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Partie IV. Filming the Crime Novel

Flashbacks in Film Noir

Gilles Menegaldo
p. 157-175


A travers l’examen d’un corpus de films noirs, cet article vise à mettre en relief les différentes modalités et fonctions d’un procédé emblématique du genre, le flashback. Ce procédé s’inscrit d’abord dans la structure d’enquête et permet de nourrir l’intrigue en reconstituant un passé énigmatique qui affecte le présent. Le flashback est aussi souvent clairement associé à une vision subjective et il participe de la nature confessionnelle du récit énoncé par une voix off. L’étude de plusieurs séquences d’ouverture permet de mettre en lumière la richesse et la diversité des stratégies déployées pour mettre en scène le flashback. Stanley Kubrick utilise ce procédé de façon plus novatrice. Il subvertit ses fonctions et lui donne un caractère plus objectif, détaché de l’intériorité des personnages.

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1In its classic form, the flashback is introduced when the image in the present dissolves (or shifts) to an image in the past, understood either as a story being told or a subjective memory. Voice over or (in silent films) inter-titles that mark anteriority through language, often reinforce the visual and sound elements representing a return to the past. The flashback consists in the insertion of a past scene within the present flow of film narrative, interrupting that flow. Memory is one of the mental processes involved in flashback which is thus often related to the subjectivity of consciousness.

2The notion of haunting, obsessive memory is an essential feature of film noir. Some flashbacks directly involve a quest for the answer to an enigma or a series of enigmas posed in the beginning of a narrative. Through a return to the past, the frame narrative may open with an event (either shown on screen or not), for instance a murder in which there is an enigma involved. As we shall see, The Killers (1946) by Robert Siodmak is a good case in point since a man, the Swede, is killed at the outset of the film by two hired killers. As he is being warned by one of his colleagues while expecting inevitable death, he just says: “I did something bad once”. The film explores what is hidden behind those words.

3We must first point out that most “films noirs” are adaptations of stories or novels whose use of narrative voice is more or less directly transferred to the films. The flashback introduces a reversed temporal order that creates the past as the other locus of the fiction, as a privileged subjective realm. The use of dissolve and of voice over marks off the past as distinct and different. This is often emphasized, as we shall see, by a shift in terms of mise en scène.

4Maureen Turim distinguishes two basic types of film noir flashbacks. One is related to the investigative structure of the criminal plot and it helps probe into the past in order to solve a mystery (often related to a murder). It then leads us through a maze of clues and false leads that are constructed within the flashbacks. We have to be careful to what the flashback tells us, to the conditions in which it occurs, how it is enunciated and the way it is rendered visually and in the sound track. This constitutes as many clues for the disclosure of enigma or enigmas.

5The investigative structure is usually connected with a detective type character who encounters various witnesses, each of whom tells his part of this past story. All these fragmented testimonies constitute a kind of jigsaw puzzle that needs to be completed. This narrative pattern obviously derives from Citizen Kane in which Thompson, the questing journalist, inquires about Kane’s past, trying to solve the mystery of his dying words: “rose bud”. Thus the investigation itself is conducted with a certain degree of objectivity, yet each testimony leads to a subjective account more or less marked visually by means of subjective shots or emphasis on the protagonist’s situation in the scene or by means of language. As Maureen Turim states:

in the investigative flashback of films noirs, the process of gathering and deciphering clues motivates the journey through the past with the investigator’s own desire to know the truth becoming a major narrative motivation (172)

6This is obvious in The Killers. We are constantly made aware that violence threatens to stop the investigation and that few witnesses are reliable. Ambiguity, contradiction and the physical threat of death characterize this reconstruction of the past.

7The confessional flashback is characterized by the protagonist’s retrospective examination of the ways he was introduced or reduced to his present plight. The confession may be self directed or addressed to another character in the diegesis. Most of these flashbacks occupy a great part of the film which can thus be seen as a huge retrospection. The staging of the flashbacks may vary a lot and it will be particularly rewarding, after having devoted some space to the close analysis of an emblematic film noir, to examine the opening sequence of some other films to see the way the flashback is first introduced.

The Killers (1946), an example of extended investigative flashback

8The opening sequence of The Killers takes place in a diner in Brentwood, the small town where the ex-gangster Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster) has found refuge, assuming a false identity (Pete Lunn). It corresponds to the scene which constitutes the bulk of Hemingway’s short story and features the two hired killers who have come to carry out the contract passed with the gang leader, Colfax. This scene remains all the more enigmatic as we have no clues as to the motivations of the killers. The first shots are set in a dark atmosphere, with an expressionistic kind of lighting and a musical score (brass instruments) which emphasizes the ominous character and adumbrates the fate of the Swede whose death is staged at the end of the framing opening sequence in a rather dedramatized way.

9The rest of the film consists of a reconstitution, by means of a series of flashbacks, of the Swede’s past (which is not evoked in the short story). The flashback is thus used as a form of narrative expansion. It enables to feed the narrative by including in the present fragments of the past which all feature the dead protagonist who is only seen directly (without the mediation of a witness’s discourse), on two occasions: when he confides his secret to the character who tries to warn him, and at the moment of his death when he is seen as lying, corpse-like, on his bed, his face half plunged in shadow, passively expecting the killers. The moment of impending death is the only time when we share the intimacy of the Swede. The camera closes up on his face. The music maintains a unique chord, as a prelude to the brutal entrance of the killers whose faces are intermittently lighted up by gun shots. The last direct shot of the Swede is metonymical: a close up of his right hand clinging to the iron railing of the bed, then relaxing its hold as death sets in. This shot provides also a clue by emphasizing the role of the hand whose knuckles are broken, hence revealing the past of the Swede as a prize fighter.

