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Pillow Talk

Doris and Rock exercise their chance to be Famous on the Phone. Boasting a lot of telephonic conversations, this inevitably has lashings of split screen scenes, a device long-standing readers will know we think is great, despite the best efforts of 24 to prove otherwise. We love its inherent pointlessness, and even more the rare occasions where there is actually a thoughtful deployment of it. Outside the purely expedient likes of this film’s use of it, what fun’s been had with the multi-picture fiddling over the years? Film historians will point you toward Abel Gance’s arse-numbing silent epic Napoleon as the first great example of the technique, but we’d naturally lead your eye elsewhere, to Tex Avery’s Goldilocks parody The Bear’s Tale in fact, where the classic gag of someone reaching over from one half of the split to another first manifested itself. Other than that, it was largely restricted to ‘gee whiz’ documentary films of the type they used to show at Expos, until 1966 and the overground success of Chelsea Girls, a collection of tedious interviews with dreary fools strung together with a big black line down the middle. Suddenly split screen was somehow artful and a bit rebellious. The Woodstock film used it, understandably, to give a vague sort of sense of lots of things going on at once, even when they happened ages apart. Genuinely weird stuff like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, where a director cons actors into thinking they’re making a film, then films the resultant kerfuffle, used it for the hell of it. Innovative director John Frankenheimer, who’d come up trumps with Seconds in ’66, came up tramps in the same year with rubbish, rubbish, boring and rubbish James Garner racing drama Grand Prix, notable mainly – and indeed only – for upping the previous split screen count from a maximum of three to half a dozen or more simultaneous little windows of stuff. So profligate was this (every single working Panavision film camera that existed at the time was roped in) it was bound to catch on with the rest of the late ’60s self-indulgent Hollywood folk. The Thomas Crown Affair has to be the Household Name of the splitters’ club, and indeed it lays it on with such brazen abandon (along with x amount of additional of-their-time visual gimmicks) you can’t help but sit back and grin inanely at the resulting mess. At one point we get something like twenty-odd images at once, but as they’re all the same image (McQueen on a horse) that’s cheating a bit, we feel. Slightly more efficient use of the technique came from The Boston Strangler, which used it to a) represent the confused nature of media coverage of the titular New England throat-knobbler (loads of shots of reporters chatting at once – cf the opening and closing scenes of Network) and b) actually help with suspense – a scene where the police close in on what they think is their man is shown from both sides of the door at once, and is all the better for it. Otherwise there was a great deal of cross-location tension building (rogue nuclear missile suspenser Twilight’s Last Gleaming), and easy overlaying of stuff to give an illusion of sophistication – The Andromeda Strain had a scene where paramedics opened doorways in a plague-hit town, and what they saw through each of them was revealed in a little advent calendar-style window, complete with comedy “ding!” noise. By the early ’70s, it had been reduced to illustrating the musical interludes in Willy Wonka (complete with electronic animation from wall-sized computer system Scanimate, Thriller alternate US title sequence fans!) Interest was all but killed off in ’73 with gimmicky exploitation effort Wicked, Wicked which showed a detective hunt for a serial killer via the not-at-all tedious method of having a permanent two-point-of-view split screen (one cop, one culprit) throughout the entire film. It didn’t do well, and the device would probably have fallen completely out of use were it not for one man who bravely kept its frame-flipping flame alive throughout the following two decades. Yes, Brian De Palma, for all his many annoyances, is undeniably the king of bifurcated cinema, whether observing a blood-drenched Sissy Spacek from various angles in Carrie, pointlessly augmenting another pointless Hitchcock homage in Dressed to Kill or, in Phantom of the Paradise, being rather good indeed. Our favourite spilt screen scene is in this film, where the planting of a bomb, its journey to a stage rehearsal and its subsequent devastation are shown in a deftly-planned sequence which starts nips between front and back of stage in a way the accursed splitting revivalists in all their their DVD Box Set Watch Next Episode Now on Red Button Five Stars in Guardian Guide pomp can only dream about. He may be a pain in the arse half the time, but good on old Brian for splitting with confidence.

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  1. Matt Patton

    July 28, 2010 at 8:11 am

    Liked the split-screen stuff, really liked Tony Randall, and Rock Hudson was good too. Doris Day, for once, wasn’t, but mostly because her character is written as such a shrill scold. The critic for TIME magazine, noting that the film was produced to within an inch of its life, cracked that every time Day and Hudson went into a clinch, the resembled “two 1959 Cadillacs parked in a suggestive position . . .”

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