• H.G. Walls

Point of View and Lily Powers: The Power of Camera Angle in Baby Face

The male gaze has become a familiar concept since it’s coining by Laura Mulvey in 1975, referring to the way in which the visual arts have been patriarchically structured to privilege the masculine perspective of the world and women. Within this ideology, the woman’s body is sexualized and the man is depicted as dominant. Although predating the coinage of this concept, the pre-theatrical release version of the film Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933) exploits a version of the male gaze in order to dynamically destabilize that traditional point of view on gendered hierarchies of power. The focal character, interestingly named Lily Powers, is emphatically physical on screen as a sexual object. Lily successfully gains power by using this sexuality as a mode for manipulating men, and her success derives from the traditional heterosexual ideology that is later noted by Mulvey. Lily’s success is conveyed symbolically through the use of high or low camera angles and point of view shots. Several key scenes structurally highlight a recurring motif of the male gaze as Lily walks away. These scenes compliment and foil each other through the shifts in power between Lily and men, which are symbolically captured via alternating camera angles and point of view shots.

After hearing a drunken male character ask where she is [2:20], Lily appears for the first time on screen by walking into her father’s speakeasy [2:25-2:28]. The camera shows Lily from behind, highlighting her tight pencil skirt as she climbs the exterior steps. As the film quickly unfolds, the viewer identifies Lily as a sexually desired object. After witnessing a passing-around and man-handling of Lily’s body as she passes out beer to the men, the viewer is placed amongst the men to see Lily from behind, standing, staring out the window [3:43-3:49]. Lily is fully established as a sexual object as one of the men, Ed, literally shows a male gaze of her body [6:41]. The camera shows a point of view shot beginning at her ankles and working up her body as Ed lusts after Lily. This male dominance is even further emphasized when Lily’s father takes Ed’s money. As Ed attempts to fondle her leg, we are set up with the first of many shots of Lily walking away from the camera, and more importantly, away from the male gazer. After pouring hot coffee on his roaming hand, Lily is shown from behind, still in her tightly adjusted skirt, walking away from him towards the bedroom [8:16-8:19].

As Ed follows after her into the bedroom, Lily slaps him for his attempt to sexually engage with “the sweetheart of the night shift” [8:55]. Lily once again walks away, but this time the view of her behind is blocked by his body, symbolically emphasizing the persistent male gaze and his failed attempt. This rear view of Lily is further emphasized as sexually patronized through its contrast with the absence thereof in Lily’s interactions with Mr. Cragg. A rear-view angle of Lily is never used when she talks with this philosopher friend; the camera shows both from the side or from the front in shot-reverse-shot conversational sequences. These contrasting angles reveal the symbolic representation of power on screen through the blocking of characters and their movements. Even when Lily talks to her dad, we see her entirely from the front or side, right up until it is revealed that he is the cause of her sexual situation [10:40]. Lily yells, “Yeah, I'm a tramp, and who's to blame? My Father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what's it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you're lower than any of them. I'll hate you as long as I live!” [10:28-10:40]. The camera is not positioned behind Lily until this final moment with her father, who had been selling her as a sexual object to a multitude of men. This shift to a rear-view of Lily evokes the sexual nature between her and her father, which is negatively stressed by his immediate death moments later.

These initial scenes set-up the norm of Lily’s life to date, emphasizing her sexual relation to men as an object bought at the pleasure of the male gaze. The film’s turning point for the story of Lily’s power manipulation begins with Mr. Cragg’s point of view shot of the book, Will to Power, which he uses to urge Lily to recognize the power bestowed in her through her sexuality and use it to her benefit [11:50]. Again, throughout her interaction with Cragg, Lily is never shown from behind or walking away from the camera, cementing Cragg as the sole male character to never sexualize Lily. Rather, Cragg’s advice provokes Lily to capitalize on the pervasive male gaze in order to promote herself and take power back from the dominant heterosexual male gazer. The first instance of this change occurs as she hops on a train with her black maid, Chico; Lily uses her sexuality to manipulate the train security guard, and this shift of power is symbolically captured on camera through the absence of the male gaze point of view shot. Rather than her backside, the camera shows her smug face, and then the man’s face, as he is sexually gazing at her. The camera physically captures his act of gazing, without subjugating Lily to a sexual position on screen [15:38]. By showing his face from her point of view, Lily’s exercise of power is symbolically stressed, in a stark contrast to the previous scene of Ed’s male gaze that focused on her physical body.

