Those familiar with the 1956 film Picnic will understand that it contains one of the sexiest scenes ever filmed. The setting is simple. It is evening and the culmination of a town celebration is in sight. Two individuals, William Holden and Kim Novak, are on a pier, dancing to the sound of a jazz trio in the background. The trio is playing Moon Glow. As the camera pans in, the two are dancing as a proper couple, not pressed tightly against each, just dancing. But the camera hones in on their faces; unsmiling, staring, staring at each other with an intensity that would make most people in the same situation look away. Just that stare as they moved with the music, just a picture of the two from the shoulders up. The camera moves slowly closer as the dance continues and the jazz trio is gradually augmented by a full orchestra which plays the theme song of the move, Picnic, in counterpoint to the trio. Their movements flow into the slower tempo of the theme song and their faces soften as the stare continues. And you realize what those eyes have said to each other and that a commitment has been made. You understand that they have made love during that dance, during that stare and that, for them, the world has changed. The spell, of course, is broken by subsequent events in the movie, but the ending has her following him out of town to an unknown future. All because of that dance, that stare.
Few movies have scenes of that intensity. Other directors tend to substitute passionate love making, turning their audience into voyeurs who lose any appreciation for the intensity of any personal feeling between the two individuals. Because of it, we can’t relate to the two individuals in the same way. We can identify with the dancers, but we can only watch a physical love scene.
The scene from another movie also comes to mind, the 1959 film, On the Beach. Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner are in a room adjoining a bar, talking. Actually, they are making out. I said talking because, in the spirit of the 50s, it is more refined. People did make out in the movies back then, but it was 50s making out. No tearing of clothes, no staggering to find a bed. They are just kissing; kissing in a way anyone watching could relate to. You can hear a chorus of Waltzing Matilda being belted out by a none too sober group of bar patrons. As the couple embraces to this accompaniment, the camera begins to circle them, faster and faster and coming in closer and the song in the background changes from a drunken group to a tenor who is singing Waltzing Matilda as a ballad. And you know that with the change, as the camera circles and concentrates on their faces, the intensity of their emotion, that a decision has been made. With the decision, the camera slows to a stop as the ballad ends. Not a word has been said, but you know the outcome. It is magic.
I would hesitate to guess how many films are made each year. It must be in the thousands. Most, it is fortunate to say, sink into oblivion. One rule of thumb for determining a bad film, critics’ comments aside, is to see how often it is plugged prior to release. The quality of a film is inversely proportional to the number of advertisements. And if the stars of a given movie begin to appear on the morning shows, you can be certain the film is a dog. Few of the thousands of films produced each year become immortal in the sense that they will stand the test of time. For example, I simply cannot watch most films made in the 60s and 70s; the colors, clothes and hairdos simply get in the way. Notable exceptions that come immediately to mind would be Hair and Mash and The Graduate. Yet even The Graduate is beginning to show its age. I am reminded of this occasionally when a film catches my eye on one of the movie channels. I settle in to relive an old experience only to find out that the film wasn’t nearly as good as I thought it was and I end up switching it off.
I will not begin to claim that either Picnic or On the Beach are great films. Neither is on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best films and I am not certain that the scenes I describe make the films worth watching. That is a judgment you have to make for yourself. I consider them to be good films and the scenes I noted above set them apart. Because of this, they deserve some notice for their photographic technique, groundbreaking in the case of On the Beach, and for treating the adult viewing audience as adults. That rarely happens any more.