From Editing to Découpage, and from Classical to Modern Cinema

Curator's Note

“Editing,” has never had good PR. It seems mechanical, at best a skill, except when it comes to documentary compilations and newsreel works that are essentially given their existence at the cutting table where they are assembled. “Assembly” is the proper translation of “montage” for Timothy Barnard in his contribution to the indispensable Montage, Découpage, Mise en Scène, a book that aims primarily at fiction films where editing always comes at the end of the production process to assemble what has been shot. Editors generally adhere to plans laid out ahead of time that directors use in determining what to shoot. “Découpage” is what comes ahead of time, whether in a carefully preplanned layout of shots, printed as a continuity script (découpage technique), or more generally in the mind of the film’s director just before or during shooting. Like Barnard, I believe that découpage deserves emphasis over editing since it belongs to the creative dimension more than the technical. And while “montage” carries a cachet in modernist artmaking, its pertinence in cinema is restricted to privileged periods (like the Soviet 1920s) or auteurs (Godard, Radu Jude) or flashy parenthetical sequences that signal transitions or dreams. Whereas découpage operates in fiction films of every kind and era.

In 1942, in the very first of his 2700 articles, André Bazin held up “découpage” as preceding the filming stage of a production while “montage” comes toward the end. He then clarified this point explicitly in his 1945 essay on ellipsis in Malraux’s Espoir.[1] Although the French verb “couper” (to cut) may be the linguistic basis of “découpage,” Bazin separated the latter from “montage” which has often been rendered as “cutting” or “editing” in English. Découpage instead characterizes the planning of a sequence’s “continuity,” which is its English equivalent (and the better term, he felt), since it connotes the visualization of the flow of action and attention, not their fragmentation and subsequent reassembly. Découpage includes, for Bazin, not just shot changes, but framing, the tracking/panning camera, and the movement of actors. Elsewhere he includes the importance for continuity of dialogue and ambient sound . You can well imagine how in the 1950s this expansive notion of découpage began to merge with that of mise-en-scène.[2]

Espoir was one of three films—the other two being La Règle du jeu (1939) and Citizen Kane (1941)—made at the outset of the war, which struck him as adopting progressive stylistic features from the vigorous fiction of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Dos Passos (plus Malraux himself). In The Age of the American Novel, his colleague, Claude-Edmonde Magny, attributed to ‘découpage’ the goal of developing four-dimensional worlds in both fiction and film.[3] Because this operation is, unlike editing, prior to, or coincident with, the tournage (filming), it can be associated with the writing stage of production, even in the absence of an actual découpage technique (continuity script). This is why Bazin’s quantum leap in understanding the medium’s modern turn depended so much on his thoughts about the novel-film rapport. Comparing literary style and écriture cinématographique—he came up with this term in 1948—was more valuable than mere adaptation study. Spurred by that idea, I have just published an article in the journal Adaptation that perversely avoids adaptation, instead putting original works side by side.[4] Citizen Kane and La Règle du jeu upgraded cinema’s narrative complexity, I argue, the way The Great Gatsby had upgraded literature a generation earlier.

But now I turn to a pair of adaptations as a capital way to illustrate Bazin’s clear but nuanced distinctions on a complicated topic (as he wrote, “there’s découpage and then there is découpage”).[5] One of these cases, central to Bazin’s view of cinematic modernity, is The Magnificent Ambersons, brought to the screen by Welles for R.K.O. in 1942 from Booth Tarkington’s 1917 Pulitzer Prize novel. The other is Tarkington’s next work, Alice Adams, also a Pulitzer winner (1922),[6] also made by R.K.O., with George Stevens directing in 1935.

Both novels expose the class division and social envy within American life in the nascent industrial era by focusing on protagonists just coming out in high society. George Minafer Amberson, an eighteen-year-old prig starts at the top, while Alice Adams, twenty-two, desperately wants to get there. Using an omniscient narrator, prone to commenting on the mores of characters who rise or decline across satisfyingly balanced plots, Tarkington played into Hollywood’s hands. Moreover, the lavish balls staged early in both novels were ideal for studios avid to deliver spectacle and glamor.[7]   

Tarkington expends nearly fifty pages of ornate prose on each of these set pieces, as he follows his protagonists who flit from room to room, sit beside or climb curved staircases, and adopt poses while judging those who pass by or come up to them. Maintaining a clear perspective on their perspectives, the narrator of each novel skirts past dancing couples, “fatuous young men in the doorways, hands in pockets,” meddling dowagers inert on couches, and black servants and band members. These people simply belong to the décor surrounding those characters who get speaking parts, especially the impressionable protagonists who are intent to make an impression. 

