Squeak

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CHINATOWN. Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes arrives at a swank mansion.

As he approaches the door, he hears something.

Evidently it’s coming from the limo. It is a squeaking sound.

Jack/Jake approaches the front door and rings the bell. A Chinese butler answers it, takes his card, and shuts the door in his face. While Jack awaits the manservant’s return, his attention is again caught by that damned squeaking. He looks back at the limo.

And now a chauffeur appears from behind the car, wiping it with a piece of chamois leather. Squeak squeak squeak.

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This always gets a great laugh. It intrigues me. I laughed too. But why? There is a mysterious sound. Then we find out the ordinary explanation. And for some reason that’s funny. It also seems apt in this film: there is  mystery, even in an apparently mundane setting. And we learn the solution. A microcosm for the whole film?

ERASERHEAD. Jack Nance as Henry Spencer visits his girlfriend at the parents’ house. For some time the conversation has to compete with an inexplicable squeaking noise.

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Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

Henry eventually looks in the direction of the sound.

On the floor, a bitch is nursing a litter of pups.

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This is also weirdly funny. Lynch being who he is gets more discomfort out of the protracted and surreal noise, and the explanation when it comes still has a slightly icky biological feel: the anxiety of procreation, a major theme of the film. But we should not take any comfort from the fact that Lynch, like Polanski, eventually explains away this mystery. He can’t be relied upon to do so. The gag works better as an example of Henry’s curious and fatal passivity. This totally bizarre noise is whining away, and it takes him like a minute to muster the elementary curiosity to look for the source.

Poor Henry.

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4 Responses to “Squeak”

  1. The mind wanders, and I started thinking about odd off-frame sounds in film. Some are red herrings, but most have consequences, like that ticking sound in TOUCH OF EVIL. Footsteps are usually heard as a threat, especially the sound of a foot dragging limp…

  2. The first great sinister one is probably whistling Peter Lorre in M, not completely unseen, but not clearly glimpsed for a while.

    Offscreen sound is great to build up an immersive world, but if the source remains invisible for long we start to suspect that either the movie is cheap or the thing is Too Terrible To Be Seen.

  3. Seems like there have been quite a few whistling killers in film.

  4. Well it WAS a brilliant innovation to characterise a figure we don’t see clearly. He produces his own leitmotif.

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