Thomas Sutcliffe: When time loses its meaning

Watching Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead last week, I experienced one of those inner spasms of pleasure that you sometimes get in a cinema when you know that it's all going to be all right, that the film has you, and that your fear of disappointment (always there somewhere when the lights go down) can be laid to rest. Oddly, it wasn't a camera movement that did it for me (though Lumet's film includes some lovely grandstanding tracking shots), or a line of dialogue (though how could you not like a crime thriller that includes the line "Don't get semantic on me"), or even an acting moment (although Lumet's film includes Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most satanic). It was an inter-title reading "The Day of the Robbery". And there was something about the functional starkness of those few words that was thrilling.

Knowing you were in for a robbery was part of it – larceny always being a reliably bankable spectacle in Hollywood – but there was something else besides, some intimation of command that chimed with things I'd brought to the cinema with me. You don't go to see a film by a director who was nominated for an Oscar 50 years earlier without carrying along some idea of acquired authority – and this title card crystallised it for me. Lumet was in charge and this was one of the ways in which he was going to issue orders.

As it happened there have been a couple of other occasions to mull over the charm of the chronological inter-title just recently. In Coventry the other day, Trevor Nunn's production of Scenes From a Marriage opened at the Belgrade Theatre, a production that would be virtually inconceivable without regular projected announcements of the passage of time (in this case, unlike that of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, heading in one direction only. And my current favourite guilty pleasure, the American legal thriller Damages, began a few weeks ago with a classic "Six Months Earlier" flashback title-card, letting us know that the scenes of bloody distress with which it opened were a sneak preview of the end of the story. That is one of the points of title-cards, I guess – that they make temporal games accessible to even the dimmest viewer. There's nothing very subtle about "Six Months Earlier" – it simply signposts a diversion from the one-way street of real time.

That said, it can be easy to overlook how tutored even the dimmest viewer has become in such devices. Once Damages has established that it will straddle two time schemes, and that each flash-forward will be stylistically watermarked, they can afford to be pretty sparing about the temporal noticeboards, knowing that the viewers will have got it by then. And I suspect that one of the pleasures of inter-titles has its source in our confidence with such tricks of time. There's a tiny reflex of self-congratulation when we encounter a chronological inter-title because we know it announces games are going to be played and we pride ourselves on being able to follow the moves.

That isn't what's going on in Scenes From a Marriage, though, where the inter-titles alert you to a staccato and unpredictable rhythm of elision. One reading "Six years later" might well be preceded or followed by one reading "Two hours later". You'd have to be clinically naive about the relationship between theatrical and real time to find such a device sophisticated, and strictly speaking the drama could do without it altogether, as most conventionally sequenced dramas do. But the presence of inter-titles isn't just a stylistic tic in Nunn's production. It gives to these events the sense of a narrative not unrolling as we watch, but already recorded and now, in edited form, being played back for our instruction. "Two hours later" implicitly argues that what filled the gap wasn't as significant as what you're about to see. It gives to everything that happens a sense of aura and predestination – with something of that flavour that precise time-coding carries in an account of a major catastrophe. It isn't a count-down exactly, but its erratic tick through the play hints that you're watching a disaster you have yourself survived.

That's just as true when the drama itself turns back time, as when Lumet's film follows the disastrous heist with a title that reads "Three days before the robbery". And that's only partly because we've been granted the kind of 20:20 foresight that life doesn't normally permit. It's also because, for a moment, we've been wrenched out of an immediacy where our time and dramatic time are indistinguishable, to a perspective from which we feel briefly exempt from time's grip. It's an illusion, of course, but it can be a delicious one.