The nail shredders: Spielberg’s Top 10 most nerve jangling moments.

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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, The Post, and the Best Movie Dress of 2017 | Vanity Fair

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)

Scene Pick: 'AI' – David is Abandoned in a Forest - Word Matters!

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)

Photo de Yigal Naor - Munich : Photo Yigal Naor - AlloCiné

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)

10 Reasons The Velociraptors Are The True Stars of The Jurassic ...

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)

Watch a Great Deconstruction of the Jaws Beach Scene - /Film

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)

The Basement Scene in War of the Worlds (2005) - YouTube

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)

Schindler's List Scene - YouTube

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 1997 ( Scene of slaves on the ship ) FULL HD mp4 - YouTube

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)

Deanna Crisbacher : Cutting Edge: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

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)

Saving Private Ryan's Bodycount | Saving Private Ryan Wiki | Fandom

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.

About me

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

What’s for Dinner? Spielberg’s Top 10 Dining table scenes.

The latest in my Spielberg top 10s is a closer look at the times that Spielberg has utilised the most practical of all props, the humble dining table. Sometimes these can be small, intimate scenes such as the mimicry between a father and son at the breakfast table or much grander settings, such as the “feast of beasts” at Pankot Palace. Spielberg uses this familiar setting to bring comedy, revulsion and sometimes just some exposition but the scenes below are all performed beautifully by the cast and are often the more underrated parts of his films. Please let me know if I’ve missed any of your favourites.

10. The make believe feast – Hook (1991)

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Where better for Spielberg to explore the idea of lost innocence and memories of childhood than the Dining table. Hook has often been accused of being too loud, too over the top, I once heard someone inexplicably describe it as too much fun. I think this scene captures the point perfectly. As the Lost Boys sit down for their dinner of what appears to be empty pots and pans, Peter looks on bewildered commenting “eat what? There’s nothing here, even Gandhi ate more than this”. Stuffy adults the World over are in agreement with it’s ridiculousness. There then follows a perfectly played trading of insults between Peter and self-appointed Lost Boy leader Rufio “Substitute Chemistry Teacher” is an insult I still throw out there to this day.

Egged on by the Lost Boys who want nothing more than the cranky, old Peter to rediscover his former glories, Peter starts to get into it, launching a brutal tirade on the stunned Rufio culminating in the poetic “hey Rufio, why don’t you go suck on a dead dogs nose” and flicks his spoon with imaginery icing to land perfectly with a splat on Rufio’s face. Peter was starting to let himself go, to stop himself being so uptight, to enjoy himself. There is the lesson right there.

9. A loving game of copycat – Jaws (1975)

Mayfair Theatre on Twitter: "Nothing says Happy Father's Day like ...

Where better for Spielberg to showcase the loving bond between father and son, than you guessed it the dining table. In a film dominated with scenes of terror and carnage, this quiet unassuming scene at breakfast showing the bond between father and son is 90 seconds of pure beauty. It is a scene that shows despite the chaos going on in Brody’s professional life that the people that matter most are still there for him.

It’s also poignant during these unusual times that young Sean is oblivious to the challenges that his dad and the adult world that surrounds him are going through. He is not interested in the political point scoring that his dad is having to deal with, he just loves spending time with his dad. It also demonstrates to Martin that when all the frustrations consume him, he need not look any further than his biggest supporters, his family “Give us a kiss”, “Why?” “because I need it”.

Worth noting that Spielberg goes someway to recreate this scene in E.T when Elliot first brings E.T into the house to demonstrate the bond that it already forming between the two.

8. The paranoia scene in Chuck’s cafe – Duel (1972)

The Frights of Mann: Duel's Paranoid Scene at Chuck's Cafe | From ...

Where better for Spielberg to show a man wracked with paranoia clumsily order a sandwich? That’s right, a dining table.

The centrepiece of Duel and possibly it’s stand out scene isn’t on the open road and doesn’t involve a car or a truck (although the latter is glimpsed out the window). Instead taking momentary refuge in Chuck’s roadside cafe, David Mann (that’s M.A.N.N) takes a quick trip to the bathroom to freshen up and returns to see his chief tormentor nonchalantly parked up outside. Mann immediately jumps to the same conclusion as us, namely the driver is in the cafe.

What follows is almost 15 minutes of carefully constructed Hitchcockian suspense as Mann eyes up the several redneck truck driving patrons of the cafe. An intrusive voice over is an unnecessary addition but the tension is palpable, and the numerous red herrings are sumptuously served along with a Swiss Cheese on RYE, ooh and an aspirin.

This is Spielberg at his most showy, a young director trying to demonstrate that he can bring something different to a bog standard thriller, and this scene showcases a lot of the visual bravado that would be shown over the next 5 decades.

7. Scrumdiddlyumptious breakfast with the Queen – The BFG (2016)

Are you ready for THE BFG's scrumdiddlyumptious breakfast at ...

Where else would Spielberg put a giant having breakfast with a Queen? Of course, the dining table (albeit a bloody big one).

Growing up The BFG was my favourite book, as someone who had to be forced to read anything as a kid (reading just wasn’t as exciting as Star Wars), The BFG managed to break through my self imposed barrier and even managed repeat reading. Imagine my delight, therefore, when my favourite director announced he was going to make a film of it. The finished film didn’t quite meet my expectations, a few too many of the grizzly moments were left out for it to be a truly satisfying adaptation however, there was still loads to enjoy, none more so this note perfect, hilarious breakfast scene.

A scene that is packed full of slapstick and toilet humour, it’s possible Spielberg hasn’t had this much juvenile fun since the scene at number 10 in this list. From the chandelier smashing entrance to farting corgis and wind breaking monarchs this classic comedy trope of fish out of water is just an absolute delight, and my word, that breakfast looks good, and thats before the Frobscottle makes an appearance.

6. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA – A.I (2001)

AI: Artificial Intelligence: Does Not Eat

Where better for Spielberg to showcase just how creepy a married couple’s new robotic child actually is? Oh yes, the dining table.

