More than any of the other popular arts, film is a visual medium. Those who truly understand its power have been able to make movies that show rather than tell. Using a few meaningful glances, sparsely but well chosen words, and purposeful composition; these directors understand the properties of the moving image. A few filmmakers, in particular, have taken their talents to even greater heights, and have made movies completely devoid of dialogue. They have managed to tell stories that are propelled using images alone.
The Last Laugh (1924)
dir. F. W. Murnau
It is rather a shame that synchronous sound developed so early in the development of motion pictures. The directors of this period were only beginning to scratch the surface of the possibilities of silent film, and Germany's F. W. Murnau was foremost among these pioneers. Realizing that intertitles could be cumbersome, interrupting the flow of a movie, Murnau moved further and further away from relying on these story aids until he did away with them completely for his film The Last Laugh. This movie tells the simple story of a hotel doorman who loses his job and, along with it, his character-defining doorman coat. As much as anything, this movie is a statement on the German fetishization of military dress and hierarchy. It is also such a simple, human tale that expository dialogue in the form of intertitles would have been redundant.
The Thief (1952)
dir. Russell Rouse
Conventional wisdom would say that the intricate, plot twist filled world of espionage movies would be unsuited for the silent treatment, but that didn't stop Russell Rouse from directing this thriller sans dialogue. In The Thief, Ray Milland plays a nuclear physicist who becomes a spy for a foreign government, eventually running afoul of the FBI. The film builds to a tension filled standoff between Milland and a Federale at the top of the Empire State Building. Truth be told, this is probably the gimmickiest of the movies on this list. Perhaps because Rouse was afraid that audiences would be confused, certain motifs (ringing phones, package hand-offs) are repeated ad naseum, just in case viewers would be unable grasp what was going on. Despite its drawbacks, however, I still admire the ballsiness of making a dialogue free movie in this genre.
Quest for Fire (1981)
dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud
Being as Quest for Fire is a tale of early man, Jean-Jacques Annaud's film is dialogue free by design. Truth be told, the characters in Quest for Fire are talkative, but seeing as they are cavemen and we can not understand their hibbledy-jibbledy language, their speech is irrelevant. No matter. The story isn't hard to follow. In this movie we follow a group of cavemen who hunt a rival tribe to recapture the fire they need for survival. Although their recaptured fire is eventually extinguished, [SPOILER ALERT] early man discovers the ability to create fire and thus does not become extinct [END SPOILER ALERT]. Aside from the dialogue free storytelling, Quest for Fire has much to recommend it; namely, a near constantly naked Rae Dawn Chong. Most importantly, however, Quest for Fire is one in a long line of movies that proves Ron Perlman's inability to play regular human characters.
(Realizing that the labyrinthine plot of this movie was too difficult for ordinary mortals to comprehend, Iron Maiden wrote this instructional song a few years after the film's release to enlighten the masses on the multi-layered plot of Annaud's film.)
Le Dernier Combat (1983)
dir. Luc Besson
Back in the early eighties, Mad Max knockoffs were a dime a dozen. Every so often one of these movies stood apart from the crowd, however. Luc Besson's feature length debut was one such movie. Le Dernier Combat operates under the interesting gimmick that, in this post apocalyptic future age, the atmosphere has changed so much that humans are no longer able to speak. In this world, man is forced to barbarism in order to survive. As an antidote to the Mad Max inspired movies, however, Luc Besson's film rejects machismo and celebrates civilized activities, suggesting that the answer to the problem is order. Not a director known for depth, here Besson shows an insight into humanity that seems to be lacking in his other films (not that they aren't entertaining, of course). Then again, because of the lack of dialogue, it's much easier to ascribe a depth that may or may not be present in this film.
The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
dir. Sylvain Chomet
It is rather astounding that feature length cartoons so rarely try to go the dialogue free route. Animation is the perfect genre in which to rely solely on visuals. The animated world is one of limitless possibilities. Realizing this, director Sylvain Chomet let out all the stops in his charming French cartoon, The Triplets of Belleville. In this movie, we follow a woman as she searches for her cyclist grandson who was kidnapped by the French mafia. Along the way we are introduced to a slew of colorful characters, including a flatulent dog, a trio of old singers modeled on the Andrews Sisters, and overweight Americans (did I mention this was a French movie?). Although the plot is quite involved, never once is this flick confusing. It flows just as smoothly as the movie's bouncy score. Then again, with a movie as colorful, fast paced, and carefree as this one, The Triplets of Belleville would be just as fun plot-less.