Bombast: Everywhere with Helicopter
Fifteen minutes into Sharky’s Machine (81), the third feature credited to Burt Reynolds as director, we’re treated to a strange, somewhat patience-testing helicopter aerial shot. We are above the lights of Atlanta, hovering outside a cylindrical skyscraper with a reflective glass façade. This is the 73-floor Westin Peachtree Plaza, the tallest building in Atlanta at the time of the shoot, and, upon opening in 1976, the tallest hotel in the world, surpassed the following year by Detroit’s Renaissance Center (also designed by John Portman & Associates). The Peachtree Plaza’s attractions include a massive atrium lobby, a two-story revolving restaurant that looks out over the city, and two scenic elevators allowing access to the upper floors. As the camera moves closer to the building, it hones in on an elevator on the way up, tracking its ascent. We get just close enough to make out its occupants, a man and two women, before a cut puts us inside the building just as the elevator opens and dislodges its occupants into the hallway: a mustachioed, middle-aged man and two pieces of arm candy, all three of them piled under fur coats. The fellow with the moustache, we will learn, is Victor (Vittorio Gassman), the proverbial man-behind-the-curtain, and the skyscraper is the command tower from which he runs the vice rackets in Fulton County.
This shot stuck out to me while recently watching a badly aged, tomato soup–palette print of Sharky’s Machine, in part because of its unusual duration—it lasts around a minute, all said, lounge jazz tinkling all the way through—in part because of the extraordinary lengths that it goes to convey very little narrative information, other than emphasizing the physical fact of the Peachtree Plaza, its singular, imposing presence over the low-slung Atlanta skyline. Reynolds obviously thought this emphasis was essential. The movie’s first image is the skyscraper, which appears isolated against a black backdrop, shaded blood red, alongside the credit “A Deliverance Productions Film.” It’s also the scene of the film’s climax, in which Sgt. Tom Sharky (Reynolds) and his team bust into Victor’s apartment to find that his brother, a junkie hit man, has just killed their target. (Henry Silva plays the brother, though when Burt catches up with him and sends him plummeting off of the side of the building, it’s stunt man Dar Robinson who’s taking the free-fall.)
After the movie, I got to talking with a cinematographer friend who suggested that the unusual style of Sharky’s Machine—the abundance of closer-than-close-ups and the paucity of coverage, neither of these recognizable signatures from other Reynolds movies—was evidence that the direction had been handed over to cinematographer William A. Fraker. Fraker was an accomplished cinematographer whose CV at that point included Bullitt (68), Dusty and Sweets McGee (71), and Exorcist II: The Heretic (77), directed by John Boorman, who Reynolds had at one point wanted to handle Sharky’s Machine. Fraker also directed a handful of films in his own right, most notably A Reflection of Fear (72), and shot Reynolds’s Gator (76), which, though otherwise quite different from Sharky’s Machine, also makes rather free use of the helicopter aerial shot—in fact, both Gator and Sharky’s Machine begin with them. The helicopter aerial in Gator follows a police expedition into the bayou after Reynolds’s moonshiner Gator McKlusky, accompanied by a title track performed by country and western star Jerry Reed, who also plays the movie’s heavy. This might be called a motivated helicopter aerial, as we do see a chopper with the police expedition—later drawn into a madcap chase and downed—and the view could conceivably be that from the pilot’s seat. The helicopter aerial shot that opens Sharky’s Machine is, insofar as we can tell, unmotivated. After curling around the top of the Peachtree Plaza from above, it then descends, heading due west, the setting sun’s orange rays occasionally streaking the frame, until finally picking up a lone figure moving along the railroad track: Sharky, on his way to an undercover rendezvous. A very close variation on this opens Reynolds’s Stick (85); this time the helicopter approach, begun over open water, looks up to see the outskirts of Miami then, after a cut, picks up a freight train coming into town, and a stranger hitching a ride. (Like Sharky’s Machine, Stick also concludes with Dar Robinson falling from a great height.)
