Monday, September 19, 2005

The Dissolution of the Dissolve

Others have said their what needs to be said about the late Robert Wise. But one thing in his obituary caught my eye:

In 1959 he filmed "Odds Against Tomorrow," an antiracist drama with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan about a brutal bank robbery that he made without the customary fades (going to black) or dissolves (overlapping scenes) to denote the passage of time. Fades and dissolves, he remarked, tend to slow the tempo and break the mood.

This goes some way towards answering a question I've always had about the development of film editing, namely when American movies started using direct cuts instead of dissolves or fades. For many decades it was an an almost inviolate rule of the grammar of film editing that there had to be some kind of editing effect to denote the passage of time. Generally, the passage of a full day or more was indicated by a fade-out; the passage of a shorter time was indicated by a dissolve or wipe. Direct cutting could indicate the passage of time only as an extreme special effect, like cutting from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy New Year" in Citizen Kane.

By the '50s, some filmmakers were dissatisfied with this, because, as Wise said, it tended to slow down the pace. Also, creating the dissolves lessened the quality of the shots that were the subjects of the dissolve. So various directors started to just cut from one scene to the next, assuming that the audience would get that time was supposed to have passed. The French New Wave probably had the biggest part in popularizing this technique, but Wise appears to have converted to the direct cut even before Breathless came out.

As to which was the first movie, period, to use direct cuts instead of dissolves, I don't know. And even after most directors and editors had switched to direct cuts, there were some holdouts. The Wild Bunch (1969) uses dissolves between scenes; so does The Man Who Would Be King (1975). And Star Wars used cross-screen wipes, just like the old serials it was borrowing from.

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