I found this whilst cleaning out some old writing folders. I have just the barest memory of writing this for an editing class ages ago. Pretty sure I bullshitted my way through the paper, it's not terribly academic. Posting it for that one, or two other people on the internet who wants to read more about sound design in the sound design in War of the Worlds and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.
Goodness knows I've Google weirder.
Goodness knows I've Google weirder.
Sound is an important element in introducing the viewer to the world and characters of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In tandem with the opening sequence of line drawing illustrated red title cards a sultry jazz theme leads the viewer into the New Orleans night and the first glimpse of Brick Pollitt on the high school field. The opening theme is undercut by a new non-diagetic sound, the roar of adoring fans crowding the stand and cheering on their hero. Unfortunately Brick is the only one who can really still hear these cheers and as he stumbles over the hurdles he’s attempting the jump, the cheers turn to disappointed groans then quickly drop out. Brick is truly alone now, drunk and lame in his imagined field of dreams.
The scene cuts to the next day, sun lit and loud with the sound of Mae Pollitt rehearsing her drums and bugle corps of “no neck monsters” in a rousing rendition of “Dixie”. Combined with the bucolic party preparations in the shadow of a grand plantation house, the music and sound of these first two scenes have done their job of establishing a time, place and atmosphere for the viewer.
War of the Worlds wastes no time in getting straight to the story either. The Dreamworks, Paramount and Amblin Entertainment screens run atop an eerie soundscape that neatly dovetails into Morgan Freeman delivering a voice over to set the stage for the film. From the off kilter “once upon a time” quality of Freeman’s storytelling the viewer is dropped into the noise of a container harbor complete with the loud voices of Ray Ferrier and his boss struggling to make themselves heard over the machinery. Ray has to raise his voice again in the next scene, this time as he tries to cut through the audible music coming from his son’s headphones. As the film progresses noise will come in again to disrupt character communications.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the disruption to communication is more often the dialogue of another character. Based on a Tennessee William play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is very much a dialogue driven film. Each character has a rhythm to their speech that both defines the character and sets the tone of the scene. Brick speaks slowly, his words drawn out in a whiskey addled southern drawl and tinged with self hate. Maggie’s dialogue is quicker, monologues in some scenes as she has to fill in both parts of her conversations with her husband. She is the cat on the tin roof, always thinking, always moving and talking. Big Daddy delivers his lines with bluster and force to match his physical size and newly rediscovered, though false, vitality.
Sound design comes into play during the first confrontation between Brick and Big Daddy. Outside a storm is brewing as Big Daddy relentlessly questions Brick in order to get to the source of his son’s drinking and abandonment of Maggie. The two men spar back and forth, voices low, seething, insolent, and rising until the truth begins to out. Big Daddy calls Brick on his crutches, clicks and mendacity and pinpoints just when Brick started drinking: after the death of Skipper. This already tense exchange is punctuated by a loud crash of thunder.
The thunderstorm is the soundtrack for the rest of this pivotal scene. Another loud crash of thunder as Brick directs Big Daddy to ask Maggie about the night Skipper died. A full on storm of words, Maggie has succeeded in getting Brick to talk about that night. His prior laconic distance replaced by an anger and spirit the viewer is left to assume he hasn’t shown since Skipper’s death. Big Daddy takes this opening to lay into Brick again as the storm blows open windows and doors. Shutters banging on the sills, Big Daddy pushes the conversation from the house to the rainy driveway, intent on hearing Brick admit the truth of himself. Instead Brick reveals the secret everyone has been keeping, Big Daddy is dying. With everything out in the open now, the storm breaks, thunder and lightning give way to the steady patter of a heavy rainfall that, perhaps symbolically, washes both men clean.
A storm of otherworldly origins heralds the truth behind War of the Worlds. Ray has just left the normalcy of his daughter, Rachel, inside and watching cartoons to go outside in search of Robbie and the stolen car. Outside, initially, looks and sounds normal until the camera view widens to reveal everyone looking at the sky behind Ray. The everyday, artificial sounds of the street corner, car audio and engines, drops out momentarily as the dark clouds overhead are shown. For that shot only the sound of human confusion is heard. The wind picks up once Ray is in the backyard. There is incidental dialogue but the viewer is most immersed in the rumbling wind, the hard snap of whipped clothes on lines and the rustle of windblown leaves. As quickly as the wind picked up it dies away to leave just a beat of ambient noise before a bright flash and crash of thunder. Visually the viewer processes the effect as lightning strikes but aurally the phenomenon sounds nothing like thunder or a strike.
This scene also includes one of several ironic juxtapositions of music. Ray hums the “Star Spangled Banner” to Rachel in an attempt to calm her during the storm but the dark clouds and light show won’t mean anything close to independence or celebration over the course of the film. Later in the film there is another irony as Tony Bennett’s “If I ruled The World” plays over a public announce system while, for now, the aliens clearly rule Earth.
From here on out War of the Worlds begins to shed the sound of the familiar. Ray stands in a crowd above the cracked pavement when a new low frequency sound comes from below. Standing over the sizzling hole in the ground, the police officer’s line of “There’s something down there and it’s moving,” is almost unnecessary. The viewer can feel the low vibration of movement. Sound is being used to build suspense. Much like the characters on screen, the viewer watches in awe as the tripod emerges –then there is a new sound. The nearest aural analogy is of a machine powering up and it is an eerie sound. As the movie progresses the viewer is constantly being introduced to new sounds which soon equate to new powers or horrors from the tripods. In this scene the newly emerged machine, backed by a strident non-diagetic musical theme, bellows then gives way to ambient noise that then turns into a bouncing stereo effect of static ray blasts. It is quite possible to just listen to this scene, without the visual clues of the camera, and still understand exactly what is happening.
Sound design to build suspense is used again to great effect when the aliens send a reconnaissance team to Harlan’s cellar. The staging is dark and most of the anxiety comes from audio cues such as the characters footsteps, Harlan loading his shot gun and the muted grunts of Ray and Harlan fighting for possession of the gun as the aliens handle and sniff the humans’ things. After the aliens are called back to their ship a truly terrifying bit of audio horror takes place as Ray instructs Rachel to stay put on the couch while he, behind a closed door, kills Harlan. Through this scene, with the sounds of the fight behind her and a mounting music cue, Rachel sings herself a lullaby.
War of the Worlds has the daunting task of creating a world filled with things the viewer has never seen or heard before. Sound is an integral part of the mise-en-scene both in establishing what normal was at the start of the film and later, by replacing normal with alien. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof makes use of sounds like Bricks ice cubes clinking in his glass of whiskey, the creak of wood floorboards in an old house and the invasive rumble of Mae and Gopper’s children to build the soundscape of the film. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof doesn’t employ the many sets and scenery changes of War of the Worlds. The older film feels claustrophobic by design with sounds spilling from outside in, upstairs down to the cellar and as pointed out by Mae during the final scene, one room to the next.
In contrast, War of the Worlds uses sound to help create a world that is almost too big for the viewer to fully comprehend. That which can be deciphered or interpreted is done so as best as possible and the sounds that are too foreign to have an earthly counterpart only add to the foreboding sense of panic and terror. In the end, each film is enhanced by the attention paid to the sound design as the sound adds a second sensory experience to the watching.