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sculpture through the naturalistic posing of arms and legs in alternating, complementary alignment.


Away for a moment from the visual, the aural is also crucial to McTiernan’s work.


For Predator, a richly involving soundtrack mixes animal and bird calls, the alien’s ‘voice’, including its samples of others’, and Alan Silvestri’s superb score. This deploys soaring strings and sharp brass to heroic effect but cleverly uses drumbeats and other percussion instruments to suggest atmospheric sounds. The inclusion of snatches of un-subtitled foreign language dialogue in Spanish, something repeated with German and Russian respectively in the other films discussed, demonstrates a subtle additional dimension to this element of McTiernan’s work.


In fact, this love of sound and music and voice has a deeper root, from which McTiernan’s flowing film-making style may have grown. His performing arts education has already been noted; his father was an opera singer. McTiernan has stated his belief that “movies are really music – they’re not photographed plays”. As conductor of his cast and crew, McTiernan exploits freely and beautifully the many meanings inherent in the word ‘movement’, and in Predator he sets the tempo accelerando.


The critical praise and box office takings the film received immediately secured McTiernan his second feature, again for Twentieth Century Fox. To make Die Hard, whose script has fascinating origins, McTiernan again headed a crew that intriguingly blended established, emerging and future talent. Cinematographer Jan De Bont, who would return to that duty for McTiernan in The Hunt For Red October, would later direct Speed. Composer Michael Kamen, fresh from Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon and Highlander, supplied the sweeping, glissando score. Editor Frank Urioste also cut RoboCop and Total Recall. Los Angeles was the only story and filming location, eased further by Twentieth Century Fox’s newly-built headquarters standing in for the fictional Nakatomi Plaza building; Fox Plaza is in the Century City district of LA, land once owned by the studio before being sold off for commercial development.


With McTiernan as the virtuoso, his team would shape one of the most highly-regarded action films of the decade.


As with Predator we begin in flight, with a 747 jumbo jet coming in to land. It is pictured in the compressed perspective of a telephoto lens to give it heft. But in the terminal scenes shortly after McTiernan already begins to play with stillness, with Bruce Willis as John McClane unobtrusively entering at the far left of screen and quietly working his way through baggage reclaim – a neat character sketch.


With McClane's and the terrorist team’s arrival at Nakatomi Plaza, McTiernan rapidly and effectively builds the setting we will explore in the next two hours. Within minutes we know the building is isolated, has an underground garage, uses the latest technology, is a skyscraper (“Thirtieth floor?!”) and is incomplete. We see all this via a slowly moving camera that ambles loosely through the lift lobby, aping McClane’s apparently-casual casing of the area, but also a fast-moving tracking camera that thrillingly keeps pace with the terrorists’ car and van as the former speeds to the main door and the latter dives in to the building’s bowels.  


Disembarking, the group and leader Hans Gruber walk purposefully towards us, pushing the filming camera into retreat as they invade like a virus. It’s another neat character sketch, but also reflects McTiernan’s ever-present concern to animate and penetrate. Characters and camera are in constant motion here, physically interacting with each other repeatedly through gestures, thrown items, nods.


These scenes takes us further into the building. We’ve seen its bones, and we now see its nerves, as electrical and phone lines are cut. Lifts, cooling towers on the roof and air trunking are its blood vessels; the computer controlling the vault is its brain. Another character has arrived, whose component parts already suggest in us a wealth of possibilities for drama and action.


Steadicam is used extensively in these early scenes and the film as a whole. There is also a wealth of point-of-view shots in Die Hard. Cameras follow characters, peer around corners and whip-pan to follow their gaze. The axial cut also features, simulating the concentrating look.


Wittily, Beethoven's 9th Symphony ‘Ode to Joy’ was selected as the theme for McClane’s mostly Germanic opponents and appears throughout the film. It is whistled lightly by Gruber, underscores his first sight of the vault, plays triumphantly over its forced opening and – in ironic counterpoint – cascades joyously over the end credits. Sleigh bells complement Kamen’s score.


That vault’s first appearance is one of at least three occurrences of McTiernan’s signature contrapposto shot in Die Hard: carefully, contemplatively, Gruber walks from screen left to screen right, whilst the camera tracks in the opposite direction. A far pacier variation has the lift containing McClane’s first victim arrive to shock terrorists and hostages alike. A gunman turns to screen right; we cut to within the lift, and the man is turning screen left, but the camera is tracking right. And during the police assault, their armoured car veers suddenly toward screen left as the camera car continues toward screen right, seemingly caught unawares.


During the balletic gun battles, men and their weapons manoeuvre constantly and the camera reflects this with its own movement. It is another pairing of opposites that elevates these scenes above the expected norm.


Overall, the sheer energy and flair of McTiernan’s direction keeps the viewer riveted throughout a film that catapulted Bruce Willis to big-screen stardom and created a benchmark for action film-making to attain.


The final film of this trio, The Hunt for Red October, is a far quieter affair. It saw McTiernan take command of actual US Navy assets and crew in order to realise the tightly-plotted action of a Soviet submarine commander’s defection during the Cold War. Tom Clancy’s groundbreaking techno-thriller novel was the source, itself based on a real life incident from the 1970s that was not fully admitted by the Russian authorities until just after the film opened. The script was by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart.


