For all that movie geeks like to rhapsodize about camera movements and editing techniques and all the rest of it, the truth is that much of the appeal of cinema comes down to the faces it places in front of the camera. Humans are engineered to interact with faces. We're constantly scanning them for social and emotional cues. Our ability to recognize faces is a trick of brain-wiring that continues to befuddle artificial-intelligence engineers; and our summary judgments of which faces are attractive or unattractive fuels fuels billions of dollars in beauty-product and magazine sales. Our emotional dependency on the facial expressions of others -- our inability completely to "read" a situation and arrive at an internal consensus about what it means -- accounts for the enormous, impossible-to-overstate significance of reaction shots in movies. In order to know how to feel about the unfolding action in a scene, we seek the faces of the characters in that scene; and if -- through either ingenuity or incompetence of editing -- those faces are denied to us in sufficient length, we feel a peculiar sense of frustration and drift.
Actors are cast not only for their ability to read dialogue convincingly, but for the mere physical contours of their faces -- the way their skin catches light, the structure of cheekbones, the sunken or bulbous quality of eyes, the sensuous or thin and parched characteristics of lips. Faces possess not only beauty or ugliness but seem to embody certain attributes of human character. When you only have a hundred minutes to tell your story, you need to populate your movie with actors who physically express the essence of the personalities they're playing.
Here are five faces that, for me at least, leap off the screen more vividly than most.
Now over 50 years old, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless hasn't lost its quality of seeming modern, hip, crisp, current. "Timelessly modern" seems to be a paradox, but Breathless caught it somehow. Much of that can be ascribed to the insouciant, pastiche-y nature of its plot, in which realistic personalities coexist comfortably with film-noir archetypes; to the sunny handheld location photography that seems to occupy a sort of eternal Paris; or to the scissors-happy editing that disregards continuity in a way that few of today's "shaky-cam" movies dare to do. But part of it belongs to Jean Seberg, ethereal in her close-cropped hairdo, possessing a beauty so absolute as to seem almost unearthly, nonspecific, more a gliding fantasy than a particular person.
Shimura, one of the great actor collaborators of Akira Kurosawa, possesses a visage that is "so awful ugly it becomes beautiful," to borrow a phrase coined by Walt Whitman in reference to Abraham Lincoln. The heavy-lidded, watery eyes; the thick fish-lips; the chin that seems capable of melting into putty: Shimura seems in all ways the physical opposite of his dashing, magnetic sometime-costar, Toshiro Mifune. But Shimura's is one of the most expressive faces in all cinema, whether (as in the above image, from 1952's masterpiece Ikiru) he is sinking into a drunken haze of regret and despair, or (as in Seven Samurai) he's projecting strength, responsibility, and ironclad wisdom. Faces in movies are also a gateway, a portal through which we can step into the emotions of someone else and relate to their experience. In Shimura's case, the portal is particularly wide and easy to pass through.
Often typecast in villainous (or at least unsavory) roles, Lorre certainly looked the part. Even with a blank expression, he exuded a vaguely scheming air, and his bulbous eyes always seemed to be expressing fear or the awareness of some inner guilt. His capacity to embody moral decay simultaneously with vulnerability and even a certain innocence accounts, I think, for his unique eminence as a character actor. It also accounts for the fact that in his most famous role -- as the wanted murderer in Fritz Lang's M -- our overwhelming reaction to him is more likely to be pity than hatred or fear.
Most familiar in her husband Federico Fellini's La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, Masina has a face that seems so tailor-made for silent cinema that you're a bit surprised when she starts talking. There's a mimetic quality to her performance in La Strada -- underscored by the fact that she's a circus performer and wears clown makeup part of the time -- and whole story beats can shift on a change in her expression, as in the scene above. A sad and knowing smile, as she regards the sleeping Zampano, seals the impromptu marriage between them.
Tommy Lee Jones
My God, but he looks so very, very tired. Jones in his youth was merely handsome; now, lined and weathered and beaten by the elements, he's gorgeous. I don't think any actor in the history of movies has been able so exquisitely to express sheer bone-weary exhaustion -- not only physical, but mental, moral, existential. This made him the perfect actor -- the only actor, really -- to portray Sheriff Tom Bell in the Coens' No Country For Old Men, a role in which he spends most of the time arriving at horrific crime scenes after the fact and being bewildered at what the world is coming to. In a movie whose active characters are mostly self-interested individuals scrambling over each other's bodies for a buck, Jones -- through sheer sad tiredness -- provides the moral center. The frame I've used, though, is from The Company Men, another movie in which Jones's perpetual exhaustion is an essential element. As he surveys the wreckage of white-collar lives in the wake of massive corporate layoffs, he embodies our collective nostalgia for a golden past in which Americans made things, dammit, and made them well.