5 Memorable Tension-Building Sequences in Movies

This short list is of five scenes in movies that I consider to be particularly memorable for the way they create tension. Not the five best scenes, mind, but just five I consider to be notable and worth checking out. I’m sure there are dozens of scenes that could be added here, but since I’m in a hurry, I’ll just list the first five I can think of that strike me as worth listing. Here we go:

Code Unknown (2000)Subway Scene

Three months ago, when I first saw Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, I was floored. This was and is a brilliant, fantastic, and very tense movie. But I was recently reminded of one scene, in the subway, that was an unbeatable use of tension. It is really a terrifying scene, and we are waiting a long time for something to happen, as all the while we are unaware how afraid and tense Haneke is making us feel.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)Riot Buildup

Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin is all about a riot, but some of the most interesting scenes are those leading up to the riot. We see the aggravated ship workers, and we feel for them as time after time, they are persecuted and treated like dogs. We know something is going to happen, and when it does, it’s magnificently captured with Eisenstein’s flooring cameras and his use of montage.

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)The Two Women

This was perhaps the scene that got the idea for this short list into my head. There is a brief moment in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s fantastic The Double Life of Veronique where two women who are exactly the same person, completely unaware of each other’s existence, end up in the same place. Only one of them sees the other person, and we are glued to the screen as we watch the other person: will they see the identical woman staring at her? Will they see her? And what will happen if they do?

Irreversible (2002)The Club Search

As far as tension building goes, this isn’t particularly remarkable, but what is worth noting is the effect director Gaspar Noe uses to make the audience feel tense, or even sick. He uses low frequency sound, which is inaudible to the human ear, but when heard, can create strong feelings of nausea or sickness. It works especially well in the scenes leading up to a man being disfigured by a fire extinguisher and a woman raped and beaten for nine minutes.

Boogie Nights (1997)Drug Deal

Anyone who has seen this Paul Thomas Anderson classic will remember the classic meeting at Rahad’s house, where the protagonists have gone to sell the man some fake cocaine, tricking him into believing it is the real stuff. There is a long, 45-second shot here which focuses solely on Dirk Diggler’s face, and the longer it lasts, the more uneasy we feel. This is also helped by the sudden ignition of firecrackers at random intervals.

Those are five of my most memorable. What are some of yours? And what do you think of these scenes?

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Posted on November 8, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Nice video post as usual. I don’t have any own suggestions at the moment but I love scenes with those kind of qualities.

  2. That scene in Boogie Nights is a classic.The song, the wild acting, the pause, everything. Alfred Molina will always be Rahad Jackson in my heart ๐Ÿ˜€

  3. Great list, thanks for the good read, and giving me a couple of movies that I shall now add to my must-watch list!

    If I had my own list of tension-building scenes, the final quick draw duel of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” would be chief among them.

    The swelling music and the rapid cuts between the three lead characters as they stared each other down, eyes darting side to side get’s your heart pumping like crazy.

    Hope to read more of your stuff soon!

  4. Now I am going to get shot down in flames here, because it is a shit film. But, one scene I remember being in love with recently even though I disliked most of the rest of the film is from the Statham flick The Mechanic.

    In one scene Ben Foster has to seduce a very large homosexual mark. He has to get as close as possible and execute this man mountain. Foster did an amazing job in this scene of building the tension. I was totally on the edge of my seat!!

    Shame the rest of the film sucked the fat one!

  5. The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. What a way to start a film, in my opinion.

  6. So that’s why I almost puked during the first 20 minutes of Irreversible?

    Was I, per chance, the cause of your Code Unknown reminder? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Yep, that’s why you almost puked? Well, that, and what was happening on screen probably triggered a natural reaction from the gut, ๐Ÿ™‚

      Yes, you were the cause of my CODE UNKNOWN reminder. Not only did you remind me of the scene, you prompted me to rewatch the whole film, and it’s now jumped into my top 50 favourite films ever.

  7. Great picks. The only one I haven’t seen is Code Unknown, and with you and Alex raving about Haneke’s early work, I feel I need to check it out!

  8. Great list… I’ll have to check out Code Unknown now. I love the tense scenes in movies even more when it is equally tense for the character and the audience.

    • That one scene in CODE UNKNOWN that I embedded to this post is probably the best use of tension in a movie ever. Haneke is brilliant. That scene alone is worth seeing the film. And then there is the ending, in which drums are used to add unusual tension, and that works perfectly as well. God I love Haneke.

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