In light of my recent mention of the “Rosebud” plot twist in my series of essays on Citizen Kane, I think I’ll have some fun and make a list of the greatest plot twists in movie history. But, of course, before you read my list, you have to read my ramblings about the topic at hand.
See, the plot twist has both excited viewers and numbed them over the last few years. When it comes down to it, the recent lovefest that the Western world has had with television has destroyed our notions of plot and pummeled us with the consistent expectation that the “person we least expect” is going to do the thing we least expected him to do. Usually, that means that Tony Almeida goes bad, that random sheriff from season 1 is Red John, the Gilligan’s Island reinvention from J.J Abrams involves time travel, Moriarty never dies, and Nina Myers always shows up at the most pinpoint dramatic moment…right before the credits. We have come to fall in love with the plot device known now as the “plot twist.” But, we’ve had far too much of a good thing.
And I want to stress that fact that a good plot twist oftentimes is a good thing. I wouldn’t have a list like this in my blog if it wasn’t. Especially in the realm of television, where a plot must be drawn out over a far longer period and maintain a pace that carries it over week-long intermissions, plot twisting is almost necessary. But, when it comes to movies, plot is not the most important thing. For those films that tend toward realist photography and adherence to the principles of film as a seventh art, plot is not nearly as important as image, and so an abrupt plot twist can divert the attention of the viewer from what is more important. For those films that tend more towards the Wagnerian, (the Gesamtkuntswerks), plot is merely another piece of a complex puzzle involving cinema, dialogue, score, art direction and choreography. In this regard, a plot twist can sometimes save a movie, or it can hurt a movie by abandoning the precepts that made the rest of the movie great.
This is why I don’t really like the plot twist in Fight Club. I know that to say something like that is blasphemous for any man between the ages of 20 and 40. But, I mean it. The twist destroys all the imagery of the movie leading up to the great unveiling, making me realize that the whole first part of the movie was a lie, and therefore making wonder why I even need to watch the second part. For a movie acting as Gesamtkuntswerk, this is a terrible plan. All the sound editing and choreography and imagery and so forth that one put towards creating the Gesamtkuntswerk can be completely scrapped and tossed aside for a new approach that pretty much betrays the movie itself.
Take, though, another movie: The Departed. There is an event at the end that leaves you shaken and amazed. But, is it a plot twist, per se? No. It’s merely the plot moving forward on the right trajectory and acceleration. This is the case with the old film noir movies. Take, for example, The Maltese Falcon. The movie can be seen as one providing plot twist after plot twist, or, instead (and more fittingly), a movie were the plot simply moves, without the desperate act of a screenwriter trying to shock you in the last few minutes. Another fine example of this from modern film is the abrupt and shocking ending to There Will Be Blood. This is not a twist, just the propelling motions of the plot. But, it certainly feels like one.
Ultimately, what makes a great plot twist is the fact that it can’t be so abrupt that actually we expected it. I know that sounds strange, but it’s true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been watching a movie with somebody and they start to speculate—out-loud, mid-movie—about how the ending is going to turn out. The fact that you’re expecting a plot twist ruins the plot twist when it happens.
There is however, a way to do it right. The plot twist must fit, it can’t be so out of left field that we feel like the whole rest of the movie was pointless. The plot twist must also be properly presented. I think that The Usual Suspects is a movie that fits this mold. While the twist is somewhat similar to that in Fight Club in that it can make the rest of the movie feel like a waste of time, it is still executed in such a way (through a beautiful appeal to montage) that we are left in awe and appreciation. Third, the plot twist cannot be expected.
That is where things get hard and that is where I return to my words at the start of the page. After all, if you’re watching a spy movie, or a movie about magic tricks, or a horror film about a cabin in the woods, shouldn’t you be expecting a little bit of a twist? Great question. That’s why it’s so hard. But, that is why you’ll find most of the movies on this list are older movies. I’ve noticed that people don’t expect plot twists from older movies, as if they subconsciously agree with everything I’ve been saying about the plot twist lovefest being a product of the most recent generation. You’ll also see a lot of genres represented that you never would have expected. Ultimately, the spy movie, the magic movie, or the horror movie can still deliver a good plot twist, but the true quality lies in the ability of the plot twist to be masked as a plot that is moving forward towards inevitable, yet still unpredictable, conclusions. For a good example of this, compare Skyfall to Casino Royale.
So, without further delay, here is my list of the greatest plot twists in cinematic history. You’ll notice, it’s decidedly American in nature. It seems that we here in the U.S. have cornered the market, even though number one goes to a German Expressionist silent film:
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
- Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back
- The Sixth Sense
- Citizen Kane
- Soylent Green
- The Planet of the Apes
- She Done Him Wrong
- The Prestige
- Friday the 13th
- Witness for the Prosecution
- The Usual Suspects
- The Maltese Falcon
- Beauty and the Beast (1946)