With the new Sight & Sound poll of critics’ 50 Greatest Films of All Time now published for 2012, the primary discussion has centered around Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo unseating Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane for the first time since 1962. Rather than trying to vindicate any of the films’ inclusion or positioning in the top ten, I have chosen to point towards something rather striking in this list: Sound.
Each of the films listed in the top 10 have had an enormous historical impact on not just the visual aspects, but the sonic. For an industry that struggled to solidify synchronized sound for almost forty years, then universally adopt it within just few years, is an uncanny feat.
Here you will see how each film in the Sight & Sound poll top ten for 2012 either influenced or progressed the use of sound in cinema.
Director: Federico Fellini
Fellini’s film returns to the Sight & Sound poll after being omitted in 2002, but the music in the film is both iconic and influential. To assist the narrative’s importance on weaving in and out of fantasy and reality, and sometimes mending them together, composer by Nino Rota arranged and wrote music to help integrate the dreamy, energetic, and surreal tones and mood into the visuals.
Songs such as “Carlotta’s Galop” and “Guido e Luisa Nostalgico Swing” have assimilated into the cinematic consciousness so much that it is barely a passing thought when heard in other films. Even Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” makes an integral presence as it helps ramp up the urgency and wistful state of Guido in the film.
Rota would continue to compose and conduct iconic film scores for Fellini, but would go on to compose the iconic score for The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
One of two films that does not have an official soundtrack or score on the Sight & Sound poll, The Passion of Joan of Arc does not require sound as it speaks loudly with its intense visuals. Dreyer apparently never had any specific soundtrack to the film, although if you grab a free copy from Archive.org, you will have Richard Einhorn’s “Voice of Light”. However, consider the challenge of watching the film sans music to witness one of the best performances in the history of cinema.
Watching the film in compete silence only accentuates the canted angles, extreme close-ups, and showing the importance and the progression of the medium at the time. The intensity of Maria Falconetti’s performance rings loudly today as it did then.
To discuss this silent film in a post about the importance of sound in the Sight & Sound poll might seem counter-productive, but the film is captivating even in its silence. As one of the last great silent French films, it has appeared and disappeared often from the list nearly every other decade, but seems to find a solid place in the consciousness of culture for the next decade.
8. Man with a Movie Camera
Director: Dziga Vertov
Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Man with a Movie Camera is entirely silent but was accompanied with live music during its original release, but there is no official score. However, this film is the only one on the Sight and Sound poll that is solely an experimental film.
Rather than attempt to pretend that sound is central to the film, I have chosen to instead concede that it is not. Man with a Movie Camera was an exercise to expose the uncanny amount of possibilities of cinema, particularly its ability to be a universal language, and I doubt that a soundtrack could do it justice.
7. The Searchers
Director: John Ford
What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Stan Jones’ unforgettably haunting lyrics and guitar shuffle is an appropriate overture to one of the greatest Westerns of all time. The lyrical theme returns when Ethan (John Wayne) shoots the eyes of an already slain Native American in order to sour his soul’s ability to enter into the afterlife and forever wander between the winds. Yet, it is Ethan himself that wanders between the winds. A loner Confederate who refuses any consideration of a home and has a dubious past, he also refuses to give up after years of searching for his neice.
The Searchers has been read carefully through the years as an allegory for the Brown v. Board of Education decision and as bringing The Odyssey in the mythicalAmerican West. Whether seen as a comment on racism or as a re-seated myth, The Searchers solidifies the crooning of lyrics over a lone guitar, the utmost perfect way to emphasize a lone man in a lawless land against a secluded backdrop.
Even after recovering Debbie from the Comanche, Ethan cannot enter his brother’s home and celebrate Debbie’s homecoming. There is something that keeps Ethan a nomad, an unwritten bond between him and his values. Settling down is not an option; but in his words: “That’ll be the day.” So he wanders…
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Director: Stanley Kubrick
The most recent of all the films on the Sight and Sound poll, Kubrick’s classic divides many. 2001, like 8½, codified the use of classical compositions, matching their grandiose musical arrangements with the technological achievements necessary to explain a story about humanity and its own technological achievements across millenniums.
