The Unreliable Narrator: Caligari, Rashomon, and the art of the B-Movie

The Locket (1946)

The producer-added ending to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) merged the horrific scenario that went before into an hallucination of the protagonist’s disturbed mind. The savage critique of Germany’s emerging fascism was blunted, but a new dark expressionism survived. States of mind and dreams were irrevocably projected onto the cinema screen. Fetishism and fantastic scenarios ushered in the demonic and the surreal.

The deranged mind in Caligari was revealed through flashback.  Cinema moving backwards and forward in time, a quantum leap that thrust the oneiric engagement of the viewer within the frame of flickering images from passive observer to a participant who must engage actively in constructing a narrative.  The revealed unreliability of the narrative throwing the viewer into an abyss of incomprehension and confusion in movies like Un Chien Andolou.  A fractured kaleidoscope where meaning is continually undone and rewoven before the audience’s eyes.

Akira Kurosawa’s break-through movie Rashomon (1950), uses multiple flashbacks by different narrators to explore the nature of truth.  Truth not as fact, not as concrete events, but truth as competing and self-serving ‘stories’ about the narrator’s experience of a crime as recalled by different protagonists.  Kurosawa based his scenario on a short story by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, which, unlike Kurosawa’s film, has the differing and conflicting re-tellings of the crime left hanging and unresolved.  Kurosawa on the other hand pursues a contrived moralism by adding a redemptive ending about the adoption of a foundling in swaddling clothes.

The creative influence of German expressionism on the dark Hollywood b-movies known as film noir through a generation of expatriate European directors is well-documented.  One such director is John Brahm, who in the 1946 b-movie The Locket made audacious use of flashbacks from different narrators in a story about a schizophrenic woman who is both a kleptomaniac and a murderer. The woman’s psychosis is revealed through not only a series of flashbacks from different narrators, but at one point, a flashback within a flashback.  I have previously reviewed The Locket here. In this discussion, a quote from  Borde’s & Chaumeton’s  seminal ‘A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953 (1955) is sufficient:  “Never has the device of the flashback been taken so far.  Narratives are jumbled up, parentheses opened, exploits slot one inside the other like those Chinese toys sold in bazaars, and the figure of the heroine gradually comes into focus…”. Also, due credit should be given to Sheridan Gibney and Norma Barzman (uncredited), who wrote the original script. The ending is decidedly downbeat with a dark irony pointing not only to the uncertainty of the anti-hero’s fate, and an ambivalence about her culpability, but overarching doubts about the reliability of each and all the narrators of her story.

2 thoughts on “The Unreliable Narrator: Caligari, Rashomon, and the art of the B-Movie”

  1. Tony, you do a brilliant job of connecting the use of flashbacks in the cinema, bringing in some particularly complex examples that probe into some profound cinematic explorations of psychological and philosophical aspects of Weine’s and Kurosawa’s focus. Excellent use of ‘kaleidoscope’ and that famous Bunuel film, and penetrating and economical look at the choices crafted with scholarly heft. Hence the matters of deranged mind in the Weine, and verisimilitude in the Kurosawa get right down to the most vital aspects of the films, and your work here with THE LOCKET is really extraordinary, and informed with some obvious personal appreciation. I do love the way you weaved all three, concerning yourself with only the aspects that can be posed as crucial comparison points, though taken on their own each capsule is far more revealing and insightful than longer treatments. This is really spectacular I must say. Ha, you have me wanting to watch all three films again, and that would be the ultimate compliment for you. I am also thinking of other great films with celebrated use of flashback: CASABLANCA, CITIZEN KANE, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BlIMP, LAURA.


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