Thursday, May 20, 2010

What in the Name of Robert Mitchum is Goin' On Here???

One night I can't sleep--a common occurence in recent years--so I'm up at three a.m. watching my favorite Robert Mitchum movie in one of the greatest Films Noir ever slapped to celluloid, Out of the Past, from 1947; it's the year's best Noir in Noir's best year. Anyway, since I'm up late and don't want to disturb my sleeping wife, I watch with the volume down and the subtitles on.

I was blissfully relaxed until the following:

There's an apartment scene with Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) and Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming) pretending to be cousins. They're visiting Fleming's boss, Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), who's making cocktails. Eels asks Mitchum "Have a Martini?" but the subtitles read: "Apple Martini"!!! There's no way in this old brown world that a hardboiled 1940s Noir film is going to have a yuppified drink ---which was most-likely concocted by the writers of Sex and the City--- like that in a movie where just watching Mitchum light cigarette after cigraette in every single scene can produce emphysema-like symptoms in the fact, I was so taken aback with a combination of shock and amusement that I lost count of how many unfiltered coffin nails ol' Mitch was firing up (and speaking of Mitchum's smoking in Out of the Past, imagine how many he lit and dragged from in the out takes!)

The subtitle gaffe isn't a huge deal, I guess, at least to those of us among "The Annointed", and who love classic movies so much that they write an occasional blog post, but what if a younger person, born of CGI parents and weaned on Yu-Gi-Oh cartoons is watching Out of the Past for a school assignment and thinks that something like an "Apple Martini" was commonplace among the WWII generation. I can hear it now: "Well, Hitler's dead, let's sit in our favorite sports bar and sip a sugary Apple Martini and eat low-carb food."

I exaggerate for comic effect...

The subtitle gaffe is amusing and I eventually moved on, but that one error says volumes about how a terrifying, monolithic, fire-breathing corporation like Warner Brothers works: They have barely-paid--if at all--indentured servants from one of the film school mills work as interns in a hot basement using
the most rudimentary of tools to scratch out the dialogue and submit it like a typical data entry drone in some office. Out of the Past is a revered film in Film Noir circles, and hopefully any self-respecting classic movie lover will have seen it. It's not as famous as Gone with the Wind or Transformers 2, but it's an okay film. If companies like Warner Brothers farms out their subtitle crew to such incompentents, can you imagine who Universal Pictures selected to store their film and TV library?


  1. Just want to say I love Out of the Past. It's definitely in my top 5 favorite noirs. And it's tied with Night of the Hunter as my favorite Mitchum film.

  2. That's hysterical! (And sad.) Can you imagine Mitchum drinking an appletini? Hah!

  3. Funny story! The idea of Mitchum with an "apple martini" is pretty amusing.

    I wouldn't be surprised if the captioning is done by court reporters, who take down phonetic sounds in shorthand as they listen and then transcribe it into words later. I proofread for court reporters, and you'd be amazed how easy it is for a phrase like "Have a" to turn out to be "apple" during the "scoping" process when the sounds are turned into a transcript with words, especially if the reporter isn't familiar with the material. A computer does a lot of the "translating," which is then cleaned up by the reporter and/or a proofreader. One of my main jobs is fixing things that sound a bit similar but aren't accurate, or tidying up things like their/there, past/passed, etc. If no one is proofreading the film captioning, there you have it.

    If you turn on live TV captioning, for instance of a news channel, you will often see very amusing soundalike mistakes because there's no final process to clean up what the reporter is taking down.

    Best wishes,

  4. You must have super-hero hearing! Interesting stuff...

    I really don't mind a word or two being misheard so much as the transcriber being ignorant of a movie's time period, which is what happened with our old buddy Mitch. ;)

    I also realize why older directors and writers have to constantly point out how there wasn't an internet, ipods, etc. when explaining the era's technological limitations during their DVD commentary, because some people might actually believe that these things have always been around.

  5. Actually, I don't listen to what I proofread, unless the reporter asks me to listen to a tricky part. (Until a few years ago, when mikes were built into their computers, it was fairly rare for a reporter to record a proceeding; sometimes it was done surreptitiously with a tape recorder. Otherwise everything was transcribed strictly from the shorthand notes!) By the time it gets to me I try to figure out from the context what makes sense. We don't always get it right but it helps to have fairly wide knowledge on a variety of topics!

    What you point out is a definite problem if they use court reporters to do the captioning -- in many cases they'll have absolutely no idea of the time period and are "flying blind." I often turn on the script captioning when I am listening to a commentary track, so I can also follow the story, and I see pretty silly mistakes on a regular basis.

    Re what you mention about technology -- one of the interesting things about technological changes that has hit me a lot lately is when you watch a "new" movie you never know what's real and what's computer. Even a movie like THE PROPOSAL "green screened" in Alaska mountains, when they really shot in Massachusetts. Whereas if you see an old movie (and there's not a back projection screen, grin), you know chances are very good it's a real location, a real stunt, etc.

    Best wishes,

  6. You can always guess the projection-screen in old movies, because the picture-quality is obviously going down.

    Well, that's kind of honest - although, if they were able to conceal it, they'd have done it.

    P.S.: Valerian helps much better than film noir. ;)

  7. Mitchum drinking an apple martini is akin to the skit Alan Sues used to do on Laugh-In where, dressed in western garb, he would enter an old west saloon and order a frozen daiquiri. I do not know enough about the exact details of how captions and subtitles are created nor enough about how captions and subtitles vary from each other. But either way, an apple martini in Out of the Past is out of the question. What followed? Kathie Moffat drinking sarsaparilla? Thanks. Gerald

  8. An addendum to my prior comment. My wife made the same point to me that Laura made about “have a” and “apple”. Laura’s explanation about how the process works was enlightening. Gerald


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