Silencers are as much a part of the fabric of action movies as the guns they are attached to. They are a universally understood object, despite being rare and specialized tools in the real world. Only through the language of film we have been taught what they are, how they are used, and of what they are assumed to be capable.
Movie silencers, like movie versions of any technology, do not necessarily need to behave on celluloid they way they do in the real world. Real-world silencers (typically marketed as "suppressors" to avoid being compared to the movie artifact) often do look identical to the metal cylinders we see on the silver screen, but they are nowhere near as effective, reducing the sound to a nail-gun sized crack instead of that ridiculous and familiar fwip. And though they can certainly be useful in stealthy operations (mainly in noisy areas), they are most often used by professional agencies to hide muzzle flashes or to protect the hearing of operators firing in closed spaces.
You can't actually "silence" a gunshot; those expanding gases have to go somewhere, and most mission-critical armaments fire supersonic rounds, which means hot lead is going to be breaking the sound barrier. These are more than my usual crop of killjoy reality bites; I'm pointing out these technical aspects so that we have a baseline from which to evaluate the use of these tools as movie props, and to better separate their realistic uses in the story versus their visual and auditory design power. That's what interests me about silencers more than the prosaic convenience they sometimes bring to the characters: their symbolic power on the screen and in our ears to communicate a certain cultural shorthand regarding a certain (mis)understanding about the realities of lethal stealth and armed force.
And lest it be thought that I am naive of my gender's tendencies to conflate the sexual and violent urges, let me just state up front that at the very core of our culture's infatuation with silencers is, most definitely, the phallus. It is not a coincidence that this design element, which we make so gratuitous and questionable use of, just so happens to make the gun barrels longer and thicker. There is literally no way that silencers would have become a popular trope if they made guns smaller, thinner, or droopier.
So as we explore these ten examples of films which prominently feature silencers (ranked in order of the Flickchart global rankings), think about the implications of the filmmaker's knowing embrace of a cinematic trope that, like the Lord of the Rings sword-unsheathing sound, are simultaneously known to be inaccurate and yet still crucial to the emotional impact of the storytelling. Think about what "work" the silencer may be doing in the story, other than (maybe) making the gunshots somewhat quieter to the characters on the screen.
Think about cocks and cock-substitutes.
...and why (or if) they need to look the way they do on the screen.
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This film represents a class of films in which silencers are used to allow for gun homicides (or attempts thereof) to be played for laughs. By transmuting big concussive explosions into tiny little poots, you make the act of firing the weapon less emotionally jarring, providing tonal space for comedians to ply their trade.
The silencers also happen to make sense within the CIA-atmosphere of the story. This film was seminal in helping to differentiate the 1980s' American spy archetype (light-colored three piece suit, silenced handgun) from the "G-man" archetype (dark-colored single-breasted suit, unsilenced handgun) or the "Secret Service agent" (sunglasses, earpiece, no visible handgun (various suits).
In addition, this film shows how silencers solve another problem of comedy murders: exit wounds. It is "trope-ically" consistent for tiny-sounding gunshots to produce tiny bullet holes, and the audience will (subconsciously) forgive the film for omitting blood spatter and pools which would otherwise ruin the mood.
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Our next film is another similarly toned Dabney Coleman comedy adventure, but this time silencers are used to very different effect. Here the silenced weapons (almost always submachine guns of some sort) are primarily symbols of a specific, culturally-defined sense of power and danger. Our young hero Davey has probably never considered the tradeoffs and practicalities of suppressed automatic fire in covert urban warfare, but when his violent fantasies come to life and start posing legitimate threats to him and his family, it is not sufficient for their weapons to be capable of taking a dozen lives every second; the weapons must be visual symbols of their dedication to the craft of professional killing, and of their access to the best tools for doing so. The addition of silencers accomplishes this.
This is one of the earliest films to admit that the silencer trope had made its way into the popular consciousnesses of children. Surely it says something about the psychological stickiness of silencers that such a relatively minor and specific aspect of the armorer's art had already been so ubiquitously embraced.
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This film is in the list due only to a minor scene with no bearing on the plot, but the scene's existence (which is also in the book) has something interesting to say about the role of silencers in our culture (or of the culture of the not-too-distant future, as it may be).
I'm referring to the scene where Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) announces that he has made a homemade silencer out of sixty-one cents worth of household materials, and then test-fires it, only to find out his invention has the reverse effect, deafening his two companions. It's hilarious.
