' ' Cinema Romantico: A Brief History of Movie Characters Washing Their Hands: Reprise

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

A Brief History of Movie Characters Washing Their Hands: Reprise

As COVID-19 remains on the warpath, leaving you, discerning citizen, to wonder if The Media™ is being too alarmist or not alarmist enough, we here at Cinema Romantico thought it might be a good time to remind people to wash their hands by way of a post about movie characters washing their hands. Then we remembered! We already made that post! Last year! Since that time, K. Austin Collins, who sent out the Tweet that originated said post, has been chased off Twitter by one of the angry roving social media Kancel Krewz, for reasons we won’t get into here, and washing your hands has become a literal global concern. How does that Interwebs meme go? Ah yes. Life comes at you fast. Sure does! So we’re republishing our post from last November as an important PSA.


Max Cherry (Robert Forster) first encounters Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), the gun runner who will inadvertently change his life, at least for a little while, in his bail bonds office upon exiting the bathroom to find Ordell waiting for him. “Ah, ah, ah,” Ordell scolds with an appropriately shit-eating grin, “I didn’t hear you wash your hands.” Perhaps the moment is merely emblematic of the foul business in which Max works and the even fouler business in which he is about to find himself entangled, but it’s also calling out a film cliché, the one Vanity Fair film critic K. Austin Collins mourned aloud in Twitter form over the weekend, wondering why we so rarely see characters soaping up their hands and then rinsing them at the movies.

Sometimes movie characters forgoing washing their hands is for the service of a gag, of course, like Otis exiting the bathroom in “Kicking and Screaming”, doing his belt buckle as he does so. “That is a really bad habit,” his surly friend Max observes of this belt-buckling. “You really need to finish that in the bathroom.” The same bathroom, presumably, where Otis did not wash his hands since I don’t know how you would while you’re still holding up your pants.

Other times, naturally, not seeing characters wash their hands is merely to streamline the action. “They must have washed their hands in ‘It’s Complicated,’” said My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife when I mentioned Collins’s Tweet, “before they made croissants.” To the YouTube! Alas, Meryl Streep and Steve Martin did not wash their hands before making croissants. I mean, they probably washed their hands but the scene was never written because you don’t need it, not dramatically, though, this, of course, is precisely what Collins is lamenting. He doesn’t want to assume Meryl & Steve washed their hands; he wants to see it.

As it happens, the 1940 noir movie I just watched for my #Noirvember review coming Friday, called “T-Men” (1947), included a scene where the main character played by Dennis O’Keefe washes his hands. But this scene, filmed from an intoxicating kind of low angle, is less about cleanliness than generating tension, looking up so we can see O’Keefe, standing at the sink with another character, a bad, bad dude, trying to reach for something under the sink while trying to not look like he’s reaching for something under the sink.

Ditto “The Insider” where a scene of Russell Crowe washing his hands exists to fuel the drama too, bringing marital resentment to the forefront, his wife admonishing him for washing his hands in the kitchen sink, which is for food only, after coming in from the garden. Still, give Crowe’s character credit for cleaning up after digging in the dirt; that’s something!. And while you can read the transplendent “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” bathroom fisticuffs in any way you want, one detail not open to interpretation is that while Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill’s characters are fake washing their hands, the character they’re looking for, phony John Lark, is not fake washing his hands at all. I don’t know if a dude as dastardly as Fake John Lark gets let through the Pearly Gates, but observing proper sanitation at least gives him a fighting chance.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, meanwhile, long a point of contention for cinema’s Plausibility Police, with art & leisure writers on slow weeks seeing if they can replicate the entire journey that Ferris and Sloane and Cameron make, has the scene in Chez Luis’s bathroom where Ferris washes his hands. [Pause.] Okay, okay, you got me, Plausibility Police; I’m extrapolating. When the movie cuts to Ferris in the bathroom he is already in the process of drying his hands and so we don’t officially see him wash his hands. But. Right after Ferris departs the restroom, you will recall Ferris’s Dad exits a stall and walks to the sink…where he washes his hands. Like Father Like Son?

If we can’t officially confirm that Ferris washes his hands, we can at least confirm that Jules, our man in Inglewood, and Vincent, our man in Amsterdam, wash their hands in “Pulp Fiction.” Uh, well, Jules washes his hands; Vincent just gets his hands wet, or at least that’s what Jules claims, fiercely critiquing Vincent’s hand-washing technique, rendering it as a kind of profane if no less crucial PSA. Wash your hands, motherfucker!

That brings us to John McClane, a confirmed hand-washer. I know because, like the studious researcher I am, I fired up the blu-ray and literally confirmed it. Upon meeting Holly, his estranged wife, at her Nakatomi Tower office, he goes back to her private bathroom and, yes, is seen with his hands under running. The guy may end the movie by tying a fire hose around his waist and jump from the roof of a 35 story building just ahead of a massive explosion, but he begins the movie, after disembarking from an airplane, “where up to 20% of passengers may develop respiratory infections within 1 week (of travel)”, and then washing his hands. And if you want to argue that John McClane became an American legend on the strength of saving so many in Nakatomi Plaza, and Dulles Airport, and New York, and America, well, never forget where it all started – practicing good hygiene in the lavatory.

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