The Spielberg Touch
He's the rare filmmaker who can crack you up or scare you silly, and often manages to do both in a single scene. Here, to celebrate Steven Spielberg's birthday, are 20 of the director's most powerful movie moments.
In his Hitchockian 1971 film debut, Spielberg tells the story of a terrified motorist (Dennis Weaver) stalked along a lonely California road by the unseen driver of a 40-ton semi. The 25-year-old director's talents are already on full display, particularly during a suspenseful, almost three-minute hand-held tracking shot that follows Weaver into a roadside café and its bathroom, thinking he has finally escaped his tormentor. Then, outside the café window, he sees the malevolent truck waiting for him. All in one killer shot.
With "Jaws," Spielberg created one of the most famous opening sequences in movie history. A young woman goes for a late-evening ocean swim. Suddenly she is jerked and pulled by a great unseen force beneath her. She screams. She fights. She is finally dragged under. That's it. No shark is ever seen, yet the scene is frightening and unforgettable.
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)
Early in the film, electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) heads out in his pickup to investigate a late-night power outage and then stops at a railroad crossing to check his map. Behind him are the high beams of what appears to be a truck. Roy waves the truck on, only to watch it rise above him, revealing itself as an alien spacecraft. The grand spectacle of the ship passing overhead is equaled by the look of wonderment on Roy's face, demonstrating Spielberg's mastery of the epic and the intimate in one scene.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)
Chased by villainous thugs through the streets of Cairo, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is confronted by the biggest, baddest thug of all, a sword-wielding giant with menacingly acrobatic saber skills. Instead of the long fight sequence originally written into the script, Spielberg has Indy dispatch the scoundrel with a visual punchline—a single shot from Jones' pistol—giving the movie its biggest laugh.
"E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982)
It's a magical moment stamped on the minds of moviegoers everywhere. Chased by the authorities, 10-year-old Elliot (Henry Thomas) and his buddies furiously ride their bicycles, with E.T. hidden in Elliot's handlebar basket. And then, with E.T.'s telekinetic help, the bikes fly, soaring over the California landscape and escaping the pursuers. Wrote critic Roger Ebert of the sequence, "I remember when I saw the movie at Cannes; even the audience there, people who had seen thousands of movies, let out a whoop at that moment."
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984)
Long before TV's "Survivor" gave us the gross-out meal, Spielberg served up this lavish banquet of disgusting delicacies like live eel, giant beetles, eyeball soup, chilled monkey brains and "Snake Surprise" to Indiana Jones and fellow travelers. Although it's a stand-out scene in this rather dark chapter in the Jones saga, the sequence was criticized as being racially insensitive in its depiction of the Indian hosts.
"The Color Purple" (1985)
As the abused Celie in "The Color Purple," Whoopi Goldberg gave a dramatic portrayal that Roger Ebert called "one of the most amazing debut performances in movie history." Celie's final confrontation with her abusive husband "Mister" (Danny Glover)—she leaves him with the words, "I'm poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here"—helped secure Goldberg an Oscar nomination.
"Empire of the Sun" (1987)
Jim Graham (Christian Bale), a British boy who lives in Shanghai, is separated from his wealthy parents and lands in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Then the camp is destroyed. In the long march that ensues, Jim finds the dead body of Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson), a friend and fellow prisoner. At that moment, a blinding light fills the sky; Jim believes it to be her soul ascending to heaven. But here director Spielberg shuffles the deck: In fact, Jim has seen the flash of the A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
"Jurassic Park" (1993)
Two kids are trapped inside a Jurassic Park tour ride as a very angry T-Rex attacks. It's one of the scariest scenes Spielberg ever put on film, yet it also contains a bit of (literal) outhouse humor that both, um, relieves the tension and heightens the thrills. "When people recognize me on the street, they pause and then say, 'You were the guy who got eaten on the toilet in 'Jurassic Park,'" said character actor Martin Ferrero of the indelible scene. "So, yes, I'm the guy who died on the toilet."
