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Top 10 Torture-Interrogation Scenes in Film

by Warren Cantrell on Nov.29, 2010, under Film Lists

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I love a good torture scene that involves a tough interrogation.  Torture for its own sake in a film is all well and good, but the creative methods employed to get information out of an unwilling foe have always amused me tremendously.  I wanted to craft a list that honored this Hollywood standard, and recognized the most imaginative and vicious physical interrogations in movie history.  It wasn’t enough just to cross-examine a person in a film: there had to be a beating or physically punishing component to the ordeal.  Yet it had to be for a specific end, not just a corporal punishment or sentencing.  Thus, floggings (already covered in the Top 10 Whipping Scenes list) and capital punishment ass-kickings (Braveheart, etc.) didn’t count.  The scene in question had to be torture for the purpose of gathering information, not just torture for torture’s sake.  Thus, the Saw films were also excluded, along with the Hostels.  Also, it wasn’t enough to torture somebody just to ‘break’ them, it had to be for the sake of gathering intelligence of some kind.  I took this ranking very seriously, as beating people for information is a practice as ancient as humanity itself.  They say prostitution is the world’s oldest profession.  I beg to differ.  I think jerks were working people over for the low-down on the best food and leisure spots long before they were trading in ass.  At first, movies didn’t seem too interested in this practice, for when it came up in the first half of the century, it was usually a quick, uneventful affair that simply got one thread of a plot connected with another.  Starting in the 1960s, however, the interrogation beat-down started coming into fashion, and the world hasn’t really looked back since.  Some close calls (and I mean really, really close) for this list included The Way of the Gun, Spy Game, True Romance, Under Siege 2, L.A. Confidential, Star Trek (2009), Hart’s War, Narc, Goonies, Shoot ‘Em Up, and Scarface.  There were others to be considered, but as you know, I took this list pretty seriously, so I couldn’t stomach putting any of them over…

10.) The Dark Knight – batman

Batman: “I have one rule.”

The Joker: “Then that’s the rule you’ll have to break to know the truth.”

Batman: “Which is?”

The Joker: “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.  And tonight you’re gonna break your one rule.”

Batman: “I’m considering it.”

Most people had this one clocked as one of the best films of the year well before its release, and as a movie, The Dark Knight certainly didn’t disappoint.  While it had the luxury of building on a recently released prequel that returned Batman’s balls to their proper place, it went beyond all expectations both in terms of its box office performance and the critical acclaim bestowed upon all involved.  Putting aside Mr. Ledger’s now-immortal turn as “The Joker,” everybody else involved seemed to be at the top of their game.  Bale built up and further explored the complex framework of the “Bruce Wayne” character, and benefited from a magnificent script that juxtaposed issues of morality against ends justifying means.  The direction was crisp, measured, and grand all at once, and brought the audience in for an intimate whisper while still reserving the right to set off an explosion right before our eyes.  As for the action and pacing of the film, I’ve yet to find a person to argue with, for I’ve found nothing but universal praise for the blistering set pieces during the initial bank heist, highway chase, and finale.  And as for Ledger, and what that man did with The Joker, what could I say that has not already been said?  Masterful isn’t quite the adverb, but it’s what I’m going with, for to watch Heath Ledger in that performance is to witness a man who was a master of their craft.  The interrogation scene came as close to explaining the basic dynamic between Batman and The Joker as any moment in the film, for both characters represented similar sentiments that sat at opposing ends of a spectrum.  Both were committed to their sense of order and justice, for while Batman understood this to mean the protection of liberties and order, The Joker knew only what it meant to be unrestrained and free to act without limits.  There was a sense of delight coming through The Joker when Batman beat him for information at police headquarters, as the villain had turned the hero into something ugly, or at the very least, was beginning to do so.  Though The Joker was able to pull this trick off completely with “Harvey Dent,” (Aaron Eckhart) he only got so far as a roughing-up from his main protagonist, who was willing to flirt with criminal behavior, but was not ready to give himself over completely to it.  To be fair, Batman came pretty damn close to crossing the line, and if he’d gone much further with the act, and had continued throwing the clown bastard around a little, he might have just broken the guy’s neck.  Like this next interrogation, however, the aggressor seemed to pull up at just the key moment, and fists seemed to be enough to get the job done…

9.) The Good the Bad and the Ugly – tuco

“How’s your digestion now?”

