Posted by Greg Ferrara on May 19, 2013
A few months back I wrote a post on The Other Great Performance in the Movie, about great performances (usually by supporting actors) in movies with famously great lead performances. I’d like to further that theme now, only with great scenes. Last night, my wife, daughter and I took in Black Narcissus at the AFI Silver and enjoyed it as much as we always have (only more so because it was in the gorgeous main theater projected on a huge screen) and afterwards I started thinking about movies with very famous scenes, so famous that most casual film goers might know it (or have a vague sense of familiarity with it) even if they don’t know the movie. But for every great scene in a great movie, there is often another scene just as powerful but perhaps not as famous, or revered.
Black Narcissus has as its climax one of the most strikingly shot and edited scenes in the entire Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger oeuvre, and that’s saying something considering what they’ve done. That final sequence, as Sister Ruth (Kathleen Bryon) stalks and finally attacks Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is filmed as expertly as any psycho-horror sequence could be. But there’s another scene in the movie that I find just as engaging and just as expertly done. It’s when Sister Ruth reveals herself in secular clothes and makeup to Sister Clodagh who then sits in the dark room with Ruth, ostensibly to keep an eye on her so she won’t leave the convent to go to a man that doesn’t love her (but that she thinks does, and that Clodagh is stealing him away from her). From the moment Ruth opens the door, foreshadowing her later emergence from the convent at the end, to the candle burning out, the whole scene has a feeling of disquiet and imbalance. As Clodagh tries to pretend not to notice, Ruth applies deep red lipstick as she stares mercilessly at Clodagh. It doesn’t have the excitement of the climax (few movies in history ever have) but it’s a great scene (the other great scene) nonetheless.
And that’s always been the case with the movies. Certain big climactic scenes take the stage from one or two or even several other great scenes in a movie. Here are some of my favorites.
Psycho – Okay, we all know the great scene in this one. I won’t bother to break it down for anyone here because we all know it’s the shower sequence and we all know how phenomenally well Hitchcock constructed it. But the other great scene in the movie, two actually, for me, both involve Detective Arbogast (the great Martin Balsam). The first comes when he’s casually inquiring to Norman (Anthony Perkins) about the whereabouts of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and whether she’s been there or not. Hitchcock pulls the camera in close on Perkins’ face as we hear Arbogast slowly, and easily, break down Bates’ lies. It’s a wonderful way to get inside the anxiety of Norman Bates as the interrogation begins to make him look like a fool.
The other other great scene is when Arbogast ascends the stairs. What’s fascinating about this one is that Crane was in her shower, in a private space, minding her own business. Arbogast, by contrast, is actively walking towards his own demise. It’s a brilliant play off of the earlier murder sequence in which the viewer learns something very important about Norman, which is, his mom won’t simply attack, she will defend. Aggressively pursuing her won’t frighten her into submission. She’ll improvise and you’ll be dead.
Ben Hur – The chariot race. It’s amazing. It’s unbeatable. But that ship sequence, with the amazing miniature and stunt work is really something to behold too. In fact, it’s always been my favorite scene in the movie for two reasons. One, I love sea battle sequences and two, it has perhaps the most important character moment in the film, where Judah (Charlton Heston) and Quintus (Jack Hawkins) come to understand each other as basically morally creatures held prisoner by circumstances beyond their control but also by their individual choices. It’s a great scene, from the start of the battle to their time on the raft.
Citizen Kane – The opening sequence, the closing sequence, the breakfast table sequence and probably a few more, are all justifiably famous as great scenes but my other great scene, that I like best of all, comes early in the film when the reporter played by William Alland heads to the Thatcher Library. The lighting and the echoes of the voices hits me differently than anything else in the movie. It seems supernatural, with human gargoyles standing guard and watching over Alland’s shoulder.
The French Connection – This isn’t so much the other great scene as the other great chase. The most famous scene from the movie is, of course, Popeye Doyle’s (Gene Hackman) pursuit, by car, of the sniper on the train above. But that other train scene, with Doyle trying to tail Charnier (Fernando Rey), is my favorite. Getting on the train, getting off, getting back on, getting back off, and on and off until Charnier finally outwits him and waves goodbye. Bonus other scene: The foot chase at the beginning of the film (when Doyle is in the Santa Claus suit). The stakes aren’t high at all but it has an adrenalin rush to it that I think is even more powerful than the train chase, maybe because it feels so simple and exhausting.
Network – The two most famous scenes (“I’m as mad as hell” and “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature!”) have been played and overplayed so many times I can barely watch them anymore (though I still absolutely love the movie). Personally, I love the “I just ran out of bulls***” more than either but the scene I’m really talking about is the one in which the UBS lawyers and execs hammer out a deal in the house of the Great Ahmed Kahn (Arthur Burghardt). It plays as high comedy plus pointed observation about how much radicalism and corporatism come together for mutual benefit and how much they need one another for survival. And the ending to the scene, with the gunshot in the ceiling and the proclamation, “Man, give her the f***ing overhead clause” blends both together brilliantly.
Forbidden Planet – If there’s one scene in Forbidden Planet that qualifies as the big scene, it’s where the men of Commander J. J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) fight an invisible monster made up of pure energy. It’s a pretty amazing sequence and definitely a scene I love but the whole movie boils down to one sequence for me: Where Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) gives the crew a tour of the forgotten Krell underground city. With its amazing matte work, giving a true sense of immensity, to its cool fifties laboratory interiors, it’s a scene I can watch over and over again, and wish I was there.
Cat People – The most famous scene, and justifiably so, is the incredible sequence at the Y pool, where Jane Randolph treads water while under the distinct, and terrifying, impression that she’s being stalked by a large and dangerous cat. But I also like the pet shop sequence and, frankly, the early scene in the restaurant when Irena (Simone Simon) comes face to face with one of her own. For me, at least, that just may be the eeriest moment in the movie.
It Happened One Night – Okay, the hitchhiking scene is fantastic and the Walls of Jericho coming down is as famous as any action in any screwball comedy from the thirties. But the scene I’ll take over both of them is when Peter (Clark Gable) sits down for coffee and doughnuts with Ellie (Claudette Colbert) and instructs how to dunk doughnuts as well as the proper way to undress.
Night of the Hunter – Finally, we come to a movie filled with brilliant shots and setups, from Robert Mitchum’s famous battle of Love and Hate, to the pursuit down the river, to the haunting shot of poor Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) in her car on the lake bottom. Now, this scene isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, it’s fairly unimportant. But, nevertheless, it’s my favorite. It’s when Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) is lecturing the younger women at the picnic and delivers this chestnut right in front of her husband: “When you’ve been married to a man for forty years you know all that [lovemaking] don’t amount to a hill of beans. I’ve been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin’ about my canning.” Can’t beat that.
So there’s just a smattering of selections, ten in all, but I could list dozens more. Most famous, classic movies have one or two big scenes in them, something really famous that stands out. But if the movie stands the test of time it’s usually because it has so much more than just that one scene and sometimes, that’s the scene that really steals the show.
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