God knows, I don’t worship old movies. Black and white has no special appeal for me and I’m certain any Golden Age masterpiece could be executed today just as well. Maybe even in 3D.
But watching the African Queen, I couldn’t help noticing how different it is.
Imagine a film with only two characters. They’re present on screen 90% of the time. That means, we spend 90 minutes looking at their faces. Sounds like some sleep-inducing arthouse. And yet, the African Queen manages to be entertaining, riveting and enthralling. By the end, we care a great deal about those people.
Thinking about the recent movies in all genres, I tried to remember how often the camera focuses on the lead actors. They may be in frame 50% of the time, but almost always we’re asked to look at something else. Visual effects, mysteries, shootouts and plot twists are the things directors use to attract our attention. It’s like they’re afraid that if we look too closely Peter Parker‘s face, we’re gonna be disappointed. And perhaps they’re right. Nobody in their right mind is gonna watch Angelina Jolie to just act for 90 minutes.
Of course, the African Queen does have a few short ‘action’ sequences and few minor characters. And it does help that the actors are Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. But even with the finest actors of our time and complete creative freedom, I can’t think of a director who attempted anything like this recently.
The closest example coming to my mind is the Artist. Maybe that’s one of the reasons people like it so much: we get to actually see the characters.
Maybe less is actually more.