Opening the scene with David perfectly captured in the halo esq light fitting, the family embark on their evening meal in an atmosphere of awkwardness. David silently observes Henry and Monica eat their food and drink their drink, replicating their actions with his own empty glass and plate, whilst both Henry and Monica look on with a growing sense of unease. The deafening silence is alarmingly shattered as Monica struggles to get all of her noodles into her mouth by a terrifying cackle from David.

For me it is one of Spielberg’s finest jump scares, completely unexpected and out of context with the scene. Monica and Henry’s momentary shock is quickly replaced by nervous laughter as David continues to laugh maniacally. The darkness in this scene is very much in keeping with the mood of the first hour of A.I as Spielberg paints an uneasy utopia and shows humans barely able to understand on how best to cope with their new family member. The fact that David doesn’t understand why he laughs at Monica’s gastronomic short comings adds to the sinister feel. The start of the scene has David bathed in angelic light, by the scenes conclusion we are plunged further into a creepy, nerve jangling thriller.

5. Celie’s triumph – The Color Purple (1985)

Been On My Mind… | blah blah birds

Where better for Spielberg to stage a grand standing moment that puts a true coward in their place? Of course, the dining table.

Everyone loves it when a bully gets their comeuppance, think about George McFly flattening Biff in Back to the Future and tell me there isn’t a little smile forming on your face.

For the first two hours of The Color Purple, Celie (a quite stunning Whoopi Goldberg)is bullied, humiliated and abused by Mister (a monstrously buffoonish Danny Glover). Celie submits to everyone one of Mister’s demands and the people around her accept that is just the way things are. However the introduction into Celie’s life of the electrifying Shug helps Celie realise that perhaps she doesn’t need to lead a life of suffering and hardship. After discovering that Mister has been hiding letters from Celie’s sister Nettie for years, Celie finally finds the courage to confront Mister. This time Celie gives Mister both barrels in front of the whole family to tell him what a weak man he is and how unafraid of him she now is.

“Nettie and my kids be comin’ home soon, and when they get here we gonna’ set around and whip your ass” Nettie says with a quiet determination. It is a genuine punch the air moment, leaving a bewildered Mister speechless. It’s the finest moment in a film that has plenty of glorious moments but can on occasions descend into Sunday afternoon melodrama.

4. Maybe it was an iguana – E.T (1982)

Top 10 Times A Table Became An Additional Character In A Steven ...

Where better for Spielberg to demonstrate the after effects of a failed marriage? That’s right….the dining table.

Among all the magic and wonder in E.T there are scenes and story themes of sadness, loss and loneliness.

This scene towards the start of the film perfectly captures the new family dynamic, as departed father now leaves mum and older brother to act as surrogate parents to Elliot and Gertie. From the moment we meet Elliot we feel his isolation, he is on the outside looking in, and like any kid he wants people to respect him, he wants them to listen to him when he has something important to say, instead he just gets teased by his older brother. Older brothers are meant to do that, it’s in their job description.

Here we see Elliot’s frustration grow to the point where he announces that his brother may not have the most fragrant aural scent. The shock of that moment (which Spielberg refused to let the BBC edit out for it’s Christmas Day premiere in 1990) is followed by a pause before Elliot delivers an even greater sucker punch by telling the occupants of the dining table that his absent father would believe him.

From light hearted teasing to awkward atmosphere with one line of spiteful dialogue. Elliot has gone to far but doesn’t appear to care, not even by a clearly upset mother, a fuming big brother and a confused little sister.

It’s a beautifully played scene that is in stark contrast to the loud, dancing, pizza scoffing, game of dungeons and dragons from the previous evening. It perfectly encapsulates the challenges that a family faces as they try to adjust to their change of circumstance, meaning things such as simple disagreements over who’s turn it is to clear the plates off the table gets blown hugely out of proportion.

3. Feast of the beasts – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Happyotter: INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)

Where better for Spielberg to exploit the Gastro fears of the characters and quite frankly the audience, that’s right the dining table.

Perhaps the most controversial entry into this top 10, a scene that hasn’t particularly aged well. On release Temple of Doom was criticised for high levels of violence, now it comes across as film veiled in thinly guarded racial stereotypes. The feast at Pankot Palace is played for laughs as repulsive course is replaced by repulsive course, whilst playing in the background we have Indy grilling the sinister Prime Minister Chatter Lal about the disturbing history of the Palace and its association with the Thugee cult.

What is great about this scene is the impeccable comic timing from Kate Capshaw. In a role often derided as a screechy, annoying damsel in distress, Capshaw realises that she is the comic relief in one of Spielberg’s darker films. Ignoring the glaring plot hole of Indy appearing to being totally oblivious to a giant snake being on the table, which when cut into has 100s of little snakes pour out of it, Capshaw’s reaction is pure slapstick gold. Follow this up with a main course of grilled beetle, a steaming bowl of eyeball soup and of course the crowning glory, for dessert, chilled monkey brains, we are witnessing a Spielberg scene that would never be made today and possibly shouldn’t have been made then but it is tremendous fun.

2. I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with DadClose Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

A Close Encounter with the Devils Tower – Deano In America

Where better for Spielberg to portray a suspected mental breakdown than at the family dining table.

After having a Close Encounter with a UFO, Roy Neary starts to have strange visions of a mountain in every day objects. He becomes obsessed with this image, seeing it in every day objects including in the foam that he is about to use in his morning shave. As Roy’s obsession grows, his behaviour becomes odder, resulting in the alienation of himself from his family.

As Roy daydreams he’s handed a bowl of mashed potato to which he casually starts spooning onto his plate. A moment later and Roy sees the shape in the mashed potato and starts to ladel the potato onto the plate, using his fork to shape it into the mountain. Roy only stops when he notices the family are staring. They are not just staring, the eldest son weeps as he watches his dad emotionally fall to pieces in front of their eyes. The rest of the family watch on aghast at these strange events

It’s a tragic moment of realisation for Roy that perhaps everything isn’t quite right, a realisation that his family don’t recognise him anymore and the first real indication that they are no longer Roy’s number one priority.

