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Sound is oneof the most important components in a film, so would even argue just asimportant as the image displayed on screen. “Films are 50 percent visual and 50percent sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual.
” – (Lynch cited in J. Neff, 1998)Regardless,it is clear that sound can be used in many ways to help portray emotion, genre,setting and scale. In this essay, I will be analysing how two films use soundin very different ways to create tension and suspense.Dunkirk (2017) relies heavily on non-diegetic soundto create a sense of immediacy and urgency. The film has a constant intensitythroughout its runtime, and the film very rarely slows down, and this isheightened by the auditory illusion that Hans Zimmer incorporated in the scorecalled the Shepard Tone.
‘The sound consists of several tonesseparated by an octave layered on top of each other. As the lowest bass tonestarts to fade in, the higher treble tone fades out, the sequence then loopsback again. Because you can always hear at least two tones rising in pitch atthe same time, your brain gets tricked into thinking that the sound isconstantly ascending in pitch.’ As well as the Shepard Tone, the score alsoincorporates another element to create the sense that time is running out, thesound of a watch ticking, the sound is much more apparent during the quietermoments in the film, and conversational scenes.
The soundtrack has a rathermechanical feel to it, some moments in the score sound almost as if the soundsof ship and plane engines incorporated, and this helps to punctuate the scaleof the rescue, and the images of the ships and planes on screen.However, thefilm doesn’t just use the soundtrack to create tension, it uses a range ofdiegetic sounds. During the scenes on Dunkirk beach, there is a very realthreat of the stranded soldiers being attacked by German dive-bombers. TheseGerman planes featured a horn on the wheel struts called a ‘Stuka siren’ thatcreated a high pitch sound which had the purpose of instilling fear in thesoldiers. The film utilizes this sound in many of the beach scenes, and isusually displayed asynchronous, which the sound being accompanied by thereactions of the soldiers, and the sound slowly grows louder as the bombersdraw closer adding a layer of suspense. The film hasa unique narrative, and is told from three different perspectives; Land, seaand air, and the filmmakers clearly wanted the audience to experience thediegetic sounds as the characters in the film experience them, this allowed forthe creation of three distinctive sets of sounds.
The scenes set on the smallcivilian boat are the quietest in the film, but as the occasional plane wouldfly overhead, we experienced the sounds of the planes in a much more differentway that we do in the beach scenes, as the planes fly much lower over sea. Inthe sequences set entirely in the cockpit of a spitfire, the sound is quitemuffled and at times it can be quite hard to understand what the pilot issaying, this is similar to something Christopher Nolan did in his previous filmInterstellar (2014). “There areparticular moments in the film where I decided to use dialogue as a soundeffect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects orin the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is.” (Nolancited in Bordwell, Thompson and Smith, 2017, p. 272)The film No Country for Old Men (2007) lacks atraditional score and instead goes for a more realistic approach, opting foronly diegetic sounds and only a few instances of non-diegetic sounds.
Although,it uses an entirely different method to create suspense, I believe it isequally as successful, maybe even more so. No Countryfor Old Men, is effectively a chase movie, a psychopathic killer hunts the manwho has his two million dollars, and although the movie features what could bereferred to as ‘action sequences’, the overall tone of the film is very silent.I believethe filmmakers, similar to in Dunkirk, wanted to create a sense of realism, butto a much higher degree. The use of a score can sometimes detach the audiencefrom the scene, and the emotions of the characters and remind them that theyare watching a film, the lack of a non-diegetic score playing through thesuspenseful scenes allows the audience to be transported into the situation,and into the minds of the characters, as in the scene, the characters can’thear a score, they can only hear what present and diegetic.One of thefirst scenes in the film features a deputy speaking to the sheriff on thetelephone, in the background, the films antagonist; Anton Chigurh, sits withhis hands handcuffed behind his back, he stands and begins to slide his feetbetween his hands, and manages to get them in front of him, he then begins toapproach the deputy, he then wraps the handcuffs around the neck of the deputy,choking, they both fall to the floor, there is no score to heighten theintensity, but the sound of the deputy’s shoes kicking and squeaking againstthe floor as he attempts to escape, add a layer of intensity, and when thedeputy is finally dead, the scenes falls silent once again.This is justone of the many examples where the Coen Brother’s use digest sound to createtension and heighten the intensity.
