There are a lot of things which make watching a movie a memorable experience; the dialogue, that one unforgettable character, or the spellbinding cinematography. Sometimes it’s something more fleeting than that, often just a fraction of a moment which makes you feel something powerfully. In film, this ability to distil an entire story’s worth of tension and action into just a few white-knuckle seconds is what makes a good director, and it’s those particularly intense scenes which make the entire film stand out.
Let’s take a quick look into what goes into some of the most intense and unforgettable movie scenes in history, and take it as a lesson in the art of direction.
For our example of an extremely intense and emotional build-up scene, let’s unpack the iconic “apartment scene” in the Quentin Tarantino classic Pulp Fiction, in which Samuel L. Jackson’s gangster character torments his victims in the run-up to their brutal murder. The scene is 10 full minutes of excruciating build-up, dripping with ever-increasing tension as the antagonist of the film explains to the hapless victims why they have fallen afoul of one of Los Angeles’ most notorious crime lords. The up-and-down tension is what makes the build-up so effective, as Jackson’s at-times sympathetic dialogue mixed with sharp turns towards callousness has you second-guessing his motives at every moment, and wondering whether the doomed residents will make it out in one piece.
A movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a white-knuckle thriller to be able to pull off a scene of heart-stopping intensity, and even comedy films can do it with finesse. Take the blackjack scene in the 2009 comedy classic The Hangover, where Zach Galifianakis’ character needs to claw back the money the gang needs by using the best of his carefully-honed skills. Blackjack comes in all kinds of forms, as explained here in this guide, and the version played out on screen here is instantly recognisable to audiences across the world, who were on the edge of their seats hoping that our quirky protagonist would get the lucky cards needed to attain salvation. Although tense, the scene is still packed with comedic gold, and the film provides plenty of comic relief once the tension of the scene is over.
Some of the best, most anxiety-inducing scenes are those that have occurred after most of the major action in a film rather than before or during. Take the now-legendary interrogation of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, where he has already wreaked havoc across Gotham City, is securely under arrest, but withholding vital information on the whereabouts of Batman’s love interest. The ticking clock adds almost unbearable levels of tension to this masterfully-crafted scene, and the outcome is one that has since gone down into the annals of cinematic history.
If you have any suggestions for the most intense film scenes in history, let us know in the comments below.