Making films in the days before post-production sound

I recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930) that can be seen in its entirety online (see below). I have long been a fan of Hitchcock’s films but had not seen this one and was curious as to what his early efforts looked like.

It is not a great film but I learned something about how limited filmmakers were in their options in those days. As I was watching it, it felt strangely different and I finally pinned it down to the lack of ambient sounds, especially a soundtrack. With modern films, one hears music that sets the mood, footsteps when people walk, doors shutting, and all the other sounds that accompany the action. But in this case, there was mostly silence apart from dialogue, and it was the absence of such sounds that seemed strange.

In reading about the film later, I learned that in 1930, there was no post-production possibility of adding sounds after filming was completed, like they do now with Foley artists and adding a musical score. Any sound in the film had to be picked up by the microphones that picked up the dialogue while filming the scene. So for example, in this film at the 34:00 mark, we hear a character’s thoughts as a voiceover while he is shaving while a radio played music. How this was done was by having the actor’s voice pre-recorded and played on a phonograph while an actual orchestra on the set played the music.

Here’s the full film.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Of the films Hitchcock made before he moved to America, the only ones I know well are The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. I prefer them to any of his American films, although I’m quite fond of The Trouble with Harry.

  2. morsgotha says

    One particular famous sound added in post-production is the “wilhelm scream”.
    Once you recognise it you will hear it just about every movie.

  3. John Morales says

    With modern films, one hears music [that] sets the mood …

    Or which breaks it. And it’s fucking cheap to do the ominous music, the pounding drumming, the ethereal chanting, the [blah] to establish that mood. I hate it so very much.

    (Since I have Netflix, I tried watching Peaky Blinders, but could not cope with modern driving music in a period piece — at least have fucking period music, if music must be had! Grr)

    Of course, it’s not just films, it’s everything. Bah.

    Foley work, generally not too bad. Except in martial arts movies, and action movies, and… <sigh>

    Never mind.

  4. Silentbob says

    @ 1 Rob Grigjanis

    I’ll always remember a sequence from Sabotage (1936). A boy is carrying a package, we, the audience, know to be a time-bomb. The boy doesn’t. If he delivers it on time and leaves he’ll be okay. But it’s a fucking time-bomb. And the boy keeps getting delayed. He has to go by public transport. He gets stopped by a street parade. Etc., etc. It’s absolutely nail-biting. The clock is ticking. We’re on the edge of our seats. Will he make it?

    In the end (spoiler) the fucking thing explodes blowing the kid to smithereens -- which was a shocking thing in 1936!

    But I’ve always remembered how riveting is was. An early example of Hitchcock learning his craft as “the master of suspense”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *