11 Must-See Thrilling Movie Scenes

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.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Strong Light of Day by Jon Land, his 7th thriller about Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong!

To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment,You’re In!

Strong Light of Day Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2015/10/11-must-see-thrilling-scenes-jon-land-kaitlin-strong-series-strong-light-of-day-sweepstakes beginning at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) October 8, 2015. Sweepstakes ends 3:59 p.m. ET October 15, 2015. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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.


  1. Fred Gillis

    Count me in.

  2. Joe Brosnan

    I love the list. One scene that will forever stand out to me is the opening scene from Inglorious Basterds where Christoph Waltz’s character interrogates the man hiding the Jewish family underneath the floor boards. So unnerving and thrilling.

  3. JonDLand

    Joe: That’s an absolutely great choice for another scene that could easily have made this list. Brilliant work by Tarantino in all respects. Love to hear others weigh in on anything I missed in my list. Jon

  4. Gordon Bingham

    Great list – would recommned the combat scene/debacle from Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.” One of the best examples of black and white filmmaking ever….

  5. Sharron Walker

    Good choices, has been many years since I have seen some of these. Going to have to catch up with them!

  6. Sally Schmidt

    This list has me running to my DVD shelf to watch all these movies again. Right one with the most thrilling scenes. And thanks for the giveaway!

  7. Karen Barnett

    I haven’t seen them all but I sure do remember the ones I have seen!

  8. Katherine Marion

    Wish the clip for THE BIRDS was here. Haven’t seen that scene in years.
    These are all good. I’ve only seen the older ones in this batch, so I need to see some of the newer ones now. BTW, THE SEARCHERS has always been my favorite John Wayne movie.

    Your books are already on my TBR list, so I would love to win one!

  9. Deb Philippon

    Good choices. But it can only scratch the surface of the wealth of movie memories. Count me in!

  10. sharon miller

    Gives me shivers!

  11. Karen Koziczkowski

    All Great Classic Books/Movies. Love them all, something unique about each one. Would love to read the new one!

  12. Mary Ann Brady

    Sounds great. Would love to win. Thx.

  13. Sharon Kaminski

    Uhhhh, the books sounds like a read that you cannot put down!

  14. Janice

    Great choices. Love all of them. Going to see if I can think of some more.
    Would love to read this book. Ty.

  15. lynette thompson

    This book is a winner, can’t wait until I read it.

  16. Irene Menge

    I haven’t seen all of these movies, but the ones I have nearly scared me to death.

  17. Lynn Marler

    Love this list (espec. the mention of Usual Suspects, 1 of the greatest pix ever!); hope I win the book; thanks for the chance!

  18. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  19. Kermit Crissey

    Fantastic list…..now it is time for me to win!!!!

  20. Russell Moore

    I agree with your choices here, especially “The Searchers,” which I always cite when anyone claims Wayne couldn’t act.
    I would add the final scene from “The Verdict,” where Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin sits, staring into the distance, as the phone rings, knowing it’s the woman who betrayed him. There was more emotion in that blank stare than in most movies.

  21. jjg

    “Luke, I am your father.”
    “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
    “Nobody’s perfect.”
    “Attica! Attica! Attica!”
    “Shane! Come back, Shane.”

  22. Kim Akers

    I can’t disagree with any of your choices except for “No Country for Old Men.” I didn’t care for that movie at all, but you did redeem yourself by including “Casablanca,” “The Searchers,” and “Jaws.”

  23. vicki wurgler

    there was a couple movies on the list I have not seen, have to check them out. thanks for giveaway

  24. Dan Carr

    I love Movies!

  25. Sue Leonhardt

    If I’m not reading, I am watching a good movie with my husband. Thanks for posting this. Looks great!

  26. Dave Cohn

    I’ve read most of this series, and enjoyed them all.

  27. Robin Young

    So many movies, so little time…
    So many great books so little time…
    Would that every day contained at least one of these gems and some of the many others suggested in the comments.

    Thanks for the great list, and for labouring to produce lovely consumable words and works.

  28. sally fowlkes

    So glad to see Three Days of the Condor on your list. Ironically when I saw it in the movie theater the week it opened, the explosive trailer for Jaws premiered. I don’t know how I was able to focus on the movie after seeing a young woman being pulled under water and dragged back and forth by a yet to be seen shark. The scene you chose really hit home that Turner’s life (Redford) had transformed forever…beyond ‘three days’.

    Thank you for continuing your great Caitlin Strong series. I’ve been hooked since you published the first book.

