The Lonedale Operator

The Lonedale Operator

The close-up is partially a product of technological evolution, but it’s also the result of an artistic evolution. The lenses required for close-ups were available early on. When filmmaking began, directors had a 30mm and a 50mm lens, and before long they had a 75mm. You can see the focus problems they were having with close-ups starting with Griffith. Filmmakers then shot during the daytime, and needed a lot of sunlight and a very high f-stop to get clear focus.

The American film considered to contain the first close-up is a Griffith two-reeler called The Lonedale Operator in 1911. A young woman played by Blanche Sweet defends a payroll train from a couple of bandits, holding them at bay with what they believe to be a gun but which is in fact only a wrench.

At about the 16-minute mark, there’s a kind of close-up on what was thought to be the gun in her hand, and we see for ourselves that it’s a wrench. It’s not really a close-up, it’s information for a story trick; it’s an insert shot, to bring the audience in close to see an object within the frame. The gag could only be understood if the camera came in for an insert. The origin of the close-up is very practical.


By the time we arrive at the end of the silent era, the close-up was no longer a technological challenge—it had become an artistic one. A year later, Griffith does what I would consider the first true close-up, that is, one used for emotional reasons. It’s in a 1912 film called Friends starring Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Walthall. It has an ambiguous ending. Pickford is torn between two men but ends up with one of them, and then the close-up happens in the very last shot.

About 11 minutes in, Griffith’s camera is on a loose full-length shot of Pickford. He intercuts a POV insert of her boyfriend’s photo (Lionel Barrymore as Grizzley Fallon, the Prospector), and then he comes in tight on Pickford’s face to show the complexity of her emotion. You can’t see it from a distance, you have to have a close-up to show that she’s actually ambivalent without having her act ambivalent—how do you do that in long shot without putting up a title card reading “Ambivalence”? A real close-up of an actor is about going in for an emotional reason that you can’t get any other way. Just as you couldn’t see from a distance that Blanche Sweet is holding a wrench and not a gun, you couldn’t really see Pickford’s expression in a medium shot. But the difference between a wrench and a human face is that a face has about 43 muscles. There’s a great deal of complexity in a close-up of the human face. It sounds minor but it’s a choice moment. You have a situation in which the prospector boyfriend comes back, the rakish other boyfriend steps away, and Pickford ends up looking at the photo of the prospector. When filmmakers realized that they could use a close-up to achieve this kind of emotional effect, cameras started coming in closer. And characters became more complex.

The basic technology was available from early on, but as technology evolved, so did the options available to the filmmaker, such as the macro lens and the telephoto lens. The macro lens was used in Psycho to capture the human eye up close. It wasn’t possible to isolate the human eye before the macro. The super-long-distance lens, the 600mm, which had been developed for military purposes, entered mainstream filmmaking with The Thomas Crown Affair (68), although its first use was two years earlier in The Battle of Algiers (66). And, of course, with a 600mm lens, your focal length is very shallow. When you’re using a 600mm on a human face, the face can’t move much and you have to decide whether you want the tip of the nose or the eyeball to be in focus—you can’t have both. That’s a technologically specific close-up, a long lens with a shallow focus, which has unique qualities.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The close-up can have an additional meaning separate from what the individual shot shows. The film that redefined the close-up is Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (28). The master of the close-up in our time, or my time at least, is Sergio Leone—witness the famous opening to Once Upon a Time in the West (68), in which he creates drama through tight close-ups. Talk about a silent movie. No music, no dialogue, but great sound effects.

There were a number of very serious film people who regretted the advent of sound. They really felt strongly that silent movies had reached a peak of expression and that sound only made movies worse—which was initially true much of the time. Sounds knocked movies back in terms of visual storytelling probably 10 years. In the early days of sound the cameras were huge—because they were noisy, they had to be blimped in order to record sound. And you couldn’t move them around the way you did in making a silent movie. So not everybody was happy to deal with sound. Directors like Chaplin didn’t want to use it and kept putting it off. The Leone sequence reminds us of what silent cinema was capable of: the pure poetry of images, without the influence of the spoken word.

The Passion of Joan of Arc was a big-budget film. A medieval town was built at great expense. But when Dreyer cut the film, he relied on close-ups. In the final cut he never showed the entire set. And so when the money men saw The Passion of Joan of Arc, they were upset: “Where’s that big set we paid for?” But Dreyer stood his ground. Years later, the film was trimmed because some of the shots were considered a little too graphic in their violence. A print was found in England in which the excised shots had been replaced with establishing shots that showed the whole set. So we know for a fact that Dreyer actually did shoot establishing shots of the buildings that had been built at great expense—he just didn’t use them.

Passion of Joan of ARc

The Passion of Joan of Arc

It brings to mind the famous line in Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces.” And as Joan of Arc, Renee Falconetti was one of film history’s great faces. If you strung together Dreyer’s close-ups of her, they’d last about 23 minutes. She was primarily a stage actress, and Dreyer searched for a long time before selecting her. She didn’t have a particularly happy experience, and never appeared in a movie again. But she goes down in history as Joan of Arc.

In his 1948 book Theory of the Film, Béla Belázs writes about the fact that the modern play at the time rarely used the dramatic device of the soliloquy—a moment in which an actor turns to the audience and divulges their innermost thoughts. Movies don’t have soliloquies, but they do have close-ups. The close-up is our modern soliloquy, and Belázs cites The Passion of Joan of Arc as an example. If you’re going to declare a close-up as a glimpse into the human soul, this is probably the best illustration.

One of the first rules of editing is to establish spatial geography. Do a master shot, come in close, do some over-the-shoulder shots, some singles, maybe a reverse master, re-establish geography, come back in again. But there are long sections in The Passion of Joan of Arc in which Dreyer gives us no spatial orientation and just goes from close-up to close-up. Think for example of the court scene; instead of showing you a master shot of Joan of Arc’s tormenters and the judges, he just dolly-pans in close-up from one face to another. It creates an odd sense of claustrophobia. Dreyer also does something very interesting: the camera will film Joan of Arc from above, moving from right to left; then there’ll be an intertitle, and Dreyer will go back to the same angle but with a left-to-right movement. You have no sense of geography, you have no sense of where Joan of Arc is, because Dreyer’s just doing close-up after close-up. And that’s very intentional and very modern, really. Dreyer was fortunate to have Falconetti. He could keep cutting back to her face—God knows she cried a river in that movie and somehow she was able to hold the screen.

The close-up has become in some ways perversely overused now, and a contemporary close-up composition is often a “haircut”—it cuts into the top of the actor’s head, whereas in the past you saw air above it. The shot’s resurgence in the last 30 years is a direct result of the influence of television with its preponderance of close-ups—and, in the 21st century, due to the advent of handheld screens on smartphones. Directors who work in television tell me producers come on set and say: “How are you going to see them on an iPhone? You’ve gotta come in close.”

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