To the Neon God they prayed
“He’s still talking about editing.”
“Make him stop.”
More about editing. Here’s the opening of MURDER, MY SWEET, directed by Edward Dmytryk. In his book On Film Editing, later collected in his bigger book, On Film Making, Dmytryk talks about the scene in Philip Marlowe’s office. Watch the scene. Does anything strike you as odd, or wrong? Continuity, perhaps?
Chance are you haven’t spotted it. If you have, tell me. I’ll know if you’re lying.
Here’s the story: Dmytryk covered the action with all the camera angles he felt he needed, but when he came to cut it together, he saw a problem. The action is partly lit by a blinking neon sign, which gives it classic noir atmos, and also allows for Mike Mazurki‘s appearance as Moose Molloy, reflected in the window, to have an eerie, spectral, now you see it now you don’t effect. But although the light simulating the sign had been faded up and down at regular intervals — three seconds off, three seconds on — it wasn’t precisely synchronized with the performances. This meant that when you cut from a wide shot to a close-up, the sign might blink off prematurely, or it might stay lit too long. Cutting the conversation according to the performances left the blinking neon all out of whack.
So Dmytryk and editor Joseph Noriego tried cutting for continuity. Trouble was, with the neon sign flowing smoothly again, three seconds off, three seconds on, there were now awkward pauses and unmotivated accelerations in the dialogue. The lighting was consistent, but the scene fell on its face.
So Dmytryk made the bold decision to cut for dramatic values and say to Hell with continuity. Now watch the scene and count along with the neon sign. Three seconds off, two seconds on, four seconds off, six seconds on… it’s completely crazy. And at one point it blinks on in an angle on Dick Powell, and then on again in an angle on Mike Mazurki, without ever having gone off. But Dmytryk found that when the scene was cut this way, nobody noticed the strangeness of the light’s behaviour. Cutting solidly for dramatic values put the audience’s attention squarely where it was supposed to be, and they only took particular notice of the light during Mazurki’s first appearance, when they were supposed to notice it.
By this argument, the unusually large number of continuity errors in Martin Scorsese’s films (caused in part, no doubt, by the use of improvisation, which causes each take to differ) can be seen as evidence of the high quality of editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s work — the most obtrusive mismatches are permissable, as long as the dramatic flow is maintained. Check the bloodstains on DeNiro’s face during scene three of RAGING BULL, when Pesci hits him with a a fist wrapped in table-cloth. Hard to believe anyone would have the nerve to leave a howler like that in the cut. And that’s a good thing.