By Alan Hurst
I can very easily track my movie awakening to two specific years – 1965 and 1972.
In 1965 I remember being taken to my first movie – Mary Poppins – a few months after its initial release. Suddenly movies existed for me and I wanted to see more. I recall going to a double bill of My Fair Lady (1964) and John Goldfarb Please Come Home (1965) – an unlikely combo – at the local drive-in. I remember a few more trips to Mary Poppins and, of course, The Sound of Music. I think this was probably all within the span of a few months.
Then there was the winter of 1972 when I managed to get someone to take me to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Cabaret (1972). I was mesmerized by both, although at the age of 12 I’m sure I didn’t have much understanding of what was actually going on in Cabaret. But from that point on I would go to see anything I could. I wasn’t too discerning then – I could be as thrilled watching Diana Ross in the misfire Mahogany (1975) as I was seeing Al Pacino in the acclaimed Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
I think what hooked me were moments in each of those movies (the good ones and the bad ones) that just stayed with me. These are 10 of those moments:
10. Deciding Who Gets to Leave the Jungle in Five Came Back (1939)
This efficiently directed B film from RKO was a precursor to the disaster films of the 1970s. It’s the story of a group of nine disparate people on a small plane headed from Los Angeles to Panama City. They end up crash landing in the Amazon jungle, driven off course by a storm. From there it’s a ticking time bomb of stress, survival and intrigue. They work to get the plane ready to try and leave the jungle, but it can only accommodate the weight of five people to ensure it can take off. The tension continually builds – some of the passengers find inner strength (including Lucille Ball as a reformed prostitute), others become burdens, and there is a growing threat of violent natives just beyond where they’ve landed. When the plane is ready to take-off, one of the passengers who is a political prisoner seizes the sole gun and selects who gets to leave. It’s a tense, calculated few minutes as he logically makes his selections. I saw this film on the late show as a teenager and that final scene stayed with me. A recent viewing on DVD shows Five Came Back still delivers and the final scene is still incredibly tense.
9. The Reunion in Brokeback Mountain (2005)
There are many wonderful moments in Ang Lee’s exploration of the love between two men in a time when that wasn’t even remotely accepted. But a scene when the two get together a few years after spending a summer together herding sheep in Wyoming is electric. When they part after the summer, you’re not sure if they will see each other again. Ennis (Heath Ledger) is the more conflicted of the two, having married and fathered two daughters, but when Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into town after four years the attraction and passion is both charged and sad. As the two passionately hold each other and kiss you just feel they can’t get enough of each other and, at the same time, they can’t believe it’s happening. But you also know it’s doomed as Ennis’ wife (Michelle Williams) watches from a door. The scene isn’t long, but Lee and his actors are able to take you from elation to dread in a matter of minutes.
8. Martinis and Seat Belts in All About Eve (1950)
Bette Davis made martini’s appealing and sophisticated as Margo Channing in All About Eve, Jospeh L. Mankiewicz’s witty and absorbing back-stage comedy. At various points throughout the movie Margo is firmly gripping a martini stem and devouring the gin and vermouth inside. It’s not just sipping, with Margo it’s a wide-mouthed gulp. Before we get to her famous line – “Fast your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” – delivered on the stairs as she sashays to greet her guests, we’re treated to a jealousy tinged verbal jousting match between Margo and her director/lover played by Garry Merrill. There’s screaming, accusations, martinis and chocolate. When some friends arrive and ask why the mood in the air is so “Macbethish”, Margo/Davis gives everyone a withering look, downs another martini and delivers the famous line as she pauses on the stairs. Great dialogue, crisply directed, brilliantly performed.
7. When the Tidal Wave Hits in The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Disaster movies were a big thing in the 1970’s and The Poseidon Adventure is probably the best of the bunch. The plot – about an overturned ship and its passengers trying to make their way to the bottom (now the top) of the boat in the hopes of a rescue – is pure hokum, but not to a 12-year old kid. This one really caused my brain to go into overdrive. How did they do it? How would it stay afloat? As the tidal wave hit and the boat started to list, I was mesmerized. Director Ronald Neame had his cast bouncing all over the place, sliding along the floor, then the walls, and falling to the ceiling when they couldn’t hold on anymore once the boat completely turned over. At the time I remember thinking I would never get on a boat, ever. I have, but this scene is always in the back of mind whenever I do.
