For the most part, the camera is a third-person narrator. It is an observer and a paintbrush through which a director can convey myriad multitudes of story and style. However, there are occasions when being a voyeur to the action loses something essential and, in those moments, slipping into the first-person narration of a POV shot can recapture the visceral edge of the unfolding moment. Whether it’s putting the viewer on the receiving end of a shotgun or a look of love, plonking the audience front in centre is a mass knee weakener in every which way. We’re exploring the history and use of the shot and wrapping it all up in a supercut below.
The shot was first notably deployed in Lady in the Lake (1947). The cinematic retelling of the classic Ray Chandler ‘Phillip Marlowe private detective’ novel sees the viewer stand in the investigator’s place. What it creates in this instance is almost like a visual novel. The viewer literally sees the story unfold from the perspective of Phillip Marlowe; thus, the prose between the dialogue in the literature is transposed into visual nuance, colouring the scene with a greater sense of realism. The effect is to conjure up something like a cinematic video game whereby the viewer takes on the role of the detective in certain scenes. Not only is this involved in a literal sense, but in a fundamental sense, it also presents the viewer with something visually captivating.
Interestingly, this initial use placed the viewer in the shoes of Phillip Marlowe, one of the most reticent characters in cinema history, who is very much a vehicle for the plot. It was, therefore, an exploration of diegesis more so than emotion, which is how it is often used today. In short, if you want to know how a character is feeling, then what better way to convey that than through their very eyes.
This depiction of a character’s internal mental state is ubiquitous in modern cinema. Whether it’s the glossy-eyed, soft-lit, swooning focus of some poor soul falling head over heels or the kaleidoscopic reality swirl of someone who has just been drugged. There is no better way to convey emotion than by literally lending the audience the mindset filtered eyes of a character. It is this obvious arresting nature of the shot that led legendary French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard to call it “the most natural cut in cinema.”
However, there is often deep poetry behind the rather more obvious narrative-based motive of the shot. It touches upon the universal truth that reality is coloured by the lens through which we see it. One very notable use of this rather more poetic and subtle deployment comes from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
In Goodfellas, there is an iconic scene during which the viewer witnesses the action from two very different perspectives via contrasting point of view shots. The uber-violent gangster Henry Hill is lying in bed and awoken by his wife Karen pointing a gun at his face. Through Karen’s eyes, we see an angered but almost unmoved Henry trying to excerpt control over the situation. But through Henry’s eyes, we see hysteria and fear on Karen’s face. The point being that these two characters come from very different worlds, one is almost institutionalised by violence, and the other is having it terrifyingly permeate her life. This message is seamlessly imparted in two simple, quick cuts. There is no need to ram it home further or imbue the point heavy-handedly because the audience has quite literally experienced it for themselves.
Contrasting the broad-brush stroke terms of emotional or diegetic deployment is the third use. The shot can also be used to show scope. If, for instance, a character can see the flickering light of safety in the distance, then there is no better way to convey the scope of that task to the viewer than by seeing it from the perspective of the character. Even this seemingly purely practical usage can be embellished with the cinematic edge of storytelling by coupling the shot with zoom techniques to make something seem insurmountable, claustrophobic or hopefully in reach.
One of the most fascinating things about the point of view shot is that it is ubiquitous in cinema and often seems so seamless despite often serving up a completely different perspective to the rest of the action. This is testimony to the work of early coveters of the shot, like Alfred Hitchcock, who used it so brilliantly that it entered the dialogue of cinema like a piece in the great glossy jigsaw as a result.
Check out our supercut, below.