For the cinephile, there will inevitably be moments of cinematic verisimilitude with which one will become obsessed. There will be moments when a particular filmmaker touches the cinephile in such a way that the emotive force of the experience will be beyond replication. The cinephile will certainly seek to replicate such a moment, frequently using the home-viewing experience to watch the associated film repeatedly in search of it, but such moments of power come from a unique combination of the environment, the mood of the viewer and the unique and unknowing nature of the first (or at least fresh) viewing experience. Such factors cannot be replicated, but one can sometimes come close.
I am, of course, speaking of the experience of watching those particular scenes from particular films that attain some kind of almost mythical status in one’s mind. I’m speaking of those scenes that you find yourself playing over and over again to the point of absurdity, sometimes no longer even attempting to watch the film in its entirety (not because you do not love the film but because the lead up to this pivotal moment is already seared eternally into your memory). Such scenes need not be taken from works of high-art, frequently they are quite the opposite – surprising moments of perfection that capture the viewer before they even know it. And frequently, such moments are produced not solely by what appears on the screen, but through the emotive power of musical composition.
So here are twenty moments with which I have been incredibly enamoured at some point in my life. The list is obviously not exhaustive – just a glimpse – and the films are in a deliberately eclectic order. I have elected not to include clips because, in those instances where a reader may not have seen the film, I would not wish to ruin the experience by decontextualizing the moment or showing it in this aesthetically inferior forum. My hope is that this list might direct others to films which they have not yet encountered.
A poor mother sits by her sick daughter’s bedside; the doctor has given orders that she must avoid exposing her daughter to any draught. Their rickety old home, brimming with cracks and gaps, cannot fight back the hammering force of the windy night. She is powerless to protect her daughter from the world. An absolutely devastating moment which reminds us that access to the simplest of resources could make the difference. Satyajit Ray’s Bengali masterwork, very much in the vein of the neo-realist works happening in Italy at the same time, was the first Indian film to garner significant international praise.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”
So begins one of the most powerful monologues of all time, delivered by a cyborg (Rutger Hauer) to his nemesis, hunter and possible compatriot (Harrison Ford). I must have viewed this scene four hundred times, and it is without question one of the most satisfyingly layered moments in popular American cinema. Ridley Scott would never engage with such complex material (successfully) again.
A young boy sees his poor father expose himself to the ultimate indignity in his attempts to provide for his family, becoming the very type of person who caused the family’s misfortune in the first place. Anybody who has not seen this tragic film, and the scene with which it concludes, must expose themselves to it as quickly as possible. Vittorio De Sica’s brilliant The Bicycle Thieves reminds us that harsh circumstances can force human beings to engage in immoral acts, even if they are not immoral human beings.
There are at least a handful of unforgettable scenes in this film but the one I find myself replaying on an almost weekly basis is that of the final duel between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. Morricone’s unparalleled operatic score, Leone’s massive vistas and intimate close-ups, the incredibly powerful performances of the two men and the greatest narrative reveal in the history of the western make this the supreme duel in cinema.
A man takes his wife out on a boat trip with the intention of murdering her so that he can begin a life with his malevolent mistress. His emotional struggle is tangible, and until the scene’s final moments, we don’t know which way he’s going to go. I believe the lead actor even had bricks tied to his feet to increase the heavy burden resting on his shoulders. The gender politics of this film could be politely described as out-dated, but there is no denying the power of F.W. Murnau’s filmmaking.
For those unaffiliated with the double-edged sword of Paul Verhoeven’s American films, Robocop might sound like a poorly titled schlock-fest. The reality however, is that this uber-violent comedy-thriller is an ingenious satire on the dangers of consumer culture and the evaporation of the people’s power by corporate interests.There are countless moments of absolute genius in this film, but perhaps one of the funniest has a malfunctioning product empty hundreds of rounds of ammunition into a senior executive to the point of near evaporation. The CEO’s horrified response upon seeing this ‘glitch’ occur:
“You call this a glitch? We’re scheduled to begin construction in 6 months. Your temporary setback could cost us 50 million dollars in interest payments alone!”
A unique example for the list, Hitchcock’s film is comprised of one long scene. A gay couple murder their friend for the sheer thrill of proving that they can get away with it, then place him in a box which they subsequently turn into a buffet for a dinner they are hosting. As the guests show up (all of whom are intimately connected with the victim), the murderers cannot help but leak hints of their crime throughout the night.
