I’ve broken my nose three times confirmed, probably closer to five. The point is there’s not much cartilage left and the whole thing is a bit crooked, which gives me a skewed perspective on things in general but especially on crime films. I’d even go so far as to say that nobody watches for nose injuries in movies as closely and fervently as I do. Maybe it’s that old desire to see your own image, your one true nature, reflected on the silver screen. Maybe I’m just a nut for authenticity. I want to see the thing done right, after all. Whatever the exact reason, I love it when a character gets socked in the nose and has to wear the bruises and bandages for the rest of the movie, a nice little albatross of an injury, undignified in the extreme and a strong visual reminder of what happens when you (or your favorite character) stick your nose in places it doesn’t belong. In short, I believe firmly in nose injury as artistic expression. As a connoisseur of broken beaks, I’ve spent a good deal of time in darkened cineplexes watching for injuries and collecting favorites: those little moments, vignettes, and snapshots that capture the very essence of central face destruction and make you reach for the bridge of your own nose while that stinging cold runs down from your forehead to your belly and reminds you, by God, you’re alive.
Presented here, with annotations, are what I consider to be the most iconic nose injuries in the annals of (crime) cinema.
The slicing open of Jake Gittes’ face is, quite simply, the greatest nose injury in the history of film. And the aftermath—the mangled nostril, the face-defining bandage job—is perhaps the defining trait of one of the great fictional characters of the 20th century. It’s so glaring, so constant, the characters can’t help but speak of it regularly, including Jake himself (Jack Nicholson), who reminds Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway): “I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it.” The slicing scene is an interesting, and rather chilling glimpse into the production behind this classic. Roman Polanski of course plays the goon, and the director also supposedly designed the trick knife that was used during the scene. If he held it in one direction, it was a harmless dull edge. Holding it another, it was a real, sharpened blade. Between takes, Polanski kept twirling the knife around in his hand so that Nicholson would be unaware which side was which, and with Polanski’s slightly mad reputation (mad is probably too generous), the actor was genuinely concerned he would be cut open. It makes for a truly chilling scene, all framed by Polanski delivering the haunting lines:”You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty cat. You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses.”
L.A. Confidential (1997)
In L.A. Confidential, you’ll recall that a taped-up nose and some bruising is arguably the original impetus for Officer Bud White’s interest in the Fleur de Lis prostitution ring, after he’s seen a Veronica Lake lookalike in the back of a car outside a liquor store on Christmas Eve. (White considers himself something of an avenging angel when it comes to battered women.) It turns out the woman is recovering from plastic surgery, not a beating. White is nonetheless set off, and with good reason, as Fleur de Lis is entangled with all kinds of crime and conspiracy. This is a classic piece of misdirection, and a fascinating first glimpse of a pretty sordid racket. “Whatever you desire…”
If there’s one thing we know about high school knight errant Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) it’s that he can take a whooping. In the midst of Brendan’s investigation into a local drug baron known as “The Pin,” he gets his nose pushed in by more than one henchman, but keeps on going, bloodied but unbowed. This 2005 neo-noir has been building up a reputation for the last decade-and-a-half among crime aficionados; a few more decades and Brendan’s bloodied, bandaged nose may rise up into the pantheon next to Jake Gittes. And of course, the best part of Brendan’s nose injury is the way he very deliberately removes his glasses before getting punched. That is one hardboiled high-schooler.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Overdoses are hard to watch on screen, at least for me. This overdose may be the hardest of all. Thinking it’s a line of coke, Mia (Uma Thurman) snorts way too much heroin, which almost immediately sends her into respiratory arrest and Vince into a panic as he looks for help reviving her. An epi pen to the heart is probably not a great idea for an opioid overdose, if you’re out there looking for practical guidance, but the scene still makes for a very dramatic, frankly unforgettable vignette.
Mike D always doubles back for a friend, like the outlaw Josey Wales, which is more or less what catches him a wicked beating from the “municipal workers” of Binghamton, New York (aka—off duty cops who don’t like losing their paychecks to some sharps from the city) and lands him those character-deepening gashes across his face. Combined with that trademark Damon grin, those cuts really intensify the final standoff with Teddy KGB. What can you say? The kid has alligator blood.
Dark Passage (1947)
Not exclusively concerning a nose concern, and not technically an injury but rather an elective surgery, Dark Passage nonetheless makes this list for sheer dedication to the bandaged face bit, and for the audacity with which the face was (not) filmed over various points in the movie. Plus once you’ve seen bandaged Bogart across a finely set table from the radiant Lauren Bacall, all other nose injuries seem just a little bit duller, don’t they? Adapted from the David Goodis novel and directed by Delmer Daves, Dark Passage might be the high point for film noir’s nose injury / facial reconstruction canon.
Raging Bull (1980)
The brutal encounter between De Niro’s Jake LaMotta and Tony Janiro may not be the most realistic prize fight you’ll ever see on film (has anyone ever landed more clean knock-out blows in succession than De Niro lands here?), but it’s certainly one of the most visceral, including a close-up nose shot in which you’d swear you could see/hear/feel the cartilage crunching to dust inside Janiro’s head. The scene includes the immortal kicker: “He ain’t pretty no more.” No, he certainly ain’t.
Fight Club (1999)
Look, it’s not my favorite Fincher movie, either, and no I don’t think you need to read the book, but if we’re talking strictly about nose injuries, it’s hard to leave Fight Club out. There are several good nose shots in this one, but without giving the ending away (although isn’t there a 20 year statute of limitations on spoilers?), Ed Norton’s self-inflicted face battering is the most pivotal of all, and the one that catch’s the audience truly off-guard on first viewing. Bloodied and sprawled, Norton leaves a lasting impression and one solid shocker of a nose injury.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Joey Donner, played to perfection by Andrew Keegan, was begging to get socked in the nose this entire movie, which yes, if you’re not already aware, is indeed a crime movie, sub-genre: confidence game / psychological thriller. Keegan’s injury is sustained at the end of a series of blows, first directed against Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Cameron James, then directed toward Donner by Larisa Oleynik’s Bianca Stratford, who adds in a knee to the groin for good measure. The well-deserved beatdown was made all the sweeter by the fact that Donner’s character, as he informs Stratford, has a nose spray commercial to shoot the very next day.
Every Motion Picture Featuring Steven “Broken Nose” Murphy
Do yourself a favor and read this fascinating little write-up in the L.A. Daily Mirror about ex-boxer and early Hollywood character actor, Steven “Broken Nose” Murphy who graced many a film and bestowed them all with that certain speck of pathos and power that only a truly, truly broken nose can deliver.