Dialogue And Character

Black Sunday (1977), directed by John Frankenheimer, is the story of a terrorist plot to explode a bomb over the Super Bowl. The plot is uncovered by an Israeli raid in Beirut, and the story that unfolds contrasts the terrorists' attempts to carry out the attack and the FBI's efforts to prevent it. For the authorities, this means finding out how the attack will be conducted and who will carry it out. Dalia (Marthe Keller) and Michael (Bruce Dern) are the primary terrorists. She is a Palestinian, and he is an American, a pilot of the Goodyear blimp used at the Super Bowl. Michael is very unstable, a characteristic illustrated through a dialogue sequence.

Dalia has returned to Los Angeles from abroad. She has arranged for the explosives necessary for the attack. Michael is very distressed because she is 3 days late. He worries that something is wrong. He is very angry and threatens her with a rifle. She tries to pacify him and manages to calm him down.

This scene is filmed in mid- to close shots. The shots are primarily handheld, and the camera always has some degree of movement, even in still shots. There are moving shots as well.

Within this highly fragmented sequence, Dalia enters a dark room. When she turns on the light, she is confronted by Michael, who is aiming a rifle at her. The rapid series of handheld shots underscores the nervousness of the scene and principally Michael's instability. She moves, he moves, the camera moves. They do things: Dalia unpacks a small statue that holds explosives, Michael examines the statue, she undresses, he puts down the rifle. Throughout the scene, they are speaking, he belligerently and she in a soothing way to assure him that all is well.

The sequence, which is highly fragmented with lots of movement, seems realistic with its heightened sense of danger. The movement supports the goal of establishing Michael's instability, which is a prime quality in his role as terrorist. The goal of the sequence comes across clearly, as does a sense of urgency and realism.

A very different type of sequence establishes character but does not provide as clear a sense of the dialogue's role in its establishment. In Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), we are introduced to gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) as he enters the small mining town of Presbyterian Church. He takes off his coat and searches for the bar. He is dressed differently than the others in the bar. In the first scene in the bar, there is a dialogue exchange. The dialogue is neither textured nor localized; it's about the price of liquor and the price of playing a card game. The goal of the scene is to position McCabe among the town's occupants as a negotiator and as something of an entrepreneur. The scene establishes this.

The scene proceeds in a highly fragmented fashion, with only a short establishing shot. Many close-ups feature McCabe and the miners; McCabe is seen as something of a dandy, and the miners appear dirty, wild-eyed, and something less than civilized. The scene does establish McCabe's importance with a number of close-ups, but the dialogue itself is not direct enough to characterize him. The intensity of the scene comes from the visual elaboration of his appearance among the miners of Presbyterian Church.

Another element that pushes us to the visual in this scene is the use of overlapping dialogue. Many characters speak simultaneously, and we are aware of the discreteness of their conversations, but as their comments bleed into those of others, the effect is to undermine the dialogue. The scene moves dialogue from the informational status it usually occupies to the category of noise. Language becomes a sound effect. When we do hear the dialogue, it is the speaker who is important rather than what is being said.

Like the dialogue sequence in Black Sunday, we come away from this sequence with a definite sense of McCabe's character. However, unlike the scene in Black Sunday, the meaning of the dialogue becomes trivialized and expendable.

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