2001 also embodies the evolutionary progress of technology and artificial intelligence as HAL, and the reliance of sound is stunning. Early in the Jupiter Mission section of the film, it is explained that HAL is able to interact with humans at an uncanny level, only missing the human element of emotion. When Dave forces himself back aboard Discovery One, HAL vocally pleads for his autonomy and is fearful of disconnection. After disconnection, HAL sings his earliest memory “Daisy Bell”, which happens to be the first song that was performed by a computer using speech synthesis in 1961.
2001 also did something stunning, it excludes sound when Dave and Frank are performing a spacewalk, an accurate detail as space does not provide a medium for sound to carry itself. Like Passion, the silence is deafening and exacerbates the visuals.
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Director: F.W. Murnau
When The Jazz Singer became a smash hit, the international film industries commanded for the conversion of sound almost overnight. Even Hitchcock was forced to abandon the completely silent Blackmail to make use of the new technology. Released the same year as The Jazz Singer, Sunrise was meant to be the Fox Film Corporation’s coming out as a legitimate and powerhouse of a film studio.
Rather than implement dialogue, Sunrise made use of a score that accentuated visuals with sound effects. A drunk pig provokes a whimsical score, and confusion between the Woman and her Husband after he tries to strangle her is represented by a grandiose whirling.
Sunrise, like many Expressionist films of its time, is often times relgated to being overtly sappy and kitsch. It is true, these character are typically over acting and melodramatic, but that was indeed the art of the Expressionist movement at the time. Yet, Sunrise is essentially an opera, it’s title along has the word ‘song’ in it, of which its definition is the bringing together of theme and music to create a montage.
4. La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game)
Director: Jean Renoir
“I cannot say that it was French baroque music that inspired me to make The Rules of the Game, but certainly it played a part in making me wish to film the sort of people who danced to that music.” – Jean Renoir (Re-printed in the Rules of the Game Criterion Collection liner notes is an excerpt from Jean Renoir’s autobiography. )
The Danse Macbre not only appears in the film during the masquerade ball, but the entire film itself can be seen as a danse macbre. The central danse macbre theme acknowledges the universal understanding that death looms over all regardless of their status in life and will be subjected to it. Wikipedia sums it up rather nicely: “no matter one’s station in life, the Dance of Death unites all.” But it is Octave’s famous remark that sums up the characters’ Devil May Care attitudes in this satirical tragi-comedy: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” This fatalistic ideal destroys any pre-destination and proclaims that life is chaotic, and in The Rules of the Game, it certainly is.
The Rules of the Game is the only film that has appeared on each and every Sight and Sound poll since its inception. Although lauded today, it was not well received during its initial theatrical release and eventually banned during the Vichi government. The Rules of the Game, along with many French poetic realist films from pre-WWII France were considered to be a part of a cinematic nuisance that kept the French men lethargic when it came to defending the country against fascist occupancy.
3. Tokyo Story
Director: Yasujir? Ozu
As number 3 on this list, and at the top of the Directors’ poll, Tokyo Story is one of the most drastically different of all of the films on the list. Like Man with a Movie Camera, the film does not have a central, conventional narrative, and is comprised mainly of static, low-angle shots, either from a distance, or between two speaking characters.
Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer discusses how filmmakers from different cultures produced films that would represent transcendence of the Holy or a way (Tao). He suggests that this international and universal presentation of a transcendental style in cinema was a desire for filmmakers to express “two universal contingencies: the desire to express the Transcendent in art and the nature of the film medium.”
How exactly does Tokyo Story express the Transcendent, particularly with sound? The film utilizes sound in such a sweet, non-threatening way, especially with a light-hearted score that matches the static shots. The characters’ dialogue is clear, captured perfectly, binding what little of a narrative is available. Ozu never cuts during a character’s dialogue, and he never shows any tangible action; essentially, the film’s sound and dialogue is captured and presented completely opposite of Citizen Kane. The biggest events are only revealed through dialogue, like a passing thought.