1. Spared no expense – Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park – food & a film

Where better to knock an eccentric businessman down a peg or two….that’s right the dining table.

Once the dust has settled on the ooos and ahhs of the first glimpses of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, a dose of sober reality is laid out to Billionaire fantasist John Hammond by the very scientists that he had hoped would endorse his magnificent theme park. However, what Hammond encounters is a barrage of criticism from all three, who raise the practical fears of this new Eco system that has been developed in a lab without any caution given to the environmental and ecological ramifications of such a place.

Serving West Chilean seabass that has spared no expense, Malcolm, Sattler and Grant express their gravest concerns with some of the finest and most quotable dialogue in a Spielberg film. Hammond realises he only has the blood sucking lawyer on his side who eyes are wide with dollar signs. The lack of discipline in the attainment of Scientific knowledge is Malcolm’s main concern delivering the classic denouement,

“yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”

For an audience who still have their heads spinning from the wonders of the brief glimpse of the dinosaurs, it’s a real bump back down to Earth moment.

About me

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

The Spielberg Top 10: Best Opening Scenes.

To grab an audience you have to start well, all the great films pull the audience in, you could argue that you need to grab them in the first 5 minutes or people may lose interest. Like writing, if I waffle on too long you won’t read the rest so without further blathering, here is my personal TOP 10 opening scenes in Steven Spielberg directed movies.

10. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Steven Spielberg Provides An Update on the Second Tintin Film ...

Spielberg’s first foray into the world of motion capture is occasionally forgotten when discussions around Spielberg’s most dynamic films arise. Unfairly labelled by some as an animated Indiana Jones film, The Adventures of Tintin packs enough of an individual punch with scenes of audacity bravado as to clearly stand on it’s own two feet. None more so then this cracking opening tracking shot as the camera follows the mischievous Aristidis Silk through an outdoor market. Shot largely from the ground up the camera stops on a street artist painting a portrait of a young man who’s back is to us. On completion the Artist shows his finished article, it’s Tintin as familiarised in Herge’s collection of stories. It’s the first of a number of lovely moments in a vastly underrated film.

9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

That Moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): First ...

“Are we the first?…Are we the first to arrive?” Yes, I annoyingly shout this whenever I go to a friends or family members house for dinner etc, in my head it never gets old, however some of the invites have dried up over the years.

The opening scene of Close Encounters is packed full of mystery and red herrings (see the headlights come out of the dust) and sets the scene perfectly for the wonders that are to come. Subtle and made with practical effects, it hooks the audience straight into the story. Where did these planes come from? Why does the old man claim the sun came out at night and sang to him? Great stuff.

8. Always (1989)

Opening scene to the Steven Spielberg film, “Always” (1989) - YouTube

A very brief moment here in one of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but it is a moment of perfectly dexterous showmanship. Two sleepy fisherman whiling the hours away when in the background, entering the shot from above a seaplane making an unexpected landing. The plane disturbs the fishermen from their slumber but it’s breaking system doesn’t seem to be helping much. The camera stays transfixed as the plane stealthily approaches the stricken boat with its panicked occupants and just as the we the audience grip the corners of our seats as the Fishing boat is about to be made into two the plane lifts off, tickling the tops of the heads of the fishermen, who duly make a swift exit into the lake. You can watch the whole wondrous 55 seconds here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upPHSDqj5x0

7. Munich (2005)

Munich (Part 1) - YouTube

Changing tone completely now, we have one of Spielberg’s most controversial films, Munich. Starting with opening titles that tell us “the following is based on real events” we are greeted by a group of men trying to scale a fence outside the Munich Olympic village. They are given a helping hand by a group of unwitting American athletes, all the while John Williams, tense heart beat of a score pounds away in the background and Janusz Kaminski’s bleak cinematography creates an atmosphere of incredible unease. We are then thrown into the middle of the terrorism plot as we watch them change clothes, load up their weapons and move to their targets apartments. It is nerve shredding tension that never lets up in the two and half hour running time that is perhaps Spielberg’s best kept secret.

6. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Fun with Franchises: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989 ...

Who doesn’t love a good origin story? Who loves them even more when they last no more than 10 minutes? Indiana Jones’s third adventure is just a fantastic film, it really is, it’s packed full of laughs, family bonding and adventure. None more so than this opening salvo that returns Indy to his childhood as a Boy Scout. The casting of Sean Connery is often talked about as a stroke of genius by Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas but do not underestimate the casting of the late River Phoenix as a younger version of Harrison Ford. His screen time may be very short but that introduction of the character, including the origins of his fear of snakes and the famous scar on his chin is beautifully put together.

I could have quite easily included all four Indiana Jones films opening scenes in this top 10 as they all start with a bang in one way or another, but I plumped for Last Crusade (and spoiler alert one other) because it gives Indy a little bit of backstory, and 10 minutes in we are already grinning from ear to ear.

5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan: 21 facts you didn't know? Mel Gibson was ...

I know what you are thinking, FIFTH???? Well, it’s only so low because strictly speaking it’s not the opening scene, which of course is the old man (who I won’t name in case hasn’t seen it yet) visiting the war cemetery.

Taking 25 days to shoot with over 1000 extras the Omaha Beach landing is the most visceral attack on the senses. With no accompanying score the audience are asked to dodge the bullets and mortars and they come whistling across the soundwaves as we catch glimpses of limbs being blown off, men being incinerated, men being mowed down by relentless machine guns. We want to look away, we want it to be over but we don’t.

Personally the for me, Spielberg’s greatest achievement with this scene is making the audience realise that these were not trained killers, they were ordinary men sent into an extraordinary/hellish world to try to defend their freedom. That first 25 minute is one hell of a History lesson and one that should never be dismissed as just entertainment.

