THE FLASHBACK STORY
- from D. W. Griffith to Wayne's World.
Hallucinating into a cup 'o Java, Tom Neal is about to
Flash Back in DETOUR.
It would be really convenient to begin by saying that the Flashback, as we know
it in movies, was an avant-garde technique from intellectual cinema that found
its way into commercial movies. But that's not true.
Although there are Italian, French and Swedish claims to the innovation, most
sources still credit D. W. Griffith with the introduction of the Flashback
Simply stated, a Flashback is a scene or event taking place before the natural
progression of events in a story, that is inserted into the narrative out of
sequence. A simple example: in Get Shorty, John Travolta tells how a Miami
drycleaner absconded with a bundle of money to Las Vegas. Instead of just letting
Travolta tell the tale straight, the film 'Flashes back' and shows key moments
from the drycleaner's tale. When the 'story within a story' ends, we pop back to
Travolta finishing his tale.
Even the most simple Flashback is an interesting phenomenon. Films have a
narrative tension, that Flashbacks tend to warp: when one is immersed in the
simple 'reality' of a movie, a Flashback can come as an unnerving jolt, or a
challenge to the senses. Not only is the 'reality' being watched interrupted, but
a real time-warp sensation can be imparted, greater than just a verbal 'oh, this
happened the week before.' The visual texture of film affects us differently than
literature. A Flashback plays mindgames with time.
Clearly Griffith wasn't thinking about time travel when he started using
Flashbacks. But he did become consumed with them, and even leap-frogged the idea
to conceive of a cinematic time structure of even more complexity. His
Intolerance is a construction of no fewer than four parallel plotlines happening
in different time periods. Taking intolerance through history as his theme,
Griffith interweaves his stories around each other, splintering time-sense and
proposing through cinema the thesis that there are unchanging human truths
bridging the ages. Further complicating Intolerance was Griffith's frequent
return to the same view of the Madonna 'gently rocking the cradle' of the Baby
Jesus. This ultimate Flashback is not to an earlier event, but to a concept
entirely out of time, Eternal Virtue.
Impressive as it was, in 1916 Intolerance probably confused more people than it
inspired. Convoluted Flashback structures are not only intellectually based, they
tend to distance the viewer from that 'simple reality' they come to the movies to
enjoy. It is no surprise that many great movies with complicated or innovative
Flashback structures were not particularly popular, not crowd-pleasers. Of the
films discussed herein, few were big successes when first released.
In a general sense, Flashbacks really became the 'thing to do' with Citizen Kane,
which investigated the life of Charles Foster Kane completely out of
sequence, depending upon which character's memory was being audited. There is
actually another earlier film called The Power and the Glory, written by Preston
Sturges, which writer Richard Corliss has noted as being the real progenitor of
Kane. In it the life of a powerful but flawed man is told in what seems a random
order, but an order that contrasts the man's strengths and weaknesses at
different stages of his career. 1
To some degree, The Godfather Part 2
uses this same structure, to compare the lives of father-and-son Mafia kingpins.
In the '40's, after Citizen Kane, Flashbacks were everywhere. For every Sergeant
York with a 'straight' storyline, there was a Casablanca, where past events
crucial to a present-time crisis are revealed through a specific character's
memories. If aliens studying Earthlings researched '40's films, they might
conclude that intense emotional crises cause humans to spontaneously re-live key
events in their past.
Right about then, Pop Psychology had become a big Hollywood trend, and these
'time trips' made simple thrillers seem more intellectually valid. In Spellbound
Flashbacks reveal surreal Salvador Dali episodes that turn out to be facile
symbol-laden abstractions of normal Flashback memories. In The Locket, a
character Flashes back, but instead of his Flashback ending, another Flashback
within it begins, without ever returning to prime reality.
In that film the confusion was meant to express a theme of insanity, but many
scripts used Flashbacks as an excuse to show unmotivated events in
non-chronological order and from unspecific points of view, to 'complicate'
otherwise simple stories.
