Part of the job of the film director is to hold back information from the audience, and ‘reveal’ it at the appropriate time and place as to generate maximum impact. Whether it’s the introduction of a character, or a twist in plot, or revealing something about one’s character, with the right camera angle, cut and reaction from an actor can leave a lasting impression.
Here’s 20 of the great ones. Needless to say, this entire feature is a SPOILER:
1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK ("I am your father")
“I am your father” is one of the most famous movie quotes of all time. Obi Wan hinted at the big reveal in the first film when Luke asks about how his own father died. With a slight hesitation Obi Wan gulps and lies to Luke that Darth Vader killed his father. And so when Luke and Darth finally meet for a climatic fight in the second film we understand Luke’s passion to kill Vader and avenge his father’s death. But when Luke is defeated and defenseless Vader reveals his true identity. Because “Empire Strikes Back” is a such a well-directed and intense film this moment will always provide the dramatic emotional punch whether it’s expected or not.
2. THE THIRD MAN (Harry Lime is alive)
For most of “The Third Man” we followed Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins around Vienna tracing the final steps of Harry Lime, Martin’s close friend who was apparently killed by a trolly. The more Martin stays in Vienna the more he learns about Lime’s nefarious criminal activities. At the second act turn director Carol Reed crafts one of the most surprising character reveals in cinema. Lime’s reveal is wonderfully set-up by his neighbour’s cat which jumps down from the window sill onto the street where it walks up to Lime hiding in the shadows. And Orson Welles’ crafty smirk to his old friend punctuates this classic scene.
3. SIXTH SENSE (Malcolm’s Ring)
This reveal single-handedly generated almost $300million in box office and six Oscar nominations. M. Night Shyamalan masterfully tricks us into thinking Dr. Malcolm and his scared little client Cole have a normal relationship as doctor and patient when really Shyamalan’s brilliant twist reveals that Malcolm has been dead the whole time. Looking back on the picture it’s obvious – the direction of Shyamalan’s character arcs and his themes of redemption and forgiveness feed into this moment, which is more than just an arbitrary twist but a necessary reveal of character.
I could only find the trailer for this one:
4. PLANET OF THE APES ("You blew it up!")
Like “The Sixth Sense” the clues which lead up to George Taylor’s profound discovery are obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Back in 1968, with fresh eyes, perhaps it wasn’t obvious. Most of the clues, which may have tipped some clever viewers, come in the third act when Taylor journeys into the forbidden zone and finds human artifacts. But Franklin Schaffner’s final reveal to us is still a great cinematic moment. We see Charlton Heston walking along a beach from an angle high in the air. When he sees the head of the Statue of Liberty in the sand, we can only see his reaction behind the head which is out of focus. When Schaffner reverses the angle I can only imagine the collective gasp from that audience in 1968, or likely a few giggles.
5. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (Andy’s escape)
For two acts of “The Shawshank Redemption” it was a Capra-esque character-driven prison story. Andy Dufresne, a nice guy, wrongly convicted for murder uses his goodwill to improve the prison life of his fellow inmates. If the film continued on as such it still would have been a decent and absorbing character drama. But when the evil prison warden visits Andy’s room discovering he’s gone missing Frank Daramont, with careful direction, editing, sound and camera placement, converts a marvelous reveal of Andy’s surprise escape.
6. JAWS (the shark)
One of the great character reveals is Spielberg’s third act reveal of his mechanical shark which, for most of his shoot, didn’t work, and almost got him fired. As Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sits on the edge of the boat, sulking for being given ‘chum duty’, he delivers his famous line ‘chum some of this shit’, after which the shark’s massive jaws lift itself out of the water. After that Scheider would utter his most famous adlib "we're gonna need a bigger boat." From then on the film kicks into overdrive toward its suspenseful finale.
7. GODFATHER (Horse head)
Before the horse head scene we only saw the Corleone family discuss business and subtly infer their intimidating criminal activities. But after the Hollywood studio boss Jack Wolz refuses to give comply with Tom Hagen’s request on behalf on Johnny Fontaine Hagan is forced to give Don Corleone the bad news which he ‘insists on hearing immediately’. The bad news is accompanied by Wolz’s prized thoroughbred decapitated in his own bed.
8. WIZARD OF OZ (Transition to colour)
Arguably the most dramatic use of colour in cinema is Dorothy’s entrance into Oz. It’s one of the great transitions ever. Dorothy, whom we have only seen in B&W in her humble Kansas farm house, after a violent tornado storm emerges from unconsciousness into a beautiful technicolour world of primary colours.
Skip to the very end of this clip for the transition:
9. PSYCHO (Norman’s ‘Mother’)
We knew Norman Bates had some mother-issues. For 90mins we saw Norman’s mother brutally kill Marion Crane and Milton the cop. And like a good son he cleaned up his mother’s mess. But it isn’t until the end when Lila hides in the basement from Mrs. Bates do we discover that it's Norman dressed up as his mother. It’s a two-part reveal from Hitch, when Vera Miles spins the taxidermed cadaver around, and Perkins’ in-drag close-up clutching the deadly knife.
