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Making the case for a return to silent cinema

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Where we’re going, we don’t need words: why films like No Country for Old Men and All Is Lost prove movies can work dialogue-free.

It’s a famous line, in a famous film, made by an even more famous film star: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces”, Gloria Swanson’s iconic fictional diva, Norma Desmond exclaims to a bemused and slightly bored looking William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. Most of us would share his reaction after hearing yet another dramatic outburst from our proverbial kidnapper, but she makes a good point.

The reliance on dialogue to drive the narrative forward is strong in mainstream cinema, odd for an art form that started off silent

There is no question that creation of cinematic sound in 1927 paved the way for a wave of influential classic genres that could not have been possible without dialogue – how would film noir exist without the essential hard-boiled narration, or the screwball comedy without its sharp, witty comebacks? But does a film necessarily need dialogue to tell a story and engage an audience? The answer is of course a resounding ‘no’, but the reliance on it to drive the narrative forward is still strong in mainstream cinema. Which is a bit odd for an art form that started off silent.

The effectiveness of a simple, silent camera shot evoking a reaction from the audience goes back as far as 1896, when the Lumiere Brothers screened one of the first films ever made: Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (spoiler in the title). Legend has it that audiences were so terrified by the sight of a life-size train moving directly towards the camera that they ran to the back of the room to hide. Now a film needs CGI, loud sound effects and 3D to be regarded as technically impressive. You could say that a film like Gravity relies primarily on its visuals and editing to convey the dizzying and desolate story. But the 3D and special effects used to convince you that you’re actually floating around space with Sandra Bullock are basically still doing the same job as dialogue, and the whole film becomes an extension of the theatre.

GRAVITY

It would be stupid to dismiss all forms of spoken narrative, but arguably the essence of cinema still lies within that silent era, when an actor’s movements and expressions and the director’s vision were all that were needed in engaging an audience. Hitchcock’s work owes a great debt to silent cinema; that famous sequence in Vertigo where James Stewart stalks Kim Novak as she goes about her daily San Franciscan errands is a great example of a director understanding how superfluous dialogue can be. Hitchcock manages to turn something as simple as one character driving slowly and observing another into a gripping, voyeuristic and suspense-filled scene.

No Country for Old Men would’ve worked with no dialogue whatsoever and perhaps would’ve made an even better film for it

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way, and sometimes the only way to keep a mass audience entertained is to introduce bland and vapid dialogue. It’s not that I think all dialogue should be banned, but some of the rubbish that’s churned out by Hollywood to act as lazy, generic filler – used in the remaining scenes after production had spent the rest of its budget – should be. Even if audiences still insist on dialogue to draw them in, it seems as though more and more filmmakers these days are realising how unnecessary it can be.

The release of Inside Llewyn Davis last month marks another film in the Coen brothers’ repertoire that relies on long stretches of silence rather than sound to convey the story. The Coens’ work often uses minimal dialogue and still manages to remain totally engaging. One of the greatest examples of this is their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, a film which would have worked with no dialogue whatsoever and perhaps would have made an even better film for it. Who knew that one of the tensest scenes in cinema would simply involve the silent image of a hallway light disappearing through a gap in the door?

no country for old men hotel

In the last few years, more films relying less on dialogue and more on visual storytelling are grabbing the attention of cinema-goers. Robert Redford’s one man show in All is Lost received rave reviews, and of course there was 2012’s Oscar-winning The Artist, an excellent homage to the silent era, but a film that arguably, like All is Lost, was only talked about and applauded due to its ‘uniqueness’. It’s almost as if people are surprised and impressed that a film can be good minus a spoken narrative. But if an actor is doing their job right and the director knows how to tell a story, dialogue really is just an extra ingredient in the big cake that is cinema, one that may or may not be necessary.

The majority of filmmakers simply don’t have the imagination or the talent to create a film that doesn’t rely on dialogue

The problem seems to be that the majority of filmmakers simply don’t have the imagination or the talent to create a film that doesn’t rely on dialogue, and that many cinema-goers aren’t willing to accept a film without it. It might take a while for summer blockbusters and money-making hits to ditch the dialogue, but the good news is that there are still some smart filmmakers out there who truly understand the power of film in itself and can acknowledge its history in the days before sound. Dialogue can be brilliant, but for those boring, unfunny scripts that are repetitively thrown at us year after year, all we can do is hope that the director follows the advice that Clark Gable once proposed for his epitaph: “Back to silents.

Featured image: FilmNation Entertainment

Inset images: Warner Bros; Miramax/Paramount Vantage

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