Editor’s Note – In honor of Dennis Hopper’s passing, I’m reposting this piece – originally published on July 14, 2006. Enjoy – and let me know some of your faves in the Comments below.
The late Gene Siskel once applied this logic to determine what makes a good movie. Five good scenes and no bad ones.
I’ll up the ante and say – throw in one great scene and you have a classic.
Today I’ve decided to focus on those scenes that are so picture perfect in execution. I’m talking about those scenes that just make you lose all sense of time and place and completely sell the illusion – that you’re no longer watching actors spitball lines or marveling at excellent production values – that what you’re viewing has happened and is so vital and imperative to our very essence that it has been documented and must be shown and told to all future generations. These are the scenes DVD was invented for – allowing you to skip ahead to the right chapter so that you can watch and rewatch and marvel at the perfect marriage of light, shadow, script and performance. These are the scenes that serve as impetus to coax a compadre to settle down on the couch besides you and drink from the special oasis you discovered. These are the scenes that made you wish you too could be in pictures – then you take your first crack at Mookiefish the Musical and decide if you can’t offer up your own Indianapolis speech then you best continue the office park nine-to-five.
(* Note – The scene above doesn’t make it into my Top 5 but it’s hanging on the fringes. It’s from the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy and is a classic piece of second-unit directing handled by their buddy, Sam Raimi. He does a fantastic job with a very inventive sequence that tracks one lonely Hula-Hoop’s journey from a frustrated toy store owner to the feet of a curious little boy. “You know, for kids.“)
5. Blade – ‘Blood Rave’
When Blade was dumped in theaters in late Summer 1998, nobody expected anything more than a quick cash grab at opening weekend and a swift connecting flight to Direct-to-Video. Prior to Blade’s release, comic book flicks were middling fair (punctuated every once in a great while by a fringe flick that actually clicked – i.e. The Crow). Blade’s trailers didn’t offer much hope – with staccato cut shots of Goth posures and clunky wire-fu.
Which is what made that first scene in Blade so momentous. While the marketing department may not have had a clue of how to sell Blade – director Stephen Norrington swiftly dried the bad blood by dropping the viewer smack-dab in the middle of a nightmare.
Blade opens with an errant club kid being led astray by a vampish Traci Lords to an early hours rave held in the back room of a meat packing facility (here’s a helpful tip – a velvet rope made of sausage links is usually a bad sign). Once inside, Lords ditches the dude for her female companion. As he tries to leave – with the throbbing techno and unfriendly patrons making a quick departure a very confusing ordeal – the house DJ begins pumping the volume, increasing the strobes and revealing an ominous sign – Blood Bath. At that moment, the revelers reach their hands skyward and the factory sprinklers gush a crimson river. The ravers turn on their fresh meat and taunt him as he frantically crawls towards safety. Just when the situation looks dire, a black-booted foot crashes down with a thud. The camera pans up to reveal Wesley Snipes’ Blade – a vampire half-breed who devotes his life to staking bloodsuckers. The music slows. We catch a few hushed warnings. “It’s the Day Walker.” Suddenly the tempo picks up, Blade whips his sword out and begins to samba through this sanguinarium – applying Ginsu to every goblin that gets in his way.
This sequence is kinetic action at its best – a blood-drenched ballet that has been cribbed from through the years. Elements of blade-fu can be spied in The Matrix flicks and Blade’s ‘dusting’ of vamps – where the freshly staked vaps collapse into a powdered skeleton – became Buffy’s stock in trade (although the two hit around the same time).
Ultimately though, this scene just sets your adrenaline pumping. It is as perfect an action and fight scene as I have witnessed and to this day – has yet to be bested.
4. True Romance – ‘You’re a Cantaloupe’
True Romance was one of the spec scripts that Quentin Tarentino sold off in the early 90’s to fund his baby, Reservoir Dogs. Of Tarentino’s scripts filmed by other directors, this is the only film that get Q’s stamp of approval. Written by Tarentino and directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State) – True Romance ends up being a genius paring – as Scott’s kinetic aesthetic proves a perfect match to Tarentino’s kitchen sink disposal of trash pop culture.
With an all-star supporting cast including Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Gary Oldman, Sam ‘The Man’ Jackson, Val Kilmer and others – Romance offers up a buffet of scenery to chew. But hands down – it’s greatest scene – and a classic cinematic pairing – is the duel that develops between Dennis Hopper’s fateful security guard Clifford Worley and Christopher Walken’s mob boss Vincent Coccotti.
Walken and his (ahem) ‘associates’ corner Hopper in his rundown trailer looking to ascertain the whereabouts of his “f$&khead son” and his “b!tch-whore girlfriend“. Hopper plays coy – saying he hasn’t seen his son for several months – but Walken sees straight through the deception – educating Hopper on the fine art of the pantomime.
Vincent Coccotti: Sicilians are great liars. The best in the world. I’m Sicilian. My father was the world heavy-weight champion of Sicilian liars. From growing up with him I learned the pantomime. There are seventeen different things a guy can do when he lies to give himself away. A guy’s got seventeen pantomimes. A woman’s got twenty, but a guy’s got seventeen… but, if you know them, like you know your own face, they beat lie detectors all to hell. Now, what we got here is a little game of show and tell. You don’t wanna show me nothin’, but you’re tellin me everything. I know you know where they are, so tell me before I do some damage you won’t walk away from.
What follows is a little history lesson from Hopper – where realizing he’s not gonna’ make it out of this trailer alive – he expends one last gasp to gain the upper hand over Coccotti, leaving him with a little anecdote that reveals the ‘true’ origins of his birth right.