It’s the perfect story, and it was executed in the most precise, thoughtful, daring manner possible by a director who knew what he wanted to see, and understood exactly how he wanted to present it.  The director of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone, had cut his teeth in the “cowboy” genre in the years leading up to this picture, and had developed a distinct tone for the picture that would become the definitive Western opus.  Though a violent movie about men who were deadly serious and fantastically dangerous, the film always maintained a light, whimsical tone that kept its audience both interested and entertained.  Angel Eyes wasn’t especially evil, at least in a relative sense if Tucco and Blondie were also taken into account.  All three men were willing to betray each other for the buried treasure, and while Blondie did come out of the whole ordeal looking somewhat better because he left Tuco his share (and allowed him to live), you might chalk this last act up to the euphoric clemency liable to come over an individual after a big score.  When the pair were in prison, Eastwood’s character didn’t seem especially concerned with his “partner’s” well being.  Angel Eyes had brought Tuco in for a talk, and set the mood with the promise of a hot meal and a band to try and get the Mexican bandito to reveal the name of the treasure cemetery.  Tuco wasn’t terribly bright, and did not see through the ploy (or he didn’t give a shit that it was one), and began gobbling up the food, and commenting on his delight that there was a band handy, as music apparently helps with the digestion.  It also helps to mask the sounds of a guy getting his ass kicked, which is exactly what started happening to Tuco after the musicians kicked up the volume a notch.  Angel Eyes saw to it that Tuco got the ass kicking of a lifetime, and ordered his henchman to literally wipe the floor with the prisoner.  It was an old-school beating, and its simplicity reflected its humble purpose: to get information about hidden gold.  It was the second such beating Angel Eyes had orchestrated in the picture, for he had also roughed up a prostitute earlier for similar information.  Essentially, ol’ Angel kicked ass like most of us make an omelet, for the man clearly knew what he was doing.  After Tuco’s beating, Blondie was brought in, and he questioned Angel Eyes about the man’s intentions, and whether he would be beaten as well.  He was told that while such a maneuver was considered, it was clear by Blondie’s personality that such tactics wouldn’t work, and that it would just be a waste of time and effort.  Thus, Eastwood escaped an interrogation in this picture, as well as the beating that would have come with it, a neat dodge that he also performed in…

8.) Unforgiven – unforgiven

“Now, Ned, them whores are going to tell different lies than you.  And when their lies ain’t the same as your lies…well, I ain’t gonna hurt no woman.  But I’m gonna hurt you.  And not gentle like before…but bad.”

This one got a cozy spot on my Top 10 Film Whippings list, and rightly, for it was a hellish beating housed in a nightmarish scene.  This movie has come up a number of times in various rants, so I won’t belabor my readers by providing yet another plot synopsis, or even a discussion about the psychoanalytical implications of this picture’s characters and/or their actions.  Instead, I thought we’d talk about this interrogation scene, and the impact it had on the rest of the picture.  Morgan Freeman’s “Ned” lived by the old code of thieves, whereby one member of a gang goes to their grave holding on to the secrets of his or her conspirators.  The code was somewhat flexible, however, and did allow for some leeway when extenuating circumstances arose (like a mean son of a bitch flogging you with a bull whip).  Though Ned did his best to hold out and protect his fellow riders, the code did forgive when presented with dire, painful circumstances if for no other reason than because, as everybody knows, there’s no honor amongst thieves.  Ned’s partner, Eastwood’s “William Munney,” never came to terms with death.  He never reconciled the guilt he experienced from the years he spent as a reckless, drunken murderer, he never seemed especially moved after the deaths of the two hunted cowboys, and throughout the film he struggled with what his wife’s death meant to him as both a person and a father.  In this context, it isn’t surprising that he took the news of Ned’s demise pretty badly, and resolved to bring a terrible thunderclap of vengeance and murder down upon those who had authored his best friend’s end.  Will seemed to immediately understand the reasons behind Ned’s betrayal, and based on the code the pair had lived and shared, knew what he had to do so as to set things straight.  Because of the protracted, horrible abuse he suffered at the hands of Gene Hackman’s “Little Bill,” Ned became the lightning rod for unrivaled terror, and helped to transform a small, albeit violent corner of the world into the devil’s own play-pin for a few minutes.

