The Quantity Of Dialogue

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The question of "quantity" is complicated, because it encompasses at least two distinct issues: first, the use of scenes or sequences devoid of character speech, and second, when characters are talking, how much does each say in one gulp? In linguistic terms, how long a "turn" does each take? No necessary correlation exists between these two parameters. A film that includes long stretches of silent pantomime may, in the next scene, also allow its characters to be loqua cious. Moreover, a film that generally restricts its characters to short statements may include relatively few silent sequences.

Scenes totally bereft of dialogue are rarer in American sound cinema than one might imagine. Establishing shots of locations are wordless, but these take up minimal screen time. More often than not, exciting physical action is punctuated with talk: swashbucklers taunt their opponents throughout duels; dogfights are accompanied by radio communications; battlefields echo with calls and commands. Dialogue serves important functions in such physical conflicts (here, and throughout the rest of this study, I use "function" narrowly, to refer to the concepts outlined in the previous chapter), such as demonstrating that the hero is uncowed by the danger, explaining to the viewer what is going on, naturalistically illustrating confusion and chaos. Actually, sustained stretches of silent action can be found: I've noticed that montage sequences compressing time, chase scenes, dances, and lovemaking are particularly likely to be presented with no speech whatsoever. Here the narrative action is self-explanatory and the visual spectacle self-sufficient. The cessation of speech during such sequences is rarely noticeable because it is compensated for by the musical score.

More interesting to me are those less common occasions where silence is noticeable, where the fact that no one speaks becomes crucial to the viewer's experience. As Michel Chion remarks: "It was necessary to have sounds and voices so that the interruption of them could probe more deeply into this thing called silence."1 The opening sequence of Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959) shows Dude slinking into the saloon, his degradation having reached the point where he'd consider digging a coin out of the spittoon to be able to buy a drink. Neither Dude nor his taunter speaks; all of their interactions are pantomimed. The silence rivets our attention, and it also mirrors how Dude's alcoholism has removed him from normal human communion. Similarly, the robbery at the beginning of Blake Edwards's The Pink Panther (1964) surprises and engages us with its prolonged silence, making us anxious as to whether the burglar will succeed, wondering if and when alarms will sound. "When nothing is said for a long time we can grow tense ... or uneasy," notes Jack Shadoian; the viewer waits expectantly for the echoing quiet to be shattered.2

Michel Chion points out that the absence of dialogue is often stressed by adding sound effects, and even mixing these at a higher level, or with a hint of reverberation, so that they create a sense of isolation or emptiness.3 This is certainly true of the wrenching scene in Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (1929) where Kitty sits alone in her apartment waiting to die after drinking poison and the noticeably loud off-screen traffic noise reminds us of the busy, oblivious world outside. And Elisabeth Weis draws our attention to the carefully orchestrated use of silence in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). Hitchcock once commented:

For the final scene, in which Rod Taylor opens the door of the house for the first time and finds the birds assembled there, as far as the eye can see, I asked for a silence, but not just any kind of silence. I wanted an electronic silence, a sort of monotonous low hum that might suggest the sound of the sea in the distance. It was a strange, artificial sound, which in the language of the birds might be saying, "We're not ready to attack you yet, but we're getting ready."4

In these and other films, silence is being used to great effect.

Although Movie-Maker magazine counsels filmmakers to "maxi-miz[e] the number of completely wordless scenes,"5 critics more commonly have addressed the second aspect of "quantity," the length of characters' speeches. "It has to be said that the dialogue scenes of talking pictures should be written as though each were a first-rate cable for every word of which the writer has to pay out of his own pocket," argues Sidney Howard.6 Hank Poster, who advises novices on how to solve "the dilemma of dialogue," counsels: "How long should your dialogue be? Generally, one to three sentences in length—with crisp, clear meaning. The shorter you make your speeches, the better your film will be."7

