FARGO (1996)

This frame occurs during the scene in which Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is in his office and receives the first… “concerned” (?) phone call from Riley Diefenbach from GMAC.

Many aspects of film form, including composition, character placement, acting/body language, and camera movement, help to connect the “action” in the frame/scene with not only the idea of Jerry’s growing guilt, but with other scenes in the film, during which his sense of guilt will grow, and the similarities to this first scene will become obvious.

In this particular frame, Jerry is sitting at his desk, talking on the phone and listening to Diefenbach. Both are trying to sound courteous throughout (especially at first) in that “aww, shucks,” kind of genial Minnesotan way, but both are hiding things just beneath the surface – the GMAC employee trying to get across the importance of serial numbers on a form Jerry sent without his frustration shining through, and Jerry is trying to sound like it was an accident/no big deal without sounding suspicious or attracting undo attention to his malfeasance.

One aspect of film form used is the camera framing – at an angle on Jerry’s desk through the window, Jerry sitting frame left with blinds open in the window in front of him. The blinds (out of focus a bit) look almost like thin prison bars. This frame is also a small part of a dolly move in toward the window of Jerry’s office. As the shot begins, the camera is back a bit, he is kind of small in the frame, sitting at his desk, with the blinds open in the foreground. As the camera moves in, the “bars” (blinds) become somewhat bigger and so does Jerry, yet he also seems boxed in, small, and this is evidenced in his posture, his gestures, his vocal acting, and the content of the scene – he is trying to worm his way out of even the slightest hint of trouble, if only by the skin of his teeth.

Another aspect of film form is the character placement and body language. In this frame, Jerry is looking down, eyes closed, at his desk, scribbling something down (something insignificant, to keep his idle hands busy – since idle hands are the devil’s playpen). This is clearly the last thing he needs in his day, and it’s only going to spiral down from here. With the blinds/ “prison bars” in the foreground, and Jerry in the middle foreground, sitting at his desk, boxed in by his job and his new “double life” (trying to maintain a courteous demeanor and work ethic while engaging in criminal activity on the side), it is worth noting that in the far background of this frame, we see a small double frame picture of Jerry, his wife Jean (presumably, though a glare obscures her, and possibly himself alone separate from the couple’s photo). These are loomed over by seemingly countless (well, at least 6) apparent trophies for athletics (or possibly special commendations for his job), which sit on the back of the window sill, also surrounded curiously enough by “bar-like” blinds – though they are gleaming white/blue from the street light).

It could be argued that the placement of the picture in the frame with the wife’s face obscured is, in a sense, a symbol of Jerry’s willingness to “block out” his misdeeds in the only way that really matters – the identity of who he’s willfully hurting to get what he needs. By doing so, he is able to go on with his everyday routine.

This first phone call and its context will be mirrored later in the film (50 min. in) by a phone call from Carl (Steve Buscemi), the kidnapper. Inside of Jerry’s office, the camera will dolly in again with Jerry backed up against the wall (literally), including more large prison bar-looking blinds on the back window. The camera will move in toward his face as he sinks further and further into his sweaty desperation over the phone. Then, to add insult to injury, Riley calls back, his “patience at an end.” From there, the film cuts to a wide shot of Jerry’s office as he finally cracks up, slamming things on his desk upon hanging up the phone.

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