They say the eyes are the window to the soul and that a face can launch a thousand ships but in cinema it can do this and much much more. A look can convey something better than pages of dialogue ever could, it can tell us things about a character, some we may want to know and some we wish we didn’t know and all with a flicker of the eye or the glimmer of a smile. At the dawn of cinema, the actor’s face was their greatest tool and then the advent of sound came in and changed the landscape of film forever. Acting became just as much about the conviction of the dialogue as well as the conviction of expression and many of Hollywood’s biggest stars fell to the wayside as they failed to make the transition into the sound age, they became relics of a bygone era.
Script writing gave us another dimension on cinema and has been responsible for many memorable lines that live on in people’s hearts but it’s sometimes good to remember where it all began, with the actor’s face. Though the pen may be mightier than the sword, looks can kill and here are five times in cinema where for me, I have been stopped in my tracks, mesmerised by a look and where the words have fallen by the way and the face has given me all I need to know.
Tom Cruise- Magnolia (1999)
There are no two ways about it; Tom Cruise is a movie star, a bone-fide archetypal movie star and one of a dying breed. He dominated the box office for a long period of time and such was his star wattage that all a poster for one of his films needed was a silhouette of his head with his name emblazoned above it. He is also an actor that still consistently gives the most bang for the movie payer’s buck, routinely hurling himself from explosions or hanging onto the sides of structures and planes, doing his own death defying stunts. However one thing that is not often attributed to Cruise is his actual acting muscles, that he is an undeniable star but rarely is there praise heaped upon his dramatic delivery, perhaps because most of the time, he is too busy flying off the side of buildings. But when he does pick a project that offers less action and more acting, Cruise reveals hidden depths and never more so than in Paul Thomas Anderson’s narrative sprawling opus Magnolia.
When the film was released much of the attention on Cruise’s performance came from his character’s outlandish mantras, he plays Frank Mackey who is a motivational speaker. But the real moment comes when Frank talks to an interviewer post seminar, pumped from his on stage high,Frank is all charm and chat at first, riffing on the persona that he has created. However when she begins to probe Frank about his family history, he at first dodges the questions, his slickly trained character dancing like an animal evading capture but then as she hits his weak spot and confronts the lie that he has been portraying, Frank’s whole facade comes crushing down.
The way Cruise’s face immediately changes, the brutal snap that the image he has depicted is now being called into question is a masterful moment, one that is summed up wholly in his expression, the cocky smile is literally wiped from his face. Cruise’s juxtaposition is one of Magnolia’s greatest scenes, which says a lot for a film brimming with spectacle and revelations and it is all down to Cruise’s emotive nuances. The scene encapsulates the inner turmoil that Frank refuses to acknowledge and surrender to and the narrative plays with the connotations of Cruise himself as a ‘star’ and the baggage that comes with his persona. It is hard to think of someone who could have played the role better and it suggests that perhaps Cruise should continue to show us a different kind of money shot.
Al Pacino- The Godfather (1972)
I must confess that for me The Godfather films are not quite my bag, as a cinephile I can appreciate their craftsmanship and the legacy that they have had on cinema but I do not revere them like many film fans do. And yet there is one moment that stands out for me when I think of The Godfather and it is not the iconic horse’s head moment or the method mumblings of Brando. It is the scene where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) kills Sollozzo in the restaurant and in particular the moment just before, when he is deciding what to do.
This part of the scene is the definitive narrative point for Michael’s character, it tells us what kind of man he was before and the type of man he is going to become. It tells us that everything that came before will be erased by this act and from then on there will no going back, this fork in the road will define the path he will take. And all of this is simply conveyed within Pacino’s eyes. As a train is heard hurtling over it’s tracks in the background, Michael’s eyes dart back and forth, weighing up the consequences of the action he is about to commit, you can feel his inner turmoil as he wrestles with his conscience. It is one of the purest moments of acting from Pacino that he is able to say so much with the mere expression of his face.
I didn’t grow up watching The Godfather films and came to them later in life so my experience of Pacino as an actor was during his shouty phase and the almost caricature version of himself that he has become in his latter day films. Witnessing this scene in The Godfather reveals why Pacino went on to be heralded as one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema and a timely reminder that there was pathos and subtlety to his craft that sadly went awry later down the line.
Jean Seberg- A bout de Souffle (1960)
Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless is the movie equivalent of Rock n Roll; it’s vibrant, playful and doesn’t need to say a lot but instead its more how it makes you feel. It burst onto the screen in 1960 and played with the conventions of cinema, creating jump cuts, using natural lighting and unnatural sound, things that were not the norm and that were a world away from the ridged studio backdrop. Godard’s fast and loose style extended to his characters, they were drifters, rule breakers, society’s riff raff.
