Where It All Began— The Montage (Film Editing)

There are two basic types of montage. What is sometimes referred to as the Hollywood montage differs substantially from the European montage. The latter, developed to its highest level by the Russian filmmakers of the 1920s, used a carefully designed and edited series of straight cuts to develop story, situation, and character; it is most effectively demonstrated in the celebrated "Odessa steps" sequence in Eisen-stein’s Battleship Potemkin.

The Hollywood montage, on the other hand, is almost invariably a transition. It too is composed of a number of silent cuts, often in a series of dissolves, and always musically underscored, but there its similarity to its foreign cousin ends. It is, in truth, simply a more complicated, and often more pretentious, version of the straight dissolve.

A familiar example: As a sequence ends, the camera dollys in to a shot of a window. Through it we see a tree in full summer foliage. Now the scene dissolves to another shot of the same window (often an exact duplicate of the preceding setup), but the tree is now bare. The next shot shows the tree and the surrounding terrain covered by a blanket of snow. The final dissolve discloses the tree heavily loaded with blossoms, and as the camera pulls back to a full shot of the interior of the room and a new scene gets under way, the viewer knows that approximately 1 year has elapsed.

A similar series is often used to convey transition in space. A shot of New York’s skyline dissolves to the cornfields of the Middle West, then to a spectacular shot of the Rocky Mountains, and finally to a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, taking us pictorially across the breadth of the United States. It may not be as economical as a shot of a character saying "I’m flying to San Francisco," but it’s a lot prettier, and when constructed in less hackneyed style, it is better storytelling. (Obviously, the preceding time transition montage would not work for "Hawaii Five-O," nor would a location transition connecting less well known places have any meaning. Problem: How would one devise a seasonal transition for a tropical location or a location transition transporting the viewer from Riyadh to Timbuktu?)

The Hollywood montage is also used as a means of exposing a character’s unspoken thoughts or to pictorialize his subconscious experiences, as in dreams or nightmares. Such montages are really moving collages, and their effectiveness depends in great part on the creativeness and dramatic skill of the editor.

Much ingenuity has been expended in countless efforts at originality, but the weight of past accomplishments makes such efforts increasingly difficult to realize. In many instances, the efforts are abandoned, and the desired objectives are achieved through a simple exchange of dialogue or, in a sometimes desperate throwback to earlier times, by the use of titles. But each new film presents new opportunities, and in the words of the old pro, "Whatever the technique—if it does the job, use it."

It is unfortunately true that many screenwriters, especially those schooled in television, still think in terms of dialogue when constructing a transition in time or place, but the recent experiments with old techniques seem to indicate that the viewer would rather see it than hear it. Expository dialogue is still anathema to any filmmaker with talent or taste, and a good editor with a bent for resourcefulness and an eye for imagery can please the viewer’s visual sense, develop the situation, and still save time by creating a pictorial transition.

Even in Hollywood films, the opportunity to build a montage that carries the developmental potential of a regular sequence does occasionally present itself. Such opportunities arise most frequently in suspense films, and an effective one is found in Muidez, My Sweet, the 1944 version of Raymond Chandler’s, Faiewell, My Lovely.

At one point in the film, Phillip Marlowe, played by Dick Powell, is laid low by the usual blow to the head. A recurring effect, an engulfing black cloud, wipes out the scene. It clears up to show a somewhat distorted shot of Marlowe being dumped into an elevator. The next cut shows him regaining consciousness just as the elevator tips forward to send him sliding through the open door. Now the camera falls with him as he flails away at empty space while the isolated elevator car accelerates off into an abysmal background. Next, Marlowe laboriously climbs a steep flight of stairs, only to be confronted by the gigantic, menacing faces of his tormentors. Whether drugged or frightened into a panic, he grabs for the stair railing, only to have it melt under his hand. Once more he falls headlong into a black, bottomless pit. Now Marlowe approaches a series of doors—doorframes, really—set out in empty space. As he stumbles through them, leisurely pursued by a man in a white laboratory coat, each succeeding door is progressively smaller until, as he reaches the end of the line, he can barely squeeze his head through the opening. (This effect was borrowed from one of my own recurring nightmares.)

The man in the white coat, seen for the first time in the film, has kept pace with Marlowe by walking through the doors as if they weren’t there. He carries a syringe. As Marlowe thrusts his head through the last tiny doorframe, he looks up to see the cruel, sardonic face of his pursuer. Marlowe raises his hand in a feeble gesture of defiance, and we cut to a close insert of a giant-sized syringe as it plunges toward the camera. Marlowe falls away once more, and the whole picture goes into a rapid spin, which, as it slows to a stop, turns out to be a ceiling fixture seen through a tattered screen of smoke. The camera pulls back to disclose Marlowe lying on a small bed in a sparsely furnished room. Although the smoke effect continues to diffuse the scene, we know we are now looking at reality as seen through Marlowe’s drug-bemused eyes.

