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