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It sounds odd to consider the sound involved in a silent film. Cinemas, though, did not simply begin making music after the production of The Jazz Singer (1927): they were noisy places and films were noisy things from the beginning. It is likely, for example, that a piano accompanied the first significant presentation of moving pictures before an audience (generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s screening in Paris in 1895). There is an inevitable gap between image and sound in this sort of production because the notes are added after and do not originate from the same source as the picture. In a sense, the music that accompanies these films can be considered diegetic (a term which comes from the Greek ‘to narrate’) because it is used to guide the viewer’s response. Indeed, we are aware of a similar effect caused by any film score but the use of what I term mimetic elements of the soundtrack, for example sound effects or dialogue, is not possible for these pictures. Such noises are mimetic (from the Greek ‘to copy’) because they only recreate the recorded reality in film. Is it fair to say, then, that we expect to feel the seam between the film and sound in so-called silent films, to feel a gap between what is occurring on-screen and the music that accompanies it?
An odd thing happened, when I was watching Dr. Mabuse (1922), which was counterpointed later, when I saw Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961): for a moment in Mabuse the diegetic notes of a piano become (inadvertently) mimetic, while in Marienbad expected aural mimesis is (purposefully) frustrated. There is a scene in Mabuse in which a pianist is playing. It is, if I remember correctly, in a gambling hall. The score lends a feeling of lightness and jollity to the action. When Lang cuts, however, to a medium close shot of the pianist, seated and playing, the notes mimic perfectly his hand movements: for a time, in a sense, we hear what the characters do. The implications of this slip are unnerving: for a few seconds the viewer is left to decide the tone of the piece for herself, as the music reveals it is not itself an interpretative keynote, suggesting how to view the scene, but instead only another level of the presentation of a gambling hall. I had to rewind the DVD to make sure I’d not made a mistake.
In Marienbad, in contrast, there is a score of organ music that is oppressive in its relentlessness. In one particular scene, again a medium close shot of a band playing, the instruments are oddly silent. The droning organ continues regardless and makes the image of the playing band members, apparently unaware of their own silence, all the more disturbing. I remember, for some reason, sensing my stomach drop, when I first encountered this shot, and a feeling of isolation began to grow. I suppose it is an odd experience when one’s own senses fail to line up, when what we see is not what we hear.
In Rope (1948), Hitchcock demonstrates that he’s an experimental, as well as a successful, filmmaker. Shot in a series of reel-long takes almost invisibly joined together, the picture confirms that there’s more than one way to tell a story with film.
Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope’s End (1929 American title) is the source for this picture, and Rope itself does feel theatrical: the one-set setting is made more explicit by Hitchcock’s method of filming. The experiment, which the director believes “didn’t work out”, is an attempt to create an, on the whole, unedited appearance. The camera is not static: it follows characters around the flat and moves in for close ups when desired. While he occassionally uses unmasked cuts, Hitchcock joins most of his reels together by tracking into objects (for example, the back of a man’s jacket), which he then allows to fill the frame.
Despite aiming at an appearance of organic continuity, with the camera seemingly following the impromptu actions of the characters, Rope was a highly orchestrated affair. The actors were choreographed, taking movement cues from other characters’ lines; the crew had to move props and roll the walls of the set (which were on wheels) silently out of the path of the large Technicolor camera. The camera’s movements were also carefully planned to achieve thrilling shots: for example, the opening close up of David (Dick Hogan) being strangled is later counterpointed by a similar close up of the same rope holding together a bundle of books.
In the film’s balance between the level of in camera editing and apparent lack of post production, Rope‘s experimental nature is reminiscent of early filmmaking techniques. While pictures such as Augustine and Louis Lumière’s Baby’s Breakfast and The Card Players (both 1895) seem to be cases of starting the camera and letting it run on until the 50 ft reel ran out, both exhibit a level of narrative shape which is achieved through in camera editing, through decisions, for example, about when to begin filming, whether to film only part of an event and when to stop.
Such craft is evident in their 1895 picture Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Here’s a video of the film from youtube:
The single wide shot is positioned to allow a full view of the factory gates and to catch workers leaving both camera left and camera right. There is a clear start, when the gates open, and an apparently clear finish, when the last worker leaves. A young man and a dog run back into frame in the last few seconds, against the general movement of people. I wonder if this shock is a purposeful comic touch or an accident achieved by leaving the camera running a shade too long?
Hitchcock’s later film is far more complex both in terms of narrative shape and its in camera editing. Nonetheless it is telling that, in the classical Hollywood age which, generally speaking, championed a fairly secure set of editing rules, perfecting the invisible cut, Hithcock experimented by turning (consciously or not) back towards the more formative early years of cinema, in which directors had to explore different ways of telling stories, creating rules and trends as they progressed.