4. Jaws (1975)

Top 10 Movie Opening Sequences | Some Films and Stuff

Dur-dum………Dur-dum……..Dur-dum. Ok if you’ve never seen Jaws, then why are you reading this blog? No only kidding, but if you’ve never seen Jaws you have been stood next to a body of water, where somebody, usually your dad has made the Dur-dum sound, and you know what that means, that your dad is implying there is a man eating shark in that water. It’s universal, it’s know globally, that’s the brilliance of it.

Now on the face of it, who wouldn’t take Chrissie up on her offer for a touch of skinny dipping, fortunately for Tom Cassidy, too many sherbet lemons meant that he missed out on a night time sea based frolic and Bruce therefore had to waltz in the waves with Chrissie alone, albeit a tad aggressively.

A lot of the success of Jaws was down to onset mechanical failures, proving once and for all that the things you can’t see are far scarier than those that you can, and this opening scene continues to terrify to this very day. A real stomper.

3. Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies Film Locations - [otsoNY.com]

I make no secret of my love of Bridge of Spies, I think it is a piece of immaculate film making that demonstrates that classical methods can still be effective. In an almost dialogue free game of cat and mouse the opening 10 minutes of Bridge of Spies, is a lesson in meticulousness and attention to detail that can be sadly lacking in the current age of quick cut superhero dominated cinema.

There is a quiet assurance on display here, a calmness to Mark Rylance that embodies his performance throughout. It’s one of Spielberg’s quieter opening scenes but it’s massively effective, who is the man? Why are they after him? It’s a quite wonderful opening to a wonderful film.

2. Minority Report (2002)

MINORITY REPORT (2002) - The Arrest of Howard Marks - YouTube

How do you explain a rather tricky concept to an audience without overdoing the exposition? Simple, show the entire process from start to finish in one nail biting, ass kicking 12 minute opening salvo. It worth pointing out that as slick as Spielberg is here, this is another Janusz Kaminski masterpiece. The saturated grey and blue tinge adds to the cold atmosphere of a man going through the personal turmoil of watching his life unravel as his adulterous wife is locked in the arms of her suave lover. Meanwhile, Det Anderson (Tom Cruise) pieces together the future crime, almost in balletic fashion as Schubert’s No8 Unfinished Symphony plays dauntingly over the action.

As the time ticks by we know already they are against the clock to prevent the crime, we are totally engaged from the get go. The arrival at the street the Mark’s live on a moment of pure beauty as the pre-crime officers descend on zip-wires onto the lush, green, parkland. The slight delay whilst Anderton confirms that Howard left the door open all add to the palatable tension.

It truly is a most wonderfully choreographed scene, it’s Spielberg at his most playful.

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Long-lost Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark footage found on ...

Quite possibly the greatest opening of any film, never mind a Spielberg film. It’s quite difficult to imagine now, but coming off the back of the disappointing 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark was considered a huge gamble by the studios involved. The Wonderkid had come unstuck with the commercial and critical failure of 1941. In order to start to rebuild his reputation, Spielberg has claimed that he has never been so prepared to make a film as he was for Raiders. Every scene had a storyboard, every minute detail was planned in advance, this film had to come in on budget and on schedule. He achieved both, with scene after scene of perfect action and adventure.

The opening scene has got everything, thrill, spills, gore even humour, note Indy’s face when he grabs the branch to prevent himself from falling into the Abyss, only for the branch to slightly give way, this was no superhero, this is was an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation etc.

If filmed today, this scene would have been edited within an inch of it’s life, imagine if you will Michael Bay shooting this opening scene, but thankfully Spielberg allows the scares and the claustrophobia to prevail, Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography and Norman Reynolds stunning production design instantly transports the audience into this hellish, booby trap ridden cavern.

Then the crowning glory, the rolling boulder, pure genius. The brilliance of Raiders is that as breathtakingly stunning this opening sequence is, it doesn’t peak here and keeps going for the next 100 or so minutes. The opening sequence isn’t even my favourite in the movie, I reserve that for the truck chase, but this is Spielberg at his most prepared, at his most free, at his most playful, he is here to entertain and boy does he ever. What a way to introduce you to one of Cinema’s most iconic heroes.


I dedicate this blog to commemorate the sad loss of Allen Daviau 14/6/42 – 15/4/20 – a true Spielberg legend in every way.

About me

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

Spielberg the 1970s

Duel Poster The Sugarland Express Poster Jaws Poster Image result for close encounters of the third kind  1941 Poster

This blog was first posted in May 2017, and has been edited and updated in April 2019.

Welcome to the first of a series of blogs looking at the Cinematic work of Steven Spielberg across the decades starting here with a review of his work in the 1970s

I will take a look at each film in turn and comment on styles, trademarks and how he has changed over time as a filmmaker. I will look at how he was influenced and how his films have influenced others.

Obviously as a fan I highly rate the majority of his work but if you are concerned that this is going to turn into slushy love in for Spielberg then fear not, there are some of his films that I am not a fan of, including one that I rate as one of the most frustrating 10 films I have ever seen.

Each blog will take a look at each decade separately starting with the 1970s, a decade that began with Spielberg being talked about as director of taut thrillers in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Almost by accident, he was then catapulted into the stratosphere as the new Hollywood golden boy with astonishing, unexpected success. However, by the end of the 70s, his career had taken a considerable knock. The decade that had started so brightly was coming to an end with a monumental thud.

1970s

In the summer of 1968, Spielberg released Amblin, a mainly (apart from an ever-present soundtrack and the occasional giggle) silent 28-minute short film that was made in part to showcase his visual flair and shot construction. This charming tale of two strangers who meet whilst trying to hitchhike down a nameless American highway has no script and relies almost entirely on suggestion and apt visuals. It’s a curious piece that foreshadows upcoming road movies but scarcely hints at what was to come. The full 28-minute movie can be watched on YouTube and for devotees and completists, it is worth a viewing.