10The flashbacks, of unequal length, are scattered throughout the narrative. The return to the past is engineered by means of a series of encounters between Riordan, the insurance agent, and various witnesses, most of them presented as reliable, with a few exceptions however, which ultimately delays the disclosure of the truth. These incursions into the past do not follow any specific pattern but they concern more and more important witnesses and they lead us closer and closer to the truth. However, there is no strict chronological ordering. We start with a testimony enunciated by the person seen last by the Swede, then we move backward up to the scene, five years before, of the Swede’s attempted suicide in a hotel room in Atlantic City, as a consequence of Kitty’s betrayal. Then we jump back in time as far the Swede’s last fight on the ring, in 1935, the earliest date in his biography which is staged for us. Then we move forward again through various scenes: the first encounter with Kitty at a party, The Swede’s arrest, his stay in jail, the meeting between the gangsters, the caper itself (narrated more objectively), the Swede’s getting hold of the money (narrated by a dying delirious witness), finally the evocation of the violent confrontation with Colfax and the scene between Anderson and Kitty who persuades him that he has been double crossed by Colfax and the others.

11We may also notice that some characters provide several accounts while others are never seen in a position of narrating a flashback. Thus, Inspector Sam Lubinsky, a former friend of the Swede, is given two testimonies as well as (more surprisingly) the old timer gangster Charleston, once the Swede’s cell companion, whereas Colfax, though he features prominently in several flashbacks, never provides his own vision, thus remaining opaque for Riordan and the spectator. The last flashback is narrated by Kitty Collins, the double crossing “femme fatale”, who by omitting some essential elements concerning her own part in the scheme, delays the disclosure of the truth till the very end of the film.

12What is also striking is the diversity of the techniques adopted by Siodmak. Each flashback is introduced and staged differently. The first flashback takes place at the county morgue after 13 minutes of film and is triggered by Riordan’s remark concerning the last words of the Swede: “I did something wrong once”. Riordan lifts the sheet covering the corpse and looks at it for the first time while repeating those words as if he tried to unveil a secret. During this prelude, the three characters concerned are in the dark, filmed as if they were shadows. The first witness, Nick Adams, starts his narrative in the dark, a rather explicit metaphor emphasizing the investigator’s (and the spectator’s) ignorance. The voice over introduces the first shot, then disappears to come back only at the end of the scene.

13What we retain from this evocation is the confrontation between the Swede and the mysterious driver of the car. This aspect of the scene, contrary to what we may expect, is not focalized by Nick as eye witness, in terms of subjective shots. It is staged for the spectator who alone can see the close ups on the faces of the protagonists, exchanging looks, framed alternatively by means of shot reverse shot editing. This suggests that the witness is not made fully aware of the implications of that meeting while the spectator’s attention is drawn to it. Nick is almost always off screen except on the very last shot of the scene while the Swede is no longer framed. Thus, the flashback is not limited to Nick’s point of view but corresponds to a more global (and partial) approach. The intimacy of the confrontation escapes the narrator of the scene. When we revert back to the present moment, the characters are still plunged in the deepest shade. This first incursion in the past is essential for it introduces Colfax the gang leader whereas we know nothing of his name, identity and motivations. The only clue resides in the intensity of his scrutinizing while his face shows no emotion. The physical description of Colfax provided by Nick Adams (“thickset, a moustache”) adds little to our knowledge.

14The second flashback occurs during Riordan’s trip to Atlantic city where he seeks Queenie, an old chambermaid who figures on the victim’s testament as sole heir. We first learn about the true identity of the Swede. The flashback scene narrated by Queenie evokes the last episode of the story (fabula) as can be reconstructed at the end of the film, that is the moment when Kitty Collins abandons the Swede and leaves with the money of the robbery. The flashback proper is introduced not by a question of Riordan, but by a remark made by Queenie (whose face is filmed in close up) concerning the fact that the Swede could be buried in holy ground. Riordan’s reaction to this enigmatic remark leads Queenie to overcome her reticence, which enables the flashback. The close up image of Queenie fades and is rapidly replaced by a shot of a younger Queenie opening the door of the hotel room and looking off screen towards the inside of the room where every thing is being turned upside down by an enraged and desperate Swede. The musical score dramatizes the situation by using brass and percussion instruments. The narrator’s voice over recalls the circumstances of the event, then vanishes. The whole scene takes place within the limited space of the room and the action is mostly seen by Queenie, either by means of subjective shots, or through insisting shots on her looking. There is no gap between the character’s perception and the spectator’s. The camera first moves back to show us the Swede seen by Queenie who is turning her back to the camera. A close up draws our attention on the suicidal gesture of the Swede and is followed by a slanted low angle shot of him which shows his despair. He reaches to the bed and collapses on it, his face sweating, an echo of the opening scene.

15This highly dramatized scene introduces several important elements, deprived however of their context. First the reference to a woman (“She’s gone!”) whose apparent betrayal is seen as an irreparable loss, hence the obvious implication of a love relationship. The second statement, “Charleston was right”, establishes a connection which will be confirmed later since Charleston did warn Anderson against Kitty. This scene also shows a new facet of the Swede who is here characterized by a passionate, violent and uncontrolled behaviour. The scene ends on a black screen through a fade. There is no return to the situation of enunciation which suggests the limited role played by Queenie or can be explained in terms of narrative economy.

