Archive for the 'Hollywood: Artistic traditions' Category
David and I saw Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk the day after it opened. The screening was 3-D Imax, since the film originally opened only in Imax theaters and went wider on October 9, already with the odor of box-office failure wafting over it. We enjoyed it. It’s not an undying masterpiece, but it’s certainly better than many of the reviewers seem to think. In particular, they largely ignore the first portions of the film and imply (or outright state) that you should sit through them because the climactic sequence, protagonist Philippe Petit’s very high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York is worth it. David Rooney’s review for The Hollywood Reporter boils down the dismissive attitude toward the early portions: “The film’s payoff more than compensates for a lumbering setup, laden with cloying voiceover narration and strained whimsy.” Peter Debruge’s Variety review is an exception, dealing with the earlier scenes insightfully.
The view from Lady Liberty
I was surprised to see that Matt Zoller Seitz, one of our best reviewers, gave The Walk a mere two and a half stars. Starting to read his review, I was expecting that he might dismiss the early part of the film as too lightweight and comic to balance the spectacular set-piece of Petit’s performance or something of that sort. Instead, his primary objection to the film is the voiceover and sometimes to-camera narration delivered by Petit, who is shown as standing atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty. More specifically, the film opens with a tight close-up of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit staring directly into the camera against a pale-blue background and saying “Why?” What follows, he says, is to explain why he made his famous walk. The camera then pans to an extreme-long shot of the World Trade Center, pulls abruptly back to reveal the Statue of Liberty (above), and cranes up to Petit standing on the torch.
The rest of the film consists of a series of flashbacks told from this imaginary space, for surely we are not to imagine that Petit ever really climbed the torch. Like it or not, a certain whimsical tone is set up concerning the process of his telling his tale. The film returns to this narrating situation at intervals, usually only for a single shot and usually for a transition into a new scene, with what Petit says in the fantastical present bleeding over into that scene to set it up.
Seitz’s objections to the narration are two. First, he sees it as an attempt to, in a sense, “sell” us The Walk through the enthusiastic tone of the narration. Second, he considers the narration to be redundant, adding almost nothing to the visuals. His prime example of the latter is the scene in which a seagull briefly hovers over Petit and his voiceover comments on its sudden appearance.
The idea that the narration was annoying or redundant never occurred to me when I watched the film for the first time. After reading Seitz’s review, I considered writing this entry and went back to see the film again. I still didn’t find the narration problematic. I think that it contributes to The Walk in a variety of ways. Possibly some of it could be cut, but most of it functions in ways that go beyond what is conveyed through images and dialogue.
Take the seagull scene. Without narration, it could create suspense. Just before it appears, Petit has lain down on the wire, and the voiceover speaks of the serenity of the sky and clouds. Suddenly the bird is hovering right above our hero. The logical reaction would be to worry that it’s going to strike him, break his concentration, somehow threaten him. The voice continues: “Then, something appears. An apparition! A bird. This bird is looking at me! I feel this silent threat.” (The bright-red rims of the bird’s eyes may be a subjective rendition of Petit’s reaction.) The threat he feels, however, is not that the bird will harm him. Instead, he is “invaded by doubt” and decides that it is time for him to end his walk. His narration is not telling us simply that a bird has appeared, but that he takes it to be some sort of symbol of threat. It marks a turning point in the Walk, one which we can only grasp because he tells us that it does. If he had not spoken, what would we have? Presumably Petit seeing the bird, getting up, and continuing his walk. Perhaps he would have a look of doubt on his face, and the music might go into a minor key. Still, we would not know specifically that the bird has caused him to decided to end his walk, because he does not do so for some time after that point. The narration is not simply redundant.
More generally, I think the narrating situation and the treatment of the story as a series of flashbacks with occasional voiceover have two major functions. First, the narration clearly establishes that Petit survives the Walk. Sure, a lot of people walking into the theater know that the historical Petit did survive it and is still alive. Some of us are old enough to have seen or heard news coverage at the time, while others may have read his memoir To Reach the Clouds, upon which the film is based, or seen James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Younger moviegoers may have read infotainment coverage of Zemeckis’ film. But there are undoubtedly also people entering the theater knowing nothing about Petit. For them, the film needs to establish his survival if they are not to watch the Walk sequence in constant suspense over whether the protagonist will survive it. The very first word he speaks, “Why?” deflects us from anticipation of the Walk as a spectacular stunt to a curiosity about its significance.
Second, Petit-as-narrator sets the tone for the film, a tone which would perhaps be sufficiently conveyed by the visuals, the action, and the music in some scenes, but not, I think, in others. The tone is light and comic and enthusiastic in the first half of the film, though it shifts later, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
Third, the narration helps to break the parts of the film into three separate genres: a romantic comedy (the first half hour), a suspense film (from roughly 30 minutes to 86 minutes), and a lyrical, psychological character study thereafter. The narrational tone changes with each, from ebullience to simple reportage to reflective inner monologue.
David and others have suggested that overall The Walk is structured somewhat like a heist film. In heist films there is emphasis on planning and preparing, with everything explained ahead of time and in intricate detail. The long process of the lead-up is as much the point, or more so, than the actual moment of the theft. (In the review linked above, Debruge points out that “Much of what made ‘Man on Wire’ so thrilling was the fact that Marsh had approached Petit’s story like a caper film.”)
Even though Petit’s goal is not to steal some fabulous treasure from a seemingly impregnable location, his Walk is technically a crime. Still, it is a crime that he cannot conceal, and unlike the masterminds in heist films, he presumably is resigned to the fact that he will certainly be arrested. And unlike in the heist film, there is no planning for an escape and no escape scene. Petit will triumph as long as he completes the Walk before the arrest.
Yet some critics, whether or not they like the film, have ignored or dismissed the rest of the film and focused on the climactic walk as if it is (or should be) the whole film. Some of them, at least, want to treat The Walk as a suspense-filled action film. Yet this is not simply an action film with a boffo climax. Why, though, separate a film into acts in three genres? I think it is because the film wants to clear away the more obvious conventions of a Hollywood films of this type during the early portions of the film. These then drop away in order to allow the Walk sequence to be pared down, without romance and with muted suspense, to a lyrical focus on the peace and beauty of Petit’s perambulations back and forth above the city.
During the first half of the film Petit courts Annie, charms Rudy into helping him, and finds two other “accomplices” to help him fulfill his dream. It’s all a bit like Amélie in tone, with a hint of Jules and Jim in the music. We have to be won over by Petit to some extent if we are to take an interest in anything about the Walk except the facts that the man made it from one Tower to the other and back a few times and that it sure looks great in 3-D Imax.
Some critics clearly weren’t won over. Others were. Debruge points out, “Say what you will about the accent, but Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne have captured Petit’s voice — the real, honest-to-God way he expresses himself — and by channeling that, the actor successfully wins us over from the outset, hanging out in the Statue of Liberty’s torch.” If my own reaction is any indication, one can find Petit a bit hard to take at times and still consider his narration, Lady Liberty’s torch and all, an asset to the tale.
In describing classical Hollywood cinema, David and I have repeatedly pointed out that films in this tradition usually have two plotlines, one a romance and the other to do with work or danger or some sort of project. These two plotlines tend to be connected, with the romance somehow linked to whatever else is happening in the protagonist’s life.
In The Walk, the romance is there, but it is minimized. The development of the attraction between Petit and Annie is squeezed largely into the first quarter of the film. It moves very quickly once we get past the meet-cute antagonism between them over Petit’s stealing the audience listening to Annie’s street singing. Almost immediately they are in a cafe, sipping wine and discussing his dream over a little improvised model (above left), and then in his apartment, with more wine by candlelight and discussion of the dream over a photo of the Twin Towers. The two seem already to be a couple. It’s as if the romance progresses offscreen, in scenes that we don’t witness–the first kiss, the moving in together.
Annie raises no objections to Petit’s crazy goal, as one might expect her to. There is little sense of how much time has passed. All we know is that Annie urges Petit to fulfill his dream, and she becomes his first accomplice. For the rest of the film, she will be little more than first among the accomplices and an onlooker to the preparations and the Walk. Apart from a quick kiss and her loyal overnight vigil outside the Towers as Petit and the other accomplices invade the buildings and set up for the Walk, Annie has almost nothing to do during the preparations for the Walk and the Walk itself. She does, however, get to characterize the lyrical part of Petit’s achievement. Later, when Barry remarks now New Yorkers love the Trade Towers, Annie adds that Petit has brought them to life for people and given them a soul. The romantic plotline is further undercut almost immediately, however, when Annie unexpectedly leaves Petit to return to France and find her own dream.