The next time the camera shows Lily’s back is when she and Chico are looking up at the Gotham Trust Company sign, but the frame is limited to only a medium shot above the waist, eliminating any sexual imagery [17:23]. However, the shot extends to a medium-long shot of the knees and up as Lily gets closer to the entrance, insinuating the impending sexualization [17:34]. Here the film introduces the high angle shot as a sign of dominance and power, as Lily is pictured from the front, seemingly being looked down upon by the protruding skyscraper [17:42]. Remembering Cragg’s advice, Lily recognizes an opportunity to exploit her own sexuality to gain power and prestige, telling Chico, “Boy, I’ll bet there’s plenty of dough in this little shack” [17:44]. By shifting from the rear-view of Lily to a high camera angle of her body, and then a level shot of her half-smiling face, the film underscores her epiphany and foreshadows her successful climb up through the bank’s rankings [17:52]. This is further emphasized by her interaction with the doorman, as the camera shifts views and angles in concordance with her manipulation of the man to gain desired information [18:01]. Here, Lily again walks away from the male gazer, in this case the doorman, but like with the train man, the camera is focused on the male who is gazing, rather than Lily as the object of the male gaze, as in both situations Lily has taken the power.

Throughout the succession of Lily’s sexual exploits up the bank’s laddered positions of power, the camera continually employs high and low angles to signify her coercion. Beginning with the low angle of Lily looking down at the first man the bank’s front desk, the viewer is cued into Lily’s new position of power over the businessmen through sexual prowess [19:05]. Lily is granted her request for a job after she assures Mr. McCoy that she’s had plenty of experience and asks to wait in the private office. Again, the shot of Lily walking away in a skirt is utilized as evidence of the male gaze [23:50]. This scene plays off of the earlier scene with Ed, paralleling Ed’s failed attempt at sexual engagement with Lily and her successful seduction of Mr. McCoy; in this scene, unlike the former, Lily looks back invitingly at the end of her walk to the private office. A low angle shot of Lily over the men at their desks is used again as this time she gazes down at Mr. Brody, which leads to her promotion up a floor to the Mortgage Department [25:24]. Lily’s intentional application of her sexuality is portrayed as the camera next shows her from behind, walking up to Mr. Brody’s desk, probing him to request that she “stick around after 5” [26:36].

Lily has moved on to bigger and richer businessmen, employing an even bolder sexual strategy each time, as noted by a fellow female worker to Mr. McCoy, “Wake up kid, Baby Face is moving out of your class,” after he calls Lily baby face only to be declined a dinner date with her [27:37]. Lily’s manipulation of the stereotypical male attitudes indeed climbs to new levels after her sexual hook-up with Mr. Brody in the office’s women’s restroom. Just like the previous foreplay scene, the camera shows Brody’s male gaze of Lily from behind as she walks into the bathroom and pauses at the doorway to look back invitingly [24:00-24:08]. Lily’s convoluted manipulation and twisting of perspectives is quintessentially conveyed right after Mr. Stephens catches the act and fires Brody, when the camera shows Stephens and Lily in the same screen through several layers of mirror-images [25:09]. The mirror reflections allow the viewer to see Lily from the front and back, highlighting her ability to reverse the account of events by playing on her implicit sexuality, symbolized by her backside, as submissive to male dominance. Lily so cunningly convinces Stephens that she once again is promoted to a higher floor, in the accounting department [26:10].

This clear shift of power to Lily’s hands is conveyed on camera through point of view shots. Just as her first garnering of the power of her sexual prowess was portrayed in her point of view shot of the man on the train’s lustful face, the camera again highlights Lily’s control through her point of view shot of Mr. Stephens, just after she manipulated the scene so that his fiancé would catch him in the act of cheating [29:22]. Lily’s body is not sexually angled by the camera at all in this scene, as her walk to his desk is shown at a medium shot from the front and their kiss is shown at another low angle shot of her over him at his desk. As his fiancé enters, Lily has even positioned her body almost wholly behind Stephens, who is actually the character at a rear-view angle in this scene, depicting Stephens as a sort of shield, which he later proves to be by resigning from his position in order to save her job. Lily is shown from a low angle, playing almost maniacally with a sharp letter opener over the sulking Stephens slumped in his desk [33:00]. As she convinces him to resign rather than fire her, the camera shows a high angle of him kissing her, highlighting her feigned frailty and feminine need for a man to intervene on her behalf as a means to the end of successful manipulation [33:50]. The initial low angle shot of Lily talking to Mr. Carter, convincing him of her innocence, is paired in a shot-reverse-shot sequence of high angled shots positioning her looking down at him in his desk, in the same fashion as all of her previous exploits [35:13].

