Five Great Screen Face-Offs

There are some films out there that have fantastic interplay between two characters, and it’s in all kinds of different ones, from the romantic chemistry between Allen and Keaton in Annie Hall, to the fascinating, understated chess game between Norma and Joe in Sunset Boulevard. Sometimes this chemistry is easily the best thing in a movie (as in the rather underwhelming Blue Valentine from a couple of years ago), and other times it just elevates it.

These face-offs in general fascinate me, particularly the ones in more dramatic films, they bring out the best in actors and it’s always interesting to watch how they develop. Here are five of my favourites.

George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Here, we have one of the classics, George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both on exceptional form), the bitter, aging couple constantly at war. Their dynamic is fascinating, there are so many elements to it, a love between them that is ignored and repressed, Martha’s utter fury when she reveals to George that “it’s snapped”, and her crushed desperation when the issue of their son comes up. George is just as interesting, he starts out as being rigid and something of a pushover, especially compared to his explosive wife, who of course, doesn’t bray. But George can get angry too, and when  he does, it’s shocking. Martha is shocked too, and who can blame her?

With such good actors both at the top of their game, directed by the able hand of the multiple award winning master Mike Nichols (making his directorial debut with this powerhouse), we have a face-off for the ages, and one that I’ll never tire of watching.

Michael and Fredo in The Godfather: Part II

If I wanted, I could sum this face-off up with two iconic quotes:
“I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart”
“I’m your older brother Mike, and I was stepped over”

They come from two different parts of the film, and are about two different things, but they’re the main showcases of this dynamic, the scenes that contain them highlight the brilliance of both performers and their characters.

Fredo is dumb. Period. But he doesn’t think that, he even says, “I’m smart, not like people think”, and his desperation, his repressed anger at his brother, all of it is on display here. It’s difficult not to pity him, a credit to Cazale’s performance.

Clarice and Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

An interesting one here, especially when you consider how little one of them appears in the movie (Lecter has around fifteen minutes of screen time), but I’ll be damned if the quiet, intricate mind games between FBI agent Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, both rightfully gaining Oscar gold for their performances) aren’t the highlight of a classic suspense movie.

“Quid pro quo Clarice,” Lecter says to her early in their time together, and that explains their dynamic in the simplest way possible, for everything he gives her, she returns a favour for him. And through him, we discover so much more about Clarice, from the fact that Lecter thinks that she’s “a rube” to her lamb.

In the hands of a lesser performer (and if it were adapted from lesser source material), Lecter could perhaps just be a tool of exposition, allowing us to further delve into the mind of the protagonist. And while Lecter does provide this element to the film, he is so much more. His fury is so deliberate, it is impossible to take your eyes off of him while he’s on screen.

Hayley and Jeff in Hard Candy

In the case of Hard Candy, the face-off is the movie. Ellen Page plays Hayley, who may or may not be a serial killer in the making (oh, and in this, she’s infinitely better than she is in Juno) and Patrick Wilson (snubbed of an Oscar nomination here) may or may not be a sex offender.

Hayley and Jeff meet online first and really hit it off. Then they meet up for real for coffee. Then they go back to Jeff’s. Then the games begin.

Games may be an understatement, it’s a visceral exchange of verbal and physical torment on both parties, but it’s just so engrossing and intriguing, it’s impossible to avert your gaze from it all. A tight script really helps these two performers create a fascinating, disturbing clash of amoral, very sickening characters.

Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight

And speaking of a clash of the titans, it’s difficult not to include this one, two classic characters embodied so well in Christopher Nolan’s gritty take on the character of Batman.

“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” Or so says The Joker (played by Heath Ledger to an Oscar he deserved every damn inch of). The Joker wants to corrupt Batman, that is his goal.

Their characters are so at odds, Batman being oh so stoic, and even called “incorruptible” by the Joker, who is anarchy and chaos embodied. Perhaps its the difference between the characters themselves that makes this face-off so rewarding to watch. A true collision of worlds if ever there was one.

Of course, these aren’t the only face-offs out there, cinema is littered with them. Some good and some not so good, but there many others that I could have written about, from Heat to Revolutionary Road. So tell me, where did I go wrong and where did I go right? What would you have on a list like this?


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