The purpose of the scene is to develop Barris's character as someone who is simultaneously inventive and consistently wrong, scientifically minded while still being naive in that typically masculine way that intelligent idiots always seem to be. He is a bumbling fool but a dangerous one because of an engineer's mind stapled to a drug-addicted optimist's body.
What I find so fascinating about this scene, in the context of this article, is that of all of the DIY hacks he could have tried for his Clerke First .32 revolver, it was the cultural cache of the silencer that seduced him. He could have tried to make a laser scope, or a removable butt stock, or he could have tried to augment the capacity or the caliber, or reduce the recoil; he would have failed at any of them as well, but he had as much reason to try one as another. But the concept of the silencer is so seductive among a certain class of men that despite the risks inherent in trying to redirect exploding gasses, it was the silencer that he settled on. This says a lot about the reputation of the silencer and the squishy, impressionable corners of the male mind.
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In Ghost Dog, we see another example of a man making a homemade silencer, but in this case it is effective, and it is not by any stretch of the imagination a testosterone trip. Ghost Dog uses suppressors because he genuinely needs them; his contract kills are typically performed within earshot of other people. I'm sure it is no coincidence, though, that the elongated profile of a suppressed Asta A-100 better approximates the visual lines of a sword than a blunt little pistol. Jim Jarmusch is many things, but he is not a man who is careless with visual symbols.
Nor are the silencers just tacitly tossed into Ghost Dog's kit without explanation of how he's managed to circumvent New Jersey's notoriously stringent suppressor laws. (Guns can be had for the taking on the black market, but specialized gear, especially gear dedicated to decreasing one's profile, not so much — one assumes.) Instead we are shown in explicit detail how Ghost Dog has constructed the silencers he uses, out of washers, batting, and other common hardware. By showing us the effort and attention that these tools and their maintenance require from him, we are taught to look at the firearms not as the everyday objects of death, but rather as holy weapons, connected to their wielder by time and blood and sweat, each bound to each other's survival, just like a kitana or a lightsaber or a claymore.
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At the opposite end of spectrum from Ghost Dog's use of silencers is the MacManus brothers' use of them. They don't need them, the film doesn't explicitly talk about them or reference them, nor are they used in any situation where unsuppressed fire would have made one bit of difference. Here they are strictly visual iconography of the religion of pop culture badassery, utilized as a VHS-cover photo hook, to elongate and intensify the phallic threat these avenging angels pose to anyone that God tells them is bad.
However, as props they are absolutely the right choice, and at no time is the audience rolling their eyes at their presence (unless they were already rolling their eyes at the premise of the film). The movie gets away with this choice because it and its characters wear their trope-ic pop culture sensibilities on their sleeves: Charles Bronson as an action star is discussed as an emulatable figure; at the end of a gunfight, worries are voiced about how in movie gunfights there is always one guy left who jumps over the sofa.
In other words, the stated diegetic motivations of the characters fit in perfectly with their choice of weapons: a silenced Beretta 92FS is the weapon of choice for characters who are fans of action movies, precisely because Boondock Saints is a movie for fans of action movies. The movie admits that it's pandering! And everyone applauds!
Because for a certain subset of action films, their very purpose is the correct recitation of certain beats, tropes, and stylings, and the only crime could be trying to blunt the simplicity of our expectations with pretentions of depth or meaning. The use of silencers in Boondock Saints is a touchstone onto an entire philological realm of the genre, and I don't think this is acknowledged enough.
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In a film filled to the brim with beautiful weapons, there is only one tiny scene that is relevant to our discussion. This is when Clarence Boddicker interrupts OCP SVP Bob Morton's little cocaine party in order to kill him. For this job, Boddicker has brought with him two weapons: a suppressed Desert Eagle Mark I, and a grenade.
Much has been made about the apparent contradiction here: if he's going to blow up the house, why does he need a silencer? Some sources point to this as typical action movie lack of attention to detail, another example of cool weapons for cool-weapons' sake. A more charitable interpretation might be that Boddicker does not wish to draw attention to the house before its dramatic explosion, and he knew that in all likelihood he was going to have to at least blow out Morton's kneecaps in order to force him to watch Dick Jones's smirking farewell, to say nothing of potential bystanders. I think that the use of the silencer here is actually making some interesting points about Boddicker's forethought and taste in the "sonic design" of a hired killing. In other words, the silencer is an extension of his character, as all props should be — especially the cool ones.