"Schindler's List" (1993)
This harrowing film about the Holocaust is shot almost exclusively in black and white. Yet there's a moment when our attention is drawn to a young girl in a red coat wandering unnoticed amidst the panic as Jews are herded out of the Kracow ghetto to almost certain death. It's then that Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) becomes fully aware of the human dimension of the horrors taking place and decides to create his life-saving list.
Early in the film, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) and his fellow slaves lead a revolt on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad during its Atlantic crossing. The revolt takes place in a violent rainstorm, shot as if illuminated by lightning, It's a powerful scene of fury and raw emotion, reflected in Cinque's face when he kills the ship's captain. At the time of the movie's release, Spielberg called "Amistad" "the most important film of my career."
"Saving Private Ryan" (1998)
Though Spielberg's recreation of the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach was rightly acclaimed, a quieter, more personal moment is equally affecting. This comes when Cpt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), a mystery to the G.I.'s under his command, finally reveals to them his civilian self: "I'm a school teacher. I teach English Composition in this little town called Addley, Pennsylvania. The last 11 years, I've been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was the coach of the baseball team in the springtime."
"A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001)
When Spielberg's futuristic retelling of "Pinocchio"—featuring Haley Joel Osment as an abandoned-by-his-parents "Mecha" robot longing to become a real boy—brings us to "The Flesh Fair," the director gives us a bizarre and frightening vision of where bad little robot boys go to die. Part circus, part rodeo, part gladiator games, the Flesh Fair scene is the stuff of nightmares.
"Minority Report" (2002)
Midway through the film, with futuristic lawman John Anderton (Tom Cruise) on the run, Spielberg gives us a spectacular set piece where creepy robotic spiders search a flop house as Anderton immerses himself in a bath of ice water in an attempt to escape detection. Wrote critic Roger Ebert: "It's typical of Spielberg that, having devised this astonishing sequence, he propels it for dramatic purposes and doesn't simply exploit it to show off his cleverness."
"The Terminal" (2004)
It's a small moment in one of Spielberg's more intimate feel-good movies, but when 85-year-old Mickey Mouse Club veteran Kumar Pallana—appearing as an Indian airport janitor—starts juggling rings and spinning plates in the back of one shot, he takes over the movie from stars Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones. "Kumar had the part the minute he walked in the door," said Spielberg.
"War of the Worlds" (2005)
In a chaotic and thrilling two-and-a-half minute, 360-degree continuous highway shot, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two kids are in major freak-out mode after witnessing a massive alien "Tripod" war machine emerge from the ground. It's a masterful show-off moment that serves the film and literally drives the story forward, even offering up an unexpected laugh or two—a kick-ass scene only Spielberg could deliver.
"There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise,'" Alfred Hitchcock once said, noting that a ticking time bomb that the audience is unaware of only offers a surprise when it explodes. But the ticking time bomb the audience knows of beforehand creates suspense. In "Munich," a squad of assassins seeking revenge for the 1972 killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics realizes a bomb they have planted might kill an innocent child. That's when we experience Spielberg at his Hitchcock-inspired best.
"War Horse" (2011)
A short-sighted and ill-fated World War I cavalry charge led by British Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) against machine-gunfiring German troops gives the film one of its most dramatic moments. Most moving is Hiddleston's bewildered face as he and his men are suddenly cut down, followed by an extended—and beautiful—shot of a riderless horse.
The actors—especially Daniel Day Lewis in his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln—are the focus of this film depiction of the battle to push through the 13th Amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery. And in a behind-closed-doors scene where Lincoln angrily demands action "Now, now, now!"—asserting, "I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power"—director Spielberg hands Day Lewis an Oscar-winning moment.
"Bridge of Spies" (2015)
Set during the Cold War, this film tells the real-life story of attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) and his risk-it-all defense of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Though Hanks is the everyman lead, Rylance wins the day—and an Oscar—for his quiet but riveting jail cell monologue recounting the story of "The Standing Man," a man he once knew who survived a severe beating by Soviet agents by simply getting up again each time he was struck to the ground.
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