As a result of Amblin’s success, Spielberg found work directing episodes of TV shows such as Columbo and the middle segment of Night Gallery which starred Hollywood legend, Joan Crawford. Despite her diva reputation and initial reservations about “this kid” Spielberg and Crawford got on very well and remained close friends until her death in 1977.

Spielberg continued to progress and was finally given the green light to direct his first feature-length movie. It was to be a TV movie of the week in the USA but thanks to word of mouth and strong support it would receive a longer cut and theatrical release in Europe.

DUEL (1971)

I’d like to report a truck driver who’s been endangering my life

Duel Poster

 

13th November 1971 was the date that Steven Spielberg first began to tap away at the public consciousness of America when ABC aired his first full-length feature film Duel, the tale of mild-mannered suburbanite David Mann being chased along desert highways by a malevolent truck.

For an original running time for TV of 74 minutes, plot development and backstory are not required, terror and tension are the only items on the viewers’ menu. However, the more familiar cut of the film, that was played in cinemas across Europe in 1972 ran to a more theatrical 89 minutes and incorporated more subplot such as a heated telephone discussion with his wife who is frustrated with him for picking a fight at a party they had both attended the previous night.

The film survives purely on its slim concept and idea. A truck, whose driver is never seen, seems to have little motivation for the terror it afflicts on Mann, it is a cold killing machine, a bully of the highways, a forerunner perhaps to future nemeses such as the shark in Jaws or the calculated velociraptors in Jurassic Park.  There are early touches of Spielberg iconography throughout Duel, such as the sunburnt arid landscapes.  The handheld first-person camera techniques, a future staple of Spielberg films, are employed and used to create a sense of claustrophobia and tension experienced by some people in nightmares when an individual struggles to run away from a potential assailant.  The whole film is taken from David Mann’s point of view, we are with him all the way, we are desperate for him to get away, we want locals to help him, we want the car to have a bit more horsepower, we want him to be safe. David Mann himself is the first of a long line of lead protagonists who exist as an unremarkable everyday kind of guy who gets caught up in extraordinary situations.

The characterisation of Mann is an interesting one, initially, he is a wimpish character, crawling back to his wife to apologise in a public petrol station, but as the film progresses I get the feeling that Mann may have been getting some kind of masochistic kick from the ordeal he was going through. Take the dramatic hooks out of it for a moment and ask “Why didn’t he just turn around and go home?” Well if that viewpoint is too simplistic and plays into the hands of the plot hole seekers of online internet forums, does Mann continue on his journey in an attempt to face up to his responsibilities, prove his manhood if you will, is he secretly enjoying himself?

The scene in the cafe where Mann is trying to remain calm and figure out which one of the cafe’s patrons is the driver of the killing beast is full of enough nervous tension to be able to chew on. It’s ruined slightly by the intrusive narration which the studio insisted on for the TV movie, it’s a shame that Spielberg didn’t remove this from the theatrical release, after all, we are in no doubt at this point what is going through Mann’s mind.

As a viewer Duel is non-stop action that fills every second of the taut running time and is not layered with any sentimentality, a facet that would burden some of Spielberg’s later films. The climactic chase up the mountain as Mann’s car begins to lose fuel and power is nerve-shredding tension at its best. It is right up there with the likes of the shark attack on young Alex Kitner in Jaws or the T-Rex attack on Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park for sheer Spielberg adrenaline rush moments.

It’s incredibly showy in places, Spielberg camera movements are almost balletic with a “hey look what I can do with this shot” feel to them, but this is to be expected from a young director desperate to impress.  The overall balance of the film goes from taut Hitchcockian thriller to terrifying road movie. More than 40 years after its release it has aged remarkably well and still manages to scare the hell out of viewers. It is the first in a long line of Spielberg films that demands repeat viewings.

Why should you watch it?

Duel is packed full of themes and calling cards that Spielberg would continue to use throughout his career, such as the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Spielberg demonstrates to all his ability to build high tension and excitement whilst using the basic of techniques. Further to this at 83 minutes long why would you not want to take a second look.

The Sugarland Express 1974

I want my baby back

The Sugarland Express Poster Image result for Sugarland Express

Each decade that I will write about in these blogs features one film that passes under the radar for the casual Spielberg observer. These are the ones that would probably score single figures in the TV quiz Pointless should the contestants ever be fortunate enough to get a round asking to name a Steven Spielberg film. Despite being his Theatrical release debut in the US, Sugarland Express is the film from the 1970s that people tend to bypass on their way to bigger, and only in some cases, better things. This is a shame as there is plenty to enjoy in Sugarland and if looked at closely you will see many traits that will come to dominate Spielberg films for the next 4 decades and beyond.

Like Duel, Sugarland, which is loosely based on true events, is essentially a road movie as desperate mother, Lou-Jean (Goldie Hawn) helps her husband Clovis, (a typically weasly William Atherton), escape from prison to attempt to kidnap their young son who has been taken into care. Things do not go according to plan and before long they have what appears to be the entire Police force of Texas on their tail, which is heightened when Lou Jean and Clovis take hostage Highway Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks here somewhat fulfilling the Spielberg every day ordinary fella in extraordinary situation role). As the trio race across Texas, they start to become minor celebrities as local townsfolk begin to side with the young parents, and a media circus begins to develop around them. If the above all sounds a little dour, prison breaks, attempted kidnapping, hostage taking etc, then it’s worth pointing out that the first hour, in particular, is very light and is played subtly for laughs.

The issue I have with Sugarland is that it tonally shifts wildly in the final act as the breezy, humourous road movie descends into a dark, desperate conclusion that quite frankly has perhaps never been repeated by Spielberg since. It is clear in the final reel that this isn’t going to have the happy, victorious ending the viewers had invested in. Lou Jean and particularly the waspish Clovis both push the levels of goodwill that the audience built up for them and raise the real possibility that the authorities made the right decision to take their young son into care. Similarities between Bonnie and Clyde and to a lesser extent, Kit and Holly from Badlands are accurate, but unlike those two movies, it’s very difficult to root for a character like Clovis when in reality you would just like someone to give him a good slap.

