Among all the wonder and magic, there is of course a serious side to Spielberg’s work. The man can build tension, like LEGO build bricks. Here in my latest Spielberg Top 10 I take a look at 10 of the most tense moments in his films. This was a tough one and I’m sure people will point out personal favourites that didn’t make my final cut, for example there is no room for the excrutiating ascent up the hill at the climax of Duel as David Mann’s car starts to give up the advantage, likewise the caravan cliffhangar in the Lost World, which will be saved for a later countdown. I hope you enjoy the list but as always, comments, discussion and feedback very much welcomed.
10. “Let’s go, let’s do it, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go let’s publish” – The Post (2017)
Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham has the most difficult of decisions to make. Taking over the paper started by her father and then ran by her late husband (who committed suicide), she had no real journalistic experience and was often overruled or patronised by her all male board. Through a series of contacts the paper gets hold of a number of documents that would show that America’s involvement in the Vietnam war was a lost cause. If the Post were to publish it would be a major news coup and hugely increase their circulation, on the other hand it may bring criminal charges against the paper from the United States government. The shareholders and board members don’t wish to publish because of the latter, where as Editor in Chief Ben Bradlee (an underrated and very gravelly Tom Hanks) believe it to be in the nations best interest as the press have the right to publish. The question here is, does Katherine have the backbone to stand up to the misogynistic board who feel she is greatly out of her depth.
Spielberg’s brilliance here is that he manages to ring enough tension in a two and half minute phone call that the viewer can literally chew on it. It’s also a major turning point in the film, Katherine finds her feet and her inner confidence that results in one of the finest transformations of character in a Spielberg film as she delivers the most cutting line to her board “This is no longer my father’s company. It’s no longer my husband’s company. It’s my company.” She is now in control and don’t you doubt it.
9. Abandoned in the Woods – A.I (2001)
Spielberg’s hidden masterpiece is almost 3 films in one, you have the psychological, almost horror, first act where Monica and Henry Swinton get given David, a prototype Mecha child, to help come to terms with the supposedly terminal illness of their son Martin. The second act is a chase movie, where David desperately searches for the fabled Blue Fairy whilst avoiding being caught by the authorities, and the third and final act is projected science fiction as David is transported thousands of years into the future to discover his and his loved ones fate.
The focus for this top 10 will be the climax of Act 1 where (SPOILER ALERT), Monica abandons David in the woods, after one too many accidents involving David and her miraculously recovered son Martin, Monica realises that David is potential danger to the family and must be removed. However, knowing that David will be destroyed if returned to his maker, Monica can’t bring herself to do that so she plans a picnic for David in the woods with the ulterior motive to leave him there to defend for himself.
David is programmed to love Monica, but the real question is, can Monica love David back? This scene demonstrates the torment and conflict that Monica, played wonderfully throughout by Frances O’Connor, is going through. As a distraught and terrified David hammers on the window of the car as she pulls away we are left with the indelible image of David drifting into the distance silhouetted perfectly in Monica’s wing mirrors.
It’s a Spielberg speciality to show case parent and child separation, but here we don’t have a real human child, or do we? With David showing some sentient characteristics, we are left wondering just exactly what Monica has just abandoned in the woods.
8. The Phone bomb – Munich (2005)
2005 was the fifth year that Spielberg released two films in the Cinema. Once again, he attempted to follow the formula of one for the multiplex crowd and one for the serious Cineastes. What was slightly different this time was that both Munich and the darker than dark War of the Worlds (more about that one later in the blog) were both desperately bleak films, that offered little in the way of optimism or sentimentality that Spielberg had often been accused of, (although War of the Worlds does have a rather interesting ending that isn’t really in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film).
