In his 1957 Essay, “The Face of Garbo,” French philosopher and theorist Roland Barthes remarked upon the magic and power of cinema to turn the human visage into something greater than how it is or can be regarded through normal, daily means. He writes:
Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached or renounced. . . .
It it indeed an admirable face-object.”
I have always loved and admired Barthes’s essay. First, I appreciate how he attempts to reconcile the technical and mechanical operations of the cinema with the possible magic that exists within the human gaze. Secondarily, though, I enjoy the simple fact that Barthes, behind the philosophizing and theorizing, enjoys looking at film. And in looking at film, he finds a beauty, “an admirable face-object,” that lingers on in certain stars: Garbo, Valentino, Audrey Hepburn.
I suppose that in this respect I agree with Barthes. Some individuals, through either technology, magic, or a combination of both, have their “face-objects” transfigured by the camera into that “absolute state of flesh” that can never be witnessed in the flesh but only through the medium of cinema.
I had been using Barthes’s essay and ideas to formulate a couple of “five film favorite” articles about the my five favorite female and male leads who have (or had) “admirable face-objects.” With the James River Film Festival going on through this weekend and into next week, I have shelved those for the moment. (They will emerge later.) However, one of the individuals listed among my five favorite male face-objects was none other than Robert Mitchum, the star of Sunday night’s feature film, The Night of the Hunter.
Mitchum had many talents, and the fact that he only received on Academy Award nomination over the course of his career would be a crime if those awards mattered as much as we think they do. However, the one thing that Mitchum possessed that so few do is that perfectly chiseled face that cuts right through the camera and screen. Mitchum’s visage so beautifully played with light and shadow. Mitchum had a gift that film directors covet yet only rarely receive: the ability to effortlessly shine and exude in front ot the camera.
There is something in the angularity of Mitchum’s face that makes it so amenable to black and white film. It can move in and out of sight, projecting various emotions and possibilities all at once. His grin may appear sincere or devilish. In Night of the Hunter or Cape Fear he can easily appear as a predatory menace.
As mesmerizing as he is in black and white, color does Mitchum no harm. In The Sundowners, a truly wonderful film, his face projects the warmth of a stoic masculinity. When he turns toward the camera, Mitchum envelops the screen.
Finally, even age could not prevent Mitchum from looking great on camera. In one of his final films, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, we see a face that has been weathered, but, like a great stone monument, is still as powerful as before. While the face has aged, its power to project has not.
I find it doubtful that any readers here will need another reason to go and see the James River Film Festival’s showing of The Night of the Hunter, but if any do, let me recommend the “admirable face-object” of one Robert Mitchum.