A scene is just a series of shots. A sequence is just a series of scenes. A movie is just a series of sequences. But a great movie is so much more than just the sum of its parts: it’s the pace, the energy, the warmth of the worlds we love to live in. All the pieces matter. Maybe it’s a great performance or music cue. Maybe it’s the slick direction or snappy dialogue. Whatever the case, a movie’s grip on us largely depends on how many of these pieces we latch onto. Often it’s just about preference (we all have our own particular tastes and styles), but there’s a degree of objective awesomeness with which some movies are just plain gifted. Some of them just work. This column will take a look at some essential scenes from great movies (and some good-to-not-so-good movies), breaking them down into their component elements and discovering what makes them tick. These aren’t the films’ best scenes, necessarily, but they’re meant to be a representative sample, a snapshot of the film’s aesthetic and delivery. Let’s get started.
First up is the “celebrity poker” scene from Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, a movie so goddamn cool that almost any moment might be worthy of this column. This one, though, is a five-minute bit in the first act that serves to introduce Brad Pitt’s character Rusty Ryan and his relationship with Danny Ocean (George Clooney). For the uninitiated, Danny and Rusty are out-of-work con men itching for a respite from boredom: Danny’s been serving a lengthy prison sentence after a heist-gone-wrong, while Rusty’s been cooling his heels in Las Vegas, giving poker lessons to actors. The plot demands that we get these two back together in order to kick off the action and get to The Big Heist, but all we know right now is that they haven’t spoken in some time and that Danny is on the hunt for his partner.
After a much-needed break (“I’m running away with your wife!”) Rusty returns to find his old buddy Danny in the mix. They share a long look that could mean anything from “How dare you?” to “Thank God you’re here!” Now we’ve got genuine dramatic stakes. Whereas we sympathized with Rusty a minute ago, we’re now in the actors’ position, a bit nervous and eager to understand the dynamic between these two. Since Soderbergh (and Ted Griffin’s screenplay) understand that there’s no reason for two characters who already know something to explain it to each other, the actors flesh out the pair’s backstory through a series of tense questions and ambiguous answers: we know the Incan headdress score went tits-up, but we don’t actually know who was responsible or how these two feel about each other.
It feels for a while like Rusty might be using this opportunity to one-up Danny, to use his students as a proxy to show off his own skills, but it only takes another longing look or two for us to realize that he and Danny are working together. Rusty, having properly stoked his marks’ fires, bails on the hand and lets their egos take over. It’s important that they bite, not just because they’re gullible young people trying to show off, but because it renews the old dynamic between Danny and Rusty and pushes us into the next act of the film. Danny, the good cop, the smooth operator, sticks the landing: “Not sure what the four nines does, but the ace, I think, is pretty high.” Did Rusty feed him cards, or is Danny just that good? Either way, it worked. They’re both warmed up and ready to get down to serious business. It’s the kind of cool and confident sleight of hand that Ocean’s Eleven will make a habit of for the next two hours, a deceptively brilliant scene that serves plot, backstory, and character all at the same time.
Plus, there are scantily-clad ladies dancing in the background.
*The best and most ridiculous example of this is later in Eleven, when he munches on shrimp cocktail (complete with napkin and sauce) while talking to Matt Damon’s Linus Caldwell at a valet station.