I wish I had a list of all the movies that I’ve ever seen—movies I've watched and to which I’ve paid attention. I’ve seen so many and seem to remember so few! Over this holiday break, I’ve come to realize that while many movies may be excellent, some very few movies have scenes that are so perfectly crafted that, for me, they focus the film: one scene that captures either the moral or the turning point or some defining characteristic of the main character or the entire film. Not all excellent films have such a moment, but I find that such focal moments happen only in excellent films.
I love Casablanca (1942) and think that everyone knows it as the smoldering, undeniable romance between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Berman)…but to me, at the movie’s core is the sequence with Rick and the Bulgarian refugees…especially when the young wife, Annina, (Joy Page) confides in Rick about her worry and willingness to do “a bad thing” for the love of her husband and the chance to come to America. Listening to her story, Rick moves from glib to resentful to regretful to compassionate, even generous; this scene is the precursor of Rick’s emotional arc in reckoning with Ilsa. Page at 18 embodies the romantic and redemptive power of love that Rick thought he’d had—and thinks he retrieves—with Ilsa.
In It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a fairytale is portrayed as real to deliver an optimistic moral: we don’t appreciate the importance and impact of our own, small lives. When George Bailey (James Stewart) has almost reached his limit, when the horror of a world-where-he’d-never-been-born begins to sink in, he turns to his mother; who doesn’t understand and who hasn’t said at some point in one’s life, “I want my mommy!” In the world-where-he-never-existed, George finds his mother, Mrs. Bailey (Beulah Bondi), running a boarding house…but, she doesn’t recognize him—and it terrorizes him! When she answers the door, he calls her “mother” in desperation. She defensively narrows the door opening and he panics, “I thought for sure you’d remember me!” By the end of the scene, he stares madly into the camera…I recognize not only his terror, but also his isolation in knowing the world both with George Bailey and without George Bailey. His terror and isolation are the antidotes that make clear the value of his life lived.
The movie that sparked this idea is the unequalled 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (originally titled, Scrooge), with its defining scene of Scrooge (Alastair Sim) at the deathbed of his sister, Fan (Carol Marsh). Brought to her bedside, the older Scrooge witnesses the beginnings of his anger and resentment toward his nephew, whom he blames for Fan’s death. The young Ebenezer storms from the room before hearing his sister’s dying plea to care for her soon-to-be-orphaned son. It is a torment that the old Scrooge cannot bear. He grabs his head in his hands and begs forgiveness, “Forgive me, Fan! Forgive me!” It is a focused, defining moment that sums up all that Scrooge has failed to see and failed to live.
In The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the bridge—even before it is built—is at the center of the movie. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) uses the bridge as a tool to establish discipline and pride among the British prisoners; Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) uses the bridge as an emblem of his dominance and leadership in running the prison camp. The story fools the audience into rooting for the bridge’s success, while simultaneously dreading its success: let the British demonstrate their skill by building a bridge that will help lead to their defeat! When the movie reaches its climax, the bridge is revealed to be an emblem of the madness of war, of the madness of the two colonels, of the power of delusion. If the audience is confused as the film progresses, Nicholson finally comes to his—and brings us to our—senses, as he utters his last words, “What have I done?” As a final point of clarity, the doctor, Major Clipton (James Donald), pronounces judgement in the final phrase of the film, “Madness!” The sequence gives an intense and dramatic focus to the film.
In Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the Arab army sweeps into Aqaba from the land in its first important victory…the only port in Jordan, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba on the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula. The director David Lean had spent the previous 45 minutes of the movie draining all color from the landscape: tan, beige, white, black, grey, dun, khaki, clay, umber…the Sun is so intense, it glares white/barely-pale-gold. As the camera pans, the grey desert sand is dotted with the white, black, and beige Arab robes; the Turkish soldiers are dressed in olive drab and khaki; the tan dust rises to obscure the scene, until the music rises to crescendo and deep aqua blue of the Gulf comes into sight…it dazzles. The blue is as refreshing to the eye as the water must be to the victors. Strategically, the city is important to the war—the Arabs can now be supplied by the British Navy; emotionally, it is important to the Arabs—tribes have uniquely banded together to defeat the Turks; personally, it is important to Lawrence—he had imagined and delivered a “miracle” for Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness). As Faisal had said to Lawrence, “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees.” The sequence cements the idea of having and pursuing ideals.
I suppose I can name a dozen or so film moments that focus their film: the murder scene in Grand Hotel (1932); “Cheek to Cheek” dance sequence in Top Hat (1935); Tom Joad’s speech in The Grapes of Wrath (1940); the closing scene with the German girl in Paths of Glory (1957); the bathtub scene in Big Fish (2003); or the police station scene in Manchester by the Sea (2016). Such scenes, I think, prove the power of moviemaking and convince me to keep going to the movies.