At this point, Lily has continued her education under Cragg by reading another book, Etiquette; she no longer needs his encouragement or explanation of books as she is now doing it on her own [31:41]. Whereas Will to Power was explicit in its thematic application, Etiquette operates more ironically as a subversive tool in relation to the film because social etiquette is based on adherence to proper norms, while Lily is playing into normative manners and cultural ideologies in order to manipulate the outcomes to her advantage. When talking to Mr. Carter, as well as many of the men who came before him, Lily plays the stereotypical female role of helplessness that societal norms perpetuate. By purposely placing herself in shameful positions of frailty, Lily ignites the masculine desire to protect and possess, as epitomized in her testimony of Stephens’ betrayal to Carter [36:00]. The film forfeits the point of view shot to Carter, so that the camera depicts Lily crying on his couch, which is symbolic of Lily’s subversive manipulation of masculine dominance [36:26].

In this vein, Carter is comparable to Lily’s father. This is most evident in the similar dialogue of Lily defending Chico’s place with Lily to both her father and Carter [39:24]. Also similar to the role of her father, Carter is in charge of a business full of men with whom Lily has been sexually engaged. Lily even seems to play into that daughter role again in her line, “sometimes your little girl gets awfully lonely here all by herself” [39:18]. Lily’s complete attainment of power over these men is conveyed in the role-reversal and absence of her physical body on screen in her first sexual engagement with Carter. When he visits her at her new ritzy apartment, she never even appears on screen. Rather, the camera shows only him entering at night and then exiting the next morning in a walk of shame, suggesting that she has taken on the role of the dominant by hosting a male suitor for the night on her own terms. However, one cannot ignore the inherent sexual demeaning that was required for this current acquisition of wealth and property. The film does once again show Lily from behind, walking away from the camera, as she moves through her upscale living space [38:00].

Lily’s next reading book from Cragg, Thoughts Out of Season, is conveyed on camera from her point of view, highlighting the final and complete shift of power to her perspective [42:20]. The page reads, “Face life as you find it—defiantly and unafraid. Waste no energy yearning for the moon. Crush out all sentiment”, which indeed is the way in which Lily handles herself in the next scene. The following scene portrays Lily at a peak sexualized position, as she is shown from behind in another tight skirt, but this time with a completely open back, as Carter watches her pour drinks [44:55]. Additionally, she is shown from the rear-view walking away from his male gaze as Stephens rings the door [45:25]. In a further play on etiquette, Lily denies Stephens’ request to be with her by forcing him out the door, saying, “I like to have my guests shown out in style”. In this scene, Lily is at the height of her sexual notoriety, which is shown not only in her risqué physical dress, but also in her risky behavior, as it provokes Stephens’ coinciding murder-suicide shooting, as noted in the newspaper headlines, “Double tragedy in love nest” [47:40]. The pairing of Lily’s most sexualized costume with the peak of violence prevents the viewer from forgetting that her acquired wealth and power are only resultant from the flagrant manipulation of herself as a sexual object.

Lily’s final sexual exploit stems from her mandated attendance at a private Board of Directors meeting for the now infamous bank [47:56]. In a scene quite different from its earlier counterpart, Lily marches past the doorman, as he chases after her to open the door [49:40]. Unlike his sexualized male gaze point of view shot of her walking into the building the first time, this time the film places both characters on screen in a rear-view angle, almost as a way of showing how the men have been brought to the same level as Lily. As she sits in the most ornate chair at the table of all men, Lily is given the floor to speak, a position no other woman could claim [51:00]. She puts forth her best performance of feminine frailty, pleading, “All I wanted was a chance to earn an honest living,” in an obviously ironic fashion for the viewer given her exploitative journey to the top of the bank [51:45]. Lily believes she will get 15-grand from the bank for her impressive performance, but Trenholm, the newly appointed boss, manages to turn her own words against her, as he stands over her [53:43]. However, despite him sending her to Paris instead of granting her the money, Lily stands up to meet him at eye level on camera to foreshadow her take back of control and power in the situation, as well as a sort of equalizing.

