This post has some spoilers in it. So tread lightly.
We all have those specific moments that we love – moments that are common to all movies. The meet cute. The turning point. The jump scare. The lull before the storm. The death rattle.
For me, it’s that “oh ****” moment.
It’s hard to describe, exactly, but the “oh ****” moment is so named because it’s that moment that makes you say, out loud, oh ****. Or, if it’s a really good movie, ohhh **************. You know it: The part in GREMLINS when Lynn Peltzer enters the kitchen to find one of the monsters eating Christmas cookies with its back to her. The part in SEVEN where we realize what’s in the box just before Brad Pitt does. The part in THE LADY VANISHES when Gilbert and Iris sit down beneath the window that Miss Froy had written her name on earlier in the film. The part where you put your hand to your mouth and point at the screen.
And speaking of Hitchcock… here’s number 83 on the list of the WGA’s 101 best screenplays of all time: REAR WINDOW. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the short story by Cornell Woolrich.
REAR WINDOW has the ultimate “oh ****” moment on page 146. We’ve been watching, from Jeff’s vantage point, Lisa rifling through Torvald’s apartment, looking for evidence. We (along with Jeff) watch helplessly as Torvald arrives home to find Lisa there. Then, he slowly looks up – right into Jeff’s camera lens.
The moment is especially powerful because we’re just as trapped as Jeff (played by James Stewart in what might be his best role), as Roger Ebert, in his book THE GREAT MOVIES II, notes:
The hero of… REAR WINDOW is trapped in a wheelchair, and we’re trapped, too – trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options. When he passes his long days and nights by shamelessly maintaining a secret watch on his neighbors, we share his obsession…. Here’s a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience – look through a lens at the private lives of strangers.
The reason the film works so well is because Jeff observes the world through the lens of a camera, just as the people watching him do. Such an audience-identification perspective is rightly considered a triumph of filmmaking – but most people might not guess that the screenplay itself is written through the lens of a camera, where Hayes notes that Thorvald’s “head slowly turns, and he looks right up – directly into the lens.” Not “directly at us” or “directly at Jeff” – he’s looking into a camera. Hayes and Hitch had a firm handle on their theme from square one.
Here’s an interview with Hayes on working with Hitchcock, if you’d like to learn more. (Beware – the sound in the video starts off loud and then drops pretty precipitously.)
Here’s the deal: Throughout 2014, we’re posting pages from every script on the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays, as chosen by Guild membership, because we have every one in our library. Sure, we have other scripts that didn’t make it onto the list, either because they didn’t make the cut or because they were produced after the list was generated (presumably SHARKNADO, which we totally have a copy of, is only in the latter category).