7.) Casino Royale – casino

“I’ve got a little itch, down there.  Would you mind?”

Speaking of films that made the Top 10 Whippings list, we may as well get into this scene, for it was one of the most creative, brutal, and (oddly) funny torture scenes in cinematic history.  After winning the Texas Hold ‘Em tournament and robbing the film’s villain, “Le Chiffre” of the funds needed to repay his scary, angry-as-shit warlord investors, Bond had a bit of a situation on his hands.  Though the plan was to lure Le Chiffre to the British via the poker tournament so that after defeat, he would have nowhere to go except into the protective arms of his adversary, the evil prick wasn’t about to give up that easily.  Instead of turning himself in to get the much-needed protection, Le Chiffre kidnapped Bond’s new squeeze, “Vesper,” and used her to capture 007.  Once in their custody, Bond was bound naked to a chair with no bottom, and questioned about the recently won poker money, and the password needed to access those funds.  Le Chiffre used a thick rope knotted at the end, and swung this with all the force he could muster so the heavy end swung up and under Bond’s balls.  The sound effects were exquisite, and made it sound like Le Chiffre was hammering away at a rotten sack of oranges.  For his part, Bond held up nicely, and never gave any sign that he was about to cave.  Indeed, after a few minutes of the treatment, the British secret agent still had something of a sense of humor, and goaded his tormentor on a bit in a stunning act of defiance.  Of all the people on today’s list, you have to figure that Bond had a better chance of holding out than anybody else.  I mean, the guy was British!  Say what you want about those people, but it’s generally accepted that the English are stubborn as hell, and would rather die a slow, torturous death than demonstrate any indication that their upper-lips are anything less than concrete-stiff.  It’s no mistake that a British nut-job was at the top of my Top 10 Most Outstanding Acts of Resilience Following an Appendage Loss list.  It takes a Black Knight from that loony island to lose all his arms and legs and still talk shit about the fight he just lost.  Bond was carved out of similar stock, and looked as if he was ready to take days of the ball-bashing treatment and much worse so that his honor and the secrets he housed might remain intact.  Though he’s the only British character on today’s list, he did his people a great service during his interrogation, and put on a good show for a nation that deserved nothing less.

6.) Man on Fire – man-on-fire

“I’m going to ask questions.  If you don’t answer fully and truthfully, you will suffer much more than you have to.  I’m going to cut your fingers off, one by one, if I have to.”

I wanted to slot this one a little higher, for the second half of the film was pretty much one long interrogation of about six different people.  Each session was unique, brutal, and effective, as well as important to the overall structure of the picture and the events of the narrative.  It would have been easy to construct a movie so that all events led to a series of brutal interrogations for information, and while that was indeed an important part of the plot, it certainly didn’t define the picture.  No, that was accomplished by crisp performances by Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, and Christopher Walken, along with a very respectable supporting cast that was working on very good ground thanks to exquisite directing by Tony Scott.  The movie was about personal redemption, and how quickly life can lose its purpose for some, and how easily that purpose can be rediscovered if an individual simply opens up to that possibility.  Washington’s “Creasy,” was obviously terrorized by previous events in his life that scrubbed the humanity and capacity for hope right out of him, yet a paternal connection with a little girl (Dakota Fanning’s “Pita”) was all that the complicated, scarred warrior needed to change his outlook on life.  Further, when that little girl was abducted and thought to be dead, Creasy was once again flushed with a sense of purpose, for what had come alive in him because of his love for Pita turned into an equally potent desire to live so that vengeance could be exacted appropriately.  What had been reborn out of love nourished itself on hate, and those who abducted Pita suffered the terrible consequences.  There were a number of physical interrogations in Man on Fire, each with its own charms.  For example, there was the courier who Creasy freaked out by blasting both barrels of a shotgun all around his face and body, then there was the guy who lost most of one hand because Denzel’s character used that same shotgun to blow it the hell off.  Probably the most inventive, amusing, and effective technique he employed involved an ass-cap, a pencil detonator, and a little C-4.  Creasy shoved a bomb up a guy’s ass, set the timer, then got the dude talking.  This is the kind of dedication to torture interrogation that gets a film a #6 ranking on the 10rant!  To get to #5, the scene would have had to involve two people getting the treatment at the same time…

5.) Lethal Weapon – lethal-weapon

“Endo, meet Mr. Riggs.  Endo here has forgotten more about dispensing pain than you and I will ever know.”

