Dissolve to Flashback

Flashbacks have long been a common tool for filmmakers to show the audience information or events that happened before the film’s beginning. One classic example of such is in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca. Approximately in the middle of the film, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) has a flashback recounting his time with his old flame Isla (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris, after they unexpectedly meet up again in Casablanca.

The flashback begins in present-day Casablanca, with Rick getting drunk at his bar, with Sam (Dooley Wilson) playing Rick and Isla’s favorite song from their days together. Throughout the “pre-flashback”, the camera is pushing closer and closer to Rick, ending with him filling up the entire frame gazing off into the distance. Then, the scene transitions with a ripple dissolve, into a shot of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, before again dissolving into a shot of Rick and Isla driving, smiling, with the Arc behind them. The audience immediately recognizes that this is a flashback of their time together in Paris, which was only hinted at before. The flashback continues with a series of short scenes of their time in Paris, with several dissolve transitions scattered throughout to show the passage of time. The flashback ends with another ripple dissolve back to the shot of Rick sitting in his bar, with Sam finishing the song.

This sequence raised a few questions for me. Firstly, why is the ripple dissolve transition so naturally associated with a flashback? When people think of their past, their memories do not dissolve, nor do they ripple, so how do audiences naturally realize that they are watching a flashback, as opposed to the next chronological scene in the film? Also, how do dissolves show the passage of time between shots? Can a similar effect be achieved with a different transition? How different would the flashback’s effect be if instead of dissolves (rippled or not), hard cuts were used? Lastly, how is music and sound employed to emphasize flashback? In this example, the song was shown to “bring Rick back to the past”. Would the scene play differently if there was no song playing in the background?

1 comment
  1. You make a really interesting point about how we subconsciously associated certain visual cues with sensation and emotion. On its face, it might be that we simply associate the ripple dissolve with the recollection of memory because we’ve been told to. The effect is so common in movies that the ripple dissolve is effectively a part of our film/visual vocabulary simply because we’ve been trained to associate the dissolve with a flashback. But I think there might be more to the matter than that. When a scene cuts, we automatically will assume the next scene takes place chronologically if the following scene matches the action of the previous scene in some way (Like if Person X says “I’m going to rob a bank” in one scene and in the next scene we see that person breaking into a bank, we’d have no reason to assume the scenes are non-chronological). But when a cut is followed by a seemingly unrelated scene, then we as audience members need to use the two scenes’ contextual clues to determine chronology (checking for continuity in sets, style, costuming and mannerisms between shots). If there is some visual change (in color palette or aspect ratio) we can usually assume some kind of jump in time. I think in the case of Rick’s flashback, while the ripple cued the flashback, the style of the flashback was also different from the style of the main narrative. The lighting in the flashback was much brighter and softer in lighting, whereas the main narrative had a lot more low-key, high contrast lighting, producing a heavily shadowed chiaroscuro effect. Still, I think the dissolve was used to indicate a kind of reverie – a memory with neither beginning nor end that just sort of fades into consciousness. Flashbacks executed with hard cuts are sometimes used to depict nightmarish memories – hard, sharp flashes of sensation that startle characters. Without the dissolve in this case, the flashback would have probably seemed more matter-of-fact and lucid, as if it were less a memory and more a fact of the narrative.

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