STRUCTURE INDEX

Filmmakers, and storytellers before them, have invented many narrative and formal structural devices to magnify their power of expression. Most of these are variations on the classic “twice told tale” which encourages an audience to see a story two different ways. The idea is to create dualities that invite comparisons or introduce ambiguity.

Allegory

A story whose elements correspond to real-world persons, events, ideas, nations, movements, etc. Allegories are often used to hide meaning from censors, especially under repressive regimes, or to express unpopular content that the audience would revolt against.

1920 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Opening scene may be read as an allegory about literature and cinema
1932 – The Blood of a Poet – Allegory of the artist’s relation to art
1938 – The Lady Vanishes – Transparent allegory of 1930s Europe
1939 – Idiot’s Delight – Partial allegory in the role of Irene
1941 – The Assassination of Père Noël – Allegory of wartime France
1942 – La nuit fantastique – Allegory of wartime France
1942 – Casablanca – Allegory about the end of isolationism
1943 – Goupi mains rouges – Allegory of wartime France
1943 – The Hand of the Devil – Allegory of wartime France
1943 – Lumière d’été – Allegory of wartime France
1945 – Dead of Night – Allegory (in 1 episode) for Britain’s diminished leadership
1945 – Mildred Pierce – Allegory of Hollywood and its audience
1946 – Beauty and the Beast – Allegory of postwar France
1947 – Black Narcissus – Allegory of the end of colonialism
1949 – Late Spring – Allegory of Japan joining the Western world
1950 – Orphée – Allegory of the role of the artist
1951 – Juliette, or the Key of Dreams – Allegory of postwar France
1963 – The Servant – Allegory of the decline of the British class system
1964 – Band of Outsiders – Allegory of the French New Wave
1965 – Pierrot le fou – Partial allegory of France’s relationship to art
1976 – Heart of Glass – Allegory for a renaissance of German film
1980 – The Shining – Partial allegory of the United States’ role in the world
1989 – The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover – Allegory of the Thatcherist economy
1999 – The Wind Will Carry Us – Allegory of the people and government of Iran
2005 – Caché – Allegory of the conflict between the Islamic world and the West

Bracketing

By placing similar content at the beginning and end, or around any part, a film can draw attention to its purpose and/or define the arc of a story or a character. Bracketing is similar to Framing but less intrusive; it does not entail a switch to a different time or a different story. Palindromes almost always use bracketing and are not listed here.

1927 – Sunrise – Trip bracketed by boat rides; film by horizontal & rising motion
1931 – City Lights – Bracketed by the same character in long shot and close-up
1932 – The Blood of a Poet – Bracketed by a falling smokestack
1936 – Mr. Thank You – Midpoint bracketed by two “miraculous” dissolves
1945 – Brief Encounter – Affair bracketed by two express trains
1947 – Black Narcissus – Bracketed by characters staring into the distance
1949 – The Third Man – Bracketed by scenes in the cemetery
1953 – Ugetsu monogatari – Bracketed by horizontal & vertical camera movements
1953 – Tokyo Story – Bracketed by conversations with neighbor
1956 – The Burmese Harp – Bracketed by similar shot with same words
1956 – A Man Escaped – Bracketed by escape attempts and trains
1958 – The Eighth Day of the Week – Same shot at beginning and end
1960 – Devi – Bracketed by the head of a Hindu goddess
1961 – La notte – Night bracketed by Lidia’s thought or by two dances
1961 – Last Year at Marienbad – Bracketed by two performances of Rosmersholm
1961 – The End of Summer – Bracketed by scenes of modernity and tradition
1964 – Charulata – Amal’s time in Charu’s life bracketed by storms
1964 – Red Desert – Begins out of focus, ends in focus
1964 – Gertrud – Gertrud’s screen time bracketed by two doorways
1965 – Simón of the Desert – Bracketed by two groups of atomized individuals
1966 – Made in U.S.A – Bracketed by words “happiness” and “sadness”
1966 – Time Walks Through the City – Film & inner section bracketed by bells/clock gears
1966 – Andrei Rublev – Bracketed by two versions of creation
1970 – Le boucher – Bracketed by shots of the Dordogne River rotated 90°
1970 – La rupture – Stay in boarding house bracketed by two drugs
1971 – Whity – Bracketed by two characters flinching
1972 – Solaris – Bracketed by aquatic grasses & the country house
1972 – The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – Marlene lets light in & turns lights off
1974 – Chinatown – Bulk of the story bracketed by window blinds
1976 – Heart of Glass – Bracketed by scenes detached from the village narrative
1986 – The Sacrifice – Bracketed by the tree, Bach, and John 1:1
1989 – The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover – Bracketed by theatrical curtains
1993 – Antareen – Bracketed by shots of railroad tracks
1994 – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – Journey bracketed by road signs
1999 – Eyes Wide Shut – Ends with figurative reversal of dress/undress
2006 – The Boss of It All – Bracketed by a disclaimer and an apology
2013 – The Counselor – Multiple instances of bracketing
2015 – The Martian – Film bracketed by similar shots of Mars & Earth