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Snake Plissken's suppressed MAC-10 submachine gun represents the fairly typical case of a silencer used to make a gun look bigger and more futuristic; this effect is intensified by the addition of a scope, which is never used. In reality, an argument might be made that the balance- and recoil-stabilizing effects of the silencer might actually bring something to the notoriously messy table that was the MAC-10, a weapon that failed in the field but won hearts on the soundstage and as a result became the mini-street-sweeper of choice of Hollywood designers (and street gangs) in their blood-soaked heyday.
Almost every square inch of Snake's character design is painfully iconic, and that big beautiful cylinder on his gun, conveniently ignored by the sound editors, is no exception.
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This is film is the oldest film in our list, released in 1962, and as such it represents a remarkable special case of the silencer trope in cinema.
The gun used by Laurence Harvey to kill John McGiver is a suppressed Colt Official Police revolver, one of the few revolvers whose gas ejection is designed in such a way to make use of a suppressor. It is a beautifully simple and familiar weapon to modern audiences, but we must try to imagine what connotations a Kennedy-era audience had for it. This scene gives us at least two clues as to the evolutionary stage that this trope is in at the time of its release.
When the hypnotized Raymond Shaw first appears in the kitchen, programmed to kill a dangerously liberal senator, the dialog goes like this:
SENATOR JORDAN: What the hell is that in your hand?
RAYMOND SHAW: It's a pistol, sir.
SENATOR JORDAN: That a silencer?
RAYMOND SHAW: Yes, sir.
To my knowledge, this is the only case in the history of film where a silencer had to be explicitly named as such, in order to (one assumes) make it clear to the audience why the gun looked so funny. To any modern audience, of course it's a silencer, but we forget that there must have been a time before silencers were immediately recognizable by everyday audiences, and it was up to screenwriters to provide the necessary exposition of this fantastic new weapons tech being used.
The other clue we have to the proto-state of the silencer myth at this stage in cultural history is that the silencer sounds correct. It does not fwip, it cracks. It is an ugly sound, utilitarian and dreadfully uncinematic, but it is unquestionably quieter than if Raymond had fired thirty-eight calibers worth of unsuppressed hot lead in a wealthy D.C. suburb. It is too early in the silencer's cinematic evolution for the sound to be anything other than accurate.
What I find so interesting is that it works. And if this scene can be this cool with the silencer sounding like that, why did we ever change it?
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When people think of silencers, they tend to think of the Boondock Saints-style silenced pistol, or maybe a sniper rifle. Very few lay persons even know that shotguns can be suppressed, much less would recognize a shotgun suppressor on sight. At least that was the case until No Country.
This is a film full of remarkable weapons, most famously of course Anton Chigurh's cattle air hammer. But his suppressed shotgun is given special attention in several scenes, especially the murder of Woody Harrelson, as both a visual design element and an expression of Chigurh's character.
In the book, the silencer is described as looking like a silver beer can and it makes its presence boldly known in the Coens' dark, woody interiors. It proclaims Chigurh as a man who knows weapons and thinks about them, not so concerned with stealth as to abandon a shotgun altogether but not so naive as to discount the complications of blasting full away in the middle of a town.
The weapon is a beautiful choice for the character. We'd have seen it used more often since if Javier Bardem had not managed to iconify it so closely with that one dreadful soul.
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The top film in our list according to the Globals also features the shortest screentime for a silencer. But its brief appearance notwithstanding, I still find its use to be striking in how it fits in perfectly with the stealthy stakes of the scene.
Not only does Cobb thread a suppressor onto his Beretta Px4, not only does he heel-toe down Saito's dream corridors on soft soles, not only does his catch his victims' bodies so they do not thump to the ground, he also catches the ejected shell casing in mid-air. This film accuses all the other films in this list: "Oh, so you'll use a silencer, but you'll let the metal shells just clang all over the floor? What is this, a percussion concert?"
But moreso than the pedestrian practicality is, as usual, what the image of the silencer symbolizes. This is a man who is meticulously dedicated to stealth, whose use of a silencer is but one expression of a wide body of expertise in tactical quietness. That gleaming black cylinder is made to seem like Johnny Bench's catcher's mitt, or Kerouac's typewriter, or Houdini's handcuffs: in itself not that different from other examples of its kind, but turned from "object" to "artifact" by its association with a master craftsman and representing years of painful education.
This film, like all great films, is aware of the human mind's hunger for symbolism, and it becomes another fantastic example of how this specialized tool, once unknown to civilians but now universally recognized because of its use in movies, can act as a shorthand for a wide expanse of character traits and backstories, suggesting aspects of the built world that simply could not be told otherwise as efficiently or effectively.
Do you have a favorite use of silencers in movies? Let us know in the comments below!