Although the bank has stripped her of “Powers” as her last name, Miss Allen prospers in Paris, rejecting every man in the office and exceeding Trenholm’s admitted demeaning expectations and initial image of her [55:37]. Lily once again plays into the damsel in distress stereotype in order to begin her manipulation of men, this time feigning an inability to find a ride home in the rain so that Trenholm will offer her a personal escort [57:00]. As with all the men before, but in this case much more explicitly stated in on screen dialogue, Lily succeeds by playing with men’s expectations; she tells Trenholm that she knew he did not think she would succeed in the Paris business, which is precisely why she did so. Throughout this conversation, and by the end of their exchange, Lily has repositioned herself from the damsel in the rain to the woman leaving her adoring boss below her on her front steps [58:39]. The power has successfully been restored to Lily, as proven by the presence of his calling card for a date the next day at the office. However, this time around, Lily is after more than a mere temporary ladder rung to stand on; she wants a secure place at the top, as Mrs. [1:02:30].

Another ironic moment of dishonesty arises as Lily drily tells Trenholm that her night has been a “social success” to which he responds that beneath the socialites’ rough exteriors are hearts of gold [1:01:10]. This obvious foil to Lily’s character, a female seemingly submissive and honest but in reality is hard-hearted and coercive operates as a subtle clue to the inevitable demise of her dysfunction. As Lily attempts to bridge over from sexual attraction to “love” as a way into the world of legal power, she actually enters an unexpected parallel universe. As shots of newspapers headline Trenholm’s marriage to the “Carter Case Girl”, Lily’s acquired position is threatened [1:04:13]. In a final picture of her quantifiable success, the camera tilts from the ground up the skyscraper, symbolizing how far Lily truly has come, as she sits on the top floor surrounded by all of her jewels and half a million dollars, convinced that she will one day have the other half [1:07:16-1:08]. Chico earnestly supports this conviction, commenting, “you sure will, you can get anything you put your mind on” [1:08:06]. However, Lily’s days of heartless exploitation are over, despite her initial reaction against reality to run away again with Chico, just as she did at the outset of the film on the train [1:10:30].

Lily does not want to give Trenholm the money she has to help him escape the bank trouble, she thinks her life has been too hard to give it all up [1:09:29]. When she walks away from Trenholm, unlike with the other men, Lily is shown from the front, such that the viewer can watch her and Trenholm watch her. This view emphasizes her face, not her sexual body, signaling the shift from her relative position as a sexual object to a loved woman. As she sits staring into a record player, surrounded by her packed valuables, the camera uses her point of view shot to replay memories of the many men, ending with her husband saying, “I love you and one day I’m going to make you love me” [1:11:18-46]. This point of view shot retains Lily’s power, yet also transforms her perspective to admit a new value system. The last shot of Lily from behind is not of her walking away from a male gaze, but rather of her running towards the man she loves, symbolically turning her back on and leaving all sexual exploitation and power play behind. She runs back to their house, through its various rooms and floors, until she finds him laying on the floor of his office, having shot himself [1:14:08]. Like the earlier gun violence, Lily’s exploits are to blame, but unlike last time, Lily embraces the emotional tragedy, cradling his head in her arms, never to be seen from behind again, as the camera switches to a front-view and she admits, “Darling, don’t leave me, I’d do anything for you, anything…. I love you so much, I love you, I’ve never said that before to any man, I never knew what it meant. Oh darling, you can have everything…” [1:14:20-1:15:00].

The office has been a space for sexual interaction and notoriety throughout this film, beginning with the speakeasy workplace all the way through the top floor of the bank, but with this admission of love, the work room now becomes the space for her to realize love. This complete transformation is cemented in the final closing scene of the film with Lily’s point of view shot of her scattered jewels [1:14:32]. Lily stands over her husband’s hurt body and declares that her wealth “doesn’t matter now” [1:15:45]. The film uses the point of view shot to reveal that character as the one with power currently, expounding on the idea that a male gaze is ideologically based on conceptions of male dominance. Additionally, a point of view shot of Lily’s behind, most notably as she walks away from the camera and male gazer, captures the implicit sexualization of gendered power. By breaking away from a male point of view shot or male gaze, the film underscores a power shift, and by playing within the patriarchal structure of sex, Lily is able to manipulate men to gain wealth. The respective presence and absence of the shot of Lily’s backside, an image with strong sexual connotations of both objectification and submission, delineates the role of Lily’s sexuality in a scene. This film functions by operating within the framework of a male gaze and assuming patriarchal ideologies of male dominance and female sexual submission, yet through the layered plot and structural subversions of this ideology, such as Lily’s manipulation and the symbolic camera angle positioning her body, the film also illuminates the inherently problematic nature of such a distinct sexualized hierarchy through the association of gun violence and corruption.