I gave this one an honorable ranking because the torture interrogation scene involved not one, but two questioning sessions.  One the one side, you had Gibson’s “Riggs,” who was hanging by his wrists above the ground in some kind of shower area.  The banker for an international heroin syndicate, Hunsaker, had talked to Riggs’ partner, “Murtaugh” (Danny Glover), about the drug running operation and its history all the way back to Vietnam.  As “Mr. Joshua” (Gary Busey) explained to Riggs during his torture session, it was important for the drug smugglers to know what the cops had learned about their operation so the pending delivery wouldn’t be threatened by Hunsaker’s talking.  What Mr. Joshua and his associates hadn’t counted on was the fact that the L.A.P.D. had put two of the toughest cops in the corral on the case, and it was going to take a hell of a lot to get Riggs and Murtaugh to flip.  Strung up like a bagged elk, Riggs hung below a running shower spout and got zapped over and over again by a device that sent long, sustained electric shocks into him.  The fact that he was covered in current-friendly water didn’t seem to help the guy much, nor did the fact that between him and Murtaugh, Riggs was the more expendable one (thus his torture could border more closely on the fatal end of the spectrum).  As for Murtaugh, his session wasn’t much better.  He got the old fashioned chair beating, insofar as he was tied to a chair and beaten, not beaten with a chair.  Though they were leaning into their punches, the situation only got really ugly when they busted out the salt, and began grinding handfuls of the stuff into the policeman’s open, untreated gunshot wound.  Neither man was willing to cave, however, and it took the bad guys bringing in Murtaugh’s daughter to get any kind of response out of either of them (and even then, Murtaugh didn’t budge).  It was a brutal torture interrogation, both traditional and creative in practice, and it involved two characters getting the business at the same time.  Hats off to you, Mr. Donner: well done.

4.) Marathon Man – marathon

“Is it safe?”

This one really should have made my Top 10 Most Uncomfortable Tooth-Related Film Moments list, I freely admit that.  Wickedly uncomfortable and related to a fucked up dental procedure, this one unsettled most of the people who came out to watch this taut, well-made thriller.  Hoffman played “Babe,” a somewhat cheery, healthy, reliable guy who was drawn into an international diamond conspiracy that involved secret agents and Nazis.  Babe’s brother in the film was “Doc,” (presumably because everybody in this film had to have a nickname), a U.S. government operative who was tracking down a stash of Nazi diamonds on their way into the U.S.  Doc tried to confront the German who he figured was in town to collect the booty, but got gut-stabbed in the process.  Doc was able to stumble his bleeding ass back to his brother Babe’s apartment just before dying, but all this did was convince the feds and the Nazis that Babe knew something about the whole diamond plot.  After his brother’s colleagues gave the interrogation a shot, the Nazis swooped in and abducted Babe for a more physical questioning.  This was achieved by restraining the spry Hoffman and drilling into his teeth for motivation.  The bastard in charge, Lawrence Olivier’s “Szell,” kept repeating the same question as the drill dug in over and over again, “Is it safe?”  The incident was repeated a second time later in the film after Hoffman’s character had been put through the ringer vis a vis interrogations, days without sleep or sustenance, and inadvertent involvement with events nominally related to World War II.  A story goes that Hoffman, true method actor that he was, stayed up for two days straight so that he might get the appropriate look and mannerisms of a person who had gone through such troubles.  After the filming was completed, Olivier is rumored to have said to his forty year old co-star, “My dear boy, you should try acting some time.  It’s much easier.”  However he got to his internal place, Hoffman arrived, and put on a show that believably wove terror, confusion, and unmistakable dread into a dramatic cloth put on display for all the world to see.