10. SEVEN (Gwenyth Paltrow's head)
This entry is perhaps one of the greatest ‘non-reveals’. As the gruesome serial killer John Doe one-by-one puts strokes through each deadly sin, we wonder which one will be last? The tense car ride discussion between Detective Mills and Doe through the desert wonderfully sets up the final confrontation. Though Doe is captured and in handcuffs, he’s still in control. When the courier truck delivers the small cube-shaped package we, as the audience, can guess what it is but don't want to believe it. When Morgan Freeman opens the box, we don’t see inside, just a sliver of blood. Morgan and Brad’s reactions reveal what’s in the box with maximum impact. A powerful moment in cinema.
11. THE MATRIX (Neo wakes up)
When Morpheus sits Neo down in that empty room and gives him the choice of opening up his mind to the true realities of the world, no one could expect what the Wachowskis were about to drop on us. Morpheus' philosophically grandiose explanations of the world seemed just that, metaphors for a slave-like trapped existence of consumerism. But no, Morpheus was literal in describing Neo’s prison of the mind and body. When Neo pops that pill and wakes up nude, with probes attached to his skin, and just one of millions of harvested humans, it becomes one of the great existential reveals in cinema.
12. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Spacey losing his limp)
Even if Bryan Singer’s byzantine neo-noir ended with Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton being Kesyer Soze, it still would have made a great ending. This clever faux-climax tactic by writer Christopher McQuarrie sets up one of the great double-whammies in cinema history. After Verbal Kint leaves Dave Kujan’s office, Dave and his partner talk shop over coffee, but when Kujan reads all the notes on his corkboard the pieces of Soze’s puzzle quickly come together with a stunning realization. Singer builds and extends this moment before revealing it to the audience. Just when the office fax machine spits out the artistic rendering of Verbal Kint Singer cuts to Kint outside walking away free of his limp. The reveal is then fully realized for us.
13. ALIEN (Chest Burst)
Ridley Scott’s great film holds an impending sense of dread throughout. When the crew of the Nostromo investigates the derelict alien spacecraft, poor Kane (John Hurt) gets a face sucker attached to his head. Then much later, out of the blue, the facesucker releases and dies. Kane is back to normal and everything seems fine. Scott's light tone at the dinner scene is a great set up for the shocking reveal. When Kane starts to choke on his food, the others laugh at him, until they realize its more serious. When the baby alien pops out of Kane’s chest, we get to see the alien for the first time in infant form. Of course, it would quickly grow up into something even more maniacal.
I could only find the Dir. Cut extended version of this scene:
14. OLD BOY (Opening the Box)
After the lengthy journey of Dae-su to track down his former captor, in the film's final earth-shattering climax, Chan-wook Park twists the entire story around with the sick realization of who's exacting revenge to whom. Like "Seven" Park puts the big reveal in a box, which Dae-su opens and discovers that his lover is actually his daughter. Now that's cruel.
15. FIGHT CLUB("you're me" scene in motel room)
Few saw this one coming. Edward Norton’s unnamed character meets Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden in an airplane and strike up a peculiar relationship which involves underground hand-to-hand combat and any kind of anarchist social malfeasance. The second act leads to Tyler’s disappearance, and Norton's desperate journey to find him. A phone call to their mutual girlfriend Marla reveals that he is in fact Tyler Durden.
16. THE SHINING (Wendy reads Jack's manuscript)
We knew Jack was going a little crazy, but the moment when Wendy, baseball bat in hand, wanders near his writing desk and sees the results of Jack's work, pages and pages of the repetitive line "all work and no play make Jack a dull boy," Jack's condition is elevated from a little crazy to certifiably dangerous.
17. PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) (Unmasking)
This goes way back but it represents not only a great suspenseful moment, but a benchmark scene in cinema history. The moment when Christine, the Opera singer, hesitatingly removes the Phantom's mask for the first time audiences in the day were said to have screamed in unison with fright at the grotesque face of Lon Chaney. Chaney's elaborate makeup set a new bar for dedication to one's art - a laborious process, Chaney punished himself by actually pulling his eyeballs out of its sockets in order to create the dramatic bulging eyes look of the creature.
18. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Hannibal's skin mask)
Jonathan Demme's suspensful and dramatically intense escape scene for Hannibal Lector is capped off with gruesome impact, when the body lying on the gurney in the ambulence awakens, rips off his facemask of human skin, revealing it's Hannibal Lector.
19. THE PRESTIGE (Multiple Hugh Jackmans)
The final shot of "The Prestige", after over two hours of mindblowing twists and turns, Christopher Nolan shocks us by showing us how Hugh Jackman's Robert Angier character got away with the disappearing man trick night after night. The multiple Angiers floating dead in the water tanks cap off this great cynical beguiling masterpiece.
20. GOODFELLAS (Tommy walking into empty room)
Midway through "Goodfellas' Martin Scorsese is in total command of his audience. Few saw it coming when Joe Pesci's loose-cannon Tommy character gets popped for his murder of Billy Batts. The scene is built up with great misdirection. The characters and the audience are meant to think that Tommy is being 'made' which would make his colleagues Henry and Jimmy untouchable. But when Tommy is walked into an empty room Scorsese blindsides us with the shocking reveal of his death.