Tom Jolliffe takes a look at 15 great movie scenes that left an indelible mark…
Great movies require many things to achieve that unshakable stamp of quality. As well as great writing, directing and acting, you need memorable scenes. Some can be more memorable than others. Some may end up defining a film more than anything else. Occasionally great scenes can elevate otherwise not so great movies (Blade’s opening is never matched from then on, for example). I’ve watched many films in my time and within those, so many scenes which left an indelible mark. I could probably rattle off hundreds, but plucking sequences that spring straight to me, I’ll offer up a condensed 15…
The Restaurant Scene – The Godfather
The moment Michael Corleone seals his fate. Where he takes on the mantle of Godfather as he assassinates a rival in a restaurant. This is so simple, so effective and a masterful example of introspective acting. Al Pacino barely says anything through the scene but we can see the dilemma coursing through his mind before the moment when he strikes. It’s also brilliantly split into two halves, broken up in the middle with the moment he retrieves his would be murder weapon from the toilets. Might be one of my all time favourite sequences.
The Diner Scene – Heat
More food themed theatrics with Pacino. The infamous diner scene opposite Robert De Niro. The most stripped back, simple scene in the epic crime movie and the most effective. It’s simple dialogue, all innocuous and a respite in the film which doesn’t particularly drive anything forward. It merely introduces two characters prior to their inevitable conflict later. It also marked the first time the two titans shared the screen. It didn’t need to be grandiose, or show-stopping. Its simplicity and the delivery made it astounding though.
Johnny and the Security Guard – Naked
Mike Leigh’s nihilistic odyssey Naked is an oddly ethereal masterpiece about the listless existence of a manic depressive with an apocalypse fascination. Through a series of night encounters her spews his philosophy, vitriol and sarcasm on anyone who will listen, including a night security guard, who watches over ‘space.’ For a moment Johnny finds a willing returner of serve, but exercises his self aggrandizing ego upon his latest encounter, who is left overwhelmed by the questions Johnny asks. Here we see the extent of Johnny’s obsessive nature and deep thinking, pouring out like never before (exceptionally portrayed by David Thewlis).
Hans Landa’s Intro – Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino has made exceptional films with exceptional scenes. Whilst he might have indulged a little too much in more recent years and been less consistent as a whole, there have still been moments that hit the pinnacle of what cinema can achieve. Inglorious Basterds has great scenes, notably anything with Christophe Waltz and Michael Fassbender (though the film also represents a little of modern era QT inconsistency when you consider the Mike Myers scene, among other time fillers). The opening though, is sublime, and brilliantly introduces us to a character with grace and charm, hiding a chilling and fearsome villain beneath. The film made Waltz a star. A mere 8 years prior, rare excursions in American film included a villain role in a Gary Daniels straight to video riff on James Bond (The Queen’s Messenger). Tarantino spotted something the world would take notice of with Waltz’s complexity.
Tears in Rain – Blade Runner
There are so many great moments in Blade Runner, not least a general aesthetic perfection that dazzles the eye. However this sci-fi film, ingrained with deep philosophical questions needs some emotional grounding, some aspect where sympathy can be felt. It’s less an aspect of the titular android assassin, Deckard, and more something within the rogue androids. Roy Batty is essentially an escaped slave on a mission to survive a fate which has been forced upon him by his oppressors. In defeat and with the end upon him (after a last act of redemption) he opines, ‘all those memories will be lost. Like tears… in rain. Time to die.’ In a moment we have the heart of the movie, and a line conjured by Rutger Hauer himself. In one fell swoop he clinched masterpiece status for the film.
The Campfire Scene – My Own Private Idaho
If Hauer weaved that perfect support stitch for Blade Runner, River Phoenix did the same for Gus Van Saant’s off beat road movie about two hustling rent boys on a cross country odyssey (one of whom is the listless son of a mayor, looking to rebel against his upper class roots). Phoenix felt the film lacked something, suggesting the now infamous campfire confessional, where his narcoleptic gigolo bares his soul to his closest friend. It becomes the crux of the film and played a big part in why the legacy remains so strong. It also represented a superb example of Phoenix’s immense talent and artistic genius.
A Friend’s Betrayal – The Killer
Having friends in the assassin game must be tough. When Ah-Jong’s (Chow Yun-Fat) friend, a criminal facilitator who arranges hits for his overseers, pays a visit, Ah-Jong is expecting an overdue payment. With a natural and defensive distrust, he’s also wary of being pensioned off, and so it comes to pass that his friend, under orders, makes a grab for Jong’s gun. He pulls the trigger, it clicks empty but the look of heartbreak on Jong’s face says it all (as he lets the bullets he emptied prior, slip out of his hands). It’s John Woo at his melancholic best. Yun-Fat plays the scene brilliantly as does Paul Chu Kong, who is instantly pummelled by a sense of shame (and being a Woo film he of course heroically redeems himself in a bloody finale). Then also, because it’s the Woo, the film instantly bursts into an action scene as a swarm of hit-men come in to make doubly sure both men are killed (they fail).