Courting controversy from it’s inception, Munich could possibly be Spielberg’s most misunderstood and misrepresented film. A tale of “eye for an eye” brutality and the glorification of revenge wasn’t something that Spielberg was used to having to deal with. What Munich actually is a fictional, taut, tense thriller set to the backdrop of horrific real life events. A film that is tense from the word go, there is very little to lift the gloom, but a fascinating watch all the same. A film that is truly difficult to tear your eyes away from once it starts.
There are a number of scenes that i could have chosen from Munich to include in this blog, but I have gone for the phone bomb scene as it includes perfectly orchestrated set up, sweat inducing close calls, involving a potentially devastating victim who was an unintended target.
Spielberg perfectly captures the horror and conflict of the attackers, illustrating the inner turmoil of the so called “good guys”. Munich is an astonishing piece of Cinema and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Schindler’s Lists and Saving Private Ryans of this world.
7. Raptor attack – Jurassic Park (1993)
If the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park is pure Cinematic monster horror, then the stalking of the children in the kitchen by the Raptors is pure nail biting Cinema. Cold and calculating the Raptors engage in a game of cat and mouse with young Tim and Lex as they shelter in one of the theme parks as yet unopened kitchen (bearing in mind no-one has been in that kitchen yet, that cupboard door really should shut better).
The T-Rex attack is pure terror, whereas there is a more sinister edge to the Raptors. Game keeper, and part-time alarmist, Robert Muldoon explains how the Raptors systematically work out their surroundings, remember they never attack the same part of fence twice. Dr Grant has already informed the audience how Raptors work as a team, “you stare at him, and he just stares right back. And that’s when the attack comes. Not from the front, but from the side, from the other two raptors you didn’t even know were there.” Oh yeah, and just when you think these 6 foot turkeys can’t get anymore menacing, they can open doors as well.
The Raptors appear to enjoy the hunt, the teasing of their prey, the wicked grin of torment that seems to light up their faces as they realise they have the children cornered. Some quick thinking involving a slippery floor and a fridge door relieves the pressure and tension for a while. However, whilst the T-Rex would slump despondently away waiting for the next flicker of movement, the raptors won’t be pacified with that, they want the victims they are working as a team to get.
It’s yet another fine example of perfectly choreographed tension and is Spielberg at his most fluid. Talking about perfectly choreographed tension….
6. “Pipet….Pipet” – Jaws (1975)
Ok, so this might seem an obvious choice to include but what we have here is a young director throwing everything into one of the most carefully constructed storyboarded scenes in modern Cinema. Packed to the rafters with clever camera fakes and comical red herrings, (that’s some bad hat Harry). At this point of the film we know there is a shark out there, we know also that the mayor wants the beaches open, so you know what is going to happen, it is not going to end well.
So the true mastery of this scene, is that despite the audience knowing all of this, Spielberg manages to wring the tension out of every oversized towel on the beach. Similar to the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park, Spielberg drops the score, employing John Williams to be more than just a character technique, bringing in the ominous dur dum at just the right moment. The red herrings have swam away, leaving the stage for the arrival once more of Carcharodon carcharias to grab an Alex Kintner sized snack.
Capturing the frozen in fear moment with Cinema’s most famous dolly shot, the first of two nods to Hitchcock, replicating his innovative camera work from Vertigo, accompanied with a Bernard Herrman inspired violin screech reminiscent of Psycho.
A scene that anyone reading this blog will have seen a thousand times, but there is a reason we go back to watch it again and again, we love the fear.
5. The basement search – War of the Worlds (2005)
Back to 2005 for this one and Spielberg’s completely unfamily friendly summer blockbuster. Packed full of post 9/11 paranoia, War of the Worlds, like Munich, is a thoroughly draining watch from start to finish. Unusually for Spielberg there isn’t much preamble or steady build up with him, with the Super Bowl trailer money shot of an articulated lorry plunging off a collapsing highway onto the wooden houses of suburbia in the before the 30 minute mark.