That apart, Sugarland does have some high-quality set pieces, including a deafening shootout in a car lot and a police chase that demonstrated that Spielberg could handle action on a larger scale. Vilmos Zsigmund’s cinematography of dour and burnt landscapes is a welcome throwback to the superior Duel, and the performances, in particular from Sacks are engaging enough. I may not be Clovis’s biggest fan but Atherton plays him well in what is an early blueprint for future slimeballs in films such as Ghostbusters and Die Hard.

Sugarland also saw the first collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams. Williams and Spielberg collaborations have led to some of the most recognisable and popular film themes of the past 40 years, here William’s score can be seen as an analogy for Sugarland in general, a quiet, subtly effective score that gives little hint of what was to become in future partnerships between the two. A harmonica led bluesy score that never feels the need to be intrusive. The score never attempts to tell the audience what they should be feeling at any point, unlike say the score for Jaws which practically ratchets up the tension before anything is seen on the screen and works as a riveting plot device. The Sugarland score, is effective yet quiet and unassuming, a score that doesn’t necessarily jump out at you or live long in the memory, a gentle introduction of what was to follow for one of cinema’s greatest partnerships, which is startlingly similar to The Sugarland Express as a whole.

Why should you watch it?

Despite Sugarland’s low key reception and lack of appearances on most people’s Spielberg Top 10 lists, it does resoundingly reward repeat viewings. All the hallmarks are there, the family theme runs throughout, Zsigmonds’ beautifully parched and sunburnt landscapes paint the background to what is in all sense and purpose a tragic tale. It cannot be underestimated the contribution The Sugarland Express makes to the annals of popular culture as audiences bear witness to the first collaboration between John Williams and Steven Spielberg.

Jaws 1975

You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Jaws Poster Image result for jaws

Jaws is actually quite a difficult film for me to write about as it is very difficult to find things to say that hasn’t already been said many times by many people, so I will stick to what the film means to me. Firstly I probably watch Jaws 2 or 3 times a year, it’s on ITV4 all of the time so I don’t even need to get off my backside and faff around with DVDs, it’s very accessible. Earlier this year I showed it to my 12-year-old son, in an attempt to see what the current generation would make of a film built on tension, where the “monster” is only glimpsed in the final 3rd of the film.

It is well documented that the shoot was a tough one, an original 55-day schedule ballooned to 159 days, the mechanical shark steadfastly refused to perform and the young Spielberg was under enormous pressure to deliver with the plug threatened to be pulled at any time. However, it is with great credit to producers Brown and Zanuck that they stuck with their young apprentice as movie history was about to be made. The problems with the mechanical shark actually worked to Spielberg’s advantage. With so little usable footage of the oversized prop, Spielberg had to hint at the presence of the beast using clever camera techniques and the power of suggestion.  A personal favourite sequence of mine involved the two elderly fishermen who use their wives Sunday pot roast to attract the Shark. The shark naturally takes the bait and sets off back to the open water demolishing and dragging off the wooden jetty that the fishermen were perched on. As the fishermen flounder in the water, Spielberg produces a piece of subtle magic. Without any sight of the shark, the floating bits of wood stop heading in the direction of the vast open ocean and menacingly turn 180 degrees and start heading back to the fishermen. This visual flair and innovation would become staples of his work over the next few decades. The entire Alex Kittner beach sequence is a masterful scene full of visual red herrings and daring camera work that leaves the audience breathless after its alarming completion.

Apart from the vicious shark attacks, breakneck tension and thrills, Jaws would be nothing without the strong characters on screen, from the three leads to the colourful town folks who are cast perfectly from Murray Hamilton who plays the head in the sand County Mayor with particular slime and regret, to small but memorable turns from the likes of Jeffrey Kramer and Fritzi Jane Courtney, but its the three leads who all have placed themselves firmly into the annals of pop culture.

Roy Scheider plays Police Chief Martin Brody, a Police Officer who is scared of the water who spends the majority of the film trying to please everyone, from the business owners and mayor of Amity to his responsibilities as a father. Brody knows nothing about sharks and is the latest of Spielberg’s ordinary men in an extraordinary situation, Brody leads the exposition of Jaws, asking the questions that the audience wants to know “Is it true that most people get attacked by sharks in three feet of water about ten feet from the beach?”

Richard Dreyfuss makes the first of his 3 appearances for Spielberg as oceanographer Matt Hooper. Hooper is the conscience of the film, the doubting Thomas too much of the town’s hysteria. Hooper is the expert, the voice of reason that only Brody really listens too. Here Dreyfuss plays the exasperated Hooper as an embodiment of Spielberg’s personality. Hooper’s onscreen frustrations matching the offscreen problems that Spielberg went through making the movie.

Robert Shaw plays the most cliched character as the grizzled old sea dog Quint, a pro-fisherman who takes Brody and Hooper out to sea to catch and kill the shark. Quint barks and growls through the second half of the film, making life for his two companions, in particular, Hooper, difficult. As an audience member, we see the cantankerous Quint meet his untimely end and actually don’t feel too bad about it. We care about Brody and Hooper, we put up with Quint.

It is also impossible to write about Jaws without mentioning the iconic score from John Williams. Initially dismissed by Spielberg as a joke, the two-note shark motif has now passed into folklore as a sign of impending doom. Spielberg later confessed that not only was the score effective it was scarier than the mechanical shark itself and was a phenomenal tool in the tension building that particularly dominated the first 2 acts of the film. The problems with the mechanical shark were beginning to benefit Jaws. The nerve-jangling score coupled with rare glimpses of the shark, playing along similar lines to never seeing the driver of the truck in Duel, only heightened the fear that the audience was going through.

The success of Jaws was a surprise to everyone, none more so than Spielberg himself after the torturous shoot that had nearly broken him. After the distinctly under the radar Sugarland Express, Spielberg was now catapulted into the stratosphere, movies were big business again, the summer blockbuster was born, the mass merchandising was launched, the pressure was firmly on Spielberg now……how will he top or even match this? The answer to that will come in 2 years time with a film that even today stands as the definitive Steven Spielberg film.

