Week 4: Reading/Viewing






Continuity Editing and Use of the Flashback in Michael Curtiz’s film Casablanca (1942)

There is a sequence in Casablanca that provides context to Rick and Ilsa’s previous behavior and later conflict in the film. It uses a flashback to demonstrate Rick’s passionate love towards Ilsa and later betrayal through a plethora of editing techniques.

It begins with a Rick reaction shot. He is shown staring off into the distance with watery eyes, reacting to the diegetic piano tune.  Then there is a dissolve into a flashback – the blurriness of the dissolve gives the viewer a sense of Rick’s intense sorrow at the upcoming memory sequence by letting the viewer see it through Rick’s foggy eyes.  A brief montage occurs after this scene which displays the development of the love Rick and Ilsa previously had with each other through dissolves.  These show fondness, but also show how little time has passed

When serious dialogue begins between the two characters, Curtiz follows the 180-degree rule to provide continuity to the scene. This makes it easy for the viewer to follow an important conversation that contains a lot of foreshadowing. The scene mentions Ilsa’s relationship with Victor Laszlo.  Another dissolve occurs and quickly the viewer is introduced to a new pace through sporadic jump cuts. These signify the chaos of war and the coming chaos of the plot. Also, the cuts introduce a shift from  nostalgic daydream to sorrowful tale.

The conversations between Ilsa and Rick continue to adhere to the 180-degree rule and include cuts to close-ups of each other’s faces demonstrating their continued love. However, the lack of dissolve gives the viewer an idea that something has changed between the two. This is when, later in the film, we learn that Ilsa became aware of Laszlo’s condition.  This leads to Ilsa betraying Rick. She leaves him stranded on the train station, and Curtiz uses an insert to deliver this news to the viewer and Rick. The insert, an extreme close up of a letter, allows the viewer to share the sorrowful experience through the perspective of Rick because it’s implied to be held in his hands. The water pouring on the letter blurs the text, and the scene cuts away with Rick leaving on a train without Ilsa. This cut is a dissolve that is nearly as blurry as the one in the beginning.  Both these events occurring represent Rick’s tears or sorrowfulness at Ilsa’s betrayal.

Masterful editing in Casablanca  really allowed Rick’s character motivation to firmly understood by the viewer.  The flashback used many editing techniques to really accentuate Rick’s intense feelings of love towards Ilsa. Also, the editing allowed the viewer to accompany Rick in a massive heartbreaking betrayal.  That later drives the plot and becomes part of Ilsa’s motivation to fake being back in love with Rick. This supports one of the themes of the film. Lovers will do anything to keep each other out of harms way, even sacrifice their own happiness.

The use of editing to orient the viewer in space as seen in Michael Curtiz’s 1943 film Casablanca

Casablanca is an excellent example of continuity editing, through the use of a multitude of editing techniques the film constantly places the characters and locations in time and space relative to each other seamlessly. While watching Casablanca I never had to ask myself questions like, how did we get here? Or where is this? Or when is what I’m seeing happening? All of this editing comes together to eliminate any possible distractions from the story or characters allowing you the viewer to stay fully invested in the love triangle and  struggles unfolding around them. One shot shot in particular that doses a good job establishing where rick’s is in relation to Casablanca and more importantly the airport.

In this scene we see the front of Rick’s café as Rick brings his current girl out to send her home, right away in this scene we see a spot light cross the front of the building rhythmically a few times then it quickly cuts to a light house to orient Rick’s in the city.

As seen above the cut to the lighthouse.

Later in that same scene as Rick talks with the chief of police you see both of them look off camera toward the sound of an airplane.

  the film then cuts following the 180 degree rule to an eye line match over the shoulder capture so that we can see the airplane they were looking at an orient Rick’s café as both right next to the airport and the coast as the light house form the earlier shot is placed in view. This is just one of many series of examples of good continuity editing that I noticed while watching the film, were there any other scenes that you feel did a good job of this, or perhaps any scenes that you found to be poor examples of this style of editing?

Continuity Editing and the Flashback Technique in Casablanca

As we learned in The Film Experience, continuity editing is a system of cutting used in film to maintain continuous narrative action. The idea of this technique is to create a seamless stream of events that flows effortlessly for the viewer.

This style of editing is used consistently throughout Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. Below, I have found a short sequence that utilizes continuity editing in our first introduction to Rick’s cafe. I think the author of this clip does a great job of explaining how the style of editing allows the viewer to take in the atmosphere of the cafe and introduces the viewer to Rick’s clientele.

