When words meet faces

[This post is participating in The House Next Door’s Close-Up Blog-a-thon.]

For my money, of the many fine uses of closeups in cinema, the most affecting are the ones that focus the viewer’s attention on one person’s wordless reaction to another person’s speech. In this post I’ll describe three such scenes. (Spoilers ahead, for three old movies.)

Near the end of Mary Poppins, George Banks gets a phone call at home. Earlier that day, he’d brought his children with him to see where he works: a big bank in London, where he is a junior partner. He tells them, “A bank is a quiet and decorous place so we must be on our best behavior.”

Taking his children to the bank was not his idea. George Banks is one whose notion of fatherhood involves a lot of what today we’d call outsourcing — to his wife, to his nanny, to the rest of his domestic staff, even to the local constable when necessary. In his introductory scene he sings about his ideal day: “It’s six-oh-three and the heirs to my dominion are scrubbed and tubbed and adequately fed. And so I’ll pat them on the head and send them off to bed. Ah, lordly is the life I lead!”

No, taking little Jane and Michael to the bank was the result of some psychological jujitsu by Mary Poppins, who seemed somehow to know precisely the trouble that would ensue — and how it would ultimately heal the Banks household.

Jane and Michael’s introduction to Mr. Dawes, the bank’s senior partner, goes disastrously. Michael refuses to let Mr. Dawes see the twopence he’s brought, which farcically precipitates a run on the bank. “Stop all payments! Stop all payments!” shouts a harried bank officer. Clerks scoop up cash and coins and hightail it to the vault. Word spreads fast and a mob throngs in from the street outside.

Later that night comes the phone call. It’s the bank. George is to report to a late-night meeting where it is understood he will be summarily discharged. He hangs up and collapses into a chair. “A man has dreams of walking with giants,” he sings morosely, “To carve his niche in the edifice of time. Before the mortar of his zeal has a chance to congeal, the cup is dashed from his lips, the flame is snuffed a-borning, he’s brought to wrack and ruin in his prime.”

Fortunately, Bert the chimney-sweep is there, cleaning up from some mayhem earlier that evening. As he sings the following ironically to George Banks, the camera lingers on Banks’ face:

You’re a man of high position, esteemed by your peers. And when your little tykes are cryin’ you haven’t time to dry their tears and see them grateful little faces smilin’ up at you because their dad, he always knows just what to do.

You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone though childhood slips like sand through a sieve. And all too soon they’ve up grown and then they’ve flown and it’s too late for you to give just that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down…

I watched this recently with my three-and-a-half-year-old son Archer, who is extremely chatty when watching movies. He continually asks for commentary on the action in the film, even when it’s extremely obvious and he understands it perfectly well. (“Why did Robin climb down that ladder?” “To hand Batman the can of Shark Repellent Bat-Spray.” “Why?” “To make the shark stop biting Batman’s leg.” “Why?” “Because would you like a shark biting your leg?” “No.” “That’s why.”) We encourage this, because it turns what would be a very passive, brainless activity into an interactive, enriching one.

On this occasion, as realization crept over the sad face of George Banks, Archer asked me, “What is happening?” With a lump in my throat I answered, “He’s realizing for the first time how much he loves his children, and that he hasn’t been a very good daddy.” (Yes, I get a lump in my throat watching Mary Poppins. So sue me.)

To cap it all off, Banks’ children shuffle contritely into the room, offer a sweetly sincere apology, and place in his hands the troublesome twopence. Wonder, sorrow, admiration — it’s as if he’s seeing his children for the first time, and it’s all right there on his face. And could that be a glimmer of a new lightness in his heart?

Some emotional moments are too profound for words. Archer seemed to sense this too and remained uncharacteristically silent for the next several minutes as George Banks grappled with a rearrangement of his worldview. For all the music and color and whimsy in this film, this one little moment was its dramatic climax. It was the perfect use of a reaction closeup.

I am no Bette Davis fan. But she delivers an amazing performance in Frank Capra’s final film, Pocketful of Miracles, and does much of it with her amazing, aging face.

In the film, she’s Apple Annie, a gin-swilling panhandler on Depression-era Broadway. She’s a tough old broad but she has a secret soft spot: she adores her daughter Louise, who has lived abroad all her life and knows nothing of her mother’s true nature. Annie has maintained a deception in her lifelong correspondence with Louise, claiming to belong to New York’s high society. Now Louise, grown into a beautiful young woman, writes that she is engaged to marry a Spanish nobleman — and they are coming to New York to receive her blessing!

Annie wanders the city in a daze. What can she do? She longs to meet her daughter and hold her in her arms, but she is ashamed of herself, afraid of what Louise will think, and fearful of causing Louise’s fiancé to break the engagement.

Fortunately, an important local gangster (with a heart of gold), Dave the Dude, has his own soft spot — for Annie. He believes that her apples bring him luck, and he never does business without first buying one from her. Now he’s due at his most important meeting yet, with a major mob boss from Chicago. But Annie is nowhere to be found.

Annie’s fellow panhandlers (who have known about Louise all along and have learned about Annie’s dilemma) find Dave and bring him to Annie’s pathetic little tenement, where she is out of her mind with worry, and drunk to boot. They tell Dave about Annie’s daughter and plead with him to help her. Dave interrogates Annie skeptically, all impatience. He just wants to buy an apple and get to his big meeting. He doesn’t have time for this. Annie just overdid it on the gin again, that’s all.

As Dave the Dude rails insensitively against the story the panhandlers tell him and what they’re asking him to do, the camera is tight on Annie’s miserable, besotted face. The shame, fear, and desperation in that face build to a piteous crescendo, more vivid than any mere dialogue could have made it. She doesn’t want Dave to see her like this, she doesn’t want him to know her secret pain, and his brusque manner isn’t making anything easier. When he finally spots a photo of Louise and demands, “Is this your kid?” Annie denies it. An instant later her heart breaks as he tosses the picture frame aside — and the truth is out.

The cops are closing in on Ned Racine, and he knows it. Worse: the cops are his friends. From them he learns that a crucial piece of evidence in a murder case is the victim’s missing eyeglasses. If they can be found, it should clinch the case — and put Ned in jail, because he’s guilty of the crime.

In Lawrence Kasdan’s noir homage Body Heat, a masterpiece in its own right, Ned has conspired with his mistress, Matty Walker, to kill her rich and distinctly unlikeable husband. Ned, a crummy defense attorney, learns from one of his recidivist clients, Teddy, how to create an incendiary device with a timer. With it, Ned obliterates much of the evidence (including the dead body).

Now his client warns him that a tall, beautiful brunette came around asking him how to rig such a device to a door. Ned is stunned. Could that have been Matty? Who else would have known to ask Teddy about such a thing? Why would she need another bomb? Why wouldn’t she tell Ned?

Then Ned gets a call from Matty, who’s out of town. I know where the glasses are, she tells him. The housekeeper was blackmailing me with them. I paid her off. She put them in a drawer in my boathouse. You should go and get them right away.

As Ned listens to Matty’s lies, the camera closes slowly on his face. His cigarette burns forgotten almost down to his fingers. He grunts his monosyllabic responses, but his face says everything that really matters. She wants me dead. She wants all the money for herself. She wants no witnesses. I’ve been a fool.