For the technically minded, here is a breakdown of the montage. It starts from the center of the black-out effect.

Time {in seconds)

Total time (in seconds)


Marlowe is dragged into elevator



Marlow regains consciousness, slides out of elevator




Marlowe falls away from elevator




Medium shot of Marlowe climbing stairs toward camera; large heads of Moose and Marriot appear in background




Close over-shoulder shot of Marlowe; in background large close-up of Marriot dissolves into a large close-up of Moose; Moose reaches out for Marlowe




Close-up of Marlowe, reacts to vision




Over-shoulder shot of Marlowe; close-up of Moose in background (a continuation of shot 5)




Medium shot of Marlowe leaning back on melting handrail; he falls




Marlowe falls through space

A wavering dissolve to:




Long shot of line of doors; Marlowe enters shot, stops at first door, looks back over his shoulder

(With this shot a superimposition begins— a ragged cobweb effect—which continues over all shots to the end of the montage.)




Close-up of Moose; dissolves to close-up

of man in a white laboratory coat




Close-up of Marlowe; reacts and starts through the first door




Full shot from behind Marlowe as he goes through the first door; man in white follows through closed door



Time (in seconds)

Total time (in seconds)


Front medium shot of Marlowe through second door (in foreground); man in white follows




Close over-shoulder shot as Marlowe reaches last door and looks back at pursuer




Close-up of man in white as he walks toward Marlowe




Over-shoulder close-up of Marlowe as he starts through last door




Close-up of Marlowe as he comes through door toward camera and sees:




Close-up of man in white confronting him




Insert syringe




Marlowe falls back through door




Marlowe falls through spinning hole

Dissolve to:




Spinning ceiling light; when it stops, the cobweb effect has subtly changed to a moderately heavy frozen smoke effect; to stop of spinning



Note: In general, the cuts become shorter as the montage builds to a climax.

This series of dissolves and straight cuts lasts less than a minute and a half, but in that short time we are able to cover a passage of days, to introduce a new face (that of the spurious psychiatrist, whose character and purpose are immediately clear), and to develop a new plot situation—all without resorting to a single line of expository dialogue.

This montage was originally intended to be a concoction of surrealistic scenes, in the style of Salvador Dali, but at the last moment it was decided to use more translatable imagery. Dramatizing the commonly experienced dream sensations of falling, spinning, and claustrophobic spaces encourages the viewer to identify with Marlowe’s state of mind, and avoiding the explicit encourages him to share Marlowe’s bewilderment, to live with him through his moments of terror, rather than to regard them from a distance with a clinical eye.

The building of such a pictorial sequence, with its sense of personal creative involvement, evokes some of the feeling of the early "story-on-the-back-of-a-menu" days and affords the editor a very special pleasure. It is the nearest thing we have to that triumph of ingenuity over ignorance, the "creative editing" of Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and others.

In the first quarter of this century, the screen was dumb. Since 90 percent of the Russian people were illiterate, titles were useless. There was, of course, an alternative, but pantomime, although a fine art, is the antithesis of screen acting, which must present at least the appearance of reality. Working within this limitation, the Russian filmmakers were occasionally able to construct amazingly real films by creating montages of carefully shot and cleverly juxtaposed images. Their techniques have been fully described and analyzed by the creators and practitioners of the art and by many of their admirers. Here I will offer only an example or two and draw some conclusions as to their possible value for modern films.

Example 1: In an oversimplification typical of early films, Eisenstein’s The Old and the New {The General Line) shows an instructor demonstrating the use of a mechanical cream separator to a skeptical audience of backward peasants.* The success or failure of the instructor’s demonstration will determine his success or failure in organizing a collective.

The ragged peasants, some 20 or 30 in all, are assembled in a bare room, staring at a covered object some 5 feet in height. A number of group shots and close-ups of the doubting Thomases, interspersed with cuts of the somewhat anxious instructor, create anticipatory suspense. Then, with the flourish of a magician disclosing a mysteriously manifested cage of white doves, the instructor uncovers the separator.

In an unusual sequence of cuts, the act of flipping off the machine’s covering is played in two separate and different setups. The movement at the beginning of the second cut actually overlaps, or repeats, the movement of the last half of the first cut. In the continuation of the action, the drape’s landing on the floor is played in three separate and similarly overlapping cuts.

This series of cuts creates an interesting effect—it gives an "entrance" to an inanimate object. Drawing out the action of the removal, the tossing aside, and the landing of the drape supplies the climax dramatically demanded by the suspense which leads up to the separator’s introduction. It also lends greater emphasis to the subsequent scenes.

