The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960
David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson
A film's story does not simply shine forth; as viewers, we construct it on the basis of the plot, the material actually before us. The classical guidelines for this construction are those principles of causality and motivation already sketched out in Chapter 2. A film's plot usually makes those guidelines applicable by transmitting story information. This aspect of plot I shall call narration.
Hollywood's own discourse has sought to limit narration to the manipulation of the camera, as in John Cromwell's remark that, 'The most effective way of telling a story on the screen is to use the camera as the story-teller.' 1 And the classical film's narration itself encourages us to see it as presenting an apparently solid fictional world which has simply been filmed for our benefit. André Bazin describes the classical film as being like a photographed play; the story events seem to exist objectively, while the camera seems to do no more than give us the best view and emphasize the right things. 2 But narration can in fact draw upon any film technique as long as the technique can transmit story information. Conversations, figure position, facial expressions, and well-timed encounters between characters all function just as narrationally as do camera movements, cuts, or bursts of music.
From this standpoint, classical narration falls under the jurisdiction of all the types of motivation already surveyed. In a classical film, narration is motivated compositionally; it works to construct the story in specific ways. Narration may also be motivated generically, as when performers in a musical sing directly to the spectator or when a mystery film withholds some crucial story information. Narration is less often motivated 'realistically, ' although the voice-over commentary in semidocumentary fiction films might insist that the story action is based on fact. Artistically motivated narration is very rare in classical films and never occurs in a pure state. A non-classical director like Jean-Luc Godard can 'lay bare' a film's narrational principles, as does the beginning of Tout va bien (1972), in which anonymous voices play with alternative ways of opening the film, hiring cast and crew, and financing the film. But when a classical film wants to call attention to the 'palpability' of its narration, it must create a context that motivates baring the device by other means as well. For instance, in scene after scene of *The Man Who Laughs (1928), the narration conceals Gwynplaine's deformed mouth from us (by veils, strategically placed furniture, etc.). But in one scene, the narration lays bare this very pattern. During his stage act, Gwynplaine looks out at us and deliberately reveals his deformity; then a clown in his act slowly covers it again. The shot thus stages the act of revelation and concealment that has been central to the narration throughout. However, this baring of the device is partly motivated by realism (Gwynplaine is on stage, revealing his deformity to an audience in the fiction) and by causal necessity (for the story to proceed, a woman in the audience must see his mouth and take pity upon him). We encounter again the familiar multiple motivation of the classical text.
We could follow Hollywood's lead and simply label such carefully motivated narration 'invisible.' Hollywood's pride in concealed artistry implies that narration is imperceptible and unobtrusive. Editing must be seamless, camerawork 'subordinated to the fluid thought of the dramatic action.' 3 Some theorists have called the classical style transparent and illusionist, what Noël Burch has called 'the zero-degree style of filming.' 4 This is to say that classical technique is usually motivated compositionally. The chain of
cause and effect demands that we see a close-up of an important object or that we follow a character into a room.
'Invisible' may suffice as a rough description of how little most viewers notice technique, but it does not get us very far if we want to analyze how classical films work. Such concepts play down the constructed nature of the style; a transparent effect does not encourage us to probe beneath its smooth surface. The term is also imprecise. 'Invisibility' can refer to how much the narration tells us, upon what authority it knows or tells, or in what way it tells. A tangle of different problems of narration is packed into this 'invisibility.'
How then to characterize classical narration? Meir Sternberg has put forth a clear theory that will prove useful. 5 Sternberg suggests that narration (or the narrator) can be characterized along three spectra. 6 A narration is more or less self-conscious: that is, to a greater or lesser degree it displays its recognition that it is presenting information to an audience. 'Call me Ishmael' marks the narrator as quite self-conscious, as does a character's aside to the audience in an Elizabethan play. A novel which employs a diarist as narrator is far less self-conscious. Secondly, a narration is more or less knowledgeable. The omniscient speaker of Vanity Fair revels in his immense knowledge, while the correspondents in an epistolary novel know much less. As these examples suggest, the most common way of limiting a narrator's knowledge is by making a particular character the narrator. Thus the issue of knowledge involves point-of-view. Thirdly, a narration is more or less communicative. This term refers to how willing the narration is to share its knowledge. A diarist might know little but tell all, while an omniscient narrator like Henry Fielding's in Tom Jones may suppress a great deal of information. Some of Brecht's plays use projected titles which predict the outcome of a scene's action: this is less suppressive than a normal play's narration, which tends to minimize its own omniscience. 7
Sternberg's three scales can be summarized in a series of questions. How aware is the narration of addressing the audience? How much does the narration know? How willing is the narration to tell us what it knows?
Sternberg's categories help us analyze classical narration quite precisely. In the classical film, the narration is omniscient, but it lets that omniscience come forward more at some points than at others. These fluctuations are systematic. In the opening passages of the film, the narration is moderately self-conscious and overtly suppressive. As the film proceeds, the narration becomes less self-conscious and more communicative. The exceptions to these tendencies are also strictly codified. The end of the film may quickly reassert the narration's omniscience and self-consciousness.
The modest narration
Classical narration usually begins before the action does. True, the credits sequence can be seen as a realm of graphic play, an opening which is relatively 'open' to non-narrational elements. (Certainly it is in credits sequences that abstract cinema has had its most significant influence upon the classical style.) Yet the classical Hollywood film typically uses the credits sequence to initiate the film's narration. Even these forty to ninety seconds cannot be wasted. Furthermore, in these moments the narration is self-conscious to a high degree. Musical accompaniment already signals the presence of this narration, and often musical motifs in this overture will recur in the film proper. The title will most probably name or describe the main character (*Mickey , *Gidget , *King of the Rodeo ) or indicate the nature of the action (*Going Highbrow , *Impact ). If not, the title can suggest the locale of the action (*Adventure Island , *Wuthering Heights ), a motif in the film (*Applause , *Balalaika ), or the time of the action (*The Night Holds Terror ). The credits that list the cast may reinforce the title (e.g., *The King and the Chorus Girl , starring Fernand Gravet and Joan Blondell), but they will certainly introduce the film's narrative hierarchy. Protagonist, secondary protagonist, opponents, and other major characters will be denoted by the order, size, and time onscreen of various actors' names. Some films strengthen this linkage by adding shots of the characters to the credits, in which the amount of the screen surface a character is allotted indicates the character's importance (fig 3.1).
(Compare the flattening effect of credits which make no distinction among major actors and walk-on parts, such as the 'democratic' credits of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Not Reconciled .) Even the studio logo, the MGM lion or the Paramount mountain, has been analyzed as a narrational transition. 8 The credits are thus highly self-conscious, explicitly addressed to the audience.
In the silent period, many films went no further than these cues, laying the credit sequence against black backgrounds or a standardized design (e.g., curtains, pillars, or picture frames). Some credits sequences, however, used 'art titles' whose designs depicted significant narrative elements. William S. Hart's *The Narrow Trail (1917), for instance, displays its credits against a painting of a stagecoach holdup. By the 1920s, such art titles were commonly used for exposition (see fig 3.2). Lettering could also indicate the period or setting of the story, a practice probably influenced by playbills and illustrated books: narration rendered as typography. In the 1920s, a credits sequence might appear over moving images (e.g., *Merry-Go-Round ) or might be animated (e.g., *The Speed Spook ). The sound cinema canonized this stylized 'narrativization' of the credits sequence, assigning it a range of functions.
