What happens in the Forties doesn’t stay in the Forties. That’s one motto of the book I’ve just finished on Hollywood storytelling in the period 1939-1952. The argument is that several narrative conventions that crystallized in that era became part of the Hollywood tradition and continue to shape the films of today.
I say “crystallized,” not “suddenly appeared,” because in general terms every significant technique I pick out has precedents in earlier years of American filmmaking. Forties filmmakers didn’t invent flashbacks, voice-over narration, dream sequences, and the like. What Forties writers and directors did was consolidate those techniques into major norms. They went on to explore, sometimes with startling delicacy, the techniques’ range and power.
This pattern of scattered invention, followed by consolidation and refinement, isn’t uncommon in the history of technology. The computer mouse was devised by several companies and individuals, but it became ubiquitous in the 1980s thanks to Microsoft and Apple. What historians call the diffusion phase of change created a foundation for future development.
The same sort of diffusion sometimes takes place in cinematic form and style. For example, flashbacks in the 1930s were fairly rare and, except for The Power and the Glory (1933) and a few other films, fairly perfunctory. They simply filled in information that had been suppressed earlier, usually providing the solution of a mystery. During the 1940s, when flashbacks became more widely used, filmmakers were obliged by the pressures of competition to explore the technique’s finer-grained possibilities, as in Kitty Foyle (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), Lydia (1941), and many other films.
Once a technique becomes common, and refined in its usage, later filmmakers can treat it as a taken-for-granted option. It seems likely that the development of flashbacks in the 1940s, in both American and other cinemas, laid the groundwork for efforts like Hiroshima mon amour (1959). American filmmakers reworked flashbacks in creative ways in Petulia (1968), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), and other films influenced not only by 1940s Hollywood but also by 1950s and 1960s European cinema.
Call me biased, but now nearly every mainstream movie I see seems indebted to storytelling strategies consolidated in the 1940s. Take Sully. In less than ninety minutes, it runs through a wide range of narrative techniques. The fact that we take them so completely for granted, and understand them so swiftly, indicates the stability of what we call a Hollywood movie. It’s kind of miraculous that filmmakers continue to find ingenious ways to fulfill norms that were locked into place seventy years ago.
Clint the classicist
American Sniper (2014).
Before I get to Sully, let’s pause on other recent films directed by Clint Eastwood. (Yes, spoilers will be involved.) They illustrate just how fully narrative techniques associated with the 1990s-2000s have become mainstream resources. Although those techniques are largely revisions of possibilities crystallized in the 1940s, most people know them in their modern guise. Today’s audiences are more familiar with the intricately out-of-order flashbacks of The Prestige (2006) than those found in The Killers (1946) or Backfire (1950).
Hereafter (2010), written by Peter Morgan, lays out three story lines. A French TV journalist, after nearly drowning during a tsunami, is convinced she has had a vision of the afterlife. A London boy yearns to contact his dead twin. An American construction worker, as a result of perilous childhood surgery, has acquired the gift—or, as he says, the curse—of being able to communicate with the dead. Each protagonist’s experiences are treated as separate blocks, crosscut ever more swiftly, until the three converge at a London book fair. The American helps the boy contact his brother, and by meeting the journalist, who has written a book about her research into the hereafter, begins to feel he can rejoin the world.
Hereafter is what I’ve called a network narrative: a plot centered on several more or less equally weighted characters with independent goals. Their fates intertwine by chance (or fate). In the 1930s and 1940s, network plotting tended to be confined to a locale or vehicle, typically in a Grand Hotel situation. More dispersed and numerous story lines emerged with Altman’s Nashville (1975), though even that has a circumscribed time limit. During the 1990s and 2000s, both spatially confined versions and more free-ranging ones became quite common in filmmaking across the world. Hereafter revives the strategy, tying the parallel plotlines to a conception of a realm after death.
Hereafter’s second primary expressive option involves flash-cut visions of the afterlife—blurry, distorted images that give only a glimpse of what Marie the journalist and George the medium “see.” These aren’t sustained, so that, for instance, when George relays to someone what the departed is saying, the film stays objective, simply presenting George’s report on what he’s being told.
This reticence about showing us the Beyond allows us to reflect that at one crucial moment, perhaps George is improvising the advice that he claims to be passing along to the dead boy’s twin.