N.B. my son loved it and it will also be remembered as the first time I  heard him utter a swear word when Ben Gardiner’s head popped out of the boat.

Why should you watch it?

Ok, if you are reading this blog it is highly unlikely that you have not seen Jaws at least a dozen times, but watch it again. Watch it for the quieter more subtle moments. Considering Jaws is widely regarded to have given rise to the bloated Summer Blockbuster it is an abject lesson in understatement. Due, in no small part to technical difficulties, the less-is-more, hidden terrors provide far more scares than if everything had gone to plan.

1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Have you recently had a close encounter… A close encounter with something very unusual?

Image result for close encounters of the third kind  Image result for close encounters of the third kind

The last 30 minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind are in my opinion the finest 30 minutes in the Spielberg canon, they may well be the finest 30 minutes in cinematic history. However, if you take away the aliens, the light show, the sheer wonder of the movie you are still left with a classic human drama of (this is a Spielberg film after all) an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Roy Neary starts the film as a nondescript family man, who has model trains in his living room and an inability to keep his young family under control. His life changes forever when Roy, who is an Indiana Electrical lineman, has his Close Encounter whilst investigating one of the large-scale power outages. The UFO files over Roy’s truck and burns part of his face, he then pursues the UFO, along with the Police over the Indiana highways. Roy’s encounter leads to him developing an obsession with UFOs much to the chagrin of his increasingly frustrated wife, Ronnie. He continues to see visions of a mysterious mountain,  in inanimate objects such as shaving cream and mashed potato, that seems to him to have a connection with the UFO. Over the course of the film Roy continues to alienate (pun very much intended) his family with his erratic behaviour , it is quite heartbreaking to witness Roy’s apparent descent into madness as his children openly weep at the dinner table ” I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.”

Spielberg has, you could argue, made a living out of portraying father figures as absent or abject failures. Here we have Neary, played at times almost maniacally by Richard Dreyfuss,  as the suburban dwelling father of 3 by the end of the film, he has deserted them all and set out on a life of his own. He be-friends Gillian, who also is having visions of the mountain after her son Barry is abducted by the Aliens. In one of the stand out scenes, that balances wonder and spectacle with elements of pure horror that leave the viewer checking their fingernails to see if there are any left, Spielberg again encourages the audience to use their imagination by not showing the abductors but by dazzling us with a light show that is just a prelude to the films last 30 minutes. Along with the lights, the manipulation and use of kitchen appliances add to the claustrophobia witnessed in some of the more graphic horror films of the 1970s. The constant orange glow recollecting the horrible scorched earth house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre as one example. As terrifying as Barry’s abduction scene is, and let’s be frank here, it is as nerve-jangling as anything in Jaws, there is a feeling that Spielberg’s is in full control and is showing to the world that Jaws was not a unique success and that he can produce spectacle on the biggest scale.

Spielberg’s personal coup with Close Encounters was to cast French New Wave director Francois Truffaut as Claude Lacombe a French government scientist in charge of UFO-related activities in the United States. Lacombe is the antithesis to Roy throughout the film, whereas Roy is battling personal demons and is descending down an almost Dante inspired path, Lacombe views the events unfolding before him with a childlike wonder. He reminds me in a way of Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, (a film that Close Encounters owes a massive amount too), by offering what little exposition is needed to the audience and by guiding Roy and the audience through the almost wordless ballet of the last 30 minutes.

So to the last 30 minutes which uses the old adage that a script should only have dialogue if the picture cannot tell the story. It is a masterclass in visual cinema. Using an old, disused, aircraft hangar, Spielberg designed the biggest set of its kind at the time. The mysterious mountain was revealed to be Devils Tower in Wyoming, which acted as a backdrop to the grand finale. The arrival of the majestic mothership keeps the promises that the audience has been made throughout the film. The sense of wonder and some may say childhood abandon that the cast of characters show as they watch the ship move into place is beautifully observed. The interactions with the aliens themselves are perfectly done, using sign language instead of actual dialogue. The odd line of dialogue, concurs with what the audience is thinking, “I just want to know that it’s really happening.” says an awestruck Roy.

Spielberg himself was unhappy with the final cut and wanted Columbia to allow him a further 6 months which was denied due to the severe financial troubles the studio was in at the time, they needed a big hit and now. To Columbia’s immense relief the film was a box office success, not quite to the excess of Jaws or another science-fiction movie released in 1977, but a success it was. Due to this Spielberg was allowed to go back and revisit the film in 1980 and produced what’s known as the Director’s cut. Columbia allowed him to do this on the proviso that he showed the inside of the mothership. Spielberg reluctantly agreed and added 5 minutes of footage at the end as Roy enters the mothership. It was not a popular move from the fans point of view and takes away from the wonder of the original, however, it is not as disastrous as some have reported. It certainly doesn’t bring anything new to the plot, Roy still abandons his family, the Aliens still leave Earth.

What is interesting when watching Close Encounters alongside Spielberg’s subsequent work, is that thematically Spielberg would make a very different film if he was to make it today. Spielberg himself has alluded to this in many interviews over the past 4 decades. He has publicly stated that if he was making the film now he would not have Roy abandoning his family and as a result, the story arcs would be different. Personally, I’m glad that Roy did abandon his family because it works for the story being told. We don’t know what happens to Ronnie and the family once Roy arrives at Devil’s Tower but quite frankly are we that bothered? I like most people like to see happy families but domestic bliss is not what Close Encounters is about. Its primarily about one man on a voyage of discovery, his treatment of his family is an unfortunate consequence of his change in psych. If Spielberg made Close Encounters post 2000 then I think some of the wonders may have been lost in a potentially over-sentimental ending that has dogged some of his more recent work.