Such attitudes are not restricted to how-to manuals. In his au-teurist study of Howard Hawks, Gerald Mast claims: "Perhaps more than any other single element, it is the spareness of Hawks's dialogue that gives his world its aroma, flavor, and texture."8 But I'm not sure that Hawks's films are chary of dialogue. His adventure films spend much more time in dialogue scenes than in silent action, and his comedies, such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Ball of Fire (1941), and Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953) are wall-to-wall dialogue—that's their glory. What might be true is that

Hawks's characters tend not to take long turns. But is this so? Actually, many of Hawks's characters speak at length: Feathers and Stumpy in Rio Bravo; General Sternwood in the opening of The Big Sleep (1946); Colonel Applegate during the dinner party in Bringing Up Baby. In trying to account for Mast's impression, the best I can come up with is that Hawks's male protagonists tend to be tight-lipped, or at least, they seem taciturn in relation to the people around them. Geoff Carter in Only Angels Have Wings and Tom Dunson in Red River (1948) set the paradigm. Mast himself argues that "Hawks's use of dialogue owes its allegiance not to cinematic virtue but to the view of humans and human psychology that underlies his narratives. Hawks's characters don't tell everything they know. ... [Hawks comments:] 'The men I like are not very talkative.' "9 Not surprisingly, spare dialogue is thus again associated with masculine terseness and prowess. (Am I the only one to detect connotations of knives and phalluses when John Fawell insists, for example, that film scripts must use "hard, simple language," with each line "polished cleanly"?)10

Critical aversion to talkative characters has obscured the prevalence and artistry of long turns. If one arbitrarily defines a long turn as a speech of more than a hundred words, they can be found in every genre and in every time period. Cinematic long turns are so common and so artistically compelling that they are collected in several anthologies for acting students to memorize for practice or audition material.11*

Long turns are so prevalent because they're so useful in fulfilling the functions analyzed above. They may certainly be "realistic"— people rarely speak in pithy epigrams. They allow for the explanation of a complicated argument or the description of a past narrative event. They contribute greatly to character revelation. They keep our attention focused on a star performance.

I shall offer only one example here: General Jack D. Ripper's (Sterling Hayden's) conversation with Mandrake (Peter Sellers) in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1962) at the point in the plot when the viewer starts to understand the depths of Ripper's madness and the

* Warning! Many selections in anthologies of film quotations contain discrepancies from the film's final dialogue, leading me to believe that they are based on shooting scripts.

peril of bombers having been sent to attack the Soviet Union. (This is all one "turn," because Mandrake's sole comment is more a confirmation that he is listening than an independent move.)

ripper: Mandrake, I suppose it never occurred to you that while we're chatting here so enjoyably, the decision is being made by the President and the Joint Chiefs in the War Room at the Pentagon. And when they realize there is no possibility of recalling the wing there will be only one course of action open . . . total commitment. Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?

ripper: He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that fifty years ago he might have been right. But today war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. (Ripper removes the cigar from his mouth, takes a breath, and proceeds with the cigar in his hand.) I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

Consider how Ripper's remarks are structured. He begins on a note the viewer finds odd and ironic, the suggestion that under these dire circumstances, Mandrake and he are merely "chatting so enjoy-ably." But he quickly regains apparent reasonableness, showing foresight as to the actions of others and demonstrating his historical perspective with a quotation from Clemenceau. He then switches into skillful self-justifying oratory, building to a crescendo with repeated chimes on the word "communist"; the rhetoric seems lullingly familiar (and must have been more so at the time of the film's initial release in 1963). However, the crescendo culminates in a totally surprising, totally wacko assertion about a conspiracy to sap and impu-rify—not "the national soul" or "the democratic way of life"—but "all of our precious bodily fluids." Kubrick and Terry Southern, like other screenwriters who favor long turns, skillfully employ what Sam Smiley calls "end position emphasis":12 they save the shock for the end of a long speech, where it can reverberate.

Unless long turns are shared, they are also markers of one character dominating the conversation, an indication, as with General Ripper and Uncle Charlie, that a character is dominating the exchange.