  29. Bonnie Karoly

    I have seen all of these movies. Many of them I really liked. [b]The Thing[/b] gives me the heebie jeebies. I loved the ending of [b]Casablanca. [/b]I wouldn’t want to be in the Robert Redford’s character’s shoes in the [b]Three Days of the Condor[/b]. That scene in [b]No Country for Old Men[/b] is definitely a nail-biter. LOL

  30. Jane Schwarz

    Thanks for reminding me of some of these great movies. Need to see some again. Thanks for the giveaway and always the best in your future endeavors.

  31. Rena

    Great clips. So intense!

  32. Andrew Beck

    I love all those scenes and quite a few would make my own personal list. I remain impressed how good suspense writers, book or screen, can keep comng up with such unique and extraordinary scenes!

  33. Joyce Mitchell

    Great list. Will have to watch these again. Thanks.

  34. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Jon Land is one of my favorite authors! Yes!

  35. susan beamon

    Interesting selection of clips. A lot of movies. I’d forgotten about the kitten playing in Marlon’s lap.

  36. ewhatley

    I still remember the nightmares I had after seeing The Birds – chilling. I’m a Jon Land fan and look forward to reading this book.

  37. Cindy Jameson

    Do I watch too many movies, if I have seen all of these? I watched the clips too! Now I want to watch all of the again…except The Searchers. My ex made me watch that one every year because he says it is the greatest western ever made.

  38. Pam Gibson

    Several of the movies are on my Roku free list, Netflix has others. Now that baseball is almost over, I can watch movies again. Probably not going to binge on these, though; a couple of days in between is a better idea.

  39. Daniel Morrell

    lots of good clips!

  40. Susan Pertierra

    This is a good list of scenes. I remember when I first saw The Birds and how terrifying it seemed. I’ve read several of your Caitlin Strong books and would love to read the new one.

  41. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  42. Sheryl Jeffries

    Great list! I’m not seen “True Romance” I don’t know how I missed it.

    I would love to win a copy of your new book!

  43. Denise Sachs

    This would be great, thanks.

  44. Jim Belcher

    Heavy watching. Hard to upbeat for a while after seening these, but they try to balance the majority if movies that to convince you that all ends happy ever after.

  45. Sandy Klocinski

    In it to win it!

  46. Rio Click

    I am a winner!

  47. Belinda Shaw

    Hope to win!

  48. Barbara Lima

    Good list!

  49. Benita Glickman

    All great movies! And there are so many more greats out there!

  50. Kim Keithline

    great list of movies

  51. Michele Baron

    This is a terrific list….my favorite one is The Godfather

  52. Susan Smoaks

    i want to see all these movies

  53. LabRat517

    These are some of the great movie moments. That’s one of the marks of a great film, scenes and dialog so memorable that it ‘s still remembered years later.

  54. Ed Nemmers

    I appreciate the Hitchcock choice!

  55. Bev Henry

    I would love to see these

  56. Travis Johnson


  57. Tim Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  58. Jerry Marquardt

    This looks like a very great book. I would be homored to read this.

  59. Sand Lopez

    Sounds like a good one!

  60. Richard Hicks

    Something I would like to read

  61. dawn ka

    looks good

  62. Anastasia

    I’d love some Mycroft! Count me in 🙂

  63. Lily

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  64. JULES M.

    great list! i have seen most of these 🙂

  65. Karen Gonyea

    Great List !!

  66. Carl White

    [b]OK, first, best content for a book contest ever. [/b]
    [b]Two, Mr Land really needs to write a book about film, he obviously loves movies and has great taste. [/b]
    [b]Three, being a film buff I could add about 100 movie scenes but one of my favorites is from The Grifters when the Anjelica Huston character tries to seduce the John Cusack character, her son, in an attempt to get his money. [/b]
    [b]Great film if you have not seen it but if you are curious about the scene just go to YouTube and search for “The Grifters A Mother’s Love”. Desperation and greed at its finest on film.[/b]

  67. Philip Lawrence

    I have seen almost all of them and they are great!

  68. Daniel Vice

    I would like this

  69. Lori Walker


  70. Janice Milliken

    Great movies need great scripts. Hoory for writers!

  71. William Causey

    i’m 53 and i only seen three of these movies.where have i been?

  72. Andra Dalton

    Brilliant movie choices from a talented author!!! Can’t wait to get my hands on his latest book!!! Thanks so much for the opportunity to win a copy of Strong Light Of Day & good luck to all who enter!!!:)

  73. Ava Ann Chavez

    Good luck!!!

  74. Linda Peters

    fantastic contest, loved the Usual Suspects, but of course they are all good

Comments are closed.