Unfolding mainly from its title character’s viewpoint, supplemented by an all-seeing narrator, Alice Adams was ripe for the polish of classical mise-en-scène. To flesh out the book’s direct drama of class envy, George Stevens, perhaps a bit timid in his first major assignment, needed only to follow Tarkington’s dialogue and detailed descriptions, and then coax Katherine Hepburn to embody her character’s minutely enumerated gestures and facial expressions.[8] For Tarkington externalizes sentiments and motives, breaking them into telling aspects, quite like classic découpage, but in prose, sentence after sentence, and avant le lettre.

For instance, bright close-ups radiate the unaffected and natural innocence with which Alice dotes on her beaten-down father. But once she steps outside their middle-class home, she visibly puts on airs, aiming for acceptance by the elite. Escorted to a ball by her brother, she first surveys the social field from a landing, then tries to mix with others in a disjunctive series of glance and reaction shots…although it turns out that the reactions are all hers, since, aside from her indifferent brother, she is noticed only by the oaf in the room. When the establishing shot from the landing is repeated, Alice is no longer its source, but is seen isolated in the distant plane as she watches couples whirl in the next room. Stevens positions her and the camera so we cannot mistake her aspiration and its obstacles. Her wilting clutch of violets fills the screen in close-up when she decides to drop them unobtrusively and nudge them behind her chair. With this minute but revealing detail, Tarkington has taken George Stevens in hand; together they bring us alongside Alice as she smiles or grimaces. In fourteen minutes of screen time, over ninety changes of camera orchestrate her expectation, disappointment and humiliation. All but a few of these shots focus on her or on what she sees. Even an extreme long shot of her standing alone can be taken as her perception of how she imagines she appears to others.

The logic of her attention motivates and thereby masks nearly every ‘cut’ the editor has made to stitch a sequence that delivers an anxious character’s experience of a ball whose presumed abundance of detail is hardly in evidence, having been reduced to what she cares about. Thus Hollywood’s insistence on legibility fosters its concern for economy (of props, costume, camera movement), even when the setting signifies opulence. And so we might expand the reach of the term “cut” beyond the splices made in the celluloid. For “Cut!” is also the command of the director when terminating a camera take, and it applies to the parsimony of the producer demanding to trim the number of scenes, as well as the number of accessories within any scene, and the budget as a whole.[9]

“Cut to pieces” was the ultimate fate of The Magnificent Ambersons; but during its preparation and production, no one thought of parsimony. Its ball scene overflows with excessive and apparently extraneous details. Its ten minutes contains less than a quarter the number of shot changes found in Alice Adams and covers the same number of pages Tarkington expended on the evening. Discounting the seven “cuts” that initially introduce the protagonists when Eugene enters the mansion, there are just ten “shots” in ten minutes. While religiously preserving Tarkington’s dialogue, just as Stevens had, Welles overcame the novelist’s doggedly linear account so as to capture the simultaneity of various desires and encounters. Where Tarkington punctuates the dialogue and his own reflections about the speakers with bursts of music or silence that lets the party and the novel shift gears, the film naturally has the music fill all three floors of the mansion to accompany and affect not just the protagonists, but all the characters and extras. Thanks to deep focus and reframing, attention can slip from one set of characters to another while the music continues for everyone. At the punchbowl the older generation speaks of the past until Georgie and Lucy cross into the frame; now two conversations overlap as Eugene and Uncle Jack leave to smoke in the far plane. They remain visible, however, and return to the punchbowl to interject their own comments to the budding lovers. From the most distant plane a comic threesome arrives for food and drink, noisily talking over Lucy’s retort to Georgie. The subsequent scene on the ballroom floor literally contains what turn out to be three different but intertwined dialogues and as many changes of speakers, while the receding camera and the surrounding music keep everything in spatial continuity. Now to produce something like simultaneous situations for the reader, Tarkington had had to resort to clumsy transitions such as one where Georgie while dancing distractedly wonders about Eugene. And then “by a coincidence, though not an odd one, the thoughts and conversation of Mr. Eugene Morgan at this very time concerned George Amberson Minafer.” Welles instead captures these two characters together in the spatial volume carved out by the moving camera and an omnidirectional microphone. This wide, deep view is surrogate for the novel’s narrator and performs the task better by far. We see couples and groups move through the mansion past each other to dance or to pause to speak dialogue that overlaps enough to require us to keep track of various ‘lines’ of plot development. The marvelous final moments of the party intertwine several dramatic motifs, important not just to Georgie but to his mother, Isabelle, his Aunt Fanny, Lucy, and Eugene who stand out in silhouette or chiaroscuro. Only obliquely have we registered some of the scene’s many extra characters and the 9000 props with which this immense set was purportedly dressed.[10] The film’s director, unlike Tarkington, won’t interrupt the movement of the ball to point them out. Where the Pulitzer novel regrets the inevitable passing of an era, the film doubles the feeling through nostalgia that is built into its modern structure of image composition and lighting, letting us sense the passing not just of the times, but of time itself.

