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  • Don Taylor and William Holden in Stalag 17

I spotted a review in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review of David Thomson’s new book, Moments That Made the Movies. (Reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum didn’t like it much.) This reminded me of a project of my own I’d never followed through on—making a list of moments that ruined movies. Good movies, that is—good movies blighted by a horrible misjudgment on the part of their directors.

Readers are welcome to submit their own nominations. I had a list of just two. It was basically the same scene in each movie, a scene in which a truculent tough guy reveals he’s a good guy after all by flashing an out-of-character grin. My project was really just me nursing a pet peeve.

Sergeant Sefton is a loner and a cynic in 1953’s Stalag 17. The other American POWs have him pegged as an informer until he reveals the real barracks spy at the end of the movie and volunteers to help Lieutenant Dunbar—hiding in the water tank—break out of the camp. “Just one more word,” snarls Sefton, just before he disappears into the tunnel the POWs have dug under their barracks. “If I ever run into any of you bums on the street corner, let’s just pretend we never met before.”

Sefton drops out of sight. A moment later Sefton—or should I say the movie star William Holden?—pops back up, salutes the other Americans and grins, and then he’s gone for good. It’s four seconds of a two-hour movie, and I wonder what director Billy Wilder was thinking. Was it a price exacted by a big-name actor looking out for his public image?

Forty years later, Andrew Davis made The Fugitive. For the length of the movie, deputy marshal Gerard has been relentlessly, implacably on the trail of Dr. Richard Kimble. The one time they looked each other in the eye Kimble insisted he hadn’t killed his wife and Gerard famously replied, “I don’t care.”

But in the back of Gerard’s car, after the real killers have finally been dealt with, Gerard unlocks Kimble’s handcuffs and throws them out the window. Which is fine and in character. Kimble (Harrison Ford), utterly spent, stares at him warily. “I thought you didn’t care,” he says.

“I don’t,” says Gerard, or should I say Tommy Lee Jones? And he grins and laughs. “Don’t tell anybody, OK?”

There are lots of ways a movie can go wrong. Redefining an antihero late in the last reel as a regular guy is merely one of the worst.