16The next flashback is narrated by Sam Lubinsky who both plays a crucial part in the unravelling of the past plot, but also partakes of the action in the present narrative, helping Riordan on crucial occasions. His first testimony is introduced by a single sentence concerning the Swede’s last fight in 1935. Lubinski’s face fades and we see him from afar in the exhibition theatre. The camera follows him while he comes to a seat, then focuses mostly on the fight, except for some intriguing repeated close shots on a young woman who seems concerned over the Swede’s predicament. This woman will narrate the following central testimony which recalls the first meeting between Anderson and Kitty. Lubinski’s account which again does not correspond to his focalization, lasts more than seven minutes, an extended commentary on the broken right hand we saw at the Morgue. Again the flashback ends with a return of the voice over and a dissolve on the face of the narrator.

17The following flashback, narrated by Lily, Lubinski’s wife (formerly Anderson’s girlfriend), is quite essential as is shown by the elaborate staging. By recalling the circumstances of the “first encounter”, it foregrounds the destiny of the Swede who is enthralled by the lethal charms of the “femme fatale”. The scene is mostly focalized by Lily as is illustrated by subjective shots and images of her looking upon her lover and her rival. However, the angle of vision dissociates us from her. The mise en scène shows Lily as she is gradually excluded from the frame, relegated off screen while Kitty becomes the focus of attention for the Swede and the spectator, occupying the centre of the screen. The camera first focuses on Anderson moving closer to Kitty who plays the piano, her back turned towards the camera, to delay an identification of her face. There is a short verbal exchange between the two women, stressing their antagonism (and Kitty’s perfidiousness). Then, while the Swede is looking off screen, Kitty enters from the left and goes near him. Then the camera lingers a moment on Lily in order to show the degradation of her situation as she is being pushed to the margin of the frame: On that shot Kitty is on the right side as she starts to sing a romance, the Swede is in the centre, his look ostensibly directed at Kitty while Lily still tries, vainly, to attract his attention. As the Swede moves to the right, the camera pans to follow him as he comes to stand up behind her, as if irresistibly drawn by her beauty. Then the camera cuts abruptly to a close up of Kitty’s face and shoulders which is a direct address to the spectator, so that he (she) may share the Swede’s fascination. The next shot is a medium close up of Anderson, now isolated, under the influence. Lily is only seen on the next shot trying to speak to Blinkie Franklin (a member of Colfax’s gang) while we still hear Kitty’s singing as a reminder of her presence. The camera cuts again abruptly to show the Swede and Kitty framed together in medium close up, only separated by a lamp which illuminates their faces. Lily’s voice over comes back to comment the image of the new couple: “Right then I knew the boat had sailed. I just got my things and went home”.

18Sam Lubinski will provide, through another flashback, the circumstances of the Swede’s arrest while he was trying to prevent Kitty from being sent to jail. This scene simply confirms the extent of the Swede’s infatuation. The following insight into the Swede’s past is provided by Charleston, an old gangster turned alcoholic. His evocation of his relationship with the Swede is a moment of intimacy and poetry, emphasized by the beholding of the starry sky, the whispering voices, and the soft, subdued tones of the violin and harp. However, it also introduces an important clue, Kitty’s gift to her lover: a green handkerchief decorated with golden harps, a symbol of Ireland. The scene foregrounds once more the Swede’s naivety and idealized view of Kitty. The direction emphasizes the expressiveness of the faces by means of close ups. The scene opens with a diving shot which features the cell as a frame within the frame. The notion of imprisonment is stressed by the shadows of the cell bars projected on the walls and by the fragmentation of an already confined space into zones of light and darkness. Anderson himself is confined in the upper part of the frame, in a reclining position. The camera closes up on him as he toys with Kitty’s handkerchief, oblivious of the world round him.

19Charleston is allowed a second flashback where he narrates the meeting that precedes the caper (the stealing of a hat factory’s pay roll). The scene is sometimes seen by him by means of subjective or semi-subjective shots, but it also often calls upon the spectator’s gaze, emphasizing the relationship between the Swede and Kitty. Again the Swede is seen as toying with the green handkerchief while Kitty is watching him. A shot of Charleston is however inserted, suggesting he is aware of the scene and recognizes the gesture of the Swede. Thus the scene shows some kind of intimacy within a more social kind of meeting. We also learn that Kitty has gone back to Colfax, hence Charleston’s final warning: “Stop listening to those golden harps, they could land you into a lot of trouble”.

20Interestingly enough, the caper itself is not narrated subjectively but by means of an “objective” flashback. Indeed the scene is only the visual transcription of a newspaper account of the event which is being read aloud. As the present image fades, the reading voice becomes a voice over describing what we see and hear: a crowd of workers getting inside a factory. The scene is filmed in a single sequence shot with no editing: the camera is constantly moving, starting with an “omniscient” high angle shot, then getting closer to the protagonists, following their action at a distance, according to the description that is provided by the words, then adopting again a bird’s eye view when they get away. This device introduces a break from the previous technique, but it helps stress the swiftness of the action and the efficiency of the gangsters at the same time as it suggests their ruthlessness. It is also interesting to note that the article mentions that one of the gangsters hides his face with a curious green handkerchief…an obvious clue for the spectator who now knows more than the author of the article.