3.) Rambo: First Blood, Part II – rambo2

“Pride is a poor substitute for intelligence.  What you must understand is that we have to interrogate you.  To Sergeant Yushin, here, you are a piece of meat.  A laboratory experiment.  But to me, you are a comrade, similar to myself, just opposed by an act of fate.  I know you are trying to facilitate the release of war criminals held by this republic.  I can appreciate this.  But this incident, your capture, is embarrassing.  We must have explanation…You may scream.  There is no shame.”

This movie is like the Rosetta Stone of the modern action motion picture.  While movies were killing the shit out of people and blowing things all to hell before Rambo II came out, nobody had done it as brashly and successfully as this film.  The first Rambo installment set a good precedent for this movie to follow, as it concerned itself with one highly trained and motivated Special Forces soldier who was at his best when facing off against ridiculously stacked odds.  After conquering a small American town whilst defeating an entire police force and half the deployed National Guard, the producers of the sequel had to look hard for a plot and setting to up the ante.  Since Rambo had already defeated elements of American society, what better way to get into the patriotic swing of things than to send ol’ John J. back to the ‘Nam to re-win the war?  Though his mission was only to infiltrate Vietnam and survey the jungles for any signs of American P.O.W.’s, Rambo ignored his orders not to engage the enemy, and started killing bitches.  True, if word had got out that the U.S. was conducting covert military operations against the Vietnamese in the mid-80s, half the world would have shit their collective trousers and the U.S. State Department would have almost certainly imploded from the incoming calls and paperwork, yet Rambo didn’t care.  For him, the fight was all about settling some scores with the cruel bastards that had tortured his ass the last time around, and he was going to make sure any Americans still in the shit were spared any further exposure to such poor hospitality.

Once he was back in-country, Rambo got down to business and hitched a ride to his destination after his contact made herself available.  Unfortunately for most everyone involved, Rambo had to blow up a gunboat halfway through his trip down the river, so his directions to keep out of trouble and maintain a low profile were essentially out the window from the get-go.  Once he got to the Vietnamese camp, America’s bravest fictional son got a man out without burning his contact’s cover, and even got to the extraction point with his P.O.W.  Politics being what they are, what with the U.S. not wanting to start an international incident after illegally infringing upon another nation’s sovereignty, Rambo was left to rot so as not to link his country with his actions.  At this point, the torture started, for the Vietnamese and their Russian allies were all sorts of interested in what a Yankee was doing all by himself in their backyard.  First, they used an oxen yoke to suspend Rambo neck-deep in a cesspool for a day or two.  Then, after a little hand-to-face working-over, they stood him up against a box-spring mattress that was charged with an electrical current, and tried a little electrocution therapy on the Green Beret.  When this didn’t work, they brought a P.O.W. in and threatened to pop the guy’s eyeball out with the tip of Rambo’s red-hot, ember-heated survival knife.  This last act got Stallone’s character to relent, yet it should be noted that this only happened after another person was threatened with physical abuse, and that Rambo looked like he could have held out for another few days.  While the second to last character in today’s ranking didn’t show this much courage and resolve, to be fair, Rambo’s torture, as burly as it was, didn’t come anywhere near…

2.) Casino – casino-pesci

“Listen to me, Anthony.  I got your head in a fuckin’ vise.  I’ll squash your head like a fuckin’ grapefruit if you don’t give me a name.  Don’t make me have to do this, please.  Don’t make me a bad guy, come on.”

