June 7, 2010
On Great Moments in Film
In my review of Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, I neglected to mention one thing – It contains one of my favorite moments in film. Towards the end of the film, George M. Cohan (James Cagney) is descending the stairs of the White House after not only meeting the president of the United States but also being presented with the Medal of Honor, an honor normally only bestowed on men and women in the military. As legend goes, the script called for Cagney to simply walk down the stairs normally; however, Cagney had another idea. Unable to contain his glee, Cohan breaks into one of the most joyful tap dances you’re likely to ever see. The image has stuck in my head.
I started thinking this week not about great movies but about great individual scenes, scenes that you remember long after the film ends. I suppose that many scenes stick with us because of what we bring to the scenes. Perhaps they reflect or reinforce something we already believe, or maybe they show us something completely new, something that changes us ever so slightly. Perhaps we remember them simply because they’re great moments. Whatever the reason, I’m sure we all have our favorites. Here are just a few of mine.
The film: Ben-Hur (1926)
The moment: Judah Ben-Hur has just learned that Jesus is to be crucified shortly. After assembling his army, he somehow makes his way through the crowd that is watching Jesus’ ascent up Mount Zion. He approaches Jesus and tells him that his army is ready to attack. Jesus’ response to this offer causes a sudden and remarkable change to take place in the formally belligerent Judah. Even for an atheist like me, it was quite moving.
The film: Grand Canyon (1991)
The moment: After an elderly neighbor has been injured in an earthquake, Mack (Kevin Kline) attempts to resuscitate him. While he is doing so, his wife calls for an ambulance, only to be asked how old the neighbor is. The implication is clear. A moment later, as the ambulance drives away, the camera focuses squarely on Mack’s reaction to what has just transpired. In the shot that follows, Kevin Klein expresses a mixture of anger, confusion, and hopelessness, perfectly capturing the feelings of a generation that can’t understand how the world came to this.
The film: Sunrise (1927)
The moment: It’s not often that we see someone change from a monster to a romantic in a split second, yet that’s what happens towards the middle of F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise. In the scene, George O’Brien’s character, the Man, has decided to murder his wife. As he paddles her out into the foggy waters, his expression is eerie and unchanging, as if he’s in some sort of a trance. He stops paddling, turns to his wife, raises his hands in a way that could mean that he intends to strangle her, and then… well, you’ll just have to see it.
The film: City Lights (1931)
The moment: In a film said to have one of the greatest endings in the history of American film, it’s an earlier scene in the film that still resonates with me today. In it, Chaplin’s Tramp buys a rose from a blind girl and waits to receive his change. The moment that follows took Chaplin over a year to come up with and may be one of the sweetest he ever filmed.
The film: To Live (1994)
The moment: In a movie about two people trying hard to survive rather difficult times, few moments in the film convey as much emotion as the one in which Xu Fugui (You Ge) realizes that it was one of his oldest friend who caused the death of his only son. With a mixture of confusion and angst, Xu Fugui stares at his friend and asks aloud, “How is it that it could be you?” We wonder the same thing.
The film: Not One Less (1999)
The moment: On Zhang Huike’s long journey back to his home in a mountainous area of China, a TV reporter asks him what he’ll remember most about the city. His answer stuns her. “I’ll never forget that I had to beg for food.” I’ve never forgotten it either.
The film: Henry V (1989)
The moment: Kenneth Branagh’s inspirational speech (“We happy few…”) prepping his soldiers for a war that they are vastly outnumbered going into. It may be the finest version of the speech ever recorded on film.
The film: Paths of Glory (1957)
The moment: The soldiers are all in place. The time to advance has come. It matters little that victory is practically impossible. Some general wants an extra medal on his chest. And so Col. Dax exits his quarters and begins his walk through the trenches to the spot from which he will signal the beginning of the advance. It’s one of the intense walks I’ve ever seen.
The film: Red Beard (1965)
The moment: Towards the end of the film, Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) changes the lives of three individuals with an act that seems so simple that you’ll watch it in amazement. However, having seen all that has transpired prior to it, we know just how far Noburu has had to come to be able to do it.
The film: The Quiet Duel (1949)
The moment: Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Takashi Shimura): “If it hadn’t have happened, my son would have become a jerk.” The comment makes you rethink much of what you thought about Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) just moments before.
The film: Malcolm X (1992)
The moment: After being assured that a victim of a hate crime is being taken care of properly at a local hospital, Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) is asked to disperse the rather loud crowd that he led to the hospital a scene earlier. He does this by simply raising his hand to get everyone’s attention and then motioning with his thumb and index finger for the crowd to leave. As he does so, he does not utter a single word. As the scene ended, an audience member let out a simple, “Wow.” I know the feeling.
The film: Sex, Lies and Videotape (1991)
The moment: Graham’s sudden realization that he cannot escape who he is, no matter how hard he has tried to. Sometimes fate is just more powerful than we are.
The film: The Joy Luck Club (1993)
The moment: Ted Jordan (Andrew McCarthy), knees bent, listens as his wife Rose (Rosalind Chao) stands up for herself at last. “I’m listening,” he says. Sometimes, that’s all someone should say.
As always, I welcome your thoughts on the matter.