21A completely different approach is provided through the agency of Blinkie Franklin, one of the gangsters while he is dying and delirious (he has been shot by Dum Dum, another member of the gang), uttering fragments of disconnected sentences. Again it is through the medium of language that the past intrudes upon the present. One of these verbal fragments (“I hate rain”) is repeated, corresponding, seemingly, to an internal thought. This leads to the flashback scene by means of a quick dissolve. The scene, taking place the night before the caper, foregrounds the rivalry between Colfax and the Swede (who accuses him of cheating at cards and hits him), and features prominently Kitty, at the centre of the frame, as the object of desire. Several shots associate Kitty and the Swede as if they were accomplices, which is misleading. The last shot shows Blinkie as reflected in a mirror. The sentence he repeats, addressing Colfax: “He should not have hit you”, is taken up by the voice of the raving man and this repetition enables the shift from past to present. Again we can see that the scene is partly dissociated from the subjectivity of the narrator, even though his presence is asserted through specific shots and camera angles. Blinkie is allowed another flashback which takes place after the caper and confirms the Swede’s antagonism since he falls upon the gang and goes away with all the money, pretending he has been cheated. However some blanks remain, the dialogue is allusive and cryptic and we cannot fully account for the events or state who has betrayed who, which means that we shall need another testimony.

22Indeed, Kitty will also be compelled to provide her testimony, less than ten minutes before the end of the film. Cornered by Riordan, she tells the circumstances that have led to the Swede’s initiative. The scene is again taking place in a restricted space. Most of the shots are long and frame the two characters together. The sparse camera movements tend to bring the characters back to the centre of the frame. The last shot closes up on the couple’s embrace and we revert back to the time of enunciation by means of a quick dissolve, without the mediation of Kitty’s voice over. The scene primarily foregrounds Kitty’s duplicity and the Swede’s credulousness. Moreover, Kitty omits an essential element, her own complicity with Colfax (they got married secretly hence cannot testify against each other) in order to keep all the money for themselves. Kitty pretends to double cross Colfax while she betrays Anderson on behalf of Colfax, as is revealed in the closing scene of the film with the final shoot out which leads to the death of Colfax and Kitty’s arrest while she is trying once more to escape.

23This analysis of a rather elaborate flashback structure enables us to underline various elements. First it illustrates the notion of double plot central to the crime fiction. We follow both Riordan’s investigation triggered by the discovery of a dead body and some episodes of the victim’s past life accounting for his fate. Flashbacks interrupt the continuity of the primary narrative, introducing secondary narrators who provide new data and a partly subjective approach. However the subjectivity of the point of view is not always respected. In fact, as we saw, the focalization in the scene goes far beyond the limited perspective of the secondary narrators. This emphasises the presence of another privileged approach, that of an external, anonymous agent that we may identify with the primary source of enunciation, the film maker. We may also underline the way these flashbacks are related to one another, complement each other. Each of them contains clues, by means of visual or verbal references, that lead to new testimonies. Thus, the green handkerchief first mentioned by Riordan (it was found near the Swede’s body) and held by him is seen recurrently in several flashbacks as a metonymical reminder of Kitty’s influence. It leads to the confirmation of the Swede’s participation in the caper and the implication of Kitty as well. Thus each secondary narrative foregrounds an element which will feature more or less prominently in the next testimony. Once all these elements have been put together, the story can be reconstituted. No narrative blanks are left and the spectator’s expectations are fulfilled in conformity with the Hollywood canon.

The staging of the confessional flashback in some opening sequences

24Murder My Sweet (1944) by Edward Dmytryk, an adaptation of Chandler’s novel Farewell My Lovely, opens with a rather strange scene. Contrary to the representation we have in the opening of The Maltese Falcon by John Huston for instance, the detective Philip Marlow here is seen from the outset as being in a situation of inferiority. First he is questioned by the police who apparently want to arraign him and to charge him with murder. He also wears a kind of white blind over his eyes, which can be accounted for by the wounds he received, but which also conveys a symbolical meaning. The blind may represent a rather obvious metaphor of the situation of the detective that has been manipulated and has, so far, no clue as to the source of the manipulation. The use of the opposition black and white, the stress on the white blank surface which fills the screen in the opening shots, and the difficulty to identify the setting because of the abstract composition of the shot, emphasize this idea. The retrospective narration is first triggered by Marlow’s voice over but, contrary to what we could expect, the scene shifts to the past smoothly, without a cut or a fade out or dissolve. We drift into the past by means of a slow panoramic shot. This suggests an identity of space conflating past and present, blurring the frontiers. Then, Marlow looks at himself in the glass of the window pane and, above his reflection, discovers the towering figure of the gangster Moose Malloy who will propose to him a contract: find for him Velma the girl he was once in love with and who has vanished. This reflected gigantic figure embodies a threat, adumbrating Marlow’s submissiveness. The mirror effect introduces a confusion between reality and fantasy which will be carried out throughout the film. The quick flash of the apparition of Moose Malloy precedes the physical apparition of the impressive gangster, seen as an instrument of fate. In his subsequent apparitions, Malloy will always intrudes unexpectedly, taking Marlow by surprise. His uncanny apparition at the outset also foregrounds one of the prominent aspects of the film: the blurring of the frontiers between appearance and reality which is illustrated in the central hallucinatory sequence while Marlow is under the influence of drugs at the clinic.

