Gloria Swanson’s famous, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” in “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) gives us a slow, blurry and grotesque zoom-in on the tortured, dream-like expression of a woman gone mad. We already knew her trolley was a bit derailed early in the film when she is introduced as a lonely, self-important eccentric. The final close-up tells us nothing new about her, it just slashes away that discrete personal space between us and the unfortunate victim.
The extreme close-up to illustrate madness is also used very quickly, and most startlingly, in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) when we are forced almost literally down the evil Count Zaroff’s throat as we stand, with Fay Wray at the top of the stone staircase of his fog-enveloped castle on the uncharted island, a place where he hunts humans. She is going off to bed, while her drunken sot of brother, played comically by Robert Armstrong, assures her that their host will look after him, “The Count’ll take care of me all right.”
“Indeed I will,” the Count, played by Leslie Banks, replies heavily as the tracking shot zooms effortlessly down those stairs from Miss Wray’s vantage point, and ours, and smacks into Mr. Banks’ hollow gaze. It is our first clue of his madness. Until now we have no reason to believe he is, like Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, nothing more than a colorful eccentric. A colorful character, but not a loony. This close-up tells us there is something more sinister and off balance to him, and removes our comfortable distance from him.
Another even more brief, but insightful close-up indicating emotional disturbance is used, unexpectedly, in the holiday family favorite, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). James Stewart, in deep trouble, wishes he was never born and Clarence the angel arranges it. Through a wild exploration of a hometown he no longer recognizes, confronting friends and family who no longer know him, we first have a hint that Stewart’s character George Bailey is losing it when he prays in the noisy bar and confesses to God, and to us, two important bits of information. One, he is “not a praying man” and two, “I’m at the end of my rope.”
Later, when his own mother, now a destitute and bitter widow in this bizarro world does not recognize him and refuses to shelter him, George runs away not more than a few steps down her sidewalk and runs smack into us. We do not come to him in his close-up, he comes to us, and stops, and slowly turns his head, searching from one direction to the other, and pauses a brief moment to look with horror into our faces. It is a personal moment for George, a Twilight Zone moment where his world is gone, and he is lost, and he is now a man on the very edge of sanity. His brings his horror to us, much as he has just brought it to the doorstep of his mother. She has sent him away, but what are we to do?
Unlike Count Zaroff and Norma Desmond, George Bailey’s madness is brief, a nightmare that clears and we have a happy ending. The rest of the film is long shots of George in his happy environment, his town’s streets, his big old house. He is always with other people, often a lot of them in each scene. The close-up he shares only with us.
Movie madness can often take the form of wild ranting and aggressive behavior, but it is ironically most chilling, and most personal, when it is still, silent, and very close.
This blog entry is part of The Eyes Have It Close-up Blog-a-Thon at The House Next Door. Have a look at this website for more interesting blogs on the art of the movie close-up.