The 400 Blows is to The Three Amigos as an ice cream sundae is to a banana. They are both remarkably different, yet when you combine them together, we get something truly special. If I’m going to be quite honest, I put bananas on everything, but that doesn’t mean The Three Amigos is better. In cinematic approach, set design, score, acting, and lighting, they have different methods to produce the same result. They are both trying to make you feel something. The Three Amigos is trying to make you laugh, and The 400 Blows is succeeding at making you really appreciate your family. Enjoy the banana fudge sundae.
Is there a better way to introduce a cinematic world than riding along a tour of the city? How about three culture-appropriating white men singing their own theme song? The Three Amigos grabs you by the balls while The 400 Blows gently caresses them. In The 400 Blows, the city of lights is on display, enveloping the audience in the endless possibilities of Paris. The Eiffel Tower is always present, and a romantic song guides us through the city. In The Three Amigos, the opening scene is light-hearted. The title sequence follows with more warmth. Every scenic shot is in nature with the sun either gleaming or setting, while Paris is shown at night with major contrast of light. The shadows are all-encompassing, and the lack of color creates a realistic tone.
The camerawork in The 400 Blows varies based on the story. At times it’s very active, with the camera as a spectator. It acts with the characters by tracking their movements precisely. Following a group of protagonists, at many moments it operates like a play. Scenes last long with several characters sharing the spotlight. On other occasions, the camerawork is a more relaxed, operating on a tripod, only to look around with its eyes in place of its body. It’s like moving your eyes but not your head.
As the boys pass an inappropriate magazine in class, the camera follows. The movements are slick and paced with the characters. The magazine is transferred with every additional kid in the center of frame. Once they’re caught, the focus becomes the teacher. The characters are introduced by their actions instead of words. Antoine Doinel is no exception. He acts out in class but conforms to his norms at home. None of this is learned through dialogue.
In Antoine’s room there are three mirrors, reflecting himself at different angles. There are many sides to him, but his counterparts only see the mischievous one. The production design draws this conclusion. This is an adult’s world and kids are just living in it. The adults are commanders who don’t care for censorship or compassion. There is tremendous distance in the freedom of the characters based on their age. The Amigos enforce distance between themselves and everyone around them through their costume and set design as well. They are in flashy black, white, and red performance outfits, while everything around them is a dusty brown. An odd sense of comfort comes from their ability to be themselves in harrowing situations.
The 400 Blows is patient. The pacing and scenes develop naturally due to the lack of unnecessary cuts. The Three Amigos on the other hand, doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are bright spots where the comedy hits, but several moments where the scenes drag. It works when the actors are given dialogue they can improvise to. Chevy Chase, Martin Short, and Steve Martin are skilled technical actors. When the movie harnesses their talents, the result is memorable. As they got fired, we see a close up of every inch of their bosses’ mouth as he yells at the Amigos. The reverse shot shows them take the verbal abuse and physically lean backwards as if the amount of force coming from his mouth could tip them over. Subtle use of body language comedy can be a very effective tool for showing what the characters are thinking.
With the same idea in mind, Antoine spends much of the movie looking away. In conversations where he’s treated equally, he makes direct eye contact. When he’s disrespected and treated as a subordinate, his eyes show him diving deep into his brain. The music reflects how he’s feeling. Hopeful, adventure music is playing whenever Antoine is running around the city with his friend, and more relaxing dramatic music accompanies his time wandering alone. There is a recurring track in both films that serves as motif to the audience. Antoine’s song is gloomy, with notes plucked from a muted piano. It’s used in moments of anticipation.
In The Three Amigos the music acts as another identity all-together. You can tell that the screenplay was written with certain sounds in mind, whereas The 400 Blows’ score was created in post, serving to elevate the story. The Three Amigos use music as a source of laughter as well. Dusty painfully strums the same chord and holds pointless notes to show the lack of awareness the people of Santa Poco have of the outside world. The music in The Three Amigos acts as another character (for example, the Singing Bush), whereas the music in The 400 Blows acts in order to create a mood.