Short turns, on the other hand, may be associated with swifter pacing, although our sense of pace is determined, not only by how long the turns may be, but also, obviously, by how quickly the actors' speak—John Wayne draws a short line out very slowly, while Eddie Murphy races through a long turn, creating a feeling of breakneck speed. It is the combination of short turns with swift delivery that creates a staccato effect, as in the following example, an interchange between Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) and Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) in Hawks's The Big Sleep:

eddie mars: Convenient the door being open when you didn't have a key, eh?

marlowe: Yeah, wasn't it? By the way, how did you happen to have one? mars: It any of your business? marlowe: I could make it my business.

mars: I could make your business mine. marlowe: Oh, you wouldn't like it. The pay's too small.

The combination of the narrative situation of a face-off between two antagonists, the actors' swift, snarling delivery, and the short, alternating turns, creates the impression of accelerated pace.

In addition to controlling pace, pithiness may be used for characterization, revealing a character to be reticent or guarded. In Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Frank Morris, played by Clint Eastwood, is asked about his birthday by a fellow inmate. Frank answers that he doesn't know his birthdate. Charley exclaims, "Jeez, what kind of childhood 'd you have?" Frank's one-word reply tells us everything we need to know: "Short."

Brevity may, in many situations when time presses, be the most realistic option. And although it may seem paradoxical, spare writing can also serve the function (discussed above) of "exploiting the resources of language." After all, many verbal forms—haiku, sonnets, limericks—draw their power from extreme condensation. Playwrights like Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward (who is credited with starting a vogue for brief speeches)13 are famous not for long soliloquies but for clever quips, and Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Parker, and Harold Pinter all exploit extremes of terseness. Many of the most memorable lines from Hollywood films ("Fasten your seatbelts—it's going to be a bumpy night") are short, not because screenwriters want to avoid dialogue or don't value language, but because they know how to utilize condensation artistically.

The above discussion boils down to unsurprising conclusions: films do use silence, but more often they use dialogue; sometimes characters speak briefly, sometimes at length. Contrary to the tide of opinion, all of these permutations are legitimate and valuable, depending upon the context.


Given that a scene presents conversation, three alternatives exist: monologue (a character talking out loud with no one else present),14 duologue (two characters speaking to each other), and polylogue (more than two characters talking).

Cinematic monologues were inherited from theatrical practice. Novels, of course, have no need for such devices, because they may either use a narrator to delve into the character's mind or directly incorporate stream of consciousness. In the theater, monologues are advantageous because they allow audiences access to a central character's feelings or reasoning through a decision that must be made.15 Cinematic voice-over narration or internal subjective sound can fulfill the same function, but employing those techniques merely for one scene or one revelation would be awkward. I have found most film monologues allotted to male "loner" characters, men who would not plausibly bare their souls in conversation with on-screen confidantes. Sarah Connor's monologue into the tape recorder as she rides off into the desert at the end of James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) is the exception that proves the rule, because her horrendous experiences and her prescient knowledge of the future have detached her from the rest of society, literally and figuratively.

Talking aloud to oneself is considered strange in real life. Although monologues are accepted on stage as a convention, expectations of realism make them more problematic in film. Thus special situations must be created in order to provide a convincing motivation. Talking to animals is particularly common (Jack Burns speaks to his horse in Lonely Are the Brave; Tom confides to the family dog in The River Wild [1994]), as is speaking to oneself in a mirror (Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver [1976]). Robert Altman made an unusual choice in allowing Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973) and John Mc-Cabe in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) simply to walk around talking to themselves out loud; their monologues remind one of elderly men muttering, and the overtones of isolation, frailty, and perhaps impotence are appropriate for such anti-heroes.

In John Ford films, the heroes typically talk to the dead. Graveside soliloquies—in each case, by a taciturn older male figure talking to a departed woman or younger man—are a repeated device. Let us look at the monologue in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), when Lincoln (Henry Fonda) visits Ann Rutledge's grave.

lincoln: Well, Ann, I'm still up a tree. Just can't seem to make up my mind what to do. Maybe I ought to go into the law—take my chances. I admit I got kinda a taste for something different than this in my mouth. Still, I don't know. I feel such a fool, settin' myself up as knowin' so much. Course I know what you'd say, I've been hearing it every day over and over again: "Go on Abe, make somethin' of yourself. You got friends, show em what you got in ya." Oh, yes, I know what you'd say, but I don't know. Ann, I'll tell ya what I'll do. I'll let the stick decide. If it falls back toward me then I stay here as I always have. If it falls forward toward you then it's, well, it's the law. Here goes Ann. Well Ann, you win, it's the law. Wonder if I coulda tipped it your way just a little.