Doubling

Repetition of elements (lines of dialogue, gestures, locations, physical objects, etc.) within a movie, often to create emphasis, to invite comparison, or to create a rhyming or resonant effect.

1936 – Modern Times
1936 – Mr. Thank You
1943 – Shadow of a Doubt
1946 – A Matter of Life and Death
1947 – The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
1949 – Such a Pretty Little Beach
1953 – Ugetsu monogatari
1955 – Death of a Cyclist
1955 – Pather Panchali
1959 – Fires on the Plain
1961 – La notte
1961 – The End of Summer
1962 – The Exterminating Angel
1964 – Gertrud
1965 – I Knew Her Well
1966 – Persona
1970 – Le boucher
1970 – La rupture
1975 – The Passenger
2003 – Matchstick Men
2006 – Dry Season

Embedded Story

A separate story inserted within a movie’s narrative, often told by one of the characters, that somehow reflects on the movie’s larger story. It can also be a film within the film, or even a simple joke that points to the movie’s overall purpose.

1926 – Exit Smiling – The play Flaming Women that the troupe performs
1960 – Les bonnes femmes – Madame Louise’s story of the guillotined killer
1961 – Last Year at Marienbad – The ending of the play Rosmersholm
1962 – Knife in the Water – Andrzej’s story about the sailor walking on broken glass
1962 – Cléo from 5 to 7 – The short film Cléo and Dorothée watch at 6:00
1962 – Vivre sa vie – Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Oval Portrait
1964 – Red Desert – Giuliana’s story about the girl at the pink beach
1965 – Alphaville – Natacha’s joke about the tiny man and the large man at the café
1965 – I Knew Her Well – The one-minute newsreel “And Lastly, a New Face”
1970 – The Man Who Left His Will on Film – The short film that obsesses Motoki
1975 – The Passenger – Locke’s story of the blind man near the end
1983 – Nostalghia – Gorchakov’s joke about the man saved from a slimy pond
1986 – The Sacrifice – Three stories about the monk, the photograph, and the garden
2006 – Dry Season – Story of the man trying to shake off his shadow
2015 – The Martian – The history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s origin at CalTech

Framing

An inner story, usually much longer, framed by an outer story. The inner story is often a flashback, a fantasy, or a dream with strong parallels to the outer story.

1920 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
1923 – Warning Shadows
1924 – Sherlock Jr.
1939 – The Wizard of Oz
1942 – La nuit fantastique
1943 – Meshes of the Afternoon
1943 – The Hand of the Devil
1945 – Dead of Night
1945 – Mildred Pierce
1949 – A Letter to Three Wives
1950 – All About Eve
1951 – Juliette, or the Key of Dreams
1966 – Time Walks Through the City
1979 – Stalker
2001 – Mulholland Drive
2011 – The Day He Arrives

Motif

A frequently recurring element that points, often indirectly, to the movie’s subject or purpose.