25In Detour, Edgar Ulmer’s film, another approach is used: the main male protagonist is led to remember his past and reconstruct it in his own mind. There is thus no narratee, contrary to the previous example. The past is presented as a happy period whereas the present is associated with loneliness and misery. We first have an objective approach of the character as he enters a bar and gets in a scuffle with one of the customers who asks him questions and plays a record he seems to dislike. Then we shift to a subjective mode which is established again through the voice over, but also more interestingly through the mediation of objects. Thus we pass from the whiteness and roundness of a coffee cup to the round shape of the record playing a tune that the protagonist does not wish to hear. Then, by means of a dissolve, we are introduced to another setting where white and round objects are also foregrounded, in particular the drum whose brightly lit white surface first fills the whole frame. Then the camera recedes back and we discover a band playing the same tune but with more intensity and greater distinctness. Because of the music, the past in a way is seen as more concrete, more real than the present. It represents also an idealized state which will never be recovered by the protagonist. We can imagine the present plight of the character because of the huge gap between those two scenes. The film starts with the shot of a road receding in the distance which emphasizes the deterministic approach, also a recurrent feature of the film noir. The character’s fate is sealed from the beginning and the film only shows the inevitability of the process.

  • 1  This name is emblematic of the character’s unceasing quest for clues and « keys ».

26In Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder, the confessional mode of the flashback is more obvious as the retrospective narrative covers most of the film and is explicitly addressed to a narratee. The credits unroll first on an ominous image: the shadow of a man walking on crutches looms larger and larger to the point when it fully invades the screen, almost threatening the spectator. This disquieting vision is sustained by a highly dramatized music with a recurrent ominous leitmotif. The first diegetic shot shows a car racing madly through the streets of a city, at night, oblivious of the traffic lights The driver, Walter Neff (Fred Mac Murray) an insurance agent, mortally wounded, in (so far) unknown circumstances, comes back to his office in order to tell what has led him to this situation. What is specific here is that Neff uses a machine in order to record his confession. The confession seen as a memo. is addressed to his colleague Keyes1 (Edgar J. Robinson) who only saw part of the truth. Thus it is meant to enlighten him and to make him aware of his friend’s prominent part in the whole affair. Throughout the film we will be constantly identified with the subjectivity of a congenial criminal (both a victim and a victimizer), close to his consciousness, which leads us to an uncomfortable, ambivalent position.

27 In some cases however, the flashback may come unexpectedly long after the beginning of the film and its sudden introduction provides a strong effect of surprise by shifting abruptly the narrative mode. In Criss Cross by Robert Siodmak, we first have a kind of objective narration which concerns primarily the rivalry between two men, Steve (Burt Lancaster) and Slim Dundee, a gang leader, both in love with the same woman Anna and both involved in a heist which consists in attacking an armoured truck. At the moment when we least expect it, while Steve is driving the armored truck towards the spot where the heist should take place, the camera closes up on his face. We first hear, unexpectedly, Anna’s voice, anticipating their common happy future: “After it’s done, after it’s all over and we are safe, it will be just you and me, you and me, the way it should have been all along from the start, from the start, the beginning”. The image is getting out of focus and it shifts to images of the “beginning”: Steve’s return to Los Angeles eight months before. We have a shot of him stepping down from a bus and his voice over comments the situation in a typically deterministic mode: “From the start it all went one way, it was in the cards, it was fate or the jinks […]”. While we are shown the story of his relationship with Anna, the voice over crops up once in a while to remind us of Steve’s subjective presence until we return, by means of a dissolve, to the present situation in the cabin of the truck. This homogeneous flashback sequence lasts forty six minutes, about one third of the film. Apart from providing information, its main function is to emphasize the inexorable concatenation of events, the way Steve, a typical “loser” figure, is caught up in a net despite his attempts to free himself from a doomed relationship. The fact that we first hear Anna’s voice stresses how far she has become an obsession for the male hero. Her words are full of illusory promises, which will lead both of them to their tragic fate. The blindness of the hero is presented metaphorically in the sequence of the heist. It is staged in a kind of smoky, suffocating atmosphere due to the gas bombs used by Slim Dundee in order to double cross Steve who can’t see and can’t breathe. Moreover, the beginning of the scene is also shot from afar, from a high angle, vertical position, suggesting the fate that weighs upon the characters. Even if the hero can momentarily cope with the situation, we know, because of the mood set up by the flashback, that his fate is sealed. The rest of the film just unravels the skein down to the final retributive shoot out (Dundee is instrumental) which unites the lovers in an ultimate deathly embrace.

  • 2  There are however many similarities between the two films. In both cases, the main protagonist is (...)

28Out of the Past (1947) provides a more extensive confessional flashback. In this film by Jacques Tourneur, there is a conflation of the two figures in the same character. The main protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) is both an investigator and someone who is personally involved in the events and feels compelled to tell his story so as to pave the way for a future love relationship. Contrary2 to what happens in The Killers, the retrospective structure is not fragmented and scattered throughout the film. There is no objective investigation, no multisided point of view. The film provides only a long flashback which constitutes the centre of the narrative and is unified by the voice over of its narrator. The flashback takes place after ten minutes of film but it has been carefully prepared. The opening scene, which foregrounds quiet life in a small town, also introduces a disruptive element (the black car and the dark suit may be seen as ominous) with the visit of Joe Stefano, a gangster and former associate of Jeff. The second scene emphasizes the beauty and peacefulness of the countryside as a haven for Jeff and Ann, his present girlfriend whose feelings are presented as deep and authentic. Yet it also stresses the lack of information concerning Jeff’s past as testify Ann’s questioning and Jeff’s reticence. The third scene, the meeting of Jeff and Joe, stresses the encroaching of the past upon the present since Jeff is reminded of the existence of Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) his former gangster employer. The flashback will introduce a strong contrast by focusing on an urban, night setting, on illegal and criminal activities, on manipulation, blackmail and lies. The film is, in a way, the mere illustration of the title “Out of the Past”, suggesting the surging out of something one has tried to erase. The flashback proper occurs while Jeff and Ann drive by night towards Whit’s villa on lake Tahoe. Jeff and Ann are framed in close up within the frame of the windshield. As Jeff starts to evoke his past job as private detective and his first meeting with Whit, the camera draws near his face. Through a fade to black, we shift from his face to a past scene, a shot of Joe, fuming against the press (as an illustration of Jeff’s remark: “But he had a friend who was a ball of fire”). Thanks to a lateral pan shot, we discover Jeff himself reclining on an arm-chair while Whit, facing him, and recovering from a murder attempt, tries to convince Jeff to bring him back the girl who shot him.