Los Angeles Plays Itself
The helicopter aerial shot is, today, ubiquitous. It is also extravagant, silly, and, from the standpoint of classical narrative, almost always inessential. I know it isn’t important because when I Google “helicopter shot,” the first results all refer to M.S. Dhoni, the captain of the Indian national cricket team, who has apparently had unprecedented success batting with a shot of the same name in limited-overs cricket, whatever that is. Nevertheless, the helicopter shot was indispensable for Burt Reynolds, as it is for certain other directorial personalities. My mother, on a flight to Los Angeles some time ago, was seated next to a fellow who introduced himself as the camera operator on Michael Bay’s helicopter shots. “Everything you’ve heard about him,” he noted, “is true.” (The “him” is Bay, though I’m not certain why he assumed that my mother, who is old enough to be my mother after all, and was probably reading an Anne Tyler novel, would have heard anything about Michael Bay.) Essential or not, the aerial is one of the medium’s more impressive superpowers. In Thom Andersen’s chronicle of that most chopper-patrolled of cities, Los Angeles Plays Itself (03), the dour narrator speaks over helicopter aerials of L.A.’s SimCity downtown skyline from The Thirteenth Floor (99) and Blade (98): “Movies have some advantages over us. They can fly through the air, we must travel by land.” A die hard pedestrian, Andersen implicitly begrudges the movies this elitist advantage as something like the “advantage” enjoyed by the oligarchs of São Paulo, who travel from rooftop to rooftop by helicopter, never touching the ground.
The aerial shot predates the helicopter by a few decades. The movies (born circa 1895) and the airplane (ca. 1903) practically grew up together, and the boom years of Los Angeles were fueled by the arrival of the motion picture and aviation industries in Southern California. No sooner had controlled, powered flight been mastered than it was undertaken with a camera aboard—probably at about the same time that someone had the bright idea of attaching a machine gun to an airplane, and the histories of military and cinematic aeronautics have been intertwined ever since.
The helicopter came late onto the scene. The first functional vertical take-off and land rotocraft, the Focke-Wulf Fw 61, was manufactured in Germany in 1936, but neither the Nazis nor the United States, who quickly hopscotched their enemies in helicopter technology thanks to the genius of designer Igor Sikorsky, were ready or able to employ rotocraft in significant military operations before the end of the war. Bell Aircraft’s Arthur Young designed the first helicopters for civilian use; his Bell 47 was ready for the market in 1946, and would remain the standard for decades afterwards—those so inclined can see a Bell 47D-1 on display at the Museum of Modern Art, next to where they keep the Olivetti typewriters.
They Live by Night
The exact moment that the helicopter came to cinema is unclear. I had long labored under the impression that the helicopter aerial that opens Nicholas Ray’s first film, They Live by Night (48)—following a Model A Ford driven by Howard Da Silva as it tears down a dirt road, away from a bank job—was the first, though there there’s some disputation on this point. Patrick McGilligan’s Ray biography states that the helicopter aerial “was trumpeted as a first in Hollywood and attracted coast-to-coast wire-service coverage during the first week of filming,” while Bernard Eisenschitz’s bio of Ray has it that “Helicopters had been used before, and still were, for establishing shots, panoramic views of cities and landscapes, but never for an action shot.” According to an April 1945 item in The Hollywood Reporter, a helicopter was used on the set of George Sherman and Henry Levin’s The Bandit of Sherwood Forest to film a scene in which Robin Hood’s son and Merry Men case out a castle they’re about to storm, which gives it a decent claim for “first.”
Whatever the case, early in the They Live by Night shoot, in June of 1947, Ray and cameraman Paul Ivano went up with a hired Marine pilot, shot four takes of the drive-by, the second of which went into the finished picture, then, after lunch, knocked off 15 more setups. Eisenschitz’s bio includes a photograph of the occasion, showing a Bell 47B with the words “Armstrong-Flint Helicopter Co.” written on the tail. This would make it the property of Knute Flint, a veteran of World War II who had flown rescue missions in China in a Sikorsky R6 Hoverfly II. According to James R. Chiles’s The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter, Armstrong-Flint also did a seasonal business in “Santa-hauling,” delivering Father Christmases to improvised helipads on the roofs of department stores; the Ray film, however, was likely their entry into the motion picture business. Armstrong-Flint would later shoot the helicopter aerial climax of Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda (48), filmed after They Live by Night, but released to theaters first, this being not the last example of professional misfortune to befall Raymond Nicholas Kienzle over the course of his career. Here is how the Johnny Belinda press release describes the shot:
“The ability of a helicopter to fly backwards and gain altitude at the same time was employed in photographing the final scene of Johnny Belinda. The scene is a traveling shot showing a buggy being driven along the rugged coastline. The camera pulled back and up going out to sea. The buggy reduced further and further in the distance leaving as a final impression only a small segment of earth on which the story was played.”
