I love a good film score. Some of the greatest music of the 20th century comes to us courtesy of composers like John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Anton Karas, and the perfect score can turn a good movie into a great one. Can you imagine Psycho‘s famous shower scene without Bernard Herrmann’s violent violins? Would the Indiana Jones or Back to the Future films have been anywhere near as exciting and adventurous without John Williams and Alan Silvestri’s wonderful themes? And I think a case can be made that Ennio Morricone’s music defines the classical image of the spaghetti western as much as Sergio Leone’s wide shots.
But while some genres of film seem utterly dependent on musical cues to tell their audience what to feel, and when (see: almost every Hollywood horror film of the last decade), there exist a rare few films in the history of cinema which have achieved greatness with little or no music at all. Here are ten of them.
10. The Day of the Jackal
Some of the best thrillers of the 1970s – the golden age of the political thriller, thanks in part to domestic political tumult in the U.S. and a little thing called the Cold War – use a stark combination of claustrophobic film-noir cinematography and low-frequency, percussive music to lend a kind of insidious realism to the political statements being made on-screen. The Day of the Jackal is something of an anomaly among political thrillers of its time (apart from the films of one other director in particular, but more on that in a minute). Besides short bursts of diegetic music, Fred Zinneman’s coolly-plotted tale of a professional assassin and the agents attempting to uncover his identity contains no musical cues at all, and instead builds its tension by depicting in dispassionately fine detail the killer’s every move from preparation to the act itself.
9. No Country for Old Men
The Coen brothers’ neo-western thriller arrived smack bang in the middle of an era where the conventional wisdom was “all you need for a scary movie is a good looking girl, a lot of dark spaces and some really loud noise”. Nearly all horror films released in the 2000s (a lot of them remakes of earlier, far superior films) have not been what you would call subtle, generally opting to rely on frightfully loud bangs and flashing, disorienting visuals to trick audiences into feeling scared rather than actually coming up with a concept which might itself provide the horror.
But as was to be expected the Coens went a different way, and not only is No Country for Old Men visually stunning with its harshly sun-lit western landscapes, it resorts to none of the cheap auditory techniques of other films of its era. In fact, it contains very little music at all, relying instead on the idea that Javier Bardem is incomprehensibly menacing as Anton Chigurh to provide the film’s chills. (Carter Burwell is given an “original music composed by” credit, but it would have been the easiest paycheck he ever earned with music subtly present in only two or three scenes.)
The only music in Fritz Lang’s 1931 psycho-horror masterpiece is the haunting melody of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, whistled by Peter Lorre’s serial killer Hans Beckert, simultaneously introducing the concept of the leitmotif to film and forever ruining that piece of music for anyone who has seen M. Made during the dawn of synchronised sound in film, the lack of music does not detract from Lang’s masterful sound design in the slightest, especially the crafty cross-cutting of dialogue between parallel scenes which would become a staple technique of filmmaking from that point on.
In 1989 the American Bar Association adjudged M to be one of the best trial films of all time, and it’s hard to disagree with them though it is amazing that an organisation of lawyers would endorse a film in which the trial is a kangaroo court.
7. The Asphalt Jungle
John Huston’s 1950 heist film preceded other pictures – such as The Killing (also starring Sterling Hayden) and Rififi – with which it shares a premise: a crack team is assembled for a high-stakes job, but things start to unravel after tensions within the group start to break it apart. It’s a foolproof formula and rarely results in a bad film, and The Asphalt Jungle is no exception with its snappy dialogue and Huston’s directorial flair. It is exceptional, however, in that it only contains around six minutes of music at the beginning and end of the film, in a time when it was common for every scene of a film to have some kind of musical accompaniment, even under dialogue.
