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Mute Dialogues in Talkies

At first glance it appears that with the arrival of the talkies mute dialogue was forgotten, i.e. dialogue based on gestures and mimic which has unavoidably dominated narrative silent film. However, mute dialogue — non-verbal communication — did not disappear with the arrival of sound and the onslaught of particularly verbal films. On the contrary, it obtained a new meaning and role. It was no longer a necessary stylistic means that performed the role of dialogue and compensated for the lack of audible verbal speech. Since audible dialogue was obligatory part of sound films, non-verbal communication appeared in opposition to the verbal dialogue and thus obtained a special stylistic value. Verbal and non-verbal dialogues are closely linked, but do still have certain differences. Both silent, non-verbal, and sound, verbal dialogue offer various information about the characters, their interrelations, the global situation, and individual reactions.

The difference, however, is the type of information they provide. While verbal dialogues have an almost unlimited range of types of information that they can offer to the viewer, mute dialogues do not normally offer factual information, although even that is possible (for example, the character can answer a straight question, and provide factual information, by nodding or waving his head). Most often, mute dialogues serve to express what cannot, or is difficult to be expressed verbally, i. e. emotions (love, hate, jealousy, contempt...) or some other type of reactions that character for some reason cannot, or does not want to verbalize (for example, giving a suspicious look).

Another special quality of mute dialogues is that they very much depend on the context — non-verbal reactions can be deciphered only when we are familiar with the relations among characters and their situation. In this sense they depend on the type of situation they appear in, namely, the type of scene. In action scenes where physical movement dominates appear a number of mute reactions consisting of looks, mimic, gestures, which are mostly short and expressive.

For example, in the attack on the rebel camp in the movie Predator by John McTiernen, the characters use the agreed upon sign language for military activities, they communicate with eyes, and by nodding their heads. On the other hand, even in the scenes with verbal dialogue there is also a subtle usage of mute, non-verbal reactions. Here, mute dialogue appears as an extension of verbal by ’other means’ (mostly conduct and glances charged with emotions). For example, in the scene of dialogue between Pfeiffer and Day Lewis in the Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese there are parts in which they exchange glances during their long walks.

However, there are also action-dialogue sequences in which the whole dialogue is mute, as for example in the disco club scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. A whole two-minute sequence in which Michael Douglas takes over Sharon Stone from Sarelle with whom she had been dancing, takes place in their eye-contacts and demonstrative actions heavily relying on our knowledge of character relations and previous events.

According to their function in relation to the verbal dialogue, mute dialogues serve to: (a) emphasize certain aspects of verbal dialogue, (b) replace verbal dialogue, and (c) supplement it.

All these functions can be illustrated with the example from Basic Instinct — in the scene in which Michael Douglas and George Dzundza first arrive to question Sharon Stone in their glances additionally affirm their words (Sharon Stone’s defiant look underlines her verbal message Get lost); Douglas’ appearance expresses his defeat, however, he does not put that into words, but rather only nods to his partner. According to their meaning, mute dialogues can meaningfully accompany verbal dialogues, they can carry the same meaning, or introduce information that are different or contrary to those expressed verbally (in the above described scene with Sharon Stone, she tries to correct her rudeness adding ’Please’, however, her eyes and her attitude remain defiant).

Exactly in such contrast meanings of non-verbal dialogue lie great rhetorical potentials of mute dialogues. According to the manner in which mute dialogues appear, we can distinguish independent non-verbal dialogues excluding verbal ones, and mute exchanges in the context of predominantly verbal dialogue (for these we can find examples in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly — dialogue between Hammer and the policeman, and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt — scene of the family dinner at which Charlie, certain that her uncle is the murderer, lets others know it too).

Evidently, after the initial hyperverbalisation of film at the beginnings of sound era, the mature phase of sound film introduces a much more subtle treatment of dialogue sequences, increasing the importance of non-verbal conversation. Contemporary film authors, especially those with great ambitions and a narrative talent, display exquisite sensitivity in the usage of mute dialogues, and often the test of their talent lies exactly in this sphere.

Igor Tomljanović

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