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?