The interplay between cinematic devices and plot construction in King Vidor’s "The Crowd"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016
16 Pages, Grade: 1,3
Claudia Rumms (Author)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Framework
2.1 Narrative Construction in film

3. Analysis from a spectator’s point of view
3.1 The depiction of the crowd
3.2 The depiction of John Sims as a crowd-man
3.3 John Sims as a victim of patriarchy

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“Reality can only be grasped in its contradictions, in the relations between the culture of the simulacrum and what it excludes [. . .] (Hansen 114). This quotation depicts what a viewer is confronted with when it comes to the plot analysis of a film.

In the silent film The Crowd, released in 1928 by MGM and directed by King Vidor, the spectator witnesses scene by scene how the main character John Sims is swallowed up by the crowd when he tries to stand out from the mass society of New York. In his attempt to become a successful part of the upper class, he has to “be good in that town if [he] want[s] to beat the crowd” (Vidor, The Crowd), which results in a failure caused by the protagonist’s character traits and the pitiless social realities in a growing metropolis. His dreams get gradually reduced as Sims confronts himself with the inevitable urban reality of thousands of other dreams coexisting, all having the same aim.

The Crowd dramatizes the plight of an average working man and provides different readings of the film of who is finally responsible for John Sims’ misery. Apart from the narrative itself, the spectator can make his own interpretation of the discourses aroused by the narrative with the help of cinematic style which offers nondiegetic elements and thereby defamiliarizes the viewer with the story.

This term paper will focus on the interplay between the cinematic devices and the discourses aroused in the narrative of The Crowd which contribute to the viewer’s insight and his determining of the responsible element(s) for John Sims’ failure. With respect to this, my thesis is: The cinematic devices in The Crowd combined with the discourses aroused in the narrative play an outstanding role in the viewer’s defamiliarization with the story and final understanding of the plot. The paper starts out with a theoretical introduction to narrative construction in film in order to provide the basis for a further analysis. This introductory chapter is further important as it shows that there is an interaction between the audience and the plot of a film, which plays a noticeable role in the interpretation of The Crowd. The subsequent chapter deals with a close analysis of scenes and themes in the film from a spectator’s point of view that depict the intimidating power of mass society, John Sims as a crowd-man and the influence of patriarchy, elements which contribute to John Sims’ failure. As a final step, I will draw a conclusion on the basis of the results from the analyses.

2. Theoretical Framework

2.1 Narrative Construction in film

2.11 Plot and Story

A narrative is generally constructed by the identification of its events and connecting them by space, cause and effect and time. The viewer of a film can do things that go beyond that given narrative construction. As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson explain in their book FILM ART AN INTRODUCTION, the viewer “often infer[s] events that are not explicitly presented, and [. . .] recognize[s] the presence of material that is extraneous to the story world”(80). In order to look beyond the events explicitly presented, it is important to distinguish between the terms story and plot.

The story of a film is made up of all the events in a narrative. These events include those ones which are explicitly presented on the one hand, and the ones the viewer infers on the other. Everything that takes place in the story action is also called diegesis. Therefore, all the visible elements and those ones the viewer assumes to be offscreen are diegetic because “they are assumed to exist in the world that the film depicts”(Bordwell and Thompson 80). The term story is often translated as fabula, which is:

“a pattern which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences. It is the developing result of picking up narrative cues, applying schemata, framing and testing hypotheses.[. . .] The viewer builds the fabula on the basis of prototype schemata(identifiable types of persons, actions, locales,etc.), template schemata (a search for appropriate motivations and relations of causality, time, and space)”(49).

The term plot, the totality of the film, is used to highlight visible and audible elements of a film which means including all the story events that are directly depicted. The term is also translated as syuzhet, which is the presentation and arrangement of the fabula in the film. Further, the term syuzhet “names the architectonics of the film’s presentation of the fabula”(Bordwell 50). According to that, the plot/ syuzhet further contains elements that are outside the story world, called nondiegetic elements. Credits, music, camera movement and titles are examples for these nondiegetic elements. With special regard to an analysis of a film, the plot or syuzhet is important since it could have an impact on the viewers understanding of the action as “[t]he plot goes beyond the story world by presenting nondiegetic images and sounds”(Bordwell and Thompson 81). Therefore, the perceiver creates the story himself with the help of hints in the plot.

2.12 Style and cinematographic techniques

The term style is closely related to the syuzhet, and in the context of film analysis, it “names the film’s systematic use of cinematic devices”(Bordwell 50). Therefore, style can be seen as an ingredient of the medium. Cinematic techniques are used to perform the syuzhet by cueing hypotheses and providing information. Whatever cinematic style is used, it could have different effects on the viewer’s cognitive and perceptual activity (Bordwell 52). The most important cinematic techniques which convey meaning to the viewer are the angle and the distance. When the camera is positioned at a low-angle, the importance and size of the subject is highlighted. The opposite effect is created when the camera is placed at a high angle which makes the subject look less important or even oppressed. The point-of-view shot or straight-on angle shot is used to adopt the perspective of a character (Bordwell and Thompson 195).