In a final twist, George’s curse changes to something more like a gift. When he manages to arrange a rendezvous with Marie, his vision of the afterlife is replaced by precognition in this world. Now his vision, clear and sustained, shows him kissing her. Or maybe he’s gained access to normal wish fulfillment.
In either case, the Hollywood clinch gets re-motivated.
Jersey Boys (2014) presents the rise of the Four Seasons, with emphasis on the lead singer, high-pitched and high-strung Frankie Valli. Although the bulk of the film takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, it climaxes with the group’s reunion at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
A common option would be to start at the reunion and then flash back to trace the group’s rise. Instead, the film roughly follows the layout of Marshall Brickman’s and Rick Elice’s book for the Broadway show. That presents the ups and downs of the group’s career chronologically, with each member narrating a block of scenes. In the stage version each block is labeled, cutely enough, with a season, from ebullient spring to doleful winter, with an extra-seasonal epilogue at the Hall of Fame.
The film version, also scripted by Brickman and Elice, doesn’t flag the seasons but does incorporate round-robin narrators. In the film’s opening Tony DeVito introduces us to the neighborhood and the formation of the group.
Later, singer-composer Bob Gaudio (above) and bass guitarist Nick Massi comment on stretches of the group’s rise and fall. They feel free to criticize each other, as when Nick says the trouble began well before Bob thought. These narrating moments are handled through to-camera address: each Season looks straight at us, explaining what’s happening, or just happened, or is about to happen.
Again, to-camera address can be found throughout film history, but the Forties made it salient by letting it bracket the entire film, often as the present-time frame for a flashback (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, 1948; Edward, My Son, 1949; Young Man with a Horn, 1950; below). It’s rarer to have the narrator interrupt an ongoing scene, turn toward us, and break the fourth wall, but we do find it in My Life with Caroline (1941, below).
The Caroline device was revived in other films, notably Alfie (1966) and much more recently The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The tweak that Jersey Boys introduces is the fact that the narrator uses the past tense to describe the scene he’s in–an occasional option in The Big Short (2015) too.
The tag-team narration in Jersey Boys doesn’t create sharply distinct blocks, in the Rashomon manner. Each singer’s segment roams pretty freely among other characters’ doings, so there’s no strong attachment to a single viewpoint. But some variations crop up. Frankie is the most minimal narrator. He never turns to the camera to address us, and we hear his voice-over comments only once in “his” stretch of the film. Perhaps that’s because he’s the character whose personal life is most crucial to the plot, and we see everything he’s up to. (Hollywood group protagonists often adopt a “first among equals” principle.) And at the final reunion, each of the quartet turns from the microphone to address us in quick succession, summing up their view of what’s happened. In Jersey Boys, as in Hereafter, some long-standing conventions are given moderately original handling.
American Sniper (2014) is the most linear and traditional of this batch, except for one tactic that becomes more important in Sully. The opening sequence shows sniper Chris Kyle perched atop a building scanning the Falluja neighborhood for enemy action. He sees a woman and child walking toward the Marine convoy, and she passes the boy what becomes visible as a grenade.
Chris must decide whether to fire. We then flash back to Chris as a boy shooting a deer and being told by his dad: “You got a gift.” There follow scenes tracing his childhood and young manhood, and his response to militant bombings of U. S. embassies: joining the Navy SEALS. At his wedding, he’s called to the invasion of Iraq.
This flashback, which consumes most of the film’s first “act” (ending about 25 minutes in), is followed by a return to the moment of decision on the rooftop. To prolong the suspense, the film replays Chris’s spotting of the woman and child with the grenade. He fires and kills both.
This tactic, of coming out of a flashback with a repetition of what initiated it, is yet another storytelling choice we find emerging in the Forties. One clear example is the framing of the long central flashback of Body and Soul (1947). The opening scene shows an eerily empty training camp before boxer Charley Davis wakes up from a bad dream and cries, “Ben!”
A fairly lengthy setup in the present follows before we get a long flashback tracing Charley’s career. At the conclusion of the flashback, again we see the shot of the camp, and again we see Charley awakening. A match-on-action cut takes us from that to the point where the frame story stopped: him lying on the table in his dressing room, just before the big bout.