During the first half of the film, Petit’s narration is humorous, bumptious, perhaps a little too ingratiating, depending on your taste. He might seem a bit annoying and capricious, as young men often are in rom-coms. The implication may be that the quirks of his personality are part and parcel of the genius and drive that allow him to perform the feats he does, as his cocky little smile upon being arrested for walking between the towers of Notre Dame suggests. (Note that Barry, who eventually becomes the “insider” accomplice once the team arrives in New York, says he had witnessed Petit’s Notre Dame walk, and sure enough, there he is in the back of this shot and visible in another view of the crowd watching.)
If Petit is selling anything, it’s not the film but himself, and we do not need to like him to admire him.
The suspense film
Petit and his accomplices to go New York at roughly the midway point of the film, and The Walk segues temporarily into a suspense film. Where one might expect the Walk itself to be the section designed to ramp up suspense in the audience (as many critics did), the more conventional suspense-generating actions are more prominent in the preparation for it, which constitutes the third quarter of the film. This takes place from 55 to 86 minutes. It begins at the airport, with a comic scene of a customs official reeling off the contents of Petit’s equipment containers (above). When he asks what the equipment is for, Petit cheekily replies that he’s planning to use it to walk between the Twin Towers. The official unconcernedly allows him through.
Soon the tone becomes more serious, as Petit visits the Towers and is overawed and intimidated to the point of feeling that his plan must be abandoned. Standing in the lobby of the South Tower, he speaks of feeling that there is no way to get to the top. Immediately a service door behind him swings open, a worker appears and greets them, and the man departs, leaving Petit to investigate the room beyond, discovering a stairway to the top.
Soon he emerges on the top of the building, tries teetering over the void on a projecting metal girder, and is clearly ready to take up his dream again.
Eventually the tone of the Development turns more tense, as Petit obsessively goes over the plan with his accomplices and the day of the “Coup” approaches. Late on the night before the group invades the Towers, Petit awakens and nails shut the “coffin,” a crate containing the equipment, and expresses his doubts to Annie. Ebullience has become dead seriousness, though Petit determinedly avoids referring to death.
Once the actual invasion of the Towers begins, the tone ratchets up the tension and the delays typical of a Development portion occur. Although the team’s fake delivery truck is admitted to the loading docks, a lack of access to the elevators nearly scuttles the plan. Once Jeff and Petit are on the unfinished upper stories of the South Tower, a guard interrupts them as they unload their equipment in the unfinished upper stories of the South Tower. They end up hiding for fours astride a metal girder above an unfinished elevator shaft extending down so far that we can’t see the bottom. Jeff, who suffers from a terror of heights, becomes our identification figure briefly, as he suffers through this ordeal. Later, once they are on the roof in the dark of night, a guard comes up with a flashlight and nearly bumps into Jeff before being lured away to a lower floor by a colleague offering to share a pizza.
As dawn approaches, the threats to the success of the Walk continue. An arrow is shot from one Tower to the other to begin the process of hauling the wire across teeters on the corner of the building. The bracing wires are loose, and Petit must drag a terrified Jeff onto the side of the roof to help tighten them. At dawn, a mysterious man in a suit visits the roof, apparently just for the view, and sees them. After a nerve-wracking face-off, he ultimately leaves without challenging them.
Interestingly, during this face-off, Petit picks up a length of pipe. After the man leaves, Petit seems shocked to find that he has been holding it in a potentially threatening fashion. This is the only hint we ever get of the lengths to which he might go to make his dream succeed.
There is also a good deal of exposition in this section of the film, part of it accomplished by the narrating voice, setting up for what will happen during the Walk. As a result, we don’t need to be told about the technical details during the Walk itself. There is, however, a fairly long stretch with no voiceover leading up to the silent confrontation with the mysterious man. After he leaves, Petit’s narration notes, “And that was the moment in my adventure that I call ‘the mysterious visitor.'”
This last incident works in with the many other bits of good luck that have allowed Petit to accomplish his dream, including the fortuitous opening of the stairwell door mentioned above. It adds a touch of suspense, as well as realism. Such things do occur–and in this case, really did occur.
The lyrical walk
Romance and suspense having been presented and set aside, the film defies convention by switching into lyrical mode. In a conventional film, the grandeur of the mise-en-scene would become a terrifying void (especially in 3-D) into which we constantly fear Petit will fall. Instead, to a large extent because of the narrating voice and the music, we instead follow Petit’s exhilarated reaction and his every shift of mood. For instance, when he stands with one foot on the wire and pauses before beginning his Walk, subjective mist gathers (see bottom). It conveys his sense of the rest of the world disappearing and his attention focusing entirely on the wire. His voiceover describes all this. Would we otherwise perhaps take this mist to be an actual passing cloud?
Similarly, when he finishes the first crossing and starts back, would we understand why if we had only the image and music? Or when he kneels during the return trip to the South Tower, would we grasp that he is saluting the wire, the Towers, and so on, if his narrating voiceover did not tell us?
There are details that set up some suspense but are at the same time tied to Petit’s emotional reactions. He remarks that one of the the cavaletti holding the bracing lines onto the wire being upside down. This seems initially to be used as an occasion for Petit to mention his gratitude to Rudy, though it also sets up for the later moment when the plate threatens to buckle under the strain–a moment which ultimately comes to nothing.The detail shot of Petit’s shoe during this scene sets up some suspense, in that a small, wet patch of blood suggests that he may later be endangered by the wound from stepping on a nail. Later we see more blood on the shoe, but the wound in fact never causes him to falter. In this close shot, the shoe also conveys a visceral sense of the moment of the walk and reminds us of the practice that has gone into it, imprinting a channel where the wire has pressed into his foot.
Of course, we are unable entirely to view the scene without suspense, as our bodies naturally react to the strong illusion of height created by the extraordinary CGI imagery and the 3-D. The word “suspense,” after all, derives from the notion of dangling in space. Yet the film constantly backs us away from such jitters in part through the soothing voiceover.
Suspense also returns to some extent just after the salutes, when the police appear, initially on the South Tower end of the wire. An even greater threat, a police helicopter, eventually appears.
These authorities offer or threaten to help Petit off the wire, endangering him in the process. His evasive maneuvers and defiance create humor that somewhat dispels the suspense. Ultimately, by tossing his balance pole at the outstretched hands of the startled police, Petit manages to clear the way for a triumphant exit from his Walk. This conclusion assures that he controls the entirety of his feat, despite the fact that he is immediately arrested. The applause of the workmen on the lower levels as he is escorted out confirms his triumph, as does the praise offered by one of the arresting officers (seen at the left below). The voiceover description of his later minor “punishment” of performing a lower-wire act for children in Central Park confirms that he has successfully defied even the law.
Zemeckis, classical director
While Zemeckis has a reputation as a master of the action set-piece, he can also construct a tight classical narrative. Seeing The Walk a second time for the purpose of writing this entry, I realized that the script is very carefully put together to set up for everything that will happen, both causally and in terms of information.The arrest in Paris makes it clear to us that Petit will face a similar punishment after his Trade Towers Walk. Petit’s fall from the wire in the circus tent and Rudy’s emphatic advice that the last three or four steps are the most dangerous foreshadows the similar moment at the end of the Walk where Petit momentarily looses control and his trembling makes the wire itself shake. In many cases, the voiceover plays a vital role in setting up things to come.
Perhaps it’s not as perfectly put together as Back to the Future, but then, few films of the past decades in Hollywood are.
As David noted during our first viewing, the film also has a good, old-fashioned Hollywood visual motif. Round shapes are contrasted with straight lines, the round ones being associated with Petit’s early ground-based entertainment career and the lines with his high-wire acts. The lines may be obvious to viewers, as when Petit draws a line between the Towers in an image, or less so, as in the scene where an arrow is tested as a means for starting the process of sending the wire from on Tower to the other.