1931 – City Lights – Obtuseness
1932 – Vampyr – Signs of death
1932 – I Was Born, But… – Circles
1935 – The 39 Steps – Remembering & forgetting
1936 – Modern Times – Circles, food
1941 – The Assassination of Père Noël – Circles
1942 – Saboteur – Americana
1943 – Shadow of a Doubt – Rings
1943 – I Walked with a Zombie – Light & darkness
1945 – Spellbound – Doors
1945 – Detour – Telephones
1947 – Black Narcissus – Invisibility
1949 – The Third Man – Childhood imagery
1950 – All About Eve – Famous names
1951 – Strangers on a Train – Criss-crossing
1956 – A Man Escaped – Transformations
1958 – The Music Room – Stillness & movement
1959 – Night Train – Newspapers
1959 – Fever Mounts at El Pao – Paper
1959 – Pickpocket – Doors
1962 – L’eclisse – Frames
1963 – Les carabiniers – Repetitive series
1963 – The Big City – Up & down
1965 – Alphaville – Opposites
1966 – Au hasard Balthazar – Gifts
1966 – The Quiller Memorandum – Food, sports
1966 – Blow-Up – Ironies
1969 – Topaz – Ornaments, especially flowers
1970 – Zabriskie Point – Signs
1974 – Chinatown – Asymmetrically damaged pairs of lenses
1980 – The Shining – Americana
1982 – Blade Runner – Eyes
1983 – L’argent – Doors
1986 – The Sacrifice – Abasements
1987 – Where Is My Friend’s Home? – Doors
1988 – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – Telephones
1993 – Antareen – Tea
1994 – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – Wildlife
1999 – Eyes Wide Shut – Christmas lights
1999 – The Wind Will Carry Us – Signs of death, high & low
2006 – Dry Season – Phallic symbols
2006 – The Boss of It All – Teddy bears

Multiple Parts

Twice-told tales and other stories broken into distinct sections, usually (but not always) of roughly equal length. Conventional multi-act plays and dramas are not counted here; the parts must parallel each other somehow. The most common division is into two parts, but other numbers are possible when the parts form a progression or relate specifically to a familiar number, like the four parts of a symphony or the seven capital sins. See also the Palindrome, which closely resembles a 2-Part structure.

2-Part

1946 – The Big Sleep
1950 – Les enfants terribles
1953 – Tokyo Story
1954 – The Naked Jungle
1958 – Vertigo
1960 – Psycho
1961 – La notte
1961 – A Woman Is a Woman
1962 – L’eclisse
1964 – Band of Outsiders
1975 – Barry Lyndon
1976 – Heart of Glass
1987 – Full Metal Jacket
2011 – Melancholia

3-Part

1949 – A Letter to Three Wives
1963 – The Servant
1967 – Weekend
1986 – The Sacrifice
2007 – In the City of Sylvia

4-Part

1927 – Sunrise
1964 – Gertrud

5-Part

1945 – Dead of Night

6-Part

1978 – The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting
2014 – Wild Tales

7-Part

1953 – Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
1966 – Andrei Rublev

Names

Character names or other proper names that point to a film’s purpose, often through culturally recognizable allusions or using the names’ original meanings.