For now a new suspense buildup begins. The instructor laboriously starts to crank the heavy flywheel which, through a chain of gears, spins the milk-containing chamber. When it has acquired a bit of momentum, he turns the job over to a young, obviously eager peasant. A long series of cuts follows, with the action roughly divided into three parts. First, close-ups and group shots of the peasants intercut with shots of the revolving flywheel, spinning gears, and whirling milk establish and build the peasants’ growing disdain as cuts to the spouts show no results. Interestingly, in this section only the machine moves—the reactions of the humans are fixed in still shots, each one a portrait worthy of a gallery showing. The symbolism of the static peasants opposed to the dynamism of the machine is obvious but effective.

But soon the watchers’ aloof skepticism turns to laughter and sneers. The reactions of the instructor and his two peasant supporters show increasing anxiety. As their frustration deepens, movement number two begins. A cut of one of the nozzles shows what might be a pulsating drop of white liquid just beginning to form. Now the shots of the instructor and the peasants mirror the expected changes in attitudes as further cuts to the machine disclose that the skim milk and the cream are indeed beginning to ooze out of their respective spouts. These cuts build slowly—several cuts of the spouts are needed to convince the peasants (and us) that the white liquid is really starting to flow.

The third development is triumphant. The machine pours out streams of skim milk and cream. The instructor, his young helper, and the peasant woman who has been the prime mover in the demonstration are ecstatic,- the peasants are now all firm believers. A few gratuitous shots of leaping fountains of water dissolve us through to the next sequence, which shows milk cows being delivered to the now organized collective, naturally.

This sequence is some 6 minutes in length, and in the 6 minutes, the viewer is completely convinced that the once skeptical peasants are ready to give up their "old" practices of manual labor for the "new"—the mechanization of their daily work.

A montage of this sort is truly a realization of the old adage "One picture is worth a thousand words." A successful demonstration is always more convincing than a verbal argument, as any good salesman knows. Obviously, few people today are interested in cream separators, but the principles involved in the sequence have wide application. Every dramatic structure or movement depends on change—change of attitude, of action, or of direction—and these changes must be found understandable and acceptable by the viewer, who cannot be conditioned as arbitrarily as a character in a script.

Let us create another example of the power of an image to clarify a subtle thought or idea—this one from the world of science. Most people are aware that matter is supposed to consist of submicroscopic particles whirling at great speed in relatively vast areas of space. Yet it is very difficult to convince a person that the hardwood coffee table on which he props his feet is almost complete emptiness. He will hear your words, but his senses will call you a liar. So let us develop a series of images, of cuts.

First, a stationary bicycle wheel. Its spokes, although clearly visible, occupy only a small percentage of the space between the hub and the rim. Even a blind person can easily poke a finger through any number of places without fear of damage. Now spin the wheel rapidly. The spokes disappear, showing a slightly diffused area between rim and hub which seems quite empty. Yet even a person with 20/20 vision would not dare try to push a finger through that apparently empty space—it is as solid as a board and twice as dangerous. This exercise is an oversimplification, but properly presented, it can help a viewer understand how apparently empty space can become rockhard when rapid movement is involved.

The foregoing example is somewhat abstruse and removed, but so are many problems of human interrelations, which are the building blocks of drama.If clever cutting can make a star out of a cream separator or furnish a useful explanation of atomic movement, think of what could be done with a scene in which the central figures were Paul Newman and. . . .

Which brings us back to the present and a vividly dramatized scene in The Veidict. It is quite short, and it is not a true montage, but it approaches that technique in its creative use of the image as a substitute for dialogue.

Newman must find a particular nurse to testify for him in a "wrongful death" trial. Her testimony is of vital importance—his case, his reputation, and his future as a lawyer all depend on it. Yet the nurse is so frightened for her own safety that she has left town and changed her name and her job to avoid any involvement in the proceedings. Obviously, obtaining her cooperation will be difficult—probably impossible.

Newman finally locates her, but in order to see her he is forced to disguise his purpose, his profession, and even his place of residence. His deceptive approach has barely begun when she sees, carelessly exposed in his breast pocket, the shuttle flight envelope which shows he has come from Boston, the scene of the crime.

In a close-up, she looks at him, traumatized, her eyes showing her fear and her awareness of his true mission. In his close-up, in turn, he pleads silently. Back to her—her eyes fill with tears as she begins to cry quietly. Now Newman speaks, "Will you help me?" And the sequence ends. We know that she will cooperate, whatever the consequences, although not a single word relating to the true purpose of the confrontation has been uttered.

It is great acting, but it is also a brilliant series of cuts, an example of "movies" at their best. No playwright, past or present, could, with dialogue, have presented a scene half as concise, and no other theatrical medium could even have begun to duplicate its effectiveness. It is a rare example of the aborted art of montage, an oasis in the desert. And if, to quote Lindgren once more, "the development of film technique has been primarily the development of editing," and I believe it has, then a reinvestigation of the art of "creative editing" is the only way to reach the green fields beyond.

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