A dead man floats in a pool.
“Before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it,” says the narrator, “maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.”
The eerie and elegant opening to Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” triggers a flashback into the sordid tale of how the dead man, “a movie writer with a couple of B-pictures to his credit,” wound up shot three times at the mansion of a fading studio star. The 1950 film is a meditation on tragedy and dramatic irony that, like Homer’s “Odyssey,” relies on shards of the past to sort out the unsettling present.
Flashbacks have been a literary device since humans first etched on cave walls. They echo through prose and poems and early last century became integral to film, fleshing out back stories and histories with dimension and perspective. Unlike the novel, movie flashbacks cannot slip into intricate streams of consciousness or billows of interior thought. But they can lend evocative voices and unforgettable images to place and time.
Flashbacks whisper and boom, taunt and explain, push away veils and illuminate fissures. The best ones, such as those in Kenneth Lonergan’s current Oscar contender “Manchester by the Sea,” lead to insight and revelation that expose the hidden bones of the story playing before us. Lonergan’s dips into the past are born of mystery; they don’t arrive too early or linger too long.
The success of a flashback is a question of a writer’s instinct and a director’s shading. They can be momentary flickers or substantial motifs that underline drama and character for dramatic and comic effect. The scene of Ben Stiller getting his manhood caught in a zipper on prom night in “There’s Something About Mary” informs us of the uproarious bad luck that permeates his life. Such moments enhance a story, but an ill-conceived flashback can derail momentum and splinter the narrative.
“You go into the past to learn and discover,” said screenwriting guru Robert McKee, author of “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.” “You land with wheels rolling into an ongoing story. A well-done flashback accelerates the pace of the film.” Citing Greek literature and the many-layered 18th century novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” McKee added, “The technique is ancient. Flashbacks mirror the mind.”
They should be “visually and emotionally important,” said screenwriter Eric Roth, whose flashbacks in “Forrest Gump” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” were key to those films. He recently finished a script that relies on flashbacks to draw the character of a Native American woman living amid oil greed and murder in the Osage Nation in the 1920s. “Film is like a photograph, you’re trying to show memory.”
“Manchester by the Sea” slides in and out of Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) troubled past. He works as a handyman in Boston but his life is jolted when he returns to his small hometown to care for a nephew. He is weighted with the trauma of a bygone night and Lonergan, who also wrote the script, gradually brings us to the pain and regret that can shatter a man. The flashbacks are set off by a boat, a hospital and a car ride, portals laid almost seamlessly into the narrative so that shades of the past reverberate with the power of a parallel present.
The first draft of the script, however, was told chronologically with no flashbacks. “That didn’t work well,” said Lonergan. “It had no dramatic tension or point of view.” To capture the past crowding in on Chandler, Lonergan also “toyed with using bits of impressionistic memories” before deciding that longer flashbacks were “a natural development in the structure of the story.”
“The fact that [flashbacks] create mystery is a side benefit,” said the director, who is also a playwright, “but a very beneficial one.” His rekindling of the past is judicious, unlike the 1944 film, “Passage to Marseille,” a World War II saga starring Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains, which is a series of flashbacks within flashbacks. “You don’t get confused but Jesus Christ, it’s like a Russian doll,” said Lonergan. “It’s enjoyable, but not the best structure.”
Flashbacks gained prominence in Hollywood in the 1940s as screenwriters were trying to tell nuanced stories in a medium that, unlike a novel, could not penetrate the interior vocabulary of a narrator’s omniscience. One of the most memorable flashbacks in cinema unfolds in “Casablanca,” the 1942 tale of intrigue set in Morocco during World War II. Starring Bogart, Rains and Ingrid Bergman, the movie’s flashback shows Rick (Bogart) and Ilsa (Bergman) falling in love in Paris as German forces press toward the city, forcing them to different fates.
The Paris scene was a bordered-off story within a story. It had a beginning and an end, unlike the recurring and fragmentary flashbacks that would later emerge, as the late screenwriting coach Syd Field noted, in movies such as “Atonement” and “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Memento,” whose intricate flashbacks in the life of an amnesiac opened like an endlessly blooming flower. Venturing in and out of the past in mysteries and thrillers grew increasingly popular in order to explain an incident or a crime that propelled and informed the present day narrative.
Or as McKee, channeling Agatha Christie, put it: “There’s a natural curiosity when a body falls out of a closet.”
A lot of bodies fall out of a lot of places in Quentin Tarantino films. The director bent and contorted time in “Reservoir Dogs” and unleashed a series of flashbacks with quicksilver dialogue to catalog the vicious and eccentric robbers, including Mr. White, Mr. Blonde and Mr. Pink, in a jewelry heist.
In another classic crime caper, Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects,” Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) devilishly unspooled flashbacks that foreshadowed an assault on a freighter purportedly carrying tons of cocaine. Written by Christopher McQuarrie, who won the Academy Award, the film had one of the best ending twists in history and burned the name Keyser Soze into pop culture.
One of the most legendary uses of flashbacks tolled through Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” a 1941 saga inspired by the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Regarded as one of the best films ever made, Kane opens with the word “rosebud” whispered by a dying man in a mansion called Xanadu. We don’t know the meaning of rosebud, but it perplexes like a riddle as a reporter delves into the mosaic of Kane’s audacious life.
As veils fall and pieces take shape, Kane (Welles) ages from a brash, idealistic newspaperman into a conniving publisher bent on power. It is a study of the American dream twisted by ego and avarice. The film has its critics, including McKee, who teaches at international screenwriting seminars and regards Kane as the “perfect example of a self-conscious art movie technique of flashing back for the sake of flashing back.”
Other flashbacks also rest solidly on informing character and can be seen in current TV fare as well as movies. In Netflix’s series “The Crown,” a bio-pic about Queen Elizabeth II, glimpses of the monarch’s youth, including the day her father King George VI ascends the throne, add substance to the duty and tradition that would shape her long reign. In the Amazon series “Transparent,” flashbacks show Morton Pfefferman’s (Jeffrey Tambor) struggle with identity before he comes out as transgender and takes the name Maura.
Sitting on a bus stop bench with a box of chocolates in Savannah, the title character in “Forrest Gump” (Tom Hanks) recounts his life to strangers. “It’s funny,” he says, “what a young man recollects.” The flashbacks take us to a Southern childhood, the world of college football, a meeting with President Kennedy, the Vietnam War and life on a shrimp boat. The script by Roth, who won the Academy Award, is a baby-boomer scrapbook narrated by a guileless, mentally handicapped man. The jaunts into the past are clearly demarcated from the present.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to disrupt the narrative if they [flashbacks] leave you with emotional insight into the character or something historical,” said Roth. “In ‘Gump’s’ case it was also something humorous. It informs but it can also be ironic.”
Like “Forrest Gump” and “Casablanca,” “Sunset Boulevard” gave Hollywood flashbacks and images that would endure.
As “Sunset” opens, sirens wail through Los Angeles toward “one of those great big houses in the 10,000 block.” Cops scurry up steps to a courtyard where the dead man (William Holden), who’s also the narrator, floats in the pool. We then go back in time to the mansion hallways and life of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an insane movie star of the silent age who thinks the police who have arrived to take her away are part of a film crew: “Mr. DeMille,” she says, “I’m ready for my close-up.”