The credits can anticipate a motif to appear in the story proper. In *Woman of the World (1925), the protagonist's scandalous tattoo is presented as an abstract design under the credits; in *The Black Hand (1950), a stiletto forms the background for the titles. Credits' imagery can also establish the space of the upcoming action, as do the snowy fir trees in *The Michigan Kid (1928) or the city view in *Casbah (1948). Credits often flaunt the narration's omniscience and tantalize us with glimpses of action to come. As early as *The Royal Pauper (1917), we find the credits summarizing the rags-to-riches story action by dissolving from a shot of the star, dressed as a poor girl, to a shot of her wearing expensive clothes. Thierry Kuntzel has shown how the opening credit sequence of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), a shot of a hand knocking at a door, stages an important gesture of the ensuing film and anticipates several motifs in the setting and action. The credits sequence of Bringing Up Baby (1938) presents stick-figure man, woman, and leopard engaged in actions that will reappear in the film; *Sweepstakes Winner (1939) employs the same strategy (see fig 3.3). As Kuntzel points out, such sequences are explicitly narrational: the unknown hand knocking at the door can only be the viewer's, giving an idealized representation of the viewer's entry into the film. 9 Such overt address to the spectator can also be seen in those still-life compositions of book pages or album leaves turned by unknown hands (e.g., *Penthouse , *Easy to Look At , *Play Girl ). In the postwar period, direct address in credits sequences could also be accomplished through a voice-over narrator. In such ways, the credits sequence flaunts both the narration's omniscience and its ability to suppress whatever it likes.
Like credits, the early scenes of the action can reveal the narration quite boldly. Before 1925, the film might open with a symbolic prologue, mocked by Loos and Emerson as 'visionary scenes of Heaven or Hell, of the Fates weaving human lives in their web.' 10 (See, for example, fig 3.4, from The Devil's Bait .) More often, silent films simply used expository titles to announce the salient features of the narration. In the sound era, other film techniques take on this role of foregrounding the narration. After the credits, *Partners in Crime (1928) reveals a city landscape and an inter-title, 'Gangsters and Gun War-A City Steeped in Crime' (see fig 3.5). Suddenly the title shatters as hands holding guns break through to fire directly at the audience (see figs 3.6 and 3.7). At the start of *Housewife (1934), the camera tracks with a milkman up to the front door and lingers on the front door as he leaves. There is a cut to the welcome mat, and the camera tracks in and tilts up to the doorbell and name card. The shots have treated the camera as if it were a guest strolling up to the house. *Easy to Look At (1945) opens with a voice-over narrator describing the heroine's arrival in the city: 'And thus New York's population is increased by one-and quite a number…' as a man on the street gawks at her. Such passages reveal the narration to be widely knowledgeable and highly aware of addressing an audience.
The narration can also exploit the opening moments to stress its ability to be more or less communicative. *The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935) opens with a flurry of women's legs striding
up a flight of steps (see fig 3.8) and then dissolves to a sign (see fig 3.9). Several pairs of legs are revealed (see fig 3.10). At the end of the scene, as a former contest winner tries to claim her prize, the swindler pushes her away (see fig 3.11) and the camera pans to an advertisement for the Lucky Legs contest (see fig 3.12). The image dissolves to a pair of legs stretched out (see fig 3.13) and pans to their owner, the latest bilked woman, sobbing. The gratuitous camera movement to the sign and the opening of the next scene provide overtly ironic commentary on the contest.
The explicit presence of the narration in these heavily expository beginnings is confirmed by the eventual emergence of the 'pre-credits sequence.' Here the film opens truly in medias res, with the credits presented only after an initial scene or two of story action. This practice began in the 1950s, possibly as a borrowing from television's technique of the 'teaser.' The effect of pre-credits action was to eliminate the credits as a distinct unit, sprinkling them through a short action sequence that conveyed minimal story information (e.g., the establishment of a locale or the connecting of two scenes by a trip). The postponement of the credits tacitly grants the narrational significance of whatever scenes open the film.
Yet once present in these opening passages, the narration quickly fades to the background. In the course of the opening scenes, the narration becomes less self-conscious, less omniscient, and more communicative. Very flagrant examples allow us to trace this fading process at work.
*The Caddy (1953) has a highly stylized credits sequence that signals the genre (comedy), repeats the principal motif (golf clubs, tees, tartan), and anticipates story events (the cartoon figures). (See fig 3.14.) The film's first shot reveals a theatre marquee which carries caricatures similar to those in the credits (see fig 3.15). The bandstand's design repeats the caricatures, linking the figures to the live protagonists we finally see (fig 3.16). In a sliding movement, the narration's cartoon images of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis have become gradually replaced by the story's images of the characters themselves. A more complex example occurs in *The Canterville Ghost (1944). While a voice-over commentator tells of the Ghost's history, the image shows the relevant passage in a book, Famous Ghosts of England. There follows a flashback to 1634, which shows how the cowardly Simon was bricked up in a wall of the mansion. The camera tracks into a close-up of a birthmark on Simon's neck (see fig 3.17), which freezes into an illustration in the book as the voice-over commentary resumes (see fig 3.18). The page is turned as the narrator describes the castle today; the illustration of the castle (see fig 3.19) dissolves to the same image on film, into which the heroine Jessica rides (see fig 3.20). Action has replaced the non-diegetic voice, and we never see or hear the narration so evidently again.
The phasing out of the narrator is also visible in historical changes in the silent cinema's expository tactics. Before 1917, films commonly introduced characters in ways that called attention to the act of narration. An expository title would name and describe the character and attach the actor's name; then a shot might show the character striking a pose in a non-diegetic setting (e.g., a theater stage). After several characters were introduced this way, the fictional action would begin. After 1917, such signs of narration diminished. Characters would be introduced upon their first appearance in the action. Overt commentary in the titles ('Max, a Bully') would be replaced by images of the character enacting typical behavior (e.g., Max kicking a dog). 11
The role of expository inter-titles changed as well. Silent scenarists were aware that the expository title foregrounded narration. One writer compared the expository title to a Greek chorus, 'someone who is behind the scenes. They are in the secret of the play.' 12 Another critic was even more aware of the intrusion: 'The title may say no more than “Dawn” or “Night” or “Home”; but it clearly is the injected comment of an outsider who is assumed, by the author's own terms, to be absent.' 13 (This, he claimed, 'breaks the spell of complete absorption.') The presence of an unseen fictional narrator was also marked in expository titles by the use of the past tense, which became standard after 1916. After 1917, Hollywood film became less and less reliant upon expository inter-titles and more dependent upon dialogue titles. Between 1917 and 1921, one-fifth to one-third of a film's inter-titles would be expository; after 1921, expository titles con
stituted less than a fifth of the total. In the later silent years, we find films with no expository titles at all. Placement and length changed too: after 1921, the early scenes of the film contain more and longer expository titles than do later scenes. The cultivation of the art title, the expository title enhanced by a pictorial design, further substituted image for language. Expositional tasks were shifted to character dialogue and action, not only across the period but within the individual film.
The judicious combination of expository titles, dialogue titles, and exemplary character action created a fairly knowledgeable and communicative narrator. Consider the opening scene of *Miss Lulu Bett (1921). The family assembles for dinner, and an expository title introduces each family member. The title is then followed by a character performing a typical action which confirms the title's description. After the narration identifies the youngest daughter, the images show her swiping food playfully. After the father is identified, he goes to the clock to check his watch. Once most of the family are introduced, another expository title introduces the elder daughter but adds the information that she wants to leave the family. This title is followed by a shot of her at the front gate, holding a boy's hand. Because the narration has already accurately characterized the other family members, we trust its information about the daughter's purely private desires-information which is in turn immediately confirmed by her action. The narration is omniscient and reliable. The smoothness of such narration was recognized in Europe in the silent era; a Parisian critic noted that the Hollywood film always begins with a long expository title explaining the film's theme, followed by the rapid introduction to and delineation of characters by means of titles and actions. The critic emphasized that Hollywood films avoided the gradual psychological revelation characteristic of Swedish and German films of the period. 14
What enables the narration to fade itself out so quickly? Any narrative film must inform the viewer of events that occured before the action which we see. The classical film confines itself almost completely to a sort of exposition described by Sternberg as concentrated and preliminary. 15 This means that the exposition is confined principally to the opening of the plot. In explaining how to write a screenplay, Emerson and Loos claim that the opening should 'explain briefly but clearly the essential facts which the audience must know in order to understand the story, ' preferably in one scene. 16 Such advice may seem commonplace, but we need to remember that this choice commits the Hollywood film to a slim range of narrational options. Scattered or delayed exposition has the power to alter the viewer's understanding of events; making the spectator wait to fill gaps of causality, character relations, and temporal events can increase curiosity and even create artistic motivation, baring the device of narration itself. But concentrated and preliminary narration helps the classical film to make the narration seem less omniscient and self-conscious.
