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March 1997, Week 2


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 11 Mar 1997 10:45:14 -0600
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Peter Latham wonders:
"Arguably, the most important character in The Unforgiven" is Clint
Eastwood's wife. Her personality is reflected in his actions. The film
begins and ends with scenes of their home while a voice-over describes
their relationship.Yet the wife (years dead in the story) is never seen.
I thought the device worked well. Are there other examples of "unseen
actors?" What function do they serve? Do they work as well, less well, or
better than in the "Unforgiven"?"
Offhand, these "unseen actors" seem to fall into different categories.
THE UNFORGIVEN actually would seem to be one in a long series of films (and
stories) about men who are more or less obsessed by the memory of their dead
wives or lovers (and occasionally the sex roles are reversed, although the
men are more often away because of war--TENDER COMRADE, for example).
There is at least a superficially direct relationship between the scenes in
THE UNFORGIVEN and John Wayne's graveyard soliloquys in SHE WORE A YELLOW
RIBBON.  The prototype for this trope might be Poe's poem THE RAVEN (and
even Roger Corman's campy version of the same).  Read Poe's essay "The
Philosophy of Composition" and the power of a dead woman to motivate a
male protagonist is clearly articulated there.
On the other hand, you have the "presence" of missing or dead people in many
mystery films, where the search for the killer and/or victim/body motivates
most of the film, even if we catch a glimpse of the character otherwise.
The title character of THE THIN MAN (who is not Nick Charles/William Powell)
is perhaps prototypical here.  A variation might occur when the object of
the mystery (the "dead" person) turns up alive later in the film--LAURA and
THE THIRD MAN, for example.
It's rather typical in classical Hollywood films to find famous people portrayed
only by reference or a glimpse (eg. a sillhouette or just a hand or leg)--
Jesus in both the Heston BEN-HUR and MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN, for example,
but also President Roosevelt in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY or other representations of
presidents or famous people.
Sometimes, a famous dead person will leave a trace in the form of a metonymical
sign--in ELVIRA MADIGAN, for instance, Elvira has bought a painting with
Toulouse-Lautrec's famous monogram in one corner.
Another variation might be the quest film, where the "presence" of the quest
object hovers over most of the film, only to have the character appear only
briefly at the end.  THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS, both HEART OF DARKNESS and
APOCALYPSE NOW, and even ROGER AND ME could fit here.
A missing person's presence might also occur in a sequel.  The "old"
Don Corleone in THE GODFATHER II, for example (although that issue is
complicated by the fact that the "young" Vito is very present and by the
question of whether we are to see the first two GODFATHERS, at least, as
a seemless whole, as Coppola did edit them for TV/video.
The doppelganger motif is another common example of the "presence of an
absence," even if we see the "
missing" person briefly, as in THE PASSENGER.
And then there's the mystery/quest object whose "reality" is in question
for much of the film--BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING or the "child" in WHO'S AFRAID
Under the "dead lovers" category above, I should also mention one of the
most notorious examples: Anne Rutledge in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN.  Nothing like
a dead woman to bring out the heart in a man!--a point worthy of consideration.
One last example: the disembodied voice of a character whose presence is
integral to the premise of the whole film, commenting on what he/she sees:
"Joseph" in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE or Celeste Holm's voice in LETTER TO THREE
Don Larsson, Mankato State U (MN)
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