Another important element of cinematographic technique is the distance between the camera and the objects that are filmed. There are different terms used for various distances such as the long-shot, the medium-shot and the close-up. In a long-shot, the background dominates the subject or figure. The medium shot is a view between the long shot and the close-up framing a body from the waist up. The close-up is focusing on a small object, usually hands, feet or a head. Here, the spectator can observe an object in detail, for example a facial expression or gesture. These distances can be further subdivided. The most important and famous subdivisions are the extreme long shot and the extreme close-up. In the extreme long shot, the subject is tiny or even lost. It is the framing for bird’s eye views of a city and landscapes. The extreme close-up on the other hand isolates a certain part of a larger object, a mouth for example. With respect to the ongoing analysis of certain scenes in the The Crowd, these terms are of considerable importance since some of them contribute to the spectator’s understanding of the plot. Furthermore, some of these techniques also create a certain defamiliarization and confusion in the viewer which is important for the overall understanding and interpretation of both, the story and the plot (Bordwell and Thompson 194f).

To put it in a nutshell, narration in film is the process in which the cinematic style and the film’s syuzhet interact “in the course of cueing and channeling the spectator’s construction of the fabula” (Bordwell 53).

3. Analysis from a spectator’s point of view

3.1 The depiction of the crowd

In the silent film The Crowd, the representation of the crowd is negative which can be seen in various cinematic techniques highlighting the alienation of the individual in an urban city. The almost threatening representation of the crowd can be observed right at the beginning of the film when John experiences the loss of his father. When he hears the news about his father he runs home immediately and is closely followed by a mass of people reminiscent of an ant colony. John climbs a staircase into the apartment. Behind and below him, there is a crowd of curious and sensation-seeking people waiting for the bad news little Johnny is confronted with. The representation of the crowd here is fairly negative since their behaviour is anti-social because nobody shows any empathy towards John or supports him when he goes upstairs. Instead, the mass of people remains downstairs which is filmed in a high-angle shot showing Johnny coming upstairs. Apart from the camera shot, there is also a dramatic background music, a nondiegetic element, supporting the tragedy of the scene as well as the fact that Johnny cannot count on the crowd behind him and solely relies on himself. Further, this scene corresponds to the intertitle at (….) saying” “the crowd laughs with you always… but will cry with you for only a day” (Vidor, The Crowd).

Another scene depicting the intimidating mass is when John Sims travels by ferry to New York, a metropolis where “you’ve gotta be good in [. . .] if you want to beat the crowd”(Vidor, The Crowd). With his arrival in New York, John enters the stream of urban life which is depicted with an establishing shot from a ferry-perspective. That scene focuses on the representation of the huge buildings in a documentary style highlighting the typical features of a big city such as transportation and speed. All in all, the city of New York is represented in heroic and energetic terms. Nevertheless, all those impressive buildings and skyscrapers are offices in which people have to work and The Crowd demonstrates the price they have to pay for that skyline at the example of John Sims. Further, the establishing shots focusing on the people convey the impression of a stream of ants rushing through the Big Apple, thereby stressing the quality of speed and sameness. In addition to the various extreme-long and establishing shots emphasizing the dimensions of such a big city, music plays an important role here, too. By the use of stringed instruments playing a quick passage, King Vidor highlights the fast pace of a life in a metropolis and thereby intensifies the intimidating image of the crowd which reminds the spectator of an ant colony again.

The following scene is filmed in an elaborate tracking shot. The camera focuses on a huge office building and moves up its wall. When it arrives at the top, the camera enters the building through a window and shows a huge office with identical desks arranged in a grid square which is captured from an extreme high-angle camera. It tracks on John Sims working at a desk with the number 137 next to numerous identical looking workmates (Kirby 13-14). The sameness and lack of individuality in that scene is highlighted by the great room with its numerous desks and depersonalized looking working man. The room is so huge that it seems that it is “stretching away into infinity” (Keith 98). When work is over, there is one scene in the washroom which underscores that lack of individuality and homogeneity. John Sims is washing his hands and some of his colleagues go by and tell the same jokes again and again: “Washin’ ‘em up, Sims?”; “Takin’ a wash, Sims?”; “Scrubbin’ ‘em up, Sims?”; “Chasin’ the dirt, Sims?”(Vidor, The Crowd). In that scene, it appears to the viewer that even friendship and humour “seem to be in a state of redundancy under the heavy load of long rows of identical desks occupied by microscopic employees”, as Angela Dalle Vacche explains (221). Reflecting upon the scene in and outside the building as a whole, it becomes clear that King Vidor wanted to confront human smallness with industrial force. The confrontation of both can be observed by the tracking shot of the camera which first focuses on the industrial creation of the skyscraper and then moves inside to the human smallness.

When there is the end of a working day, people rush from the modern skyscrapers and office buildings, a picture that again highlights the lack of individuality and depersonalization city-dwellers have to live with. Subsequent to that picture, there are John and Bert ready to share an evening at Coney Island with two women who come out shortly afterwards. The way the numerous women come out of the building is striking since they leave in mechanical fashion one after another which again reminds the viewer of an assembly line.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The interplay between cinematic devices and plot construction in King Vidor’s "The Crowd"
University of Osnabrück  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Urban Landscapes of Modernity
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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King Vidor, The Crowd, film analysis, plot construction, cinematic elemets
Quote paper
Claudia Rumms (Author), 2016, The interplay between cinematic devices and plot construction in King Vidor’s "The Crowd", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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