Classical narration also steps to the background by starting in medias res. The exposition plunges us into an already-moving flow of cause and effect. As Loos and Emerson put it, the action must begin 'with the story itself and not with the history of the case which leads up to the story.' 17 When the characters thus assume the burden of exposition, the narration can seem to vanish.
*The Mad Martindales (1942) offers a simple case. After an expository title ('San Francisco 1900'), the film opens with a close-up of a cake, inscribed 'Happy Birthday Father.' The camera tracks back, and while a maid and butler decorate the cake they discuss household affairs. The camera follows the butler to the piano, where Evelyn, the elder daughter, sits. Evelyn and the butler converse. We then follow the butler to the study, past the younger daughter Cathy, who is sitting at the desk writing. The camera holds on her while the butler leaves. Bob, Cathy's friend, thrusts his head in the window, which gives her a chance to explain what she's writing (a feminist tract, surprisingly enough). The phone rings and Evelyn answers it. The caller is her boyfriend Peter, who proposes marriage to her. At this juncture, the girls' father arrives, having just bought a Poussin painting. While workmen uncrate the painting, the family discuss Cathy's graduation, Martindale's birthday, the news about Peter, etc. When the butler brings birthday champagne, Cathy raises the issue of unpaid bills; at this point, the lights go out, cut off by the utility company. As the scene ends, the family discovers that it is penniless and Cathy sorrow
fully reveals her gift to her father-a wallet. You are right to think that this scene is overstuffed with information, but it is typical of Hollywood cinema's almost Scribean loading of exposition into a film's first scenes. By plunging in medias res with the first shot of 'Happy Birthday Father, ' the film lets the characters tell each other what we need to know.
Classical narration may reemerge more overtly in later portions of the film, but such reappearance will be intermittent and codified. In the silent cinema, the expository art title may include imagery that comments overtly on the action. Occasionally, the narration will reassert its omniscience by camera movement: the cliché example is the pan from the long shot of the stagecoach to the watching Indians on the ridge. In the sound film, an overlapping line of dialogue can link scenes in ways that call attention to the narration. Many of the examples of artistic motivation and 'baring the device' that I considered in the last chapter can now be seen as examples of self-conscious and flagrantly suppressive narration. Narrational intrusions may also be generically motivated: in a mystery film, framing only a portion of the criminal's body as the crime is committed, or in a historical film, making the narrator 'the voice of history.' 18 Whatever the genre, however, there is yet another moment that narration comes strongly forward in the classical film-during montage sequences.
Typically, the montage sequence compresses a considerable length of time or space, traces a large-scale event, or selects representative moments from a process. 19 Cliché instances are fluttering calendar leaves, brief images of a detective's search for witnesses, the rise of a singer given as bits of different performances, the accumulation of travel stickers on a trunk, or a flurry of newspaper headlines. Rudimentary montage sequences can be found in Hollywood films of the teens and early twenties. By 1927, montage sequences were very common, and they continue to be used in a variant form today.
From a historical perspective, the montage sequence is part of Hollywood's gradual reduction of overt narrational presence. Instead of a title saying 'They lowered the lifeboats, ' or 'While the jury was out, McGee waited in a cold sweat, ' the film can reveal glimpses of pertinent action. The montage sequence thus transposes conventions of prose narration into the cinema; Sartre cites Citizen Kane's montages as examples of the 'frequentative' tense (equivalent to writing 'He made his wife sing in every theater in America'). 20 Moreover, the montage sequence aims at continuity, linking the shots through non-diegetic music and smooth optical transitions (dissolves, wipes, superimpositions, occasionally cuts). Yet the montage sequence still makes narration come forward to a great degree. Extreme close-ups, canted angles, silhouettes, whip pans, and other obtrusive techniques differentiate this sort of segment from the orthodox scene. When newspapers swirl out of nowhere to flatten themselves obligingly for our inspection, or when hourglasses and calendar leaves whisk across the screen, we are addressed by a power that is free of normal narrative space and time. What keeps the montage sequence under control is its strict codification: it is, simply, the sequence which advances the story action in just this overt way. Flagrant as the montage sequence is, its rarity, its narrative function, and its narrowly conventional format assure its status as classical narration's most acceptable rhetorical flourish.
Causality, character, and point-of-view
After the concentrated, preliminary exposition and except for intrusions like montage sequences, the classical film reduces narration's prominence. Chapters 4 and 5 will show how this process shapes cinematic space and time. For now, I want only to indicate the general ways that classical Hollywood narration reveals self-consciousness, omniscience, and communicativeness.
After the opening portions of the classical film, the narration's self-consciousness is generally kept low, chiefly because character action and reaction convey the ongoing causal chain to us. It is here that the effect of an enclosed story world, Bazin's objectively existing play simply transmitted by the camera, is at its strongest. Many devices of nineteenth-century realist theater-exposition by character conversation, speeches and actions which motivate psychological developments, well-timed entrances and exits-all assure the homogeneity of the fictional world. This homogeneity has induced many theorists and most
viewers to see the classical film as composed of a solid and integral diegetic world occasionally inflected by a narrational touch from the outside, as if our companion at a play were to tug our sleeve and point out a detail. We must, however, make the effort to see the film's diegetic world as itself constructed and, hence, ultimately just as narrational as the most obtrusive cut or voiceover commentary. Yet we need to recognize how important this apparently natural, actually covert narration is to the classical cinema. In what follows, I shall assume that this narration-through-character-interaction constitutes the most normal and least noticeable ploy of Hollywood narration.
The narration reinforces the homogeneity of the fictional world by means of a non-theatrical device: the use of public and impersonal sources of information that can be realistically or generically motivated within the film. The most common instrument is the newspaper. ROSEN FOUND GUILTY: the headline or article becomes an unquestioned surrogate for the narrator's presence. In many films of the 1930s, newspaper reporters become an expository chorus, initiating us into the action. Other public transmitters of information include radio, television, bulletin boards, posters, ticker tape, tour guides, and reference books (e.g., the Ghosts of England volume in *The Canterville Ghost). These impersonal sources of story information also prove invaluable in toning down the self-consciousness of montage sequences.
Classical narration is potentially omniscient, as credits and openings show and as Hollywood's own discourse generally acknowledges. A. Lindsley Lane, for example, refers to 'omniscient perception' as the basic law of film. In the bulk of the Hollywood film, this omniscience becomes overt occasionally but briefly, as when a camera angle or movement links characters who are unaware of each other. 21 The same omniscience becomes overt in the anticipatory qualities of narration-the character who enters a scene just before she or he is needed, the camera movement that accommodates a character's gesture just before it occurs, the unexpected cut to a doorbell just before a thumb presses it, the music that leads us to expect a prowler to jump out of the shrubbery. 'There is only one way to shoot a scene, ' Raoul Walsh claimed, 'and that's the way which shows the audience what's happening next.' 22
The most evident trace of the narration's omniscience is its omnipresence. The narration is unwilling to tell all, but it is willing to go anywhere. This is surely the basis of the tendency to collapse narration into camerawork: the camera can roam freely, crosscutting between locales or changing its position within a single room. 'The camera, ' writes Lane, 'stimulates, through correct choice of subject matter and setup, the sense within the percipient of “being at the most vital part of the experience-at the most advantageous point of perception” throughout the picture.' 23 Sometimes this ubiquity becomes only artistically motivated, as in those 'impossible' camera angles that view the action from within a fireplace or refrigerator. 24 Spatial omnipresence is, of course, justified by what story action occurs in any given place, and it is limited still further by specific schemata, as we shall see in Chapter 5. To avoid treating the camera as narrator, however, we should remember that what the camera does not show implies omnipresence negatively-the site of an action we will learn of only later, the whole figure of the mysterious intruder. The narration could show us all, but it refuses.
