Join author Jon Land for his 11 must-see thrilling movie scenes, and after you've read and watched, comment for a chance to win a finished copy of Strong Light of Day, Jon's 7th mystery featuring Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong, which is due in stores on October 13, 2015!
1) True Romance: How can a scene that opens with Christopher Walken deadpanning “I’m the anti-Christ and you got me in a vendetta kind of mood” not be brilliant? But what follows is actually classic, one of a kind stuff. Two great actors going head to head with as drop-dead great dialogue as Quentin Tarantino has ever written, trading barbs until Dennis Hopper goes one up on the man he knows who is going to kill him no matter what. He wins by losing, turning the tables on his tormenter in a scene that feels fresh no matter how many times to watch it.
2) Three Days of the Condor: “They didn’t know you’d be here, I knew you’d be here,” Max Von Sydow’s Joubert tells Robert Redford’s Condor before trying to put Condor’s newfound skills to use in the deadly arena he calls a life. Jaubert’s enthusiastic embrace for his chosen lifestyle is bettered only by what follows Condor’s rejection of his overtures. “It will happen like this,” he says, going on to detail the way Condor’s life will likely end and all but predicting exactly what happens in the next scene.
3) No Country for Old Men: Javier Badam’s Anton Chirgurh strolls into a rest stop to pay for his gas and buy a candy bar. What follows is a chilling five-minute sequence as Chirgurh mentally tortures the simple clerk behind the gas register, ultimately whipping out the infamous coin that defines him as a creature of fate more than a man. “Call it,” Chirgurh tells the man, essentially asking the man to relinquish his life to the great power he’s accepted. The scene is a classic study in minimalism where the threat and mere potential for violence creates so much nail-biting suspense it overshadows the fact that nothing ultimately happens.
4) The Godfather: “I believe in America.” That opening line, staged as a voice over, summarizes the entire movie, while the next few minutes encapsulate everything Vito Corleone stands for as the baker Bonasera pleads for justice the Don cannot grant him. The line “Be my friend . . . Godfather” resonates on an emotive level that defies understatement, defining the nature of the power Vito inhabits now and that Michael Corleone will eventually. In my mind, the finest opening scene ever filmed.
5) Chinatown: If The Godfather is defined by its first line, this Roman Polanski classic with Jack Nicholson top-lining is defined by it’s last. “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.” Those last two words summarize the futility of pursuing noble justice in an ignoble world. And it’s a tragically defining moment for the character of private detective Gittes who ventures out from his seedy world of peering through people’s windows to try to do the right thing only to realize that the darkness has swallowed all the light. That the metaphor that is Chinatown now defines all of Los Angeles as well.
6) Jaws: Its origins remain under some dispute, but not its overall brilliance as the great film’s penultimate scene. I’m talking, of course, about Quint’s male-bonding tale of fighting off sharks after the Indianapolis was sunk near the end of World War II. The scene puts a whole new spin on the man versus monster part of the tale, elevating it from the slog of B-level filmmaking to enduring cinematic legend. In a film where each and every scene enjoys its own unique level of nail-biting suspense, Quint’s monologue, wondrously delivered in a single take by Robert Shaw, helps define both the nature of heroism and the unstoppable force of nature that is the shark our heroes must slay in order to preserve their own humanity.
7) The Usual Suspects: No sequence better defined this modern noir masterpiece than Chazz Palminteri’s visual sweep of the cluttered wall Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint has been staring at for most of the film, ending with his coffee cup smashing to the floor in horrific realization that he had the devil and let him go. Unveiled against the backdrop of Keyser Sose’s stunning reveal, a great crime film becomes a cinema classic right before our astonished eyes, as Palmentieri’s Dave Kujan strings a sequence of lies together that should have been obvious the whole time. “Convince me,” he had said earlier to the man he thought was Verbal Kint. “Tell me every last detail.” And that’s exactly what Verbal does, making all those details up, a fact that dawns on Kujan in that one spectacularly dramatic moment.
8) Casablanca: Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine has just shot the evil Nazi Major Strasser so his one true love can safely escape the city. A mere moment later Claude Rains’ Captain Louie Renault utters one of the greatest lines in film history to a truckload of Nazi soldiers, while staring right at Bogie: “Major Strasser has been shot. . . . Round up the usual suspects.” Both the line and timing are pitch perfect, brilliantly encapsulating a film about blurred levels of morality and heroism.
9) The Searchers: One of the greatest films of all time, featuring John Wayne’s invention of the modern anti-hero. Wayne’s bigoted Ethan Edwards sets off not to rescue his niece, played by Natalie Wood, but to kill her in full awareness of what her Indian kidnappers intend to turn her into. The success of his 9-year journey not withstanding, the level of Edwards’ evolution as a character remains up for argument. What isn’t up for argument is the greatest final fadeout in film history when Wayne’s character stands in the doorway, hand famously on his hip, while his family rejoices in his niece’s return. Unable and unwilling to join them, he turns and walks off back into the alienated world of the modern Western hero that spawned the likes of Dirty Harry and John McClane.
10) The Thing: Most remakes fall woefully short of the original. Not so with this John Carpenter shocker which created a new benchmark for sci-fi horror starting with the “Thing” of the title making its initial appearance, shedding its guise inside the dog pen. The next scene, shot without benefit of today’s CGI, redefined the genre forever. Carpenter’s brilliant utilization of light, or the lack of it, creates an elegant set piece of murky terror that sets the stage for a penultimate battle for survival by a small group of ill-prepared men isolated in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica. A scene that remains scary and unsettling no matter how many times you watch it.
11) The Birds: In a film packed with classic sequences that defined Hitchcock at his level best, the one that most endures is the attack of the birds on the simple house (hopefully) fortified by Rod Taylor’s Mitch Brenner. What follows is one of the most harrowing, and imitated, scenes in the history of film as the entire nature of family/home serving as a refuge is turned on its ear. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen once we’re inside with the doors locked behind us. But, in a harbinger of things to come in film, we learn there are some things from which nothing can protect us.
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Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of the 38 novels, including seven titles in the critically acclaimed Caitlin Strong series. Caitlin Strong returns this October in Strong Light of Day, to be followed by Darkness Rising, his sci-fi collaboration with Heather Graham coming from Forge in June of 2016. Jon is a 1979 graduate of Brown University, lives in Providence, Rhode Island and can be found on the Web at jonlandbooks.com or on Twitter @jondland.