The Screen’s 20 Most Seductive Scenes
Going back to the early days of cinema, movies have seduced audiences. In the March 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, the staff picked twenty of the most intimate and arousing scenes in the history of film. Choices span the silent era through the late 20th century and range from mental seduction to hot and heavy action.
1 Flesh and the Devil (1926)
One of Greta Garbo’s glories and enduring mysteries lies in her ephemeral, evanescent quality. Impossibly beautiful and quixotic, the “Divine One,” as she was called, was as tangible as a smoke ring, as easy to grasp and lay claim to as a luminous vapor on the wind. In this silent classic, though, Garbo is at once sacred and profane, playing a mantrap who dallies with two soldier buddies while she is secretly already married. The Roman-candle scenes that make the film famous to this day occur when Garbo’s character collides with her true object of desire, played by dashing John Gilbert. Their kisses and caresses–shot by director Clarence Brown in intimate close-up with lighting as shimmery as spun sugar–grow so intense, the stars appear intent on devouring each other. It’s hard not to feel like an intruder. It’s also hard to disbelieve the enduring legend that says when Brown yelled “Cut!” the stars (who were lovers offscreen) kept right on romancing.
2 Morocco (1930)
When this film steamed up America’s movie houses, its stars, the young Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper, were so androgynously, exotically beautiful that a hilarious rumor ran through Hollywood that the two were the same person, their scenes done with trick photography. Nonsense, of course, but few stars have made narcissism more alluring or more justified. Dietrich, essaying her first Hollywood film, and her second with her Svengali, director Josef von Sternberg, radiates come-one-come-all Continental swagger as a cabaret singer. Cooper plays a foreign legionnaire with come-and-get-it insolence in his grin and, even more so, in his body language. A movie that swirls with heat, smoke and ripe exotica, it hits its seductive peak when Dietrich, dressed in gender-bending top hat and tails, performs a nightclub ditty that ends with Dietrich provocatively kissing a female patron at a ringside table. More than 60 years before Sharon Stone made brazen, unapologetic bisexuality irresistible in Basic Instinct, Dietrich had already blazed the trail.
3 Gone With the Wind (1939)
Offscreen, Clark Gable, then the reigning, no-nonsense King of the Movies, and Vivien Leigh, the vixenish, tautly wound English-rose newcomer, had no use for each other. On-screen, though, where it counted, they sizzled. This sweeping Civil War romance, set amid the dripping moss and genteel plantation barbarities of the Old South, remains piping hot today because of its thorny, sexually supercharged relationship between rakish gambler Rhett Butler, played by Gable, and tempestuous belle Scarlett O’Hara, played for keeps by Leigh. Things between the two get tangier than a mint julep in sequences set after the war when Rhett proposes marriage to Scarlett by grabbing her in his arms and planting a bad-boy, soul-shaking, knee-buckling kiss on her. When she whimpers that she’s about to faint, he growls, “I want you to faint. This is what you were meant for. None of the fools you’ve ever known have kissed you like this, have they?” He kisses her again, extracting a breathless “yes” to his proposal, to seal the deal. Contemporary audiences have been known to burst into applause during this scene–once they’ve caught their collective breath.
4 Casablanca (1942)
Ingrid Bergman, arguably the ’40s’ most simultaneously revered and lusted-after Good Girl superstar, is at her most ravishingly sexy as The Woman Who Got Away from embittered, emotionally lacerated cafe owner Humphrey Bogart in this Oscar-winning World War II classic for wised-up romantics. Into Rick’s Café Americain floats the radiant, carnal Bergman, the wife of a noble Nazi resistance hero desperate for letters of transit that will let the couple escape from their pursuers. Cynical, flippant Rick (his motto: “I stick my neck out for nobody”) finds his principles and passions tested when, after he’s closed the club for the night, he finds Bergman, his lost love, waiting for him in his apartment. Bergman begs Bogart for the letters of transit, then pulls a gun on him, then, with tears streaming, recalls their love affair: “The day you left Paris, if you knew what I went through…if you knew how much I loved you–how much I still love you.” She’s got him. And how. They kiss to the swoony swell of Max Steiner’s theme music. Anyone who has ever loved and lost The One will feel the emotional tug.
5 Now, Voyager (1942)
The pairing of high-strung, whip-smart Bette Davis (then a top-five box-office attraction) with suave, sophisticated Paul Henreid created an audience meltdown in this tear duct-attacker about a dowdy, socially inept, proper Bostonian who transforms herself into a knockout before an ocean voyage, on which she is romanced by a Continental smoothy. Of course, we’re in High Melodrama Land here, so he’s hopelessly and unhappily married, with a needy young daughter to boot. In this classic’s most famous scene, the lovers realize they can never be together. Today, of course, they would simply run away and let the others sort things out for themselves. Not gallant Henreid, though. He slips two cigarettes between his lips, lights them both, hands one sensually to Davis, and the tortured lovers share a final nicotine dream. Forbidden love, self-sacrifice and those cigarettes sent audiences swooning, and they still do today.