Classical narration admits itself to be spatially omnipresent, but it claims no comparable fluency in time. The narration will not move on its own into the past or the future. Once the action starts and marks a definite present, movements into the past are motivated through characters' memory. The flashback is not presented as an overt explanation on the narration's part; the narration simply presents what the character is recalling. Even more restrictive is classical narration's suppression of future events. No narration in any text can spill all the beans at once, but after the credits sequence, classical narration seldom overtly divulges anything about what will ensue. It is up to the characters to foreshadow events through dialogue and physical action. If this is the last job the crooks will pull, they must tell us, for the narration will not become more self-conscious in order to do so. If the love affair is to fail, the characters must intuit it: 'These things never happen twice' (*Interlude ). At most, the narration can drop self-conscious hints, such as pointing out a significant detail that the
characters have overlooked; e.g., the camera movement up to the 'Forgotten Anything?' sign on the hotel-room door in Touch of Evil (1957). More commonly, anticipatory motifs can be included if the shot is already motivated for another purpose. Near the end of *From Here to Eternity (1953), the attack on Pearl Harbor is anticipated when the camera pans to follow a character and reveals a calendar giving the date as December 6.
Classical narration thus delegates to character causality and genre conventions the bulk of the film's flow of information. When information must be suppressed, it is done through the characters. Characters can keep secrets from one another (and us). Confinement to a single point-of-view can also suppress story information. Genre conventions can cooperate, as the editors of Cahiers du cinéma point out in their analysis of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Here the narration must juggle three points of view so as to keep certain information from the spectator. Two brothers accused of murder each believe the other is guilty, while their mother also believes that one is guilty. When all three meet, it would be plausible for them to talk to one another and thus reveal each one's beliefs. But if this happened, the plot twist-that neither is guilty-would be given away prematurely. So the family's reunion is staged as a silent vigil the night before the trial's last day. This convention of courtroom dramas motivates withholding information from the audience. 25
Any narrative text must repeat important story information, and in the cinema, repetition takes on a special necessity; since the conditions of presentation mean that one cannot stop and go back, most films reiterate information again and again. The nature of that reiteration can, however, vary from film to film. 26 In a film by Godard or Eisenstein, the narration overtly repeats information that may not be repeated within the story. Sequences late in October (1928) and Weekend (1967) replay events that we have seen earlier in the film, and this repetition is not motivated by character memory. But a classical film assigns repetition to the characters. That is, the story action itself contains repetitions which the narration simply passes along. For example, after the credits for the film *Housewife (1934) have concluded, the opening scene shows the heroine harassed by her domestic duties. At the scene's close, a polltaker calls on her and asks her job; 'Oh…, ' she says, '…just a housewife.' 'Housewife, ' the polltaker repeats at the fade-out. In one scene of *The Whole Town's Talking (1935), we learn a man's profession the moment he enters the room; a group of police officials greet him in a chorus:
Such repetition is not extensive-that would be as transgressive as no repetition at all. Optimally, a significant motif or informational bit should be shown or mentioned at three or four distinct moments, as in the warden chorus. Three is in fact a mystical number for Hollywood dramaturgy; an event becomes important if it is mentioned three times. The Hollywood slogan is to state every fact three times, once for the smart viewer, once for the average viewer, and once for slow Joe in the back row. 27 Leo McCarey recalls: 'Most gags were based on “the rule of three.” It became almost an unwritten rule.' 28 Irving Thalberg is reported to have said, 'I don't mean tell 'em three times in the same way. Maybe you tell 'em once in comedy, maybe you tell 'em once directly, maybe you tell 'em next time with a twist.' 29 For a rare instance of audacious repetition in the narration rather than the story, see fig 3.21.
Since classical narration communicates what it 'knows' by making characters haul the causal chain through the film, it might seem logical to assume that the classical film commonly restricts its knowledge to a single character's point-of-view. Logical, but wrong. If we take point-of-view to be an optical subjectivity, no classical film, not even the vaunted but misdescribed Lady in the Lake (1947), completely confines itself to what a character sees. If we regard a character's point-of-view as comprising what the character knows, we still find very few classical films that restrict themselves to this degree. The overwhelmingly common practice is to use the omnipresence of classical narration to move fluidly from one character to another.
The classical film typically contains a few subjective point-of-view shots (usually of printed
matter read by a character), but these are firmly anchored in an 'objective' frame of reference. Moreover, Hollywood's optical point-of-view cutting is seldom rigorously consistent. While in one shot a camera position will be marked as subjective, a few shots later the same viewpoint may be objective-often resulting in anomalies such as a character walking into his or her own field of vision (see figs 3.22 through 3.25). In a similar fashion, classical narration will confine itself to one character's limited knowledge, but this will then be played off against what other characters know. Clever narrational twists often depend upon restricting us to one character's point-of-view before revealing the total situation. Even flashbacks, which are initially motivated as limited, subjective point-of-view, seldom restrict themselves solely to what the character could have known. For such reasons, it is accurate to describe classical narration as fundamentally omniscient, even when particular spatial or temporal shifts are motivated by character subjectivity.
The Hollywood cinema quickly mastered shifts in point-of-view. As early as *Love and the Law (1919), one can find extensive sequences of optical point-of-view cutting (see figs 16.44 and 16.45). *The Michigan Kid (1928) begins with a montage of gold prospecting in Alaska and then moves our attention to a gambling hall. At one table sits Jim Rowen, identified by an inter-title as the owner of the hall. In talking to two customers, Jim reveals that he is selling out to go back to the States and rejoin the girl he left behind. As Jim packs to leave, he stares at his tattered picture of Rose. This triggers a flashback introducing Jim as a boy, playing with Rose and fighting off the delinquent Frank. The flashback ends and dissolves into Jim's optical viewpoint of Rose's picture. At this point, however, the film widens its narrational view. There is a cut to a customer in the gambling den. He looks at his watch before offering it as a stake. Thanks to another point-of-view shot, we see Rose's picture in his watch. Thus we know before Jim does that Frank has reentered his life. A bartender takes the watch to Jim, who appraises it; we are in suspense as to whether he will notice the picture. At first he does not, which increases the tension, but then he does. As he looks at the picture, the shot superimposes his memory image of Rose as a girl, then his newspaper picture of her. He asks the barkeep to bring Frank in. Using only two expository titles, the narration has presented the essential background of the story action and has fluently moved among various degrees of subjectivity. Beginning in medias res and letting the characters reveal exposition, the classical Hollywood film thus moves to subjectivity only occasionally-something possible for a narration endowed with omniscience.
The example from *The Michigan Kid shows that classical narration can exploit omnipresence to conceal information that individual characters possess. Occasionally the classical film flaunts such suppressive operations, opening up a gap between the narration's omniscient range of knowledge and its moderate communicativeness. Consider the opening of *Manhandled (1949), which shows a man sitting in a study. The framing carefully conceals his face. His wife and her lover return, but we see only their feet. After the lover leaves, the husband follows her upstairs, his face still offscreen. He approaches his wife and starts to strangle her. The sequence seems transgressive because the narration has overtly suppressed the faces of the killer and the lover. Yet at the end of the sequence, there is a dissolve and a voice says: 'At that point the dream always ends, doctor.' The overtness of the narration is justified retroactively as subjective. The greater emphasis placed upon 'psychoanalytic' explanations of causality in the 1940s created a trend toward such occasionally explicit narration. Similarly, play with point-of-view is a minor convention of the mystery film. Through Different Eyes (1929) and The Grand Central Mystery (1942) both use flashbacks to recount the same events from inconsistent points of view. The subjective film and the mystery film can thus make narration self-conscious and overtly suppressive, but only thanks to compositional and generic motivation. Consistently suppressive narration, such as that of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Not Reconciled (1964) or Alain Resnais's Providence (1977), is unknown in the Hollywood paradigm.
