Gangs of New York
by Ryan Lannom
September 25, 2014
America was born in the streets, the tagline for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, a film that portrays civil war strife through a lens that subtly, hints at the situations still faced in the 21st century. Although a fictional period piece it is a film made around historical figures that grew up in the same neighborhood the director did just a half-century later. This tagline is of vital importance as it lays down a foundation from which stands a major theme early in the film. Specifically, the first full shot in which the antagonist Bill the Butcher stands alone in the center of the frame, as he gets ready to face his immigrant rival over who holds sway of the five points. In this shot, Scorsese applies specific cinematographic techniques with a meticulous use of light, sound, costumes, as well as props to create a mise-en-scene that supports the, America was born in the streets, narrative.
For a country to be born, it first, must have had a seed that gave it life, and someone to give it meaning, Bill was the one to do just that. Acknowledging the significance in the camera’s position in relevance to Bill will reveal how he was the one who took control of that seed, and grew it the way he wanted, through “the spectacle of fearsome acts.” He defined what it meant to be a true American; therefore it is he who is staged by himself framed by a frozen wooden doorway, feet away from his fellow natives. In this deep focus long shot, he is positioned precisely in the center of the frame, the distinguished leader of the streets. The viewer subjectively stares back through an eye level camera angle, as if standing there opposite him while his arms are cocked, ready to defend his land, staring with a face that is completely calm, taking in deep breaths of fresh morning air, not a doubt in his mind that he is going to be triumphant. Just as important as the characters placement in the foreground, is the equally focused background, where Bill hails from.
A city nor a seed can exist if it does not have an environment to thrive in, and through Scorsese’s profound understanding of mise-en-scene, that environment is exemplified as a barren uninhabitable house covered with snow and icicles. Inside this fabricated, well thought out set, that brilliantly resembles the unforgiving and still developing New York City of that time, stands the charismatic antagonist, Bill the Butcher, one who has been forged by this harsh and frigid milieu. A background made up of nothing but the natural wood of the house and natures white blanket adds to the rawness and the way each character in this shot is perceived. Each of them has not only had to survive in this rigid climate, but also the icicles of danger that every person faces in their daily interactions. One man may be staged apart from others in this shot, but one particular element of mise-en-scene shows how everything and everyone in the scene is of equal importance.
The scene is shot in a well balance high key lighting system that deepens the realistic feel of the set, as it places blends the characters in the foreground in with the background. Although Bill stands alone, there isn’t a strong key light presence as the backlight, which also helps in keeping the house in focus, balances it. The shadows in the scene are not prevalent, telling of use of the third leg in the tripod the fill light, which allows for low contrast between the brightest blue and the dullest brown, colors that are predominant in the entire scene. Adding to the snow and icicles on the house is a blue tinted light that acts as a light chilly fog enriching the coldness of the shot. To further emphasize how this shot carries the enriched narrative through its mise-en-scene, one must delve into the symbolism of the particular usage of costumes and props being worn.
The clothing being worn blends in with the background with minimal contrast, much the same way the lighting was blended. Bill in particular is wearing brown leather, which matches the wooden house he stands in front of, and to match the blue tinted snow, he and his fellow natives are all wearing blue sashes either around their waist or around their top hats. An important color as it resonates with Bill’s dominative blocking within the scene, as blue denotes honesty, and most notably control. As it is control that the men in this scene are fighting for, Bill as the leader must have his hand in all dealings in New York, any competition he kills, as such Bill is the only one in the shot that is wearing a red, white and blue sash. The white resembles the snowy background, essentially the blank slate for which Bill can do whatever he wants with it, as it is a house owned by anyone will to seize the opportunity. The red in his sash is also the color of the gang, the Dead Rabbits, the immigrants who are fighting for their civil rights, whose color corresponds with their power in numbers and as for Bill, his power to stop them. Along with their blue sashes, Scorsese also places certain props into the shot to show how they maintain control of their land.