I heard someone speak of this as the scene in The Great Dictator where Chaplin as Hitler makes sport with the globe of the world. And I’m sure you have an opinion, which I’m anxious to hear about. Mind you, I’m not looking for movie quotes like “Make my day” or “We’re in for a bumpy night.” What I’m after are those moments of cinematic action that seem to symbolize and say so much more than the constituent elements of the scene.
So what’s my candidate for the most riveting movie moment ever? It happens during Strangers on a Train – and it’s not the Merry-Go-Round spinning out of control at movie’s end, or the agonizing moments at the storm grate while Bruno attempts to retrieve the cigarette lighter. For me, the defining scene unfolds as we watch the gallery at the Forest Hills’ tennis match. Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony sits in the middle of the frame staring ahead while audience members on either side snap their heads back and forth in unison to the “plonk, plonk” of the tennis ball careening offstage from left to right.
Humor and menace are combined in this special moment. The audience follows the bouncing ball while the villain concentrates on his victim, Guy Haines. By now, Hitchcock and Walker have schooled us in the significance of evil and embodied it in Bruno – egomaniacal, hubristic, determined. Cracked, in short, but hugely clever. In fact, we are watching our friends and neighbors go about their lives in Pavlovian terms while evil sits in judgment and focuses on its prey.
Stupendous, is it not? I get a chill just thinking about it.