When Nathaniel asked me to choose a favorite shot from Bonnie and Clyde for his always fun and interesting Hit Me With Your Best Shot series I knew in an instant which shot – or rather which pair of shots – I would choose. Because my choice is from the film’s most famous scene, and I dislike being so damned obvious, I still rewatched the film to be certain, but sure enough nothing came close. Not even the famous shot where the shadows of clouds chase Beatty and Dunaway across a wheat field, portending their doom.
Here are the shots which taken together probably equal less than a second of screen time:
As anyone with even a passing interest in film history could tell you, these spilt second shots immediately precede the movie's climactic massacre, the minute-long, bullet-ridden “dance of death” which stunned and appalled audiences in its day. Arthur Penn knew that the real weight of the sequence was carried in these few frames - in the fact that, though it’s over in a flash, the characters have enough time to fully absorb what is about to happen.
Moments like this are the difference between simply surprising the audience and devastating them, and great directors don't miss them.
Here is a similar blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment from Inglourious Basterds where Tarantino captures the tiny flicker that plays across Fassbender's face as it sinks in that there is no way he is leaving that bar alive.
Lots of imitators can effectively mimic the carnage that follows but Quentin recognizes that without this crucial moment of understanding and resolve the mayhem that follows would be empty style.
Or how about this powerful example from Malcolm X where Spike Lee catches the flash of a wry smile as Malcom's assassins close in and he realizes without fear that the moment he knew to be inevitable has finally arrived.
It’s a tiny oasis of serenity in a scene of extended horror. I can imagine how many a competent filmmaker would not have thought to find it, but Lee did, and the scene would be greatly diminished without it.
Or at the opposite end of the spectrum how about this fleeting image from Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate which never fails to hit me with a gut punch:
Sure, it would be satisfying to watch Lansbury flop to the floor like a rag doll as her plans turn against her, but not nearly as satisfying as seeing that for the briefest of moments she knew precisely what happened and, more importantly, what was about to happen to her.
There is something to be said for the no warning, bolt-from-the-blue stunner. See The Departed - or better yet, Nashville - for a perfectly executed example of this. But moments like the ones above burn themselves deeper into the memory, or at least they do for me. Great direction is all about making us relate to the events on the screen and one can’t help but project oneself into these moments where the characters can see with total clarity as the walls close in.