You are on page 1of 12

The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

The greatest film scenes ever shot

We all have film sequences that stick in our minds. Some are
shared by many – such as the shower scene from Psycho –
others are particular to us. Here our film critic and a panel of
leading movie-makers reveal their favourites. What are yours?

Philip French
The Observer, Sunday 14 March 2010

larger | smaller

Janet Leigh in Psycho. Photograph: Allstar

Who will ever forget the first time they saw the 45-second shower-room murder in
Hitchcock's Psycho? I remember 1959 and 1961 as the years when my first two children
were born. But the first thing that comes to mind about the year in between was seeing
Psycho, which I'd been looking forward to since a radio programme I'd produced the
previous October, when Hitchcock had enticingly described Psycho as "my first real
horror film". Entering the Plaza, Lower Regent Street, the day the film opened, I passed
the cardboard cut-out of Hitchcock in the foyer, from which a tape recording of the
Master's familiar Leytonstone undertaker's voice warned us what would happen if we

1 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

gave away the ending.

Half an hour into the movie, when Janet Leigh stared out at us from the floor, a man
sitting in front of me staggered into the aisle and vomited: testimony to the sensitive
stomachs of the time, or (as several other people I know witnessed a similar incident at
the Plaza that week) evidence that Paramount's publicity department had hired a
method actor for the film's opening run?

Such indelibly iconic moments have been part of moviegoing since the Lumière
brothers' first public screening of a dozen short scenes in December 1895. One of them
had the audience recoiling from a train entering a station, another had them chuckling
when a cheeky boy tricked a gardener into spraying himself with a hosepipe. People
judge a movie by the strength of its story and overall impact, but ultimately what they
remember are individual moments and sequences. This perhaps reflects the very nature
of film, which is a rapid succession of still pictures that provide an illusion of motion.
And until the coming of cassettes and DVDs, few of us were able to see a picture over
and over again or re-view a sequence. So we had to replay it in our minds, and naturally
we'd often get it wrong. Which is how "Play it again, Sam" entered the language instead
of: "Play it, Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'."

James Stewart seems to have been thinking of this approach to cinema when he talked
to Peter Bogdanovich about his craft: "What you're doing is… you're giving people
little… little, tiny pieces of time… that they never forget." This is echoed by Walker Percy
in his 1961 novel The Moviegoer. Some people, his narrator says, "treasure memorable
moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise", but "what I
remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to
the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the
doorway in The Third Man". Likewise Jean-Dominique Bauby, the paralysed French
writer, describes in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly how he'd lie in the hospital
recreating favourite scenes from Touch of Evil, Stagecoach, Moonfleet and Pierrot le
fou. Canny film-makers have cottoned on to the idea, like James Cameron, who says:
"You try to create one or more emotional, epiphanous moments within a film."

These moments come in many forms – simple, complex, lyrical, violent, gentle, witty,
romantic, revelatory – and, if they stick, become as real as any other memory. They can
range from the split-second close-up of the suave spy's missing half-finger in
Hitchcock's The 39 Steps to the protracted pursuit of Cary Grant by the crop-dusting
plane in North by Northwest, from the in-your-face eye-slicing in Buñuel's first silent

2 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

movie, the avant-garde Un Chien Andalou, to the puzzling sequence of the Chinese
businessman's mysterious box in the same director's mainstream success Belle de Jour
40 years later. Like your favourite jokes, your cherished movie moments reveal
something about you and, if shared, they can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,
especially if one of them is the final sequence in Casablanca that features that line.