Classical narration, then, plunges us in medias res and proceeds to reduce signs of its self-consciousness and omniscience. The narration accomplishes this reduction by means of spatial omnipresence, repetition of story information,
minimal changes in temporal order, and plays between restricted and relatively unrestricted points of view. It is in the light of these aims that we must assess the power of that celebrated Hollywood 'continuity.' Because we see no gaps, we never question the narration, hence never question its source. When, in *Penthouse (1933), the scene shifts from a nightclub to a luxury yacht and the voice of the club's bandleader continues uninterrupted, now broadcast from a radio on board the yacht, we can recognize the narration's omnipresence but we are assured that no significant story action has been suppressed. At the end of a scene, a 'dialogue hook' anticipates the beginning of the next (e.g., 'Shall we go to lunch?'/long-shot of a cafe); such a tactic implies that the narration perfectly transmits the action. Crosscutting signals omnipresence and unrestricted point-of-view, while editing within the scene delegates to the characters the job of forwarding the story action. Chapters 4 and 5 will assess how narrational concerns have shaped classical patterns of space and time. At this point, it is worth looking briefly at one technique that is seldom considered a part of narration at all.
Music as destiny
From the start, musical accompaniment has provided the cinema's most overt continuity factor. In the silent cinema, piano or orchestral music ran along with the images, pointing them up and marking out how the audience should respond. Non-diegetic music was less pervasive in the early 1930s, but the rise of symphonic scoring in the work of Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernest Newman, et al. reasserted classical cinema's interest in using music to flow continuously along with the action. Stravinsky's comparison of film music to wallpaper is apt, not only because it is so strongly decorative but because it fills in cracks and smoothes down rough textures. 30 Filmmakers have long recognized these functions. As early as 1911, a theater musician advised players not to stop a number abruptly when the scene changed. 31 Hollywood composers claimed that sudden stops and starts were avoidable by the process of imperceptibly fading the music up and down, the practice known in the trade as 'sneaking in and out.' 32
This continuous musical accompaniment functions as narration. It would be easy to show that film music strives to become as 'transparent' as any other technique-viz., not only the sneak-in but the neutrality of the compositional styles and the standardized uses to which they are put ('La Marseillaise' for shots of France, throbbing rhythms for chase scenes). Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler have heaped scorn upon Hollywood music as pleonastic and self-effacing; Brecht compared film music's 'invisibility' to the hypnotist's need to control the conditions of the trance. 33 Yet calling the music 'transparent' is as true but uninformative as calling the entire Hollywood style invisible. If music functions narrationally, how does it accomplish those tasks characteristic of classical narration?
The sources of Hollywood film music show its narrational bent very clearly. In eighteenth-century melodrama, background music was played to underscore dramatic points, sometimes even in alternation with lines of dialogue. American melodrama of the 1800s used sporadic vamping, but spectacle plays and pantomimes relied upon continuous musical accompaniment. 34 The most important influence upon Hollywood film scoring, however, was that of late nineteenth-century operatic and symphonic music, and Wagner was the crest of that influence. Wagner was a perfect model, since he exploited the narrational possibilities of music. Harmony, rhythm, and 'continuous melody' could correspond to the play's dramatic action, and leitmotifs could convey a character's thoughts, point up parallels between situations, even anticipate action or create irony. Adorno's monograph on Wagner even argues that the dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk anticipated the thoroughly rationalized artifact of the culture industry, as exemplified in the Hollywood film. 35
In the early teens, film trade journals solemnly supplied theater pianists with oversimplified accounts of Wagner's practice. One pianist explained: 'I attach a certain theme to each person in the picture and work them out, in whatever form the occasion may call for, not forgetting to use popular strains if necessary.' 36 When Carl Joseph Breil proudly claimed to be the first composer to write a score for a film, he said he used leitmotifs for the characters. 37 Silent film scores, usually pasted together out of standardized
snatches of operas, orchestral music, and popular tunes, adhered to the crude leitmotif idea (see fig 12.16). Early synchronized-sound films with musical tracks continued the practice: when we see the Danube, we hear 'The Blue Danube' (The Wedding March 119281). With the post-1935 resurgence in film scoring, Wagner remained the model. Most of the major studio composers were trained in Europe and influenced by the sumptuous orchestration and long melodic lines characteristic of Viennese opera. 38 Max Steiner and Miklós Rózsa explicitly acknowledged Wagner's influence, as did Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who called a film 'a textless opera.' 39 Characters, places, situations-all were relentlessly assigned motifs, either original or borrowed. When motifs were not employed, certain passages functioned as a recitative to cue specific attitudes to the scene (e.g., comic music, suspense music). 40 Brecht complained that with such constantly present music, 'our actors are transformed into silent opera singers.' 41 But Sam Goldwyn gave the most terse advice: 'Write music like Wagner, only louder.' 42
Like the opera score, the classical film score enters into a system of narration, endowed with some degree of self-consciousness, a range of knowledge, and a degree of communicativeness. The use of non-diegetic music itself signals the narration's awareness of facing an audience, for the music exists solely for the spectator's benefit. The scale of the orchestral forces employed and the symphonic tradition itself create an impersonal wash of sound befitting the unspecific narrator of the classical film. 43 The score can also be said to be omniscient, what Parker Tyler has called 'a vocal apparatus of destiny.' 44 In the credits sequence, the music can lay out motifs to come, even tagging them to actors' names. During the film, music adheres to classical narration's rule of only allowing glimpses of its omniscience, as when the score anticipates the action by a few moments. In *Deep Valley (1947), for instance, just before the convict approaches the lovers, the music swiftly turns from pleasant to sinister. As George Antheil puts it, 'The characters in a film drama never know what is going to happen to them, but the music always knows.' 45
Most important, musical accompaniment is communicative only within the boundaries laid down by classical narration. Like the camera, music can be anywhere, and it can intuit the dramatic essence of the action. It remains, however, motivated by the story. When dialogue is present, the music must drop out or confine itself to a subdued coloristic background. 'If a scene is interspersed with silent spots, the orchestration is timed so closely that it is thicker during the silent shots. It must then be thinned down in a split second when dialogue comes in.' 46 Just as classical camerawork or editing becomes more overt when there is little dialogue, so the music comes into its own as an accompaniment for physical action. Here music becomes expressive according to certain conventions (static harmony for suspense or the macabre, chromaticism for tension, marked rhythm for chase scenes). 47 A 'sting' in the music can underline a significant line of dialogue very much in the manner of eighteenth-century melodrama.
Music can also reinforce point-of-view. It establishes time and place as easily as does an inter-title or a sign: 'Rule Britannia' over shots of London, eighteenth-century pastiche for the credits of *Monsieur Beaucaire (1946). In scoring Lust for Life (1956), Rózsa modeled his score upon Debussy in order to suggest Van Gogh's period. 48 To this 'unrestrictive' use of musical narration, Hollywood counterposes the possibility of subjective musical point-of-view. The music often expresses characters' mental states-agitated music for inner turmoil, ominous chords for tension, and the like. In The Jazz Singer (1927), we know Jakie is thinking of his mother when, as he sees her picture, we hear the 'Mammy' tune in the score. During the spate of subjective films of the 1940s, musical experiments increased (the theremin in Spellbound , a playback reverberation in Murder, My Sweet ). As one critic noted at the time, weird coloristic effects became more common because of 'the vogue for films dealing with amnesia, shock, suspense, neurosis, and kindred psychological and psychiatric themes. The music counterpart of the troubled mental states depicted in these films is a musical style which emphasizes vagueness and strangeness, especially in the realms of harmony and orchestration.' 49 By the mid-1930s, music could shift easily from unrestrictive to restrictive viewpoints, as when a character hums a tune to himself and then, as he steps outdoors, the orchestra takes it up. 50 Hollywood music could
even create misleading narration, as in *Uncertain Glory (1944): when the prisoner Jean tells Bonet he wants to go to church to confess, the music is sentimental, but once Bonet lets him go, Jean flees and the music becomes flippant. The first musical passage is now revealed as having presented only Bonet's misconception about Jean's sincerity. Such practices, even such deceptions, are the logical consequence of making music-as-narration dependent upon character causality.