Unfortunately none of the video material currently online shows portions of the street-entertainment scene of the film’s early section, so I can provide no images of the round items. These include the perfect chalk circle that Petiti draws to delineate his performance space, the top hat in which he collects coins, the red-and-white candy mint, his unicycle’s wheel, the ring under the White Devils’ tightrope in the circus tent, the arch in the same ring that frames Petit when he juggles to impress Rudy, and the umbrella he uses to shelter Annie in a sudden rain shower.
Such imagery disappears in the second half, apart from repeated overhead shots of the circular fountain on the ground between the Towers, often with the lines of the wire and the balance bar juxtaposed with it (see top). It recalls Petit’s initial performance space on the ground and subtly reminds us of how far, and high, he has come since then. (During their first meeting, Annie remarked of Petit’s tightrope, “That was the lowest high-wire I’ve ever seen.”)
In the end, the answer to the original question, “Why?” is that “There is no why.” When Petit sees a beautiful place in which to place his wire, he feels compelled to do so. His motive is not to show off his derring-do or to spice up his life with risk-taking. His is an aesthetic compulsion, and the Walk is referred to a number of times as an artwork. The form of the film reflects that compulsion.
The last lines of the film return to the Towers themselves. Petit narrates over a shot of himself returning to visit the top of the Towers, telling us that an official gave him a pass to visit it. We return to the torch atop the Statue of Liberty, where he looks at the card and says, “He wrote on it ‘Forever.'” This could have been told visually, I suppose, but it would have meant close-ups of the card, probably a second person on the roof to whom Petit could explain his card–something, at least, more elaborate and less effective than simply having him tell us this information. A pan moves us toward the Towers, gleaming in the sunshine until the slow fade-out that conveys the fact that for the Towers, forever was cut brutally short. That final salute, at least, seems to have pleased everyone.
As I said at the outset, The Walk is not necessarily a masterpiece, but it is far better than some of the reviews would claim. Seeing the film a second time, I enjoyed it more and found new things to notice, which is always a good sign. I did not find the voiceover narration annoying during either viewing, and it isn’t really dispensable. The film is worth seeing, and its extraordinary climactic scene will suffer greatly from being seen on a video screen.
The Wire provides another example of a phenomenon which David discussed in relation to Paul Greengrass’ United 93: our inability to wholly suppress a feeling of suspense even when we know the outcome of an event. Simply seeing Petit on the wire high above the ground to some extent creates an involuntary state of tension.
In the 1940s, American cinema turned wildly subjective. Visions, daydreams, nightmares, optical and auditory POV, inner monologues, flashbacks, and stream-of-consciousness montages were popping up everywhere. Sometimes these techniques rendered what it felt like to be the character at that moment. At other times, they were occasions for gags, or padding, or spikes of emotion, or flamboyant spectacle.
Sometimes they were just weird.
One of the most intriguing passages in Forties films comes at a climactic moment in Nightmare Alley (1947, the year I was born). Spoilers ahead.
Stan Carlisle has been involved in a complicated swindle with the help of psychologist Lilith Ritter. He has entrusted her with $150,000 in cash extracted from their mark. When the plan goes wrong, he reclaims the money and heads for the railroad station to meet his girlfriend Molly.
In the cab en route to the station, Stan discovers that the wad of cash Lilith has given him consists of 150 singles. He returns to her apartment to confront her. There Lilith suddenly goes coldly clinical, declaring that Stan is deluded. Just as he thinks he killed a man in Texas, and he has imagined that she’s involved in his swindle. She denies any collusion with him, but does hint that she could get him indicted for the killing.
Since he has been growing more anxious, her calm stream of lies unnerves him. And since she records all her sessions with her patients, she has his first visit as a confession to the Texas killing. She has been careful to never record their swindle plot.
As Stan gets more panicky, we hear a police siren. He reacts, but Lilith does not. She claims not to hear it; she says he’s just imagining it, like everything else. When she offers to take him to a hospital, he pulls away and flees, without his money.
Here’s the scene.
Is the siren objectively in the scene, or is it in Stan’s head?
Lilith says she doesn’t hear the siren, so it might be subjective, manifesting Stan’s guilty conscience. And all the psychologist’s talk about hallucinations may have induced one in him. But the siren isn’t distorted in the way most auditory imaginings are; it seems plausibly part of the story world. And many viewers (including me, on my first viewing) assume that Lilith or her servant Jane has called the police, and the cops are now arriving. Lilith could be pretending not to hear the siren in order to convince Stan he’s loco. She does tell him to stay for a sedative.
There are several oddities here besides the siren. For one thing, Jane has made her entrance keeping Stan covered with her pistol. When Stan and Jane leave the bedroom, we see Jane hovering in the background.
As Lilith comes out she cocks her head screen left, signaling to Jane, and swivels the pistol firmly toward Stan.
Once Stan and Lilith get into their argument, though, Jane is no longer seen or heard. She’s last glimpsed as a sleeve on its way offscreen.
We never see Jane definitely exit the room. Is she there or not? Did Lilith’s head gesture mean “Stand over there to keep him covered” or “Go off and call the police”? The film’s continuity script (typically a transcript of the editor’s version with dialogue and effects but without music) says only “Jane crosses and exits scene.” That could mean she leaves the room or merely leaves the frame.
Moreover, we learn from cinematographer Lee Garmes, who shot Nightmare Alley, that Goulding preferred clearly signaled entrances and exits.
He had no idea of camera; he concentrated on the actors. He had the camera follow the action all the time. He was the only director I’ve known whose actors never came in and out of the sideline of a frame. They either came in a door or down a flight of stairs or from behind a piece of furniture. He liked their entrances and exits to be photographed. I like that; they didn’t just disappear somewhere out of the frame-line as they so often do.
“Disappear somewhere out of the frame-line” is just what Jane does.
Jane’s presence or absence matters because of the quarrel that ensues. When Lilith announces her betrayal of Sam, we might expect the muscular Stan to attack her, slapping her around like the good noir sucker he is. But he meekly takes her assault. True, he’s coming apart, but maybe he’s holding back partly because Jane still has him covered from offscreen. That assumption seems validated at one point, when Stan’s nervous glance sharply off right suggests that she’s still there with her pistol. It’s after that glance that he warns Lilith not to call the cops.
Of course he could be imagining Jane in another room calling the police. On the other hand, if we assume that Jane remains offscreen, Lilith’s cool story about Stan’s breakdown becomes motivated as a performance in front of a witness who can back her up.
Maybe the handling of Jane is just clumsy direction on Goulding’s part? Or just conciseness? Still, there’s that siren. If Jane is in the room all the while, and we don’t hear her telephone the cops offscreen, the siren can’t be the result of a call for help. And it’s not clear that Lilith had the time to phone the police after Stan left the bedroom.
So maybe the siren is indeed in Stan’s head. Or if it’s objectively in the story world, then maybe it’s just a coincidence. (Chicago has plenty of sirens.) In this case, Lilith takes advantage of the siren to weaken Stan’s grip even more. A further complication: The siren cuts off as Stan flees, but there’s no indication that the cops have arrived outside. And in another oddity, we see Lilith turn slightly toward the camera when she denies hearing the sound. Is this a mark of evasion, like blinking?
In sum: The siren is either subjective or it’s objective. If it’s subjective, it’s at variance with most subjective sound of the period in not being signaled clearly as such. If it’s objective, it’s either the result of somebody calling the cops from offscreen, or it’s just coincidental.
Which is it? Usually a Forties film is pretty explicit when we’re in a character’s head, if only in retrospect (e.g., the staircase “death” in Possessed, 1947). Nightmare Alley seems to fudge things here.
When being a geek isn’t chic
Am I over-thinking this? The commentators on the Eureka! DVD, noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini, puzzle over the siren too. I think that when Lilith denies hearing it, most viewers feel a bump: after all, we hear it too. But soon, I think, most of us take it as a real siren and assume that Lilith seizes on it as another way to convince Stan he’s breaking down. As for Jane, we just forget about her.
Look at the overall film, though, and the subjectivity possibility gains a curious strength. The siren can be taken as part of a peculiar pattern running through the film. To show you what I mean, I need to rehash a fairly complicated plot. Bear with me.
Stan Carlisle, an ambitious carnival worker, is conducting an affair with Zeena, the fortune-teller, while her partner Pete sinks into alcoholism. Stan accidentally kills Pete by giving him a bottle of wood alcohol instead of moonshine. Partnering with Zeena, Stan masters a code system for a mind-reading act. Soon he has left Zeena behind and married the carnival entertainer Molly, who becomes his confederate in a ritzier nightclub mentalist act. But Stan is plagued by memories of Pete’s death. He visits a psychologist, Lilith, to whom he tells his guilt feelings.
