The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’ delightful mash note to the silent cinema, is looking like a sure bet for heavy recognition at this year’s Oscars, racking up three SAG Award nominations, five Independent Spirit Award nominations, and six Golden Globe nominations, in addition to awards for best film of the year from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Phoenix Film Critics Society, and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association. It’s easy to see why film critics in particular have taken to it: it evocatively tells the story of the end of the silent era as a silent movie, complete with black-and-white photography and period music (even using the traditional 1.33:1 aspect ratio).
But it’s not the first sound-era film to ape the silent style; aside from Chaplin’s final silent pictures, done well after sound had taken over, there’s Mel Brooks’ 1976 slapstick tribute Silent Movie, and Charles Lane’s 1989 indie Sidewalk Stories. What’s more, countless sound directors have used silent storytelling techniques to great effect, eschewing dialogue (and sometimes even sound effects) to work through their narrative beats via purely visual means. After the jump, we’ve assembled ten great “silent” scenes from the sound era; add your own in the comments.
Leo McCarey was one of the few genuinely gifted comedy directors to work with the Marx Brothers; he came to his sole collaboration with the team, 1933’s Duck Soup, with a distinguished pedigree of comedy credits dating back to the mid-1920s, including several of Laurel & Hardy’s formative films. With his extensive silent movie background (while working for Hal Roach, he also wrote gags for Our Gang and Charley Chase), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the best comic sequences in Duck Soup are throwbacks to that era: the byplay between Harpo, Chico, and competing street vendor Edgar Kennedy, for example, or the movie’s most famous scene, the immortal “mirror sequence.” It’s a bit that goes back to vaudeville, in which Harpo, who has broken into Groucho’s home, dresses as Groucho and attempts to hide his identity by posing as Groucho’s mirror image. It’s still one of the team’s most recognized routines, and was famously reworked by Harpo and Lucille Ball when he guest-starred on I Love Lucy twenty-plus years later.
Blake Edwards spent much of his career paying tribute to Laurel & Hardy, McCarey, Roach, Buster Keaton, and other greats of silent comedy, most famously in his slapstick-heavy Pink Panther comedies with Peter Sellers. But their most direct shout-out to the era was their 1968 collaboration The Party, which found Sellers playing an unknown Indian actor who is accidentally invited to a swanky Hollywood party, where (as they say) hijinks ensue. Sellers is at his silent best, particularly in this early sequence, where the removal of mud from his white shoe spins out of his control.
Jules Dassin’s 1955 French crime/caper picture spends nearly a quarter of its running time on one of the single greatest heist scenes ever filmed (continued here and here)—and does it in almost total silence, without dialogue or music. The absence of those comforting elements gives the occasional sound effects an extra kick; as a result, the suspense that Dassin elegantly builds is just maddening. The effect was nicely replicated over 40 years later by Brian DePalma, who staged a similarly quiet and daring sequence in the first Mission: Impossible film.
Jean Pierre-Melville took a page from the Rififi playbook when he constructed a 25-minute heist sequence for his 1969 Le Cercle Rouge that was, like Dassin’s, dialogue-free. But the French filmmaker had always shown an interest in purely visual storytelling; witness the show-don’t-tell opening sequence of his 1967 picture Le Samurai, which introduces his trench coat and fedora-clad protagonist without a word of traditional exposition.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Though its use of music and monkey-screeching sound effects are certainly noteworthy, Stanley Kubrick did entirely without dialogue or narration for the lengthy “Dawn of Man” sequence that begins his 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, he goes without spoken words for several other sections of the film as well—in the sections that follow, and in the closing “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence, which (like the “Dawn of Man”) runs about 20 minutes. Instead, Kubrick uses music, sound effects, and striking (sometimes experimental) imagery to bookend his story of technology, artificial intelligence, and human evolution.
When you’re the only character in a movie, there’s not much call for dialogue. Witness the middle sections of Cast Away (which might’ve made this list, were it not for its terrible third act) and the opening scenes Pixar’s WALL-E, in which the last robot on earth goes about his daily routine with the accompaniment of whirs, buzzes, and crashes, but no words. To get his animators into that mode of storytelling, director Andrew Stanton and his crew spent a year watching Chaplink Keaton, and Lloyd films on their lunch breaks. Forgoing dialogue was seen as a risky move for a film pitched at a children’s audience, but it actually wasn’t that much of a stretch; kids have responded to dialogue-free cartoons (like the Road Runner) for decades, and if you’ve ever taken a little kid to a silent comedy, you know how delighted they can be by them if they haven’t yet learned not to like old stuff.
Pixar again, with one of the most heartbreaking sequences in all of modern cinema: the silent-movie style expositional montage that summarizes Carl and Ellie’s sweet, decades-long marriage. The passing years, the setbacks, every turn of their life together is conveyed with a perfectly-chosen visual; it’s as elegant and powerful a testament to the sheer emotional capacity of the cinema as any sequence in recent memory, and there’s not a word in it.
At its heart, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo is a tale of obsession. As such, one of its key sequences finds detective “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) following and watching Madeline (Kim Novak), the wife of an acquaintance, and slowly becoming consumed by her. Few filmmakers were as distinctive in their visual style as Hitchcock, who made his first films at the end of the silent era; in scenes like Vertigo’s extended pursuit, North by Northwest’s crop-duster sequence, and (most famously) Psycho’s shower scene, he called upon his early experience to create the kind of pure cinema that became his legend.
There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic establishes its leading character, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), with two long sequences of prospecting, first for silver, then for oil. No words are used, because none are necessary — for either the character, a hard man with no relationships to speak of, or the film, which masterfully reveals the character and his working environments through Robert Elswitt’s cinematography, Johnny Greenwood’s frightening music, Anderson’s compositions, and Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance.
Anderson again, whose 2002 Adam Sandler vehicle begins (after a brief solo dialogue scene) with a strange, wordless sequence that proves an ample indication of the weirdness that will follow. Working early, novelty plunger entrepreneur Barry Egan witnesses a bizarre auto accident; he’s barely processed the smash-up when, out of nowhere, a harmonium is delivered at his feet. It’s a funny scene, but funny in an odd, off-balanced, almost surrealist way, almost a mating of Buster Keaton and Luis Bunuel, with the harmonium itself regarded with an awe that recalls Kubrick’s monoliths.
Those are just a few of our favorite silent scenes in “talkies”—what are yours?