Performance wise, its note-perfect. The aforementioned Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perfectly cast, but top marks must also go to Melinda Dillon as the single mum left devastated by the Alien abduction of her son Barry (a non-precocious gem of a child actor Carey Guffey). Bob Balaban gives able support but the stand out for me is Terri Garr, demonstrated what a fantastic but often underused actress she is as the put-upon and doubting Ronnie.

I make no secret of my love for Close Encounters, I try and find time to watch it 4 or 5 times a year and I always spot things I have never noticed before with repeat viewings. To me, it is the quintessential Spielberg film, with its sense of unending wonder, practical simple effects that makes the audience work, stories of fractured, suburbanite families, a wondrous score and a finale that makes you realise why you fell in love with cinema in the first place. I implore all of you to watch this film in the dark without any distractions….. you are repaid handsomely with every frame.

Why should you watch it?

As stated above, even to this day, this is the film that thematically sums up what Spielberg is about as a film maker. It is clearly a film about wonder, magic, childhood inquisitiveness and exploration. However it is more than that. It is a story about family, about self discovery, about trust and most importantly about hope. Despite the abandonment of the family, Close Encounters ending is a tale of success, acceptance and above all optimism.

1979 1941

Madness – it’s the only word to describe it. This isn’t the state of California, this is a state of insanity.

1941 Poster  Image result for 1941 film

After the critical and commercial success of Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg was now box office gold, the press labeled him the new golden boy of Hollywood. Studios were falling over themselves to offer him their upcoming projects. He was at one point linked with Superman, eventually made by Richard Donner and circled a number of projects before settling on his next choice. Spielberg had become a megastar, as famous and as sought-after as some of the leading box office stars of the 1970s. Films were marketed around the leading actors of the time. In the 70s it was the likes of Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and to some degree the likes of Jane Fonda and Barbara Streisand. Now there was a director, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg’s name above the title of a film was all that was needed to get public interest piqued. His last two films had changed the way that films, in particular, summer movies were made and marketed to the masses and Spielberg along with fellow movie brat and Star Wars creator George Lucas were seen as the main instigators in this. The world waited with baited breath to see what magic Spielberg would produce next.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise when Spielberg chose a comedy as his next project. People close to him, those who knew him well, questioned whether this was the sort of material that he could make work. Furthermore, this was a comedy set to the backdrop of the Pearl Harbour bombings that ultimately led to the US joining World War 2. What was ultimately produced is, in my opinion, Spielberg’s poorest film to date.

The film from the very first scene, a terribly misjudged spoof of the opening scene of Jaws, sets the tone for a film that at its best is wildly out of control, to at its worst offensive (is attempted rape ever funny???) and just plain annoying (Slim Pickens is the stand out of awfully grating performances here). Its an incredibly noisy film, every line delivered as if someone 10 miles away needed to hear it at the time, and the attempt to fill the screen with non-stop spectacle constantly gets away from Spielberg. Looking at it now it would appear that the young director was untouchable with studio execs not daring to reel in their young superstar when what 1941 desperately needed was an Editor who would have steered the film to safer water. This is surprising when you think of the work that Michael Kahn had just produced on Close Encounters and would continue to do over the next 40 years of Spielberg, but I guess like the director himself everyone is entitled to a bad day. The shoot alone took a staggering 247 days and reports suggest that Spielberg shot over a million feet of film during that time. If that doesn’t demonstrate the chaos that was the shoot then I’m not sure what does.

Sadly positives are as rare as a quietly spoken line of dialogue, however, I will offer praise to Robert Stack who gives a charming performance as Major Stillwell who spends the majority of his screen time sat in a cinema watching Dumbo whilst the carnage continues unabated outside. There is also a terrific visual gag that involves an out of control (what else) tank going through a paint factory and getting splattered as it crashes into giant vats of paint only for it to then career through a paint thinner factory and come out the other side looking brand new. That scene apart however, 1941’s biggest problem is that it’s just not funny. It tries really hard and the ideas are there but the execution is completely out of control.

Co-written by Robert Gale and Robert Zemeckis who would go onto much better things such as Back to the Future, it seems in an attempt to impress they threw every idea they had at the script without the realisation that a semblance of order and plot is required to make a film watchable. Spielberg shows the chink in his armour with material that he never seems to have a firm handle on, I doubt it is no coincidence that he has not directed a straight out comedy since.

The film was a box office and critical failure. It is too long and could easily lose 30 minute of subplot that adds nothing of interest. For the first time, the knives were out for Spielberg and questions were raised whether his previous output had been some kind of glorious fluke. Here was a director who had largely been left to his own devices but had gone months over schedule and budget and delivered a mish-mash of a film that frustrated and annoyed in equal measure. I personally find it very difficult to watch and is by some distance my least favourite of his theatrical movies so far. I stated at the start of this blog that one of the films from the 1970s was in the top 10 worst films I have ever seen, obviously, this is 1941 but I think that is down to disappointment as much as anything.

STOP PRESS Since first publishing this blog I have written a further piece on 1941 explaining why, despite its flaws, it remains an essential part of Spielberg’s filmography. You can read that here Why we should all be eternally grateful that Spielberg made 1941

Why should you watch it?

You should watch 1941 to demonstrate an old cliche that you learn more as a person from your mistakes than your successes. The films bombastic excess has never been repeated by Spielberg and his films are more professionally put together as a result of 1941. I have watched it again recently and I smiled more than I did previously. It is still a tough watch for me but I am aware that it has it’s fans which is great. If you haven’t seen it before, give it a go.

Summary

So there you have it, the 1970s, 5 films made with wild abandon and imagination. A steady if at times unspectacular start that then exploded into mega box office and mega-stardom. The decade then finished with a quite frankly abysmal film. Spielberg’s confidence was knocked by this setback, he needed a hit, he needed people to believe in him again, luckily a close friend was on hand to offer Spielberg an opportunity to show that 1941 was a blip. This opportunity would be the creation of one of the most iconic characters in movie history.

For more on my thoughts on Spielberg please look at my site here https://dominicholder.wordpress.com/