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10 Great Pursuit Scenes

By Meredith Alloway · September 22, 2011

Films center on the main goal of our protagonist and we’re always entertained by watching someone we’re rooting for work to get what they want. Great pursuit scenes have similar recipes: a clear obstacle for the character, a clear thing they want or need and a motif for going after their goal. When we get to experience a character fighting for something, so much about them is revealed. Sometimes in cinema, action speaks louder than words.

10. Sin City (2005)

Marv (Mickey Rourke) is after the guy who killed his lover Rosie (Jamie King). Clues have led him to a mysterious farm. He approaches quietly through the woods and his gut tells him, “This is a bad place. People have died here, in the wrong way.” It’s made clear that Marv’s pursuit of the killer will be very dangerous. Suddenly, a wolf approaches him, fangs out to play. When he pounces, Marv punches him and the “pooch” is out cold. As Marv smells blood on the wolf’s breath, someone sneaks up on him and sharp fingernails rip at his eyes. As Marv tries to fight off the quiet, quick predator, he’s knocked out. He failed, but at least he found the killer. This pursuit scene increases our fear of Rosie’s killer and the owner of the farm. It also shows us the lengths Marv will go to in order to defeat his lover’s murderer.

9. My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)

Julianne (Julia Roberts) has spent the entire movie in pursuit of her best friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney). It all culminates when she realizes all else has failed and decides to tell him how she really feels; her ultimate attempt to possess him. The day before Michael and his fiancée Kim’s (Cameron Diaz) wedding, Julianne goes on a walk with Michael to the gazebo during the party. She seems to have planned it all out. Not only is she dressed suggestively in a cut off shirt and tight pants, but she’s also been planting negative thoughts about Kim in Michael’s mind all day.  Once they’re alone, she tells him breathlessly, “Michael, I love you…choose me, marry me, let me make you happy!” He is shocked and stands silent. Julianne goes in to kiss him, her last chance to make him hers. She wants more than anything to win her Michael, and have him return her confession of love, but instead Kim sees them. Julianne’s pursuit of Michael has led to some serious trouble.

8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has made it all the way to Buffalo’s Bill’s (Ted Levine) butchering lair. Her pursuit to capture the serial killer has been tremendously difficult and now things are even worse: he’s turned off the lights. In the dark, with only a gun and her instincts, Clarice has to find Bill and keep herself alive. Little does she know, he has night vision glasses. As she stumbles around his apartment, he stalks her quietly. She keeps her gun up and ready to fire and listens for any sign of motion. We think, “there’s no way she’s going to capture Bill. She’s dead meat.” But then, she hears the cocking of his gun and shoots him before his bullet reaches her own body. A window is busted open and sunlight illuminates the blood-soaked victim. Clarice has done it; she’s killed Buffalo Bill.

7. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) have joined an all girls band, posing as women. And unfortunately for Joe, he’s fallen for the lead singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), but she thinks he’s a woman. When the band arrives in Florida for a gig, Joe decides to pose as a rich sailor to win over Sugar. Dressed up in fashionable glasses and a sailor’s attire, he goes down to the beach and sits casually in a chair reading the Wall Street Journal. When Sugar runs by, he “accidentally” trips her, and she falls in the sand. This allows him to rescue her and immediately become the knight-in-shining-armor. Joe presents himself as an air to the Shell Oil Corporation and as he hoped, and Sugar begins to flirt with him, extremely interested. When Jerry walks by and recognizes Joe, the plan goes awry and Jerry invites Sugar back to his hotel room, in hopes to expose Joe as an imposter. Luckily, Joe makes it back before Jerry and Sugar and his secret identity as the sailor is preserved. Through his devious, clever plan, Joe has taken the first step in his pursuit of Sugar.

6. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) must go back to get his fathers watch. His girlfriend accidentally left it in their apartment, and he takes the risk of going back to the place where people could be waiting to find and kill him. The scene begins with high stakes and a clear goal: find the watch and stay alive. Butch cautiously opens the door and almost immediately finds the watch in the living room. He goes into the kitchen, satisfied with his prize, but as he throws some pop tarts into the toaster, he sees a gun. Someone is in the house. Will he make it out alive? He picks up the gun just as Vincent Vega (John Travolta) opens the bathroom door. Boom! Vincent’s dead. As Butch leaves the apartment, we think, “That was almost too easy.” The pursuit of the watch, which we thought would be incredibly dangerous, leaves us with an uneasy feeling. This pursuit scene serves as a building block for a larger escape scene to come. Many pursuit scenes allow the character to achieve what they want before making them work to keep it.

