Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” is unusual in that it attempts to build a character-based epic around an enigma. I am not among those who find this strategy unproblematic. In fact, I think the movie loses steam as it progresses in large part because its Lawrence is never more than a device to keep the action moving. (The role made Peter O’Toole a star, yet it’s a merciless one. By the movie’s end he has little to convey but moral agony.) But “Lawrence” does have one great character: Alec Guinness’ Prince Faisal. Guinness made his name as a comic actor, and his broad caricatures are among the acting treasures of the immediate postwar period. You can sense that inclination towards caricature in the performance featured in this clip. Guinness plays up the cunningness, the archness, the exhaustion, the Arabness of Faisal in ways that, in another context, might come across as ham-handed. Every movement, every dart of the eyes, seems over-calculated. By making us feel his performance in this manner Guinness makes us feel the performance of Faisal, a man whose leadership position is in a state of constant negotiation. (Theatricality is part of Faisal’s personality toolkit; he can’t afford to stop acting.) With his Faisal characterization I think it’s fair to say that Guinness accomplishes something rare: he arrives at subtlety via a process of exaggeration. The clip also demonstrates how, working together, an actor and director can create something memorable. Having directed Guinness in some of his greatest roles, Lean knew exactly how to showcase him. Note how, after Faisal rebukes Lawrence with a veiled insult at about the 2:36 mark, Lean dispenses with shot/countershot techniques, and allows the scene to proceed without cuts. From that point on Guinness controls everything: the dramatic beats are conveyed solely by his position in the frame and his intonation. In fact, Guinness literally acts around O’Toole, both receding into the shadows at the back of the image and walking into close-up in the right portion of the frame. He’s sizing the Englishman up, drawing him into his plan, and Lean lets us feel the implications of that. It’s my favorite scene in the movie.