Another example of this is in the motelscene, where our protagonist; Llewellyn Moss sits in dark room, the lightsturned off, Chigurh stalks the motel hallway, searching for him. The scene iscompletely silent as Llwellyn waits in fear. Chigurh has a tracker which he isusing to locate his stolen money, the tracker beeps faster the closer he getsto his money, and very faintly you can hear the tracker beeping as he walksdown the corridor, it gradually gets louder as he draws closer to the room whereLlewellyn is hiding.
The use of silence creates a sense of longing in theaudience, we know something is about to happen, about to jump out at us, and weare just waiting for it to happen, and the silence in this scene is immediatelybroken by the sound of Chigurh’s oxygen tank breaking the lock of the hotelroom door, the lock hits Llewllyn in the chest and he lets out is quiet gruntbefore firing his shotgun at the door and leving the room via the window,Chigurh then shoots at him from the hotel window, the bullets hit the floor.Llewllyn then runs back into the hotel reception to find it empty, he leavesagain and the scene in almost silence except for the sound of him panting andhis footsteps. He then notices a pick-up truck driving past, believe he couldescape in this, he runs over to it gets in and tells the driver to driver themaway, suddenly a bullet tears through the windscreen hitting the driver in theneck, the driver chokes and gurgles, unaware of where the bullet came from,Llewellyn looks around to locate the shooter until another bullets hits thedriver in the head, killing him instantly, and intense stand off and shootoutensues between Chigurh and Llewllyn.
The use ofsilence allows for the diegetic sounds to appear louder than they are, eventhough as an audience we were expecting Chigurh to find him, the impact was fargreater due to the silence that came before. The silence also increased theimpact of diegetic sounds that the audience are not expecting, this is veryapparent in another scene set in motel room, when Chigurh sits, with a shotgunpointed at hitman, and former veteran Carson Wells, the conversation isintense, and it is clear that Chigurh is going to murder Carson, and he seemsto have somewhat accepted his fate. The scene is completely silent, the onlysounds are from the two men talking, suddenly halfway through theirconversation, the telephone rings, this startles Carson who isn’t expectingthis, and as an audience member it startled myself as I was not expecting iteither, and there wasn’t any form of score building up to something like thathappening.”In one scene a man sits in a darkhotel room as his pursuer walks down the corridor outside.
You hear the creakof floorboards and the beeping of a transponder, and see the shadows of thehunter’s feet in the sliver of light under the door. The footsteps move away,and the next sound is the faint squeak of the light bulb in the hall beingunscrewed. The silence and the slowness awaken your senses and quiet yourbreathing, as by the simplest cinematic means — Look! Listen! Hush! — yourattention is completely and ecstatically absorbed. You won’t believe whathappens next, even though you know it’s coming.
“The filmdoes actually feature a non-diegetic score in some scenes, it’s very subtle butit’s there and sometime is disguised as a diegetic sound, one instance of thisis when Chigurh drives down a small bridge, he sees a crow perching on therailing, he attempts to shoot it with a silenced pistol but misses, hitting themetal railing instead which creates a haunting rattling sound which merges witha subtle background score.Bordwell, D. Thompson, K.and Smith, J. (2017). Film Art: AnIntroduction, (11th ed.).
New York: McGraw-Hill.Haubursin,C. (2017, 26 July). The sound illusion that makes Dunkirk so intense.
Vox. fromhttps://www.vox.com/videos/2017/7/26/16033868/dunkirk-soundtrack-shepard-toneNeff, J(1998, 12 March).
The monester meets David Lynch. Monster Cable. from www.monstercable.com/the-monster-meets-lynch