**Originally published September 12, 2012**
Truth be told, when I made my long list of directors to study for the purposes of this series, Tony Scott wasn’t on it. I’d seen a small number of his films, and while I constantly found them to be entertaining, I didn’t see much of a reason to include his work for analysis. It’s funny how death can suddenly encapsulate a life’s work and make it worth study. Even the most commercial, formulaic filmmakers have something to contribute to the art of cinema.
All throughout the month of August 2012, I was preparing to cover the films of the Coen Brothers– that is, until August 19th, when Tony Scott leapt to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro. I was struck by the outpouring of grief among the film community, and of the fond remembrances of his work. His suicide was sudden and inexplicable– nobody saw it coming. Truth be told, he had been scouting locations with Tom Cruise for TOP GUN 2 only a few weeks prior. What possessed this man, blessed with fame, fortune, family, and good health (despite his age), to end it all? I’m well aware that my own analysis of the man’s work won’t generate any answers, but perhaps in my own way I can come closer to understand the mentality of a man who loved making movies, but was doomed to always toil in the shadow of Ridley Scott, his brother and an admittedly much more skilled filmmaker.
Growing up in midcentury England, he initially had no plans to become a filmmaker at all. Instead, he went to the Royal College of Art to study painting. It wasn’t until Ridley’s success with commercials that he was coaxed into the world of filmmaking.
Scott’s first directorial effort was a short film he made in 1969, titled ONE OF THE MISSING. Shot on black and white 16mm film, the story concerns a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War who sneaks up on a Union encampment, only to be trapped under a pile of falling rubble from a collapsed building. As his hopes for escape rapidly dwindle, he begins the agonizing process of summoning up the courage to commit suicide.
In his more recent career, Scott would gain a reputation for highly stylized, hyperkinetic camerawork, but ONE OF THE MISSING is much more steady and level-headed in its execution. Serving as his own director of photography, Scott constructs a visual language comprised of extreme close-ups and a locked-off camera that is limited only to pans and zooms. Despite the more straightforward visual presentation, he eschews dialogue and creates a surreal ambient sound bed out of heightened natural background noises and atmospheric dream textures. It’s slightly trippy, and sets an experimental tone for what could be a fairly straightforward narrative.
Scott adeptly uses quick edits and unconventional frame compositions to jarring effect, amplifying the agony of being buried alive. While watching a man struggle under immense weight could get boring after a while, Scott ups the suspense by introducing the fact that his own gun has fallen in such a way that the barrel is pointing directly at his face, and could go off at any second. Cutting from the soldier’s frantic eyes and to the cold, uncaring black hole of that barrel ratchets up the tension and keeps the viewer intrigued. Even with his first directing effort, Scott shows a knack for generating engaging action.
ONE OF THE MISSING also contains a great cameo– just as Tony had played the titular role in Ridley Scott’s debut film BOY AND BICYCLE (1965), so does Ridley return the favor, appearing as a handsome young Confederate officer. It’s incredibly interesting to see the filmmaker as fresh-faced young man, especially now when his general public image is that of a grizzled old man.
ONE OF THE MISSING is a strong start to a rich body of work, and proves that talent runs in the family.