Tuesday, January 24, 2012

You can't see the actor



Minor cinematic observation: some of the best directors have used this really great counterintuitve technique at extremely dramatic moments in their movies. The protagonist is at an absolutely critical juncture in his/her story, and (usually) is having a conversation; maybe it's on the phone, or maybe it's with somebody else in the room. (Or maybe it's not a conversation; maybe it's a monologue.) And as the man speaks, you can't see him. You can see him all right, but his face is in shadow or obscured, or (most often) he's turned away from the camera (maybe on the phone) and all you see is the back of his head. For example (no spoilers):

HARRISON FORD (in Witness) takes advantage of a rare trip out of the Amish community to find a pay phone and connect with his partner. He discovers some disquieting developments, makes another call, abruptly hangs up the phone...and just stands there, getting not just mad but Harrison-Ford-mad. But we can't see his face since Peter Weir photographs the entire scene from behind his head.

JOSH BROLIN has his (only?) phone conversation with Javier Bardem (in No Country For Old Men). Same remarks. Extremely intense confrontation, but we never cut away to Bardem and we never see Brolin's face; just the back of his head.

ROBERT DE NIRO sits and weeps in a Florida jail cell (in Raging Bull). He's facing the camera, but his entire body is in deep shadow except for his right shoulder and arm (which shake as he cries). We can hear him whimpering but we can't see him at all.

ORSON WELLES, as Citizen Kane, signs his "Declaration of Principles" in the New York Enquirer editorial offices. He's leaning over the desk with a pen, talking to Bernstein and Leland. His entire upper body is silhouetted; you can't see his face (above). (Roger Ebert pointed this one out, in his excellent feature-length commentary.)

ALAN ARKIN has a crucial conversation with an elderly resident of the coastal Italian town his unit's based near (in Mike Nichols' stunning Catch-22 adaptation). We're cutting back and forth between Yossarian (Arkin) and his interlocutor, an old Italian local. In Arkin's tight shots, he's entirely silhouetted by the ambience from the Italian village streetlights. His head bobs (in tight focus) as he speaks, but it's a featureless black outline.

Any others?

3 comments:

JPX said...

This is an interesting post although I am hard-pressed to think of other examples. I'm sure plenty of examples can be found in 40s/50s noir.

Octopunk said...

The only one I can think of isn't really the same thing... when the camera moves off the ear-cutting moment in Reservoir Dogs.

Jordan said...

I just read an entire essay about that scene, on The Onion AV Club. I recommend it (but I'm too lazy to get the link).

(thirty seconds later)

Oh, all right... here's the link.