6 To Have and Have Not (1944)
The team of silken, brazen, whiskey-voiced Lauren Bacall and crusty, dashing, tough guy Humphrey Bogart was, on-screen and off, the stuff movie dreams are made of. Not only was this their first film together, it was also Bacall’s first ever. She plays a sultry, tough-talking young saloon singer stranded in Martinique; he’s a hard-boiled skipper-for-hire up to his neck in Nazis. Bogie and Bacall make a perfect matched set. She’s all brash, youthful aggression; he’s all cautious, seasoned wariness. Watching them simmer and stalk each other is as delicious and queasy as waiting for a time bomb to detonate. In the movie’s most famous scene, Bacall, just to make sure Bogart gets the message about how hot she is for him, leans like a gunslinger into his hotel-room door and drawls, “You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything…Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Romantic sparks were flying offscreen, as well. Within a year, the married Bogart divorced Mayo Methot and made Bacall his fourth and final wife.
7 Notorious (1946)
Director Alfred Hitchcock instinctively intuited that erotic lightning could strike by rubbing together Ingrid Bergman (gorgeous, warm, throbbing with sincerity, emotionally volatile) and Cary Grant (gorgeous, diamond-hard, rakish, emotionally ambiguous). Bergman plays a boozy, self-destructive playgirl lured by American government agents into sexually ensnaring the head of a Nazi cartel; Grant plays the callous American agent who falls for her while she’s busy seducing and marrying a viper. In a film in which the stars are photographed like priceless jewels on velvet, the love affair between Bergman’s and Grant’s characters reaches full boil when, as the camera follows in voyeuristically intense close-up, the two kiss and cling feverishly as they stumble through her apartment. The scene is so intimate, the dialogue so sparse, the soundtrack almost silent except for the occasional rustling of their clothes, that this is as close to a metaphoric ménage-à-trois as one gets. We are hopelessly, willingly seduced.
8 Gilda (1946)
Even in an industry that once lived and died by serving up ravishing-looking creatures, Rita Hayworth–hair-tossing, hip-swinging, maddeningly alluring–was Hollywood outdoing itself? She’s at her alluring peak here as the trophy wife of a rich, deeply creepy dandy who runs a Buenos Aires casino. “Are you decent, Gilda?” her husband asks just as he throws open the door to her room. “Me?…Sure, I’m decent,” she says, mockingly, looking unbearably beautiful and throwing back her mane of hair. She’s well-matched by Glenn Ford as her old flame, a slightly seedy gambler hired, unknowingly, as her hubby’s muscle and errand boy. Naturally, since this is film at its most noir, that old feeling grabs the two of them by the throats and won’t let go. Ever been hopelessly gaga for someone you know will ruin you? Then you’ll definitely groove to the erotic push/pull when she snarls, “I hate you so much, I think I’m going to die from it,” before the two kiss explosively. Audiences found the on-screen heat between Hayworth and Ford so combustible, the stars were paired several more times, though in nothing remotely as sexy or memorable as Gilda.
9 A Place in the Sun (1951)
During the filming of this screen adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, luscious young Elizabeth Taylor fell seriously in love with handsome, sexually conflicted Montgomery Clift. Not only does it show on-screen, it also supercharges the film with a dizzying air of l’amour fou. Taylor plays the pampered, self-possessed, riotously beautiful rich girl who wears white silk, speaks in breathy, finishing-school tones and lives in the house on the hill. Clift plays the hardworking, upwardly mobile, ridiculously beautiful poor boy who wears work boots and lives in the tenement. She wants the giddy rush that can come from pursuing a love from the wrong side of the tracks. He wants her, the unattainable princess, the prize. The erotic pull between the stars–and the characters–is positively palpable when, during a formal party sequence, Taylor, in velvety, erotic close-up, searches the needy, lost expression in Clift’s face and urges him, “Tell mama…tell mama all.”
10 Don’t Look Now (1973)
Donald Sutherland, dour, rumpled and sexily offbeat, and the extraordinary, enigmatic Julie Christie costarred in one of cinema’s most beautifully textured and widely imitated love scenes. No wonder legend has it that the stars were, how shall we put this, transported by passion while shooting it? They play a married couple struggling to grapple with the death of their child who drowned accidentally. While Sutherland’s character is restoring a church in Venice, Italy, the couple confront the ghosts of troubles past and present in their relationship. The justifiably renowned seduction sequence is set in a hotel room. The couple reawaken their passion by making intense, steamy, almost frantic love rendered all the more melancholically beautiful and real by director Nicolas Roeg’s intercutting of the ecstasy with scenes of passion’s aftermath as the couple dress, make conversation and go about their everyday business later.
