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I first saw Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying in Chicago in 1957. The film’s cinematography, by the great Sergei Urusevsky, has been a major influence on my career. The shot in the film that stands out most for me starts at about twenty-five minutes in. It begins handheld, when the character Veronica looks out the window of a bus, and continues out into a vast crowd of people. Then there’s a fast lateral movement going out of the bus and past a car, which could be just a great handheld move or was perhaps done on an improvised dolly. We can see a wide street through the crowd. Veronica stops for a beat of three seconds at the edge of the boulevard—at this moment, a crane seat was slipped under Sergei. The camera then cranes up to see the tanks and a wide view of the crowd.
I knew Sergei for many years. And for a long time, even though we talked about his astonishing visual extravaganza I Am Cuba (1964), also directed by Kalatozov, I didn’t realize it was he who had shot The Cranes Are Flying. I borrowed the above shot for a combination shot for the 1976 film Bound for Glory. For that, I will modestly accept the description of a “spectacular shot,” along with the Academy Award.
It’s amazing that the shot that comes to mind in 2011 when I'm asked to name an image from a film that's affected my work is from a film I haven’t seen since 1957. To me, that has an element of drama in it.
Haskell Wexler is the two-time Academy Award–winning cinematographer behind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Bound for Glory. The 1969 film Medium Cool, which he wrote, directed, and shot, was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2003. Learn more about Wexler here.