Sound in Film Pt. 1

October 21, 2007


A shot from the opening scene of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

I’ve been reading about the use of sound as a formal and stylistic element in narrative film. The ideas are somewhat abstract, not obviously observable without prior knowledge, but then when one views a narrative film one doesn’t hope one will be distracted by the stylistic and formal choices employed by the filmmakers. However, once informed about such aspects of the craft, the world of film viewing is opened up to so many new observational possibilities. For example, I was just watching Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and the rich use of sound editing in the opening sequence really struck me. It’s a long continuous shot, over three minutes without a cut, that follows a car with a bomb inside it down the streets of a Mexican border town. The soundtrack is made up of music from the car radio and the various clubs passed by. So, the music varies. We get hints of different beats, instruments, and styles, weaving in and out of, over and under each other. Where most films of the time, Touch of Evil was produced in 1958, would incorporate a musical score over the scene, this film uses what David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson refer to in their book Film Art: An Introduction as diegetic sound, or sound that occurs within the “story space” (Bordwell & Thompson 289). Normally, a film’s musical score is non-diegetic, or happening outside of the world of the characters and story on screen, it is imposed by the filmmakers as a way to set mood, convey emotional information, or hint at how the audience might feel at any given point within the film. Touch of Evil is clever in this respect, as the diegetic sounds act the part of the musical score, yet are wholly of the story world. The trick is rather seamlessly incorporated, and one might not even notice this distinction unless it was pointed out; however, it all acts as any non-diegetic soundtrack might, to orient (or disorient) the audience, and help set the tone, mood and feel of the film.


One Response to “Sound in Film Pt. 1”

  1. shannoh Says:

    I think incorporating the diegetic soundtrack to a film would make it much more authentic and more personal to the viewer. Very interesting observation.

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