Stan conceives a grand scheme to turn faith healer, using his skills at illusion and fake spiritualism. (“The spook racket: I was made for it.”) He manages to deceive the rich Ezra Grindle, who asks to see his deceased lover. The scheme, in which Molly impersonates a spirit, fails and Stan has to flee, hoping to take with him the money he’s already wormed out of Grindle. Lilith blocks that in the scene I’ve excerpted.
Stan leaves Molly and begins to spiral downward into drunkenness. By the film’s end he’s ready to take on the job of the geek, the subhuman carnival freak who bites heads off chickens. Originally Stan had despised the geek, but now, in order to be guaranteed a bottle a day, he declares: “I was made for it.” Only Molly’s tender concern holds out hope Stan might claw his way back.
I said the plot was complicated, but it rests on a set of fairly simple substitutions. The opening situation gives us two couples, Zeena and Pete, Molly and the strong man Bruno. Initially Stan was odd man out, paralleled by the geek (also on the fringes of the action). Stan replaces Pete as first Zeena’s lover and then her stage partner. But once Stan knows the mentalist codes, he can replace Zeena with Molly, whom Bruno surrenders. Later Zeena and Bruno will form a couple. In Stan’s rise, Molly gets replaced by Lilith, his partner in crime, if not in romance. When Stan’s swindle fails, he goes on the run, alone again. Pete was established as one step up from geekdom; without Molly, he said, he’d be a geek. Now Stan becomes the new Pete. Drinking around a campfire with bums, he even repeats Pete’s cold-reading spiel word for word and gesture for gesture, with a bottle of booze as the crystal ball.
Stan finally sinks to the bottom, willing to serve as a carnival geek for the standard bottle a day. Molly now plays Zeena to the new Pete.
The pattern of sound leading up to the siren scene centers on the geek. In the crucial scene in which Stan gives Pete the rubbing alcohol, the geek’s cries punctuate the action as he dashes around in the distance; like Pete, he needs his daily bottle. But we hear those cries three more times later, when the action has left the carnival. The cries are displaced from their original source, and more insistent on each appearance.
The first time, they’re very faint. Zeena and Bruno have called on Stan and Molly in their nightclub dressing room. Zeena has brought out her Tarot deck and seeing Stan’s future she warns him not to try the big thing he’s contemplating. (It’s the fleecing of the grieving Grindle.) Worse, her cards bring up the Hanged Man, the same card that Zeena turned up for Pete. Once the association with Pete has returned, it’s hard to exorcise.
Angry, Stan forces Zeena and Bruno out, and as he stands at the door, with the music rising, we can hear the distant cries of the geek. In the next scene, the association with Pete is strengthened. Stan is getting a massage and the smell of the rubbing alcohol reminds him of the night of Pete’s death. Now, more strongly, we hear the geek.
The motif-cluster is Pete’s death/Hanged Man/rubbing alcohol/the geek. This is brought back again, most obviously, when on his downward path Stan is holed up in a hotel room and instead of eating starts to guzzle a bottle of gin.
The compulsive drinking, along with Stan’s disheveled life, marks another stage in his conversion into Pete, and the geek’s cries are heard most plaintively now.
So what do we make of the geek’s cries in these scenes? If we take them as subjective, as Stan’s auditory flashbacks or imaginings, then the siren moment gathers a new force. If we’ve had access to Stan’s mental soundscape earlier, maybe we have it again when he “hears” the police coming. After several instances of subjective sound, we’re more prepared to take the siren as subjective too—and to wonder a bit about it even after we’ve concluded that it’s probably objectively in the scene.
That feint would be an interesting storytelling maneuver in itself. Yet other factors complicate things.
The geek goes Greek
In 1940s movies, there’s plenty of subjective sound. Often we understand that a sound is subjective by virtue of its acoustic quality; it may be given extra reverb or distorted in other ways. We also take it as subjective because the sound clearly isn’t coming from the scene. We often remember it from prior scenes and so treat it as an auditory flashback. But there are visual cues for subjective sound too. The two primary ones are a close view of the character whose mind we’re in, and an expression on the character’s face that indicates some intense feeling.
In The Fallen Sparrow (1943), Kit recalls his months in a Spanish prison chiefly through the scraping limp of one of his captors passing in the hall. When we’re given access to that acoustic memory, we get fairly close shots of Kit’s agitation.
In an interesting parallel to Nightmare Alley, when Kit is with Whitney, he thinks he hears the scraping footbeat again.
It might be a genuine offscreen sound, since we have reason to believe that his torturer has followed him to New York. (In the climax, the sound will be actual, not imaginary.) But at this point Whitney says she doesn’t hear the noise, and neither do we. This indicates that Kit is imagining it. The filmmakers faced a problem comparable to that in the Nightmare Alley scene. If the sound had played for us as well as for Kit, and Whitney said she didn’t hear it, the options are three: we’re in Kit’s head, though she isn’t; it’s real and she truly didn’t hear it; or it’s real and she’s lying (as Lilith may be). We couldn’t be absolutely sure we were in Kit’s head if the sound had been included, but when it’s not on the track, we know he’s hallucinating.
There are several norms to consider here. First, typically the close shot is timed to coincide with the subjective sound, indicating that the character registers the sound when we do. That happens in The Fallen Sparrow, but not in Nightmare Alley. We notice the siren before Stan does, which suggests that it’s objective.
Second, the shot isolating the character favors our taking a sound as subjective. But when another character is in the shot, it’s harder to construe as subjective. Accordingly, in The Fallen Sparrow, the shot that includes both Kit and Whitney inclines the filmmakers to treat the shot as objective and the sound as purely private, as inaudible to us as it is to her. In Nightmare Alley, the siren does indeed start over a close-up of Stan, but it continues over a reverse-shot of Lilith and soon enough, over a shot of the two of them.
Finally, our sense of subjectivity depends partly on the intrinsic norm each movie sets up. In The Fallen Sparrow the scraping footstep takes its place in long stretches of inner monologue which vocalize Kit’s thoughts. Because we’ve had intimate access to his mind, we’re likely to accept the footstep we hear as subjective as well. But Nightmare Alley doesn’t include inner monologues. We never access Stan’s stream of thought, so the geek cries are the only moments we might be plunging into his mind–at least, until (perhaps) the siren scene.
The siren scene hangs uncertainly between subjectivity and objectivity, tilting toward objectivity but also casting some doubts on it. What about the geek sounds? They’re even more complicated. They seem to hang between subjectivity and–well, something else.
Take the first instance. Stan is at the doorway and the camera tracks in to him as the musical score emerges. The geek noises slip in, and Stan pauses, as if reflecting.
That seems like a fairly standard cue for subjectivity: Stan has associated the Tarot cards and Pete’s death with the geek’s cries. Because of the faintness of the noise (some people seem not to notice it, as if the score nearly drowns it out), the narration might even be hinting that Stan’s memory of the night of Pete’s death is barely conscious.
In the light of the later occurrences, I’d propose another possibility. Given that we’ve never been in Stan’s head before, the sound might be more addressed to us than to him, reminding us of an association he doesn’t sense at all. This moment might almost be the film’s way of taking us aside and flagging a motif that will develop later–and in ambiguous ways.
In the rubdown scene, we see Stan, anxiously reacting to the smell of alcohol, in a fairly close view as the geek’s cries are heard.
In great anxiety, he leaps off the rubbing table. But perhaps he’s reacting just to the smell of alcohol, not to his memory of the geek. Again, the geek sounds are smoothly merged with a burst in the musical score.
Most characters who hear imaginary sounds report them to the people around them. But Stan hasn’t said anything, as far as we know, to Molly about twice hearing the geek. When Stan tells Lilith of the two earlier scenes during his therapy session, he mentions only being disturbed by Zeena and the cards, and the way the alcohol reminded him of Pete.
He doesn’t mention hearing the geek’s cries. So again we might ask if these cries aren’t subjective but rather something like a nondiegetic score–the soundtrack reminding us of something Stan isn’t remembering.
The last recall of the geek’s cries is presented while Stan is gulping gin. The noise starts in a medium shot before the camera retreats to a distant view.
