The look

Disclaimer: I tried and tried to find all the clips I needed for this post on Youtube. I tried to rip them from my own DVDs but they were copy protected. Even grabbing stills from the DVDs seemed unnecessarily complicated. Hopefully you get the idea in most of the cases. If not, go and see these films yourself, as they’re all pretty good.

Charles Barr, my film studies tutor at university, once told us an anecdote about actor Alan Ladd. A group of stuntmen are sitting around comparing scars and boasting about all the daredevil stunts they’ve performed that day, and about how hard they work. Alan Ladd walks past. They look at him and one of them challenges him “And what did you do today?”

Ladd thinks for a moment and replies “I did a great look.”

Depending on how you view screen acting you might think that this is either an hilariously inadequate response, indicating just how much Hollywood actors are paid for doing nothing much at all, or you might think that this is a perceptive remark that goes right to the heart of what it is that actors do best in films. Great performance moments in films aren’t necessarily about Oscar bait speechifying and blubbing, but sometimes can be as simple and effective as a meaningful glance between one character and another, which communicates more than any number of pages of dialogue. What follows is hardly a definitive list, and is compromised by my inability to find all the relevant clips online, but here are a few examples off the top of my head.

1. The whole of this scene (indeed, the whole film) from There Will Be Blood is worth watching, but the part that raises the hair on the back of my neck is the look Daniel Day-Lewis gives Paul Dano at the 2:13 mark in this scene. For context, Day Lewis wants to drill for oil on land owned by the church. In exchange, Dano insists that Day Lewis be baptized first, thus setting the stage for a very public humiliation:

2. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai is a minimalist materpiece, with a stoney-faced performance by Alain Delon that makes Buster Keaton look like Jim Carrey. This makes it all the more devastating when he ever so slightly loses his cool at the 9:06 mark of this video. The darting eyes and mouth hanging open tell us that his world is falling apart and that the betrayal he has suffered has removed all the certainties from his previously perfectly ordered life.

A couple I unfortunately haven’t been able to find on Youtube, so you’ll have to take my word for it:

3. An early scene in Disclosure. Michael Douglas and his wife Caroline Goodall are chatting with his colleagues at a party. It emerges during the conversation that an ex-girlfriend of his, Demi Moore, is coming to work with him. He hadn’t told his wife. She hides her shock by smiling and pretending nothing’s wrong, but then she flashes a brief but poisonous look at her husband as if to say “Oh my god wait until I get you home you’re in SO much shit”. The next scene shows them arguing and explaining their true feelings, but it’s superfluous as her look (and Douglas’ queasy reaction) tell us everything we need to know.

4. Heat. Near the end of the film (yes, small spoiler here) De Niro is about to make a clean getaway. Amy Brenneman is waiting for him in her car. Just as he’s about to get in he sees Pacino closing in on him, gun drawn. We are reminded of De Niro’s assertion earlier in the film that he allows himself nothing in his life which he isn’t able to walk away from if he spots the “heat” around the corner. Any now he has to walk away from the woman he loves. He glances between Brenneman and Pacino a few times, as if trying to decide, but he knows already what he must do:

5. Aliens. Ripley has rescued Newt and is making her way out of the alien queen’s lair. Soldier aliens close in from either side, but Ripley threatens to destroy the alien eggs, so the queen calls the soldiers off. Ripley and Newt continue backing away, but at the last second an egg nearby starts to open, threatening to unleash a face-hugger on them. Ripley turns to the queen, cocks her head to one side, and gives her a look that simultaneously says “Oh, that’s how it’s going to be, is it?”, “I’m so disappointed in you”,  and “Well f*** you too”. Then she lets rip with her flamethrower.

6. Miller’s Crossing. This is the final scene so beware spoilers if you haven’t seen it (and if not, why on earth not?). There’s a lovely exchange of looks between Byrne and Finney at around 2:00, but the clincher is the final look after he adjusts his hat. Will we ever know what Tom’s real motives were, whose side he’s really on?

7. A bit of an obvious choice, possibly, but it’s still a classic reaction shot, followed by an all-time great line of dialogue. Although watching it again now I have to wonder how come Hooper doesn’t hear the noise of the shark breaking the surface of the water…

8. This one’s a bit hard to see in this small screen version (maybe click through to see it on Youtube and expand to fullscreen mode), but Kristin Scott Thomas’ dismissive look just after receiving a compliment on her dress just after the 4 minute mark is a lovely throwaway gag.

Further reading:

Film critic and novelist Anne Billson’s list of her favourite facial close-ups.

David Bordwell’s fascinating post about eyes and looks in The Social Network.


4 thoughts on “The look

  1. Kerry October 28, 2011 / 6:05 pm

    Tom Hanks in Philadelphia when he comes out of Denzel washington’s office for the first time after being told he won’t represent him


  2. AllisonI. December 7, 2011 / 2:20 pm

    Have you seen Martha Marcy May Marlene? (Forgive me if you’ve posted about it; I’m catching up on your blog this morning.) There’s a scene where John Hawkes is singing a song he wrote for Elisabeth Olsen (Marcy May) in a barn where the cult members have gathered. He sings directly to her and she looks back at him, flattered, broken, caught between the two. It’s incredible.


    • simonlitton December 7, 2011 / 2:34 pm

      I’ve heard of MMMM (as I believe it’s known) but it’s not out here yet. Looking forward to it, thanks.


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