This particular kicker—the gradual withdraw leaving a figure dwarfed in the landscape*—is effectively the inverse of the Reynolds “where is my protagonist now oh where could he be oh look there he is” opening shot. I suppose the Johnny Belinda withdrawal confirms the smallness of man in the grand scheme of things, while the Reynolds-ian approach, singling out one story in the naked city, confirms the importance of the protagonist, with the added benefit of setting the scene. It is tempting to use Antonioni’s terms from his famous Cannes speech on Eros and call the withdrawal Copernican, the approach Ptolemaic, but both ultimately confirm the centrality of man. McGilligan quotes Ray, in a 1963 interview with Movie, stating that the helicopter aerials in They Live by Night were “intended to represent the long arm of fate, doom”—The God Machine, indeed.
Play Misty for Me
The coastline mentioned in the description of Johnny Belinda is that of the Monterey Peninsula in Northern California where another star-director who would go on to considerably more critical acclaim than Mr. Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, shot his debut feature Play Misty for Me (71), which includes some picturesque helicopter aerials of Clint zipping around the Carmel Highlands in a 1957 Jaguar XK-150. It is also the scene of another early helicopter shot, this one found at the conclusion of King Vidor’s Japanese War Bride, a sensitive, lovely, and mostly forgotten melodrama of 1952. Jim Sterling (Don Taylor) has tracked his estranged wife—the eponymous war bride, Tae (Shirley Yamaguchi, best known from Sam Fuller’s 1955 House of Bamboo, and a fascinating woman in her own right)—to the seaside bluffs of Monterey. The couple first met and fell in love when Jim was wounded fighting in Korea and Tae, then a Red Cross nurse in Tokyo, tended to him, though their life together after returning to his family’s Central Valley ranch has been difficult, and baseless slander has driven them apart. Confronted by Jim again, Tae is ready to throw herself onto the rocks rather than return “home” with him, but he pulls her into an embrace, at which point the helicopter aerial takes off in much the fashion described in the Johnny Belinda shot. It is a moment of emotional eruption, a sudden falling away of barriers, although with an additional poignant undercurrent—the ocean we’re suspended over is the ocean that separates Tae from her homeland.
It is worth noting that the Korean War from which Jim has returned, and which is still very much a going concern when Japanese War Bride was released in January of 1952, was the first conflict in which helicopters played a crucial part, though still in the role of medevac vehicles. The most common association here is with M*A*S*H, either the 1970 film by Robert Altman or the frightful CBS television show (72-83), which begins with Bell H-13 Sioux helicopters coming over a rise in Malibu Creek State Park while a drippy, Muzak version of Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman’s “Suicide Is Painless” plays on the soundtrack. (If you, like myself, were a child of Democrats in the Eighties, this particularly anodyne audiovisual combination meant that your depressing, Mike Dukakis–loving parents were about to huddle around the television, and that all fun was done for the night.) It was not until the Vietnam War,** and the introduction of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the “Huey,” and Bell AH-1 Cobra, in 1967, that the helicopter would establish itself as a viable air support force, leading to probably the most famous motivated helicopter aerials in cinema, the “Ride of the Valkyries” strike by Col. Kilgore’s attack helicopters in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (79), shot by the cameraman David Butler and pilot David Jones. (To return briefly to Eastwood, his American Sniper contains a prominent instance of simulated drone-vision, created via CGI.)
Altman had previously contributed to the popularization of the helicopter as a regular director on the single-camera drama Whirlybirds (57-60), born of the union of Desilu Studios and Bell Aircraft, part of a small TV helicopter craze along with Highway Patrol (55-59), which also “starred” the Bell 47. Through the Fifties and into the next decade, the helicopter aerial was gradually integrated into the vocabulary of filmmaking—though maybe integrated is not exactly the word. Because footage taken from an unsteady, vibrating helicopter invariably suffered from a bit of frame-jostling, these aerials couldn’t be smoothly matched*** with fixed-tripod or dolly shots—the heyday of handheld, also anticipated by Nick Ray in his On Dangerous Ground (51), was still a ways off—hence the tendency to limit the helicopter aerial to stand-alone, sweeping gestures, the grand opening or grand closing. Hitchcock had wanted a long, slow helicopter aerial approach across Phoenix and into the room shared by Marion Crane and Sam Loomis at the beginning of Psycho (60), but according to assistant director Hilton A. Green, “This was several years before the real solid [camera] mounts were developed,” so the graceful action Hitchcock desired was impossible. This was remedied with cameraman Nelson Tyler’s development of what would be called the Tyler Major Mount, first used on John Sturges’s The Satan Bug (64). The Tyler Major Mount was soon joined by the first “ball mount,” a stabilized sphere four-foot in diameter which affixed to a helicopter’s nose, developed for military purposes by a Canadian division of Westinghouse. An embarrassment of information on both innovations is available in this “History of Aerial Photography” by one Nick Spark.