If the cries make him feel tormented, he doesn’t give much sign of it. And if we were supposed to penetrate his mind, where the geek noises might reside, the camera would typically track in more tightly (as it does in The Fallen Sparrow). Instead, it withdraws, again raising the possibility that the geek’s shrieks are a commentary, not a recollection. Perhaps the cries are more like the Greek chorus warning us of an outcome to which the protagonist is oblivious.
What are we left with? Mixed signals, I think. The geek’s cries and the police siren hover in a space that many films worked within but seldom treated so freely. The cries can be taken as subjective, but they lack robust cues for that function. In other respects, they suggest expressive commentary. As the alcohol reminds Stan of Pete’s death, the cries do the same for us, while prophesying Stan’s fate. And the siren, while probably objective, makes us hesitate partly because we’re not sure the police have been called and partly because we’ve had ambivalent sound cues earlier. For a moment it might seem to be, as Lilith says, Stan’s first full-blown hallucination.
The continuity script for Nightmare Alley duly notes the siren’s sound, and the geek’s cries are noted in the scene of Pete’s death. But there’s no mention of geek cries in any of the three scenes I’ve considered. Perhaps director Edmund Goulding shot the film without planning to include the geek sounds at all. Perhaps they were added in postproduction. Someone late in the production process may have decided to anticipate Stan’s final degradation through ever more vivid echoes of the poisoning scene. Nightmare Alley would become an example of innovation by last-minute intervention.
Usually a 1940s film respects the distinctions, the either/or options, that are offered by the era’s stylistic menu. Accordingly, a sound is clearly objective or clearly subjective. But sometimes a film oscillates between the choices, or blurs the distinctions among them. We’re most familiar with this slipperiness when music shifts between being diegetic (sourced in the story space) and being nondiegetic (added to the story world “from outside”). This sort of looseness can be found elsewhere in 1940s storytelling. A film may start with one narrator and end with another, or none, or an uncertainly identified one. A flashback may never close, or loop back to its beginning without returning to the frame story. The outliers coax us to study how the ordinary cases work and note how much we take their conventions for granted.
We can learn as much about storytelling strategies from the ambivalent films as from the trim and polished ones. And in a movie called Nightmare Alley, we can’t regret that the haunting wail of the geek wafts through it as both a reminder of death and an anticipation of destiny. Its shape-shifting sound fits a movie that wants to unsettle us.
Fussbudget film analysis: I was made for it.
The continuity script for Nightmare Alley is available as a pdf file on the Eureka! DVD of the film.
Lee Garmes’ remark about explicit entrances and exits is quoted in Charles Higham, Hollywood Cameramen (Thames & Hudson, 70), 49-50. For background on the making of the film see Matthew Kennedy, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 241-252. There’s a detailed and intriguing psychoanalytic interpretation of the film at Randomaniac.
Actually, the scene in The Fallen Sparrow is a little more complicated than I indicate here, but I didn’t want to get into the weeds. The essential point holds, though: when one character thinks that a sound is veridical, and another character is present but doesn’t hear it, the filmic narration can confirm or disconfirm or ambiguate the source of the sound.
Thanks to conversations with Kristin, Jeff Smith, and Jim Healy about the film. Woody Haut’s lengthy discussion of the film for the Eureka! disc is reprinted on his website.
I discuss extrinsic and intrinsic norms of narration in Chapters 4 and 8 of Narration in the Fiction Film.
Side Street (1949).
…just knocks you out.
“It can only be fully recommended to those who have a deep and morbid interest in crime.” Snooty judgments like this made Bosley Crowther the critical joke of generations. Today film lovers wear their deep and morbid interest in crime as a badge of honor. Especially when the crime is covered by Anthony Mann.
In Side Street (1949), Joe Norson has lost his business and works part-time as a postman while he and his wife await their first child. Having come back from war and wanting to give Ellen a good life, Joe is tempted to steal money he’s seen lying around the office of a crooked attorney. He grabs a folder containing what he thinks is a couple of hundred dollars; instead, it holds $30,000 of blackmail money. The woman who chiseled the money out of a businessman turns up dead, and the police are investigating. When Joe naively loses the money and sets out to recover it, he’s drawn into the murder, tracked by the gang, and targeted as a prime suspect by the police.
Variety and Crowther chided the screenwriters for a sketchy plot, and the complaint is somewhat fair. Joe is an unusually weak protagonist. He botches both his theft and his cover-up, leaving a trail that’s easy for the killer and the cops to trace. Because Joe is fairly passive and on the run, and he has to follow his clues in a fairly linear manner, and his schemes to fight back come to almost nothing, the action is filled out by scenes of the gang and the police tracking him.
What partly compensates for the plot’s problems is the bold location shooting. As part of the semi-documentary trend of the period (the film opens and closes with worldly-wise voice-over narration from the Homicide Captain), Side Street presents itself as a story rooted in urban reality. And indeed it is a triumph of location shooting. The characters visit a bank, Greenwich Village, Bellevue Hospital, and many neighborhoods. The final chase, with Joe trapped in a taxi with the killer and pursued by three cop cars, is a tour de force of geometrical shot designs that make city canyons part of the drama.
Mann has long been praised for integrating the forces of nature into the action of his Westerns, but this film shows his flair for cityscapes too.
Given the constraints of location filming, the freedom of Mann’s camera is all the more arresting. This time he’s not working with John Alton, the cinematographer most in tune with his baroque sense of light and framing. But Mann still gets punchy results from ace DP Joseph Ruttenberg. There is nothing quite so staggering as Alton’s framing of Claire Trevor and the cabin clock in Raw Deal, let alone the Grand Guignol imagery of Reign of Terror, but Ruttenberg does give us plenty of nicely dense compositions, exploiting the verticals and apertures available on location. There’s also a neatly discreet shot of a revolver peeking out from behind a door in distant long-shot; the shadow supplies the telltale shape.
Mann is a post-Kane filmmaker. Like nearly every Forties director of dramas, he learned from Toland and Welles that you it’s fun to shove the action into the viewer’s face. The high angles of the city are counterbalanced by steep low setups both inside and outside. Mann never met a “Russian angle,” or a ceiling, he didn’t like.
When the lens is more or less straight on, the frame can be tight and actors’ heads are packed into the frame like cantaloupes in a supermarket display.
In motion, the camera isn’t safe. Actors rush past the lens or thrust themselves straight at it.
When Joe flings himself out of a car, prepare to find yourself in the middle of traffic, with a truck rushing at you (a stunt done in real space, not against a back-projection).
Yet even studio-shot back-projections retain vigorous, immersive depth.
Mann’s visual dynamism, complete with aggressive foreground and distant depth, hits a high point in the dialogue-free scene that’s the topic of today’s sermonette. Joe hasn’t planned to steal the money, but circumstances lure him on. The lawyer’s out of his office, and the door has been left ajar. Joe earlier saw the money put into a file drawer, and as Joe prepares to slide the mail under the door, the cabinet stands temptingly in the foreground.
He impulsively heads for the cabinet, pauses before it, and then—thanks to an abrasive cut—grabs the handle violently. The drawer is locked. He recovers himself, almost grateful that he’s blocked, and he lurches out the door. No theft today, apparently.
Outside, Joe seems to be going on his way, but the long shot shows a barrier, like a railing in the foreground. It seems about as innocuous as the car hood we saw when Joe went in the building.
As Joe approaches, the camera tilts up to follow him and he stops, staring. He’s framed before what’s now revealed as a fire axe.
Another director—Hitchcock, perhaps—would have handled this with a medium-shot of Joe leaving and looking off, followed by an optical POV shot of the axe. Or you could show him leaving in the foreground, with the axe mounted in the distance; he glances back, sees it, and decides to go fetch it.
By contrast, Mann’s approach yields a sharp one-two snap: Joe approaches/ he stops. We see the axe, but almost by accident; the reframing is just following Joe’s movement. And we don’t need to see any more of the thing but its distinctive shape—its pure axe-ness given in silhouette. Rudolf Arnheim, who always advocated pictorial simplicity, would be pleased.
After a beat, in an abrupt cut, Joe grabs the thing.
He lunges down the corridor back to the office and starts to break into the cabinet. Now his violent adventure begins.
Crime I’m not so sure of, but with bodacious filmmaking like this, who wouldn’t acquire a deep and morbid interest in cinema?