My own favourites? The Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. The love at
first sight between John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man, the lust at first
sight between Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. The
children running through the woods to see a train in Pather Panchali and finding
grandmother dead on the way back. The cruelly comic soccer match in Loach's Kes.
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie making love in a Venetian hotel in Don't Look
Now. The slow-motion mayhem let loose in The Wild Bunch after William Holden says:
"If they move, kill 'em!" Perhaps my single favourite moment comes in Citizen Kane,
where Kane's now elderly friend Bernstein tells the reporter about an epiphanic memory
of seeing a girl in a white dress on the New Jersey ferry in 1896. "I'll bet a month hasn't
gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." It's a moment about remembering a
moment, and the actor Everett Sloane makes it so vivid we think we've seen that girl



Gene Hackman gets

behind the wheel for The French Connection's famous car chase. Photograph: Ronald

3 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

Grant Archive
Chosen by Ryan Fleck, the American indie film director, writer, editor and
cinematographer, best known for co-writing and co-directing with partner
Anna Boden Half Nelson and Sugar correct(out now on DVD).

The villain's on the elevated subway. You think he's going to get away because a person
on foot can't keep up with the subway… But Gene Hackman jumps in a car and starts
chasing the subway, riding underneath it, going at 80mph, swerving in and out of traffic.
I first saw this scene on video when I was 18 or 19, in college. I loved it.

In action scenes nowadays you can chalk everything up to some kind of computer effect.
Audiences no longer really believe that what they're seeing exists anymore. When The
French Connection was made that notion didn't really occur to people. What you saw
was usually really happening in front of the lens. It was raw. I did a little bit of research
about how they shot the scene. Phenomenal. Basically they just did it. There was no
security blocking off other traffic, just Hackman in a car with a camera mounted on the
front. They went crazy, lost their minds, and went for it.

It was the kind of thing that you just would never get away with these days. I'm editing a
movie right now that has a teenager walking on the Brooklyn Bridge, considering
suicide. He steps out on to a ledge, over traffic… It never even occurred to put the actual
kid out on the ledge, on a bridge, over traffic because we knew there was no way
authorities would let us do that. So there's camera trickery. Back in the 70s we'd have
just thrown a child out over the ledge, seen what happened, and shot it.


4 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

Truffaut's Jules et
Jim. Photograph: BFI
Chosen by Ken Loach, writer/director of the influential docudrama Cathy
Come Home, and director of nearly 30 films including Kes, Riff-Raff, My
Name is Joe and Looking for Eric. He won the 2006 Palme d'Or at Cannes
for The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

This scene always cheers you up. Jeanne Moreau and the two guys on their bicycles in
the sun in France, the music that goes with it… Partly it evokes what you imagine to be
the perfect French vacation but also it's a very fine bit of film-making.

When you're in the business and have been in the business a long time, you tend to
dismember about 99% of films as you're watching. The time when you used to watch a
film just for enjoyment is difficult to recapture. But just occasionally a film will
transcend that. The sense of enjoyment with this trio on their bicycles is perennial. It's
completely evocative of that carefree young moment, the age when people are carefree.
And then of course, for these three, it will all be ruined by the war.

The song that was composed for the film – "Le tourbillon" – became very famous. I'd
sing it for you if I wasn't surrounded by colleagues who would take the piss. I think film
music that tells you what to think is cheap – the film should do that without that
prompting. But in Jules et Jim it is music in relation to the images, the music has an
independent existence and there's a relationship between the two.

It is not something subterranean, there to steer you through every second and push you
into feelings that the pictures don't generate themselves.

5 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer



Bette Davis and Gary

Merrill in All About Eve. Photograph: British Film Institute
Chosen by Beeban Kidron, who came to international attention directing
the BBC's adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's novel Oranges Are Not the
Only Fruit in 1990. She has since directed several feature films including
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and To Wong Foo, Thanks for
Everything, Julie Newmar.

Every single line in this scene is quotable. It's the most beautifully written thing, from an
era of cinema very closely knitted to the theatre, when the words were supposed to
evoke things rather than just be things for people to say while the pictures were going
on. That's something that's very often lost 60 years later.