Since classical narration turns nearly all anticipations and recollections of story action over to the characters, music must not operate as a completely free-roaming narration. Here is one difference from Wagner's method, which did allow the music to flaunt its omniscience by ironic or prophetic uses of motifs. The Hollywood score, like the classical visual style, seldom includes overt recollections or far-flung anticipations of the action. The music confines itself to a moment-by-moment heightening of the story. Slight anticipations are permitted, but recollections of previous musical material must be motivated by a repetition of situation or by character memory. At the close of *Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944), Tessa's wave to Eric is accompanied by the ballroom music to which they had danced in an earlier scene. The classical text thus relies upon our forming strong associations upon a motifs first entry.
The narrational limits which the classical film puts upon music are dramatically illustrated in Hangover Square (1945). During the credits, a romantic piano concerto plays non-diegetically but does not conclude. Early in the film, when the composer George Bone goes to his apartment, his friend Barbara is playing the opening of his concerto, the same music we had heard over the credits. But Bone's version is also unfinished, and Barbara's father advises him to complete it. In the course of the action, Bone is plagued by murderous amnesiac spells triggered by discordant noises, which are rendered as subjective by means of chromatic and dissonant harmonies. Completing the concerto drives these from Bone's head, but in the film's climactic scene, when he plays the concerto at a soiree, he suffers another breakdown. Yet the performance continues, and the action of the last scene is accompanied throughout by Bone's concerto. Bone's romantic score wins out over the psychotic discordances, but only by becoming identical with the score of the film, the score that had been 'rehearsed' under the credits. The narration's power lies in the fact that Bone is allowed to score the last scene only by writing the score that the narration 'had in mind' all along. The narration's limits are revealed by its almost complete anticipation of Bone's concerto: the film cannot complete the piece before he does. Only the conclusion of the action-Bone finishing the performance alone in a burning building-brings the concerto and the film itself to a close. As 'The End' appears on the screen, the (non-diegetic) orchestra swallows the solo piano; now the narration can have the last word, and chord.
The reappearing narration
The finale of Hangover Square also illustrates the way in which the narration can reappear overtly but briefly at the film's very close. This close would minimally consist of a 'The End' title, usually against a background identical to that of the opening credits, and a non-diegetic musical flourish. Such devices buckle the film shut, making the 'narrator' simply a discreet curtailer, like the curtain that closes a play or 'The End' that concludes a novel. This narrational movement toward finality is laid bare in the credits of King Kong (1933). The opening credits are set against a triangular shape which steadily narrows as they proceed (see figs 3.26 and 3.27). Not until the end credit does the triangle diagram a complete closure (see fig 3.28). 51 After about 1970, it seems, films seldom exploited these narrational possibilities and instead dropped the 'The End' credit, shifted most of the opening credits to the final spot (as a signal of the end), and expanded the credits sequence to a Talmudic intricacy.
The narration can afford to be so modest at this point because the film has already informed the audience when it will end. Chapter 4 shows how deadlines work in this fashion. Characters also constantly look forward to closure. In *The Arkansas Traveler (1938), Traveler tells John: 'When this is all over, I want you to remember just one thing.' In the final moment of *Play Girl (1941), the heroine calls her maid to fetch the perfume she has worn for every flirtation: 'The
last time, Josie, the last time.' *Uncertain Glory (1944) ends with Jean about to sacrifice his life. Bonet: 'It's been a long road.' Jean: 'But it's come to the right ending.' The conditions for closure have also been non-diegetically anticipated by the narration. *The Shock Punch (1925) begins with expository titles that describe Dan Savage as a man who believes that life is a battle and the winner is one who 'can command the last reserve of physical power.' The next title continues: 'And as he wanted his son Ranny to be like that-to carry a final, deciding punch into every conflict-.' Needless to say, the film's action is resolved when Ranny flattens the man he is fighting. At the start of *The Black Hand (1950), a crawl title tells of Italian immigrants living in New York at the turn of the century. Most were good citizens, the narration explains, who fought the Black Hand and eventually purged their community of its influence. The title thus anticipates Gio's success in overthrowing the Mafia. At the film's close, a fireman mutters, 'Ah, these dagoes!' and the captain turns. 'I wonder where you think Americans come from.' His retort confirms the narration's initial estimate of the immigrants' civic virtues. In contrast, it is no trivial description of an avant-garde or modernist film to say that such films often do not let us know when they will stop. Films in these traditions deliberately exploit a sense of uncertainty about their boundaries, as when, in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the narrator announces that The whole story has come to its end, ' but neglects to add that the film is only half over.
The work of classical narration may also peep out from the film's epilogue-a part of the final scene, or even a complete final scene, that shows the return of a stable narrative state. The screenwriter Frances Marion suggests ending the film as soon as possible after the action is resolved, but 'not before the expected rewards and penalties are meted out…. The final sequence should show the reaction of the protagonist when he has achieved his desires. Let the audience be satisfied that the future of the principals is settled.' 52 Emerson and Loos call this a short 'human interest' scene, an equivalent of 'And so they lived happily ever after.' 53 All the films in the UnS did include an epilogue, however brief; in two-thirds of them, the epilogue was a distinctly demarcated scene. A 1919 film *Love and the Law (1919), signalled its epilogue by a very self-conscious title: 'Patience, gentle audience, just one thing more.' Soon, however, no such cues were necessary and an epilogue could be included as a matter of course.
Epilogues will often tacitly refer back to the opening scene, proving the aptness of Raymond Bellour's remark that in the classical film the conclusion acknowledges itself as a result of the beginning. 54 *You for Me (1952) begins with Tony being peppered in the buttocks by a shotgun blast; a freeze frame catches him in a comic posture. The film ends with him sitting down on a knitting needle, accompanied by a freeze frame. *Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944) frames its story by the habitual action of the family waving to planes overhead; at the start, the planes are anonymous, but by the close, Tessa is in love with one pilot. The familiar here-we-go-again, or cyclical, epilogue is a variant of the same principle. The epilogue can even be quite self-conscious about its symmetry, as is the framing narration of *Impact (1944). The opening of the film corresponds to the opening of a dictionary by an anonymous hand, and the word 'impact' is enlarged. A voice-over commentary reads the somewhat improbable definition: 'Impact: The force with which two lives come together, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil.' At the end, the epilogue returns to the dictionary, but the definition has changed: 'Impact: The force with which two lives come together, sometimes for evil, sometimes for good.' The restoration of 'good' as the stable state creates an explicit balancing effect, as does shutting the book to announce the close of the film.
Most classical films use the story action to confirm our expectations of closure without further nudgings from the narration. But *Impact does show that during the last few seconds of the film, the narration can risk some self-consciousness. The familiar running gag, a motif repeated throughout the film to be capped in the final moments, reminds the audience to some degree of the arbitrariness of closure. Another self-conscious marking of the narration's perspective upon the story world is the camera that cranes back to a high angle upon a final tableau. Most overt is a finale like that of *Appointment for Love (1941), in which an elevator man turns from the couple and winks at the audience. As we would expect, such direct address is usually motivated
by genre (e.g., comedy) or realism (as in a frame story stressing the factual basis of the fiction).
