“Why is life worth living?” Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) asks into a tape recorder in Allen's 1979 film Manhattan. His answers—random yet specific—include the crabs at Sam Wo’s, the second movement of the Jupiter symphony, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues” and “those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne.” Here’s our version of that, certain elements of cinema that make our lives worth living, or at least make movies worth watching. They seem to come to us from out of nowhere, little pockets of breathtaking beauty, expert craftsmanship and happy accidents. Here are ten such moments—random yet specific—that make us stick around for one more day.
Grace Kelly’s entrance in Rear Window (1954)
A shadow crosses the face of a sleeping James Stewart and, this being an Alfred Hitchock film, the audience may be forgiven if they suspect something sinister is about to happen. Instead, we get a loving closeup of one of American cinema’s most gorgeous creatures, Grace Kelly. Kelly plays Lisa Fremont, the girlfriend of L.B. Jeffries (Stewart), homebound after breaking a leg while on photographic assigment. It’s a simple shot, devoid of sound and dominated by beauty; Kelly’s face moves slowly towards the camera, there’s a cut to the two in profile, and, in slow motion, her lips begin to approach his.
“Begin the Beguine,” danced by Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
It’s one of the most sublime dance numbers put on film, yet to simply state it that way seems like a pale, insufficient yap. No one described it better than author and film historian David Thomson: “You are in solitary confinement for the rest of your life. There is a screen built into the cell wall, and it is a condition of your sentence that you may have just one sequence from a movie to play on that screen. This is my choice: black and white and a hard reflective floor, a set that recedes into darkness. Fred in all white with a black bowtie. Eleanor Powell wears three-quarter heels and a dress that stops just below the knees. She wears short sleeves and puff shoulders; the skirt is magnificently light and fluid, moving to the sway of the profound, yet casual, tap masterpiece, ‘Begin the Beguine,’ from Broadway Melody of 1940. Much of the dance is in exact unison, but there are fleeting solos and imitation repeats, as well as exquisite arm movements, especially from Powell. I know of nothing as exhilarating or unfailingly cheerful, and maybe the loveliest moment in films is the last second or so, as the dancers finish, and Powell’s alive frock has another half-turn, like a spirit embracing the person.”
The opening credits for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
It is a striking, graceful and haunting sequence widely lauded by art directors, graphic artists and just plain old movie fans. It begins quietly: A few piano notes are heard, followed by a close-up of a cigar box, opened to reveal a collection of childhood keepsakes: marbles, a pocket watch without hands, crayons, a harmonica, coins, a whistle. A crayon is selected and we hear the casual hum of a child engrossed in drawing, first a rubbing to reveal the film’s title, then the sketch of a bird, then a wavy line. A ticking watch is heard. Extreme close-ups of a rolling marble, a chain, a harmonica and a whistle are interspersed with the crayon drawings in progress. Elmer Bernstein’s theme music creeps in softly, then builds. Finally, a middle section of the drawing is torn, ripping through the bird’s center. The goal was “to find a way to get into the head of a child,” explained art director Stephen Frankfurt, who was hired to create the opening credits after producer Alan J. Pakula admired several television commercials he had devised.
Boss Jim Gettys leaves Susan Alexander's apartment building in Citizen Kane (1941)
Towards the middle of the picture, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) runs for governor of New York against James W. Gettys (Ray Collins), who derails Kane’s political career by taking him and Kane’s wife to the home of Kane’s mistress, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). After a heated confrontation at Alexander’s apartment building, Gettys descends the steps to leave, with Kane yelling after him, “I’ll see you in Sing Sing, Gettys! Sing Sing!” Gettys reaches the front steps of the building, closes the front door behind him and, where the second “Sing” of Kane’s threat is expected, a car horn is heard, the same pitch and duration of the one-syllable word that preceded it. It is a deft audio transition from interior scene to exterior scene that neatly draws upon Welles’s five years of experience in radio.
The broken compact mirror in The Apartment (1960)
The simple act of looking into a mirror potently communicates a major plot point in Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning comedy-drama. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly office accountant smitten with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) one of the elevator operators in his office high-rise. By loaning his apartment out to higher-ups seeking to cheat on their wives, he is boosted through the corporate ranks to close proximity to the big guy, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who also wishes to use the apartment for similar shenanigans. Baxter gives him the key and, the following day, returns to Sheldrake a compact—with cracked mirror—that Sheldrake's date left behind in the apartment. (“She threw it at me,” the boss explains.) Later, at the company Christmas party, Baxter shows Kubelik his new bowler hat. She loans him her compact to see how he looks and, in one sobering moment, he realizes the score.