Bosley Crowther’s review of Side Street is “The Screen: New Crime Story,” New York Times (24 March 1950), p. 29.The Variety reviews, more or less identical, are in Daily Variety (22 December 1949), p. 3, and Variety (28 December 1949), p. 6. The Times covers the shooting of the climactic chase in “Taxi Acrobatics in Wall Street” (8 May 1949), X5.
For more on the postwar cinema’s love affair with vigorous depth staging and depth of field, see this entry on Bergman and Antonioni, this entry on Toland and depth of field, this entry on Manny Farber’s objections to Huston, this entry on dense staging, and this entry on Wyler’s staging in The Little Foxes. For much more see Parts Three and Four of our Film History: An Introduction, Chapter 27 of The Classical Hollywood Cinema, and Chapter 6 of On the History of Film Style.
“So I’m dead.”
At the start of Confidence we hear Jake Vig’s voice as we see him lying bloodied on a pavement. As the protagonist of a neo-noir, Jake recalls the classic start of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). There Joe Gillis (an echo of gigolo?), floating face-down in a swimming pool, begins to recount his stay as a kept man of faded film star Norma Desmond. That opening has become a touchstone for the grim fatalism of film noir, as well as a mark of daring screenwriting. The guy telling the story is dead! How cool is that?
Anybody interested in how films tell stories has to be interested in narrators, those figures—either mere voices or tangible characters—who recount, recall, or replay the story action. And anybody interested in Hollywood film knows that such narrators are hallmarks of a giddy period of cinematic innovation, as recognizably “1940s” as flashbacks, moody subjective sequences, and twisty plots. In that era we find narrators well outside that terrain known as noir. Romantic dramas, family sagas, comedies, Gothics, musicals, and other genres made ample use of voice-over commentary, and it didn’t always suggest a doom-laden atmosphere.
Still, dead narrators seem to be pushing things. They flout realism (How can a dead person tell anything?) and they raise problems of logic (To whom is this person speaking?). Is it a chatty corpse (Wilder originally wanted a morgue opening introducing Gillis) or an ethereal spirit divorced from the dead body?
Dead narrators turn up surprisingly often in the 1940s. During this period, as I’ve argued on this site and in the book I’m working on, many storytelling techniques we take for granted coalesced. There emerged a rough menu for handling them, and ambitious filmmakers played with several possibilities. That play didn’t stop in the Forties; we still have new versions of flashbacks, subjectivity, and the like. So let’s look at posthumous narrators in the Forties, with some glances at a trio of more recent efforts.
As a non-dead and highly reliable narrator, I must warn you of spoilers ahead.
The Human Comedy (1943).
Most simply, posthumous narration can be motivated as letters (Letter from an Unknown Woman) or diary entries (Thatcher’s journal in Citizen Kane). Similarly, Heaven Can Wait (1943) gives us a dead man explaining episodes from his life to an inquisitive official in the afterlife. The more flagrant cases, however, involve dead narrators who recount the entire film we see in voice-over, as in our prototype Sunset Boulevard. Knowing that the protagonist is dead at the start shifts our attention to how he or she will die.
Posthumous narrators go back a fair bit. In literature, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) presents the ruminations of the town dead, in the manner of the cemetery climax of Our Town (1938 play, 1940 film). Wilfred Owen’s poetic monologue “Strange Meeting” (1918) presents soldiers reuniting in Hell, ending with the poignant line, “Let us sleep now….” Addie Bundren, the dead mother of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), narrates portions of the novel from her coffin. In a pulpish pastiche of Faulkner, Kenneth Fearing’s mystery novel Dagger of the Mind (1941) includes a chapter narrated by a man who’s been murdered. Radio drama also included voices from the beyond. Examples include “Ghost Ship” (1940), with a victim recounting his own murder, and Norman Corwin’s “Untitled” (1944), which reveals the narrator to be a dead soldier.
In film, World War II brings forth the prospect of dead servicemen returning to tell their tales. “I am Matthew Macauley,” says a face superimposed over imagery of radiant clouds. “I have been dead for two years. But so much of me is still living that I know now that the end is only the beginning.” This is indeed a beginning, of The Human Comedy (1943). Having died in the war, Matthew will guide us back to his hometown and his household’s daily routines.
Matthew’s voice-over goes on to introduce his family members, including son Marcus on duty in the army. After a scene in which a spectral Matthew joins his wife at her work, his voice discreetly retires. It recurs only twice before he and his now-dead soldier son faintly enter to watch the family welcome their new member, Marcus’s pal Toby.
“You see, Marcus, the ending is only the beginning.” Matthew’s address to us has become piece of fatherly advice.
The dead narrator of The Human Comedy never intervenes in the action on earth, but an all-seeing intelligence exercises more authority in The Seventh Cross (1944). Seven prisoners escape from a concentration camp, and Ernst Wallau’s narration launches the film. During the escape sequence he rapidly introduces each of his comrades.
Fairly soon all but one are captured and executed on crosses planted in the prison yard. The first man to be crucified is Wallau, our narrator. After he is killed, his voice-over continues: “I was dead. I could see.”
Wallau’s commentary chiefly follows his friend George Heisler, who manages to elude the Gestapo while the other escapees are found and killed. Wallau’s narration continues through the film, chronicling not only the fates of the other men but probing Heisler’s state of mind. Wallau tells us what Heisler is thinking, guides us into his memory, notes things that Heisler has forgotten, and even informs us what other characters will do in the future. Confronted with this numb, almost mute character, we need the continual commentary of Wallau to give access to his inner life.
Wallau is that rare voice-over narrator who flaunts his omniscience. Being dead, he has total access to our world and can witness anything happening there. Despite Wallau’s godlike power, in good Hollywood tradition his narration attaches itself chiefly to Heisler. But here that restriction reflects simply Wallau’s foreknowledge, signaled at the start, that only Heisler will survive. The question becomes: How?
The answer comes through Wallau’s goading Heisler to find faith in others. At the start, Heisler is close to despair, and his flight stems from sheer instinctual survival. At the film’s midpoint, all his comrades have been killed, and Wallau’s long-term escape plan has failed. Heisler can’t any longer mechanically follow his mentor’s instructions. He must forge a new goal, seize the initiative, and learn to trust people. He must learn what Wallau told him from the start: there remain traces of humanity in Germany.
As Heisler’s hopes grow and his network of allies expands, Wallau’s prodding voice-over subsides. It reappears near the end, at the moment Heisler realizes how much he owes others. Heisler speaks of his debts, and Wallau murmurs in antiphony the names of those who have helped him, including some Heisler has never met.
Now that Heisler has joined the struggle with full commitment, Wallau can vanish. “Goodbye, George Heisler. I can leave you now.”
Ghostly narrators like Wallau and Matthew Macauley call to mind the nosy angels and spooks of so many 40s films. Those have their counterparts in radio dramas like “Good Ghost” (1948) and the parodic mystery novel Dead to the World (1947), with a dead detective narrating his efforts to solve a case.
As usual, a lot depends on timing of information. If we learn that the narrator is dead at the start, as in the films just mentioned and in Scared to Death (1947), a certain amount of the action can seem foreordained. Alternatively, there can be a surprise. Radio plays, it seems, tended to reveal their dead narrators as a twist ending. With less fanfare, a film can simply seem to forget the opening commentary. The Gangster (1947) is initially narrated, without a frame situation, by the crooked protagonist. As a result, we expect him to survive. Yet he dies in the course of the action. The filmmakers faced a problem: To return to the narration at the end or not? To revive his voice-over might suggest that he endures in some supernatural realm. Instead, an impersonal external voice takes over to balance the opening.
With the convention of the dead narrator in place, a film could flirt with the possibility that the initial voice we hear has no living source. The opening credits of Woman in Hiding (1950) strongly suggest that a betrayed wife, racing down a hillside at night before crashing over an embankment into a river, has been killed. Her commentary rises up during a scene of the police dragging the river, and she seems to be mocking her husband from beyond the grave.
Is this a female variant of Joe Gillis’ voice-over? Watch the whole movie to find out.
In the same year as Woman in Hiding, Sunset Boulevard gave us another voice from the Beyond. If the film’s technique seems less original coming after a string of dead narrators, at least it can be credited with making the narrator the protagonist (unlike The Human Comedy and The Seventh Cross) and for using the device in a full-blown A picture (unlike Scared to Death and The Gangster).
