Film Reading Exam – Scene Analysis: The Shining (1980)

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

We see the open expanse of the halls of the Overlook Hotel. Wendy (Shelly Duvall) looks small in the space. There is a sense of the surreal as she walks, calling out the name ‘Jack’, whilst carrying a baseball bat. Her footsteps and her voice echo, emphasising her alone-ness in the enormous hall. There is the occasional sound of orchestral instruments almost tuning up. This adds an edge to the uneasy scene. There are no sounds from outside. The hotel is isolated. At this point in the film we also know the hotel is physically cut off from the outside world due to snow storms.

As with all of Kubrick’s work, there is a tremendous amount of symmetry. The tracking shot of Wendy ending at the desk gives us a view of her underneath the balcony, dead centre of the twin staircases.

The huge windows of the hotel let in a hazy light, which gives a dream like quality to the scene. The mise en scene is one of order. Everything in the hall is meticulously arranged. The sofas, the tables, the photos on the wall – all perfectly straight. This contrasts with the disorder and insanity of the character Jack (Jack Nicholson), and the growing terror of Wendy, his wife. The colours at this point are extremely apparent, the tone is brown, beige and grey, desaturated. Like the life has been sucked out of it. It is ordered and symmetrical, but lacks any vibrancy. It has a morgue like quality.

After the long tracking shot of the frightened Wendy we come to the typewriter. Wendy is framed in a medium shot behind the typewriter looking down at the type-paper. We cannot see what she is reading, but her growing sense of terror tells us that it is not good. Strings begin to build, adding even more suspense.

We switch to a close up of the typewriter, again, perfectly symmetrical. Wendy’s POV. This shot answers the ‘What was Wendy looking at?’ question. The strings come in at higher notes.

There is a zoom in on the manuscript, a shot that seems of its time and slightly unnecessary now, and can appear comical.

Again we have first person POV as Wendy goes through the manuscript. The music at this point is bizarre orchestral hits, mimicking the insanity of what Wendy is reading. This is a long take, and necessary to show just how far Jack has gone. All the time he has been ‘writing’ this is what he has been doing. The whole point of taking the winter care taker job at the hotel was to allow him to write, now, Wendy falls to pieces as her world comes apart. She knew Jack was crazy, she now knows just how crazy. There is a sense of denial as she claws her way through the manuscript. Almost as if she thinks she will find some real work, and she does not want to believe this is what her husband has been doing all winter. Wendy looks like she is about to vomit, which is a much underused realistic shock reaction in films.

And so we switch to a pseudo POV long shot, peeping out from behind a pilar, then seeing Wendy hunched over the desk from behind. The shot is voyeuristic and creepy. A normal person would not walk up behind someone without saying something. Jack looms into the frame in the foreground, a huge silhouette looming over the much smaller Wendy. A not so subtle metaphor for the power dynamic in that situation.

The intensity of the music drops at this point.

Jack strides, confident and relaxed. He drapes a hand over the chair and puts the other in his pocket. He nonchalantly flicks through his manuscript. He comes across as calm and composed, asking Wendy ‘How do you like it?’, Wendy is terrified. She’s the one that looks insane, when the opposite is true.

The contrast in costume is also interesting. Wendy fits in to the rest of the mise on scene, beige, grey and creams. Jack is more vivid, a striking red jacket and blue jeans. He thinks he’s the cool cat. To Jack, Wendy just isn’t hip.

And now a masterpiece in editing, a tracking shot alternating in both characters POVs. Jack moves towards Wendy as she backs away. Not true POV, as they are not looking directly into camera, but almost POV mid shots of each character. Jack is powerful and dominant, advancing on the hysterical Wendy, mocking, patronising and mimicking his wife. She seems on the verge of collapse. It’s difficult not to mention Kubrick’s  alleged treatment of both Duvall and Nicholson at this point. Nicholson becomes extremely agitated and manic, which is how Kubrick wanted him, and Duvall seems on the point of collapse, the bat very heavy in her hands, which is how Kubrick wanted her.

As they mention Danny we cut to their son. Clever use of sound (their voices seem ‘underwater’) and a close up of Danny in a trance like state shows us that he can hear them but he is not there. The famous REDRUM and Lift shots are briefly cut to. Things are not looking good for Danny and his family.

Wendy begins to back up the stairs, this is the first time since the desk that they are both in shot. Jack is now manic, his ranting about order and responsibility is reflected in the grey, dour but perfectly organised hotel. His talk about order also contradicts his current mental state, which is somewhat disorganised.

We get an OTS shot behind Wendy as she swings the bat at Jack, the angle of the shot gets higher and higher as they head to the top. Again the symmetry of the twin staircases behind Jack is impossible to ignore. The light at the top of the stairs is orange, and gives Jack a demonic red tint. When we cut to Wendy, the light fitting behind her head forms a sort of halo. Though I think by this point we know who’s side we are on.

The brutal thud of the bat hitting Jacks head and the clever cut to the stuntman falling down the stairs is as seamless as it is horrific. This scene viewed in isolation could leave the viewer with the impression that Jack is dead, if be didn’t cut immediately to Wendy dragging her babbling husband into the freezer.

Bad choice. She should have finished him off with the bat. At least it would have saved that psychic Chef. Psychic? He didn’t see that axe in the chest coming.

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