They sear themselves into our brains as we see them, staying there forever, on playback in the landscape of our minds. They are the greatest scenes in movie history and […]
They sear themselves into our brains as we see them, staying there forever, on playback in the landscape of our minds. They are the greatest scenes in movie history and I am not so arrogant to believe mine is the definitive list, though it is for me. Yours will be entirely different, though we might share some moments. That to me is one of the beauties of cinema, that it is an art form shared by millions around the globe.
The first part is comprised of 25 greatest scenes from 1920 through 1975. May contain spoilers for those who are yet to see the films. Now read on!
‘THE GOLD RUSH’ (1924)
Freezing in the Arctic, starving, the lovable little Tramp makes a delicious meal of his boots and laces, devouring the laces as though it were spaghetti, the look on his face showing us the savoury flavours he thinks he is enjoying. Very funny, yet tinged with heartbreak and pathos as the greatest of Chaplin’s comedy always was. Has anyone ever managed to make comedy so filled with pain?
‘PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’ (1925)
The masked phantom madly plays the organ as the young girl he has kidnapped and taken deep into the catacombs walks up behind him and after two attempts snatches his mask off his face. We see his hideous face first, then he turns to her and she sees it, and then the camera closes in on him as he rises over her. The first great American horror moment. Lon Chaney was easily the greatest silent screen actor, born to mute parents, which helped him learn to act through mime, becoming known as the Man of a Thousand Faces for his gift with makeup long before the unions.
‘CITY LIGHTS’ (1931)
The smile that ends the film might be the most beautiful in the history of the cinema. The once blind girl, her sight restored, touches the Tramp and realizes it is he who helps have her sight restored. She acknowledges that now she sees, everything and his smile light up the soul. Breathtaking. Forever immortal. The last great silent film, made when the sound was available and the greatest film of Chaplin’s career. Mesmerizing.
‘KING KONG’ (1933)
The great ape having rampaged through New York City, is atop the Empire State Building to go to war against the buzzing bi-planes attacking him like the prehistoric birds back on the island. A marvel of special effects decades before computer-generated images.
‘THE WIZARD OF OZ’ (1939)
Locked in the witches castle, an hourglass filled with sand, cursed by the witch, dripping away from her life, Dorothy weeps, wishing for Aunt Em who appears to her in a vision in the glass, replaced by the personification of evil, the Wicked Witch of the West. Sent me screaming from the room at four and still freaks me out. A close second would be the four friends walking and singing down that yellow brick road, or the Lion running from the Wizard in terror, jumping through a window.
‘GONE WITH THE WIND’ (1939)
Hungry, starving in fact, Scarlett is finally back at Tara. Knowing everything about survival is on her shoulders she scavenges for food, eating something she pulls out of the ground, rotting. She falls weeping before rising and giving the galvanizing “As God is my witness…” speech. Stirring, brilliant and Vivien Leigh won her Oscar with that very scene. Equally good is the moment Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) drops her off at the road to Tara in which she admonishes the soldiers for marching gallantly to certain death, praising Rhett for staying out of the battle, telling him he should be proud of himself. With self-loathing, Rhett replies “I’m not so proud” and goes to join the fight.
‘CITIZEN KANE’ (1941)
Oddly the most unique sequence is such because it is a flaw. The camera crawls towards Xanadu, the Kane mansion. Several things happen together, a dying word “rosebud” a snow globe dropped signalling the death of the old man, and then the nurse enters the room, opening a massive door to enter. We are then asked to believe that someone heard his dying words, whispered, behind a massive door. Do you follow?? Still an astonishing film filled with innovations.
‘THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE’ (1948)
Three prospectors seeking gold, do indeed find it, but not where they expected too. At the foot of the Sierra Madre hills, the old man portrayed by Walter Huston starts dancing and cackling at having found flakes of gold at the bottom of the hills meaning the gold is above them, there for the taking. One could argue that Bogart’s death scene is equally iconic.
‘SUNSET BOULEVARD’ (1950)
Insane, her mind warped by being forgotten by worshipping movie audiences, silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) descends the stairs, utterly mad, being arrested for murder, but thinking she is shooting her close up. Absolute insanity. Swanson gives one of the most astonishing performances in the history of the cinema.
‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ (1951)
“STELLA!” roars Stanley (Brando) hoping his wife Stella will come back downstairs to him. As famous as Brando’s primal rage might be the scene belongs to Kim Hunter as Stella, who slowly comes down the stairs, forgiving him, her carnality clear in her eyes and body. One of the most sexually charged moments in film history. The eyes say it all….
‘SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN’ (1952)
The title song of this popular musical is one of the most exuberant, joyful dance numbers ever produced for a major film. Gene Kelly dances and sings in the pouring rain, leaping and jumping in puddles, allowing the rain to pour down upon him, happy as can be because he is in love. With this dance became a language.
So many great moments, the fight in the bar, the gunfight in which Shane kills Wilson, but for me, the finest scene is the one that ends the picture. Shane, mortally wounded, dying rides away from the boy who loves him, sees him as a hero, heading up into the mountains to die, knowing the time of the gunfighter is dead. The child follows as far as he can calling for “Shane! Come back!!! And finally shouts “Goodbye Shane!!!” ending one of the most iconic westerns of the decade.
‘ON THE WATERFRONT’ (1954)
In the back of a taxi cab, two brothers lay bare their souls to one another as the youngest become aware of how the eldest betrayed him. Marlon Brando might never have been better as Terry Malloy, ex-boxer used by the mob in a killing, and he has become aware how responsible his brother might have been. Brando is electrifying but equally fine and given less credit is Rod Steiger as Charlie, his brother. Those words, “I coulda had class, I could be a contender, I coulda been a somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it…it was you Charlie.”
