Friday, 28 March 2014

The fog of authorship

In a previous post there was an image from Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer 1955), and as it is a great image I will post it here again. But not because it is great but because it appears in another film, made three years later by Leo McCarey, whom I wrote about last week. It is not just a similar image (or rather shot) but the very same identical shot. It is a useful reminder on the need to remain cautious before asserting credit (or blame) for scenes, shots and ideas in individual films.

McCarey's style of filmmaking is different from Fleischer's in many ways, and one is the visuals. McCarey was most at home in the Academy ratio and he was not interested in landscapes or cityscapes. His camera is usually indoors and focused on the actors. Fleischer on the other hand was one of the great CinemaScope stylists and had an interest in striking compositions, outdoors and indoors, that McCarey had not. Or rather, his compositions are of a different kind. So it is not surprising that, when Rally 'Round the Flag Boys (1958) became McCarey's first film in CinemaScope, he, or more likely the studio, felt obliged to add some visual flavour by borrowing a shot from another film and another director. This does not undermine ideas about authorship, it is just that since this habit of borrowing is common enough we should not be too sure about who is responsible for individual shots and images in a given film.

Another cause for caution is censorship, a problem that is, or at least was, common enough in most countries. For an example that recently came to my attention, look at The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall 1946). It was the only film to which Raymond Chandler wrote an original script, and it is a good script, but it gets all weak and abrupt in the last few minutes, obviously so. This is because the US Navy had objections about the script so the ending was rewritten. There is a murder in the film and it turns out that the killer is a sailor, an ex-serviceman who suffers from a mental illness after the war. Or at least it does in the original script, the one the Navy did not like. After it was rewritten another person is blamed for the murder, more or less at random, in the last scene. There are a few interesting things about this. Not necessarily that the US Navy objected but that they were even asked, and that their opinion mattered so much that the film was altered. Another is that to some extent it does not matter. I have seen the film three times, with a time lapse of many years between the first and second viewing, and when I saw it the second time I thought I knew who the killer was, i.e. the sailor, because that is the way the film is structured and that is what makes sense, up to the last minute. I had completely forgotten about the weak ending. When I saw it the third time I had not forgotten the ending, but I did not care about it. For all points and purposes it is the sailor who is the killer. I was curious about that ending though so I did some digging and found out what happened to the script and why the ending was like it was. Ultimately the way the finished film ends does not matter, you can easily disregard it and stay with the original ending, as I did, even if you do not know the circumstances.

The Blue Dahlia is perhaps the work of Chandler (and should be included when his writing is discussed) but he was annoyed by some changes that George Marshall, the director, did, and how the visuals worked. But that is a director's prerogative. So The Blue Dahlia has several authors, and who had the most definitive influence on the finished film is a work for a thesis. (It can also be enjoyed as probably the best of the films that Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake made together, but more about them in a later post.)

This post is related to three earlier posts (this, and this and this). It is one of the great things about blogging, the ongoing, endless sprawl of connections and links.

Incidentally, Chandler also contributed to the script for Strangers on a Train, but that is unmistakably a Hitchcock film. I should also add that there is nothing unusual about re-using footage from previous films as was done in Rally 'Round the Flag Boys. It happens with some frequency, now as well as then.
2014-03-31 I added a sentence to emphasise my point that this does not undermine the idea of authorship, only that we cannot know for sure who is responsible for each individual shot or image in a given film.

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