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Unreliable Narratives in Film

Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, and Akira Kurosawa set the narrative standards for the later mind-blowing films of Christopher Nolan like Memento and Inception.

An “unreliable narrative” is a term used to describe two kinds of cinema—one in which the teller of events on the screen proves untrustworthy (consciously or not), or a cinematic narrative of events that the viewer cannot distinguish as having happened or not.

In 1950, when filmmakers did not deliberately deceive the viewer, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright manipulated audiences into following the story of a man implicated in a murder, played by Richard Todd. On the basis of his story, our sympathies go out to him; we want him proven innocent. Jane Wyman’s character risks jail and her family’s resources trying to keep Todd from being caught by the police. But by the conclusion of the film, evidence mounts against Todd to the point that he can no longer deny his guilt.

That was a simpler time for moviegoers. Audiences were trusting of many things in society: newspapers, the government, religion. It was one thing for a character to plead innocence and be secretly guilty, but to actually depict his lies as if they were true implicated the director as well. Hitchcock always had narrative tricks up his sleeve to create suspense and surprises.

In 1950, another film, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, took the concept of four unreliable narrators to the extreme in depicting the story of a murder and rape from multiple perspectives. In the end, all the versions clash, as we find all of the stories have been tainted by the egos of the storytellers, interested in preserving their dignity, if only to themselves. Ultimately, the viewer of the film will struggle to determine what actually happened.

Rashomon, unlike Stage Fright, does not intend to deceive the audience and, in some respects, puts us on much shakier ground. It has become the emblem for narratives whose conflicting viewpoints remain unresolved.

In 1966, the heist film Gambit deceived its audience during the first third of the movie by showing Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine stealing a priceless artifact from the world’s richest man. Everything goes perfectly, and the entire time MacLaine doesn’t say a word.

Then we learn that what we've seen is Caine reciting his plan to his partner. The rest of the movie comically plays off this narrative, as nothing goes right. The movie’s tagline was “tell the ending, but please don’t tell the beginning”.

One of the more habitual liars in history, not just cinema, appears in The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988). Terry Gilliam films what the Baron (John Neville) tells his listeners, and the entire movie revels in its duplicities. Call it a combination of prevarication and fantasy. The end result is a funny film with incredible special effects.

Indeed, Gilliam’s films after Munchhausen have pursued this grafting of fantastic narrative and narrator: The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys (1995), The Brothers Grimm (2005) and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009).

Perhaps the most egregious misdirection in cinematic history occurs in The Usual Suspects (1995). Much of what we know and see in the film comes from Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who has created his narrative from bits on the bulletin board in the room where he’s being interviewed by customs agent, Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri).

What we don’t know is that Kint is actually the mythical gangster Keyser Soze! The revelation of Kint’s real identity, besides changing the meaning of all we had seen, puts into question what really happened. Having depended almost completely on Verbal, we, like Agent Kujan, are left dangling, a helpless pawn of the master manipulator.

And yet, The Usual Suspects appears naive in its epic deception when compared with Memento (2000). Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is determined to find his wife’s murderer. Unfortunately, he has no short-term memory, relying instead on cryptic tattoos he gives himself and dozens of Polaroids he uses as messages from his recent past.

Writer and director Christopher Nolan tells Leonard’s story backwards, however, thus subjecting the audience to a double deception. We learn not to trust Leonard’s memory of events, and then we find out every ten or fifteen minutes that what we had just seen was not what we thought we had seen—or at least, not completely. Worse, we learn at the end of Memento that Leonard has purposely made decisions to confuse the narrative.

Never has a movie audience felt more helpless. Even worse than not knowing what was or was not real, as in The Usual Suspects, Memento leaves its viewers in the hands of a character who has no sustained contact with reality. We may feel the same way after watching Rashomon; however, Kurosawa is not manipulating us. Our sense of bewilderment is the pure byproduct of the stories themselves. Their respective contradictions becomes inseparable from the film’s meaning. Nor does Kuroosawa extend his narrative skepticism to his subsequent movies.

Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan created an epic film, Inception (2010), based on the premise that all that we have seen may have happened in the mind of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). The fact is that we can’t decisively know what has actually happened, which is somewhat understandable as we are taken into deeper and deeper levels of the mind. If this trip seems familiar, David Cronenberg took us on a similar excursion in his film, eXistenZ (1999).

Before Stage Fright and Rashomon, Fritz Lang made The Woman in the Window (1944), which had one of the most jolting resolutions of any film up to that time. Most of the action—about a Psychology Professor (Edward G. Robinson) who gets involved with a femme fatale and murder—turns out to be a dream. The audience is completely unsuspecting and can be, as some critics of the film have been, very unforgiving over the use of this device. Lang was a pioneer whose film foreshadowed narratives like that of Inception.

A more subtly unreliable narrative appears in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). I mentioned that he had many narrative tricks; none may have been more jarring than when he killed his protagonist, Marion Crane, less than halfway through the film.

A protagonist’s death may be palpable once she has resolved her conflicts. After speaking to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), Marion has decided to take back the money she had stolen from her bank. While she is taking a shower, you can see she has unburdened herself and looks relieved if not happy. Then the shower curtain opens. . .as if Hitchcock means to deny us, more than Marion, her redemption.

This maneuver virtually makes Psycho an experimental film. The audience is lost, desperately seeking to find a way out of the story. Because we believe that Norman is innocent and the mother is guilty, our sympathies slide toward him. We hold our breath as he cleans up the motel room, puts Marion’s body in the trunk of the car, and sinks the car in a swamp behind the motel (with the nice touch of having the car stop sinking for five to ten seconds).

Is it accidental that Marion’s name is a near anagram for “Norman”? Besides, her sister (Vera Miles) and fiancé (John Gavin) are not strong enough to take control of the story. They are like Arbogast (Martin Balsam): investigators looking for the woman who stole the money, and essentially operating in the dark.

This narrative situation is certainly worse than, say, the kind we experience in a David Mamet movie, like House of Games or The Spanish Prisoner, where we consciously allow ourselves to be strung along, baffled, and perplexed. We’ve picked this poison and have not been tricked—which is not to say that we won’t become extremely frustrated figuring out whether his characters are being straight with us or not.

In Psycho, by the time we’ve seen Norman sink Arbogast’s body and car in the swamp, we start to suspect that we’ve chosen the wrong person to attach our desire for some narrative fulfillment. But it’s too late. We’re in a narrative bed with “a psycho,” as unreliable a narrator as you can get. Worse, the mother side of Norman gets the last words in the film, a coup de grace for an audience that was once only following Marion and the stolen money.

Postscript: There are more movies than I can remember that have left me at the end with the feeling that I am not completely sure how to assess what I have just seen. Some examples include: John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967); Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990); Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990); and several Luis Bunuel films: especially The Phantom of Liberty (1974), The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Bell De Jour (1967), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). I’m sure others will come to mind. What are yours?

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Porterincollingswood June 07, 2012 at 01:09 AM
Mulholland Drive
Porterincollingswood June 07, 2012 at 03:30 AM
Shutter Island
Ned Bulmash June 07, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Rite, Shutter Island is a good example. Thanks Bob, I completely forgot about Baron M. He was a real figure in history.
Disillusionment June 17, 2012 at 08:25 PM
How about one of the earliest examples? The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which funnily enough, the 'unreliable narrator' approach was an idea thrown in later by the producers!
ChrisHalkides September 02, 2013 at 04:04 PM
The protagonist, played by Kevin Costner in "No Way Out" is not who we think he is, although there are a few hints along the way.

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