Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The prop masters

with 4 comments

Harry Hamlin on Mad Men

As I was watching the most recent episode of Mad Men—which I loved, by the way, far more than the season premiere—I found myself oddly fascinated by Jim Cutler’s glasses. Cutler, in theory, is an important character: he’s one of the partners formed by the merger of Sterling Cooper with Cutler Gleason and Chaough, and he’s played by Harry Hamlin, a genuine television star and former sexiest man alive. Yet we only see him for a few minutes each episode, and although these brief appearances are often striking, the show hasn’t had time to give him a scene of his own. We know less about his personal life than virtually that of any other character. In fact, all we really have to go on are his suits and those glasses. Tom and Lorenzo, whose Mad Men fashion writeups are the best criticism of the show anywhere online, say of the suits: “Jim Cutler’s grey suits and silver ties are downright eerie. It’s his signature look. He floats through the office like a ghost.” Surprisingly, they don’t say anything about the glasses, but if Cutler is a ghost, then those square black frames seem to drift disembodied in the air, a deliberate contrast with his silver hair and wispy silhouette.

It might seem excessive to go on about these frames, but for me, as well as for a lot of viewers, Jim Cutler is his glasses. (The glasses, by the way, are made by Old Focals, which supplies all of the vintage and vintage-inspired eyewear to Mad Men, and are apparently based on the frames worn by Martin Scorsese and Yves Saint-Laurent.) Mad Men, of course, has some of the deepest costume design in any medium—Jane Bryant is practically the show’s coauthor, second only to Matthew Weiner himself—and the glasses are shrewdly chosen. They provide a focal point in a wardrobe that deliberately fades into the background, drawing attention to the eyes of a man who always seems to be watching and waiting. Obviously, they look great on Hamlin, with a strong horizontal component lending interest to a character who is otherwise dressed to look like a thinking reed. As with many props and accessories, they’re obliquely influenced by the style of those around him: he’s the only partner who wears glasses, so he stands out as a result. And he needs it. Don and Joan remain at the center of the show; Roger and Bert benefit from five seasons of history; Ted gets a powerful storyline with Peggy; and Jim Cutler gets a nice pair of glasses instead of a subplot.

Schindler's List

And believe it or not, that’s good storytelling. Writers of all kinds know that if there isn’t room to properly develop a character, a memorable physical trait can go a long way, as A.S. Byatt delightfully points out:

If you haven’t got room to make a character, if you give him or her some totally memorable physical characteristic, the character becomes symbolic and stands for itself. Somebody will always come up and say to you, “that is an absolutely wonderful character you created with that great plait down her back.” In fact, the character consisted only of that plait down her back…but it was memorable.

Props and accessories thus become a kind of shorthand, a synecdoche that saves valuable time. Hence the weird physical traits of the Bond villains, which are chosen essentially at fancy to differentiate them from their peers. There’s no particular reason why Christopher Lee needed a superfluous nipple in The Man With the Golden Gun, but it’s the only thing I remember from that entire movie. (Well, I suppose I remember the golden gun—a prop so distinctive that it works its way into the title.)

In a perfect world, we’d have time to develop all our characters to an equal extent, but in practice, these shortcuts and tags get us halfway there with a minimum of fuss. (The crucial line in the Byatt quote above is “If you haven’t got room to make a character.”) A prop or other physical trait distills the problem of character to its essence, which is that we should at least be able to remember that we’ve seen this person before. In On Directing Film, David Mamet sums up the crucial point that governs how an important prop in a movie, in this case a notebook, should look:

Mamet: What [is the audience] going to notice?
Student: That it’s the same book they’ve seen already.
Mamet: So what’s your answer to the prop person?
Student: Make it recognizable.
Mamet: Exactly so! Good. You’ve got to be able to recognize it.

That’s true of characters, too. The girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List has sometimes been seen as an act of directorial self-indulgence, but really, it’s an elegant—and moving—solution to a narrative problem, designed to trigger a moment of recognition that otherwise might be lost. Jim Cutler’s glasses are more modest, but the intention is the same. Cutler may not have much to do now, but we’d better keep an eye on him.

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2014 at 9:41 am

4 Responses

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  1. Great, insightful post. I can remembering being equally intrigued by the eye-wear worn by the Colin Firth’s character in A Single Man. So ‘intrigued’ that I bought a very similar pair a couple of months after seeing the film. Credit to the costume and set designers whose small details create the larger picture.


    April 23, 2014 at 10:28 am

  2. Now that was a nice pair of glasses.


    April 23, 2014 at 10:53 am

  3. Ahhh, Jim Cutler. I have to give Hamlin credit because the first time he was on camera on the show, it was, “wow, WHO is that?” between my husband and myself. The glasses do give him something missing – a gravitas perhaps. He’s going to becoming more prominent as this short 7-episode season moves along. Ted is in Los Angeles and he’s the remaining Cutler, Gleason partner in New York (Gleason died). He’s trying like hell to maintain some authority – deliberately countermanding Roger in several instances – one during the ill-fated meeting on the phone with LA (the one where their audio wasn’t cut off and Pete could hear them); and the other when he, on his own, promoted and suggested Joan move upstairs into her own office with the accounts “men.” I’m interested to see where they take Jim Cutler – and his very cool glasses.

    And on another note in life, not art, Texas Governor Rick Perry has taken to wearing similar specs and I must say . . . not a great fan of the guy or anything, but the glasses make a difference in terms of his being taken seriously. Less pretty boy with tousled hair and all that. I’m glad pretty boy Harry Hamlin made the decision to take the part with the glasses. It anchors him in the real world – otherwise, he would be little more than a “ghost in the gray flannel suit.”


    April 23, 2014 at 1:16 pm

  4. I really enjoyed Cutler in this last episode. It does seem like they’re building him up to have a larger role this season, which will be fun to see. A good pair of glasses definitely goes a long way.


    April 25, 2014 at 3:25 pm

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