A straight stretch of train tracks extend into oblivion, their iron rumbling with a whispered threat. In the gentle town nearby, two solemn and innocent ceremonies take place at the same time. The lawman is preparing to leave and start a new life, unaware that his past is about to come back, his work still unfinished. It’s Sunday morning.
A young woman descends a staircase and regards herself in the mirror before stepping outside. She continues to experience reflections of herself as she walks through Paris: she’s a pop singer, and her songs play on radios and jukeboxes. People are watching her, and she watches them watching her. She feels especially exposed now as she waits for a call from the doctor. The word cancer billows in front of her eyes. It’s Tuesday afternoon.
Alfred Hitchcock was known to say, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Typically, this aphorism manifests itself in movie storytelling through extreme abbreviation. Scenes begin, get to the point, and end, after which the film leaps directly to the next moment related to the plot. Only in especially inept cases is this elision noticeable — say, when a character switches on a radio just as a crucial news broadcast begins. For the most part, the accelerated march of time is instinctively understood. If an hour or more of screen time is devoted to the events of a single day, it will feel like a very full day indeed, or else the deliberate pace will call attention to itself. Or perhaps even a little of both. Two films that famously unfold in real time, Fred Zinnemann’s western High Noon and Agnès Varda’s nouvelle vague masterpiece Cléo from 5 to 7, both manage to be conventional and experimental at the same time. As each unfolds over roughly ninety minutes, it’s always clear that these brief spans of time are somehow life-altering for the characters, even as the sensation of watching the clock is front and center (sometimes literally). In conveying the feeling of dread while waiting for something frightening, it’s useful to put every painful, unending moment up on the screen.
Each movie calls attention to the gambit in its own way. High Noon lays out its stakes quickly: Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) receives word that the man he sent to jail is coming back on the noon train to be met by three other gun-toting men, a revelation that’s followed by a quick glance at a wall clock reading 10:40. From this moment (and, it must be said, cultural knowledge comes in handy here), clocks will be hard to miss, whether they get their own insert shots or are merely placed prominently in the background. With the marshal’s office in the midst of a delayed turnover, Will has to build a posse from scratch, which turns out to be more complicated than he expected. The minutes tick by, slowly building in urgency, until 11:59 a.m. brings a couple hyper-dramatic shots of a clock’s pendulum swinging. This moment happens about an hour and nine minutes into the film, so the timetable isn’t flawless, but it’s certainly close enough for the experience to feel authentic.
Cléo from 5 to 7 only has a few shots with clocks in them. Instead, the schedule of events is relayed through on-screen text that functions as chapter headings every few minutes. This technique is even more artificial, yet somehow less distracting. It also, naturally, allows those timestamps to be more strictly accurate. The only irregularity here is that the movie, being an hour-and-a-half long, actually ends at 6:30 p.m. rather than 7. The error is in service to a more elegant title and can be forgiven. The on-screen text also includes a character’s name, often but not always Cléo’s, inviting the audience to enter that character’s headspace for a few minutes at a time. There are thirteen of these chapters in all, the last of which is about fifteen minutes long. Varda is just as scrupulous about geography as she is about time, with scenes on the streets of Paris and in taxis that capture the vérité ethos of the era.
The similarities between these two very different films are worth pondering, with lead characters who each suffer from isolation and mounting anxiety. The act of waiting, like death itself, is an experience that can’t really be shared, even if someone else is right there with you. Particularly in odd cases such as these where the moment of truth is known in advance, time can stretch itself to unbearable slowness. In general, this experience is commonly understood, but no two people will feel it in just the same way at just the same time, or at least not for situations like the ones in these films. Happier occasions, like, say, a wedding, can put two people’s experience of waiting in sync.
Structurally bold though it may be, High Noon certainly packs in the incidents. In the course of a single Sunday morning, Will Kane gets married, retires, un-retires, and has a deadly shootout with his worst enemy. It’s the stuff of fables. With the old Hollywood aversion to dead spots, the act of waiting itself, via forceful editing and an emphatic Dimitri Tiomkin score, becomes dramatic. Will even takes his pacifist bride Amy (Grace Kelly) out of town on a carriage before changing his mind and turning around, because the time had to be filled somehow. Cléo from 5 to 7 is significantly more relaxed, with a plot that consists entirely of Cléo (Corinne Marchand) meeting various people and either discussing or avoiding her worries about the cancer diagnosis. There are cultural and gendered distinctions to be drawn here, with one story about a man taking a stand and not running from a fight, and another story about a woman merely (although, who am I kidding, there’s nothing “merely” about it) preparing her spirit for whatever comes. One must be careful about generalizing too much. High Noon is an especially self-important western, and Cléo from 5 to 7 is an especially sprightly and confident drama. But given the similar structures, the difference in feeling is noteworthy. High Noon feels like the more self-consciously political film even though, of course, the blacklist is never directly referenced, whereas Cléo from 5 to 7 pointedly includes radio broadcasts about the Algerian War. It’s the French New Wave — you can always just jump-cut to something else and leave the old way of doing things looking even more lead-footed.
Mainstream storytelling will continue to cut out the dull bits, while the more subversive and experimental alternatives will selectively put them right back in to make a point. Real-time filmmaking endures primarily in the long take, the most obvious device for making an audience feel the sensation of time passing. In the digital era, this technique is easier to pull off than ever before, but looking back to the analog days, we can find other methods that work just as well. For Will, time stretches and compacts all at once, as he doesn’t have enough time to do what he thinks he needs to do but feels the oppressive weight of each second ticking by. For Cléo, time is a matter of riding her own emotional waves until, when the time is right, they settle into something manageable. Never a dull moment, in either case.