One example of a sloppy Flashback is in Ingmar Bergman's A Lesson in Love. A
character has a memory of an event in the past. Within that Flashback, the
character exits the screen, and two other characters talk, revealing facts that
are never spoken again. So Bergman's character had a Flashback to events he never
In Stage Fright, Hitchcock developed the good idea that a Flashback should be the
subjective reality of the person Flashing Back. But he took it too far for his
audience. A crime witness's Flashback turns out to be a lie, and when its
contents are later refuted, the audience felt cheated, as if Agatha Christie had
ended a mystery by saying 'Ignore chapter four, it was all untrue'. Hitchcock
clearly wanted to extend the range of his thriller by using this clever wrinkle,
but film pictures can't lie very well - in a movie, something either happens, or
Otto Preminger in Laura edged close to the same problem. The life of murder
victim Gene Tierney is narrated in Flashbacks by radio personality Clifton Webb.
Later, not only is Laura revealed to be alive, Webb is exposed as a psychotic
killer. If the flashbacks were Webb's 'subjective reality,' we ought to question
the 'truth' of everything in them. Through them detective Dana Andrews has fallen
in love with a woman he's never met. Well, we've never met her either, except
through the warped vision of Clifton Webb, so anything we assume about Laura
really ought to be in grave doubt!. What probably keeps Laura from alienating its
audience is that the Flashbacks missrepresent nothing crucial in its twisting
Kurosawa's Rashomon, about three totally conflicting Flashback versions of an
event, also avoided Hitchcock's problem, because its 'lying Flashbacks' were the
subject of the story and not the hook for a plot twist.
The lesson then, is that Subjective Realities invalidate conventional narrative:
if you can't tell the real scenes from the subjective fantasies and delusions,
then you can't say anything is 'real' or not. Surrealists love pictures like this
(Peter Ibbetson) precisely because their aesthetic aim is the destruction of
Singin' in the Rain turns this problem into a comedic asset. It begins with a
series of 'lying' Flashbacks about the career rise of star Don Lockwood. Don's
narration lies, but the pictures reveal the truth. This 'pictures don't lie'
satire has always gone down very well with audiences.
Flashbacks with bizarre structures show up in very mainstream movies. It's a
Wonderful Life is almost half Flashback, and relies on an almost Science
Fiction-like excursion to an alternate reality for the rest of its story. Again,
here is a brilliant film that wasn't very well received initially - was it
because it was 'too complicated?' This 'negative subjunctive' device, what
might have happened but didn't, is a favorite for ironic Science Fiction
writers, notably Philip K. Dick (Man In the High Castle).
One very successful, if illogical, device is the use of a Flashback-like montage
to skip forward in the narrative. This ellipsis device can be seen in Red River,
where John Wayne hunkers down and predicts that 'In ten years, we're going to
turn three cows into more cattle than you can shake a stick at', or something to
that effect. A couple of quick dissolves later, Wayne has sprouted silver hair, a
younger actor has morphed into Montgomery Clift, and Wayne immediately says,
'Well here it is ten years later, we got more cows than we can shake a stick at -
what do we do now?' Ten years go by in about ten seconds. Howard Hawks repeated
the structure for his similar Land of the Pharaohs, except there the hyperdrive
time leap is prompted by a little kid asking the architect how long it will take
to build a pyramid. A minute later, ten years have passed, and the kid has become
Dewey Martin, saying 'so that's how pyramids are built.'
This gag became overused, especially in musical biographies, where song medleys
skip over years of labor in a few seconds, making it seem as though the musical
personality was living not a life, but some kind of surreal melody dream. In
Anthony Mann's Bend of the River, James Stewart asks a farmer on a riverboat how
difficult it will be to get their new community established before Winter comes.
Sure enough, the farmer's answer is accompanied with a 'building a settlement'
montage. A few seconds later the settlers are standing around their completed
village saying, 'Well, that was a lot of work, wasn't it?' Savant loves Mann
Westerns, but some of the sermonizing in the Stewart series makes me wish the
montage would end right back on the riverboat, with Stewart responding, 'Gee,
that sounds like a lot of work, building a settlement. Let's go back to town
instead.' This ellipsis device is kidded near the end of Singin' in the Rain.
Gene Kelly pitches his idea for the 'Broadway Melody' musical number he wants to
shoot. We immediately see not his pitch, but the finished extravaganza itself.
Upon returning to 'reality', the studio head says, 'I can't quite visualize it.
I'll have to see it on film first.' 2
The narrative thread continues in
The Flashback Story Part Two.
1. The Power and the Glory is examined in detail in Talking
Pictures by Richard Corliss, Woodstock, New York, The Overland Press, 1974.
New York, Penguin Books, 1975.
2. Writer Robert S. Birchard was the source, long ago, for the insights into
Red River and Singin' in the Rain
Text © Copyright Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson