Yippee ki yay mother cluckers! It’s Christmas Eve and I’m sitting here partaking in my annual, thirty-plus year tradition of watching Die Hard. I’m not going to enter the never ending debate of whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not, all I’ll say is that a Christmas movie is one you enjoy watching over the festive season, regardless of setting or story. Anyway, I’m around fifteen minutes or so away from the end credits rolling and waiting for Vaughn Monroe to belt out Let it Snow. As I sit here readying myself for Hans Gruber to fall from Nakatomi Plaza… again. I thought I’d write about my favourite scene in the movie.
Now, Die Hard is an all action flick with bullets flying, explosions destroying “a shit-load of screen doors” and attack helicopters… “Just like fucking Saigon, eh Slick?”. So the obvious pick for my favourite scene would be an action one… but it’s not. My pick is something far removed from action, it’s a scene where two people just talk. Yup, forget the mounting bodies of terrorists, the fiery destruction and pithy one liners. For me, it’s all about two guys talking.
I guess the obvious choice would be the brilliant scene where McClane and Gruber meet face to face. The whole Hans Gruber trying to pass himself off as a worker at Nakatomi Plaza. It’s a very Alfred Hitchcock-esque bomb scene. I’ll let the man himself explain:
“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
– Alfred Hitchcock
It is that suspense of the McClane and Gruber meeting that makes that scene work. We the audience know ‘Bill Clay’ is Gruber, and we would like to warn the hero. But there’s the added twist of the fact that we don’t know if McClane knows who ‘Bill Clay’ really is or not. The suspense is so thick you could cut it. The fact it’s brilliantly acted helps too. Yet as great as that simple scene of two people talking is amazing, it’s still not my favourite. My choice actually comes not too long after that meeting of McClane and Gruber.
So ‘Bill Clay’ reveals himself to be Hans Gruber and in turn, John McClane reveals himself not to be as stupid as Gruber hoped, what with giving him an empty gun and all. Anyway, Gruber’s men turn up and a mass shoot out begins. McClane runs for his life and is cornered, in an office with glass panels everywhere. There’s a fire escape near by, but one major problem. Hans Gruber orders Karl to “schieß dem fenster”… shoot the glass! Tit-bit time: ‘schieß dem fenster’ actually translates to ‘shoot the windows’. This could explain why Karl looks at Hans with a puzzled look on his face, as shooting out the windows makes no sense. So Hans repeats, in English and this time says to “shoot the glass” (panels) in the office instead of the windows.
So the shards of glass fly and McClane has to make a run for it… barefoot. We then cut to McClane dragging himself across the floor into a bathroom, beaten and bloodied, complete with shards of glass in his feet. He pulls out his walkie-talkie and begins a conversation with Sgt. Al Powell, McClane’s only confidant who is outside with the rest of the police and gathering press. They engage in a bit of light-hearted banter, taking bets on McClane making out alive and all. There are a couple of laughs as the pair chat. But there’s something niggling away at the back of John McClane’s head, he begins to believe he won’t actually make it out alive. Up to this point in the flick, he’s already been through hell. Fist fights, shot at (many, many times), stuck in vents, he’s exhausted and pissed off that the police are doing such a terrible job outside. Plus, he now has a load of broken glass stuck in his bare feet.
“The man is hurting! He is alone, tired, and he hasn’t seen diddly-squat from anybody down here. Now you’re gonna stand there and tell me that he’s gonna give a damn about what you do to him, IF he makes it out of there alive?”
– Sgt. Al Powell
John McClane is only human and he’s been pushed about as far as any man can be pushed, he’s been stretched to breaking point already and he knows it. He’s pretty much about to give up, or die trying. That’s when he opens up to Powell and the conversation changes from the light-hearted banter to something more macabre. McClane asks Powell for a very specific favour. He asks Powell to find his wife and give her a message:
“Tell her it took me a while to figure out, uh, what a jerk I’ve been, but um, that, uh, when things started to pan out for her, I should’ve been more supportive and, uh, I just should have been behind her more. Tell her, that, uh, that she is the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times, she never heard me say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I want you to tell her that, Al. I want you to tell her that, uh John said he’s sorry.”
– John McClane
This is the hero trying to get a final massage to his wife because he knows his time is all but up. You have to remember that at the time, Bruce Willis was not a huge star. Aside from being on the T.V. show Moonlighting (great show I highly recommend), he just wasn’t that well known back then. That coupled with John McClane trying to get a final message to his wife kind of convinced the audience that the hero could very well die in this film.
Willis’ acting in that one scene and the moment when McClane passes the message onto Powell is brilliant. He really manages to convey a sense of fear and loss of drive to continue. I think the way it was written and delivered with the pauses and the ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ that make the speech sound genuine and real, not ‘movie-like’. Plus there’s a subtle and fantastic bit of direction from John McTiernan that a lot of people miss. When McClane is on on the walkie-talkie, he’s on the left side of the screen, when the shot cuts to Powell, he’s on the right side of the screen. It’s a really clever bit of direction that tries to put the two characters in the same space even though they are in completely different locales. As the camera cuts from one to the other (left, right, left, right), it looks like they are talking to and even looking at each other directly.
Die Hard is a action film that still holds up well today… yet my favourite bit has nothing to do with action and all about character. And yes… it is a Christmas film. Anyway, it’s coming up to midnight and I have to go to sleep or Santa won’t leave me any Christmas presents.