Leon: The Professional

I’ve been looking back at the first Cinematographer that I studied—Frenchman Thierry Arbogast. Stateside he is best known for his work with Luc Besson—earning a Cesar for Best Cinematography on The Fifth Element and Cesar nominations for La Femme NikitaLeon: The Professionaland The Messenger. In France he is also known for his work with Jean-Paul Rappeneau, earning two Cesars for Best Cinematography on Bon Voyage and Horseman on the roofAdditionally, he holds Cesar nominations for his work on The Crimson Rivers directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, and Ridicule directed by Patrice Leconte.

My initial intention was to write a single comprehensive article about Arbogast and his work, but after a month of revisiting his films, I realized it would be more approachable as a series. And to start things off we are going to look at The Professional.

Before setting foot on my path toward a career as a Cinematographer, I was a fan of Luc Besson and it was Leon: The Professional in 1994 that got my attention. By the time I started film school, Besson had made The Fifth Element, and was writing and producing action films like Kiss of the Dragon, and The Transporter. When I started to express my interest in Cinematography, my directing professor Dan McKinny told me to start thinking about where the light came from and why. He also told me to pick a Cinematographer I liked and do some research. I remembered how the opening restaurant scene in The Professional made me feel. There was something about the scene that completely drew me in—commanding my full attention, respect, and admiration. So, this was the film I chose to “start thinking about” and Arbogast was the DP I began to “research.” 

It’s important to note that Besson operates his own camera—creating an unconventional relationship between Director and Cinematographer. So, It’s hard to say who makes the decisions when choosing the lens, placing the camera, composing the shot, et al. So, in a way this is more a study about collaboration than it is about a solo Cinematographer. However, it is my understanding that Arbogast makes the lighting decisions. 

The Film

When studying the scene, I first observed that there were a lot of nuances coming together really well. So well, that the culminating effects resulted in a heightened state of verisimilitude—the appearance of being true or real.

Verisimilitude is achieved through the collaboration of an entire film crew. Primary roles include Producing, Screenwriting, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Sound, and Music—all serving the director’s vision. Most of the work happens in pre-production but once on set, the Cinematographer is generally the one who has the broadest perspective on how it’s all coming together. Especially in the film days when he was the only one who understood what the image would look like when it came back from the lab. Now we have huge monitors onset that can display a near-final image for all the crew to see. The challenge is to collaborate on such a level, that when all these elements come together in front of the camera—it appears perfectly natural, effortless, and authentic to the subject matter—this is verisimilitude—there are no distractions and nothing calling attention to itself except for the drama that is unfolding. In effect the audience is completely transported into the universe of the film—entering a trance-like state, completely absorbed and invested in the drama.  All while a character’s tie in the wrong color or edit in the wrong place can through everything off.

An unbreakable verisimilitude maintains trance and facilitates tone—triggering a viewer’s emotional response. If verisimilitude were a construct, the tone is a primary result of that construct. 

In The Professional—we can see how this all works. The film starts in the middle of the day with a sequence of ariels starting over Central Park in New York, landing in Little Italy, and moving into an Italian restaurant that is completely blacked out inside.

Very quickly, using only visuals, we know we are in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City, and that this is going to be an Italian story. This brings to the surface of our brain all the Italian mafia stories and themes we’ve ever been exposed to. Then, the darkness of the restaurant, and how nobody is walking in or out—evokes a sense of fear, trepidation, and secrecy. If we walked in, we might witness something that could get us killed. But the director invites us in any way—into complete darkness until an image fades up on someone’s hands and a glass of milk. 

As the table cloth bridges the Italian theme, the milk—a child’s beverage—signals a soft naive side to this mysterious character. The size of the glass—an everyday wine glass, commonplace for Italians—subtly emphasizes how unusual the milk is. The contrast between the size of his hands and the size of the glass invokes a sense of delicacy and the placement of his hands—a sense of precision.

The lens choice boxes us in creating tension—augmenting the serious tone of the performances. The low light level in the middle of the day continues to narrow our vision, evoking that sense of secrecy. The warmth of the primary light source—indicative of a light bulb or candle—evokes intimacy and familiarity. On the mysterious character (Jean Reno) the warmth and wrap of the light shield us from the prying eyes of cooler daylight. But on the gentleman sitting opposite (Danny Aiello) there is a hint of daylight painting the side of his cheek—aesthetically motivated by the glass door and windows—while backlighting the smoke. Also, it is thematically motivated by Aiello’s character—foreshadowing his role as Reno’s handler, showing face to his clients (the outside daytime world)—protecting Reno’s anonymity.

The cigarette signals that hard-boiled tough guy—I don’t care if it kills me—factor. Its smoke gives us a classic Hollywood atmosphere and the crackling of burning tobacco creates an ominous sound in cadence with the dialog and pacing of the scene.

The camera wanders around on Aiello’s face, making a landscape out of it.  And when it cuts to Reno, it embraces the foreground obfuscations, giving us continuity with Aiello’s cigarette smoking, and underlining the theme of Reno’s anonymity. 

The sunglasses add another layer of anonymity, guiding our eye to look through him at the reflection of the table setting and Aiello. But curiously the daylight on Aiello is not there—maybe they tried it but decided it was the wrong tone which could break the verisimilitude, thematically compromising the anonymity, mystery and intrigue.

The edit precisely drives the scenes story arc. It takes us from a very brief exchange of pleasantries, to talking business, to a call to action—all in one minute and two seconds. There is a visual beat to accompany each shift in the conversation designed to set the movies pace and tone. Lighting the cigarette starts the pleasentries, putting out the cigarette signals that its time to start business, and drinking the milk accepts the call to action. It all feels perfectly natural—that’s the art of it—but it was planned and choreographed very carefully. The mannerisms also keep the scene moving with almost constant movement—keeping the scene fresh and alive, ready to move on to the next which helps to keep the audience engaged, wanting to see more.

Right now, Leon: The Professional is available to watch on Netflix or rent from platforms such as Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

Credits and Specs

Directed by Luc Besson
Produced by Claude Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Jean RenoGary OldmanNatalie PortmanDanny Aiello
Music By Éric Serra
Cinematography by Thierry Arbogast
Production Design Dan Weil
Edited by Sylvie Landra
Production Company: Gaumont (presents), Les Films du DauphinColumbia Pictures
Release Date: November 18, 1994
Running Time: 1hr 50min, 2hr 16m (uncut) (france), 2h 13min (International)
Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex 35 BL4, Arriflex 35-III, Technovision/Zeiss Super Speed, and Angenieux HR Lenses
Negative Format: 35 mm (Eastman EXR 200T 5293, EXR 500T 5296)
Printed Film Format:16 mm (Eastman EXR 7386), 35 mm (Eastman EXR 5386)
Cinematographic Process: Technovision (anamorphic)
Country: France, United States
Language: English, Italian, French