Director William Wyler is often described as being without a particular trademark or style, compared to directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Frank Capra, whose films resonate with their favorite themes or gimmicks. There is one aspect to Wyler films which I think is little discussed, but fascinating. Some of his most dramatic scenes are shot without dialogue.
The sinister indecision of Bette Davis as she contemplates murder-by-refusal-of-heart medicine to her husband in “The Little Foxes.”
The sense of anticipation of the dual shot of Greer Garson and Teresa Wright in “Mrs. Miniver” sitting together, watching the top of the stairs for son and husband to reappear from an upstairs bedroom, a shot so meaningful that it is showing from their backs as well as on their faces, while no dialogue is exchanged. The air raid scene when the Miniver family huddles amid the horrific blasts and shaking of the flimsy iron roof of the shelter in their backyard, with no words exchanged.
The nightclub scene in “The Best Years of Our Lives” when a distressed Dana Andrews interrogates Teresa Wright on the inappropriateness of their continuing to see each other. She hesitates to answer, and the sexual tension in that hesitation is heightened when he waits, more patient than the audience, for an answer as she grows more uncomfortable. In the same film, when Fredric March confronts Andrews over a booth in a bar on his intentions towards his daughter, the camera settles for an agonizingly long time on Andrews’ face as his character struggles with the failures of his life and a seemingly hopeless future.
The scene in “Roman Holiday” when Gregory Peck kisses Audrey Hepburn impulsively after they have both escaped the press by leaping into a canal, and then the camera lingers on their aching reticence to do it again. The final scene of that movie, when the camera follows Peck’s long, measured walk away from the princess after the press conference, making us think that any minute he will rush back to her, but never does.
These scenes illustrate a wonderfully realistic quality by stretching a moment and pulling the most out of it. The action stops, but the clock doesn’t. Wyler does not use the cut and paste technique of other directors. Rather than going the proverbial extra mile, he goes that extra minute.