Newly issued on home video, this year’s surprise springtime hit A Quiet Place is one of the horror genre’s most effective offerings in many moons. The spare post-apocalyptic tale focuses on a family who has learned to outwit unexplained alien monsters that are blind but possess a supernatural sense of hearing. In the spirit of the minimalist plot, the characters communicate by signing to each other while remaining (mostly) silent. One false noise and the shrieking creatures come charging in.
Movies like A Quiet Place are a reminder of how immersive a film experience can be even when the characters within it shut up for a minute and the ambient noise and musical soundtrack—or complete lack of any audio—takes over our sonic sense. It’s a marvelous throwback to the silent film era when motion pictures relied mainly on visual images to advance the plot. Further, it was a true joy to see this film in a theater and know that everyone else in the audience was equally spellbound—mindful and courteous to keep mum during the show lest the movie’s fragile spell be broken.
In celebration of the movies that work without a whole lot of jibber-jabber, check out any one of the following films that are either legitimately silent, or contain long passages with minimal dialogue and masterful sound design.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
During the gripping opening sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s period oil baron epic we meet its repellant anti-hero, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, chewing up the scenery to earn his second of three career Oscars for Best Actor). We watch as Plainview prospects alone, weathers harsh elements, and endures horrific bodily injury in pursuit of great riches, setting up without a single word all we’ll ever need to know about the character’s tenacity.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Several pivotal scenes in Denis Villeneuve’s wondrous, hypnopompic sequel occur with minimal dialogue, but the most impressive is a four-minute wordless sequence in desolate Las Vegas when new blade runner agent “K” (Ryan Gosling) finally tracks down the reclusive hero from the first movie, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
This cool French film noir is directed by American filmmaker Jules Dassin and is considered the granddaddy of all heist flicks. The centerpiece sequence is the silent robbery, which is filmed in real time; the 26-minute heist plays without a single line of dialogue but packs more white-knuckle dread than many modern-day pretenders. If the film plays like the most tension-fraught Alfred Hitchcock picture the Master of Suspense never made, it’s no accident: Dassin got his start in the movie-making business as Hitch’s apprentice.
Dressed to Kill (1980) / Body Double (1984)
Most of Brian De Palma’s early films are heavily influenced by the masterworks of Alfred Hitchcock, and each offers a variation on the theme of a woman in jeopardy. Dressed to Kill and Body Double are similarly structured and—permit the pun—executed, and both films feature a protracted cat-and-mouse sequence that plays out with a minimum of chit-chat.
In Dressed to Kill, married woman Angie Dickinson is lured by a mysterious stranger while navigating the corridors of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (famously, the interiors for this sequence were filmed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
The silent stalking sequence in Body Double begins on a residential Los Angeles street, continues inside a posh Beverly Hills galleria (where our hero is clocked for a Peeping Tom), and ends up on a sunny beachfront where a frantic foot chase ensues—the twist here is there are two stalkers following the same woman.
Both of the De Palma sequences mentioned above are a tip of the hat to Hitchcock’s famed 1958 psycho-thriller, in which Scottie the likeable but acrophobic snoop (Jimmy Stewart) silently stalks an old friend’s troubled wife (Kim Novak) around San Francisco Bay, eventually witnessing her apparent suicide when she leaps from the top of a tall bell tower. Later, Scottie goes slowly mad when he encounters another woman who looks just like her, and his twisted passion to remodel her into the dead woman’s visage and persona makes for some of the creepiest stuff Hitch ever put on film.
Silent Movie (1976)
After lampooning Broadway in The Producers, mocking prejudice in Blazing Saddles, and paying loving homage to the monster movies of yesteryear in Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks and gang set their sights on the wordless history of Hollywood’s silent film era. Only a sly cinematic prankster like Brooks could have come up with the priceless idea to have the movie’s singular line of dialogue spoken by world-renowned mime Marcel Marceau.
The Artist (2011)
In one of the bigger head-scratchers in Academy Awards history, the top Oscar for Best Picture was bestowed upon this innocuous tribute to the silent era. Though the film’s charms are effervescent, they evaporate the moment the lights come up.
As for whether this lark deserved to win out over an enduring masterwork like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo—in its own way an equally heartfelt tribute to the Dawn of Cinema—that remains a question for the ages.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Steven Spielberg’s period cold-war spy thriller kicks off with an expertly shot and edited montage of espionage, surveillance, chase, and capture, with the most crucial bits of exposition conveyed purely visually.
Fritz Lang’s cautionary dystopian vision is perhaps the most famous and enduring film from the silent era, more so than, say, the silent versions of Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Napoleon, or Birth of a Nation—and far less controversial, too. Lang’s film is still influential today for its bold production design and the story’s ambitious themes of social stratification and man versus machine.
Among its many descendants is Ridley Scott’s future noir classic Blade Runner, and just like Scott’s 1982 film, there are myriad versions of Metropolis floating around out there: restored and unrestored; monochrome or color-tinted editions; with or without the disco-tinged musical score produced by Giorgio Moroder for the film’s 1984 reissue. Depending on which home video restoration or theatrical presentation you go by, the film runs anywhere from a lean 82 minutes to a whopping, butt-numbing 210 minutes. Though the longer versions flirt with tedium, all are visually magnificent.
With minimal chatter, this Pixar classic establishes a polluted, barren, and abandoned future Earth along with the few scrappy inhabitants who remain behind to clean up the mess. Most of Act I is purely visual, a knowing tribute to the golden age of silent movies when pictures told us everything required for a viewer to follow the story.
From the time Arnold shouts his immortal line, “Get to the choppah!” to the final exchange between man and predator—“What the hell are you?”—the finale of John McTiernan’s jungle sci-fi/action classic occurs with merely a handful of incidental lines of dialogue.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Aside from a legitimate silent movie, you’ll be hard pressed to find another famous picture with so many stretches of purely visual storytelling. Stanley Kubrick kicks off his monumental odyssey with a lengthy prologue showing the dawn of man—we watch as apes learn how to use tools and turn them into weapons.
In the future, there are two sequences of a commuter shuttle doing a mating dance with a massive spinning space station and, later, approaching a moon base; both unspool at the measured pace of the Blue Danube waltz, without a single word spoken by anybody.
Later still, aboard the spaceship Discovery, there are several passages with sparse dialogue, but the most famous silent bit is the exhilarating, ponderous, 23-minute finale when astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) passes through the monolith gateway for a cosmic light and sonics show as he (and viewers) catapult through space, time, galaxies, and universes to witness…what, exactly?