Well, you had to figure a mob-related torture scene would come along at some point today, and if we’re going to go that direction, why not throw Casino out there as the chosen representative for that genre?  As far as American mafia films, this one is widely considered the most profane, violent, and detail-oriented of the lot, and in terms of the interrogation scene, it has no peers.  While the Asian and Russian mafias have their own unique (arguably more brutal) methods for extracting information, the Italians are nothing if not old-fashioned and persistent, and their techniques reflect a long tradition of both.  Casino followed the fictional “Sam Rothstein” (DeNiro) and “Nicky Santoro” (Pesci) as the former set up a Las Vegas base of operations for mob interests back east, and the latter came out to provide protection for the scheme.  Originally put in place to protect the skim, Nicky quickly found that the town that sustained itself on a steady diet of cash money was ripe for a little muscle, and began causing more problems for Sam and the operation than he could ever hope to solve.  While Sam ran the casino and kept high rollers in debt and low rollers coming back for more, Nicky and his crew were sucking up cocaine and looting the Las Vegas citizenry for everything they had.  Nicky did have sense enough to comply with orders between jobs, and still towed the company line where needed, as was the case with his abduction of “Tony Dogs,” and the interrogation that took place to get a name out of the lowly mob soldier.  By his own account, Nicky and his boys went to work in earnest on Tony Dogs, for in his narration, he said, “For two days and two fuckin’ nights, we beat the shit out of this guy.  I mean, we even stuck ice picks in his balls.”  That’s a serious attempt at getting a person to come around to your side of an argument, but alas, even two days of torture and ice picks didn’t work.  Once they got Tony’s head in a vise, however, the once-tough mother fucker started getting reservations about his silence, and once the device had been tightened enough so that an eyeball popped out, all bets were off, and the guy gave up a name.  As far as scenes on this list go, this is the only one except for the next (last) entry that still makes me cringe, and forces me to look away when it’s on.  Thus, without further ado, let’s dive right in to…

1.) Ichi the Killer – ichi

“Where’s the boss?”

Christ alive, this movie’s fucked up.  Seriously, Ichi the Killer has problems, man, like serious, court-appointed therapist problems.  I was first introduced to this movie after talking to a friend about Battle Royale, and how I considered that film to be the most fucked up cinematic experience I could think of.  To give you some quick background, Battle Royale is about high school kids who are knocked out on a class trip, then wake to discover they’ve been put on an island by the government, and must kill their closest friends lest a bomb strapped to their neck discharge as punishment for not participating in the state-sanctioned murder.  As an answer to this, my acquaintance lent me another Japanese film, Ichi the Killer, and told me to buckle my seat belt, for in his words, it was so brutal and intense that it made Battle Royal “look like a hair-loss infomercial.”  The guy wasn’t far off, for this movie was as unapologetically graphic as anything released in the history of cinema.  There’s a lot of very Japanese people in this movie with somewhat unfamiliar names, and the movie threw a handful of them into a plot so twisted and double-cross heavy that in two hours, after watching the flick, you might still be confused, so I’ll spare you a plot synopsis.  In sum, it was about a crime boss that went missing and got murdered because some chick with a grudge was trying to pit the opposing yakuza clans against each other.  To pull this off, the chick “Jijii” used a psychopathic and deeply disturbed youth named “Ichi,” who demonstrated a lot of skill with razor blades.

The boss had a pretty loyal crew, however, and didn’t take to their chief’s sudden disappearance very well.  The second in command, “Kakihara,” was especially devoted to the boss, and took the search and his boss’ discovery as a point of pride and honor.  As part of the ploy to get Kakihara’s gang fighting with another clan, Jijii fed them information about a rival and their involvement in the boss’ disappearance.  Though it was bullshit, and the rival crime lord knew nothing about the murder, Kakihara wasn’t aware of this, and consequently abducted the rival, put meat hooks through the skin on his back and legs, and hung the guy alive from the ceiling.  This in itself would have been pretty shitty, but that was just the torture appetizer, the act meant to impress upon the victim that things would only get worse.  Indeed they did, for Kakihara was getting nowhere with his questions (because the guy legitimately knew nothing), so he began stabbing the poor bastard with skewers, then started pouring scalding grease on the guy.  No shit.  The scene was like something straight out of the fifth ring of hell, and it wasn’t even the only torture/interrogation scene in the movie!  Later on, Kakihara tried to get some intelligence out of another dude, and did so by hurling long needles into the victim’s face from afar, which came right after a pair of corrupt cops had tortured a woman for info.  In sum, Ichi the Killer is like the 9th Symphony of torture interrogation films, for while it might not always be the most notable example of the genre, it will almost certainly be remembered for the rest of time for the audacity of its demonstration.  If nothing else, I’m pretty sure that Beethoven would have liked this movie, so for that, I decided it deserved the #1 slot.

 

 

 

Copyright Warren J. Cantrell – All rights reserved.

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