Jean -Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a petty thief who at once encapsulates the style of Bogart but in the same instance despises it, he is our anti-hero who is on the run after killing a cop and who hooks up with old flame Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Paris. The achingly cool pair spend the rest of the film wandering the Champs Elysees or sharing intimate moments in Patricia’s small apartment before she ultimately betrays him to the police. Michel is shot and he staggers the streets of Paris taking his last breaths, at first it appears Patricia regrets her decision as she chases after him and in any other Hollywood film this would be the moment where Seberg’s character would profess her love for Michel.
But the chance of some sort of redemption or regret for Patricia’s act is fleeting, she appears to shrug it off with Gallic nonchalance. As she stares down at Michel in his dying moments, there is no real sense of sadness in her eyes and you could argue that he does not deserve any sympathy, he is after all a womaniser, a thief and a cop killer. But Patricia’s look of indifference simply adds to Godard’s groundbreaking slice of cinema and became one of the most iconic moments of the French New Wave. As Seberg looks directly at the camera and moves her finger across her lips, this unconventional ending heralded the birth of a new style of film-making that would influence many directors throughout the years and would create an unforgettable look whose ambiguity would linger in the consciousness.
Kathleen Byron- Black Narcissus (1947)
It goes without saying that Powell and Pressburger sure knew how to compose a shot and they sure knew the power that colour could have upon a scene, in particular the use of red. In their 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, the vivid colour was used to symbolise passion and the impending danger that would engulf Moira Shearer’s ballerina as she danced her way to death, torn between love and her love of dance.
In Black Narcissus the use of red lipstick signifies the desire and passion that overtakes nun Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) whose faith and sanity becomes tested when local British agent Mr Dean (David Farrar) arrives at the nun’s remote Himalayan convent. Though it is not just the use of red in one particular scene but the lead up to Sister Ruth’s application of the scarlet make up that produces a sinister and memorable look, her face is a dangerous melting pot for all that she is feeling.
As sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) does her nightly rounds, she sees a light in Sister Ruth’s room and enters, where she is met with a woman’s unwavering, self possessed determination. Sister Ruth has decided to leave the order and her face contorts with the greed and lust she is feeling, the time isolated away in the mountains has driven her mad and she takes on the demeanour of a villain. Her face is lit in a luminous glow however as a smile creeps up her entire face, it is a wicked grin of evil; she has become consumed by a sensual desire, one that will lead to terrifying consequences.
The scene is smouldering with tension from Sister Ruth’s face and by the time she applies the crimson colour to her lips, she has conveyed everything to the audience. This act of defiance is the final element in her journey of no return; she has left the path of faith and is on course to self destruction, one that is not only written, but painted on her face.
Grace Kelly- Rear Window (1954)
Grace Kelly’s arrival in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (1954) is problematic for a number of reasons yet it also is one of the greatest introductions of a character to the screen. Hitchcock was well known for having a fascination for his blonde leading ladies and none more so than Grace Kelly, she was the epitome of the ice cool woman that he would become mesmerised by and for a time he couldn’t imagine needing another actress.
Her appearance in the film plays like a fantasy, her face lit in the most beautiful way, she envelopes the frame like a stunning mirage, in the way that Hitchcock would see her in his own mind but also for the character L B Jefferies (James Stewart). As Jefferies stirs from sleeping, Lisa (Kelly) appears as if he is still dreaming, she is like a vision, one that is unobtainable for him and for Hitchcock. As the narrative progresses Jefferies finds reasons why his romance with Lisa won’t work, that their lifestyles are too different and he feels that marriage will be like the cast that his broken leg is in, constricting on his nomadic way of life. By Jefferies reluctance to settle down with Lisa, she seems confined to be the fantasy girl and the glamorous way she enters the screen would suggest this.
But this is Hitchcock and whilst his proclivities may manifest onscreen, he was also unafraid to poke fun at himself and to play with the audience. So whilst Lisa may appear to be a fantasy, she also defies expectations and turns out to be more resourceful than Jefferies, and perhaps the audience, imagined. Her entrance into the film, as she looks straight at the camera, may carry connotations with it but it can also simply be seen as a moment of pure cinematic magic, Kelly’ s face epitomises the golden age of Hollywood, the glamour of the bygone era.
It is sometimes hard to study cinema and separate the implications with the act of purely enjoying a film and to enjoy the beauty of one of Hollywood’s most dazzlingly iconic women. It is also hard to not see that Hitchcock has us all pegged, that in a film about voyeurism, from a director that was known for his voyeurism, pointed out the voyeuristic nature in all of us. And that seeing Kelly’s face coming towards the camera would prove alluring to not just him or to Jefferies but to all of us.