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The Mystery of Continuity

The Maltese Falcon

John Huston, Warner Bros., USA, 1941

The action of the sequence begins in Shot 1 and is continuous through Shot 7. Its duration is precisely the same as that of the action that it records—that is, from the moment that Kaspar Gutman (the figure on the right) reaches for the mysterious package in Shot 1 through the moment of his progress in unwrapping it in Shot 7. We, of course, see the shots—here as on the screen—as a linear sequence, which is extended to accommodate four shifts in spatial orientation: (1) to a closer view of Gutman’s activity (Shot 2); (2) to a closer view isolating Gutman (Shot 3); (3) to a closer view isolating the other two characters who appear in Shot 1 (Shot 4); (4) to a view locating and isolating the hero (Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade) (Shot 5). Ignoring the slight shift in distance between Shot 1 and Shot 7, we can therefore identify no fewer than five different perspectives from which the camera permits us to view everything (Shots 1 and 7 reflect an identical perspective, as do Shots 2 and 5). All of the necessary shifts in perspective, however, are contained within the duration of the scene as confirmed by its action. Because no time has been allotted for the making of these shifts, we are asked to assume that those five perspectives have always been “in use” simultaneously; in turn, our assumption is validated by the realization that the action has in fact remained continuous.

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