There are all sorts of things that regularly happen in movies but are seldom seen in real life. In movies, people are always hanging from that railing-type thing on the bottom of helicopters. They’re often seen foiling complex security systems with little mirrors, or agonising over which wire to cut in order to disable a bomb.
Now, it’s likely that all the pastimes listed above have occurred in reality at some point. But there’s one movie staple that, as far as we can work out, occurs only on the silver screen: what we’ve decided to call the rooftop dangling scene.
You may be familiar with this particular film moment – it’s the kind of thing we often see in action flicks and cop movies. The hero is attempting to extract some information from a miscreant of one sort or another, and does so by dangling said miscreant by their feet from the roof of a tall building.
At the weekend, the 1988 comedy adventure Crocodile Dundee II was put on television in the UK. In it, unreconstructed Australian Outback hero Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee (Paul Hogan) is still coming to terms with life in New York City, and leaps into action when his love interest Sue (Linda Kozlowski) gets into trouble with some evil drug dealer types.
During his sweaty, bare-armed adventures, Dundee captures a would-be assassin and, using his special powers (no doubt provided by his magical crocodile-tooth-lined hat), strings the villain up by his feet with a length of rope. “You kill people for a living,” Dundee says, as the bad guy screams at the traffic moving a hundred feet beneath him. “But you’re not very good at it, are you?”
Although initially resistant to Dundee’s threats, the villain becomes more compliant once his hatted captor starts hacking away at the rope with a knife. Now admittedly, Dundee’s tactic works – he gets the information he needs, and the bad guy’s frightened out of his wits. But was all the effort of finding a length of rope, carefully tying up his captive, and threading the rope around some sort of ad-hoc pulley system (we never see exactly what it is Dundee’s used for this) – all without waking the villain up – really worth it? Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply tie him to a chair and scare him by waving that trademark big knife around?
To be fair to Mick Dundee, he’s only following in the footsteps of a legion darkly motivated screen heroes. James Bond certainly wasn’t the first, but he was probably the most cold-blooded. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Roger Moore’s incarnation of Bond finds himself in a rooftop scrap with a henchman named Sandor (Milton Reid). At its climax, Sandor’s left teetering on the brink of doom, with only his grip on Bond’s tie standing between him and oblivion.
“Where’s Fekkesh?” Bond demands, in what is surely the shortest interrogation scene in film history. When Sandor tells Bond what he needs to know, the agent responds by coldly shoving him to his doom. It’s one of those moments that reminds us of the streak of steel lurking beneath Bond’s raised eyebrow.
Less than a decade later, Arnold Schwarzenegger would display a similarly callous streak in the action banquet Commando (1985). As ex-military type John Matrix, Arnold’s in pursuit of the evil mercenaries who’ve kidnapped his daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). In the process, he captures a snivelling bad guy named Sully (David Patrick Kelly), who has some vital information about Jenny’s whereabouts.
“I have to remind you, Sully,” Matrix teases as he dangles his quarry over the edge of a cliff, “This is my weak arm.”
In a film packed full of outlandish violence of all kinds – macho bullshit fistfights in seedy hotel rooms, brawls in shopping malls, and bloody shootouts in island lairs – this moment in Commando is possibly the best, and contains some of the finest acting from Schwarzenegger. Although Sully thinks he’s being interrogated, Matrix already has the information he needs, and his act of dangling him by one arm over a precipice is simply his idea of fun – like a very muscular cat playing with a mouse in a shirt and tie.
Just listen to the way Schwarzenegger’s voice drops an octave – to wonderful, almost Werner Herzog levels – when he engages in the following exchange:
Matrix: Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last?
Sully: That’s right, Matrix, you did.
Matrix: I lied. [Lets Sully fall to his death.]
This scene is relatively unusual, in that it isn’t really an interrogation scene at all. Maybe it’s a nod to the possibility that, in reality, such a tactic wouldn’t work . As terrifying as being hung upside down over a drop would be, a cop (or a rampaging retired colonel) wouldn’t want to let you go until you gave them what they needed to know – so wouldn’t it be better to keep quiet until their arms grow tired and they haul you back to safety on the roof again before giving them the intel?
Really, dangling people from tall buildings or cliffs is a pretty inefficient way of extracting information. It may have worked for brutal cop Bud White (Russell Crowe) in L.A. Confidential (1997), who practically threw corrupt attorney Ellis Loew (Don Rifkin) out of an office window to find out what he wanted to know, but what happens when you come up against someone with a stronger stomach for heights, like character actor Brion James?
In the 1989 buddy cop comedy Tango & Cash, which starred Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell as the respective heroes of the title, James is cast as ponytailed henchman Requin. In order to extract some much needed information which may prove their innocence, Tango and Cash seize Requin by his ankles and hold him over the edge of a tall building.
“Piss off,” James says, in an unfortunate approximation of a Cockney accent. “Bollocks to plan A. I like this – it’s great up here.”
When the cops’ repeated threats to drop Requin are met with more verbal abuse, they resort to plan B: tying him to a radio mast and taping a hand grenade in his mouth. This, perhaps, is a less-than-subtle subversion of the usual rooftop interrogation scene, since Requin may be the only bad guy in history who doesn’t have a fear of heights.
Then again, not all rooftop dangling scenes are about interrogation. In The Rock (1996), Sean Connery’s Mason gets his revenge on FBI guy Womack (John Spencer) for years of unjust imprisonment. Using a piece of white cord, Mason leaves Womack dangling by his wrist from the balcony of a San Francisco hotel, thus giving Mason the time to make his escape from the authorities while Womack’s humiliated by pigeons.
In more recent years, dangling scenes have become the preserve of the ultimate dark hero: Batman. In both Tim Burton’s 1989 film and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the Caped Crusader has used heights and bits of taut wire to terrify his opponents and force them to talk. One of the most memorable instances, perhaps, came when Batman uses these tactics on Eric Roberts’ mobster Sal Maroni.
“From one professional to another: if you’re trying to scare somebody, pick a higher spot,” Maroni smirks as he’s held over the edge of a nightclub. “From this height, the fall wouldn’t kill me.”
“I’m counting on it,” Batman says, letting go of Maroni, whose legs snap like breadsticks as he strikes Gotham concrete. It’s a clever reversal of what we might expect from a rooftop dangling scene, and proves that, if writers can keep thinking of ways of making these sequences interesting, funny or surprising, they can still have plenty of impact.
Rooftop dangling is, thankfully, something rarely resorted to in real life. If it were, the roofs of our cities would be lined with screaming villains, screaming and clawing at the air while cops bellowed their demands above the din of congested traffic – but the practice continues to make regular, memorable appearances in the movies.
Our favourite? If we had to choose just one, maybe it would be the blackly funny conclusion to Sam Raimi’s cult classic, Darkman (1990).
When disfigured hero Westlake (Liam Neeson) finally gets the upper hand on villain Strack (Colin Friels), leaving the latter hanging upside down several stories up, Westlake’s grip on Strack’s ankle is all that’s keeping the scoundrel alive.
“Go ahead, do it Westlake,” Strack goads. “When I die, you’ll become as bad as me. Worse… it’s not something you can live with!”
“I’m learning to live with a lot of things,” Westlake says, as he lets Strack fall to his screaming death – thus proving that, when it comes to revenge, letting go is sometimes the best option…
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