There’s This One Scene…

The great thing about the movies (and books, music, theater, and literature) is that you don’t have to enjoy the whole work to take something away from it.  It certainly helps if you like the whole movie and my favorite cinematic experiences are the movies that speak to me from start to finish.  But every so often, there’s a movie I’m not particularly enthused about, maybe one I don’t even really like, but it’s a got a scene that I do like and I watch it over and over.  And then, I shut if off (or change the channel or stream something else, whatever the case may be).  Tonight on TCM, there’s one such movie on the schedule (what are the odds?) and while I’m not a fan, there’s one scene I’ve watched a hundred times and will probably watch a hundred more.  The movie is Sweet Charity and the scene is when that ultimate groovy cat, Sammy Davis, Jr, performs The Rhythm of Life.  The rest of the movie I don’t really watch.


I’ve written before about how Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, starring Giulietta Masina, is one of my favorite films and that in and of itself has effectively soured me on Sweet Charity, it’s musical remake.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to offer, musical-wise, and Bob Fosse’s choreography is always terrific, but I just can’t get into it, especially the way it reduces the troubles of our lead heroine to a trivial state (in the original, she loses everything and it’s heartbreaking).  All that said, however, I just love that dated, groovy, over-the-top number performed by the show-stopping Sammy Davis, Jr.  I’ve watched the movie just to get to that number and, since the advent of the internet, have simply called it up online many a times.   Other movies follow the same pattern.

Cimarron, for instance.  It’s not a Best Picture winner anyone has any real respect for and I’m definitely no great defender of it.  I find Richard Dix’s performance a bit riper every time I see it (but he’s great in The Whistler movies, years later) and the story just isn’t that interesting or, perhaps, better said, it could be interesting but is rushed through and filled with uninteresting exchanges.  The land rush sequence, however, always holds my interest.  It’s not that later movies, with bigger budgets, better special effects, and more advanced camera work, didn’t come up with better action scenes than this one, but there’s something so real about it.  Taken out of the context of the movie’s story, it’s fascinating to simply realize that they got that many people together on horses, in wagons, and on foot, to all start rushing, headlong, in the same direction.  It’s the scene that probably won it the Oscar and while I wouldn’t give it an award due to just one scene, I will watch that scene again and again.

Speaking of frowned upon Best Picture choices, The Greatest Show on Earth is another one that bores me pretty much to tears every time I see it.  But that train wreck, with its awesome miniature train and car slamming into each other, and then the full size mock-up cars throwing the actors and extras about, while circus animals scurry for safety, is a scene I can, and have, watched dozens of times.  The rest of the movie never gets a second look from me.


This next one’s a bit of cheat (somebody call the blog police!) because I actually like the whole movie and watch the whole movie if it’s on.  But… I also will simply watch one scene from it over and over if I can and that movie is Spellbound.  And, yes, I’m talking about the dream sequence, the one whose set design was created by Salvador Dali.  I am aware it’s a rather obvious choice but, still, I love it.  And, again, I like the whole movie but I love that sequence more than I love the rest of the movie combined.  Actually, this same logic applies to a lot of Hitchcock for me.  I love many of his movies all by themselves but all of his movies also have some fantastic scene, or two or three, that I can watch time and time again without watching the rest of the movie.  Like the climax of Strangers on a Train.  It’s one of Hitch’s masterworks, in my opinion, and one of my favorite all time movies, but I can still just watch that climax by itself over and over.

Other movies have more to do with set pieces than anything else.  If it’s a biblical epic, there’s a good chance it has some big budgeted action scene that I can watch and rewatch multiple times and just as good a chance the rest of the movie will leave me cold.  The Ten Commandments I find pretty entertaining, actually, but still, I can just watch the parting of the Red Sea and I’m fine.  With Ben-Hur, the sea battle and chariot race are all I really need, and Sampson destroying the temple is really all I want to see of Sampson and Delilah.

Of course, there are dozens and dozens of others and there’s a part of me that thinks if a movie can produce even one great scene or sequence, it’s done its job.  As much as I love almost all forties and fifties sci-fi, I don’t find a lot to get excited by in When Worlds Collide but damned if I don’t love the whole special effects sequence when the planets pass by each other and earthquakes, floods, and fires break out.  It’s pretty spectacular, especially for a fan of old-timey miniature work.  So, for me, When Worlds Collide, succeeds because the one big effects sequence it has works splendidly.  So even if I don’t like a movie, that doesn’t mean I might not recommend it.   You’ll know when you hear me say, “but there’s this one scene…”

12 Responses There’s This One Scene…
Posted By Bill : January 30, 2015 2:48 pm

‘Course in another genre of films it’s called “the money shot”. Even in great films like GOOD, BAD, and THE UGLY, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Leone’s virtuostic climatic gun duels stand out as pure cinema. Others are odder: the jitterbug contest in 1941, and even the aptly-titled “Anything Goes” number in Chinese in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. And various Hitchcock characters looking at or reaching out to an until then unacknowledged audience.

