Friday night I watched a great double feature on TCM of Gaslight followed by Bunny Lake is Missing. The two work surprisingly well together as dual studies of faux and real insanity, the first being faux the second being real. While I enjoyed watching both again immensely what got me to thinking was a scene near the end of Bunny Lake. Carol Lynley quietly makes her way from the "crazy off his rocker" Keir Dullea at the end, walking and walking and walking while we see Keir confused and peeved near the slide at the playground. She gets to a greenhouse and hides Bunny inside, then leaves and locks the door. Seconds later we see Keir was inside the greenhouse the whole time. Which means he somehow got ahead of her while we saw her within distance of the greenhouse and he on the playground, then he correctly guessed that she would hide Bunny in the greenhouse, hid himself in the greenhouse (while we still see him on the playground) and... well, you get the point. It's impossible. It's based on a premise of him out-thinking and evading her that doesn't work.
And it was okay. It was okay because the movie is interesting, involving, even captivating at times. So we forgive it. I have an old film textbook, Analyzing Films, that covers this very phenomenon, explaining that if a film is directed and edited well enough it can get away with all manner of false premise. As an example it uses Rocky. From Analyzing Films, edited by William H. Phillips:
Consider Rocky's big fight with Apollo Creed at the conclusion of the film. At age 30, with no previous major fights and after only five weeks of training, Rocky becomes the first man to knock down Creed; Rocky becomes the first man to go the distance with Creed (last all 15 rounds). In the 14th round, Rocky in fact seriously injures Creed, who begins to hemorrhage. Rocky very nearly wins the fight, losing only by a split decision (two judges voted for Creed; one for Rocky). Rocky achieves all this though his nose was broken in the first round!
The editing of the fight is handled well enough and is engaging enough that we either don't notice or don't care. In a bad movie this kind of thing drives the viewer crazy and will often be included in a critique of why the movie is so bad. Yet in a good movie it doesn't seem to matter. Which leads us to the question, "If the movie's good enough will we forgive it's plot holes?"
I would say the answer is a resounding "Yes." If a film is well enough made I don't care how many plot holes exist, or improbabilities.
One of my favorite improbabilities is from North by Northwest. The bad guys (James Mason, Martin Landau) want our man Thornhill (Cary Grant) dead and proceed in the most complicated way imaginable. In particular, he is sent to meet someone at a desolate and secluded bus stop in the middle of a vast open plain.
So what's the best way to kill someone you have purposely fooled into going to the middle of nowhere?
Simply have someone wait at the bus stop and shoot him once the bus leaves? - No.
Have a gunman drive by, slow down, shoot him and drive off? - No.
The best way of course is to hire out a crop dusting plane (easily traceable), have the plane actually release pesticide over an area with no crops so that an innocent bystander can remark how odd that is to our hero, then fly around waiting for everyone to leave until finally it can begin to chase and fire at our hero from the air, where, being in a plane and all, it's a lot tougher to hit your target.
Ah yes, that's the solution! Brilliant! To cap it all off, let's have our hero coax the plane to ground level at just the moment a truck is pulling up so the plane can crash into it. Happens all the time. And to get our hero out of here let's make sure this previously abandoned outpost is suddenly flooded with gawkers so that he can drive off in one of their vehicles.
All in all, it's patently ridiculous. And all in all, I don't care. Ever. I love the movie and love the scene too much to let such things stand in the way of a good chase. Had North by Northwest been one of Hitchcock's failures, this scene probably would have been critiqued and examined more closely but as such it stands as one of the great attempted murder/pursuits in the history of film. A false premise vanishes in the face of an expertly shot and edited movie.
Which brings us to the big one. The granddaddy of false premises. The king of impossibilities. The champion, if only because it is so highly regarded. That movie is, of course, Citizen Kane.
Any movie lover worth his or her salt has seen it, probably multiple times. And every movie lover who has seen it, and pored over it's camera work, editing and acting has noticed the same thing: No one, but no one, could have heard Kane say "Rosebud." He is very clearly alone in the room as he whispers (Whispers!) "Rosebud" on his deathbed and drops the snow globe. Then the nurse walks in. And yet the entire movie is based on the premise that everyone wants to know what his last word "Rosebud" meant. It sets the entire story in motion. Even though no one could have heard it. Later, when the butler, Raymond, says he heard it he is talking about a different occasion as Kane destroys Susan's room, and even then it's hard to believe as Kane once again whispers it and Raymond is down the hall! According to Tim Dirks at Filmsite.org some people have even gone so far as to explain this by assuming the entire film to be Kane's "life flashing before his eyes" final moments before he dies but I'm not buying it. I think that Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz simply didn't care. Or even did it on purpose to amuse themselves. After all, it would have been very easy to show a nurse sitting at the foot of the bed and when the snow globe dropped you still could have shown a second nurse entering the room. It wouldn't have affected the film in any way and would have solved the "who in the hell heard him say 'Rosebud'" mystery.
There are probably many other examples of false premises or plot holes in movies so good, or enjoyable, that the viewer forgives them every time. For me Bunny Lake, Roger Thornhill and Charles Foster Kane can engage in all manner of unbelievable set-ups and I'll forgive them every time because they charm me in so many other ways. But when hundreds of beach goers in Speed 2: Cruise Control don't notice a very slow moving cruise ship approaching the shore until the last minute and then said cruise ship plows for hundreds of yards inland, when in reality a simple sandbar or dock will stop a ship dead in its tracks, man that shit just pisses me off.