The Big Reveal: On movie plot points that change everything

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Mark of the Vampire is a 1935 film starring Bela Lugosi, playing the one role that he has portrayed numerous times in his career: he plays the title role of the vampire.

Or does he?

This is just one of many films in a sub-genre I call the big reveal. It is not tied to any particular genre, like drama or comedy, though it is found more often in the former. The big reveal occurs near or at the end of a movie, and is the plot point that changes the information that the viewer had been given before that moment.

If a film featuring the big reveal is first viewed without knowledge of said plot point it can remain in the viewer’s mind after the film is over, where scenes are revisited and reevaluated. If the film is well-made then there can be great satisfaction when seen again: since the big reveal is already known then scenes will take on a new meaning.

It may seem that the big reveal is really just a mystery and calling it anything else is overreaching. After all when Charlie Chan reveals that the butler did it we can revisit the movie and watch the butler’s actions (which might not amount to much). But that is really where the comparison ends. The distinction is that in with a mystery we know the truth will be revealed, questions will be answered—it’s just a matter of time. In the case of the big reveal the audience is presented with information late in the film that they weren’t privy to, where they had no idea this turn of events was coming. The floor has been ripped out from under us just as our jaws have hit it.

Here are a few movies that effectively used the big reveal. There will be no spoilers divulged to allow the reader unfamiliar with these movies to enjoy the big moment in pure innocence. In addition key plot points are not disclosed as to not give away the big secret for each of these films.

The Lugosi film may be one of the oldest examples of the big reveal in cinema, and is particularly unexpected if a bit farfetched. In the film a man is murdered and the cause is tied to what appears to be two holes on his neck, attributed to the bite of a vampire. A count (Lugosi) and his daughter are suspected by the victim’s friend and doctor (Jean Hersholt and Donald Meek respectively), and fear the murdered man’s daughter is next to be dispatched. The great Lionel Barrymore (who received top billing) appears as an expert on the occult, and it is he who sets the big reveal in motion, revealing the truth behind the man’s death. The last scene pokes fun at the actors—particularly Lugosi.

Jumping ahead a few decades one of the biggest films representative of this sub-genre is The Sixth Sense (1999) from director M. Night Shyamalan, which was both a popular and critical success. Haley Joel Osment portrayed Cole, a troubled child who was that way for a reason, as his famous line “I see dead people” would indicate, and it drives psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis in one of his best performances) to get to the root of the kid’s issues. But Crowe has issues of his own that concern his relationship with his wife, and it is after completing his work with Cole that the big reveal occurs. Unlike most films in this sub-genre after the big reveal we are presented with a montage that gives the viewer the opportunity to reinterpret those scenes on the screen rather than just in their own minds.

The Sixth Sense received deserved accolades including nominations for many of the top Oscars (though it won none), but its success may have misled director Shyamalan, whose next few films also included the big reveal with decreasing success. While not as compelling as Sense they might have much to offer to anyone interested in this sub-genre (the big reveal in The Village will definitely throw you for a loop).

The big reveal is generally not something found in a comedy, but it figures in Down with Love from 2003, director Peyton Reed’s affectionate spoof of the Doris Day sex comedies, particularly the two she made with Rock Hudson: Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961).

Renée Zellweger portrays author Barbara Novak, who writes a book titled Down with Love, its corollary being up with sex—a primer for women to enjoy sex without having to think about commitment to the opposite sex—much like men. However, Barbara’s sexist all-male publishing staff won’t promote the book (Barbara’s editor Vikki is expected to perform menial tasks like making coffee), so Vikki (Sarah Paulson) attempts to have Barbara interviewed by popular magazine writer and “ladies man/man’s man/man about town” Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor, who is clearly having fun with this offbeat role).

But as Catcher has never seen Barbara he assumes from the book’s content that she is a spinster and constantly derails any meeting with the author in favor of sexual liaisons. That backfires when Vikki has an epiphany to get Judy Garland to sing the title tune on the Ed Sullivan show to promote the book. (The video of Garland singing the song was taken from The Judy Garland Show broadcast in March 1964.)