Th Nicholas Brothers perform "Jumpin' Jive" in Stormy Weather (1943)
Cab Calloway provides the music, the Nicholas Brothers provide the energy. Dancing brothers Fayard and Harold appeared in various shorts during the 1930s before graduating to feature films in the 1940s. Stormy Weather, a loose retelling of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson's life upon his return from World War I, is one of their best. With 20 musical numbers, the films is essentially a showcase of top African-American performers of the '40s, including Robinson, Calloway, Lena Horne, Dooley Wilson and Fats Waller. Wisely, the filmmakers saved the brothers Nicholas for the finale in a sequence characterized by acrobatic leaps, rapid-fire tap and jaw-dropping splits. Here are two dancing gentlemen at the top of their game—working in tandem but never in sterile synchronization. Their movements are free, fast and, on many occasions, superhuman.
The ring hits the railing in Match Point (2005)
The Woody Allen drama opens with a medium shot on a tennis court net; a match is in progress. After a few volleys, the ball hits the net and bounces up, hovering over the net in freeze frame. Throughout, a voiceover intones: “The man who said ‘I'd rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.”
What unfolds next is a story that evokes both George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951) and Allen’s own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) insinuates himself into the wealthy Hewett family and eventually marries the daughter, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). His affair with Nola Rice (Scarlett Johannson) leads to her pregnancy and her insistence that he tell Chloe he’s leaving her for Nola. Chris buys time and sets in motion a violent plan to do away with Nola by first murdering her neighbor, Mrs. Eastby (Margaret Tyzack), stealing her jewelry to make it look like a robbery, then killing Nola to make it look like she just happened upon the crime scene at the wrong time. Called in for questioning by the police, he attempts to get rid of the neighbor’s jewelry by tossing it in the Thames. As he is departing the riverbank, he realizes there is one last item in his pocket—Mrs. Eastby’s ring—that he must get rid of. Racing away from the scene, he flings the ring towards the river and, echoing the indecisive tennis ball of the opening sequence, the ring—sailing through the air in slow motion—hits the railing and bounces straight up before landing at last on the ledge underneath.
Edward G. Robinson wakes up from a dream in The Woman in the Window (1944)
A movie cliché gets a fresh spin in Fritz Lang’s tight little noir about a psychology professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) who, one night after leaving his men’s club haunt, admires a portrait of a young woman (Joan Bennett) in the window of a nearby storefront. He happens to meet her, ends up at her apartment and accidently kills her boyfriend in self-defense after a scuffle. His attempts to cover up the crime are successful at first, but as more evidence emerges and the police grow increasingly suspicious, Wanley commits suicide. Based on J. H. Wallis’s novel Once Off Guard, the story was adapted by Nunnally Johnson and ran into trouble with the Production Code, who would have none of the main character’s suicide at movie’s end. And so, Lang trotted out the old “it-was-all-a-dream" chestnut—a cheat to some critics, but, in Lang’s hands, executed masterfully. In a single take, we see Edward G. Robinson in the woman’s apartment taking an overdose of pills, sitting down in a chair and slipping into unconsciousness while the camera tracks in for an extreme close-up of his face. As the camera pulls back, Robinson begins to wake up, now back at his men's club and wearing different clothes.
Spencer Tracy selects a tie in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)
The great Spencer Tracy, veteran of 75 feature films, winner of two Best Actor Oscars and nominee for seven others, is—for a fast four seconds—upstaged by an array of neckwear gracefully slipping off of a closet rod. It occurs near the ends of the Stanley Kramer drama as Tracy’s character gets dressed during a discussion with his priest friend, played by Cecil Kellaway. In mid-conversation, Tracy simply opens a closet door, yanks a tie off the rack and sets in motion a slow cascade of ties dripping to the floor. For that one serendipitous moment, just try keeping your eyes on the actors in the foreground.
The sets for Metropolis (1927)
Though art deco figures prominently in the overall look of Fritz Lang’s science fiction saga, the film’s sets encompass a variety of styles, from gothic architecture to Modernism. "The film was born from my first sight of the skyscrapers in New York in October 1924,” Lang said. “The buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize.” When Lang set about to make Metropolis—a futuristic tale of a romance set amid urban class warfare—he hired art director Otto Hunte, frequent collaborator Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht to devise the ambitious, stylized sets, which include a vast industrial underground, an enormous gothic cathedral and an intricate futuristic cityscape.