Focalization, Narration and Perspective in Cinema

 

Focalization is the perspective through which a narrative is presented. The style of focalization produces different styles of narrative and different conceptions of character. Hitchcock’s use of focalization ensured a sense of suspense and drama was produced. Hitchcock explained that a ‘Superior range of knowledge creates suspense [the essence of drama] because we can anticipate effects that the character cannot.’1 Essentially this is dramatic irony. Suspense and drama is produced when the audience knows the outcome or some alternative knowledge concerning the action on the screen. The perspective through which narrative is presented is important in the production of this superior range of knowledge. In the film Psycho (1960) when Lila is upstairs searching we are allowed the knowledge that Bates is downstairs. Lila doesn’t know this but we do. We hold our breath hoping that Lila gets out in time and every slow movement that Lila makes intensifies this panic. Hitchcock uses a objective, distant perspective to produce suspense and drama.

The range of knowledge and information we receive concerning that which affects the characters of a film is controlled by the type of narration and the style of focalization. In The Big Sleep (1946) we are given a fixed viewing position. An objective and closed-off focus on the protagonist Marlowe. We don’t get the same form of suspense as in Hitchcock’s Psycho because we never see more than Marlowe. We also rarely let into his thoughts or rationalizations. This can be explained by the attempt to make the film and Marlowe ‘more mysterious …[and interesting because] we do not know his inferences and deductions before he reveals them at the end.’2 However I personally believe this is the incorrect style for the film. I would assert that the The Big Sleep‘s style is incorrect because Chandler’s book and his Marlowe is interesting because of his continuously rationalizing and editorializing narrative.

Another similar film but one with a different style to The Big Sleep is Double Indemnity (1944). In this film we are given both the objective distance of The Big Sleep and a subjective style of focalization. We are also allowed the position of knowledge that Hitchcock utilized in Psycho. The beginning of the film we see a stumbling shot Walter Neff, we are given important information concerning his fate. The film proceeds by telling us how Neff comes to be shot through the technique of analepsis (flashback). What this does is create a marked reading of the events that follow. Our understanding of the chain of events that led to Neff’s destruction are coloured by our privileged position of knowledge. Although I dislike the production of The Big Sleep and its style of focalization it is not because the technique is flawed but rather because the style of the original text, Chandler’s novel, would lead itself to be more subjective and to contain the same style of rationalizing focalizer or voice of the novel.

 

1David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 66.

2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 67.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

3 thoughts on “Focalization, Narration and Perspective in Cinema”

  1. You make a pretty good argument about the lack of focalization in The Big Sleep, and yes we know more of Marlowe in the Chandler’s novel from the first person narrative, but the killing of the casino operator Eddie Marr in movie is not in the book, and makes the film a lot darker than the book. The film stands firmly on its own terms however.

    I think it is worth mentioning that Chandler co-wrote the script of Double Indemnity with director Billy Wilder (from the James M Cain story).

    I would be interested on your views on Murder, My Sweet (aka Farewell, My Lovely) (1944) starring Dick Powell, as this adaptation uses the first person narrative with Marlowe voice-overs.

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