It’s a great scene – well written – featuring two excellent character actors who even though they may slum from time to time – always elevate the projects they are in.
3. The Shawshank Redemption – ‘Andy’s Escape’
The Shawshank Redemption is one of those great movies that didn’t get a fair shake when it was released. Redemption – like The Hudsucker Proxy – was maligned for having an unwieldy title. Audiences wouldn’t flock to see a film they couldn’t pronounce. I can’t help but think that it hit at the wrong time and place. In the early 90’s, people lined up in droves to see Speed but turned up their noses at a shot at Redemption. Looking at the poor reception event pics such as Poseidon have drawn lately – and the box office tally that indies such as Sideways, Million Dollar Baby and others have enjoyed – Shawshank may have done well to wait a decade.
Regardless, this film became the little engine that could, and ultimately found its audience on video. It is, without a doubt, a classic whose power cannot be diminished no matter how many times TNT opts to air it each weekend.
My favorite scene in this movie comes near the end when Andy Dufresne mysteriously disappears from his cell. The warden is furious and demands a lockdown. Finding nothing, the warden and his cabal of sinister guards turn up Dufresne’s cell seeking to resolve the mystery. As one bounces a ball off a wall, the warden bellows on and on about how Dufresne needs to be found. Finally, the guard tosses the ball to the wall one last time and something curious happens. It doesn’t bound back. Instead, the camera retreats through a hole carved in a poster and pulls back through a massive tunnel dug in the foundation as the warden and his posse peer in incredulously. We then get Morgan Freeman’s knowing narration explaining how Andy Dufresne became the only person to ever escape from the Shawshank Redemption.
Red: [narrating] In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, damn near worn down to the nub. I used to think it would take six-hundred years to tunnel under the wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty. Oh, Andy loved Geology, I guess it appealed to his meticulous nature. An ice age here, million years of mountain building there. Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time. That, and a big god-damned poster.
During this sequence, we are treated to the particulars of Dufresne’s scramble to freedom and final baptism in cool, cleansing rain. As the camera pivots skyward and Dufresne raises his arms welcoming the downpour, Thomas Newman’s music sounds an exultant note. Although that shot has become cliché in past years (appearing in Pleasantville, Spider-Man, V for Vendetta and others) it is an indelible postscript to Dufresne’s journey.
2. V for Vendetta – ‘Valerie’s Letter’
I covered V in my earlier post on my Top 5 Favorite Comic Book Flicks and I have a feeling this film is going to keep finding its way on these lists. It’s that good.
As I wrote in that post, there is a sequence at the midpoint of the film (dubbed ‘the Valerie letter’) that is absolutely beautiful in its portrayal of heartbreak. This scene lands dead center in the middle of the film, represents the story’s pivot point and ultimately exists as the great throbbing heart and soul of the piece. It is as picture perfect a sequence as one could film and it’s that moment that seared this film upon my psyche.
Here’s where I hit on some minor spoilers – although I will be cautious and avoid spoiling the big twist.
About midway through the film, Natalie Portman’s Evey is apparently captured by ‘government forces’ and sent to a detention center where she is imprisoned in solitary confinement and tortured daily in a bid to ascertain the whereabouts of the ‘terrorist V’. As Evey lays on the stone, cold floor of her cell, her sole companion a skeevy rat that turns up its nose at the slop they send her for supper, she discovers a ‘personal history’ drafted on a weathered sheet of paper. As Evey begins to read this narrative, we see the heartbreaking depiction of a young lesbian’s life – who was rejected from intolerant parents, found her proper place in the world through show business, discovered her life’s love and then found that her lifestyle would be her death sentence – as a totalitarian regime grew out of control around her (and her fellow countrymen) leading to a deep chilling effect on personal choice and expression. This sequence depicts the greatest light in the film (with beautiful sun-dappled fields) and the darkest depths – as we realize the great betrayal we are all guilty of when we turn a blind eye out of pure fear. The letter becomes Evey’s sole salvation – and later – when we learn of a dark deception, one fact remains hopeful – every last word of it is true.
As a post-script, this sequence ends with the “Shawshank shower” – a character receiving baptism in a great flood of cleansing rain. Although it cribs from that earlier film, it is as vital an image as any in this sequence – and the manner in which it is connects with another character’s birth in flame – possesses a nice elemental duality.
1. Jaws – ‘The Indianapolis’
Jaws is timeless. It is easily Spielberg’s best film (yes it inches past Raiders of the Lost Ark). It’s also a tough film to classify – meaning when I get around to Top 5 Adventure, Top 5 Horror, Top 5 Thriller – you may start seeing a repeat customer.
I’d also classify this film as a classic character drama. The trio of Hooper, Brody and Quint – who take to the seas in Quint’s ramshackle Orca in a bid to land that big fishy – creates a fascinating dynamic – and their quiet conversational scenes on the open ocean – where they reveal their scars (both physical and emotional) are as compelling as the shark attack set pieces.
Hands down – the most riveting scene is the sequence in the ship’s hold, where the men compare scars. This leads to some playful banter (“All right, we drink to our legs.”) before Quint reveals his role in the war.
Hooper: You were on the Indianapolis?
Brody: What happened?
Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte… just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water, Chief? You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know, it was kinda like old squares in the battle like you see in the calendar named “The Battle of Waterloo” and the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark go away… but sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark… he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be living… until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces. You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand. I know how many men, they averaged six an hour. On Thursday morning, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boatswain’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up, down in the water just like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon, the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us. He swung in low and he saw us… he was a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper. Anyway, he saw us and he come in low and three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened… waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.
You know what. I’ll just end right there.