The winding corridor
The belief that classical narration is invisible often accompanies an assumption that the spectator is passive. If the Hollywood film is a clear pane of glass, the audience can be visualized as a rapt onlooker. Again, Hollywood's own discourse has encouraged this. Concealment of artifice, technicians claim, makes watching the film like viewing reality. The camera becomes not only the storyteller but the viewer as well; the absent narrator is replaced by the 'ideal observer.' 55 Few theorists today would agree with Hollywood's equation of its style with natural perception, but contemporary accounts have still considered the spectator to be quite inactive. Most commonly, film theorists have employed concepts taken from perspective painting to explain the spectator's role. Yet terms like 'spectator placement, ' 'subject position, ' and other spatial metaphors break the film into a series of views targeted toward an inert perceiver. 56 In Chapter 5, I will consider 'perspective' as an account of the representation of classical space. For now, a metaphor involving both space and time will be useful. The spectator passes through the classical film as if moving through an architectural volume, remembering what she or he has already encountered, hazarding guesses about upcoming events, assembling images and sounds into a total shape. What, then, is the spectator's itinerary? Is it string-straight, or is it more like the baffling, 'crooked corridors' that Henry James prided himself upon designing? 57
The film begins. Concentrated, preliminary exposition that plunges us in medias res triggers strong first impressions, and these become the basis for our expectations across the entire film. Meir Sternberg calls this the 'primacy effect.' 58 He points out that in any narrative, the information provided first about a character or situation creates a fixed baseline against which later information is judged. As our earlier examples indicate, the classical cinema trades upon the primacy effect. Once the exposition has outlined a character's traits, the character should remain consistent. This means that actions must be unequivocal and significant. 59 The star system also encourages the creation of first impressions. 'The people who act in pictures are selected for their roles because of the precise character impressions that they convey to audiences. For instance, the moment you see Walter Pidgeon in a film you know immediately that he could not do a mean or petty thing.' 60 All of these factors cooperate to reinforce the primacy effect.
Many films open with dialogue that builds up an impression of the yet-to-be-introduced protagonist; when the character appears (played by an appropriate star, caught in a typical action), the impression is confirmed. In the first scene of *Speedy (1928), the young woman says that Speedy (Harold Lloyd) has a new job; her father comments that Speedy cannot keep any job because he is obsessed by baseball. Scene two begins with an expository title identifying the crucial game being played in Yankee Stadium, and shots of the game follow. Another expository title informs us that Speedy now works where he can phone the stadium. We then see a soda fountain, with Speedy as the soda jerk, going to the phone to learn the game's score. The rest of the scene confirms Pop's judgment of Speedy's character through gags showing Speedy carrying his baseball mania into his work. Dialogue title, expository title, character action, and star persona (Harold called himself 'Speedy' in The Freshman ) all reinforce a single first impression.
The primacy effect is not confined to characterization, although first impressions are probably most firm in that realm. In some silent films, an unusually emphatic narration previews the essential theme and establishes the most coherent reading of what will follow. By extension, all the devices of 'planting' and foreshadowing motifs-objects, conditions, deadlines-gain their saliency from the primacy effect.
Once first impressions get erected, they are hard to knock down. Sternberg shows that we tend to take the first appearance of a motif as the 'true' one, which can withstand severe testing by contrary information. When, for instance, a character first presented as amiable later behaves grumpily, we are inclined to justify the grumpiness as a temporary deviation. 61 This tactic (again, reinforced by the star system) is a common way in which the classical film presents character change or development. In the opening
of *The Miracle Woman (1931), Florence Fallon is so distraught by her father's death that she denounces his congregation as hypocrites and launches into a sermon on the need for kindness. An opportunistic promoter takes advantage of her fervor and talks her into getting revenge on people by becoming a phony faith healer. When we next see her, she behaves cynically. Because of first impressions, we see her cynical selfishness as a momentary aberration, caused by exceptional circumstances, and so we are not surprised when love recalls her to her father's ideals. The primacy effect helps explain why character change in the Hollywood film is not a drastic shift but a return to the path from which one has strayed.
First impressions in place, the spectator proceeds through the film. How does this process work? The narration creates gaps, holding back information and compelling the spectator to form hypotheses. Most minimally and generally, these hypotheses will pertain to what can happen next, but many other hypotheses might be elicited. The spectator may infer how much a character knows, or why a character acts this way, or what in the past the protagonist is trying to conceal. The viewer may also hypothesize about the narration itself: why am I being told this now? why is the key information being withheld? Sternberg sees every viewing hypothesis as having three properties. A hypothesis can be more or less probable. Some hypotheses are virtual certainties (e.g., that Bill will survive the flood in *Steamboat Bill Jr. ). Other hypotheses are highly improbable (e.g., that Bill will not get the girl he loves). Most hypotheses fall somewhere in between. Hypotheses can also be more or less simultaneous; that is, sometimes we hold two or more hypotheses in balance at once, while at other moments one hypothesis simply gets replaced by another. If a man announces that he will get married, we hold simultaneous hypotheses (he will go through with it or he won't). But if a sworn bachelor suddenly shows up with a bride on his arm, the bachelor-hypothesis is simply replaced; the bachelor-hypothesis never competed with another possibility. Evidently, simultaneous hypotheses promote suspense and curiosity, while successive hypotheses promote surprise. Finally, a set of hypotheses can be more or less exclusive. Narration may force us to frame a few sharply distinguished hypotheses (in a chess game, there can only be win, lose, or draw), or the film may supply a range of overlapping and indistinct possibilities (setting out on a trip, one may undergo a wide variety of experiences). 62
The three scales of probability, simultaneity, and exclusivity take us a considerable way toward characterizing the activities of the classical spectator. Broadly speaking, Hollywood narration asks us to form hypotheses that are highly probable and sharply exclusive. Consider, as a naive example, *Roaring Timber (1937). In the first scene, a lumber-mill owner comes into a saloon looking for a new foreman. He tells the bartender he needs a tough guy for the job. Since we have already seen our protagonist, Jim, enter the bar, we form the hypothesis that the owner will ask him. The expectation is fairly probable, and there is no information to the contrary (no other man in the room is identified as a candidate). There is also a narrow range of alternatives (either the owner will ask Jim or he will not). Few hypotheses are as probable as this, but one of the indices of classical narration's reliability is that it seldom equivocates about the likeliest few hypotheses at any given moment. Similarly, the classical film sharply delimits the range of our expectations. The character's question is not 'What will I do with my life?' but 'Will I choose marriage or a career?' Even subtle cases operate by the same principles. *Beggars of Life (1928) begins with a wandering young man coming up to a farmhouse and finding a dead man inside. He then encounters a young woman who tells, in flashback, how the farmer tried to rape her and how she killed him. The alternative explanations (suicide, accident, homicide, etc.) narrow to a single one (self-defense), and this becomes steadily more probable as the woman's tale accounts for the details the young man had noticed. True, farcical forms of comedy permit almost anything to happen next, but there the improbability and open-endedness of permissable hypotheses are motivated as generic conventions, and we adjust our expectations accordingly. On the whole, classical narration creates probable and distinct hypotheses. Characters' goal orientation often reinforces and guides the direction these hypotheses will take. Incidentally, in *Roaring Timber, Jim accepts the foreman's job.
By threading together several probable and quite exclusive hypotheses, we participate in a
game of controlled expectation and likely confirmation. There is, however, more to the spectator's activity. Any fictional narration can call our attention to a gap or it can distract us from it. In a mystery film, for instance, the crucial clue may be indicated quite casually; the detective may notice it but we do not. If the narration thus distracts us, we do not form an appropriate hypothesis and the narration can then introduce new information. These successive hypotheses, as Sternberg calls them, create surprise. 63 Now it is characteristic of classical narration to use surprise very sparingly. Too many jolts would lead us to doubt the reliability of the narration, and the advantages of concentrated, preliminary, in medias res exposition would be lost. In our itinerary through the classical film, the banister cannot constantly collapse under our touch.
