In defense of violence in film, Otto Preminger reflected that because there was nothing more powerful to an audience than the fear of death, filmmakers had a duty to show it. An audience, reasoned Preminger, expected to be frightened.
Immediately prior to the birth of cinema, the Fantasmagorie (horror) puppet theatre of Emile Cohl lit the path towards the type of entertainment that films would immediately provide. It’s ironic that the Lumières’ train, arriving in La Ciotat (in what is recognized rather dubiously as the first “commercial” film) is memorable only for unintentionally striking terror into its audience, who believed the train was heading straight into the theater. Fear has always been an essential component of cinema’s appeal, and fear in the wider sense (what the French call angoisse) inhabits almost every genre, from horror, through suspense pictures, to romantic drama and comedy. All audiences want to experience discomfort in the cinema to some degree—what divides audiences more, is the extent to which they want to be delivered from it by the end.
In this sense, the noise of a gunshot, the most temporally efficient evocation of death, could be argued to be the most purely cinematic sound of all. It contains, in a split second, an aural shock and the fear of its repercussions. When Edwin S. Porter had Justus D. Barnes turn towards the screen at the end of The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and fire his colt straight at the audience, he showed a supreme and immediate understanding of the nature and appeal of commercial cinema. Read Julien Allen’s contribution to the Reverse Shot Sounds Off symposium.