To the Neon God they prayed

“He’s still talking about editing.”

“Make him stop.”

“I can’t.”

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.

On Film Editing

Murder, My Sweet

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12 Responses to “To the Neon God they prayed”

  1. Continuity is one of the most overrated concepts in film. That example perfectly illustrates why: if I watched movies for realistically-timed neon lights, I should be locked up in a padded room.

  2. Jean Cocteau called them “spelling errors.”

  3. judydean Says:

    You’re right in what you say about Scorsese’s errors. Here’s what Thelma Schoonmaker said on Radio 4’s The Film Programme.

    “Now let me tell you, we have tons of continuity errors in our films, which we get hit on a lot, but it’s ridiculous. I think unfortunately people spend too much time worrying about those things, maybe thinking that’s what filmmaking is, but it’s not. Believe me, we’re very aware of any continuity errors we make, but if you look at all the films in history, you will see continuity error after continuity error. There are times when you have to go with a performance or the drama of the scene and just forget about it. We just would rather go for what’s best on the film and are forced to make continuity errors.”

  4. Christopher Says:

    I wonder if anybodys being extra careful these days now that we got dvds with slow mo and pause and blow up features etc.. and movies can be scrutinized like a college term paper.?

  5. In performance, all the things that make for thrilling cinema make for bad continuity and difficult sound recording.

  6. I know he’s a love or hate him director but I love the way that Lars von Trier in his Dogme films does Godardian-style jump cuts within a scene to what seems like an entirely differently played take – so you have a quiet moment immediately cutting to the same character in tears, or vice versa. It feels as if the actor has played the scene a few times through in various stages of emotion, or stressing different elements, and then it has been pieced together from those superficially incompatible takes to create something striking.

    It may seem like a howling continuity error (and takes away from the notion of ‘realism’) but is incredibly effective in the way that it cuts ‘inside’ another layer of the character’s emotions, or lets them compose themselves immediately. I don’t think the other Dogme films that I saw picked up on this element quite as strongly, perhaps being too interested in following the ‘rules’ to the letter.

  7. There was a slight sense of this freedom being exploited in Under the Skin, which wasn’t Dogme but certainly was influenced by the style. But I didn’t think it worked there.

    I’m longing for the day when Trier goes back to filming in Danish. The speeches might not be any better but at least they’ll sound less offensive to me. The trailer for his new one has some particularly egregious examples of BabelFish translation dialogue.

  8. He has filmed in Danish relatively recently with The Boss Of It All – the one with the computer controlled cameras (i.e. the set ups were apparently pre-programmed into the camera):

    And The Five Obstructions is probably his best film of the 2000s. Certainly the most revelatory (albeit, as usual, revelatory on his own terms!):

    (The French remake of The Perfect Human also features Patrick Bauchau!)

  9. I like The Five Obstructions better than any LVT of recent years — helps that he’s joined by someone else, but it really is a great lesson in filmmaking and making a virtue of necessity.

  10. kevin mummery Says:

    Thanks for posting this, David…I’m learning a lot from your observations. I’ve always had a keen eye for continuity errors, but until you pointed it out I didn’t realize how little it matters in the dramatic impact of a film. Your example of “Murder My Sweet” really illustrates this point, and I’m going to watch it again tonight because it’s one of my favorite noirs AND to observe what you’ve so ably described here.

  11. Thanks! I’ve got one more good one to talk about, I think, but it’ll have to wait until I have time to write it down…

    Counting aloud with the neon blinks in this scene is quite good fun, but not really the best way to appreciate the filmmaking!

  12. [...] David Cairns examines editing at his website, using Incense for the Damned to caution against disorienting close-ups, Fahrenheit 451 to warn about proper coverage (and, incidentally, warn against excessive interpretation), and Murder, My Sweet to ask who cares about continuity, anyway? [...]

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