If you’re a fan of stories, and movies especially, there is a good chance that you’ve been affected by a “harbinger” scene. In The Writer’s Journey, Chris Vogler’s now legendary summary of the work of Joseph Campbell, the “harbinger” is described as a certain energy that comes over the story just before the hero begins their quest. That energy is usually embodied in a single character who is slightly more aware of the danger that the hero is about to face, and offers them a dire warning to take the journey seriously.
Even though there have been many of these scenes in our modern era of cinema, there is one scene that sticks out in my mind the most. It’s from a movie that is structured so well that referencing it has almost become a cliche…but I’m going do it anyway. It is the classic adventure tale Raiders Of the Lost Ark. This movie’s “harbinger” moment is actually a continuation of the energy that was built up in the scene preceding it when Dr. Jones and his colleague, Marcus Brody, meet with CIA agents who are looking for information about a mysterious and mystical object from the Old Testament in the Bible known as The Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant has piqued the interest of Adolph Hitler, and the CIA agents come to Jones and Brody to find out why Hitler might be after it.
In the scene that follows the meeting, we are given a rare glimpse of Indy’s home, which is cluttered with books and antiquities. He is scrambling around his living room in preparation for his journey to beat Hitler to The Ark. Marcus Brody enters to tell Indy that the CIA has approved of his mission. Marcus is handed a glass of champagne to celebrate and he quickly finds a seat among the mess, while Indy goes in and out of the room gathering his luggage. Marcus’s demeanor is a stark contrast to Indy’s almost childlike enthusiasm. For years, this has remained one of my favorite scenes in the entire series, and here’s why:
THE WAY THE SCENE IS SHOT
The entire scene plays out in virtually one take. Since there are so few cuts in the scene, the juxtaposition of Jones’ energy vs Brody’s stillness causes tension throughout the scene. The two men represent the two sides of the us; one being the desire for adventure and new experiences, and the other being the need to feel safe and secure.
Above, and continuing on, is a series screenshots taken throughout the scene. As you can see, due to the use of an extremely wide angle lens that would make Hype Williams proud, the image is bent, meaning that no matter where anyone is, everyone will be in focus.
Spielberg uses this wide angle to build tension by dollying in past Indy, lowering the angle and allowing us to focus on Brody’s concerned expression. Brody is taking the role of the mentor in this scene. He reminds Indy, and the audience, of the spiritual significance and power that the Ark has. He tells Indy of his concerns about seeing him go after an object that has only been connected to stories of death and mass destruction. He even reminds Indy that “It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.”
The focus then turns back to Indy’s confidence and enthusiasm as he pats Brody on the should and crosses the room. He grabs something from his desk, which is later revealed to be his gun.
This is where Indy’s naivety is revealed. It’s here that he gets a glimpse of the lesson that he will learn throughout his quest. When Marcus finishes expressing his worries, Indy laughs it off and says he’s not interested in “Ghost stories and the boogie man.” He is only focused on the personal gain and glory that would come from such a monumental archeological find. It is this moment where the only cut in the scene takes place.
As Indy comes back to the forefront of the room, and he unravels his pistol from its cloth, Spielberg cuts to a close-up of the gun. This is to remind us that even though he might be outmatched, Indy is more than capable to take on the task at hand.
The moment is cemented with the final shot before the scene ends. Indy causally tosses the gun into his suitcase, and it falls right next to the two iconic pieces of his wardrobe, his whip and leather jacket.