The following article is part of an ongoing series exploring visual homages, themes, and motifs. For the rest of the articles in this series, click here.
Within the past several years, internet critics have made a meme out of exposing films which employ the cinematic technique of “Dutch Angles”, most of which stems from reviews of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), which admittedly does overuse it quite a lot. Another famous offender is the film Battlefield Earth, which prompted Roger Ebert to write “”the director, Roger Christian, has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why.”
So why do they? And what exactly is a Dutch Angle, and how does one use it correctly? Simply put, a Dutch Angle (or “dutch tilt” or more informally “Batman angle”, named from its frequent use in the 1960s Batman TV show), is a cinematography technique which involves tilting the camera to one side on its roll axis, sometimes rather extremely. Most of the time this is done to instill a sense of uneasiness in the audience, or to indicate that something confusing, disorienting, or simply “not quite right” is happening to a character, like maybe they’re absolutely shitfaced:
Or that there is inherent tension in the scene, like this shot from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing:
The tilt is really obvious in that shot, because the camera is at roughly eye-level and the actors are placed at an oppositional angle to the bottom of the frame. But sometimes the tilt can be hidden slightly with a little creative blocking, meaning the placement of actors or props within the frame. The ultimate example is this shot from Citizen Kane:
Although the camera is tilted to the right, as we can see by the slanted top of Kane’s podium and the edges of his poster, Kane himself is leaning into the tilt and pointing away, almost giving him the appearance of being 90-degrees upright from the bottom of the frame. Another subtle example is this shot from Die Hard, where Alan Rickman is fumbling his way through a Texas accent as Hans Gruber pretending to be an escaped hostage in order to fool John McClane. Remember that at this point, the audience knows that Hans is lying, what we don’t know is whether or not John knows that Hans is lying.
The camera is definitely tilted as we can see by the hallway walls and the plant in the background. Rickman’s blocking is doing its best to counteract that tilt (note how Hans’ tie is still nearly ninety-degrees from the bottom of the frame), but he is “given away” by the tilt of his head and by the placement of his shadow. (Lighting tricks like this are all over Die Hard, and we may do that in a future installment.) This is an appropriate visual cue because in this moment, Hans has already outed himself to John as the bad guy, but he doesn’t know that yet, and neither does the audience.
So now that we’ve established what a dutch angle is/does, let’s take a look at how they’re used in Snatch:
As you can see, the title sequence to Snatch opens on a rotation, appropriate because Ritchie spends a great deal of time in this film keeping the camera on a full circle. We already established in the last installment that one of the main themes in Snatch is controlled chaos, and we established above that the dutch angle is used to make the audience feel uneasy, to signify that something is going wrong. Snatch naturally is full of dutch angles, but Ritchie has to walk the line carefully where the audience is tense, but still having fun. He also has to keep the whole film from being angular, otherwise the angles lose all meaning. To do this, he comically over-exaggerates his angle, and will quickly cut from one angle to its polar opposite, like this:
Or like this:
These shots are in the same scene, they occur right next to each other. You may recognize the second shot from the last installment in this series, where it was compared to security camera footage. This is an important establishing shot and visual foreshadowing, because later on in the movie, we’ll see another example of the same scene from different angles, another point I borrowed from the last installment:
Snatch moves very fast, so it’s easy to miss, but by adding a slight tilt and blocking the two men at angles to each other (note how Frankie’s eyeline takes you straight to Murray, even though Murray is in the background and Frankie up front.) Ritchie’s able to create depth in a small office. This also makes this somewhat uninteresting scene a little more cinematic. On paper, “two men talking at a desk” is one of the least interesting things you can film. You don’t really realize how hard it is to make such a common scenario visually appealing until you realize that if this had been shot more flatly and removed the juxtaposition between these two men, this shot would literally look like a stock photo:
Another trick that’s used often in Snatch is the juxtaposition of sequences shot at an angle with ones shot straight-on. The best example of this is the Tyrone chase sequence, which happens at the same time that Turkish and Tommy are coursing with Mickey. This means we get two chase/hunting scenes set against each other, and cutting back-and-forth between each other. Except that one of these hunts looks like this:
See the difference? I also want to note a few things about the Tyrone chase sequence. First, I should observe that the only successful hunt is the one that contains the harsh angles. The dogs chasing the hare, the ones filmed head-on, they fail. Partially because Tyrone is definitely not as fast and agile as a hare, but also because in Guy Ritchie’s world, the more chaotic you are, the better. To illustrate that Tyrone is not a hare (but he does get proper-fucked), even when Ritchie shoots him head on, he’s framed in a way which keeps him enclosed, as opposed to the wide open fields where the dags are running.
There are plenty of other uses of the angles in Snatch, but those are all the ones we have time to cover right now. There’s still one more topic on this film that I want to cover, so please stay tuned for an upcoming episode of It’s a Visual Medium!
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