1930 – Earth
1938 – The Lady Vanishes
1939 – Idiot’s Delight
1941 – The Assassination of Père Noël
1942 – Saboteur
1942 – La nuit fantastique
1942 – Holiday Inn
1943 – Goupi Mains Rouges
1943 – The Hand of the Devil
1943 – Lumière d’été
1948 – Les parents terribles
1950 – All About Eve
1955 – Ordet
1958 – Vertigo
1959 – Hiroshima mon amour
1959 – Pickpocket
1960 – L’avventura
1960 – Psycho
1962 – Knife in the Water
1962 – Vivre sa vie
1963 – Winter Light
1964 – Band of Outsiders
1965 – Alphaville
1966 – Blow-Up
1967 – 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
1970 – Le boucher
1970 – La rupture
1975 – India Song
1977 – Baxter, Véra Baxter
1982 – Veronika Voss
1989 – Roselyne and the Lions
1998 – The Truman Show
1999 – The Wind Will Carry Us
2000 – Dancer in the Dark
2000 – Italian for Beginners
2003 – Dogville
2003 – Matchstick Men
2005 – Caché
2011 – Melancholia
2013 – Enemy
2018 – Burning

Palindrome

A symmetrical story with a reversal in the middle and strong parallels between the two halves, like a 2-Part film but with more elaborate symmetry. The sequence of parallels in either half may not be in exact reverse order. Palindromic films usually employ Bracketing at the beginning and end.

1955 – Death of a Cyclist
1960 – L’avventura
1963 – Winter Light
1966 – Persona
1967 – 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
1970 – Zabriskie Point

Parallels

Strong equivalence or systematic comparison between different characters, locations, ideas, etc. within a film. One side may be a transformation of the other, or they may be similar in significant ways. Omitted from this list are parallels that are suggested by other structural devices like Framing.

1930 – Earth – Communism as a new version of Christianity
1939 – Midnight – Parallels to the Cinderella story
1940 – Rebecca – Mrs. Van Hopper as a comic version of Mrs. Danvers
1941 – Ladies in Retirement – Correspondences between characters and the cardinal vices/virtues
1943 – Day of Wrath – Equivalence between witches and their persecutors
1946 – Beauty and the Beast – The Beast’s castle as a transformation of Belle’s home
1946 – A Matter of Life and Death – Parallels between the two worlds
1946 – Green for Danger – Parallels between the 3 gases and the mix of genres
1949 – Such a Pretty Little Beach – Equivalence between Pierre and the orphan
1950 – All About Eve – Equivalence between Eve and Phoebe
1952 – 5 Fingers – Parallels between Allied, Axis, and neutral characters and their offices
1953 – Roman Holiday – Equivalence between the opening newsreel and the romantic plot
1954 – The Naked Jungle – Nature as a projection of human passions
1954 – Rear Window – Parallels between each of the neighbors and Jeff’s thoughts about marriage
1956 – A Man Escaped – Parallels between the film and the musical setting for a mass
1957 – Wild Strawberries – Parallels between the two Saras
1960 – Plein soleil – Parallels between external settings and internal drama
1961 – La notte – Equivalence between Lidia and Valentina
1962 – Knife in the Water – Equivalence between Andrzej and the hitchhiker
1966 – Persona – Equivalence between Alma and Elisabet
1972 – Solaris – Parallels between the decor of the home & space station
1972 – The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – Reflections of the central drama in the past, in the decor, & in other characters
1975 – India Song – Triangle of equivalence between Anne-Marie Stretter, the Laotian beggar, and the vice-consul (among other examples)
1977 – Baxter, Véra Baxter – Equivalence between Véra Baxter and her unnamed visitor
1979 – Stalker – Parallels between the home & the Room
1983 – The Moon in the Gutter – Equivalence between Catherine and Loretta
1983 – Nostalghia – Parallels between Domenico’s and Gorchakov’s last actions
1989 – The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover – Parallels between the sets and different centuries of history
1996 – Breaking the Waves – Parallels between the church and the modern world
2000 – Dancer in the Dark – Comparison between a literal God’s eye view and figuratively playing God
2001 – Hannibal – Parallel symbolism of Florence and Washington, DC
2013 – Enemy – Equivalence between Adam Bell and Anthony Claire
2016 – Arrival – The heptapods’ ship as a transformation of Louise’s living room
2018 – Burning – Equivalence between Jong-su and Ben
2022 – No Bears – Parallels between the two main stories

Personification

Characters who embody particular well-defined qualities that point to the film’s subject. Personified qualities are usually general traits; if they refer to highly specific real-world objects then the film is closer to an Allegory.