That’s because War of the Worlds is more than just about attack, it is about survival, it is about resourcefulness. However, the stand out sequence, takes place in the grungy basement of the just slightly more than deranged Ogilvy, played with delicious menace by Tim Robbins. With a set that wouldn’t look out of place in an Eli Roth movie, the sense of unease is palpable from the start. Things reach a pinnacle of desperation when the aliens send in a probe to explore the basement. What follows is an almost dialogue free 8 minutes of sheer bottom clenching tension.
Once again employing the red herrings, a trusty old boot, a handy mirror, Spielberg is mining his back catalogue to good effect, check out the ripples in the water, and the unseen menace that is all around. Whilst all this is going on there is a terse battle of wills between Ray (Tom Cruise) and Ogilvy. Ray, Ogilvy and Rachel ( a quite brilliant Dakota Fanning) are then joined in Hell’s kitchen by three of their Alien assailants. The attention to detail here is tremendous, the spin of the bike wheel straight out of the H.G Wells novel.
Watching this scene again for the purposes of writing this blog, I can honestly say this scene could have been even higher. It’s absolutely masterful, in a film that once again doesn’t quite get the attention and love that it deserves. This is gripping stuff from Paramount logo to Morgan Freeman voiceover.
4. Entering the gas chamber – Schindler’s List (1993)
In a film that has many moments of quiet desperation and thoughtful reflection, there are a number of scenes that potentially could have been considered for this blog, the one though that always makes the room that you are in fade into obscurity for me is the scene involving the women who are sent to what they and the audience believe to be the gas chamber. I’m not going to go into any more of the detail of the scene and talk more about why the film is so affecting.
There are many times when Schindler’s List feels like a documentary and it is easy to forget at times that there is a narrative to what we are watching. In this particular scene, you become so absorbed in what’s happening, that you wonder why the cameraman continues to film, why don’t they help?
Filmed with largely non-professional actors, this scene is so real, you can feel the cold, you can smell the fear and the tension is such that at times you just want to look away. This is devastating, yet vital cinema.
3. Cinque’s experience on the Tecora – Amistad (1997)
Amistad is a film that often flatters to deceive but in the middle there is a sequence so brutal that you wonder if you have actually started watching a different movie. As Cinque, (played with indomitably stunning screen presence by Djimon Hounsou) reflects on the horrors that he experienced on board the Tecora as they sail across the Atlantic.
As a depiction of hell on earth, we are “treated” to an observation of a claustrophobic, deeply unpleasant setting, where slaves a chained together so desperate for nutrition that they are eating food off each others faces. We witness brutal torture and attempted rape, whilst slaves are herded like cattle into the dark, non ventilated underbelly of the slave ship. We watch babies being born in these most squalid of conditions, but worse is yet to come, as we witness the horrifying reality of slaves being chained together and having stones tidied to their feet to ensure when they go overboard they will not be coming up for air.
I struggle to think of a more upsetting scene in Spielberg’s filmography. Yes the liquidation of the ghetto in Schindler’s List and the Omaha Beach battle of Saving Private Ryan are devastating but we watch those almost in stunned numbness. This scene is so up close, you can almost taste the sweat and tears. The tension is sickening, and is perhaps made the more prescient with the current global climate into the way we treat certain people. Amistad deserves to be seen more widely.
2. Barry’s kidnapping – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
In Close Encounters we are treated to magic, wonder and scenes of such cinematic beauty that I’m not ashamed to admit they make me weep. In a film that is mainly about family, we are introduced to single mum Gillian, and her young son Barry, when Barry is woken by his toys who have mysteriously come to life, so far so very not Toy Story. After meeting his new friends in the kitchen Barry is seen giggling as he chases the shadows across the ranch that Gillian rather strangely seems to own. This scene is partly to demonstrate that children often find excitement in things that adults fear.
When Barry’s new friends return to take him on a little trip, Spielberg goes into full on 1970s horror mode. Dousing the house in dusty hue, turning on the red glow of the electric hob, with Gillian’s panic and sweat dressed white shirt we are one chainsaw away from having dinner with a man wearing human skin as a mask.
