The Moment of Recognition: Phantom Lady and Sorry, Wrong Number

Creator's Statement

This audiovisual essay is the fourth that I have produced on the subject of camera movement in studio-era Hollywood.[1] All four serve as companion pieces to my book The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood. This fourth video focuses on a technique that I call the “recognition” shot, wherein the camera dollies toward a character who is experiencing a moment of realization. I start by asking why a single shot from Phantom Lady (Siodmak, 1944) seems so lively. This question leads to a consideration of the film’s status as a “working-girl investigator” film (to borrow a term from Helen Hanson)[2] and then to an extended comparison with Sorry, Wrong Number (Litvak, 1948), where a similar technique is deployed to very different effect.



[1] See Patrick Keating, “A Homeless Ghost: The Moving Camera and Its Analogies,” [in]Transition: A Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies 2, no. 4 (2016),; Patrick Keating, “Motifs of Movement and Modernity,” Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism 7 (2017),; PDF:; and Patrick Keating, “The Strange Streets of a Strange City: The Ambersons Montage,” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies (Spring 2018),

[2] Helen Hanson, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 25.


Biography: Patrick Keating is a Professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University, where he teaches courses in film studies and video production. His most recent books are The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood (Columbia UP, 2019) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (U of Texas P, 2021). He participated in the first workshop on videographic criticism at Middlebury College in 2015, and his subsequent video essays have appeared in the online journals [in]TransitionMovie, and NECSUS

The Moment of Recognition: Phantom Lady and Sorry, Wrong Number continues Patrick Keating’s monumental project not only to articulate the history and practical aesthetics of the camera movement, but to shift the way that we think of Hollywood cinema—treating filmmakers as “practical theorists” who created informal theories that match specific strategies for moving the camera. Based on clear examples, and attentive to subtle variations, his discussion of the recognition shot entails the discovery and elucidation of one of the many informal genres of shots that work to structure Hollywood cinema.

Keating provides a wonderful account of the recognition shot, especially showing the way the moving camera allows films to slide so easily—yet with marked significance—between the objective and the subjective. It’s a delicate balance. The shot of course doesn’t represent the character’s subjective state, as in the point of view (or subjective) shot that tends to gather more discussion. Rather, the camera expresses the character’s internal state to us; their mental state, in a sense, doesn’t actually exist (for us) until the camera starts to move. And that’s partly why you can get the moments of surprise, in which the movement of the camera can be out of synch with the thought being conveyed and in so doing provide different articulations: surprise, discovery, dawning awareness, etc. Keating gives us a flexible model that allows these differences to resonate.

Keating’s essay opens up to a range of additional questions. With the focus on the image of female characters, it would seem natural to go back to Laura Mulvey, but the focus on internal states gives her analysis of the “to-be-looked-at-ness” a different orientation. Is the recognition shot simply about providing access to a state of mind at a moment, or does it have to do with the way that internal state gets translated into action? It’s a question of whether being the object of the camera’s look in this way means that the female character becomes the agent of the narrative, and of narrative change—not just that, as Mulvey argues, her body becomes a fulcrum around which the narrative pivots. Relatedly, I’d want to think more about whether the recognition shot is largely deployed in relation to female characters? Or is it more that it’s an example of a shot that also includes women not just as the object of the gaze but the agent of actions as well? In that case are there differences with recognition shots of male characters?

I also wonder about the element of theatricality to the recognition shot, as it functions as a presentational mode—almost a continuation of the logic of “attractions” described by Tom Gunning—that seems to run against the drama of interior subjectivity that Keating analyzes. In its mode of display, to as well as for an audience, does the recognition shot also negotiate a different aesthetic logic altogether?

This is a rich video essay, and a compelling one, drawing on material from Keating’s 2019 book—The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood—but also taking it in new and compelling directions.

Patrick Keating is a well-published author on classical Hollywood camera conventions: Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir, The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood. Here, we gain moving images instead of frame enlargements on the page, but we also lose information and contextualization. Footnoting is a problem with visual essays that present original research, even if some sources are included. In standard texts, originality can be signaled through textual references or footnotes, but only specialists will recognize original research in a visual essay. Therefore, Keating explicitly links his visual works to his books. 

Keating’s film clips are outstanding, many are well-known, others offer films to be discovered or rediscovered. He states his argument clearly in his well-spoken narration: he will demonstrate moving camera shots emphasizing a character’s change of expression as he or she comes to a sudden realization. Keating is an excellent editor and his essay radiates enthusiasm for his subject. His examples (except one) come from many classical Hollywood films, but I notice that none features an actress or actor who is not Caucasian. 
The essay benefitted from extensive revisions, demonstrating the author’s diligence and ability to clarify his focus. The through-line is still a comparison of the camera moving toward a woman’s face at a moment of recognition (or excitement or extreme emotion), but a new section highlights working girls who act as investigators, like Ella Raines in Phantom Lady. An on-screen quotation from Helen Hanson inspires this focus: “They deploy an active investigating gaze, and the editing of the sequences, particularly the use of reaction shots, constructs the action from a female perspective.” This perspective is rich with possibilities, and is sourced in the final title cards, along with enriched credits for the key films Keating compares.