Hitch did eventually get his opening helicopter aerial, swooping down the Thames at the beginning of 1976’s Frenzy, and Gus Van Sant corrected the compromised series of lap dissolves settled for in the 1960 Psycho with his shot-for-shot remake of 1998. The solid mounts ushered in a new era of no-quake helicopter aerials, the most iconic of these being the ones that follow the Torrance family on their wending drive towards the Overlook Hotel at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (80), shot in Glacier National Park by Greg McGillivray who, per Kubrick, “spent several weeks [emphasis mine] filming some of the most beautiful mountain helicopter shots I’ve seen.” (The brief glimpse of rotor shadow has occasioned more discussion than I dare go into here.) Through the late Sixties and Seventies, the establishing shot of a city skyline, either opening a movie, introducing a city as character, or as interstitial cutaway, became a commonplace. My favorite instance of motivated helicopter aerials occurs in Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff (68), which incorporates one of the passenger helicopters of New York Airways, then in the last year of making scheduled drops on the top of the Pan Am Building.
Come today, the helicopter aerial establishing shot has become a rank cliché, a fallback way to open a movie or roll into a city with a splash. Arriving from a body of water is usually considered a plus: think of innumerable approaches to lower Manhattan across the Bay of New York, Chicago from Lake Michigan, or Boston from across the Harbor, the last-named preferably with The Standells’ “Dirty Water” playing, though the desert approach to Las Vegas is also much-beloved. Typical examples include the introduction of downtown Chicago in John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (86), the approach to the amusement pier in “Santa Carla, California”—in fact the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—at the beginning of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (87), or the introduction of South Beach, Miami, in Mike Nichols’s The Birdcage (96) (Accompanying theme music is The Flowerpot Men’s “Beat City,” Gerard McMahon’s “Cry Little Sister,” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” respectively.) Any really memorable helicopter aerials from this period have to go the extra mile—I am thinking in particular of Jackie Chan being dangled over the spires and radio towers of Kuala Lumpur in Police Story 3: Super Cop (92), though I also have a soft spot for John Badham’s Blue Thunder (83), a to-live-and-die-in-L.A.’s airspace actioner starring Roy Scheider and a modified Aérospatiale SA-341G Gazelle, which spun off a TV series that survived for all of half a season.
Nevertheless, we live in an age of digital cameras with no cap to shot duration, and while the lovable drone makes inroads as a cinematic tool (see here and here), I have not given up hope that the helicopter aerial shot may yet do new, great things for cinema: a single-take heist-and-highway-chase film in real time! A domestic drama taking place in a Midtown high-rise shot entirely in exteriors! An opening shot à la Sharky’s Revenge, but where the camera never picks up a protagonist, or picks up and disposes several! A Rashomon-like interrogation of what really happened to Brian Williams and that Boeing CH-47 Chinook on that fateful day! If Kiarostami did it with a car, why can’t somebody do it with a whirlybird? The sky is yours, young cineastes—seize it!
* An interesting variation on this occurs at the end of the first episode of Louis C.K.’s FX comedy Louie, which riffs on the double meaning of “pilot.” Louie goes on an unsuccessful date with a young woman (Chelsea Peretti), and when he fumblingly attempts to kiss her on a bench at one of Manhattan’s piers, she breaks away, sprints to a waiting helicopter, and lifts off, leaving our schmo protagonist to helplessly watch her escape.
** In the interest of not unduly libeling my parents, I should mention that my depressing Democrat father participated in our adventure in Southeast Asia, which probably had something to do with dampening his enthusiasm for the gung-ho Reagan presidency.
*** Speaking of badly integrated: in the 1956 American re-cut of Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (54), re-titled Godzilla, King of Monsters!, featuring clumsily inserted hulking Canuck Raymond Burr as an identification figure for round-eyes, the word “helicopter” is pronounced as “helio-copter,” some indicator of just how exotic the contraption still, at that point, was.