Hannibal’s Intro/The Screaming Lambs – The Silence of The Lambs
In a great movie and one of the best crime thrillers of the last 30 years, any scene with Anthony Hopkins is elevated to a whole new level of greatness. Lambs is superlative but the film made Hannibal Lecter a pop culture icon and Hopkins Hollywood royalty (yes, the recent Oscar winner is still going strong). I can’t split two scenes for sheer brilliance. His enigmatic introduction, and his final face to face encounter with Clarice Starling, when Lecter finally gets right inside her head about the screaming lambs (A reference to a traumatic childhood experience growing up on a farm). Hopkins is intense with a deceptive charm, and chilling ability to unsettle anyone. He’s a perfect Lecter. The fact he could win Best Actor for a role with such limited screen time, in a genre typically overlooked, is also testament to just how good he is (and indeed Jodie Foster opposite him).
Before the Fight – Rocky
Stallone’s love story that happened to have boxing, would become an enduring franchise largely focused on the brawling part. However, the original film is a legitimate masterpiece with a focus on one of cinemas most endearing underdog characters. The scene itself was something of a late afterthought, a bridging scene between the now infamous training montage, and the franchise speciality end bout. Rocky and Adrian’s courtship has provided the emotional backbone of a fabulous character piece (with four principal actors all nominated for Oscars) to this point. Yet it needed a connective moment and that comes in the form of Balboa’s confessional to Adrian on the night before the fight. His insecurities laid bare, and his simple goal for the fight, to go the distance with Creed.
Tech Noir – Terminator
A franchise which never felt like it needed to be franchise has had great moments (all housed within the first two films). The best, among so many iconic, might just be the Tech Noir sequence, where Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) first encounters the killer cyborg. It’s here that Connor, the T-800 and Kyle Reese all converge and the chase kicks into overdrive. Cameron builds up the tension brilliantly as a catchy 80’s pop song dissolves in the slow motion visuals, overtaken by the mechanical synths of Brad Fiedel’s score. Arnold is about to end humanity’s hope, when Reese intervenes. Superb.
Milkshake – There Will Be Blood
Daniel Day Lewis’ milkshake brings all the critics to the yard. Paul Thomas Anderson’s exceptional modern epic is both sprawling and grandiose, but confined and intimate too, focused on the rise and fall of a sociopathic prospector. Day Lewis further reminded the world, after a period out of the game, that he’s capable of things mere mortal actors can only dream of. It’s another exceptional performance in a CV crammed full of them but it might be his most enthralling. Never afraid to let loose, Day Lewis does so regularly, but can play restrained complexity equally as well. So many great scenes but his duels with Eli (Paul Dano) are the most memorable, particularly the much memed Milkshake scene. Day Lewis chews scenery as exceptionally as you’ll ever see. Paul Dano, under any other circumstance would be remembered for just how fantastic his performance is in this. Unfortunately for him, he’s opposite Day Lewis on his A game and very few would avoid being overshadowed.
What’s in the Box? – Se7en
Seven is a grimy and grim serial killer thriller that still maintains its powerful impact to this day. It’s a great concept, brilliantly written and an example of the kind of film that we just rarely see nowadays (probably because so many of the serial killer thrillers coming in the wake of this were so inferior). It all culminates in a moment John Doe (Kevin Spacey) has lead everyone to. A perfect climax to his seven deadly sins themed killing spree, setting up Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) to turn executioner. What’s in the box? The look on Morgan Freeman’s face and the realisation of Pitt without even having to look inside, says it all (it’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s head…).
Omaha Beach Landing – Saving Private Ryan
The fading war film genre was galvanised by Steven Spielberg in 1998’s, Saving Private Ryan. It’s a superb achievement in film-making with one of the most stellar casts ever assembled. So much of its power and impact lies in its most iconic scene, the Omaha beach landing. It’s a stunning achievement and absolutely gut-wrenching to sit through. Brutally effective. As good as some other fine recent war films have been, like Dunkirk or 1917, they’ve never pulled off a sequence as exceptional (and harrowing) as this.
Dentistry – Marathon Man
Under no circumstances should you watch Marathon Man before visiting the dentist. This classic paranoia thriller from the 70’s makes a great double bill with North By Northwest, as an everyman finds himself unwittingly involved in espionage and conspiracy plots. Dustin Hoffman excels as the history student who is thrust increasingly into danger, whilst Laurence Olivier is superb as a Nazi with a penchant for dental torture interrogations.
Harry Lime’s end – The Third Man
Carol Reed’s iconic mystery is one of the all time great thrillers. It holds up on every level still and looks absolutely stunning. The elusive Harry Lime (Orson Welles), presumed dead, turns up in one of the films most memorable reveals. Welles revels in his supporting role opposite Joseph Cotten (also great). Whilst many point to that first scene, for me the most memorable sequence comes at the end, as the net closes on Lime. Visually stunning, the sequence is thrilling and culminates in an unforgettable ending.
What are your favourite movie scenes? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.