Friday, September 21, 2007

Wyler's Moments of Silence

This is a reprise of an entry originally posted March 27th, and included here as part of the Goatdog Wyler-thon celebrating the films of director William Wyler.

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 Frederic 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.

For more interesting blogs about William Wyler, please visit Goatdog's Wyler-thon.


Thom said...

This post is very timely for me. I just watched Mrs. Miniver and noticed Wyler's use of sound in a sequence wherein Mrs. Miniver and Carol wait in a car during an air raid. The dialogue stops for a long moment then the shriek of an approaching bomb that we never see gets louder and louder until we're sure it's going to hit them. Very effective. After reading your post I'm going to look for these moments in other Wyler pictures.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Thom. Another part in that movie is of course the air raid shelter scene where the Miniver family huddles for some minutes without dialogue, just the sound of bombs and the kids screaming. Quite stirring. Unusual for the day when movies tended to be very talky.

Brian said...

Excellent post! Another moment like this from the Best Years of Our Lives (which I happily rewatched in preparation for this Blog-a-Thon) comes after Fredric March's Al Stephenson gets a talking-to from his boss after approving a loan to a former Seabee with "no collateral". The boss remains positive and flattering in his reprimand, letting Al know that he's truly quite concerned about his "risky" practices, but is trying to be understanding. But when Al leaves the room, Wyler holds on the boss, showing his smile turn into a severe frown.

Interestingly, of all the major threads in the film, the issue of Al's workplace is the one that never gets resolved, perhaps because it's the thread that can't really BE resolved, in the typical Hollywood way with a kiss or a wedding, or at all, really. When the film ends, we don't really know how Al is going to reconcile his boss's mandate with his desires to help ex-servicemen that he feels in his gut he can trust. He makes an impassioned, drunken speech about it at a social gathering, but we never again hear about the issue.

It seems fitting that this thread was left unresolved. America didn't really know which way it was going to go at the time either. Leaving a question open invites the audience to imagine their own ideal conclusion, and perhaps even work toward it.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for your comment, Brian, and your excellent analysis. You're right, that is another great scene where Wyler uses silence to show more of what is there.

I wrote an extended four-part series on "Best Years" back in March, mainly I suppose because I can't get enough of that movie. But other things are left unresolved as well, as you mentioned. The last line "We'll have to work, get kicked around," seems to indicate their future is by no means secure or guaranteed to be happy. The subplots are, as you say, an open question.

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