As a result sales for the book skyrocket worldwide. Spotting a cardboard cutout of Barbara in a book store window Catcher realizes his mistake and is suddenly interested in the interview. With the shoe on the other foot Barbara refuses to meet Catcher so he concocts a plan to pretend he is an innocent (possibly virgin) astronaut to woo her and get her to fall in love with him—exposing her as a phony to discredit her and the book. Meanwhile Barbara’s success of turning the tables on men came at a price: she can’t get a date and speculates that the only man who would be interested in her would be someone who has never heard of her and her book—like an astronaut who has been secluded in space.

That deceit was a plot point derived from the aforementioned Day-Hudson films. In Pillow Talk Day battles playboy Hudson over the sharing of their telephone party line (back in the day dedicated phone lines cost more, so customers would share a line for lower cost). While Day has no idea what Hudson looks like the reverse isn’t true, and spotting her in a club Hudson pretends to be a wealthy Texas rancher. Similarly in Lover Come Back, Day and Hudson are rival ad executives for different firms, and Hudson pretends to be someone he isn’t to deceive her. Although neither of these films contain a big reveal (to the audience at least) they are immensely entertaining and are both highly recommended.

While Down with Love pokes fun at the machinations of those plots it also adopts and skews the conventions of that era’s Technicolor/Eastmancolor movies, including lavish sets, colorful costumes, backdrops as skylines, over the top montages, a bubbly score, and split screens. That last effect for one scene included content that the stars from the older films wouldn’t have attempted (let alone considered): the split depicts a conversation between Barbara and the “astronaut” where the actors perform actions that when seen together simulate various sexual acts.

It’s worth noting that another convention from those older sex comedies include the male’s foppish best friend, portrayed by Tony Randall in those films. That role is nicely reconceived here by David Hyde Pierce as Catcher’s “friend” and publisher; as he is pursuing Vikki he desperately wants to make the interview happen. Ironically, Randall made his final movie appearance in “Down with Love” as the head of the publishing firm.

From reading the synopsis one might not associate this sparkling comedy with having the big reveal. However there is a revelation where we learn the truth about one of the characters; while it isn’t as weighty as some of the dramas mentioned here it does change our perception of what we have seen up to that point. In any event the film is a treasure trove of fun for film buffs.

One of the best cinematic examples of the big reveal occurs through two films that comprise one story not from American studios: Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (the latter’s title was translated for English-speaking audiences, to Manon of the Spring), both from 1986 and made in France by director Claude Berri. The films take place in the French village of Provence where César Soubeyran (Yves Montand in one of his last roles) and his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) block a spring belonging to another property. The two did this to prevent kindly hunchback Jean (Gérard Depardieu), the new owner who had inherited the land, from being able to farm or raise rabbits to make a living for his wife and daughter.

The Soubeyrans plan is to break Jean and force him to sell them the land, and after that deed is done they would unblock the spring to be used to raise carnations, a lucrative business. This treachery becomes known to some of the people of the town, but they don’t divulge the truth to the hunchback and his family as they consider Jean as an “outsider” as well as being intolerant towards his deformity.

Ultimately, when Jean attempts to force water to the surface a tragedy occurs, and the sinister plot succeeds. But there is a hitch: Unbeknownst to the Soubeyrans Jean’s daughter Manon discovers the truth. That sets the stage for the second film where Manon performs an action that will devastate the town along with the Soubeyrans — particularly Ugolin. The nephew has fallen hard for Manon but realizes that his love will forever be unrequited due to her disgust for what he and his uncle did to her father, as well as her obvious attraction to a handsome schoolteacher.

After another tragedy occurs we get the big reveal, and after witnessing the events depicted in the film it will take your breath away, with both fate and karma playing a huge role here. Even with the stunning reveal that is just one reason to seek out these films, which is well worth the journey. It was recognized with many nominations and awards from various film organizations, including the French César awards, BAFTA, and the Golden Globes.

If there is one movie that would be crowned the king of the big reveal it is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, hands down. However, there is a different kind of big reveal here: Something that occurred at the end of the actual production that revolved about the big reveal in the plot, one that would have lessened the film’s stature considerably. That story will be published here soon — a double whammy to the concept of the big reveal.

©2014 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

Mike Tiano

Mike Tiano

Best known for his work with the Yes-related fan page Notes From the Edge, Tiano launched the official website YesWorld and has written liner notes for several of the group's reissues. The Seattle resident is recording tracks for his upcoming album 'Creetisvan,' and is an expert on movies, TV, prog rock, and the Beatles. Contact Something Else! at
Mike Tiano
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