The movie Sunset Boulevard (1950) contrasts two methods of communicating in film. Joe Gillis, a Hollywood screenwriter, played by William Holden, believes in language as the main vehicle for communication in film. The fact that he narrates the film from beyond the grave shows his dedication to the use of words as the way to express himself and convey the storyline. Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, rose to fame as a silent film star, where she could only communicate with her face and her movements. She still fiercely believes that that is the best way.
Because Sunset Boulevard is in the world of sound, Joe, as the narrator, controls the viewers’ perception of the storyline. He is in their heads, telling them what they are seeing. Norma, however, is the focus of the film. It is interesting to wonder, if she were a real person, what she would think of a film in which she is the star, but which relies heavily on the form of communication she so strongly despises. With that in mind, I decided to watch Sunset Boulevard the way Norma would want a film to be watched, with “no dialogue.” While it would have been preferable to only remove the narration and dialogue and keep the music in the film (silent films do have musical scores), that level of technical adroitness is beyond my skill and knowledge, and therefore the mute button was put on all sound.
The first thing I discovered when watching Sunset Boulevard without sound was that the viewer has the freedom to decide what to look at. Watching with sound, the viewers’ attention and perception of the scene is largely directed by Narrator Joe. And in a way, the narration just points out the obvious that the viewer could observe for themselves without being told. Removing the narration leaves the viewer free to explore other aspects of each scene and to look through their own eyes and perceptions to understand what is being portrayed.
For example, there is one scene towards the beginning of the film where Joe looks out his window and sees the grounds of Norma’s mansion for the first time. The viewer can see the overgrown tennis court and rats in the empty swimming pool. They may, or may not, understand them as a representation of Norma’s own deterioration and lost glory, but either way, the narration is not necessary to actually see what is on the screen. It can be observed just as clearly without an explanation, and yet Narrator Joe still explains what is being shown. It almost seems like he does not trust the audiences’ eyes and feels the need to use words to communicate what is shown on screen in order to ensure that the audience is seeing what he is seeing.
Norma’s ideas about communication are very different from Joe’s. At one point in the film, Norma criticizes the use of dialogue in films and tells Joe, “I can say anything I want with my eyes.” (00:22:37) While I will disagree with Norma that “anything” can be conveyed to the viewer through the eyes alone, it was interesting to discover that when removing all sound from Sunset Boulevard, Norma does an excellent job of backing up her claims.
When viewed silently, the lines spoken by Norma are not heard, and yet, what she is feeling and thinking is clearly written on her face. When she is mad, eyes almost seem to pierce the screen with the strength of their anger. When Joe tells her that he is leaving, her wild desperation is palpable and impossible to misunderstand. In contrast, Joe mainly utilizes dialogue and the narration to express what he is feeling and thinking. Without sound, it is difficult to decipher what his reactions to the events in the film are. He has a decidedly sleepy look, especially when compared to Norma’s vivacity.
Another way that Norma communicates is through movement and body language, and hers can be read easily without sound. Her body language shows what she is feeling. When she is still, she is tense. When she is upset, she waves her arms and shakes her fists. Her body language, more so than her words, shows that she has developed feelings for Joe. In one scene where they are watching one of Norma’s old silent films together, she grabs his arm in a gesture of possessiveness and neediness. When they are dancing at Norma’s New Years “party”, she puts her head on his shoulder. By comparison, Joe’s body language is subtle and natural, and, like with his facial expressions, is significantly more difficult to understand than Norma’s.
After watching Sunset Boulevard both with sound and without sound, I must conclude that complex storylines with dialogue-driven or narrator-driven plots do not translate clearly when viewed silently. However, even with the sound on mute, an actor can communicate many things with just their faces and body language. Gloria Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond, does it marvellously. Because, as she proudly declares about herself and he fellow silent film stars, “we didn’t need dialogue. we had faces.” (00:32:40)
Sunset Boulevard. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stronheim, Nancy Olsen. 1950. Warner Bros Ent. Canada, 2013.