The film sits firmly within an established tradition (sub-genre?) that includes We Dive at Dawn (1943), Enemy Down Below (1957), Gray Lady Down (1978) and Das Boot (1981). Of necessity submarine films tend to define – actually restrict – the style of direction. Claustrophobia is the default setting, a feeling the director hopes to transfer to the audience without revealing those limitations.


The production therefore saw McTiernan’s film-making canvas, which began with the Central American jungle and moved to a Californian office block, shrink in scope once more. McTiernan recognised this, calling the script “a conflict that happens in men’s minds”, but nevertheless still managed to extract the maximum excitement from the scripted action and the maximum movement from his camera, something we witness in the very first pair of shots.


A close-up of Marko Ramius and Vasily Borodin speaking and then turning cuts to a highly dramatic pull back, revealing them to be standing atop the conning tower of a submarine under tow. Essentially repeating the message of the introductory scenes from both Predator and Die Hard, McTiernan celebrates openness whilst reminding us of the confined spaces that await. Achieved with a seaworthy, near-full-scale replica Typhoon-class submarine, the scene also sees McTiernan’s contrapposto shot manifest itself, executed this time by helicopter.


This title sequence is scored to composer Basil Poledouris’s startlingly convincing ur-Soviet 'Hymn To Red October', a musical sleight-of-hand that knits together scene-setting in Britain and Washington and gives us a reminder of the political context. In recognition of the spacial constraints he was operating within, McTiernan expanded his use of sound, voice and music in The Hunt for Red October. The sonar system used in naval warfare is an obvious addition, whilst being integral to the plot. The special rhythms of military commands, repeated for confirmation on naval bridges, contributed to the tension, and were often voiced by real-life submariners employed as extras. The viewer-friendly transition from subtitled Russian to English, courtesy of a simple zoom and pull back brilliantly pivoted around the word "Armageddon", has been widely commended for its originality and effectiveness. And two scenes which revolve entirely around dialogue are essential to the film’s central drama.


The power of Ramius’s sailing speech is extraordinary; inspiring, passionate, certain. It is immediately followed by a spontaneous rendition of the Soviet national anthem by the entire crew of the Red October, with McTiernan’s camera gently circling. On the American side, tension builds during the Pentagon briefing session, before Ryan’s realisation of Ramius’s true motivation – “Today’s the 23rd, isn’t it?” – breaks the bubble of multiple voices and opinions.


As in Predator and Die Hard, the locations become characters bringing their own drama to the action. Production designers assigned carefully differentiated identities to the opposing boats. The Red October’s bridge resembles a 1930s power station of the kind seen in Soviet Realist imagery, with chrome, glossy black surfaces and angry red control panel lights. The USS Dallas has a warmer, more calming interior of beiges; almost antiseptic in feel, it recalls the cabins of the Odyssey in Kubrick’s 2001. In this and its quieter, more precise technology, the corporate slickness of IBM computer rooms is also referenced. In this way the boats are active participants, as the jungle is in Predator and the building is in Die Hard.


It is though apparent that in addition to these aids, McTiernan pushed the physical restrictions on his camerawork, assumed to be inherent to the genre, to the limit.


Submarine interiors were sets, based on research on real vessels but enlarged and mounted on gimbals to permit more freedom of movement for actor and camera alike. To represent the submarines when seen underwater, large-scale miniatures, including a 21-foot Red October, were attached by wires or pylons to motorised bases and filmed with computerised motion control against miniature undersea landscapes, all in a smoky environment. This eliminated expensive and often unconvincing optical compositing and allowed the submarines to be moved more dynamically. The models could bank, turn and ‘fly’ at a scale speed that imparted realistic mass but which subtly exaggerated the capabilities of actual submarines for dramatic effect. This innovative approach drove McTiernan’s graceful and gripping depiction of the Red Route One sequence and the Red October’s climactic duels with the Konovalov.


Effects director of photography Patrick Sweeney confirms McTiernan’s concerns, remembering how he visited the facility frequently and “wanted it played dramatically and that meant keeping the camera moving. Even in a static scene, the camera is always floating”.


McTiernan’s skill ensures that the maximum possible effect is drawn from the action of The Hunt for Red October. It is likely that it inspired Tony Scott’s work on Crimson Tide (1995), whose plot is a mirror image of McTiernan’s film and whose poster and main title music are almost identical.


John McTiernan is a highly intelligent and articulate film-maker who has crafted a personal sensibility with the depiction of action at its core and what that should mean for an engaged cinematic audience. Although many of his later films did not repeat the out-and-out success of Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, at least three – Die Hard: With A Vengeance (1995), his remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and the much underrated Last Action Hero (1993) deserve closer analysis.


If a film is a concerto, a musical composition with the camera as the solo instrument playing the melody and the other elements – characters, location, incident, sound – playing the accompaniment, then John McTiernan is its maestro.






Posted 28 November 2011

JMT - red oct - poster
JMT - red oct - still (

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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