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Senses Taker: A Final Inventory

When man loses his sense of sight his hearing and sense of touch become heightened. So how does a man react when he is about to lose his life? An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a commentary on a man’s final moments and how he gains a hyper awareness right before losing his senses entirely. The filmmaker effectively uses sound, camera angle, and editing to journey us through the hyper-sense of life we run through when we have nowhere left to run to. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a French short film, the story was published by Ambrose Bierce in 1891 and the film was directed by Robert Enrico.

It was awarded at the Cann Film Festival in 1962 and later won an Academy Award for best live action short. It was so well received that it aired in the U. S. as a special installment of Twilight Zone during its 5th season. Enrico uses sound in the film to help the viewer get into the mind of Peyton Farquhar, a man who is about to lose his life by hanging. All the sounds heard throughout the film are from the perspective of the main character and there is little dialogue outside of the few commands by the officers performing the hanging.

At first the sounds are all encompassing of the surrounding environment and could be the interpretation of any of those present, but once Farquhar initiates his ‘escape’ the sounds become very intense and unique to his character. For example when he falls into the water the sound heard is only what he would hear underwater and when he finally rises to the surface the sound is the slow and low muffled sounds of the officers getting ready to fire that you would hear as you regained awareness. The sound of the birds, rushing of the rapids, cannon fire are all heard from his unique and intense perspective.

Enrico also uses sound to add suspense and aid the viewer in feeling the intensity of emotion and heightened sense of awareness that Farquhar is feeling. During each instance that Farquhar is experiencing a sense of relief that he might make it through and survive there is a song playing whose lyrics describe all the sights and sounds noticed by ‘a livin’ man’. The song is slow and melodic and when it plays the viewer also feels that sense of relief particularly when combined with the visuals provided of all life’s small treasures being noticed an appreciated.

It is presented in such a way that the viewer feels, like Farquhar, that they are seeing them again for the first time. Along this same line is Enrico’s use of the drum playing when Farquhar begins and continues running away from soldier fire. It is quick, intense and condemning and the viewer’s own heart races in time with the beat as he tries to escape. It creates a sense of urgency and desperation and intensifies the feeling by being chosen over the sound of simply his feet running on the forest floor or of his heavy breathing.

Enrico employs the use of camera angle and perspective to illustrate the difference between Farquhar’s reality and actual reality. It seems that the intensity and perspective of sound works in opposition to camera perspective to allow the viewer to feel what the character is running through emotionally, but also to distinguish between what is real and unreal. The first scenes of the main character are shot from his perspective. We are given his view of seeing his legs and feet on the plank awaiting the water below.

We are shown his perspective of the soldiers on the bridge and in rows armed along the bank. We experience the blinding light of the sun and the view of the soldier taking his pocket watch and putting it in his jacket. Even when shown images of final thoughts of his wife and children it is viewed from his perspective without his presence. In contrast once his ‘escape’ begins we lose this first person perspective. As he is escaping, swimming away and running we see his whole person and not what he sees.

The only time during this sequence that we again see potentially through his eyes are when the song about ‘a livin’ man’ is playing, which would make sense because it isn’t something he is actually hearing, so his perspective of those last tangibles of life would be of his final realities interplaying into his ‘dreamed escape’. Camera angle and perspective is also used effectively to build suspense, as he moves from swimming to running he is filmed to be coming closer and closer and moving towards the viewer until the final shots where he is shot reaching out towards the viewer.

Though it is intercut with images of his wife moving towards him, the shots of him feel like they are coming out of the screen, that he is pleading for help and that if we could only reach out we could save him. The angle is such that it also seems though he is running farther and farther it feels like he will never quite reach his wife or his destination and at that last moment where she reaches out to touch him it feels like she won’t be able to and essentially she never does because it cuts directly to his hanging.

Enrico also used editing techniques with image and sound to foreshadow the revelation of what was really to come. One of the main and critical editing points was the sound use of the owl. The owl is heard at only two points in the film: in the beginning as we were looking down on what was occurring initially on the bridge and at the end right before he goes through the gates to his fated death. The sound of the owl at the end is haunting and brings you back to the reality that he probably didn’t really escape or isn’t going to survive – that his journey was coming full circle.

Another point where image editing was used to foreshadow was when the officer took Farquhar’s watch. The watch being representative of time – a man’s life – the officer opens it, shuts it and puts it in his pocket as if to say it is the end of his time. Enrico also uses image symbolism in his filming of Farquhar going through the gates – the other side of which holds the vision of his wife. Whether the gates of heaven or hell – they were by no means pearly and the image of his wife is tearful and almost ominous – they are representative of the end and immediately follow the final owl call.

Image editing also plays an important part in Farquhar’s final inventory during his ‘escape’ he becomes hyper aware of his visual world and the director uses close-ups of the light through the trees, the veins of leaves and the bugs on them, he is also shown feeling the grains of the sands and deliberately smelling a flower. In the final moment however he is denied the one touch of his love – that last inventory item cuts straight to his death.

The filming of An Occurrence at Owl Creek was highly effective in making the viewer feel and understand the heightened sense of awareness felt by a man during his last moments of life. The interplay of sound and camera technique created a dichotomy of emotion – allowing you to feel the desperation and final joy of a man on a run from death while feeling total hopelessness knowing he can’t and never really did escape outside of his own mind. The editing of sound and image was critical to the stories development. It used symbolism to foreshadow what was to come.

It also created a great deal of suspense that moved the story along and made you feel like you were right there with the character – feeling what he was feeling and wanting to reach out and help him beat death. The film makes me wonder if that is really what one experiences when faced with their death; if your experiences really do intensify and if you become so painfully aware of what you will miss that you take a final inventory of the senses. Works Cited Enrico, Robert dir. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. 1962. Twilight Zone, 1964.

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