“We didn’t need words. We had faces!” So says hoary silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The medium of film does provide that great acting enhancer: The Close-Up. But a performance is so much more than what registers on an actor’s face; let us not forget that the actor also has a body, the proper use of which can convey just as much information as a glance.
After all, robbed of words, an actor must rely solely upon his body to be his instrument. This article examines eight different performances that make a great impact in a silent way.
Joe Morton | The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Who doesn’t love the character of E.T.? He looks at our world with such wide-eyed wonder, seems quietly baffled by our language and customs, and frequently misunderstands our habits and actions. Joe Morton manages to embody these characteristics in humanoid form, as an escaped alien slave on the run in New York City in John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet. It’s the best qualities of E.T. mixed with the culture clash central to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (though that film was released two years later). There may also be a shade of Chance from Being There as well. Morton’s silence allows Sayles a piercing social commentary that might have become heavy-handed with the addition of words.
Buster Keaton | Sherlock, Jr (1924)
To my taste, this is Keaton’s best film. It contains more sight gags, set pieces, and breathtaking stunt work than any of Keaton’s other films—The General included—and in half the time. But what often gets lost amidst this entire spectacle is how just plain funny Keaton’s acting is here; his signature deadpan style perfectly melds with the dexterous physicality he must display. The motorcycle sequence, thrilling as it is from a stunt and camerawork point of view, wouldn’t work half as well without Keaton’s straight-faced countenance:
And physical stunts are just stunts, visual gags are just gags; it takes a genius like Keaton to meld them into a coherent character as well:
Ray Milland | The Thief (1952)
Critical opinion varies widely concerning Russell Rouse’s cinematic experiment; either you accept the lack of dialogue in his paranoiac espionage tale or think it’s some gimmick that long outstays its welcome. (Tagline: “Excitement Beyond Words!”) But fault cannot be found with Ray Milland, playing the nuclear physicist passing secrets to an unnamed foreign power. As the focus of the audience’s attention and empathy, he perfectly depicts the fear and suspicion swirling around him—it’s a performance worthy of the best Hitchcock. If only Hitchcock had directed the film containing it…
Alan Arkin | The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
In his Oscar-nominated and New York Film Critics Circle Award-winning performance, Alan Arkin plays a deaf-mute, ironically named John Singer, who moves to a small Southern town to be nearer to his mentally-challenged, similarly mute friend, recently committed to a nearby asylum. In this uncomfortably new environment, Singer must interact with the town’s assortment of oddballs. The remarkable thing about Arkin’s performance here is how underplayed it is. A lesser actor would have shown much bigger, broader reactions to the other characters; given no lines, the natural impulse may be to compensate in other ways. But Arkin shows none of that here. You get a very real sense that this man has, over his several decades of silence, created an observant, passive personality. Arkin’s eyes show us glimpses of Singer’s complex inner world. It’s the kind of brilliant subtlety that only the intimacy of film can provide. (Also, a special shout-out is in order for James Wong Howe’s stellar cinematography here.)
Lon Chaney | The Unknown (1927)
Chaney has his best role here as Alonzo the Armless, a circus entertainer who throws knives with his feet. He is in love with another performer, played by Joan Crawford, who has a bizarre phobia of men’s arms. She naturally feels safe and comfortable with Alonzo—but he has a dark secret. Or, rather, two dark secrets: arms! His “armless” routine is all for show, and during performances, he keeps his arms tightly bound within his suit. Will his secret be discovered? This brief synopsis cannot begin to describe how deranged Tod Browning’s film actually is, especially towards its deliriously berserk climax. But those of you who think of Chaney mainly as a B-movie horror actor will be (pleasantly) surprised by the depth of emotion he displays in this silent role. He gives Browning’s film a heart, around which the director’s trademark freaks and aberrations orbit.
Charlie Chaplin | City Lights (1931)
Like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin’s films are so saturated with meticulous detail and painstakingly choreographed stunts and gags that his actual acting talent tends to be lost. His timing and agility are demonstrated brilliantly in the boxing match scene:
But it is the sincere sweetness and earnestness of the Little Tramp, so endearingly communicated by Chaplin, that gives the film its huge emotional payoff, and has been leaving audiences in tears for decades.
(spoiler warning for the following clip—it’s the entire ending)
The last two entries on this list are very, very dear to me. I am occasionally asked what my favorite performance of all-time is, and vacillate between these two. (And Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington.) So consider the following not simply great silent performances, but great performances, period. (You can actually do this with the entire list, really.)
Emil Jannings | The Last Laugh/Der letzte Mann (1924)
In this heartbreaking F.W. Murnau film, Emil Jannings is a proud doorman at an expensive and prestigious hotel. It is a high-status position, at least in his world, symbolized by the dapper, ornamental uniform he wears. Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, he is demoted to a lowly washroom attendant. He tries to conceal this shame from his family and neighbors, but eventually, it proves too great a deception. This is one of those rare performances where the actor is not just playing a character but also the embodiment of a concept—think Nicholson in The Shining, or Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Here, Jannings must personify the debilitating impotence experienced when one’s dignity is robbed. And Jannings only has his face and body language to work with; Der letzte Mann famously lacks intertitles. The result is one of cinema’s most forceful, haunting performances.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti | The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Falconetti has so much to convey here: Joan’s physical torture, her deep and abiding spiritual commitment, the gravity of sin after her brief renunciation, her unwavering sense of purpose, her connection to a hidden, grander source. We have Carl Th Dreyer, with his revolutionary use of the close-up, to thank for capturing so rich and deep a performance. In The Cinema of Carl Dreyer, Tom Milne quotes the director, “[I] felt there was something in her which could be brought out; something she could give, something, therefore, I could take. For behind the make-up, behind the pose and that ravishing modern appearance, there was something. There was a soul behind that façade.” And his harsh directorial style has now become cinema legend: forcing Falconetti to endure take after take, putting her into uncomfortable or painful physical conditions to elicit the right expressions… That pain was only temporary, however; the performance will live on forever as one of the greatest yet captured on film.