Tokyo Story is an event for those willing to let themselves go. The spectator is invited to contemplate, but what exactly? The threat of modernity in Japan, the role or paternity as elders, the significance of menial moments between the more bombastic, and the most menial: waiting.
2. Citizen Kane
Director: Orson Welles
Director Orson Welles integrated many technologies and cinematic devices used previously into Citizen Kane, but he mastered them like no other. The technological and narrative advancements in the film have assimilated into the filmmaking, making it difficult to validate the film’s genius to younger generations who have become accostomed to such devices.
Transitions in cinema have been dominated by the fade, dissolve, wipe, and of course the common cut. But Citizen Kane is filled with audible transitions that truly supports a narrative composed of unreliable narrators; but it is the soundtrack that creates the reliability necessary to take the film from start to finish. The use of sound in this film ushered in a new form of cinematic narration; seemless transitions through audio.
Using related sounds or completing a setence or phrase using disjointed scenes, Welles and his team developed seemless transitions that would blur the lines between scenes. By creating a seemless audio track, Welles could create visual transitions that were nearly unreconizible, such as a supposedly dolly-pan from the stage floor to the theatrical heavens where two stage hands lambast Susan Alexander’s opera performance.
Welles was an extravagant theatre director and radio personality, and his genius scared a nation into believing that aliens had invaded earth. Thus, Welles carried over his mastery of radio into cinema, the first and the best. Among the most prevelant of radio techniques brought the Greek chorus out from its ancient theatrical roots and onto the modern screen. Fragments of phrases and dialogue from multiple voices and characters could be spliced together to relay the collective thoughts of a community. Lastly, Citizen Kane was the first film to help the transition from one scene to the next by allowing the audio to lead the visuals creating an even more seemless transition.
It has become incredibly difficult to validate the film to more current generations. Citing a disjointed understanding of politics and media in the 1930s and 1940s, it is no surprise to see Citizen Kane take a hit in the Sight and Sound poll. Not only did Welles invent and carry over radio tropes to cinema, he also carried over his friend Bernard Herrmann from his radio days. Herrmann was nominated for Best Original Score for Citizen Kane, only to lose out to his other nominated score for All That Money Can Buy. But Herrmann would see genius once again seventeen years later with another masterwork.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
It has taken three decades for Vertigo to reach number one on the Sight and Sound poll, but there is no other film that could legitamitely best Citizen Kane. To have both the first and second films on the Sight and Sound poll be scored by Bernard Herrman speaks volumes. Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo may not be the most famous during his years with Alfred Hitchcock, but it is certainly his most vivid.
The score throughout the film accurately represents the overwhelming mystery, suspense, and sexuality, and few films have been able to meet the same level of complexity. The main theme has a circular motif that ipairs well with Saul Bass’ opening titles; a circular vortex that that represents the magnificent obesession that imprisons and encapsulates Scottie.
Marcel Duchamp, the Dadist experimental filmmaker, had a film called Anemic Cinema, which consists of concentric circles rotating and expanding on each other and supports the representation of sexual throbbing. Much like the circles creating a feeling of sexual throbbing and engorgment, Herrmann’s score relays this throbbing and circular motion throughout the film. The winding strings and pizzicato create the circular movement that helps the film relay feelings of obsession, psychological trauma, and sexual desires.
Vertigo is not like any other Hitchcock film, which helped alienate it in its initial release. Over time, through close readings, its arrival on home video in the 1980s, and its restoration in the mid-1990s has helped the film slowly gain critical praise and reach its present zenith. While there is certainly a controversy regarding the film’s re-recorded sound, Herrmann’s score remains ethereal and mysterious, but nonetheless captivating over the past five decades.
Sight and Sound’s poll is often considered the de facto for greatest films of all time. Collecting results from hundreds of critics (and a separate poll from directors), the 2012 poll had more submissions than ever before, almost three times as many. Vertigo was mentioned by critics a total of 41 times in 2002, but in 2012 it had 191 (Citizen Kane had 46 and 157 respectively).
As others have debated the worthiness of each film’s inclusion and positioning in the poll, I have attempted to focus the importance of audio in these films. Each have pushed the importance of sound on film to new heights, helping make illusion of reality more and more real.