The return to the camp has buckled the flashback shut in a way similar to the return to the Falluja roof in American Sniper.
The device of the reiterated flashback is developed more unusually in Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011). The film follows a classic norm for the biopic: In old age, the central character recalls his or her life. Those flashbacks could be motivated as private memory, or as episodes recounted to someone. And in the Forties, that someone was often a reporter or transcriber, as in Edison the Man (1940) and The Great Man’s Lady (1942). If you count Citizen Kane (1941) as a fictional biography, then Thompson fulfills the role of listener.
In J. Edgar, the self-important Hoover has assigned FBI agents to take down his memoirs. Flashbacks inevitably follow. As the film goes on, the narration wedges in “unofficial” flashbacks, mostly scenes with Hoover’s life partner Clyde Tolson, and these are justified as purely private musings.
What’s interesting is that some material Hoover dictates proves unreliable. At the climax Tolson, who has read the manuscript, denounces it as a tissue of lies. We then get repetitions of key scenes from the dictation, all of which show that Hoover wasn’t involved in cracking the big cases he took credit for. The film decisively debunks Hoover’s myth that he was not only a superb administrator but also a heroic, hands-on field commander.
The lying flashback is yet one more minor convention of 1940s cinema. For those who haven’t seen the most important example, I’ll refrain from mentioning the title, but let Thru Different Eyes (1942) and Crossfire (1947) stand as examples. (At one phase of production, Laura, 1944, was planned to have a lying flashback too.) The replay emerges as a way to correct the first impressions.
In tracing precedents for these storytelling choices, I don’t mean to criticize them as unoriginal. The screenwriters of Jersey Boys and Hereafter, along with Jason Hall (American Sniper) and Dustin Lance Black (J. Edgar), are drawing upon models that have been circulating in Hollywood filmmaking for decades, and that became particularly salient in the 1990s and 2000s. These scripts are also revising the techniques in ways that seem to me original to some degree.
As for Eastwood, he’s said to “shoot the script,” so perhaps these more or less up-to-date narrative techniques are brought into his work through the screenwriters. But he’s also often called one of the last “classical” directors. Partly, I think, that’s a reference to his style: his fondness for establishing shots of buildings, shots of people arriving in cars or driving away, shot/reverse-shot dialogue exchanges, and unobtrusive Steadicam. In Jersey Boys, the musical numbers seem rather haphazardly put together, but Eastwood is cogent in developing action sequences, as the firefights in American Sniper show.
It’s not just a matter of style, though. To some extent the narrative strategies I’ve mentioned here have become part of today’s “classical Hollywood filmmaking.” Flashbacks, block construction, replays, to-camera address, network narratives, and bursts of subjectivity are so ingrained in contemporary filmmaking that we might want to think of Hollywood storytelling as a constantly expanding menu that discovers new flavors in traditional ingredients. The basic premises of classical narrative permit an indefinitely large range of variation, both large-scale and fine-grained.
Not a crash, a water landing
Most flashbacks present new information, either in a large block, as in Body and Soul, or in bits, as in J. Edgar. Other flashbacks present old information, mostly to remind us of something we’ve already seen or heard that’s relevant to the moment. Occasionally, a flashback is both a reminder, because it shows us something we’ve seen before, and a source of new information. It’s very common for mystery films and TV shows to use a flashback to an earlier scene in order to fill in whodunit, and how it was done.
Let’s call this reminder involving new information a replay. A replay goes beyond a simple repetition by showing the action in a new light—from a different character’s perspective, or including information that was omitted on the first pass. The latter happens in J. Edgar, when we see earlier scenes corrected to give credit to the actual agents involved.
Replays and other techniques of repetition are given a remarkably central role in Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay for Sully. It’s not surprising because the core incident, Chesley Sullenberger’s landing of a damaged airliner on the Hudson River, is said to have consumed only 208 seconds. There would have been many ways to tell this story; a straight linear account, as in United 93 (2006), must have been a tempting option. Instead, Sully concentrates on the heroic pilot, whose action was supported by comradeship with his co-pilot, and the collective spirit of the passengers, crew, and first responders. In order to add conflict, Komarnicki and Eastwood build up the drama of the National Transportation Safety Board’s inquiry into the landing. The members of the board are initially presented as skeptical antagonists, although by the end, they gracefully acknowledge that the plane could not have returned to the nearest airfields.
