It took a Martian invasion to make me aware of William Cameron Menzies. I watched “Invaders from Mars”, and the look of that movie kept reminding me of German Expressionist films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.
Menzies was both director and production designer on “Invaders…” Starkly chiaroscuro lighting, abrupt camera angles that deliberately unsettle the viewer, and actors filmed from below so that they loom up into the frame are all hallmarks of his style.
If you’ve seen “Gone with the Wind”, you’ve seen Menzies’ work. The title of “production designer”* was created by David O. Selznick to describe Menzies’ contribution to that epic film. His Expressionist leanings are toned down for “Gone…”, but you can see traces of them, especially in the scenes of Atlanta burning.
Menzies’ style seems to work best in genres like science-fiction (Things to Come) and thrillers (The Maze). These types of movies needed stark visual drama, and often highly-stylized costumes and sets, to put an audience in the right mood. A more lighthearted example is The Thief of Bagdad. Everything in this movie is more curvilinear and organic, and almost every surface is covered with a riot of fanciful, Middle-Eastern-inspired decoration.
Menzies sometimes let his stylings overpower the living, speaking, moving actors who had to inhabit the worlds he created. For example, “Things to Come” is a delight for fans of sci-fi and modernist style. But the heavy emphasis on visuals reduces the actors to stiff figures required to deliver their lines while locked inside the sets, costumes and camera angles that are really the stars of the film.
Once you’re familiar with Menzies’ style, you’ll start seeing his influence in lots of classic 20th-century films. And don’t miss David Bordwell’s entertaining and thoroughly-researched essay on Menzies. Professor Bordwell wonders, “Why has nobody written a book about him?” Good question. Until that book comes along, this essay is a terrific place to start.
* A production designer works with a film’s cinematographer and director to determine how that film will look. He or she determines the visual style that will create the right mood for the film, supporting the plot and ideas the film needs to convey. Typically this includes providing visual references (like photos and scale models) to the rest of the production team, and then translating those references into reality, once his or her concepts for the look of the film are approved.