6. Cast Away
When Tom Hanks’s character Chuck Noland washes up on a deserted island after a plane crash, he must learn from scratch, slowly and deliberately, to survive in complete isolation. This isolation is heightened immeasurably by director Robert Zemeckis’s decision to present Noland’s four years on the island in almost complete silence, without even atmospheric sounds that would imply the presence of other life forms (birds, etc.). All we hear for what makes up around 80% of the film’s run-time are the weather and Noland’s conversations with his imaginary companion, Wilson, and it feels like you’re there on that island with him.
Amazingly, the Cast Away soundtrack won Alan Silvestri a Grammy Award in 2002 despite containing only one piece of music from the film itself – which played over the end credits.
Picking a Michael Haneke film in this list may seem a little obvious since, to my knowledge, none of his films utilize a score, but his bleak, humourless depictions of social issues have had critics clamouring to honour him. Two of Britain’s largest newspapers, The Times and the Guardian, have each named a Haneke film in their decade’s top ten films list: his Palm D’or winning The White Ribbon sits at #5 on the Guardian‘s list, while The Times judged Caché to be the #1 greatest film of the decade. High praise indeed, but somewhat cheapened when you learn that just behind Caché at #2 in The Times‘ list were the Bourne films.
4. The Birds
Bernard Herrmann is one of Hollywood’s most iconic figures, and he’s responsible for some of the most recognisable scores in film history: from Psycho‘s angular violin attacks to Taxi Driver‘s sensual saxophone melody, his music is often the first memory fragment that materialises when some of the most famous films of all time are drawn to mind. But on Hitchcock’s late-period horror he was given an unusual task, to use only sound effects (of birds, mostly) and carefully-calculated silence to increase the terror of an obviously far-fetched and slightly absurd situation. The Birds won’t go down as the crowning achievement in either Hitchcock or Herrmann’s careers, but it is a good film which experimented with some unconventional techniques.
3. The films of Sidney Lumet, part one: Fail-Safe
While other filmmakers were experimenting with early synthesized sound or attempting to cram as many trombones into a score as possible (I’m looking at you, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), the great Sidney Lumet was thrashing his own path, and released not one but five films – mostly thrillers or hard-hitting personal dramas – without musical scores, turning the use of silence into an art form all its own. The best of his scoreless period is Fail-Safe, a 1964 Cold War thriller and one of the most arresting films of any era, depicting a nuclear crisis that occurs when a bomber is giving an erroneous signal to fly into the Soviet Union and drop a warhead on Moscow. Tension increases exponentially as it becomes clear that orders for the plane to stand down will be ignored, and American commanders (played in career-best turns by Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau and Dan O’Herlihy) must negotiate with the Russians to bomb New York City in the event that the bomber gets through to Moscow.
If this plot sounds familiar, it’s almost exactly the same as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – the two films were based on different books which were themselves almost identical, resulting in a number of lawsuits in the early 1960s – but played entirely straight, and it’s utterly gripping.
2. The films of Sidney Lumet, part two: Dog Day Afternoon
I couldn’t allow Lumet just one representation on this list, and while The Hill or Network could also have found their way in I couldn’t go past 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon as Lumet’s second great scoreless film. It begins with “Amoreena” by Elton John playing over shots of Brooklyn during the opening credits, but once that song finishes our only companions for the next two hours are Al Pacino, a bank full of hostages, a crowd outside and the insufferable, insidious heat. Lumet was a master of the slow-burn, gradually ramping up tension so subtly that it’s impossible to notice it happening, but once you get to the explosive conclusion you realise that you’ve been holding your breath the entire time.
1. 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days
When a woman falls pregnant in the dying months of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime, in which abortion is illegal, she and her best friend go to increasingly demanding lengths to obtain an illegal abortion. The cold, harrowing depiction of late-1980s communist Romania is completely at odds with the warmth and strength of the two lead characters in this sensational exploration of the limits of friendship, and the starkness of this background is made infinitely more realistic by the fact that it is presented without music. I’ll never know what it was like to live during Ceauşescu’s time in Romania, but if 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days is anything to go by it won’t be the first destination on my list when I finally obtain that time machine.