The emergency landing is presented in flashbacks, framed by the ongoing investigation. But the film opens with the plane crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers.
It’s revealed as Sully’s nightmare, which haunts him after the rescue. The sequence anchors us firmly in his consciousness; we’ll be more attached to him than to any other character. As an anxiety dream, it presents a sort of what-if version that retrospectively justifies his decision to land on the Hudson. But its emotional tenor reveals his consistent worry throughout the plot that the authorities will judge that he put the passengers’ lives at risk unnecessarily.
Later another version of this Manhattan crash plays out not as a dream but as a waking fantasy, as Sully looks out of a skyscraper window. The scene suggests that he’ll never be able to see this cityscape without imagining the catastrophic alternative scenario. The same fraught feelings crop up in another fantasy passage, when he imagines a TV commentator asking: “Sully: Hero or fraud?” It isn’t just the accusation from outsiders that worries him. He questions what he’s done too. It’s important that the film give Sully enough self-doubt to build our sympathy and to make his final vindication all the more deserved.
Having given us dream and daydream, the filmic narration also gives us memory, in the form of flashbacks to Sully’s younger days, when he fell in love with flying and graduated to testing aircraft in dangerous situations. These affirm his expertise while also showing the quiet determination that can seem a little dour. (He’s told by his flight instructor to smile more.) This serious older man was also a serious young one.
From the start, the Board’s inquiry sets up the need for simulations to check Sully’s decisions. The first set are computer-based, and Sully requests that pilots also execute simulations. The human simulations will become crucial points of conflict at the climax.
One of Sully’s phone calls to his wife back home triggers the first flashback to the fateful day of 15 January 2009. This is launched about 27 minutes in, marking the shift to what Kristin calls the Complicating Action section of the plot. We’re shown Sullly’s arrival at the airport, the assembling of the passengers, and the takeoff. Soon enough, a flight of birds hits and the plane is damaged. Sully and copilot Jeff Skiles radio the air control center.
At this point, our attachment shifts to the controllers, and we hear the pilots trying alternative options. Other aircraft in the area see the plane go down, and the controller is relieved to learn that the landing was successful.
Crucially, we aren’t in the cockpit throughout this first run-through of the landing. Although the film celebrates Sully, the narration initially shifts our attachment to others trying to help him. This tactic also allows the filmmakers to save the most dramatic version of the landing for later replay.
The second major flashback, triggered by Sully brooding in a pub, shows the rescue operation. There’s a replay of the plane’s descent, again refracted through observers. Some are eyewitnesses, but mostly we see coast guard people who leap into recovery mode.
We alternate those views with vignettes of the passengers evacuating, overseen by Sully’s apprehensive effort to make sure all survive. Even after the passengers have been taken aboard the rescue boats, Sully can’t calm down until he’s told that the tally shows that everyone is safe.
The end of the flashback, which I’d say constitutes the Development section in Kristin’s model, introduces the crucial motif of timing, which will be Sully’s defense at the last hearing.
We’ve registered the water landing from the perspectives of the air-traffic controller, of eyewitnesses on the ground, of the first responders, and of the passengers. But what were the 208 seconds like inside the cockpit? This will be the business of the film’s climax, and several versions of it will be presented.
At the final hearing of the NTSB, a public one, the Board members report on the computer simulations. Those indicate that the plane could have flown back to La Guardia or on to Teterboro for a safe landing. Then the Board, through video contact, shows pilots simulating the alternatives, instant by instant starting from the bird strike. These reenactments are a bit like Sully’s nightmare and daytime fantasy, in that they present grim alternative scenarios—hypothetical replays, we might say. Both confirm the computer’s conclusion that the water landing wasn’t necessary.
A fair amount of suspense has been built up by these reenactments. The audience hasn’t seen everything that happened in the cockpit during the crisis. How can these simulations be challenged?
Sully raises the crucial point that the pilots in the simulation had foreknowledge of what they were to do. (In cognitive-science jargon, they were primed.) In fact, the Board admits, the pilots were permitted to practice the maneuver several times. Sully requests that time be added to the simulation, as a way to reflect the real conditions of unexpected decision-making.