  • 3  The very same sentence is uttered by Michael O’Hara in the opening scene of The Lady from Shanghaï(...)

29Jeff’s voice over, absent from that “contract scene” comes back to comment, intermittently, the Mexican episode which is set in Acapulco while Jeff is on the trail of the girl, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). The flashback scenes help reconstruct the love relationship established between Kathie and Jeff, who is presented, like the Swede, as utterly fascinated, under a spell. The first vision of Kathie is enhanced by various devices. It is first announced by the voice over as a revelation: “and then I saw her”3. Kathie appears in full light, framed in the door of the cafe plunged in the shade, wearing a white dress, moving lightly like an apparition. Her second appearance is also striking. While Jeff is waiting for her to appear, his voice over stresses both Jeff’s infatuation and lucidity: “I know I would go there every night until she showed up. I knew she knew it. I thought what a sucker I was”. The staging of the scene is interesting. By means of a dissolve and a lateral pan shot, we pass from Jeff waiting at the bar counter to a shot of him seated at a table on the following night. The same circular camera movement is prolonged in order to fetch Kathie within the same shot. The dissolve conveys the idea of a time ellipsis (the passage from one night to the next) but also the sense of an almost obsessive feeling. However the all encompassing camera movement enables to bridge the temporal gap and associate the two potential lovers within the same space. This is the starting point of the love affair which leads Jeff to betray Whit.

30At the end of the Mexican episode, we return to the situation of enunciation. The camera focuses again briefly on Ann and Jeff in the car, establishing a link between past and present, showing what is at stake. The image shifts to the past through the voice over, mainly to evoke the confrontation between Jeff and his partner who is trying to blackmail him. Close shots of Kathie watching the two men fighting physically convey a sense of the intensity of emotion she feels. She however ends up shooting the partner who might be troublesome and she vanishes, providing hardly any explanation for he behaviour, leaving Jeff to get rid of the body (there will be others) and later bear the brunt of the accusation. The flashback is over and we revert back to Jeff and Ann in the car in full day light, as if the narrative had exorcised the demons of the past, which of course is illusory. When Jeff goes through the huge iron gates that lead to Whit’s mansion, he is framed as if he were behind bars, a prisoner of the past. The subsequent events will reiterate the past events. Jeff proves unable to get rid of the influence exerted by Kathie, even though he grows more and more aware of her duplicity and treachery. Again the final scene is largely anticipated by the spectator. Jeff has no future with Ann and can only escape through death: he betrays Kathie by phoning the police and gets shot by her while they are being caught in an ambush.

Other modes and subverted uses of the flashback

31The flashback structure is not necessarily associated with an image of inescapable fate. In Nightfall (1957), also directed by Jacques Tourneur, there is an extensive use of flashback. As in Criss Cross, the flashback narrative starts belatedly. We are first introduced to the main character Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray) as he casually meets first a man, Fraser, then Maria (Anne Bancroft) a young woman, then is driven forcefully away by two other men, John and Red. We learn that Fraser is an insurance agent who spies upon Vanning in relation with an unsolved murder case and a bank robbery. The two other men are in fact gangsters who wish to know what has happened to the money of the robbery. Thus the spectator has little clues as to the implications of Vanning in the robbery and murder.

  • 4  Possibly also establishing the subjective origin of the flashback.

32The flashback narrative, fragmented in three distinct moments, provides an answer to these questions, each fragment being staged in a different way. The first one starts when Vanning is being cross examined and physically threatened by the gangsters. The scene takes place close to the sea in a peripheral harbour zone in front of a huge pumping machine. The flashback is not directly associated with the character’s consciousness. While John, the leading gangster, is evoking verbally a past scene (“Remember, Wyoming, you are out camping just you and your friend Doc. May be you remember what you’ve done with the money, our money”), we shift without transition, without voice over, by means of a mere cut punctuated by a three note clarinet tune, to an image of the past: a close up on a hand preparing some meal over a camp fire. The camera moves up to show Vanning’s face, disclosing, at the same time, a wide natural landscape covered with snow, contrasting strongly with the nightly urban setting of the previous scenes. This first objective flashback enables Tourneur to evoke the circumstances that have led to the confrontation with the gangsters. It ends on a camera movement closing up on Vanning’s face, usually a classical sign of a shift from present to past, which here marks the return to the present4 – again by means of a straight cut – a close shot of the ominous pumping machine.

33The second flashback takes place while Vanning, having escaped, seeks refuge at Maria’s flat and tells her his story. It prolongs the first but it is presented more subjectively. Vanning first sums up what we already saw. The shift to the past scene occurs through a straight cut again accompanied by the same three note tune. Again Tourneur has no recourse to the voice over. The images evoke Doc’s murder and Vanning’s execution, faked as a suicide. On the last shot of Vanning, lying dead (seemingly), the voice over surges up while we come back to the present by means of a cut to the body of the narrator, filmed at waist level.

