Silence and Suspense


            Can you imagine a speeding ambulance weaving through traffic to deliver a sick patient to the hospital without siren? Or better yet, a high speed police chase where the police car also does not have a siren? Furthermore, what if you were sleeping in a building that suddenly caught on fire and the fire alarm failed to make any noise? As you can see, sounds are essential to the way things are carried out in the world. Upon hearing a certain sound, a person can expect what is happening or what is going to happen next. When a person hears a siren from an ambulance or a police car, he or she knows that an emergency is taking place or has taken place, and that they must get out of the way if necessary. When you take sounds and alerts out of society, you hinder people from being able to predict future occurrences. One writer/director found that he could enhance an audience’s movie experience by reducing the amount of dialogue. In the 1968 western film Once Upon A Time in the West, Sergio Leone increases the suspense of the movie by decreasing the dialogue/monologue between the characters.

            The movie begins with a gang of bandits raiding a local train station. Upon entering the salon, the bandits run into an elderly station agent and a mid-aged lady. They wander the station with slow movements refraining from saying anything to either of the two individuals—even as the elderly station agent addresses them. The writer ignites suspense within the audience because he does not clearly show the intentions of the bandits. By omitting dialogue, he leaves it up to the audience to guess what will be the bandits’ next action. Leone now makes the audience become the bandits and make decisions such as: should we leave salon peacefully, or should we ignite chaos? Another mechanism that Leone used to increase the suspense in the movie was foreshadowing. The bandits waited at the station for the arrival of a man who carried a harmonica. When his train arrived, the bandits and the man with the harmonica stood on opposite sides of the track and addressed each other. The man with the harmonica asked the bandits “Did you bring a horse for me?” One of the bandits laughed and answered “Looks like we’re shy one horse”. The man with the harmonica then responded “You brought two too many”. At this point, the audience then is given a signal that someone will not make it out of this scene alive. The director enhances the suspense by silencing the characters for a brief period. The audience is left to decide which character(s) will meet their fate. The author ends the suspense once the man with the harmonica eliminates the three bandits.


                              Picture #1: The bandits meet the man with the harmonica (time stamp: (0:11::01))

            Another instance in which the director uses silence and foreshadowing to enhance suspense occurs at the abode of the McBain’s. Mr. McBain and his son were preparing to leave to the train station to pick up his new wife, Mrs. McBain. His son asked him “How will we know what she looks like?” Mr. McBain then pulls out his letter from her which says that she will be arriving in a black dress. In society, the color black is usually associated with death. This was a method that the director used to foreshadow the death of McBain. Shortly after reading the letter, the family grew quiet as Maureen McBain watched as birds flew off in a hurry. The camera focuses on Maureen as she stares in awe of the birds. This was a form of foreshadowing her death because birds are associated with death and being free from the bondage of the world. Silence then strikes the characters as they try to figure out what startled the birds. The audience also is left to figure out where the disturbance is coming from and what will happen to the characters. The silence is suddenly broken with the firing of a gun to Maureen and then to Mr. McBain and his son. The youngest son walks out the house and stumbles into Frank, the notorious gangster who led the massacre. Silence again occurred as the audience is left to figure out what will happen to the young lad. One of Frank’s handymen asks him “What should we do with this one, Frank?” Frank then answers “Well since you’ve said my name…” Frank does not finish his sentence and instead becomes silent. The audience at this point is suspenseful, trying to decipher the fate of the young lad. The scene ends with Frank killing the young boy along with his parents.


        Picture #2: Frank approaches the young McBain (time stamp: (0:21::46))

            In summation, the author found favor in this technique because it was a method of keeping the audience engaged in the film. For the remainder of the movie, the director continues to use the method of silence and subtle foreshadowing. By doing so, the audience is able to imagine the story in their point of view for a brief moment. Increasing the silence of the characters will keep enhance the suspense of the film. 



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4 responses to “Silence and Suspense

  1. mcostin23

    I like you references to everyday moment of suspense. I cant remember exactly what movie it was, but I do recall a epic chase scene where the movie was at its climax and all the sudden the sound cut off and the chase scene still continued. This movie reminds a lot of “Fist full of Dollars” and the quiet approach and dialogue between two characters. The first scene of the movie is amazing in terms of the quiet approach as well as the scene at the train station. This was depicted really well in the snapshot picture that you chose. The director lets the audience take charge at certain points in the film, which make it even more exciting to watch.

  2. Like a master artist Sergio Leone did use, as suggested, silence to increase suspense. Combined with his use of leitmotifs he was able to provide many cues that are easily missed as to the nature of the scene engaging you within it without overt guidance. This reflexive involvement allows the film to pull you in deeper circumventing the involvement of your conscious mind.

  3. michaeldepasquale

    I did think that the role of silence played such a large part in the film because it was a western. The realistic qualities of the scenes become heightened by the silence. Instead of music, the director uses silence to convey the intensity of a scene. I thought it was so well used because of the setting, in the west this is how things would have really been. Their is little background noise when you are in the middle of nowhere. I think the directors use of silence as a catalyst for suspense was very well done, and it is underutilized in many modern films today.

  4. terrellhicks

    I never thought about how effective silence could be used in a film. I think the silence works very well in “Once Upon a Time in the West” to create suspense while adding a hint of mystery as well. Little is known about Harmonica and he does not talk much during the film. The audience usually knows that he is present by the distant-playing harmonica tune in the background. The silence also helps convey that none of the characters in the film know Harmonica’s true reason for staying to help protect Jill from Frank.

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