In a move that I find kind of staggering, the e-zine Slate has posted a film-related article that's not only entertaining and provocative, but erudite and spot-on. The astute and hard-working Dennis Lim introduces, and walks the reader through, a series of ten clips illustrating the evolution of the cinematic fight scene—from wide shot, bare-knuckled brawl to shaky-cam frenzy and, in a clever twist, back again, commending the reader to the excellent analyses of David Bordwell along the way. My only quibble is that its "history" begins in 1958—surely the silent-screen fight warrants some coverage? Despite that, it's good stuff, and an excellent use of the video slide-show medium.
UPDATE: I'm digging the citations in comments—more, please! Here's my friend Joseph Failla with thoughts on a striking scene:
Of the many film fight scenes that usually get discussed (Shane, From Here To Eternity, On The Waterfront, Bad Day At Black Rock, From Russia With Love), one that is often overlooked but has stuck with me just the same is the climatic, three way, life and death, bloody struggle from Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. Watching lovers Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels fight for their lives against psychotic ex-husband Ray Liotta was tough to take. What made it more disturbing was that it came towards the end of what I thought was a hip screwball comedy. It was as if, Bringing Up Baby had switched gears and became Straw Dogs with little warning.
During this realistic and painful scene, Daniels takes a very cruel beating, his arms are nearly pulled from their sockets (is Daniels double jointed?), before he's able to get a hold of a weapon. I asked myself why Demme would put his characters (and the audience) through such a grueling experience?
I knew Demme was a devotee of Hitchcock; as he stages most of the fight within the confines of a bright and spotless bathroom, echoes of Psycho are already present, but it wasn't till I heard him speak of his admiration for Torn Curtain that it all became clear. He actually manages to reference that film's center piece, the slow, brutal murder of an enemy agent at the hands of two characters with far less experience in violence, and use it to his advantage. By switching tones so suddenly, he successfully pulls the rug out from under his audience, and sets it truly off balance, which these days is not as easy as it sounds.
I never doubted Demme could return to his exploitation roots, I just didn't know he'd do it when I least expected it.