The shooting of the most elaborate sections of The Magnificent Ambersons concluded, by ill-luck, the day before Pearl Harbor. This was indeed the last grand ball for R.K.O., which went on to undersell the film, apparently ashamed, at a moment calling for national mobilization, of dwelling on the leisurely pace of life before mechanization.[11]

From La Règle du jeu to Russian Ark (2002), grand ball sequences have encouraged bravura instances of découpage like that of The Magnificent Ambersons. These multi-sensory, multi-directional events lose their thickness in traditional découpage. But what about scenes focused on a single pivotal event? To illustrate Bazin’s discovery of the modernity of Welles’s découpage, I conclude on perhaps Tarkington’s most powerful moment in The Magnificent Ambersonsthe death of Isabelle Amberson and its immediate effect on her family. This would classically have been broken into three or four separate shots to isolate her passing and its effect on her most immediate family; but with Welles everything is reduced (as in cooking) to the essence of “loss.” Notice the drawing of the curtain (a soft cut), the turning of Isabelle’s face screen-right as it dissolves into that of the patriarch, Major Amberson’s, advancing toward us until Georgie’s head crosses in front of the camera which pivots right to follow his direction only to be met by Fanny coming back the opposite way into close-up, clutching Georgie and arresting all movement. The vertigo of this unanchored sequence involving the intertwined feelings of four characters depends on the way it unfolds thanks to a découpage that can scarcely be thought of as editing.


[1] André Bazin, “Peut-on s’intéresser au cinéma?” (December 1942), article 1 in Bazin, Ecrits complèts I (Paris, Macula, 2018). p. 72. His article 60 on Espoir (1945) is available in English as “Espoir, or Style in Cinema,” in André Bazin on Adaptation, Cinema’s Literary Imagination (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2022). See p. 54 for his definition of découpage as pre-planned continuity including, in Malraux’ case, extensive use of ellipses.

[2] The invaluable volume Montage, Découpage, Mise en Scène written by Laurent Le Forestier, Timothy Barnard, and Frank Kessler (Caboose, 2022) fastidiously traces the etymology of each term. Pages 22-25 and 90-94 are particularly important in accounting for the overlaps in terminology. Barnard’s contribution (Découpage) puts Bazin center stage in the rising postwar impact of this term. With a few caveats, I concur with his account.

[3] Claude-Edmonde Magny, The Age of the American Novel: the Film Aesthetics of Fiction between the Two Wars, tr. by Eleanor Hochman (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972), 71-101.

[4] Dudley Andrew, “How and Why to Compare Incomparables: The Great Gatsby and La Règle du jeu, Adaptation, published Feb 17 2024.

[5] Bazin, Ecrits Complets II, article 2549.

[6] Only three other novelists have won two Pulitzers: William Faulkner, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead.

[7] Fitzgerald’s naked ambition to write the great American novel had been goaded by Tarkington’s success; he admired his fellow Midwesterner (and Princetonian) but rightly thought success had dulled his creative drive. The Great Gatsby (1925) would be far more innovative and dynamic, more modernist. It would also be “written with the movies in mind.” Jay Gatsby’s Saturday parties have challenged, and largely defeated, Hollywood each of the four times they have ventured to adapt the novel. Far more than display is required to come close to matching Fitzgerald’s literary representation of the evenings that unroll through Nick’s memory of them, because the narration is refracted through different guests, some quite minor, all given a moment to focalize their fantasies. In Fitzgerald’s prose, spectacle is felt to slip from view even as it dazzles. How does one film disillusion, and the fading of dreams? Welles would show how!

[8] Tarkington’s name, not Stevens’, appeared on the film’s poster.

[9] This is graphically illustrated in the well-known video essay “What is Neorealism?” by Kogonada where producer David Selznick cuts Vittorio De Sica’s shots in pursuit of an overall economy.

[10] James Naremore attributes this statistic to the film’s pressbook, in the “commentary” that he and Jonathan Rosenbaum add to the authoritative 2018 Criterion DVD. The commentary is continually illuminating and dwells appropriately on the glorious ball sequence.

[11] Simon Callow makes this point in his interview included in the Criterion DVD of The Magnificent Ambersons.

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