Character Action and Character Dialogue

Clint Eastwood: Quintessential Minimalist Character Action

Clint Eastwood – Quintessential Character Action in the Spaghetti Western

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DIALOGUE, as I have often stated in my classes and articles, is an important part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, reveals character, and, at its best, draws us into the minds of the story’s characters.

But, sometimes, scenes are better served through action alone.

When Character Action Trumps Dialogue

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey springs to mind. Here the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence, from ape to spacefaring humanity, is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.

And who can forget the laconic style of the Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gun slinger whose draw is lightning fast?

As he faces off against man after man, willing them to draw, tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, unflinching gazes, twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns, and the like. No need for dialogue here.

Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggest that he is disconnected from the world.

When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in verbal banter.

Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.

Sometimes words seem to mock their very existence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.

Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.

Summary

An absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on character action and its significance.

4 thoughts on “Character Action and Character Dialogue

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    How I love a good silent scene. The shootout in The Good , the bad and the ugly remains one of the iconic scenes in western cinema. Martin Scorsese once said that cinema is what is captured within a frame at a specific time. The most powerful examples are films where the director understands the use of visual metaphors. Charlie Chaplin’s films are textbook examples of how to communicate messages without dialogue – I highly recommend the Great Dictator. Disney’s imagining of The hunchback of Notre dame also has a great scene where the antagonist Judge Claude Frollo shows his intention on the gypsy population by crushing a ant nest.
    In short : Understand the world of the film to define visual metaphors to convey messages.

    Reply
  2. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Thank you, Stephen. It’s often more difficult to have character ‘do’ than talk. One is forced to find significant actions for them to perform, actions that may seem trivial but often carry deeper meaning.

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  3. Stephen Marcus Finn

    Yes, this is something I’ve learned in the last few weeks, Stavros – and thank you for that. And having to do a pressurised scene without any dialogue was a very rewarding challenge.

    Reply

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