The Stories Behind 10 Iconic Movie Scenes


Sixty years ago today, Marilyn Monroe stepped on a subway grate and made movie history. She was shooting a film called The Seven-Year Itch in New York City, and the image of her on the grate, the train passing underneath blowing up her skirt, would become one of the most iconic in all of cinema. To commemorate that magic movie moment, we’ve gathered behind-the-scenes tales of that and nine other classic movie scenes. (We didn’t include Raiders. Harrison Ford shot the guy with the sword instead of fighting him because he had the trots. We’re assuming you knew that one.)

The Subway Grate Scene, The Seven Year Itch

Director Billy Wilder originally shot the scene at one in the morning on September 15, 1954, on Lexington Avenue at 52nd Street. But he subsequently reshot it on the 20th Century Fox soundstage, mainly due to the giant (reportedly 5000-strong) crowd of onlookers ruining the location sound with their whistles and cheers. The version that appears in the film combines the two shoots — and, significantly, never shows Monroe in the full-body shot that would become the movie’s poster and famous still image. Monroe’s then-husband, Joe Dimaggio, was on the set that night in New York, and his anger and embarrassment over the shoot was reportedly the beginning of the end for their marriage.

The Storm Drain Jump, The Fugitive

Everyone remembers two scenes in this 1993 television adaptation and Best Picture nominee: the big train crash (whose green-screen effects were a lot more persuasive 21 years ago) and the scene in which Harrison Ford’s Richard Kimble comes face-to-face with Tommy Lee Jones’ Marshall Gerard in a large storm drain. “I didn’t kill my wife!” Kimble tells Gerard. “I don’t care,” Gerard replies, doing that very particular no-nonsense man-of-action thing that TLJ does so well, before Kimble turns and leaps into the water. But that’s not the line that was on the page; initially, Gerard responded with the wordier, “That isn’t my problem.” Jones suggested the rewrite on set, and the scene would ultimately help him win his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

The “You Talkin’ to Me?” Scene, Taxi Driver

The line “You talkin’ to me?” appears nowhere in Paul Schrader’s original screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 drama; neither does the scene that follows, as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle glares into his mirror, imagines himself taking on a random attacker, and practices responding with words and force. The scene was the result of a lengthy on-set improvisation by De Niro, with encouragement from Scorsese, who was inspired by a scene of Marlon Brando talking to himself in front of a mirror in the 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye. This would become Taxi Driver’s most famous scene, making “You talkin’ to me?” the go-to line for De Niro impersonators to this day.

The Hotel Room Breakdown, Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war movie was one of the most famously “troubled productions” in film history, its 16-week shoot ballooning to 16 months due to recasting, typhoons, and health troubles — specifically, leading man Martin Sheen’s heart attack. That happened shortly after they shot the powerful opening scene, in which Sheen’s Willard has a breakdown in his Saigon hotel room. The scene wasn’t scripted; Coppola merely suggested turning on the cameras and letting Sheen go, shouting instructions to him off-camera. Sheen got good and hammered before and during the day’s shooting, losing himself in the scene and cutting his thumb open when he unexpectedly punched the mirror, which was made of real glass and not a prop. Crew members wanted to stop shooting, but both Coppola and Sheen insisted they continue, in order to capture the dark places the actor was going. The harrowing rough footage from the scene appears in the must-see making-of documentary, Hearts of Darkness.

The Bedroom Breakdown, Citizen Kane

One of the most famous scenes in Orson Welles’ 1942 directorial debut finds his Charles Foster Kane, brokenhearted over the departure of his second wife Susan, methodically tearing their bedroom to pieces. The story goes that co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz based the scene on Welles’ own legendary temper tantrums — specifically, one thrown in the presence of Mercury Theatre co-founder John Houseman, who told the story to Mankiewicz. Welles, who could have removed the scene from the script, instead took its inclusion as a kind of dare, and did some of his finest acting in the scene; he ran four cameras to catch all possible angles (since a second take would have been difficult and costly) and bloodied his hands while taking the room apart.

The Tollbooth Scene, The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola also reportedly used four cameras to capture the ambush murder of Sonny Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather, and for the same reason — multiple takes were just out of the question. The machine-gunning of Sonny, his 1941 Lincoln, and the Jones Beach Causeway toll plaza required over 200 squibs in the car and tollbooth and between 110 and 149 (depending on whose story you believe) in Caan’s suit. His agony wasn’t just good acting — each squib is, in fact, a tiny explosion, and the experience wasn’t exactly pain-free for the actor. At $100,000, it was also the most expensive single scene in the picture.

The Oil Derrick Fire, There Will Be Blood

One of the most powerful scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic is the explosion of an oil derrick, which fills the sky with fire and smoke. As you’d expect, it’s the kind of scene they wanted to be very careful in shooting, so a day was set aside for extensive pyrotechnic tests on location in Marfa, Texas. It resulted in a remarkable image for Anderson — and a big inconvenience for the Coen Brothers, who were shooting No Country For Old Men at the same time nearby, and had to halt production for a full day due to the thick black smoke that was filling the sky in the background of their shots.

The Aquarium Groundbreaking, Rushmore

The horizontal tracking shot is one of Wes Anderson’s signature visual flourishes — present in almost all of his films, a left-to-right or right-to-left gliding shot that sets up an entire scene in one unbroken take. But the story goes that the meticulous director actually discovered the shot almost accidentally; when a thunderstorm the day before shooting turned the baseball diamond location of the aquarium groundbreaking scene into a muddy mess, Anderson had to reconfigure his shots, which initially showed much more of the location. He devised the tracking shot as a way to convey the entirety of the action while only using a small section of the location.

Closing Scene, Some Like It Hot

In the famous final scene of Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, musician in drag Jerry (Jack Lemmon) tries to wiggle out his engagement to cheerful Osgood Fielding III. When Jerry’s more straightforward excuses (“I smoke!” “I have a terrible past!” “I can never have children!”) are rebuffed, he gives up, pulls off his wig, and drops the bombshell: “I’m a man!” “Well,” Osgood shrugs, “Nobody’s perfect!” What was perfect was that line, which made it to the AFI’s 2005 list of the greatest movie quotes of all time — yet Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond had only intended it as a placeholder. Wilder would later tell Cameron Crowe that after a long discussion with Diamond, he finally said, “Look, let’s go back to your line, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ Let’s send it to the mimeograph department so that they have something, and then we’re going to really sit down and make a real funny last line.” But they never found a funnier one — unsurprisingly.

“Over the Rainbow,” The Wizard of Oz

One of the most enduring images from the 1939 classic is Judy Garland’s Dorothy, wistfully singing Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s ballad “Over the Rainbow.” But that scene very nearly didn’t make the cut. After three sneak previews during editing, several scenes were trimmed from the film, including the famed “Jitterbug” scene, a big dance sequence after “If I Only Had a Brain,” and an emotional “Over the Rainbow” reprise late in the film. But MGM execs also wanted to cut the song’s original performance, feeling that the Kansas sequence was too long, and that no one wanted to see Ms. Garland singing in a barnyard. Luckily, the filmmakers won that battle — and the number would ultimately win Arlen and Harburg an Academy Award for Best Original Song.