This example illustrates the special quality of all monologues—the way they connote an absolute honesty: "Wonder if I coulda tipped it your way just a little." Because "no one" is there to hear, the viewer infers that there is no need to lie, or even to include the typical face-saving shadings and equivocations of social speech. Monologues thus assume the guise of a clear window into the soul. They constitute what John Ellis would call "poignant moments"—occasions where the audience feels it has been given privileged access to the character's innermost feelings.16

Polylogues, au contraire, illustrate the characters in their social setting; the stress is on the interaction of the group. Sometimes such scenes are used to portray a group reaching a consensus that turns the plot, as when in musicals a bunch of kids decide to put on a show, or in Westerns, when townspeople congeal into a lynch mob. Most often, dialogue in polylogues is used to create the atmosphere of a select subculture, showing the language and mindset that this group has in common, as in the gang-of-guys scenes in John Bad-ham's Saturday Night Fever (1977) or the Algonquin lunches of Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). Especially in films from the 1970s onward, which use complicated multitrack mixing, portions of polylogues may be inaudible, or overlapping, or drowned out by laughter—the individual lines are less important than the group flavor. In The Fugitive, Samuel Gerard works with a cohort of young associates; all their scenes lapse into a chaos of voices, noises, laughter, and in-jokes. The sound design of these scenes serves as a notable contrast to the scenes focused on Kimble; the noisy camaraderie throws the fugitive's solitary silence into relief.

However, not all scenes with three or more characters in them stress group solidarity. The scene in His Girl Friday when Walter Burns takes Hildy and Bruce out for lunch shows us three distinct personalities, each pursuing his or her own aims. Or, for another example of conflict—of individual needs and verbal styles—study the confrontation in Citizen Kane between Kane, Emily, Boss Jim Getty, and Susan Alexander at Susan's apartment. Nor do all polylogues descend into naturalistic verbal chaos; many are more formal occasions when narrative information must be conveyed.

Actually, American films offer an abundance of what I'd like to call "pseudo-polylogues," that is, several characters are physically present, but secondary figures attend more as witnesses, or bystanders, to the transaction of the scene's key business between two principals. The witnesses may be thrown a line or two for the sake of realism or variety, but their importance to the conversation is to bodily augment one side or another, to make the conversation official, or to respond to it.

Duologues are the most fundamental structure of screen speech, because they are a dramatic necessity. Two characters in conversation provide more "action," more suspense, more give-and-take than monologues, because new information or emotional shadings can be exchanged, questioned, reacted to. On the other hand, in true poly-logues, too much is going on; there are too many speakers, too many agendas, too much distraction to routinely handle important narrative functions (e.g., explaining narrative causality, revealing character psychology). Duologues between hero and associate, between lovers, between antagonists, are the engines that drive film narratives forward.

Related to the question of the number of participants is the issue of foreground and background dialogue. Scenes taking place in public locales may include background dialogue mixed at a lower volume than the primary conversation. The background dialogue is present in the service of plausibility (when you are talking to someone in a restaurant or hallway, does everyone else in the world really fall silent?). However, just as Flaubert pointedly intermixes the sound of the agricultural fair with Rudolphe's seduction of Emma in Madame Bovary, so filmmakers selectively raise and lower the volume of background dialogue to counterpoint the primary discussion. Hitchcock does exactly this in the auction scene in North by Northwest, when the auctioneer's patter is selectively raised to comment upon Eve as "a lovely piece," "in excellent condition," and to draw the audience's attention to the statue containing microfilm.

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  • christopher
    How to film a duologue?
    8 years ago

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