In The 400 Blows, Antoine catches his mom cheating and worries about getting in trouble because of it. His first instinct isn’t anger… It’s fear. He is so numb that he doesn’t care about the lack of love at home, he cares about the punishment he may receive. He jumps at the sounds of his parents’ footsteps arriving to the house. He has an argument with his dad while his mind is plagued by his mom’s degradation. The camera slowly isolates Antoine as his dad fights him about something irrelevant. At the fight’s peak, the camera only shows him. Encompassing the turmoil in his mind, the camera falls back to show them both as his dad lowers his verbal weapon. The camera advances as Atoine’s guard rises, and then become more passive as his guilt vanishes.
As his parents fight, the camera stays on Atoine shaking in his bed. The audience is a key witness to the trauma slowly forming. The 400 Blows is like Joker with character development. Rather than hearing about how he got messed up, we get to see it. In Joker, the protagonist mentions being tied to a radiator as a child, in The 400 Blows we see the radiator. We see his parents’ negative traits reflected his actions. Lying to his teacher, smoking cigarettes, and a growing disdain for education. He hits fellow students the way his dad hits him, he lies like his mom does to his dad, and he smokes like an adult.
The 400 Blows shows the reality of life. It is all a balance, so it shows the good times with the bad. Life isn’t always horrible, so it’s an appropriate reminder to show the moments of joy. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far in-between. Antoine struggles to overcome poverty and a dying family. The Amigos struggle to overcome the loss of their home and career. They are lost in Mexico while Antoine is lost in his own mind. The songs that accompany him throughout the film are sounds he’s imagining. He is a child growing up too fast and the Amigos are men who haven’t grown up yet. Neither are leading lives that would be considered normal, but both are plausible.
In The 400 Blows, Antoine steals a typewriter. This is one of the main action sequences in the film. When he is in the act of stealing, close-up shots are ushered in. It conveys his tunnel vision in the operation. If he gets caught, the audience would find out just as he does. The camera is placed no more than five feet in front of him, bringing us closer to the action and mind of Antoine. Until he’s free from the building, every shot serves to build tension. The audience never knows if there are people around or if he’s about to get caught. It’s nerve-wracking for him and the viewer.
Antoine ends up surrounded by misunderstood boys just like him. They all understand his pain and share lament over their parents and adults alike. They form a community. He finally feels like he belongs. The Amigos end up surrounded by people who look just like them as well. Granted, they are the citizens of Santa Poco, but they dress identically to the Amigos for the final battle. After being cast as outsiders the entire film, their acceptance comes in the form of their identity. Their uniforms separate them from everyone around the entire film, the conclusion serves to show that they are one with them.
Where The Three Amigos starts, The 400 Blows ends. Antoine fights the entire movie for freedom, and he finally gets it. Culminating with a powerful scene of him running, paired up with silence until he reaches his destination, the final scene is jaw-dropping. The Amigos begin their film leaving their corrupt organization to embark on a new journey. Antoine ends his film doing the same. His run is euphoric. He’s ran away several times, but this one is different. This time it’s definite. It’s not community that he was looking for all along, it was just acceptance. Now that he has it, he can move on.
As the music slowly strips back into just an acoustic guitar playing the theme, the camera tracks his jog all the way into the edge of the beach. The music slows and he looks into the camera, as if to say, “on to the next one”. This version of the theme song acts as closure. By providing similar opening and closing marks to a narrative, unity is guaranteed. The Three Amigos closes with their theme song in the background of a credits sequence over a sunset. The 400 Blows ends with a stare into the camera and a cut to black. The Amigos story is over, but Antoine’s will go on. It takes 400 blows for Antoine to finally make it out, but where is he going to next?
Prince, S. (2012). Movies and Meaning: An introduction to film. Harlow, Essex: Pearson.
Neupert, R. (1989). The Musical Score As Closure Device in “The 400 Blows”. Allegheny College: Stable.