34The third flashback occurs some time later while they are still at the flat. It is again announced verbally by Vanning (“You haven’t heard anything yet”) and introduced by the same tune. The camera cuts to an image of Vanning trying to stand up, this time commented by his voice over. The scene shows the return of the gangsters who have come to get the satchel containing the money (they took Doc’s briefcase instead), Vanning’s flight through the snow and subsequent loss of the satchel. An abrupt cut on the face of Maria listening leads us back to the present scene in the flat. The rest of the story is told by Vanning, but we have no images of the past. The last part of the film is linear and simply unrolls events down to the final confrontation which takes place on the very site of the flashback scene, in the deserted snowy Wyoming setting. Red, the more sadistic hoodlum kills his companion treacherously but then gets crushed under the wheels of a snowplough, a mechanical device reminiscent of the pumping machine opening the first flashback. The couple is saved as well as the insurance agent who accompanied them, a rare example of happy ending in a film noir.

35Thus, in this film, the flashback is not really confessional and only partly subjective. Neither is it presented as an obsessive intrusion of the past into the present leading the protagonist to a tragic fate. It simply provides, in a vivid way, information on a problematic period of the main character’s life. It also enables Tourneur to establish a strong contrast between two settings, one natural, beautiful, unspoiled, the other, an urban, ugly, industrial wasteland, but also to show how they interact and encroach upon one another. Tourneur thus extends the blackness and evil of film noir onto natural landscapes, which is rather uncommon. He also attempts to objectify the flashback narrative and to challenge, partly at least, its rules.

36I shall end by providing examples of a much more experimental use of flashback in two films by Stanley Kubrick. In Killer’s Kiss (1955), Kubrick keeps a rather classic approach yet he introduces several innovations, subverting conventions. The flashback starts at the very beginning of the film. We see a man, Davey, the main protagonist, at a railway station. While we hear his voice over telling his story to himself and the spectator (no confession here) the image gets out of focus and we shift to a past image. However we shall regularly come back to the present of narration, to that station, so as to remind us where and who is the source of the narrative. The specificity of the film lies in the fact that there are, within that primary “macro retrospection”, embedded flashbacks narrated by a secondary narrator. Davey’s narrative contains Gloria’s (the girl he meets and falls in love with) which keeps a degree of autonomy, being also introduced by an image getting out of focus and a voice over, her own. The first embedded narrative tells about the circumstances of Gloria’s sexual aggression by her employer: the images shown correspond to the actual events, focalized by Gloria. The second embedding is more original formally. It tells the story of Iris, Gloria’s sister who was a promising ballet dancer until she committed suicide. The flashback starts when we shift from a close up of a photograph of Iris as a ballerina, getting gradually out of focus, to a shot of her dancing on a stage, under the ray of a projector. While we expect a scene to take place, the voice over starts telling the story of Iris from her childhood. The narrative is not, strictly speaking, a flashback since we are given no corresponding images and sounds of the past, but only images of the ballerina filmed from various angles and in varied lights, only showing an impersonal mask-like face. Thus there is no equivalence between the voice and the images, which establishes a dedramatizing distance and a certain degree of formal abstraction. It is as if the character of Iris remained opaque and forever inaccessible. The only moment of pathos takes place when Gloria tells about her sister’s suicide: this corresponds to the single close up of the ballerina’s heavily made up face while the music dramatically punctuates the words.

37Kubrick also innovates by providing degrees of subjectivity within the same flashback. Thus, while Davey tells about his developing relationship with Gloria, the image gets blurred and the voice over stops for a while, as if what it had to tell were too intimate: “and then in her apartment…”. The voice over then goes on but, contrary to what we could expect, we are shown images of Davey walking in the station. The image of the past only surges up to evoke a more intense moment, that of the first kiss, presented as a kind of momentary loss of consciousness. At that point, the voice over ceases and is replaced by the flashback proper: close shots of the embracing couple and the words they exchange. The scene ends with a fade to black (indicating an ellipsis) and the next shot is a general view of the city at dawn. The voice over is back, evoking future plans for the couple. What Kubrick seems here to impart to us is a sense of the variety of forms that the flashback may assume, either suggesting degrees of subjectivity or dissociating the flash back from interiority.

  • 5  It makes us think of the voice of the commentator in the famous newsreel broadcast, « The March of (...)

