“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” – Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard
I’m a big fan of film noir. I love Noir Alley on TCM, hosted by Eddie Muller (The Czar of Noir). He does such a great job dishing inside info on the movies he screens.
A few weeks ago Noir Alley showed a tight little masterpiece called The Window. This 1949 thriller is based on a story by the great Cornell Woolrich, who probably provided more source material for suspense films than any writer in history. The title of Woolrich’s story is “The Boy Who Cried Murder” and that pretty much captures the plot.
A nine-year-old boy named Tommy (Bobby Driscoll) lives in a New York tenement with his parents. He loves making up wild stories. His folks keep telling him not to. One hot night he goes out on the fire escape to sleep. He’s awakened by noise from the apartment upstairs. Peering through the window he witnesses a murder. But when he tries to tell his parents, they naturally think he’s making it up. “Not that nice couple upstairs, Tommy.” When he persists, they punish him by confining him to his room.
Desperate to turn in the killers, Tommy scampers down the fire escape and runs to the police station. The cops don’t believe him either, but just in case send over a man to sniff things out.
Much to Tommy’s shame, the cop takes him right back to his mother (Barbara Hale). A little later she marches Tommy upstairs to apologize to the couple. Tommy pleads with her not to make him, because if he does they’ll know he knows, and try to kill him, too!
Mrs. Kellerson (Ruth Roman) answers the door. She really seems like a nice, sweet lady. She smiles at Tommy. Then Mom tells Mrs. Kellerson what Tommy has been saying. (In a brilliant piece of acting, Roman’s face changes ever so slightly, same smile, but now with a menace only the boy can discern.)
The last twenty minutes of the movie is pure, non-stop suspense, ratcheted to its peak because of our bond with the boy.
There’s a moment in the film that cements that bond. When the cop brings Tommy home and is talking to his mother about what the boy reported, the director goes in for a five-second close-up on Tommy. He looks at the wall and scratches it lightly with his finger as he endures the humiliation of the policeman not believing him. It’s a small gesture, and we only see about a quarter of Tommy’s face, but right then I almost teared up.
Because I’ve lived that moment. So have you. When you were a kid there were times no one listened to you, when you perceived an injustice and couldn’t get anyone to do anything about it. Or when you felt all alone, or shamed, or heard the other kids making fun of you. And at seven, or eight, or nine you didn’t know how to handle it.
So you did something like Tommy does. That one close-up tells us more about what’s inside Tommy than pages of dialogue ever could.
Which is why an image like that in your story has the potential to take it from good to unforgettable.
Case in point. I first read Ernest Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home” over forty years ago. But I have never forgotten one of his famous close-ups (also referred to as a telling detail). A young man named Krebs has come back to his family home after World War I. He doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t know what to do with himself and so does nothing. One morning his mother has a talk with him, pressuring him to look for a job and think of his future.
“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”
Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.
That image of the bacon fat is still vivid in my mind. I see it exactly the same way as I did all those years ago. And feel what Krebs is feeling.
Another Hemingway masterpiece, “Hills Like White Elephants,” takes place at a train station in Spain as a man and his girlfriend sit at a table just outside the station bar. The story is almost all dialogue, as the man tries to convince the girl to have an abortion. The genius of Hemingway is that the word abortion never appears, nor are the emotions of the characters ever described. The dialogue and gestures alone convey everything we need to know.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
“Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
“What makes you think so?”
“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
Take a look at that last close-up. The quiet power of it, the significance of holding two of the strings of beads.
But telling details are not only for so-called “literary fiction.” Take this bit from Dashiell Hammett’s classic The Maltese Falcon (which should replace The Great Gatsby on high school reading lists, in my humble opinion). Sam Spade, a hardboiled PI in San Francisco, comes to his office the morning after his partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered. Waiting for him is Iva, Archer’s widow, with whom Sam had been having an affair. She rushes to him, kisses him, and cries into his chest.
He grimaced again and bent his head for a surreptitious look at the watch on his wrist. His left arm around her, the hand on her left shoulder. His cuff was pulled back far enough to leave the watch uncovered. It showed ten-ten.
Doesn’t that simple glance at his watch deliver an indelible impression of Sam Spade’s character? He’s cold. No sympathy for his erstwhile lover, no patience with her grief. He just wants this annoyance out of his life.
As I look over all these examples, it seems to me they are fear-based. Tommy fears he won’t be believed. Krebs fears being stuck in the old ways. The girl at the train station fears the consequences of the man’s proposed solution. Spade fears emotion.
Fear is a powerful tool for the writer. So I’d like you to try this:
Identify in your manuscript the moment when your character feels the greatest fear. You’ve probably described it in a line or two, perhaps a paragraph or more.
Now brainstorm a close-up image—one detail that encapsulates the fear pounding in your character’s heart.
It can be a thing, like bacon fat. Or a gesture, like looking at a watch or lightly scratching a wall. Or it can be a combination, like reaching out and holding two strings of beads.
Take your time with this. Come up with at least seven possibilities. Why seven? Because that forces you to go beyond what comes easily to mind and is quite often where the best material lies.
Then replace all your prose about the fear with that one, simple close-up. It may very well become the emotional moment your readers remember most.
Because close-ups intensify connection with characters like nothing else. Norma Desmond knew that, didn’t she?
What are some examples of powerful, emotional images you recall from stories, novels or film? Like the snow globe in Citizen Kane, or the carousel in The Catcher in the Rye.