Am I joking? No – I am one of the few people willing to stand by this film as a genuine classic. The direction is perfect, the score is sublime and the performances get the job done. The decision to hire mainly sporting figures is a positive not a hindrance, giving the film a primal roughness that is entirely appropriate. Schwarzenegger may not be the next Brando, but he is Conan, the embodiment of pure human endurance.
Once again, this film contains many scenes that I find incredibly powerful, but the one I enjoy most of all is at the very beginning. Conan’s father takes him to a mountain and explains to him the nature of life and the glory of steel – a final moment before they are parted for eternity: “The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.”
This quiet, calm and incredibly powerful film follows the story of a middle-aged Japanese bureaucrat who discovers that he is terminally ill. Seeking to right the banality and emptiness of his life up to that point, he seeks out experiences in decadence to fulfil himself before finding salvation in the most simple and righteous of achievements. One scene, the details of which I’ll avoid covering here, sees this simple man find contentedness for the first time. A great moment in cinema.
Sergio Leone’s sweeping epic vision of America in all its horror and glory is perhaps the finest gangster film ever made. Much of the film’s emotional power centres around a single devastating moment, in which a little boy pays the ultimate price for his forays into the criminal world, and another loses twelve years for an act of revenge. A potent moment in a film that is certainly Leone’s highest achievement.
Perhaps the film that Jean-Pierre Melville should be best known for, even if that honour tends to go towards Le Samourai. This taut French crime-caper, heavily steeped in Melville’s love of the myth of the criminal code (despite his total contempt for the criminal element in the real world), features the most meticulous heist sequence in the history of cinema. Anybody with even a passing interest in the genre should see this film, and most particularly, this scene.
Lucio Fulci’s apocalyptic horror zombie movie thing is a total mess – no arguments here. But some obnoxiously powerful imagery, effective scoring and awful dubbing have always had the effect of rendering its final scene absolutely horrifying for yours truly.
Jean Luc-Godard’s masterwork in this humble writer’s opinion (made before he managed to accomplish the anatomically impossible task of disappearing up his own nether regions), is essentially a relationship drama centred on the complexities of love and integrity in the creative individual’s universe. Perhaps the most incredible moment features Fritz Lang, filmmaking god, in a test screening as he proselytizes on the nature of film. Sacred stuff.
This one goes without saying of course. Kubrick’s transcendent poetic ode to the dangers and potential of the human condition is among the finest works in cinema’s brief history, but for me the moment that I find more powerful than any other is the one in which Dave must shutdown HAL a powerful computer which appears to have become a malign sentient being. Tears every time.
Ohayo also known as Good Morning (1959)
Yasujio Ozu’s simple tale of several Japanese families dealing with westernisation and modernisation in general (most particularly in regards to the introduction of television) is typically perfect in its execution. But the moment towards the beginning of the film when a housewife finds herself wrongly implicated in theft achieves a heartbreaking simplicity that captures the small but very real problems of day to day life.
Perhaps selecting a scene from this film (or even claiming that the film is comprised of scenes) seems a little odd, so I’ll run with the presumption that this film is a scene unto itself. Herzog’s breathtaking docu-poem is comprised of footage he took of the Sahara desert, overlaid with Herzog’s narration of some sort of Mayan myth. An oddity but an absolutely stunning one.
This incredible work of anarchic science-fiction is an all-out assault on the establishment, the Reagan era and a kind of hellish love letter to the streets of Los Angeles. The story follows Auto (Emilio Estevez), a punkish drop-out who finds himself becoming a Repo Man to sustain himself. For me, the most powerful scene was a relatively simple one: Auto wanders the street feeling lost and dejected almost unconsciously spouting out televisual quotation as he goes: “Don’t wanna talk about anything else. We don’t wanna know. We’re just dedicated to our favorite shows: Saturday Night Live, Monday Night Football, Dallas…!”
Federico Fellini’s powerful tale of a prostitute (Giulietta Masina) looking for fulfilment is absolutely devastating. The pivotal scene in which her trust is horrifically violated is amongst the most affecting I have ever seen. See this film.
This incredibly efficient tale of several men and women on a mission to save the sun has been criticized by some for its jarring third act (not by me), but the brief moment when the fate of planet earth may be jeopardised by a single misstep is a chilling reminder of the precariousness of our existence.
Seven Annabelle Dances (1894-1897)
Some simple footage that I find myself returning to now and again. A brief reminder of the moving image’s power to transcend time – in this case becoming a window into the nineteenth century.