6. The Drowning Scene in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Although filmed 74 years ago, this scene still has the ability to shock. Leave Her to Heaven is one of the great melodramas of the 1940’s – beautifully filmed in technicolor and wildly over the top, with a central performance by Gene Tierney as Ellen that is flawless. Along with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), this is probably the best thing Tierney ever did. She plays a possessive young woman who wants nothing to come between her and her new husband (Cornel Wilde). That includes his younger disabled brother who has come to live with them. She wants the brother gone and sees an opportunity when she’s in a row boat watching him while he shows her how far he can swim. He starts to get tired, but Ellen encourages him to keep going, knowing he can’t. The camera cuts between her impassive face, with her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, and the drowning boy. She doesn’t move from her spot in the boat and registers no emotion. She only starts to scream when she hears her husband approach, after the boy is dead. It’s a chilling moment.
5. The Mother and Son Kiss in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
We know that Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin is up to no good in this thriller about politics, brainwashing, and communism but the full extent of her evil is revealed in a sobering scene between Lansbury and her son, played by Laurence Harvey. Harvey has been programmed while he was a POW to carry out commands. Mrs. Iselin is now manipulating her son to carry out the assassination of her party’s nominee for president so her husband can be elevated to the position and then move toward a full takeover of the government by Communists. As she articulates her plan in a cold, weary, but determined voice – and as she’s followed closely by director John Frankenheimer’s camera – she’s not only off putting but terrifying. And then the kiss on her son’s lips at the end seals it. Probably Lansbury’s finest film performances and one of my favourite films of the 1960s.
4. The Opening Travelogue from the Alps to the Hill Top in The Sound of Music (1965)
Robert Wise’s opening scene in The Sound of Music is almost identical to what he did with the film version of West Side Story (1961). But instead of the concrete jungle of 1961 New York, we’re flying across the Austrian Alps, with the sound of wind on the soundtrack. Pretty soon we can hear some faint notes of music as we start seeing the lush green of the trees, the lakes, the castles and, very quickly, the orchestra starts to swell, as the camera races towards a solitary figure running up the side of a hill. The camera zooms, the figure turns and it’s Julie Andrews launching full throttle into the film’s title tune. It’s a wonderful opening and one that can still build anticipation every time I watch it (and that’s a lot of times). Say what you want about the movie, but that opening is breathtaking.
3. The Elimination Round in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is the story of a group of down trodden people participating in a dance marathon during the depression. This entire movie had a major impact on me that hasn’t subsided over the years. The first time I saw it the one scene that’s like a punch to the gut is an elimination round that takes place weeks into the marathon. The exhausted participants stop dancing and have to race around the dance floor, and the last three couples to cross the finish line will be eliminated. Jane Fonda’s partner (Red Buttons) has a fatal heart attack during the race and she ends up dragging him across the finish line, not knowing he’s dead and screaming at him to walk, as director Sydney Pollack cuts quickly between them and the other participants. This is all played out to the tune of “California Here I Come”, performed faster and faster by the orchestra, as the assembled crowd cheers. Powerful stuff and one of Fonda’s best performances.
2. The Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes (1968)
Upon a first viewing of Planet of the Apes on the late show at some point in the 1970s, I remember being shocked at the sight of the remains of the Statue of Liberty as Charlton Heston’s character made his way along the beach. The scene was shocking, surreal and caused a bit of mental whiplash as I tried to adjust to the fact that for the previous two hours they actually had been on earth, not some far off planet in another universe. When astronaut Heston and his crew crash land at the beginning of the movie, the year is 3878. Although it looks like they’re in some desert wasteland, they really don’t know where they are. They just assume it’s not earth. We don’t know how long they wander the desert, but they eventually find vegetation, fresh water, and some animalistic humans. Then come the apes – clearly running the show. This is one of the great adventure/science fiction films of the 1960s and, when Heston is finally free of captivity, it’s a brutal slap for him and the audience when that statue comes into view.
1. The Final Round of Bullets in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
We shouldn’t care about them, but we do. We’ve watched Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker murder, rob and pillage their way across the mid-west and southern United States. But we’ve also gotten to know them and root for them to get it together, give it up and lead a normal life. By the end of the film they seem to genuinely want to turn over a new leaf, but we know it probably won’t happen because of the trail of blood they’ve left behind them. Still, when they pull over on the side of the road to help their gang mate’s father, we aren’t ready for what’s next. We quickly realize it’s a set-up. The old man they’re helping looks toward some rustling bushes, he then rolls under his truck, there’s a cut to Bonnie and Clyde sharing knowing looks, and then from the bushes a hail of bullets that seems to last forever. It’s a shocking, fitting and perfectly filmed ending to an engrossing story and an amazing film.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.