Five Breathless Moments in Film


The Night of the Hunter

I’m not normally a person of lists, but I have considered several lists over the years which I felt needed to be collected. In this particular case it is a collection of moments in movies which I have deemed as amazing visions from a director. Some films are ‘great’ and not in the status of IMDB’s coveted top 250 list but for a few minutes I believe they achieved greatness either through character development, story twists or artistic composition.


1. Signs

People are way too hard on poor M. Night. To be honest he is one the only filmmakers in the business working with original ideas. I think his biggest problem is that they never get beyond the good idea part of conception. The back to back goodness of ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘Unbreakable’ put too much weight on his fan base. Sadly every movie he did suddenly had to have a great twist ending, and if there was no grand finale then the movie was obviously terrible. ‘Signs’ is a movie I really enjoyed because it used an alien invasion to discuss a man’s faith. For me that’s where most people missed the point, the “signs” of the title are aren’t about aliens, its about the “signs” of faith. In the case of this list, my breathless moment is the loss of a man’s faith. Mel Gibson’s character, a pastor, must see his wife for the last time. She was in an accident and is now pinned between a tree and a car. Her life is hanging by the proverbial thread. When they move the car she’ll die but they wait for Gibson’s character to arrive at the accident and have a last moment with his wife. What does any one say to a loved one in that horrible and unimaginable instance? A tragic and touching scene.

2. A Simple Plan (SPOILER!!)

There is a twist to the ending of this movie but not the kind you are thinking of. The twist is from an extremely brave narrative choice the filmmakers took. They set it up and leave you knowing that there really isn’t a better option. It was the only option. Hank has to kill his own brother, Jacob. The saddest part of it all was that Jacob asks Hank to do it. Almost begging. I cannot for the life of me think of a more heart breaking scenario. Yes in Godfather Part II Michael has Fredo killed, but this was different, so much more personal and necessary. Jacob’s setup as a character is of such great despair and helplessness. He has all these grand fantasies about what money could bring him. Then at the end of the film all he gets is a cold snowy forest where is own brother will execute him. For his parting words all he can say is “I’m tired.”

3. The Fisher King

Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ is my favorite film of all time. Its a tough cookie to crack but its the first time I watched a film realizing the possibilities of an auteur’s imagination at work. Gilliam seems to sway between independent films and one with more studio backing. ‘The Fisher King’ seemed to find him in the middle. He had two big name actors, Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, but a script I could just see a studio exec taking deep breaths while reading. It is not the strongest of Gilliam’s films but has his signature style of mixing fantasy with reality. In this case Robin William’s character is a homeless guy who thinks he’s on the quest for the Holy Grail. Its funny in scenes, weird in others and at some points just down right depressing. Thanks to William’s pseudo dementia he imagines things that aren’t really there, sometimes very beautiful things. In this case, he sees a storm of people in rush hour going too and fro in the underground subway, but what he actually sees is a ballroom dance. This had to have been one of the most difficult things in the world to choreograph. At one moment we see people on a mad dash then they effortlessly turn into a collective of ballroom dancers then back to rushing around. As far as I can tell there was no CGI at the time to accomplish this task. This is the canvas that Gilliam’s brain works in. Simply amazing.

4. In the Bedroom

I love getting people to watch this movie. So many people have not seen and its one of the best character noir films ever made. The setup is like a meat hook in the eye, at one moment we are watching a tense family drama and in seconds we are being taken down a dark path of murder and revenge. Early in the film a young man is murdered by his lover’s ex-boyfriend. The brilliant Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, as the young man’s parents are given a mountain of grief to deal with and while they try to take it out on each other, it simply isn’t enough. To make things worse their son’s killer gets off due to a technicality. They see him around town and at the same grocery store. Awkward does not even begin describe these scenes. Where the film ends up you will have to experience for yourself. I often take independent movies for granted but in one unexpected moment of violence, I dare any one to try and take your eyes from the screen.

5. The Night of the Hunter

One may recall the tattoos on Robert De Niro’s hands in Cape Fear (which in itself was a remake of an older movie). His hands were tattooed with ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’. This eerie body art choice originated from ‘The Night of the Hunter’. Robert Mitchum stars the titular ‘Hunter’ as he chases down his very smart step-children. Mitchum’s Preacher Harry Powell is a character for the ages. A false religious man driven by the greatest of all sins; Greed. He marries a saddened but wealthy widow, Shelley Winters, seducing her with his faith in the God, only to be secretly plotting her death so that he may claim her money. One final road bump however is that the money is left first to her children and so begins one of the most gorgeously filmed chases on celluloid. The director Charles Laughton, who, for the record’s sake, directed nothing else after a poor box office, had an incredible eye for creating ominous sequences and eerie shot compositions. When viewing the ghostly figure of Shelley Winters drowned under water, it is the unquestionable mark of a master, one can only wonder what other masterpieces he might have directed.