Link to full Raymond Chandler script:
This scene in Margo’s hotel suite isn’t one we can do much with in terms of sound design. It’s all about the dialog here, and each character is ultra focused on what the other is saying, so there is very little opportunity to bring the sonic ambience to life. The reveal of the pistol is important, but sonically there isn’t much opportunity there. I wonder if the director might want to have Mitchell slide the action of the little automatic pistol to see if it is loaded. That would be a bit of a sound moment. Otherwise we might hear some traffic from outside, maybe a boat horn, and of course we’ll do foley for all the human movement in the scene. Same with Mitchell in the corridor outside Margo’s room.
The hotel lobby scene when Mitchell interacts with Campbell is also straight forward in terms of sound, as is the next scene when Mitchell is in Betty’s hotel room. At the bottom of page 24 the camera moves in close on her face. Sometimes a move like that is an opportunity to do something expressive with sound design, something that reflects what the character is feeling, but I think not in this case. Probably best to let the composer have that moment.
Here is where things get potentially interesting for sound again. Middle of page 25 in the script. Betty meets Brandon for the first time in the Hotel bar. Brandon is very important at the end of the movie. The pivotal sequence there is between Betty and Brandon on a boat in the fog. It seems obvious to me that we should do something, even if it’s very subtle, in this bar scene that will make a sonic connection to the end of the movie. Instead of having them sit inside the bar, as it is described in the present version of the script, I would suggest to the director that they sit on a terrace which would be an extension of the bar. And I’d suggest that Brandon should have a view of the sea, which is central to his character. Fog horns play an important part in the movie’s last scene, so I would suggest to the director that there might be a fog bank visible out over the water, and that we should hear (specifically that Brandon should hear) at least one or two fog horns.
Avoiding Sound Design / Music Conflict
This is the kind of scene in which music and sound design are likely to clash. First, there will be a temptation to have source music in this bar. In the 1940’s it would have been coming from a phonograph record or played live, maybe a piano or a small ensemble. Second, and potentially even more problematic for sound design, the director and composer will probably want to score Betty and Brandon’s first encounter, and for good reason… to play Brandon’s melancholy, and to make a connection with the last scene in the movie. In other words, the same two main things sound design would like to do in this scene, in addition to bringing the location to life.
So, how to avoid sonic conflict? Baton passing. In terms of the source music, if there is any, I would suggest playing it clearly audibly in the main part of the bar, but then cheating its volume way down once we are on the terrace with Betty and Brandon. It would be tricky to introduce score over the source music anyway, so my inclination would be to let the sounds of the harbor, including the melancholy fog horn(s), mask and gracefully replace the source music. Once we have established the sound of the environment, maybe thirty seconds of time, then we gracefully cheat those down to be barely audible, completely get rid of anything tonal in the sound design, and make space for the composer to score the remaining several minutes of Betty and Brandon’s first meeting, though there might be reason to allow the sounds of the harbor to re-establish themselves at the end of the scene, as the score cue ends.
If done well, this approach will be a win-win-win. We get the fun of the source music in the main part of the bar. We get the sounds of the harbor bringing this location to life, and helping us begin to understand who this guy Brandon is. And we get the score playing Brandon’s character and establishing a theme we will hear later, reinforcing an emotional connection between two disparate parts of the story. If the sonic hand-offs are done well, the audience will feel that they have heard everything all the time, and they won’t feel manipulated, even though that is exactly what has happened. Their attention has been directed first to source, then to sound design, then to score.
I’m thinking that if I can plant the seed of the baton passing approach in the director’s mind in pre production then it has a chance to inform discussions with the composer.
Another possible way to allocate the sonic space to accommodate score and sound design would be dividing the sonic spectrum, having score occupy certain registers and sound design others. Sometimes this trick works, but it is rarely ideal for either sound design or score, and it isn’t what I would recommend in this case.