Margo, played by Bette Davis, is a great Broadway actress at the pinnacle of her power:
brilliant, sophisticated, bitchy. Her assistant Eve, meanwhile, played by Anne Baxter, is
simpering, beautiful and very, very ambitious. Eve is trying to replace Margo, trying to
get her next part on Broadway and take her lover, Bill. This is the scene where Margo
finally loses her rag, having waited upstairs for Bill to throw him a party before
discovering that he's been downstairs with Eve for 20 minutes.

The scene sums up the central themes of the film, to do with Margo's insecurity about
age and about the way that Eve is eating into her life. This is referred to in the dialogue
all the time: Margo finds Eve and Bill talking and immediately asks if she can join in –

6 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

"Or isn't it a story for grown-ups?" Bette Davis, despite being so powerful, gives a
phenomenal performance of insecurity. That is very, very rarely drawn in the cinema.

The question of ageing and of being replaced by the younger, more beautiful woman is
something we can still understand today.



Ray Harryhausen's
Jason & the Argonauts Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature
Chosen by Nick Park, Oscar-winning animator and writer/director of the
Wallace and Gromit films.

As a boy I was into monsters, heroes going off on adventures – and stop-motion
animation. I saw trailers for this film and it seemed to be everything I wanted. I
remember being at a school fair, just before Christmas, and being desperate to get home
to watch it.

The scene that stood out the most, that I found both horrifying and enthralling, was the
skeleton fight at the end. The heroes are all live action and the monsters are all done
with stop-frame animation. It was a terrific technical feat – I think there were eight
animated skeletons or more, cut together quite seamlessly with the live action. The
whole choreography of it was amazing. But the story, too, really caught my imagination.
These skeletons were planted like seeds, by a wizard chap spreading dragons teeth, and
then dead soldiers grow up to fight the Argonauts. So exciting.

7 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

At around the same time I saw Ray Harryhausen, the animator, explain on television
how he had done the skeletons. I immediately went and built my own models with wire
and foam – I think I was planning to film something with my friends, live action, cut
together with a sea monster made out of a coat hanger and nylon tights.

Disney films didn't make me want to go home and do it myself because it was shrouded
in mystery and technique. But when I saw the skeletons in Harryhausen's film I wanted
immediately to do it myself, because you got a sense of how it might be done.



The Star Child from

2001: A Space Odyssey. Photograph: Kobal
Chosen by Stephen Poliakoff. After starting out as a playwright, Poliakoff
turned to writing and directing television dramas including Shooting the
Past, Perfect Strangers and the award-winning The Lost Prince. His feature
films include Hidden City and most recently Glorious 39.

Still, after 40 years, people are arguing about the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What the ending means to the film. The computer taking over, the menacing computer
howl, the foetus – it has passed into cinema folklore. Science fiction was not a genre that
attracted me much, and it was very unsexy in the 1960s. But Kubrick's film was the most
original I had ever seen. It came at me for the first time, completely alone, in a cinema
on a summer afternoon in 1968. I was 15, and it made an extraordinary impression on
me. There was a lot more mainstream "auteur cinema" than there is now, Hollywood

8 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

studios producing personal films. Nevertheless Kubrick stood alone, a titanic figure that
obsessively made films, under great secrecy, and with nobody interfering.

I had never seen such a bold use of cinema, and certainly never such an incredibly
obscure ending. To have spent all that time and money and to have the daring – some
would say foolhardy daring, but nevertheless a magnificent daring – to end the film on
such an elusive and obscure note, I found it amazing as a 15-year-old that anybody
should have the balls to do that. It excited me and changed my whole view of what you
could do as a writer, whatever medium you were attempting – Kubrick's aspiration to be
original. Now it's been much imitated but 2001 was extraordinarily ahead of its time,
and has continued to survive and influence generations.


Robert De Niro as
Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Photograph: British Film Institute
Chosen by Stephen Woolley, the award-winning producer best known for his
collaborations with director Neil Jordan including Interview with the
Vampire and The Crying Game. Recent projects include How To Lose
Friends and Alienate People and the forthcoming Made in Dagenham. In
2005 he made his directorial debut with Stoned.

