Retro Chic: Split-Screen

Back in the day, when radio was the only competition, movie studios churned out hundreds of films a year, of all makes and models. Once TV made the scene, though, and people weren’t forced to leave the house to see their regularly scheduled junk but could get it right there on the idiot box – after all, who went to the theater to see the Lone Ranger if they didn’t have to – ticket sales declined, forcing movies to be a little more creative to get asses in the seats. As a direct consequence color movies officially became de rigueur – the Academy Awards officially eliminated a separate, black-and-white cinematography category in 1967 – CinemaScope and VistaVision were developed and 3-D had its heyday.

Though split screen effects pre-existed the push towards innovation and gimmickry – it was used as far back Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) – it hardly seems coincidental that it really took off at the same time that studios were looking for ways to make the movie-going experience unique and to give the crowds what they couldn’t get anywhere else.

Originally split screen was akin to a special effect and films like The Parent Trap could not have been made without it. That movie revolves around twin girls plotting to reunite their parents. The one affect of the story was that the twins were played by the same girl, something that could be achieved through stand-ins and over the shoulder shots, but when it came to filming the duet that is the centerpiece of the film, a stand-in would not do. Rather, it was the split screen process that put the two Hayley Mills together in the same shot.

Though begun as little more than trick photography, split screen soon became something more, popping up in movie after movie – from Andy Warhol to Woodstock – but just like many other gimmicks and tricks, it faded away.

Today split screen is seen mostly as a relic of younger, more swinging days and is shunned for that reason. However, there are many filmmakers who still pull this out of their bag of tricks from time-to-time. Sometimes it is deployed because it gives a certain sort of retro feel, other times for heightening tension. In either case it can bring a certain peppy charm to a film and since 3-D has lately been coming back in a big way, why not split screen?

(As an aside, the movies never really won the fight with television and as a consequence the studios all wound up selling off their backlots in order to make some money and get rid of something they didn’t really need anymore.  See the opening sequences of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.  However, one of the upsides was that it was this situation that led to the creation of the ‘new’ Hollywood.)

Early Examples

While it might have been developed as a special effect, split screen has real value to movies beyond gimmickry. It can enhance the plot, increase tension and bring a certain humor to the proceedings.

One of the earliest examples of split screen, at least from the golden age – if there ever was a golden age of the split screen – was in the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedy, Pillow Talk. Mining comedy gold from deception and mistaken identity, director Michael Gordon used split screen to put the main characters in compromising positions that might not otherwise been allowed – such as in the bath together, or even in bed – even when they weren’t physically in the same location. In this way the split screen gave the stars the chance to engage in some rather adventurous sex play all without offending the censors or compromising the virtue of Doris Day, aka, The World’s Oldest Virgin.

While Pillow Talk was somewhat daring and a huge hit, Ms. Day would soon find the world a different place and her subsequent films, in the mold of Pillow Talk, were far less successful. However, while the film might have been the beginning of the end of Ms. Day’s film career, it did not have quite the same effect on split screen.

A much hipper and maybe slightly-less-gimmicky approach came with The Thomas Crown Affair, dir. by Norman Jewison and starring the ultimate Man o’ Cool, Steven McQueen. To be clear, TTCA is silly, almost as silly as Pillow Talk. The idea that a famous, millionaire playboy type would be pulling heists for a couple million dollars is as ludicrous as an insanely wealthy white guy running around fighting crime in a bat outfit with weapons made by an old black man. It’s the type of thing that only happens in the movies but fortunately Steve McQueen, like Bale after him, has the gravitas to pull it off.

Despite the silliness, and the oh-so quaint music – Windmills of My Mind included, notwithstanding it’s Oscar – TTCM film is fairly well-made, oozes a certain hip style and could easily be described as ‘breezy.’ One of the tricks it keeps up its sleeve that adds to the overall breeziness is, of course, the split screen.

Though used sporadically throughout it is most notably employed during the heist sequence that sets the plot in motion. However, rather than simply content itself by splitting the screen in two and marching on from there, it divides it into a growing number of boxes, sometimes as many as six at a time, to show the heist unfolding in all its details. We see Yaphett Kotto and his cohorts, none of who have met previously, somehow coming together from the far corners of the city to carry out the plan, with the boxes shifting in and out of focus so as to direct our attentions from one to the other, all the while McQueen sits above it, like God himself was pulling the strings. The film may be breezy and slight, but the split screen is a bravura bit of filmmaking.

(Unfortunately I had video’s of these linked at one time but MGM pulled the clips from YouTube, so, sorry…)

The Maestro

The heyday of split screen may have begun in the mid-50s but it wasn’t until Brian DePalma started making films that the master was revealed. As a man well-known for stealing anything that Hitchcock didn’t tie down – Vertigo = Obsession , Rear Window = Body Double – one thing DePalma didn’t lift from the master is split screen. Even so, he’s weaved it into no less than nine films and in those films where he eschewed split screen he still composed shots as if they were split screen, such as this shot in The Untouchables.

His first significant use was in Sisters, the separated-Siamese-twins thriller. After future-Lois Lane, Margot Kidder, brings a man to her apartment, for what he believes is sex, only to find out too late that a stabbing is on the agenda. After the stabbing, rather than let him die the quick death of the film-injured, the movie proceeds into split screen, showing the dying man not only lingering on but crawling to the apartment window and putting his bloody palm to the glass for help. Across the way a woman in an opposing apartment sees the man’s waves and futilely tries to help him and simultaneously we see her report the attack to the police, who are skeptical and doubt her credibility, all the while attempts to cover up the crime are made.

This scene plays out over the following two clips. My apologies for the French language track, it was all that was available. If anybody knows of a better link, I’ll take it.

was an early example of DePalma’s genius with split screen, my personal favorite from his films is the much-maligned prom sequence in Carrie. Beginning just after the pigs blood has been dumped on her – the iconic moment from the film – the screen suddenly divides, showing Carrie at the moment she has gotten in touch with her anger and the danger she poses when she unleashes the beast. Sliding back and forth across the screen as her focus shifts from one side of the gymnasium to the other, we slowly see disbelief change to panic as vengeance served.

Despite my appreciation for the scene I realize it is not as well appreciated by others. Modern critics grumble about the scene and how dated it looks, and even DePalma has had misgivings about how it plays, but really, how many misgivings can he have about the effect of split screen when still liberally uses it? Besides, whether he feels it’s a mistake or not I think it greatly adds to the chaos and hysteria and makes the scene all the more menacing. If anything, I wish it was the silly 80s-slasher-movie-ending, with the hand thrusting up out of the ground, that was cut.

Later Day Uses

Just about the time that DePalma took a shine to split screen others abandoned and it was left to him alone to carry the practice forward. Aside from a few sporadic appearances throughout the 80s – such as the morning-after-phone-call sequence from When Harry Met Sally – the practice really didn’t come into its own again until well into the 90s, or just about the time the children of the 70s were making their own films.

Jump to about 6:30 in.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that one of the modern filmmakers who took to split screen – if not with a vengeance, then with a real fondness – was Quentin Tarantino, who also never saw a film he wouldn’t steal from, er, pay homage to. Popping up in Jackie Brown to show exactly how Jackie got a gun, it was more memorably used in the opening of Kill Bill.

Following hot on the heels of seeing Uma Thurman being shot in the head, a shocking bit of film in itself, QT took things one step further by showing Daryl Hannah going through her lengthy and rather gratuitous preparations to kill the now-comatose Thurman. It’s tense enough to see Hannah, in her eye-patch glory fetishistically don a nurse’s uniform and whistling Bernard Herrmann’s score from The Twisted Nerve, but what really gooses the scene is seeing all this play out side-by-side shots of the helpless Thurman in her hospital bed.

Cut to about three minutes in.

While QT used split screen to goose the tension of the opening of his film, his one-time writing partner, Roger Avary, used it in a much different way in his second film, Rules of Attraction. Say what you will about the movie – I happen to like it, especially the whirlwind sequence showing Victor’s journey through Europe, but I know other’s who despise it as shallow and narcissistic – but the use of split screen is particularly inspired. As the movie is about the strange intersections college students make its appropriate for split screen to drop in to see just how two come together – from waking up, using the bathroom, reluctantly going to class – if only for a moment. What seems at first a somewhat mundane split screen soon exposes itself as truly inspired when instead of ending on jump cut to the two characters together in the same frame the split screen instead joins itself to form one seamless shot.

Sorry that I couldn’t embed the clip – embedding disabled on Youtube – but you can see it here.

Achieved through motion control and some computer editing, the ending of the scene isn’t technically perfect – watch the episode of Anatomy of a Scene on this episode to understand how – but considering the world of possibilities this scene hints at for the use of split screen it makes me want to overlook any silly little technical problems. So I do.

More retro was the phone call scene between Renee Zellwegger and Ewan Macgregor in Down With Love. The movie, a throwback to the old Doris Day/Rock Hudson films – especially Pillow Talk – doesn’t skimp on the homage, making sure to throw in some split screen as well. But rather than stop at just being a wee bit naughty, as it was in Pillow Talk, here the sequence reaches dizzying new heights and rather than make mere suggestions the innuendo is front and center and in far more original ways than the original.

Sorry that I can’t embed the clip – embedding has been disabled, but you can watch it here. Also, sorry, it’s in Spanish, but really isn’t physical innuendo a universal language?

Down With Love was somewhat overlooked on its release and is hardly a perfect film – its relationship to perfection depends on how you take your Zellwegger – though if you’re in the mood for a trifle, this is it. Whether you watch the entire film or not, the split screen sequence is worth the price of admission alone.


Apparently the old adage that everything old is new again is never truer but while split screen has made a bit of a comeback I doubt we’ll see it advertised anytime soon, at least not like 3-D.


If you want a real genius use of split screen, though, the one piece you need to look is at the video for Semisonic’s Closing Time. I remember seeing Semisonic years ago, back when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, first with the Verve Pipe, then in a little club that no longer exists. When I saw them my first thought was that this band was gonna be huge and I immediately ran out and bought their album, The Great Divide, so I could be on board before anybody else. That things didn’t work out for them as well as I thought it would is somewhat distressing but that doesn’t mean they didn’t make excellent music. It’s fitting, then, that the video for their best known song is shot entirely in split screen with the band playing on one side with the object of desire – a woman, naturally, on the other. Midway through the song, while the band continues playing the singer, Dan Wilson, the singer, bolts and suddenly appears in the screen on the other side of the split, just missing the woman, only to reappear with the band again for his solo before leaving again to pop up on the other. It’s a bit of a logistical nightmare that works perfectly.

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