Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 13, 2013
Top: Madeleine (David Lean; 1950)
While watching David Lean’s MADELEINE last week I was struck by the film’s powerful final image of Ann Todd’s face. Her sly expression implies her guilt as well as her innocence in a crime she may or may not have committed. It made me recall another final frame at the end of Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which concluded with a somewhat indistinguishable close-up of Peter O’Toole suggesting that the audience will never really know who the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence was. Comparing and contrasting these two images is a fun exercise. Both Madeleine and Lawrence are historical figures based on real people. Their personalities and actions made them difficult to define. Madeleine’s expression and Lawrence’s anonymity both conceal a mystery.
These final faces have power because they’re the last images we see before the credits role and they seem to transform into mirrors that reflect the expression of the audience. They often fascinate as much as they frustrate because they demand that we fully acknowledge our participation as spectators. While watching a film we can become so connected to the characters that we begin to see ourselves through their eyes. We experience their joys, their suffering, their successes and their failures all in the span of a few hours. When a film suddenly ends with a close-up of a character we’ve come to deeply care about or associate with that last glimpse of their face can feel like a sucker punch to the gut. I like to imagine that these final faces reminded us that we’re all part of a larger human drama playing out beyond the confides of a movie theater and when the screen goes dark it makes us feel as if we’re watching the final curtain close on our own lives.
Many final faces can also be threatening or horrifying. They stare back at us like evil doppelgangers and hold up a mirror to our deepest human fears and our worst transgressions. We don’t want to look at them but we can’t look away because they force us to question our own identity and confront the ugly side of our shared humanity.
The best final faces resonate with us long after the credits roll because the actors have managed to leave some part of themselves on screen. Trapped in time and caged in celluloid, these flickering figures have become part our shared experiences, our memories and our dreams.
Top: The 400 Blows (François Truffaut; 1959)
Director’s François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard both ended their first feature-length films with a close-up. The defiant faces of 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud in THE 400 BLOWS and 21-year-old Jean Seberg in BREATHLESS beautifully convey the rebellious spirit of the French New Wave. They challenge us with their steady gaze and invite us to embrace their youthful courage.
Top: A Place in the Sun (George Stevens; 1951)
A PLACE IN THE SUN and THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY might not appear to share much in common but both films end with close-ups of condemned men. Montgomery Cliff and Bob Hoskins are two very different individuals who have made terrible decisions in their life, which have led them to their grave. In his final moments Clift’s character chooses to focus on pleasant memories, which play over his face in a hazy montage while Hoskin’s character sits in a car gazing into the rear-view mirror looking back at a world that’s about to slip through his fingers.
Top: No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen; 2007)
At the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN Tommy Lee Jones projects the face of a man silently wrestling with a world he no longer understands. He and the audience have just seen and experienced a number of horrible things and his ragged face allows us to grapple with the consequences of these events right along with him. Jimmi Simpson’s frustrated face in the final frame of ZODIAC also projects confusion and resignation. Like Lee’s character, Simpson is playing a man who witnessed unimaginable horror and the experience has damaged him. They communicate our communal sadness and fatigue.
Top: The Pit and the Pendulum (Roger Corman; 1961)
The contorted faces of Barbara Steele at the end of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and Roman Polanksi at the end of THE TENANT both illustrate the horror of their predicaments even though they’re obscured by bars and bandages. The panic in Steel’s wide eyes and the scream that leaves Polanksi’s gaping mouth unite us in their terror and refuse to let us escape their shared nightmare.
Top: Nights of Cabiria (Frederico Fellini; 1957)
Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA and LA DOLCE VITA both end with similar close-ups. Giulietta Masina as Cabiria shows us a smiling face drenched in tears that illustrates the wisdom and wistfulness that has come with age and experience. Valeria Ciangottini as Paola reveals the innocence of youth unburdened by memory and longing. These contrasting faces point toward a hopeful future full of possibilities and the promise of contentment.
Top: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik; 2007)
The final frames of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and THE KING’s SPEECH show us two men destined to remain on the sidelines of history. One is overshadowed by the man he killed. The other is overshadowed by the man he helped. Casey Affleck’s defiant face glances back at the audience and Geoffrey Rush’s resilient face appears at the side of the frame just off center. They ask us to remember that the legend of Jesse James and the monumental speech of King George VI wouldn’t have taken shape without their contributions.
Top: Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears; 1988)
The faces of two defeated women fill the final frames of DANGEROUS LIAISONS and SAFE. Glenn Close’s noble Marquise and Julianne Moore’s humble housewife have both been isolated from society and face uncertain futures. They express their private pain to the audience with their silence and although it can be difficult to understand the motivations of these two complex characters, we are suddenly united with them in their grief. Their loneliness is something that we can all understand.
Top: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel; 1956)
Directors Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman both ended their adaptations of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with a close-up of the main protagonist but these final faces are very different. Kevin McCarthy’s exhausted face seems to relax and suggests that our extraterrestrial enemies have been defeated while Donald Sutherland’s distressingly alert face has become alien and monstrous. McCarthy allows us to leave the theater frightened but hopeful. Sutherland refuses to let us leave the theater. A camera closes in on his shrieking mouth that has formed a fathomless black hole and we become trapped there. Forced to abandon all hope and succumb to the darkness.
Top: Sunset Boulevard. (Billy Wilder; 1950)
SUNSET BOULEVARD concludes with the face of Gloria Swanson who is playing a delusional actress that has just committed murder and is ready for her close-up. WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART concludes with the face of Clint Eastwood who is playing a delusional director that has just contributed to someone’s death and is ready to start shooting his next movie. Their faces ask for our understanding but refuse our sympathy and together they embody the beautiful, bruised and broken specter of old Hollywood.
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