The Importance of…. Dialogue

A few years ago I was much looking forward to the Sky premiere of the Sam Mendes film Road to Perdition. I…

Laurent Kelly


A few years ago I was much looking forward to the Sky premiere of the Sam Mendes film Road to Perdition. I had much enjoyed Sam’s debut American Beauty (although it did leave me wondering if anyone in Suburban America ever closes their curtains) and was intrigued as to how he would follow up his initial success. It was the Saturday evening to a particularly frustrating day but I didn’t care as soon I would be transformed to the magical world of the movies.

It was at this point just as I was settling into the settee that I realised that the remote was missing. Oh well, I thought; slightly annoying but I’ll just flick through the channels on the digibox. I then discovered however that the t.v. for goodness knows what reason was placed on mute. Mute with no sky remote and no other way of turning up the volume. After a frantic ten minute search and a call to family members who appeared to be conveniently busy elsewhere, I decided to sit down expecting to be highly frustrated as I prepared  myself for what would be essentially a silent movie screening.

It was somewhat surprising then that I found myself completely engrossed by this unwanted film experiment. I was able to follow the action through the powerful imagery, the way the actor’s eyes told the story in a particular scene and the manner in which the camera followed fluidly through each moment to demonstrate the growing relationship between the main characters. I was so caught up in the world that had been created on screen that I would often forget that there was no dialogue present.

Subsequently, I decided to try this method with some of my favourite films and sure enough I found much the same thing – the character’s journey each time was documented through the series of evocative images.

So what point am I making here? That dialogue is obsolete, that you should put your televisions on mute and throw the controller in the garbage. No, of course not. What I am suggesting is that dialogue doesn’t and shouldn’t have to try and tell the story on screen because if the writer, the director’s vision and the actors are doing their jobs properly then the story should already be in motion.

The role of dialogue henceforth is to reveal character and add layers to the drama. Too often however, we here one too many instances of ‘I love you’, on screen or we witness several conversations contrived for the sake of filling in the gaps to an inadequate story and too many characters spoiling any intrigue they might have through giving themselves away through the spoken word.

One of the best examples of dialogue I have ever seen is where  words are actually used very sparingly but to great effect in the opening scene of Once upon a time in the West.

In this sequence four henchmen have arrived to wait for the train containing the character simply known as ‘Harmonica’ whom they have been sent to kill. To begin with the images and sound sell the story, the incessant creaking of a windmill, water dropping onto a man’s boots, the ruthless killing of a fly and then the adrenalin pumping noise of the incoming train. Tension is built without anyone having to mention why and the long wait is so agonising that you are well and truly behind the protagonist before he has even appeared on screen. By the time he does arrive only five lines of dialogue are needed to sell the story:

[youtube WAcBlMR3wGM]

“Are you with Frank?”
“”Frank sent us.”
“Did you bring a horse for me?”
“Looks like we’re shy of one horse.”
“You brought two too many.”

Imagery and dialogue work in perfect unison during this stunning opening ten minutes. The images and sound effects create a tense, frightening and nail biting atmosphere before the dialogue serves the function of revealing that the protagonist has in fact no visible traces of fear. He is confident, cool and enigmatic and we are immediately intrigued by the journey that he is about to take us on. Again as in most great films to watch the film without dialogue you would still be able to absorb the general feeling of what was taking place.

Another pitch perfect example of spare but effective dialogue would have to include of course the opening to Citizen Kane. We follow the camera through the dark and creep exterior of Kane’s home establishing a suitably dark mood before the protagonist reveals the one word that’ll lead us into the rest of the story “Rosebud”.

Certainly through my experience of watching films and reading scripts the one mistake that I see all too often is where the dialogue just makes every character sound the same which is the clearest example you can find of the writer using his characters for the sake of the story rather than vice versa. It is something that I am guilty of myself within my own screenwriting and something which I have recognised even with highly skilled filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino or should I say Tarantino post Jackie Brown. Take his film Death Proof for example which features a bunch of hip, attractive young women who all sound and act exactly like the writer/director himself.

As we are on the subject of Quentin, I would like to now look at how excessive dialogue can also be used to great effect. Whilst Once Upon a time in the West and Citizen Kane use a more conventionally sound approach to dialogue this is not to say that the opposite method can not be succesful. If a script is filled with dialogue but it fits the situation of the story and the world that the characters live in I see no problem in it’s conversational approach. After all if if a character is talkative in their nature then it makes sense that they should talk a lot on screen. Two very talky but effective films are Pulp Fiction and Clerks.

Both these films use very naturalistic dialogue  that help to engage the audience. Where I feel Clerks is limited though is in that the script tends to neglect that it is writing for a visual medium. Whilst the dialogue is amusing and jumps off the page it seems to me that the lack of visual impact soon makes the characters appear quite tiresome and thus the film soon starts to lose it’s unique edge.

I don’t believe that Pulp Fiction falls into the same trap however and I would like to discuss one of the opening scenes to explain why. Shortly after the opening credits we soon become caught up in the back and forth between Jules and Vincent, two gangster types on their way to perform a job for their boss.  Despite being on their way to do a task, both men are immensely relaxed which is an alarming visual to behold when you consider their line of work. The dialogue is collaborating with the action in a very smooth manner and as the two men chit chat about highly trivial matters we are becoming relaxed in their company and charmed by their naturalistic approach to a highly unnatural duty.

Exposition is also handled very well within this dialogue sequence. After a period of silence a clearly edgy Vincent brings up his boss’s wife who he has been asked to take out on a date. Because of the paused delay it doesn’t feel contrived and sure enough we become intrigued about another element of the story that has just been presented. The film is littered with words but it is nearly always building towards something within the story.

In conclusion then, the length of dialogue is not an issue. The nearly silent ten minute sequence in Once Upon a Time in the West and the back and forth banter between Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction both bring to life striking and compelling characters that we want to learn more about and both paint a convincing canvas for the world that we are going to inhibit for the next two or so hours.
What is concerning is when dialogue is not befitting of the situation, the characters or the arena and the film begins to entertain itself rather than the audience. These are the moments that help to break the illusion of reality, when a character has to tell the audience what is happening in the plot or the scene forces two characters to elaborately share their feelings so that the audience will fully understand their predicament. It is in these instances where dialogue can become a curse rather than an effective contribution.

As a way of rounding up this first edition of ‘The Importance of…..’ I thought it’d be a nice idea to share some of my own favourite instances of dialogue which represent a variety of different genres.

SCI-FI (FROM BLADE RUNNER) “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.” 

[youtube pw6D_QfsmUY]

WESTERN (FROM UNFORGIVEN): “Dying ain’t much of a livin boy”

I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid.

[youtube qM-gZintWDc]

CRIME/THRILLER: (FROM LA CONFIDENTIAL) “Is that how you used to run the good cop, bad cop?”

[youtube 4L7UDkPAO5I]

GANGSTER: (THE GODFATHER) “My father taught me many things in this room. One of those things he taught me was to keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

ROMANCE: (FROM CASABLANCA) “Here’s lookin at you kid!”

[youtube 376s1ZXjAiU]

HORROR: (FROM THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) “What did he do to make this house so evil, Mr. Fischer?”
“Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, beastiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?”

COMEDY: (FROM LOVE AND DEATH) “He’ll go and he’ll fight, and I hope they will put him in the front lines.”
“Boris: Thanks a lot, Mom. My mother, folks.”

Thanks for reading and please return this time next week when the ‘Importance of Series’ will investigate the pros and cons of the voiceover device.