‘THE TEN COMMANDMENTS’ (1956)
Having left Egypt, the Hebrew slaves see the advancing Egyptian chariots in pursuit as they rest on the shores of the Red Sea. Thunder rumbles over the sea, the skies grow dark and a pillar of fire protects the slaves from the soldiers, but for how long? Standing on a rock above the sea, the wind whipping his magnificent beard and hair, Moses, majestically portrayed by Charlton Heston stands over the raging sea and with the words, “Behold his mighty hand” opens the water. With that, I was forever hooked on film.
‘THE SEARCHERS’ (1956)
Again so many scenes from this one, but two stands out. The look of absolute hatred on Ethan’s face upon seeing the white women driven mad by their kidnapping and time with the Native Americans, but best of all finding his niece Debbie, years after she was taken as a six-year-old. So deep is his racism towards the Natives, we know by now he will not bring the now teenaged girl home, intending to kill her. But seeing her, seeing the last of his family, he lifts her high over his head as he did when she was a child, then sweeps her into his massive arms, whispering to her “Let’s go home, Debbie.” For this John Wayne deserved that Oscar for Best Actor.
‘BEN HUR’ (1959)
The chariot race is still the single greatest action sequence ever filmed and consider, they did this amazing scene without the benefit of computer-generated images. Astounding. Ben-Hur encountering Christ is a close second, but this action sequence has never been equalled. William Wyler directed this masterpiece after working on the silent version in 1925. Hailed “the thinking man’s epic” Ben Hur was so much deeper than any previous Biblical epic. The chariot race remains a staggering achievement, not surpassed to this day.
What else? The shower scene. Terrifying, and the violence is all sleight of hand. You think you see her slaughtered by that knife forever descending but you never once see the knife pierce her flesh. Less is more, said Hitchcock, and here he was right on the money. Beautifully edited, you think you see her stabbed countless times, but you never do. Most horrifying is what your mind is doing to you, and that staring, sightless eye as she falls, bled out, dead.
‘LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’ (1962)
The desert vistas, the intensity of Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes, Lawrence trying on his perfect white robes in the heat of the desert, an astonishing visual film. But nothing is stronger than that famous cut from the lit match, blown out by Lawrence as he is leaving for Arabia to the blistering sun rising on the endless sea of deserts. Both a stunning visual it hints of the pain Lawrence can withstand, and of the punishing desert heat as the blazing sun lights the morning desert like an inferno. A masterpiece on so many levels stands as one of the greatest films ever made.
‘BONNIE AND CLYDE’ (1967)
This extraordinary breakthrough film, kicking down the door for realism in New American cinema ends with a slaughter, as the two criminals, jaunty and in love are gunned down on a lonely road, thinking they are safe. In the seconds before the hail of gunfire tears them apart, Clyde realizes they have been ambushed and gives her a soulful look of regret. The bullets make their bodies dance like marionettes, finally slumping over lifeless. The editing of this sequence is astonishing, the cinematography perfect and the performances of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway simply remarkable.
‘2001 – A SPACE ODYSSEY’ (1968)
A malfunctioning computer turns sinister and attempts to kill one of the crew in the film, and does kill his partner leaving him no choice but to disconnect the brain of the machine, the HAL9000. As the wires and circuits are removed, we hear the computer dying, as it sings mournfully, “Daisy.“ Released a year before man landed on the moon, this film looks like a documentary, the effects are that remarkable. Forever haunting.
‘PLANET OF THE APES’ (1968)
No surprise, the greatest stinger of an ending ever produced in a major film. An astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston), has crash-landed on a planet where apes rule, and he believes he is on a planet in the future. Turns out he is on earth, which he realizes coming face to face with the Statue of Liberty buried to her armpit in the sand. “Goddam you all to hell” roars a distraught Taylor. Stunning!
Yes, Liza Minelli and Joel Grey are superb singing and exploring the greed in “Money, Money” but the unforgettable moment in the film comes when a beautiful blonde boy stands and begins singing in a beer garden. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” an anthem of the Hitler Youth. The patrons join in, more and more fanatical, and the boy singing, dressed in full Nazi regalia extends his arm in a salute to Hitler. Terrifying in every way.
‘THE GODFATHER’ (1972)
Again, where to start. I am going to go with Michael (Al Pacino) killing Sollozzo and the police captain in the Brooklyn restaurant. Waiting for his moment, he stands and fires, hitting Sollozzo in the head, causing a pink mist in the air, and then shoots the crooked police captain. With this murder Michael is a soldier in the Corleone crime family, his life forever altered, and the beginning of his role to being the family’s Godfather, the Don.
‘THE GODFATHER: PART II’ (1974)
New Year’s Eve in Havana, Cuba. The target of an assassination attempt, Michael has found out who betrayed him. Grabbing his brother Fredo in a fierce embrace, he kisses him full on the mouth and says to him, “I know it was you, Fredo, you broke my heart.” From that moment on, Fredo is doomed. A second could be young Vito (Robert De Niro) getting revenge on the ancient Don who massacred his family years before, stabbing him and tearing his stomach open. Cathartic.
Nothing with the shark, but the famous monologue is spoken by Quint (Robert Shaw) when the men are playfully comparing scars in the bottom of the boat. The old shark hunter talks about the night the SS Indianapolis was hit by torpedoes, and sank, leaving the men to be torn to pieces by the sharks. This scene makes his death, bitten in half by the Great White shark he is hunting all the more shattering. In an instant with this monologue, we know why Quint both fears and hates sharks. For this scene alone, he should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
The second part will continue from the rest of 1975 through 2019.
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