Throwing all the practical effects that he can at the screen, Spielberg manages to turn up the tension by praying on the most primal fears of adults, anonymous house invaders , your appliances coming alive, oh and the failure to protect your children. As Gillian cowers in the corner, screaming in the throat gargling way that dominated 1970s horror films, we have young Barry loving being drawn towards the orange light, culminating in the famous keyhole moment, with the door opening to reveal an Oz type wonderland.
Despite Gillian’s best attempts, Barry is not going to be denied his chance to play with his new friends and heads off through the cat flap. What is so brilliant about this scene is that it is so simple, yet so effective. The scene reflects every parents worst nightmare, and it’s such an exhausting 3 minutes that you almost want to pause the film to go have a lie down.
1. The battle of Remelle – Saving Private Ryan (1998)
There are people who claim that Saving Private Ryan starts and ends with the devastating opening Omaha Beach sequence and that the following two hours are rather plodding and not much happens. Well those people are quite frankly wrong. Watching the Omaha Beach battle is a numbing experience, it’s one of the most visceral attack on the senses, however the battle of Remelle is in many ways just as effective.
With the Omaha Beach battle we are thrown straight into the action, there is no time to survey the scenery, take in the view, plan the route of attack, you are just straight into it. With Remelle, there is planning, there is a setting of the scene, and there is definite whiff of inevitability about the upcoming fight. This leads to the most nerve wracking two minutes I’ve ever experienced in the cinema.
Once the planning is in place, the sticky bombs made, the platoon sent to their various sentry posts, the bridge rigged with explosives and the path of destruction laid out for the enemy troops to trundle down to receive the mother of all ambushes.
Now back to that nerve wracking, tension inducing two minutes. With everything in place the signal is given from Private Jackson up in the clock tower that the German 2nd SS Panzer Division were nearly in the bombed out town. The brilliance here from Spielberg, like the pounding thump of the off screen T-Rex approaching in Jurassic Park, we hear the rumbling approach of the tanks, crunching the rubble and scraping the metal as it moves off screen.
Spielberg holds the camera looking down the trench, and then we see the terrifying sight of the German tank goes past the entrance to the town corridor only to abruptly stop, turn it’s gun turret down the rubble strewn street, as if eyeing up its potential prey. The audience takes a breath, and watches as the tank reverses and then straightens up and then proceeds down the street towards the allied forces.
What follows is 20 minutes of more intense battle, if anything more personal combat than on Omaha as we see individual one on one, some time hand to hand combat between assailants. Some of the deaths in this battle are more than horrific, due to the face we have invested 2 and a half hours in these characters, we’ve grown to like them, we don’t want to witness their pain and suffering, but we watch we’re convinced that they will triumph. One particular knife fight is desperately upsetting to watch.
This is possibly Spielberg’s most underrated sequence, overshadowed by the brilliance of Omaha, but Remelle is the embodiment of what those brave souls went through. The human sacrifice made in that conflict was never more painfully illustrated than in the Battle of Remelle.
My name is Dominic Holder and I like to promote the beauty and wonder of Cinema in my writing. I spend a lot of time promoting the power of Cinema as a tool of wellbeing to anyone and everyone. I love all kinds of films but in particular I am a devoted fan of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, John Williams, Star Wars, Disney and Marvel. My love of Cinema stems from a trip as a 4 year old to local cinema in Bolton to watch a Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back double bill, it was the first in a series of life changing moments, I knew from the moment the Imperial Star Destroyer engulfed the screen at the start of A New Hope I was hooked. Thankfully nearly 40 years later I still get excited and still find escapism and happiness within this wonderful medium.
You can follow me on Twitter @DomHolder and read some of my reviews on Letterboxd at letterboxd.com/DomH
You can read more of my blogs on Film at www.dominicholder.wordpress.com
I think you should have included “Duel”.