DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: CINEMA'S GREAT REVEALS

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


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.


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.


Patrick said...

Great idea for a piece, although I might argue that some (Goodfellas, Jaws, Oz) are less reveals than 'surprises'.

I think the difference is that a good reveal makes you question everything you thought you knew about what you were watching; when you look back at the story so far, everything finally clicks into place. This is particularly true of Empire, The Sixth Sense, Psycho and a few others.

I liked Usual Suspects but always felt ripped off by the reveal - if nothing Spacey said was true then the stakes have vanished, and the characters we cared about didn't even really exist. Kind of like 'it was all just a dream'...

Mark A. Fedeli said...

well played, Alan.

Patrick, i'm really going to gang up on you here, apologies in advance.

if you're going to be such a buzzkill about Usual Suspects than at least apply the same reasoning to Sixth Sense, which requires the same, if not more, suspension of disbelief. both of the film's story lines fall apart a bit in hindsight, but neither were designed to undergo that type of reflective scrutiny. however, as a first time cinematic reveal, few can rival either of them.

i also have to jump on you for Jaws and Goodfellas. Especially Jaws, where he "reveals" the shark. It's a no-brainer. I'm actually surprised that wasn't number one.

In Goodfellas, the false security in the set-up that Allan mentioned is what makes the killing a reveal about the world they operate in; a surprising reveal, yes, but a reveal nonetheless.

Patrick said...

Mark, no apologies necessary. I guess what it comes down to is that for me the definition of a 'reveal' is something bigger. It pulls back the curtain and shows you everything is not what it seemed to be. Everything you believed is wrong.

And that's true of most of the examples here. Norman's mother is Norman himself in Psycho, Harry Lime isn't dead at all, and The Planet of the Apes is in fact planet Earth. Et Cetera.

But in Jaws you know it's a shark; the only reveal is that it's a really BIG shark. Likewise in Goodfellas, Pesci's reveal is in the context of the sequence, not the whole movie.

And like I said, I like the Usual Suspects. I like it better than the Sixth Sense. But if you watch the Sixth Sense a second time, all the clues are in place for the reveal, which changes the context of everything you've seen. In the Usual Suspects it changes the context by saying that none of it happened. It's kind of a cop out, buzzkill or no.

Alan, really not trying to be a stick in the mud here. It's a great subject and this is just my two cents.

Patrick said...

Just to throw a couple more titles into the mix, how about The Crying Game or Angel Heart? Jacob's Ladder comes to mind as well, although i'm kind of hanging myself with that one

Pascal said...

I mostly agree with Patrick on the definition of the 'reveal'. I'd even say the Godfather is not in league as, say, Planet of The Apes (in the context of story).

Aside from the Sixth Sense, but his lesser effort The Village has a pretty wild twist. Oops, I just confused myself. Maybe I'm thinking twist and not 'reveal' after all...

Patrick, are you thinking twist or reveal? Let's say, for example, the shot in Die Hard when the camera 'reveals' that Bruce Willis has a gun taped to his back is in fact a 'reveal'. Then I'd say it's like Jaws, or Goodfellas. A surprise, or revelation, with a fantastic set up? Is that what Alan means? How about we call it a 'revelation'?

Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that these selections were great and well thought out. Good job Alan.

Patrick said...


I guess 'revelation' is a more accurate term. And yeah, the Village has one even if it's a groaner...

Alan Bacchus said...

It's obviously up for debate, but for the purposes of the article, in the intro I defined what i thought my definition of a 'reveal' is.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Wow, this blog really brings back some memories. Some of the most powerful scenes in the history of cinema right here.

Personally, I find the Goodfellas and Seven scenes a lot more powerful than Shyamalan's gimmick. Most of the examples were just great, genius-like storytelling, whereas what Shyamalan did just feels like manipulation more than anything.

And I really need to watch Shawshank Redemption again. It's been at least two weeks since I saw it last...

Joseph N. Hall said...

Ummmmmm ... CRYING GAME anyone?