One of my favorite scenes in Casablanca was the Memories of Paris montage sequence. I thought the fade in that Curtiz used was very effective in creating a flashback effect, especially with the fade being white, creating a dreamy vibe, reminiscent of better times for Rick (although the end of the montage does end in his heartbreak). Below, I have posted a clip of the montage, which begins around 1:10.

I found an article by Scott Myers that explains why this flashback sequence is so effective. Here is the link to the article: https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/studies-in-flashbacks-casablanca-7e154431d19c.

An important point that Myers brings up in this article is the fact that flashbacks seem to be a “no-no” in the current Hollywood world. They can often be viewed as extremely cheesy by the audience. Why is this the case? Also, why is it that one of the most cherished films of all time utilizes this supposedly “cheesy” editing mechanism? Myers says that the answer lies in excellent execution, something that is not typically achieved in many of today’s films.

Myers says Casablanca’s montage works for two primary reasons. The first being its structure- there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. The second reason is that it gives us background on Rick and Ilsa’s relationship, which is central to the story in Casablanca.

I would like to know what others thought about the flashback sequence in this film. Did you think it was effective or did you think it came off as cheesy?

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?

Editing as Art

Editing forms the basis of how we interact on an emotional and visual level with any film.  An editor’s style and choice of techniques decide which characters we side with, how well we are able to follow the plot, and even allows certain thematic elements to seep into the image itself.  Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000) is an excellent example of the power of editing.

Throughout the film, his editor (Doddy Dorn) makes frequent use of eyeline matches and POV shots to put the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, a man struggling with his recent loss of short term memory.  We share his confusion and struggle to ascertain fundamental truths about his situation as the editor makes continuous use of sharp cuts to temporally ambiguous scenes.  We as the audience struggle with every sequence to piece together where it fits into the timeline of his life just as he does.

Though Memento plays with the techniques of temporal editing, it falls in line with the modern style of continuity editing within each sequence, obeying the 180-degree rule and the 30-degree rule, ensuring that during the portions of the film in which the protagonist is able to begin to piece his story together, we as his companions can also piece together his life alongside him.  Though the overall plot is muddled by his memory issues which are reflected in the editing, it is never unclear to us who is speaking, where they are located in the set, or their physical distances from other characters.

However, some films abandon with this modern style of continuity all together, seeking to blur the lines between even the characters themselves.  Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) uses this technique, or lack thereof, to great effect.

In the third act of the film, his editor (himself) begins to entirely dispose of the current “rules” of film editing throughout sequences that become almost impossible to follow.  He frequently cuts to inserts of scenery or random objects as one of the characters speaks, making it difficult to even tell who is telling these stories that become retold repeatedly.  He also does away with the 30-degree rule in most of the sequences which frame both of the protagonists together in conversation, making disjunctive cuts between shots which are only a few degrees apart, sometimes even canting the camera even between shots.  All of these methods combined together act to distract us and rip us away from any hope of following the dialogue between our protagonists, usually making these cuts at the precise moment we have just begun to latch onto the continuity.

Utilizing Editing to Create a Mood

Editing is a key stage in the post-production effort of a film.  One of the more interesting aspects of editing that I had never considered was the 180 degree rule.  This is a law of continuity editing that states the camera needs to stay on one side of the action line.  I had trouble imagining how a scene that breaks this rule would appear on screen, so I found a couple examples to analyze below.  The video embedded below is an excerpt from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Kubrick crosses the line three times over the course of a single scene in the bathroom.  These cuts serve to exacerbate the suspenseful atmosphere that the film heavily employs.  Each reverse cut temporarily disorients the viewer; a feeling that is in line with the strange and unsettling conversation that takes place inside the bathroom.

Another example of the 180 degree rule being broken is in Quentin Tarantino’s classic, Pulp Fiction.  The scene in the video below takes place in a diner with Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, attempting to retrieve his stolen items.  While this scene is also tense, it does have an air of supernatural suspense like the scene above from The Shining.  The camera crosses the 180 degree line near the end of the clip, as all the characters start yelling and tension skyrockets.  Tarantino’s decision to break the 180 degree rule has an important effect on the viewer.  Since the rise of continuity editing in the 1950’s, the viewer now expects scenes to follow that accepted archetype.  Because it is so unexpected, when the camera angle is suddenly reversed, it serves to impress upon the viewer that anything can and will happen.  This editing decision elevates the tension of the scene above what simply the acting and sound can achieve on their own because the audience now believes an outbreak of violence is more likely.