It’s been said that you can know whether or not you’ll like a movie within the first 15 minutes. By and large, I’ve found this to be true. It’s like trying on a pair of pants and knowing whether or not it’s a good fit. You don’t need to wear them out of the store, out and about in public. This is also why screenwriters understand that the most important part of their film is the first and last 15 minutes. But it takes a little bit more to elevate a film to the beloved class. It takes a magic moment.
Watch enough movies and you’ll realize that there are tons of good movies, and even tons of average movies. But very few achieve greatness. Usually, it takes a magic moment for the audience to realize that they’re witnessing greatness. Sometimes it’s a scene. Sometimes it’s half of a sequence. Other times, it’s as simple as a line of dialogue or, better yet, a sly look from a character on screen. But you’ll know it when you see it. It’s the exact point of a film in which you decide that you will be singing its praises for years.
I’m bringing all of this up because I’ve had this exact experience on two occasions in the last few weeks. The first time was during The Phantom of the Opera (1925), featuring Lon Chaney, Sr. It’s an unquestioned horror classic, a hallmark of Universal’s early forays into horror, and it stars one of my favorite actors. Why I had waited this long to see it, I will never know. But I can’t stress enough how happy I am that I finally watched it. From the ominous first scenes, the tension builds and builds before the Phantom is eventually introduced. But his face is masked, adding to the tension. It’s not until an argument in the middle of the film between Christine, the female lead, and the Phantom that we get a peek at his face. The whole film ramped up to the specific moment that she ripped off his mask, revealing a grotesque, skeletal visage. In fact, Universal went way out of their way in the marketing for the film to avoid showing how monstrous Chaney was under the mask. And it paid off in buckets. With all due respect to the rest of the film, that specific moment- when his face was revealed- was precisely when I knew that I was witnessing something transcendent.
The second experience happened during Busby Berkeley’s Dames (1934). For a few years, I’ve heard about Berkeley’s prowess with kaleidoscopic dance sequences in 1930s musicals. His work was a large influence on both Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and a particularly funny scene in The Big Lebowski (1997)- the Dude’s “Gutterballs” dream. Dames was my first Berkeley film and it started well enough. The humor early in the movie was Sturgesesque. Then in the middle of the film, I saw this dance sequence. Jump to the 4-minute mark.
It blew my mind. You all probably know by now that I’m not typically into musicals and I’m certainly not into dance numbers, but this is something else altogether. It’s Busby Berkeley creating a moving, living, breathing piece of art… using human beings. In short, it was a magic moment, one that carried the film to a higher plane of existence.
These two are just my personal most recent examples. Every truly great film has a specific sequence that makes viewers realize that they’re enjoying something above and beyond the average film. In Ingmar Bergman’s universe, it happens the second Death appears to Antonious Block on the shores of The Seventh Seal (1957). In La Dolce Vita (1960), it’s the scene in the Trevi Fountain. The Social Network (2010) has the Henley Sequence. Few films will top the shower scene in Psycho (1960). And on and on.
These moments in film are unmistakeable and unforgettable. They’re moments where you realize that you’re witnessing movie history, even if minor. They’re the brief, fleeting time when direction, cinematography, screenwriting, and everything else involved with a film reaches the apex, and it is glorious. These are the seconds of cinema that we, as audiences, live for.
What are some of your favorite magic moments?