38Indeed, in his next film noir, The Killing (1956) Kubrick experiments much further with flashback technique. The film opens in medias res on a race track, at the moment of the third race. The time (Saturday, 3.45pm, last week of September) is specified by an apparently external anonymous narrator who assumes a position of authority and superior knowledge. The deep sonorous voice, almost documentary5 like, comments the actions of various characters, focusing first on Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) presented as: “The most important thread in the unfinished fabric”. This metaphor applies to the event (the heist and its tragic outcome) that is reconstructed by the film, but also to the film itself, structured as an assembling of fragmented parts. The film concentrates first on the preparation of the heist, the meetings between the members of the gang, the hiring of people for some specific tasks etc. It also adumbrates a potential threat, that of betrayal, due to the greed of one “fatal” woman, Sherry, who manages to snatch information out of her timid husband, George Peatty the cashier, and deliver them to her lover. Each of these scenes is introduced by the voice over, the narrative moving backward and forward in time. The whole event takes place over a week, but three moments are foregrounded: the first Saturday when the meeting takes place, the following Tuesday when Clay meets Maurice the wrestler (who is supposed to launch a fight in order to attract the police while Johnny is operating) and Nicky the marksman, and the next Saturday when the heist takes place. That final day opens with a breakfast scene where Sherry is trying to get more information out of her husband. Then we come back in time to the moment (5pm) when Red Lightning, the horse which will be killed by Nicky, is being prepared in his box. Then we focus again on Johnny Clay, following his actions from 7am onward. Then we focus in turn on the various actors of the heist, reverting back in time to account for some missing scene. The whole set up is organized around the seventh race where the horse must be shot in order to create some diversion which will allow the robbery. The same scene when the horses approach the starting gates is filmed several times. We also have recurrent shots of the loud speakers announcing the race. Each new scene (the scene with Maurice, the scene when Nicky gets shot, the scene of the heist proper where Johnny Clay operates under a mask) provides a new part of the puzzle, but some moments are taken up strictly, such as the scene when Maurice breaks a bottle on the counter, while others are repeated but shown from a different angle. A typical example is the moment when the bag containing the money is thrown out of the window by Johnny. At that point of the film, the repetition of the scene serves to provide the last piece of the puzzle since it gives an answer to the enigma raised by the radio speaker who sums up the events on the day following the heist. While the gang are waiting for Johnny, listening to the radio and commenting what they hear, one of them, Randy the policeman (also an accomplice), alludes to that precise moment, which leads to a quick low angle flashback shot of the bag seen from the point of view of Randy who picks it up at the foot of the building. Interestingly, this shot is the only one to be associated with a character’s discourse. The scene that follows confronts the group with Sherry’s lover and his accomplice, having come to get hold of the money. It ends in a rather unexpected bloody massacre where all are killed except George who, though mortally wounded, finds enough strength to come back home and shoot his treacherous wife. On the belated arrival of Clay, the voice over returns to introduce the last events and the way he gets caught while trying to catch a plane with Fay, his girl friend.

39The technique adopted by Kubrick subverts the conventions in many ways. It is neither a confessional nor an investigative flashback. The event is not really reconstructed by means of clues or interviews. It is presented while it happens in a fragmented way within a very accurate temporal frame. There is no consciousness involved, no subjective voice over, no access to the interiority of characters. There is no weighing of the past upon the present, no obsessive, compulsive attitude. Events are described objectively, from without, by means of a behavioural technique. What is stressed is the role of chance rather than determinism. Things might have turned right, Johnny Clay might have arrived in time to prevent the massacre, the suitcase full of banknotes might not have crashed down and opened. The very professional organization of the heist doesn’t take chance into account. The tragic fate of the characters is all the more shocking as they are not real “hard boiled” gangsters. All are amateurs, except Johnny the only one who escapes death, if not jail. The objective narrative technique adopted by Kubrick stresses the almost mechanical chain of events, the lack of control of the characters over their destiny. The flashback is part of a narrative machinery totally dissociated from the character’s subjectivity and which refuses any kind of metaphysical approach.

40Throughout this analysis we have tried to show the importance of the flashback in the structure, we may even say the texture, of the film noir. The flashback serves many purposes. It helps to feed the primary narrative by staging more or less expanded incursions into the past, thus allowing the reconstruction of what has already happened, what has led to the present situation. It thus partakes of a quest for the origin(s) as well as being related to the investigative pattern. It allows for a confrontation of two time frames which often correspond to different and highly contrasted settings and moods. It thus introduces duality and tension, but also, at times, interaction, in so far as the intrusion of the past may generate a new chain of events, often on a repetitive, almost cyclic basis. The flashback often foregrounds a certain subjectivity, thus making us share the intimacy of the character and favouring identification processes. The part played by memory is thus essential, hence also the possible unreliability of the testimony in so far as memory may fail to account for the events or else may lead to a biased evocation. The spectator often tends to trust the character on account of the confessional quality of the retrospective narration, yet this may be misleading too. There is thus involved in the use of flashback a certain manipulation. This first concerns point of view since what is filmed rarely corresponds to the perspective of the narrative voice enunciating the flashback. It may also concern the motivations of the characters involved and depend upon the circumstances in which the flashback is narrated. Reliability may be reinforced by a juxtaposition and confrontation of varied testimonies or, as in Kubrick’s The Killing, by means of a superior, objective, almost omniscient, narrative voice. The flashback may now seem a rather trite device, but its role in film noir is quite prominent and contributes to the enduring appeal of the genre since its inception.

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Turim, Maureen, Flashbacks in Film, Routledge, New York, 1989.

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1  This name is emblematic of the character’s unceasing quest for clues and « keys ».

2  There are however many similarities between the two films. In both cases, the main protagonist is trying to escape from his past and lead a normal life. He finds refuge and a modest working class job in a small town at a garage (a sign of normalcy?). In both films however, the fugitive is traced back and the past intrudes upon the present first by means of an unexpected visit. There is no way to escape the past and both protagonists are led to their death.

3  The very same sentence is uttered by Michael O’Hara in the opening scene of The Lady from Shanghaï (1947) by Orson Welles, a film which also uses a retrospective structure.

4  Possibly also establishing the subjective origin of the flashback.

5  It makes us think of the voice of the commentator in the famous newsreel broadcast, « The March of Time », also pastiched by Welles in Citizen Kane.

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Référence papier

Gilles Menegaldo, « Flashbacks in Film Noir »Sillages critiques, 6 | 2004, 157-175.

Référence électronique

Gilles Menegaldo, « Flashbacks in Film Noir »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2009, consulté le 23 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gilles Menegaldo

Professeur de Littérature et Cinéma anglo-saxons, Université Poitiers

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