5. Almost Famous (2000)

Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), along with her new friend William (Patrick Fugit), has come to the Continental Hyatt House in hopes that Stillwater will welcome her again and invite her to travel with them. Penny Lane is in pursuit of the guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), her old fling, and is banking on him still being in love with her. She makes quite an entrance into the Stillwater hotel room, hoping to grab Russell’s attention immediately. She gives an exaggerated stewardess speech saying, “Your seats are tray tables should be locked and in their upright positions!” Penny’s friend Polexia (Anna Paquin) comes up to William and outlines the entire pursuit scene. “Act one: in which she pretends she doesn’t care about him.” Penny sits casually smoking a cigarette, laughing with other people. “Act two: he pretends he doesn’t care about her, but he goes right for her.” Penny catches Russell’s eye, giving him a flirtatious grin. “Act three: in which it all plays out the way she planned it. She’ll eat him alive.” Penny then stands saying she needs ice, and without even looking at Russell, he follows her. She’s smooth. Uncovering the subtle pursuit tactics a character uses tells us so, so much about them.

4. The Sandlot (1993)

This movie is a classic, and it all revolves around one big scene: the pursuit of the infamous Babe Ruth ball. Benny (Mike Vitar) vows to return Small’s (Tom Guiry) stepdad’s ball after Smalls hits it over the fence into the backyard of a neighbor. The problem is that a “beast” keeps watch over the yard and all those who have braved him “got eaten.” Despite Benny’s pal’s attempts to stop him, he leaps over the fence, and it’s on. The scene is set up wonderfully. There’s a clear thing Benny needs: the ball; a clear obstacle: the dog; and a motif: to help his best friend Smalls. Just as Benny’s PF Flyers hit the dirt, we hear a growl and sure enough the “beast” appears with the ball in his mouth. As the dog lets the slobbery prize roll from his mouth, Benny knows he’s got to run for it. He digs his feet in the ground and then dashes. He grabs the ball, sliding into the dust and hops back over the fence just in time. Mission accomplished.

3. American Psycho (2000)

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) has arranged a nice little threesome, but it all goes wrong when Christie (Cara Seymour), one of the prostitutes he picked up, tries to escape. As he’s fondling the other woman, Christie sees blood seeping through the covers and runs for her life. She weaves through his massive apartment, finding gory secrets and countless dead bodies. Patrick chases after her, covered in blood, chainsaw in hand. He must pursue and kill her, otherwise she will run and tell others what she’s seen and then he’s the one who’ll be dead. Christie manages to make it into the hallway, screaming and banging on the neighbor’s doors. Patrick comes up behind her, this time wearing tennis shoes, still with the chainsaw in hand. As Christie frantically descends the spiraling staircase, Patrick waits for the right moment to drop the chainsaw. Sure enough, it lands on Christie right when she gets to the bottom floor. Patrick’s pursuit has been successful and the prostitute, a potential loose end, is dead.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is based around one thing: the pursuit of the ring. Finally, in the third installment of the trilogy, we see how it all began with Smeagol (Andy Circus). He and his friend Deagol (Thomas Robbins) are fishing in the river. Deagol is pulled under water by a large fish that caught his line, and in the sand he sees an entrancing golden ring. He grabs it, and swims ashore. When Smeagol also sees the ring for the first time, he turns vicious quickly and demands the ring be given to him. Suddenly, the two friends begin to fight and possessed with rage and the power of the ring, Smeagol strangles his friend. He opens Deagol’s lifeless palm and puts on the ring. He then disappears, and the story of how Smeagol became Gollum all begins. This scene is crucial in understanding how powerful the ring is and that from the beginning Gollum’s pursuit of it has been dangerous and deadly.

1. Fatal Attraction (1987)

Not all characters pursue the same way. The most interesting pursuit scenes are disguised, and we’re surprised when the character achieves their goal. Alex Forrester (Glenn Close) is falling for Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas); the problem is that he’s married. After a one-night stand, Dan attempts to leave in a hurry. Alex is angry that he’s pulling a, “thank you, goodbye, don’t call me, I’ll call you.” He didn’t “stop for a second to think about” her.  He screams at him to get out, when she actually wants him to stay. Her attempts to make him feel guilty for abandoning her clearly didn’t work. As he packs up, she appears in the doorway and asks Dan to say goodbye nicely. As he holds her, she begins to cry and kiss him frantically. Then he sees that she’s slit her wrists. He panics and finds towels to stop the bleeding and calm her down. Although this may not seem like a pursuit scene, it most definitely is. Alex wanted Dan to stay with her after they made love, and in the end, that’s exactly what he does. She goes to the extreme of injuring herself to pursue keeping the man she’s obsessed with and keep him from leaving her.