In sum, the dead-narrator technique became a schema, a pattern which filmmakers could simply copy, as in Scared to Death, or tweak, as in the apparently dead narrator of Woman in Hiding. Wilder offered his own variant on the schema. We tend to remember his as the prime example, maybe even as the first one. But it often happens in the 1940s that the originality of a noteworthy film stems from a revision of a schema that was already in circulation, not only in film but in other media.
The weekend Laura died
Occasionally, the variety of options at the period sets up more dissonant relations. Laura (1944) is probably the most famous example.
Vera Caspary’s original book is divided principally into first-person blocks recounted by bon vivant Waldo Lydecker, detective Mark McPherson, and magazine editor Laura Hunt. Early versions of the screenplay attempted to capture multiple-viewpoint narration through flashbacks and voice-overs. What happened to this structure, however, reveals a process we’ll encounter elsewhere: fiddling with the film in post-production yielded some startling, perhaps unintended novelties.
Laura Hunt has apparently been murdered by a shotgun blast to the face. When the film starts, McPherson is calling on her mentor Waldo Lydecker, an effete columnist and radio commentator. McPherson lets Waldo accompany him on his inquiries before the two retire for a dinner at the restaurant Laura loved. There, via flashbacks and voice-overs, Lydecker recounts Laura’s rise to prominence. (In a scene cut from the final film, there’s an indication that Waldo’s tale is partly false—an early instance of a lying flashback.) The other characters’ flashbacks and voice-overs were abandoned in production, so the rest of the film is rendered objectively.
We later learn that the original victim was not Laura, which makes Laura either a new suspect or a target for the killer’s second try. At the climax, it’s revealed that Waldo is the culprit; he concealed the gun in an antique clock that he had given Laura. While his pre-recorded program is broadcast, he returns to her apartment and tries to kill her. Laura eludes him and as he wildly fires his gun, he is shot by McPherson’s team.
What makes the finale curious is the film’s framing device. The first scene starts with Waldo’s voice-over: “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.”
This appears to cast the entire film as a flashback, starting with McPherson’s visit to Waldo. Within that flashback to the weekend, we have further flashbacks–that is, Waldo’s dinner-table explanations to McPherson. Such Russian-doll embedding is found elsewhere during the 1940s. At the end of the evening, when Waldo leaves, the camera lingers on McPherson and we become attached to him for nearly all that follows.
In screenplay drafts, this last shot would have initiated Mark’s voice-over narration, which would constitute a chunk parallel to Waldo’s. This is further evidence that Waldo’s string of flashbacks, including his opening voice-over, functions to write finis to “his” section of the film. But in the finished film, without McPherson’s voice-over block, Waldo’s initial voice-over hangs there, apparently framing the whole film. It would have been easy simply to cut that commentary and retain the opening camera movement revealing McPherson browsing among Waldo’s treasures, perhaps with some more nondiegetic music. Then Waldo’s offscreen admonition would bring in his voice for the first time. After this, Waldo’s later flashbacks and his voice-over narration would become neatly nested and perfectly conventional.
Clearly, decision-makers wanted to retain Waldo’s ripe commentary to open the film; it has expository value, and it introduces a very intriguing character. But we don’t hear that enveloping voice again, so for the rest of the film we might take Waldo’s remarks as akin to those that open Rebecca (1940) or Flamingo Road (1949). In these films and many others, a reminiscing character voice introduces the story action from an unspecified point in time and space. And the plot’s shift to McPherson’s activities seems to suggest that the whole opening stretch, including Waldo’s initial recounting, should be taken as a unit, “his” section of the film. So when Waldo is shot down and starts to die, we might have a situation like that of The Gangster, where the narrator is killed in the course of the action he introduced, and the film forgets what started it all.
Instead, Laura takes the option that The Gangster avoided: it brings back the dead man’s voice. After Waldo collapses, there’s a cut to McPherson and Laura leaving the frame. As the camera moves in on the shattered clock face, we hear, “Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love.”
The line might be taken as Waldo’s dying words spoken offscreen, except that the line is miked far more closely than his speech earlier in the scene, when he’s actually closer to he camera. In its acoustic texture, this unsituated sign-off formally balances the unsituated opening. But it also raises the possibility that the dead Waldo has launched the whole story and now bids Laura farewell from that realm wherein defunct narrators dwell.
The opening does hint that something otherworldly is going on. A tart, suave voice wells up from sheer darkness, perhaps a noir equivalent to the sunny eternity from which Matthew Macauley speaks in The Human Comedy. Yet for a dead narrator, Waldo is either ill-informed or misleading. He speaks of “the weekend Laura died.” But if he lived through the events of the film, he knows that she did not die. Of course, his fib helps the film mislead us; the first half presupposes that Laura was the victim. If we remember that an unused scene was going to reveal that his flashback tales to McPherson contained lies, we may conclude that Waldo is as unreliable in death as he was in life.
Some of these inconsistencies apparently spring from late decisions in production. The original ending, as scripted and shot, lets Waldo survive. As he’s led off, he says, “Thank you for everything, my dear. . . You’re all I’ll be thinking of—till Time stands still—for me. Goodbye, Laura.” The speech is heard offscreen as the camera pans and holds on the clock.
Fox production head Darryl F. Zanuck was dissatisfied with many aspects of this conclusion and so a new version was filmed. In that version, Waldo is shot and dying. We see him speak the same lines, and only then does the camera pan to the clock. The release version, with Waldo’s simpler, closely miked farewell over the shot of the clock, was evidently decided on still later.
For what it’s worth, both the original shooting script and the revision distinguish between lines marked as “WALDO (narrating)” and “WALDO’s voice” for offscreen delivery. In neither version are Waldo’s dying lines marked as “narrating.” And in neither do we get an indication of the final camera movement that lets Laura and McPherson leave the shot in order to target the shattered clock face. Yet we do have a sonic texture in the last lines that is closer to a narrator’s voice.
In sum, while presenting a haunting conclusion—the clock was Waldo’s gift to Laura, and the shattered face recalls his first victim—the soundtrack firmly reminds us of the opening. Do we have a dead narrator? Some cues are there, but they’re sketchier than those in other films of the era. (For one thing, in those films, the narrator tells us he or she is dead.)
The unexplained return of Waldo’s voice, now gentle, has a surprising poignancy. Because of its loose ends, the final moments become more evocative, and more poetically enticing, than the tidy, explicit wrapup of Sunset Boulevard. In such ways, Laura’s final moments provide an eccentric revision of the dead-narrator schema. The result may have encouraged filmmakers who followed to risk inconsistency for the sake of powerful immediate effects.
In an earlier entry, I traced how studio pressures made the narration of Preston Sturges’ The Great Moment oddly off-balance. Evidently something like this happened with Laura. In the pressure to get a film finished and out the door, to retain striking bits that may ultimately not make sense when put together, Hollywood filmmakers can innovate by accident.
Dead men tell no tales
Auto Focus (2002).
Once the dead-narrator schema was available, Forties filmmakers were able to tweak it in various ways. And the changes didn’t end then. To see how the same process of schema and revision has continued, consider three much more recent examples.
Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus is a straightforward case. Bob Crane’s voice-over appears early in the film, though not at the very start, and recurs six times before the final scene. The brief comments punctuate Crane’s career decline and his descent into sex addiction. As happens with The Seventh Cross and other films using voice-over narrators, the second half employs the device less intensively than does the first. It’s as if in a film’s Development section we’re expected to be absorbed enough in the action not to need explanation, and we’re sufficiently primed to know what the important issues are.
When Crane’s head is bashed in by his companion in sexual buccaneering, we have a case comparable to The Gangster: the narrator doesn’t survive. Crane’s voice has been silent for 28 minutes, so we might assume that we’ve lost his voice-over. But it returns over his bloody body, recounting in an offhand way the aftermath of his death. His voice remains as perky as it has been early in the film, in both his commentary and his explanations to his wives. “I’m a normal guy,” he has insisted, and his bland wrapup shows him insouciantly unaware of the implications of living and dying as he did. He can’t condemn his killer. “He was a cool guy in his way. . . . Men gotta have fun.”
Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) reworks the dead-narrator schema in more complicated ways, in the process borrowing other 40s conventions. During that period, multiple-narrator films became quite common. Again we have a prototype—Citizen Kane (1941)—but again it wasn’t alone. Trial films featuring flashbacks that dramatize testimony had become fairly common in the 1930s, and a couple of detective films (e.g., Affairs of a Gentleman, 1934; Thru Different Eyes, 1942) used flashbacks to present different witnesses’ versions of events. It would become a staple of crime films like The Killers (1946). Julien Duvivier’s Lydia (1941) transposed the multiple-narrator technique to the melodrama, while The Affairs of Susan (1945) applied it to romantic comedy. Mankiewicz, who seems quite obsessed with the strategy, deployed it in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All about Eve (1950), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954).
A less common 1940s convention is the replay—the passage that repeats a scene, usually in flashback and usually including information not shown in the first pass. The most famous example is Mildred Pierce (1945), which I’ve fretted at for years (in this entry and this video). We can find less crucial replays in, again, Kane (Susan’s opera debut) and in more obscure films like Beyond Glory (1948).
Casino draws on the replay and the multiple-narrator format and blends them with the dead-narrator one. The film innovates in a couple of striking ways. First, in 1940s multiple-narrator films, the individual narrations are presented in blocks; a solid chunk from one voice, another from another. True, we see some leakage in All about Eve, but basically the narrators’ tales are kept distinct. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s script for Casino hops between two principal narrators, Ace Rothstein (Robert de Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci).
Ace and Nicky’s voice-overs are mostly very brief, tagging a cascade of episodes tracing each man’s rise in Vegas, with equally fleeting flashbacks to their origins. The first twenty minutes toggles ten times between the two men’s clipped commentaries. This stretch constitutes a sort of training session, preparing us for the rapid switches in viewpoint that will dominate the film. Again, though, the voice-overs will subside for stretches in the middle, when the scenes become more fully developed. As a momentary, almost twitchy variant we get one extra voice-over—that of a go-between who, in a freeze frame, decides not to tell the mob boss about Nicky’s betrayal of Ace. Significantly, the film’s third major character, Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), is allotted no voice-overs.
So Scorsese and Pileggi have fractured the 1940s voice-over schema. But the to-and-fro commentaries I’ve mentioned come after an opening sequence that seems to announce that one of these wise guys is already dead. The first scene shows Ace being blasted out of his car by a bomb. A sprawling body, as if ejected from the explosion, floats through the opening credits. And Ace’s next voice-over launches the film’s cascade of flashbacks by saying they come from the period “before I got myself blown up.” We seem to be in the full-fledged presence of a dead narrator.
We are, but it’s not Ace. At the film’s climax, it will be Nicky who dies at the hands of his own crew. In replays of the car explosion, it’s revealed that Ace actually survived the blast. By 1995 Scorsese and Pileggi could revise the 1940s schema by splitting the narrators and misdirecting our expectations: the apparently living narrator is the one who will die.
What, finally, of Confidence? Jake’s admission that he’s dead fits snugly into the tradition we’re considering, especially since it’s a voice-over initiating a flashback. That flashback takes us to the moments before his execution at the hand of the triggerman Travis.
In those moments Jake explains how his team of grifters accidentally took money belonging to a gang boss and how they proposed to repay him with an even bigger con job. That central story action, itself peppered with backstory exposition, is interrupted by returns to the opening execution situation. Jake’s first voice-over, apparently addressed to us, is differentiated by sonic texture from his explanations to Travis, but when his voice leads us to the past, it has the same degree of auditory presence. In effect, it’s the same confusion of narrating levels that’s promoted in the first long stretch of Laura.
At the climax of Confidence, we see Jake shot not by Travis but by the moll Lily. Travis flees, and so does she. Now we’re back to the opening situation, and a replay of Jake’s opening line, “So, I’m dead.” He seems to sign off. But now more flashbacks reveal that Jake and Lily have staged her gunplay and that the whole scheme has been a very long con. The team reunites and goes off with their millions. Confidence has appealed to our knowledge of the dead-narrator convention to fake us out: the story action won’t end with his death because he’s stage-managed it.
Jake lied about being dead. But so did Ace when he referred to being “blown up.” So did Waldo, maybe. And so do those films that don’t signal that the protagonist has fallen into a dream or a reverie. Actually, narratives are incorrigibly deceptive and full of secrets. You can’t even trust dead guys.
As ever, we’re reminded that modern filmmakers inherit a vast tradition of narrative schemas. Those can be reiterated or revised in unpredictable ways. The tradition is kept alive and engaging, as long as novelty is balanced with familiarity, innovation with redundancy. (Let the narrators explain, throw in some replays,) The way Hollywoood tells it is always indebted to the ways Hollywood told it.
For more examples of dead narrators see the Wikipedia entry and TV Tropes. Long as they are, these lists tilt heavily toward contemporary examples, where posthumous narration seems very common. One reason I posted this entry was to acknowledge older instances of this convention.
Ray Collins was a well-known radio voice as well as a Welles Mercury player. As both Matthew Macauley and Wallau, he seems to have been the go-to man for reliable supernatural voice-over. He had a long Hollywood career, but most baby boomers remember him best as Lieutenant Tragg in the Perry Mason TV show.
I’m indebted to Neil Verma for information about the posthumous narrator in radio plays. Neil also mentions “The Hitch-Hiker” (1942), and these episodes of Quiet, Please: “Inquest” (1947), “In Memory of Bernadine” (1947), “Anonymous” (1948), and “I Always Marry Juliet” (1948). (Listen to any of these here.) Filmgoers probably encountered more dead narrators on radio than on film. Neil’s book, Theater of the Mind, is an excellent account of 1930s and 1940s radio narrative.
The shooting script of Laura is available here. The revised ending is included as well. See also the detailed comparison of the two endings by Despina Veneti at Preminger Noir. The first analysis of the different versions was, I believe, carried out by Jacques Lourcelles in “Laura: Scénario d’un scenario,” L’Avant-scène du cinéma no 211/212 (July-September 1978), 5-11. This publication includes a French-language transcript of the film as we have it, along with cut portions. A detailed account of Laura’s production is provided by Chris Fujiwara in The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber and Faber, 2008), pp. 36-48. I’m grateful to Jeff Smith for his advice about the sonic texture of Waldo’s voice-over.
The narrational issues raised by Laura go beyond the deceased Waldo’s voice. In the film’s most famous scene, McPherson is becoming obsessed with the dead Laura and, after drinking heavily, he falls asleep in her apartment. The camera tracks slowly in on him as he drops off. There’s the noise of a door from offscreen, and Laura walks in. McPherson is astonished. Laura, released the same week as The Woman in the Window, might seem to be hinting that Laura has been revived in McPherson’s dream.
Kristin has traced the numerous dialogue motifs that reinforce this possibility. Yet most films of the 1940s mark a dream sequence very explicitly (e.g., wavy superimposed lines, dissonant music) or at the least with a dissolve and a close-up or track-in reinforcing the shift to subjectivity. Laura provides only two cues, the sleeping character and the track-in. But as Kristin indicates, these and other factors keep the dream option a possibility for a first-time viewer. See “Closure within a Dream? Point of View in Laura,” Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1988), 162-194. Kristin’s essay also offers a comprehensive discussion of the shifts in Waldo’s narration.
The presence of dead narrators would seem to pose a problem for those scholars who believe that in a movie every narrator must have a narratee on the same logical level. For these theorists, film narrators are part of a symmetrical system of communication among personified entities. Those entities are either embodied in the text (McPherson is Waldo’s narratee in the restaurant) or implicit in the very logic of narrative itself. No narrator without a narratee! According to this line of argument, there must be a narratee as dead as Waldo listening to his opening voice-over, but being very, very quiet.
In contrast, I’ve argued that films, and possibly all narratives, are freewheeling and illogical in their use of markers of communication. Films may mimic only parts of a communicative circuit in order to achieve specific effects. In provoking experiences in readers, films seem to me to rely on psychology, not ontology. I float this argument in this chapter of Poetics of Cinema. See also this blog entry.
Earlier entries have touches on the schema-and-revision dynamic of style and story in Hollywood. See for examples my discussion of 1913 films, a consideration of 1940s style, some remarks on walk and talk, a piece on high-school lipdubs, a discussion of replays, and the entry on Gone Girl. Searching “schema” will bring up more. A roundup of entries on peculiar 1940s narratives is here. I analyze narration in All about Eve here. For more on the debt of modern film to 1940s innovations, see The Way Hollywood Tells It.