I remember seeing Taxi Driver for the first time in Paris in the 70s. The taxi gliding
across New York's wet streets, smoke coming out of the subways, it was all incredibly
delicious. It had this thundery Bernard Herrmann score, and when Robert De Niro did
his "are you talking to me?" sequence in front of the mirror you suddenly sensed the

9 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

degree of anger there. It was all bottled up until he explodes with this bravura
performance. It's very clever, very economical, everything concentrated on his eyes.

Sequences like this are not only successful because they are so beautifully created but
also because they often come at a point in a film where you begin to realise where it's
going, you think, "oh my god, I know what this is about". Here you become aware that
not only is Travis Bickle schizophrenic but he's aware of his own schizophrenia. He's like
a genie in a bottle and you're waiting for him to let the genie out – which he does
brilliantly in that horrific sequence later on where he shoots Harvey Keitel's character
and saves Jodie Foster's.

The scene was improvised but De Niro had tried out a version of it in an earlier film he
made with Brian De Palma, I think it's called Hi Mom! I didn't see it until years after
watching Taxi Driver and I remember thinking "I can't believe it – the thing he does in
Taxi Driver!"



Sissy Spacek in Carrie.

Photograph: Ronald Grant
Chosen by Edgar Wright, who co-created Channel 4's Spaced, and has
collaborated with comedian Simon Pegg on hit films Shaun of the Dead and
Hot Fuzz. His latest directing project, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, is out
later this year.

10 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

I always describe Carrie as the Grease of horror movies: it resonates with all ages
because everybody remembers their awkward teenage phase and can watch it and say –
I was the bully or the victim or the person who did nothing. It explores how apocalyptic
your rage can be as a teenager. Carrie's not a killer, she's a girl who has been bullied and
through a terrible confluence of events ends up burning the school down.

It's also unusual for a horror film. It doesn't have someone being killed every 20 minutes
and then a climax – it builds to one huge climax at the prom. School bullies have fixed
the prom so that Carrie White will win and they can humiliate her by tipping a bucket of
pig's blood over her in front of the whole school. The scene and the excruciating
build-up to it is one of the greatest set pieces of all time, full of suspense, with a
monumental payoff.

A crane shot sets up the sequence so you know where everyone is positioned and that
the bucket of blood is above Carrie and Tommy's heads. Once the plot is set in motion
Pino Donaggio's score takes over. The resulting sequence is pure opera.

I first saw Carrie on VHS with my brother's friend when I was about 12. I obsessively
read about horror movies and was dying to see it. I've watched it so many times since.
De Palma planned the sequence for months and battled the studio over the time spent
on filming it. But it was worth the blood, sweat and tears. It still leaves audiences


James Stewart in Rear

Window. Photograph: Kobal

11 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM
The greatest film scenes ever shot | Feature | Film | The Observer

Chosen by Claire Denis, who made her directorial debut in 1988 with
Chocolat. Subsequent films include Good Work and 35 Shots of Rum. Her
latest, White Material, is out in the summer.

We don't have courtyards in France like they do in New York, where Hitchcock's film is
set, but we have street buildings that are set very close to each other. From where I
stand in my kitchen or my bedroom I can watch neighbours' windows very easily. I'm
intrigued by voyeurism, about what is behind windows, and often in my films I stage a
scene as if I was peeping in from outside.

The situation Hitchcock establishes in the opening scene of Rear Window is the
ultimate voyeuristic situation. The character played by James Stewart has broken his
leg, has nothing to do but linger behind his window and watch. He is passive but eager
to find something – to be a witness of something, or to give his imagination something
to chew on. As a spectator in a cinema theatre, you are a sort of prisoner in a chair, like
he is. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

12 of 12 3/17/10 2:11 AM

Related Interests