The subject I am writing about is much wider than this particular film. Yet I want to surround my post around this movie because of its exceptional use of extreme closeups.
There are a lot of definitions of what an extreme closeup is. I prefer to say is when you take a close up and you go even closer, so close that you can feel the breath of the character, and even the slightest of change in expressions you are taking an extreme closeup.
I observed in the film, when the lead characters – Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) talk to each other the camera hardly moves any farther than a mid-shot. And that comprises of a major portion of the film. I think this special treatment is designed to portray the suffocating conversation that they have. And when we move to an extreme close-up of the Cannibal Anthony Hopkins, we know that this guy means business.
At first I thought it was a mere coincidence but later on I paid close attention to this. Hopkins hardly blinks in the entire movie. He does not take his eyes off his “patient”. Also there is a purpose for keeping Hopkins behind a glass wall rather than bars. The director Jonathan Demme was convinced that shooting through bars would compromise the intimacy between Dr. Lector and Clarice.
What does an extreme closeup achieve?
1. It chokes you: At least in a thriller like this, you are forced to wonder what is going through the mind of the character when his pupils dilate. You wonder what he is looking at. You wonder what he is saying. You wonder what he is about to do next. The whole idea of not being able to see the action is the greatest power of extreme close-ups. For a twisted character, how dangerous it is not to be able to see what he is up to?
2. Emphasis on a particular line: Maybe not in this film, but one can use extreme close-ups to make a line stand out, to reveal a secret.
3. Cut the chin: a very simple trick I learnt in my film school. Actually I was told NOT to cut the chin ever. If at all going to a close up from a mid-shot you can cut a little bit of forehead but never the chin. It gives out an image of the head being cut out from the body. When asked to describe the character of Dr. Hannibal Lector, Hopkins said that the Lector is a good man trapped by an insane mind. Wonderful!
Hopkins, in the film is present for no longer than 25 minutes in total. His performance is the second shortest to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. There are only three films who have won the Big Five Academy Awards till date. This film was one of them. Since 1991 no other film has been able to repeat this success. The film is considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant by the U.S. Library of Congress and is preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011.