11 Chinatown (1974)
Jane Fonda and Tuesday Weld are among the stars who were considered to play a wealthy, imperious, enigmatic neurotic who becomes romantically involved with an LA. detective in the late 1930s. Instead, Faye Dunaway made a fiercely indelible, heartrending impression in the role opposite Jack Nicholson, who played the private dick investigating what at first appears to be a simple homicide. The pair meet as adversaries but, as the serpentine plot of Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay uncoils, Dunaway’s glamorous, haunted heroine finds herself hovering close to Nicholson in her bathroom, applying antiseptic and bandages to his nose, torn open by thugs. “There’s something black in the green part of your eye,” he says, almost exulting in finding a chink in her elegant armor. “Oh, that,” she replies. “It’s a…it’s a flaw in the iris.” “Flaw?” he asks. “Yes,” she replies, “it’s a sort of birthmark.” As a prelude to the bedroom scene to come, it’s sublime stuff. Mutual imperfections lead, inevitably, to the boudoir.
12 Body Heat (1981)
Kathleen Turner, in her film debut, radiates such blazing sexuality in this atmospherically sultry film noir that the threat of being typecast in the genre seemed all but inevitable. Body Heat was only a critical hit, though, and Turner’s film career took other interesting turns. Yet on the basis of this movie alone she ranks as the screen’s most memorable sexual manipulator since the ’40s glory days of smoky-voiced, heavy-lidded mantraps like Lauren Bacall, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Greer. As in most classic films noir, traditional sexual roles are upended. Turner acts the predator while William Hurt, as a masochistic, hapless dupe of a lawyer, is the prey she ensnares in a plot to murder her millionaire husband. “You’re not too smart, are you?” she observes, precisely sizing up indolently hunky Hurt, then adding the kicker: “I like that in a man.” Against the heady, hallucinatory atmosphere of a Florida heat wave, sexual tension electrifies every frame of film. And the dreamy jangle of wind chimes at dusk outside the windows of her mansion is a refreshingly unexpected sound effect and effective prelude to the upcoming sex scene that crackles like a summer thunderstorm. Great stuff.
13 The Year of Living Dangerously (1983)
Who wouldn’t want to live dangerously with the young, ridiculously gorgeous Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver? The backdrop of the film is a volatile time of revolution in 1965 Indonesia. Gibson plays a rookie foreign correspondent struggling to understand a strange, exotic culture; Weaver is the British diplomat he falls for. The erotic high point arrives after a formal, stiff-upper-lip dress party when he rushes her out to a shadowy terrace and kisses her while urging her to leave with him, then storms off when she refuses. Next comes one of cinemas great sex-in-the-car scenes. As he is about to drive away, she impulsively climbs into the car with him and they can’t stop kissing while he tries to keep control of the steering wheel. As the heat between them rises, the car reaches a curfew checkpoint manned by armed guards. He floors the gas pedal, shooting past burning barrels, the flames of which lick the car as bullets fly all around them. Once they know they’re safe, they laugh in hysterical, ecstatic release at the glorious folly of their falling in love while their world blows to bits.
14 Risky Business (1983)
The young, nascent Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay radiate palpable erotic heat on-screen which, reportedly, was transferred offscreen as well. He convincingly plays a callow, amped-down suburban teen nerd blazing his way to studliness (an apt parable for Cruise’s career trajectory) and she is just right as the quirky, worldly hooker he becomes involved with when his parents leave him in charge of their expensive house and sports car. Easily the hottest and most daring of the pair’s love tangles plays out on a speeding Chicago commuter train at night. The jerky rush of the train and the titillation of potential exposure only add to the thrill. Why, it’s enough to turn even a car fanatic into a fan of public transportation.
15 Thelma & Louise (1991)
Brad Pitt has never been more persuasively sexy or charismatic than when, as an amoral, white-trashy drifter picked up by the titular Arkansas suburbanites played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, he proved why lying, scheming bad boys with flawless abs are such an American addiction. He’s on fire here, an erotic amalgam of James Dean, Clyde Barrow and early Robert Redford. One of the frankest, funniest, most liberating seduction scenes in American movie history comes when Davis, as an abused wife, shares with roving Romeo Pitt a raging bout of clawing, thrashing, bed-smashing sex. It makes you want to cheer for Davis’s character’s big emotional breakthrough–even when Pitt purloins her money while doing the same with her heart.
