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Dr Fatmir Terziu

In the documentary Night Mail, it is obvious from the start that, the relationship between soundtrack and the image is fine-tuned. The soundtrack leads fiercely and yet cools harmony that the director Harry Watt and the producer Basil Wright, settled. In the interior monologue, on the other hand, the voice and the body are represented simultaneously. As Braudy (2004,p.379) puts it, “the voice displays what is inaccessible to the image, what exceeds the visible”. The essay discusses the relationship between soundtrack and image, and examines how it contributes to the meaning of the documentary.

Night Mail starts as an interior with a dialogue between two postal workers while the train moves. From that point viewers understand that this is a film made about the collection and delivery of letters by train. It makes quite an impression with the graphic black and white colour, the character lined faces of the railway and post office employees with the early morning shadows. According to Stam (2000,p.88) “composition in the frame is entered, with the erect human form a model and the face its apex”. As Richard Kilborn (1997,p.78) pointed out, “the viewer begins to question whether the images and sounds of the text could possibly represent the world adequately…”. Throughout this documentary the words in dialogues are spoken off screen, but fit perfectly well with the images.

In contrast, in another scene the soundtrack is quite different. A male narrator recites various passages. The voiceover narrator speaks at the same time as a train is seen moving fast from birds-eye view. As Nichols (1991,p.32-33) argues “Voice-of-God commentary and poetic perspectives sought to disclose information about the historical world itself and to see that world afresh; even if these views came to romantic and didactic”. According to Bruzzi, (2000,p.56) “the ostensible purpose of the ‘Voice of God’ model is to absent the personality…”. As Crofts (2003,p.179) similarly suggests, “the use of sudden cutting and montage to create violent visual juxtapositions between unexpected images acts [here] to reinforce the narration”. At this point, the voiceover brings attention to the viewers by providing details, which the image doesn’t supply.

According to Grant, (1998,p.155) from this perspective, “the poetic activity involves encouraging a new way of seeing. In his absence of a commentary, the spectator must seek meanings in the images and sound and though in the linkages established between them”. As the train drives at sunrise through the northern moors, the sheep dog racing the train and the rabbits scurrying to cover, set to the simple visual verses of Auden, are extraordinarily exciting. Bryant (1997,p.51) explains that “the spoken text has reasserted control over the flow of images…”. However, the poetry towards the end of the documentary tells the story more clearly and gives the pictures a sharper edge, as Bryant (1997,p.52) said “these unpredictable returns disrupt relations between text and image…”.

Sound too is conceived independent of the image but at the same time gives it a parallel meaning, a sort of running commentary to the scenes. In many shots it is seen together with the smile, the gesture of workers, the whole cord of their expression, the exact nuance. Dai Vaughan (1998,p.119) in his study of the documentary ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’ said “it is the object of admiring glances, of conversation and of comment”. According to that in fact viewers hear, and are oriented towards what they cannot see: movement of the train behind the workers, movement over the horizon. Alternatively the viewer hears a narrative, which is charged with some elements that have no direct connection on the image, for example, when the narrative speaks about the train journey the image shows postal workers loading mail into the train. According to what Izod said, (1984,p.96) “composition of the image around speakers is only one way sound can centre visual attention”. The sound quality in the print was good, while relationship with image establishes on-screen space.

Two sounds are heard: the train moving quickly and the sound of the bags hitting the mechanical grab. As the train speeds through the station, bags of unsorted letters are hung on the side of the railway line and caught by a mechanical grab. Bags of sorted letters are similarly hung out of the train and caught in a net as it flashes by. As Vaughan (1998,p.120) explains “it has become a sequence about the camaraderie of work and the passing on of the tricks of a specialised trade”. If seen closely the shots of the interior of the carriage where the mail is sorted reveal that they were filmed in a studio. An impression of movement is given by gently swinging the strings that were hanging down from the top of the sorting boxes. The postal workers walk with a rolling gait. The sound and the image work closely to make it seem real.

Furthermore, in this documentary the relationship of the image with music is utterly complex. According to Altman (1992,p.226) “music plays an important part in the soundscape of documentary films”. When the music is played; it reflects the image seen by the audience. Similarly, Murphy (1997,p.62) explains that “… it contains the well-known sequence in which the poetry of Auden and the music of Britten accompany close-up montage images of racing train wheels, as the postal journey to Edinburgh continues”. The music makes it livelier, although most of the interior images are poor.

To sum up the relationship between soundtrack and image contributes to the meaning of this documentary. I have pointed out that all elements of the soundtrack such as dialogue, narration, sound effects and music have been in correlation with the image. Further, I have tried to examine it in detail. It can be said that together with image and the beat of the music and the verse, it all added up to a memorable glimpse into the age of steam locomotion. In my view the relationship of soundtrack and image in this documentary should not be described simply as an association, but as synergetic.


Altman, Rick(1992)Sound Theory, Sound Practice1sted London: Routledge, p.226

Braudy, Leo; Cohen, Marshall & Mast, Gerald(2004) Film Theory and Criticism

(Introductory readings)6thed New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.375

Bruzzi, Stella(2000)The New Documentary: A Critical Introduction1sted

London:Routledge, p.56

Bryant, Marsha (1997) Auden and Documentary in the 1930s1sted Charlottesville &

London: University Press of Virginia, pp.51-53

Buckland, Warren(2003)Teach Yourself (film studies) 2nded New York:

Contemporary Books, pp. 32-3

Crofts, Charlotte(2003)Anagrams of Desire Angela Carter’s Writing for Radio,

Film and Television(The Holy Family Album) 1sted Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, p. 179

Grant, Barry K.(1998)Documenting the Documentary:(Close Reading of

Documentary Film and Video)1sted US: Library of Congress Cataloguing,

p. 155

Kilborn, Richard & Izod, John(1997) An Introduction to Television Documentary1st

ed Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, p. 78

MacDonald, Kevin & Cousins Mark (1998) Imagining Reality The British Movement:

(Dai Vaughan’s study of the documentary editor Stewart McAllister, Portrait

of an Invisible Man)2nded London: Antony Rowe, pp. 118-120

Nichols, Bill(1991)Representing Reality 1sted Bloomington: Indiana University

Press, pp. 32-33

Stam, Robert & Miller, Toby(2000) Film and Theory: an Anthology1sted Oxford:

Blackwell, pp. 52 & 88


Night Mail(Basil Wright,1936)

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