1932 – Vampyr
1939 – The Wizard of Oz
1943 – I Walked with a Zombie
1950 – All About Eve
1953 – Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
1953 – Tokyo Story
1955 – Ordet
1955 – Pather Panchali
1958 – The Music Room
1959 – Night Train
1959 – Floating Weeds
1960 – Les bonnes femmes
1961 – The End of Summer
1966 – Black Girl
1969 – The Structure of Crystal
1972 – Cries and Whispers
1982 – Veronika Voss
1987 – Where Is My Friend’s Home?
1988 – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
2000 – Italian for Beginners
2007 – In the City of Sylvia
2013 – The Counselor

Refrain

An action, event, or line of dialogue that occurs at major intervals throughout a movie, and which guides the viewer to the movie’s purpose.

1924 – Sherlock Jr. – Water brings people down to earth or back to reality
1934 – L’Atalante – Music reconnects characters to life three times
1936 – Modern Times – The Tramp works at five different jobs
1938 – The Lady Vanishes – Miss Froy vanishes nine to fourteen times across the film
1939 – Midnight – Regular pattern of reversals of fortune
1941 – Ornamental Hairpin – Emi’s three unspoken wishes at the beginning, middle, and end
1941 – Ladies in Retirement – Foreshadowings and echoes of the central dramatic event
1943 – Meshes of the Afternoon – Five approaches and entrances into the house
1947 – Monsieur Verdoux – Verdoux asks a similarly-phrased question near the beginning, middle, and end
1951 – Diary of a Country Priest – Topic of suicide arises in three consecutive scenes, pointing to larger story
1951 – Early Summer – Abrupt cuts from images of eternity to images representing time
1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey – Four appearances of the monolith, accompanied by a syzygy until the last monolith
1971 – A Clockwork Orange – Alex’s story mirrors four stages of social acculturation
1999 – The Wind Will Carry Us – Behzad drives up to the cemetery five times to speak with Mrs. Godarzi
2013 – Enemy – Spider imagery, with living spiders at the beginning, middle, and end
2018 – Burning – The view of Seoul Tower from Hae-mi’s apartment plays a key role in three scenes

Remake

A film with particularly strong parallels to an earlier film. For purposes of this list, qualifying movies are generally not obvious or overt remakes, but rather highly original transformations of the earlier material.

1951 – Early Summer
1954 – The Naked Jungle
1960 – Psycho
1961 – The End of Summer
1964 – Marnie
1966 – Made in U.S.A
1967 – 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
1979 – Stalker
1982 – Veronika Voss
1994 – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
2003 – Matchstick Men
2006 – Inland Empire
2011 – Melancholia
2022 – No Bears

Timing

Occasionally a movie will mark the significance of an event, a line of dialogue, or some other detail by placing it almost precisely at the hour, half-hour, or quarter-hour marks of the film’s runtime. Normally the viewer should not be expected to recognize this, but the exactness of placement can signal an intention to stress something.

1924 – Sherlock Jr. – Film-within-the-film fills screen halfway through
1958 – Conflagration – Key events at the 30, 60, and 90 minute marks
1962 – Cléo from 5 to 7 – Summary of the plot at the 60 minute mark
1966 – The Quiller Memorandum – Pol appears at the beginning, the 60-minute mark, and the end
1966 – Time Walks Through the City – Horse appears at halfway mark; inner & outer sections of equal length
1969 – The Structure of Crystal – Key lines at the halfway mark
1972 – Cries and Whispers – Key events at the 30, 45, and 60 minute marks
1986 – Blue Velvet – Key lines from the title song at the 60-minute/halfway point
1999 – Eyes Wide Shut – Key word at the 60 minute mark