I often have difficulty understanding dialogue in newer movies despite still enjoying what I believe is excellent hearing.
Then a few weeks ago I took to watching re-runs of old movies on Netflix. Dialogue in old movies gives me no trouble whatsoever. I can easily follow the plot and nuances. Comparison of actors’ speech in old and newer movies reveals why.
In “Ship of Fools”, for instance, a 1965 movie with Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin, and Jose Ferrer, conversations are easy to comprehend. Even sugar plantation ‘slaves’ crowded into the ship’s hold speak intelligibly though using vernacular. Only one person speaks at a time, and even when whispering sweet nothings into the hair of a love interest manages to be clearly understood, speaking directly to the viewer enunciating as precisely as phoneticist Professor Higgins teaching Eliza Doolittle to adopt a high toned style so she can pass as a well born lady.
As an aside, everyone chain smoked but no one dropped a four letter word.
So why is it in Clint Eastwood’s 2003 movie “Mystic River,” Sean Penn murmurs into his elbow like a cop reporting to dispatch, or aims an interior monologue at his ankles the way Get Smart talked to his shoe? Mimicking Clint Eastwood in a pensive mood, Penn fixes his gaze on an imaginary horizon, squints, and delivers what may be a line integral to the plot if only I could understand what he said.
Wikipedia supplies me with the backstory that motivates these characters; otherwise I’d have no idea why Penn hates his daughter’s 19-year-old boyfriend, or why the boyfriend beat up his two younger brothers.
Actors should speak for viewers’ benefit and enjoyment. I feel burdened having to interpret their words and follow the plot with Wikipedia like an immigrant reading an English book with a dual language dictionary at their elbow. Imagine if James Cagney made gangsters guess what he threatened to do to them? Although crime writer Leonard Elmore’s loan shark in “Get Shorty” says, “You never tell the guy what could happen to him. Let him use his imagination; he’ll think of something worse.”
Do you suppose today’s moviemakers think we might create a more exciting plot if we are forced to do it ourselves as the movie unfolds? Is incomprehensible dialogue something movie makers’ intend or is it due to actors lack of training?
I wistfully recall the clear speech of Lauren Bacall, Barbra Streisand, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn. Among men, too, the list of easily understood actors is long – John Wayne, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope. How funny would a comedian be if he were telling his third joke before we got his first? What if Clark Gable had garbled his famous last words, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”
Marlon Brando, the top marble mouth, built a film career based on incomprehensibility. Did he mutter to rivet our attention on him longer?
Modern movies with their overly loud background sounds, penchant for a flurry of activity and one person talking over another shortchange screenplay writers. Writers slave to craft sparkling dialogue to engage, amuse, bring us to tears. Actors who mumble their lines thwart writers’ efforts.
Now that Netflix gives me a wider selection of movies, beyond what I usually bring home from the library, I’m sampling foreign language films with English subtitles. So far they share several traits I favour – a clean presentation with fewer actors; less frenzied; quieter backgrounds; understandable plots. They offer less humour than I look for, but subtitles are easy to read.
Claudette Sandecki crafts her own dialogue from her Thornhill home.