April 1, 2010

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?

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 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 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 ourselves.

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.

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.

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 – "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.

READ more about other famous scenes HERE