16 Basic Instinct (1992)
Sharon Stone deserved the instant pop-icon status she achieved as the calculating, dangerous, alluring modern femme fatale with a penchant for ice picks in this murderously sexy film noir. She moves, talks and dresses like a latter-day Hitchcock heroine–Grace Kelly hotwired with Kim Novak–gone irretrievably over the edge. Although Stone looked a natural to take up where lethal glamour girls of the past had left off, she went for the higher ground of status and critical respectability. Here, though, she glows malevolently. No wonder Michael Douglas’s burnt-out, on-edge homicide detective loses his head to her the way worldwide audiences did. By now it’s a cliché to cite Stone’s thigh-parting as the film’s lusty highpoint. But for audacious seduction, we vote for the disco rave sequence during which Douglas finds Stone in the men’s restroom, where, in a stall, her female lover straddles her while they both snort coke. When he approaches as if to join in, she slams the stall door in his face. You want it? Suffer. It’s a sexed-up counterpoint to ice-queen Grace Kelly shutting her hotel-room door in baffled Cary Grant’s face in To Catch a Thief.
17 The English Patient (1996)
This Best Picture Oscar winner sealed the fate of Ralph Fiennes as a world-class heartthrob and turned Kristin Scott Thomas into a burnished, red-blooded tragic romantic heroine. Set largely in the memory of a dying World War II pilot/cartographer horribly burned in a plane crash, the entire film vibrates with sophisticated sensuality, piercing intelligence and the thrill of forbidden romance between the pilot and the wife of a fellow cartographer. But the moment that truly sets hearts racing occurs after a sequence in which Fiennes’s sardonic, rampantly attractive count overcomes prison guards and leaps off a moving train to fulfill a promise to his lover, who awaits his return in a desert cave after being badly injured during a suicidal plane crash with her husband. Fiennes finds her, too late as it turns out, and, weeping, swoops her into his arms before flying her in his plane over what is arguably the most heartbreakingly beautiful and erotic desert landscape ever filmed.
18 Jerry Maguire (1996)
Everyone seems to have a different favorite seductive moment in director Cameron Crowe’s intelligent romantic comedy in which Tom Cruise beautifully plays a slick, hotshot sports agent stricken with a crisis of conscience, and Renee Zellweger, the heartbeat of the movie with an offbeat charm reminiscent of the young Shirley MacLaine’s, plays a lovelorn single mom devoted to him. For our money, the film’s smoothest seduction scene comes in the elevator setup just after Cruise has lost his job and decided to strike out on his own, and finds that Zellweger is the only employee willing to leave with him. As Cruise keeps trying to reassure himself and her by saying, “We’re gonna be OK. We’re gonna be great,” a handsome romantic duo board the elevator, begin conversing in sign language and smooch. Zellweger watches wistfully as they debark and explains to Cruise, “My favorite aunt is hearing-impaired. He just said, ‘You complete me.'” Heart-on-the-sleeve honesty withers slick sarcasm. At that moment, we know what he doesn’t know yet: He’s a goner. So is the audience.
19 Out of Sight (1998)
Jennifer Lopez at her most earthy and polished and George Clooney at his most irresistible deliver the most memorably romantic foreplay scene in recent screen history. Riffing on the “opposites attract” theory–she’s a federal marshal, he’s her ex-con bank-robber quarry–the stars play adversaries ineluctably drawn to one another. They spark one night in a rooftop Detroit hotel bar with a snowstorm raging beyond the wraparound windows; their fireworks are set off by tart, multilayered, slightly rueful dialogue delivered by both actors with the kind of insouciant self-assurance that makes audiences fall in love with them as the characters fall in love with each other. It helps, of course, that Lopez and Clooney are costumed, lit and shot to perfection throughout the movie, but what makes this particular scene zing is the buildup of erotic tension between them that mounts by intercutting their badinage (rife with double meanings) with shots of them undressing in a hotel suite–an homage, we understand, to the classic lovemaking montage in Don’t Look Now.
20 The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Years from now, people will still be talking and writing about the precise moment Jude Law seduced movie fans worldwide. It’s how Law looks, dresses and acts in this movie–he’s shot like a movie star from the ’40s or ’50s–that people miss in his subsequent films. Playing a carefree, sun-kissed, fatally glamorous American ex-pat justifiably confident that people will fall in love with him on sight, Law’s metallic, cavalier charm is never more evident than in a nightclub sequence in which he sweeps his devious, calculating pursuer, played by Matt Damon, onstage to accompany him to perform a raucous song. Law, sweaty, footloose, at ease, performs for the audience in the scene, as well as in the movie theater. We watch along with Damon’s character and, before we know it, we’ve got it bad for him. Almost as bad, in fact, as the title character does.