Posted By Marjorie Birch : January 30, 2015 2:49 pm

Alfred Hitchcock –favorite scene — Notorious: Claude Rains/Alexander Sebastian — the discovery scene, wordless. He awakens and immediately a look of fear and worry crosses his face… he already knows something is Not Right, so he goes to the wine — find the mis-filed bottle, the broken glass, the spilled granules… no words, just an expression of terror and betrayal… and then he leaves, and climbs to the staircase to betray the wife who has just betrayed him.

And in “The Passionate Friends” any scene with Claude Rains in it. Otherwise, the rest of film is (to me) somewhat brittle and almost entirely bereft of logical motivation — I mean, hell’s bells, why DIDN’T she marry Trevor Howard when she had the chance?

Posted By Andrew : January 30, 2015 3:07 pm

A classic and a modern:
The heist from Rififi and the opening credits from Watchmen.

Posted By kingrat : January 30, 2015 6:07 pm

Great topic! I love THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS, but the great scene is in the taxi after the costume ball. Claude Rains and Ann Todd not saying what they mean. The back projection work is state of the art, and the lights and soundtrack give us the sense of passing cars. An aria of a scene. Absolute cinematic perfection.

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER is kind of a dud, but who can forget Natalie Wood going bonkers in the sound booth as she tries to lip synch to the lyrics, “The circus is a wacky world! How I love it!”

HUNGRY HILL is worth seeing, though it has the usual problems when a saga covering two or three generations gets shoehorned into a two-hour movie. And it has one great scene. There’s a pause during a ball in an Anglo-Irish manor. The fiddler begins playing, for himself, an Irish jig, and the dancers, dressed in their finery, start dancing because they can’t resist, and the music gets wilder, the dancing gets faster, and finally Margaret Lockwood leads the dancers outside where she kicks off her shoes. If Minnelli had directed it, this would be famous. Credit to Brian Desmond Hurst.

Posted By Emgee : January 30, 2015 8:42 pm

Talking about biblical epics: most of The Sign of the Cross is pretty near unwatchable, but those scenes in the arena are astounding, for all the wrong reasons. And of course Colbert’s infamous milk bath. DeMille did sin better than sanctimonious stuff.

Posted By gregferrara : January 30, 2015 9:47 pm

I love that Claude Rains has come up more than once already because if he’s in a movie, no matter how big or small a role, he’s almost always my favorite actor on the screen.

Posted By Marjorie Birch : January 30, 2015 10:02 pm

to Greg: Claude Rains… because if he’s in a movie, no matter how big or small a role,…

ain’t it da troof? I even watched that horrendous “Hearts Divided” because he was on the screen for maybe fifteen minutes, as Napoleon. Didn’t expect to see him in a bath tub. Be still, my heart…

Posted By Marjorie Birch : January 30, 2015 10:14 pm

to kingrat: TPF — cab scene — “One should never let the enemy known when he’s being observed…”

oh, I think he said what he meant, that time.

Posted By george : January 31, 2015 3:06 am

“With Ben-Hur, the sea battle and chariot race are all I really need …”

So true. Two of the greatest action scenes ever, surrounded by literally HOURS of dreary talking-heads stuff.

Posted By Emgee : January 31, 2015 12:16 pm

Just saw 48 hrs again after many a year. Basically all that still stands up is the redneck bar scene. The rest is pretty much standard shoot-em-up and car chase stuff.

Posted By gregferrara : January 31, 2015 2:41 pm

I haven’t seen 48 HOURS since I saw it in the theater and maybe later that same year on cable. The redneck bar scene is practically all I remember so I think your assessment is probably spot on.

Posted By Syd : February 1, 2015 2:38 pm

In a 1972 BFI interview, Jimmy Stewart had a good story on just this topic:

“…I’m beginning to believe that, in films, what everyone is striving for is to produce moments — not a performance, not a characterization, not something where you get into the part — you produce moments that create a feeling of believability to what you’re doing…

…I was making a Western in British Columbia and we were on the Columbia Icefields. It was raining and there was heavy mist around, so we couldn’t shoot, so we were all huddled around a fire. Suddenly, out of the mist, came a man, and he was not a young man. He had a beard-…and he was a miner type, he was dressed like a miner. He came closer to us and he said, ‘Which one of you is Stewart?’

‘I am.’

He came over and looked at me and said, ‘Oh, yeah. Yeah. I recognize ya. Well, I heard you was here, and I thought I’d come up and say hello. I’ve seen a lot of your picture shows, but I think the one I liked best—you were in this room and your girlfriend was in the next room and there were fireflies outside, and you recited a piece of poetry to her. I thought that was a nice thing for you to do.’

And I remembered exactly the moment, exactly the film, who was in it, who directed it, and I also realized that that picture had been released twenty years before. That man made a tremendous impression on me. To think that I had been part of creating a moment that this man had liked and had remembered for twenty years. I’ll never forget it. That’s what I mean by the moment.”…

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