Favorite film fight scenes:
If working on Lee Marvin Point Blank has taught me anything, it’s shown me the value of a good fight scene. The medium is called motion pictures for a reason and outside of a good car chase, few things have had as lasting an impact on filmgoers as a well done fight scene. Like all film fans, I of course have my own favorites and for different reasons of each. So, in no special order of preference other than chronological, here are mine, some well known, some obscure, but all worthy of a second look….
1. ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES –1938
Thanks largely to my mother, I’ve been a film fan my enitre life and when it comes to classic films, Warner Brothers is my favorite studio, with James Cagney being my favorite actor in their stable. My being born in a Brooklyn tenement may have had something to do with it.
A dancer by training, Cagney was short, wiry, full of energy and, as contracted by the studio, constantly punching out taller actors in his films. They were often one punch altercations, which is why the basketball game in Angels With Dirty Faces remains one of his best fight scenes. Certainly not a fight scene in the traditional sense, but when you see the way he forces the Dead End Kids to play by the rules, it’s a well-choreographed example of a terrific one-man brawl.
Legend has it the Dead End Kids didn’t like most of their male co-stars and consequently played many tricks on the majority of them — Bogart and Reagan being prime examples. The rare exception was Cagney whom they all liked, as he did in return — with the exception of Leo Gorcey — and it certainly showed on screen. Just a great, timeless sequence in a wonderful film.
2. The Treasure of Sierra Madre – 1948
When Lee Marvin was interviewed by Playboy Magazine in 1969 (quoted extensively in Lee Marvin: Point Blank) he spoke at length and with great knowledge on the extent of believable fight scenes in films. Topping his list was the barroom brawl in the beginning of The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
A film remembered mostly for its great performances, themes of greed, and oft-quoted dialogue (“We dun’t need any steenkin’ badges!,” “Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nuthin’ he don’t mean!”), it also contains one of the most brutal fight scenes ever. Tim Holt and Humphrey Bogart confront Barton MacLane about the money he cheated from them. The result is a lengthy, nasty fight, artistically filmed, in which no man is willing to give in, nor politely walk away until the bitter end. If you haven’t seen it, by all means do and you’ll see what I mean. If you have seen it, see it again and remember how remarkably rendered it is, even compared to anything seen today in movies.
3. Red River – 1948
John Wayne probably did more fight scenes than any other actor and a personal standout was the climax in Red River, which remains so for several reasons. I am indeed a fan of his films, and although entertaining, many of his fights scenes are either too long & comical for their own good, such as The Quiet Man & McLintock!, or wildly uneven to really be believable, as in The Cowboys & The Sons of Katie Elder.
The fight scene climaxing Red River, is the exception that works wonderfully for a myriad of reasons. The film’s story line — a sort of western version of Mutiny on the Bounty — had the fight building from the start, and when adopted son Montgomery Clift and Wayne finally square off, it looks to be a one-punch duel.
Wayne was the very image of macho male dominance, while the closeted Clift would come to symbolize the vulnerable and sensitive rebel of the 1950s. It was a grudge match of separate agendas which by definition seemed to doom Clift. Early in the fight Wayne even says to Clift, “Won’t anything make a man out of you?!” After Wayne’s first few punches, the audience is amazed to see Clift not only get up, but knock Wayne on his equally surprised ass. It’s a great moment (despite the film’s ridiculous summation) that we’ve been waiting and hoping for and when it happens, it’s worthy of whoops and hollers!
4. The Adventures of Don Juan – 1949
Few actors can actually be said to be synonymous with a single genre, but in the case of Errol Flynn, he owned the once popular genre of swashsbucklers. Attempts to revive the genre over the years have not faired well simply because there are no Errol Flynns left in the world. He had style, panache, a devilish grin and a manly physique that was perfectly suited for period costumes. I was a huge fan of most of his films that have aged better than the actor’s reputation. All are worth viewing but a personal favorite for me was his last great attempt at the genre, The Adventures of Don Juan. He makes fun of his public image throughout the film but when it came to the expected sword fight finale he is unparalleled. Not a trained fencer but a naturally gifted athlete, even in the twilight of his greatness, Flynn delivers with such memorable dialog as “The sword is too good for a traitor. You die by the knife!” The expansive sets, Oscar-winning costumes and eye-popping color would distract from the viewing in the hands of lesser actors –Stewart Granger and Cornel Wilde come to mind — but to the underrated Flynn, he fits in and towers over the proceedings as no one else ever did. When it came to actually delivering the goods, he proved to be downright vicious! Along with Robin Hood it is undoubtedly his best work.
5. On The Waterfront – 1954
The repressive 1950s were marked by several social phenomena, not the least of which was the notorious blacklisting of suspected Communists in the film industry. Volumes have been written about it as well as the way in which On the Waterfront played a role in the dark proceedings. Director Elia Kazan had named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and rumored to have made Waterfront partly as an explanation for his testimony. To bring praise upon the informant, in this case Marlon Brando’s character of Terry Malloy, the supposedly once close relationship between the two men was forever shattered by the blacklist as Brando never spoke to Kazan during the film unless he had to. Whether any of those things are true is still speculative. What remains is the effect of this documentary-style film.
The film climaxes with a brutal fight between Brando’s Terry Malloy and Lee J. Cobb’s John Friendly, which is equal parts symbolism and realism. Why is it on this list? Brando, arguably the greatest actor who ever lived, is impressive, but that’s not the reason. It’s all about Lee J. Cobb. A primal force of nature, Cobb never got his worthy due as an actor, other than essaying the original stage role of Willy Loman in Death of Salesman. Self-conscious about both his size and non-existent hairline, the bewigged Cobb seems to be angry at Brando’s character in the film but even more bitter over his role in cinema’s pecking order. He bites, kicks, punches and scratches Brando in the scene. When Terry Malloy fights back, John Friendly sends in his goons to finish the job.
In short, it isn’t the beating Brando withstands that makes the scene a favorite. It’s the astonishing brutality of Cobb that puts the classic film on my favorites list. Besides, Brando gets beaten up all the time but Cobb, he’s the stand out!
Next installment, a few surprises!