Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 12, 2013
This week at the AFI I saw A Man Escaped (aka The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth), the 1956 masterpiece by Robert Bresson. For a little over an hour and a half, the audience follows Le lieutenant Fontaine (François Leterrier) as he meticulously and relentlessly forges ahead with an escape plan that involves slow, methodical movements and monastic silence. It is, to my mind, one of the greatest films in all of cinema but it is, more importantly, the greatest film in quiet cinema, a method of moviemaking employed not nearly enough.
A Man Escaped begins with Fontaine in the backseat of a car, along with two other prisoners, being taken to a Nazi prison in Lyon, France during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Tension exists immediately. Fontaine sits quietly in the back of the car, gently moving his hand towards the door handle, waiting for the right moment to bolt. The scene works immensely well as we wonder when or if he will get a chance to escape (the car has to stop first) and one of the reasons it works so well is the absolute sense of quiet that surrounds it. We hear ambient sounds from the engine, the pedestrians and traffic outside but it is muffled. That sense of quiet focuses us on Fontaine’s hand and his utter concentration on the driver so that he will be ready to run the first chance he gets.
He does get the chance. It doesn’t work. But that opening sets up the entire film for us. Fontaine is a man of focus, concentration and patience. From the short scene in the car alone, we know when he gets to the prison he will immediately focus his efforts on escape. We know something else, too: He won’t rush it and he won’t get careless. He will take calculated risks, yes, but he will never get careless.
Once inside the prison, Bresson follows all of Fontaine’s moves with the kind of attentiveness that Fontaine gives to his escape. If ever a director and subject were perfectly matched, this may be the one. Not only was Bresson himself a prisoner of the Nazis during his years in the French resistance but Bresson brings a quality of patience, focus and quietude to all of his films. He and Fontaine, based on real life escapee Andre Devigny, are extensions of each other. Fontaine needs to be slow, methodical, patient and silent to succeed at escape and Bresson needs to do the same to document it.
But more than build tension, the quietness of the film also makes ordinary sounds extraordinary. The prying of a wood plank sounds like bones being bent to the breaking point. The sound of a crack in a skylight’s glass sounds like a mini-explosion. And the sound of a bicycle’s squeaky wheels sound like something otherworldly, as if a ghost roamed the walls of the prison.
A Man Escaped does something else, too, something that would doom almost any other movie from the start: It relies almost exclusively on narration to provide context. The narration is present in almost every scene (think about that for a second) and, remarkably, never becomes intrusive. The key is, Bresson has Leterrier read the narration in the same hushed tones used by everyone throughout the movie. This isn’t a spoken narrative track so much as a whispered one. Not whispered in the same way the prisoners whisper to each other for fear of being heard but spoken lowly and without histrionics.
But while A Man Escaped is the all time masterpiece of the quiet cinema, it is only part of a long, respectable tradition. The difference with A Man Escaped is how it maintains the sense of quiet from start to finish while other films often only employ quietude for specific moments or scenes for heightened effect. Still, others do. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles stands alongside A Man Escaped for playing off pure quietude for the entire running time of the film. Chantal Akerman’s classic builds up tension in its own way and does so by giving Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) a set of activities repeated daily so methodically that we get to know them as well as Jeanne. At one point, when she drops a utensil, it’s shocking only because it’s different.
One of the greatest employers of quiet in storytelling was Stanley Kubrick. After the opening crash of Strauss over its title card, 2001: A Space Odyssey employs silence for most of the opening Dawn of Man sequence, only bringing in music when the monolith appears. It’s greatest moment of silence comes when Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) comes in through the emergency airlock to total silence. There’s something mesmerizing about watching action without sound. Even most silent pictures had somebody playing a piano while the audience watched. It’s rare to watch a movie in pure silence.
The opening sequence of There Will be Blood was another great example of the power of watching action without dialogue and very little sound. Given the bombast of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) later in the picture, and his obsession over what is his and what he feels he deserves, it’s interesting once again that, like A Man Escaped, the opening sequence clues the audience in to Plainview’s focus, concentration and single-mindedness.
Or The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie scores (many by Bernard Herrmann) are so famous that it’s hard to believe he did a film without any score at all but, in fact, The Birds does just that. The quiet that ends the movie, which I’ve written up here before, is chilling. Each footstep the characters make towards the front door, and then towards the car, is amplified in the audience’s mind because there is no music underscoring it. Just the ominous sounds of birds, gathered and waiting.
Sometimes the quiet cinema sneaks into a scene not to illuminate a character or create a sense of dread but to evoke a feeling of exhaustion and weariness. A sense that, right now, the characters just need some time to think and rest. It’s rarely been done better than the final kitchen scene in Big Night, as Stanley Tucci makes eggs for the kitchen crew as they sit exhausted and beaten. It’s all done in one unbroken shot and it’s a beautiful thing. The quiet of it all makes it work.
In Day of the Jackal, director Fred Zinnemann uses music and sound sparingly. Two of my favorite moments come at opposite ends of the movie. The first comes when The Jackal (Edward Fox) tests out the gun he’s going to use for the assassination of Charles de Gaulle. He goes to a field and sets up a target hanging from a tree with which to test the gun. It’s so quiet and meticulous, as he adjusts the scope, tightens screws and focuses his vision, that when the gun finally shoots, it’s jarring. When it finally hits its target, it’s terrifying.
The second comes near the end as we watch the area where de Gaulle will speak and wonder, just as the police in the film do, where the Jackal is and when will he emerge. As the camera steadies its searching and settles into one static frame, we see a man hobbling towards the camera, with nothing but ambient sound around him. It is the Jackal, and if you’ve the movie, it’s a jaw dropper.
Most movies employ quiet only briefly for a quick and unexpected effect. In 1997′s Titanic, the most effective shot in the whole movie comes when director James Cameron abruptly switches from the panic filled deck’s of the sinking ship to a long shot of the ship, miles away, sinking in a dark, quiet night. Or The Fellowship of the Ring‘s use of quiet in the mines of Moria to heighten the sinking gut feeling everyone feels when Pippin accidentally creates nothing but noise down an old well shaft (he really is a fool of a Took, sometimes).
One of my favorite brief moments of quiet ever probably comes in Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz in the scene where Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) sits at a table during a reading for his musical. Fosse uses silence to emphasize’s Joe’s lack of concentration on the proceedings around him. The only sounds we hear are the tapping of a pencil, it’s breaking and any other fidgeting done by Joe. It conveys restlessness, impatience and lack of focus as well as when quiet is so often used to convey the opposite.
Film is, of course, a visual medium but that doesn’t mean sound isn’t a huge part of it. Music scores and sound effects have long been vital to the process with sound development in the cinema, in particular, often overlooked and under-appreciated. But quiet has its place, too. A quiet scene or moment can go a long way in expressing something a thousand words, a beautiful score or a brilliant sound effect can’t. And a quiet film, like A Man Escaped, can be a transformative experience. They say silence is golden and in the movies, that usually means silent films. But a sound film filled with silence is a different thing altogether, and much rarer, but just as golden.
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