So the pilots run the simulations again with a 35-second lag. Both the La Guardia and Teterboro options now lead to crashes. Sully and Skiles are vindicated. Finally, we get a full-blown replay of the critical action in the cockpit, thanks to the Board’s playing of the flight-box recorder. We hear the pilots’ conversation while the film flashes back to show Sully and Skiles facing the crisis.
Thanks to editing, the 208 seconds from “Birds!” to safe landing gets expanded a little in this replay. (By my count, it runs about 330 seconds.) And we aren’t wholly confined to the cockpit visually, as we can trace the plane’s progress from outside. Basically, though, we’re attached to the two men, sometimes through optical POV shots. Although we saw the early phase of the pilots’ routine safety responses in the first long flashback, now we see the whole process, culminating in Sully’s decision to land on the Hudson.
What might have been a strenuous exercise in padding, replaying the crucial moment just to stretch the action out, becomes a strategic way to balance individual and collective effort. The first two long flashbacks stress the roles of the air-traffic controller, the crew, the passengers, and the first responders. In this respect the heroism is spread out, showing a collective effort to save the situation. Only at the climax does the film confirm what many witnesses have said from the start—that Sully deserves to be called a hero. The NTSB officials pay tribute to him as the x-factor, the crucial figure in the equation. But he demurs: “It was all of us.” The theme of group accomplishment is made tangible by the film’s play with plot structure and narration.
The replay flashback wasn’t unknown in silent film, and sound examples include The Canary Murder Case (1929) and The Witness Chair (1936). Nevertheless the replay becomes quite elaborate in the 1940s, with Mildred Pierce (1945) being a particularly intricate example. It’s clearly an idea circulating through the filmmaking community: Cukor wanted a replay for A Woman’s Face (1941) and Mankiewicz wanted one for All About Eve (1950). (He got one in the self-produced Barefoot Contessa, 1954.) An almost fussy example can be found in the British flashback film, The Woman in Question (1950). Since then, the replay has been a rich secondary resource for Hollywood. Its widespread revival, and repurposing, in modern cinema reminds me of a remark made by André Bazin.
Sometimes Bazin’s reference to “the genius of the system” is taken as praise for the Hollywood studio system as an economic enterprise. I don’t read it that way. I think he was referring to the fecundity of a particular storytelling tradition.
The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e. not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system, the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements.
Bazin gives as examples of such “new elements” the commentary on American society to be found in films like Bus Stop and The Seven Year Itch. In such films, “the social truth . . . is not offered as a goal that suffices in itself but is integrated into a style of cinematic narration.” Sully does much the same thing. Seizing on the bare incident of Captain Sullenberger’s landing and its reception by the public, the filmmakers have integrated it into a narrative pattern that is at once traditional and novel.
It’s this interplay of narrative convention and innovation I try to trace across a single period in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling.
The citation of Bazin comes from “On the politique des auteurs,” in Cahiers du cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier (Harvard University Press, 1985), 258.
I discuss network narratives in The Way Hollywood Tells It, pp. 9-103, and more extensively, drawing examples from world cinema, in “Mutual Friends and Chronologies of Chance,” in Poetics of Cinema, pp. 189-250. On this site, see this entry on Grand Hotel (1932), this one on Life without Principle (2011), this one on some examples from the 2000s, and another about Babel (2006). One from last winter compares network narratives to films with one or two protagonists. See also Peter Parshall’s book Altman and After (Scarecrow, 2012). Want to see a combination of network narrative and maniacal replays? That would be Vantage Point (2008), which I once intended to write about here before a trip to Asia deflected me. . . .
To-camera address in The Wolf of Wall Street is considered here. In another entry I discuss traces of the would-be replay in All About Eve. “Play It Again, Joan” considers purely auditory replays. To compare a replay with a film’s first iteration, you can check my analysis of Mildred Pierce and the video therein. I discuss a pseudo-replay in The Chase (1946); it’s weird, but that’s the Forties for you.
Other examples of modern assimilations of 1940s techniques are discussed in this entry on fragmentary flashbacks and this entry on Tarantino. And of course there’s the labyrinth of linkages we find in The Prestige. For other relevant entries, check the category 1940s Hollywood.