For this reason, classical narration usually calls our attention to gaps and allows us to set up simultaneous, competing hypotheses. The scenes from *Roaring Timber and *Beggars of Life afford clear instances, as does a sequence in *Interlude (1957). The heroine calls on the conductor Tonio Fischer; our knowledge of him has been identical with hers. While she waits for him, the narration takes us to another room, where Tonio is playing the piano for another woman. The scene raises questions about the woman's identity and Tonio's character traits, and these gaps encourage us to construct simultaneous alternatives to be tested in subsequent scenes.
Our hypothesis-forming activity can be thought of as a series of questions which the text impells us to ask. The questions can be posed literally, from one character to another, as in the beginning of *Monsieur Beaucaire (1946): 'Will there be war?' Or the questions can be more implicit. Roland Barthes speaks of this question-posing process as the 'hermeneutic code' and he shows how narratives have ways of delaying or recasting the question or equivocating about the answer. 64 The classical cinema always delays and may recast, but it seldom equivocates. At the start of *Play Girl (1941), we are uncertain whether Grace is a gold-digger or whether the title is ironic. But when the father of her current beau denounces her, not only does she not deny her scandalous past but she accepts a bribe to let the son go. The answer to our question, somewhat delayed, is unequivocal.
All of the foregoing instances illustrate another feature of the gaps that classical narration creates: they are filled. Sternberg distinguishes between permanent gaps, which the text never authoritatively lets us fill (e.g., lago's motives), and temporary gaps, which sooner or later we are able to fill. 65 It is a basic feature of classical narration to avoid permanent gaps. 'The perfect photoplay leaves no doubts, offers no explanations, starts nothing it cannot finish.' 66 The questions about Tonio in *Interlude are eventually answered. Concentrated preliminary exposition, causal motivation, the use of denouement and epilogue-all seek to assure that no holes remain in the film. This process of gap-filling helps create the continuity of impression upon which Hollywood prides itself. Each sequence, every line of dialogue, becomes a way of creating or developing or confirming a hypothesis; shot by shot, questions are posed and answered. Our progress through the film, as our first impressions are confirmed and our hypotheses focus toward certainty, resembles the graphic design in the titles of King Kong (figs 3.26-3.28): a pyramid narrowing to a point of intelligibility. One screenplay manual puts it well: 'In the beginning of the motion picture we don't know anything. During the course of the story, information is accumulated, until at the end we know everything.' 67
Again, one should not conclude that classical narration is naive or shallow, for subtle effects can be achieved within the admittedly constrained bounds of such narration. *Wine of Youth (1924) begins with three expository titles:
When our grandmothers were young, nice girls pretended to know nothing at all.
When our mothers were young, they admitted they knew a thing or two.
The girls of today pretend to know all there is to know.
There follow two parallel scenes. At a ball in 1870, a suitor proposes to a woman, and she accepts: 'There has never been a love as great as ours!' At another dance in 1897, a suitor proposes to the couple's daughter, and she too accepts, repeating the line her mother had uttered years before. The symmetry is quite exact: similar situations, same setting (a sofa in an alcove), even
the identical number of shots in each scene. At this point, the narration has established itself as highly reliable: the scenes have confirmed the titles' knowledge of women, and we have already formed strong first impressions about what the 'girls of today' will be like. (The word 'pretends' strongly suggests omniscience.) When the scene moves to the present, our impressions are confirmed. Jazz babies and lounge lizards are engaged in a wild party. Mary, the granddaughter and daughter of the other two women, refuses to marry her suitor. We form a hypothesis that this will not in the long run violate the pattern established in the first two scenes. Over the whole film we wait for Mary to reconcile herself to the decent young man who loves her. A harrowing family crisis demonstrates both the strains and the possibilities of marriage. Mary and her suitor are sitting on the sofa (the site of both previous courtships) and he proposes. She accepts: 'There has never been a love as great as ours!' It has been a long wait, but the narrational gap has finally been closed, and by an ironic repetition at that. The narration can even afford a twist-embracing, the couple tumble off the sofa-that lends a small surprise to the finale. Our hypotheses about the conclusion, established as very narrow and highly probable, are tested but finally validated, and in a way that also illustrates the recurrence of the Rule of Three.
There is one genre that may seem to run counter to all these claims about spectator activity in classical narration. The mystery film sometimes makes its narration quite overt: a shot of a shadowy figure or an anonymous hand makes the viewer quite aware of a self-conscious, omniscient, and suppressive narration. Similarly, the mystery film encourages the spectator to erect erroneous first impressions, confounds the viewer's most probable hypotheses, and stresses curiosity as much as suspense. (The mystery tale always depends upon highly retarded exposition, the true account coming to light only at the end.) The narration may even be revealed as retrospectively unreliable. Thus The Maltese Falcon (1941) offers an interesting contrast with *Wine of Youth. Not only does the narration abandon its initial adherence to Sam Spade's point-of-view by showing the killing of his partner Archer, but the narration also declines to show the killer (we see only a gloved hand). More important, the narration misleads us in an expository title at the very outset. Over a still-life of the Maltese falcon, the title recounts the statuette's origin and ends by remarking that its whereabouts remain a mystery 'to this day' (fig 3.29). When the characters find only a lead replica of the falcon, the opening title stands revealed as doubly misleading. The falcon in the still-life may be the phony, and the phrase 'to this day' which we might take as meaning 'until this story started, ' actually means 'even after the story concluded.' The opening title's equivocation is apparent only in retrospect. The same kind of misleading narration is at work in the beginning of * Manhandled, as I've already suggested (p. 32). A more drastic example, probably a limit-case, is Hitchcock's duplicitous flashback in the beginning of Stage Fright (1950).
The unreliable and overt narration of the mystery film remains, however, finally bound by classical precepts. First, the narration still depends chiefly upon suspense and forward momentum: the story is primarily that of an investigation, even if the goal happens to be the elucidation of a past event. Secondly, the mystery film relies completely upon cause and effect, since the mystery always revolves around missing links in the causal chain. Third, those links are always found, so even the gaps of the mystery film are temporary, not permanent. Most important, the mystery film's overt play of narration and hypothesis-forming is generically motivated. Since Poe and Doyle, the classical detective story has stressed the game of wits that the narrator proposes to the reader. In this genre, we want uncertainty, we expect both characters and narration to try to deceive us, and we therefore erect specific sorts of first impressions, cautious, provisional ones, based as much upon generic conventions as upon what we actually learn. We do not feel betrayed by the Falcon's opening title, since it is equivalent to the deceptive but 'fair' narrational manipulations in certain novels by Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, or Ellery Queen. The classical film thus can generically motivate an unreliable and overt narration.
The spectator moves through, or with, classical Hollywood narration by casting expectations in the form of hypotheses which the text shapes. Narration is fundamentally reliable, allowing hypotheses to be ranked in order of probability
and narrowed to a few distinct alternatives. Surprise and disorientation are secondary to suspense as to which alternatives will be confirmed. Curiosity about the past takes a minor role in relation to anticipation of future events. Gaps are continually and systematically opened and filled in, and no gap is permanent. Lest this process seem obvious or natural, recall such a film as Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which creates a fundamentally unreliable narration, a lack of redundancy, an open and relatively improbable set of hypotheses, a dependence upon surprise rather than suspense, a pervasive ambiguity about the past that makes the future impossible to anticipate, and many gaps left yawning at the film's close. This is of course an extreme example, but other narrative films contain non-classical narrative strategies. A film's narration could make the initial exposition less clear-cut, as does Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), or the narration could establish a firm primacy effect but then qualify or demolish it, as do films as different as Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath (1943) and Resnais's Providence (1977). The Hollywood film does not lead us to invalid conclusions, as these films can; in the classical narrative, the corridor may be winding, but it is never crooked.