You might be surprised how significant film scenes set in a bar can be as part of dramatic narrative. It’s a place we’re all so familiar with. Filmmakers have used it in various ways, from character introduction over a glass of whiskey to drug deals gone wrong, comic set piece and karaoke…
The barroom has been the setting for a number of iconic movie scenes. There will be a few on this list that you’ll instantly remember, others you’ll want to see again, and perhaps some you’ll need to discover for the first time.
What becomes clear is that the barroom is not only a great place to wind down after the nine-to-five with a glass of whiskey and some polite conversation but also a place to express your sexuality, massage an ego, romanticise the opposite sex, carry out a drug deal, enjoy a singalong and take down some bad guys.
In this list of the top 10 film scenes set in a bar we check-in at the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, chaperone Eddie Murphy to a redneck drinking hole in 48 Hours, sing with Tom Cruise in Top Gun, and give the bully his comeuppance with Steve Martin in Roxanne.
(11). Indiana Jones
The Spielberg Barroom
There are numerous instances of barroom scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films. Mise en scene in the filmmaker’s work has often been arranged around a table – often a dinner table signifying the family unit and domesticity, both in its conventionally traditional form and in a broken or fragile state – which has witnessed some pivotal sequences taking place in a bar.
My favourites include the opening of Temple of Doom (in the bar named, aptly, Club Obi Wan) when Indiana (Harrison Ford) ends up fighting for his life after being double crossed by Lao Che (Roy Chiao), Marion Ravenwood’s (Karen Allen) drinking game in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the re-establishment of the father-son relationship in Last Crusade when Indiana has a drink with his Dad (Sean Connery) in the Zeppelin’s bar before being discovered by the Nazis and fleeing in the parasite biplane.
…before the top 10 film scenes set in a bar, here’s an honourable mention…
(11.1) Axel Foley
“Phil! What’s wrong man?”
The challenge with any top 10 list is to find a way to reduce the long list down to 10. But sometimes it’s too hard to avoid at least a mention of another favourite. Or favourites. When it comes to the greatest film scenes set in a bar few are as fun or as dramatically important to the narrative as the one where Axel Foley, Taggart and Rosewood foil a robbery at seedy striptease bar. I am of course talking about Beverly Hills Cop.
This fun sequence in Martin Brest’s ace buddy cop action-comedy sees Axel (Eddie Murphy in his best role) having a bit of fun with the two detectives assigned to follow him (played by Judge Reinhold and John Ashton).
The three end up at a strip joint where Axel notices a couple of men acting suspiciously. In a moment that is both revealing of their character’s attitudes and the antagonist dynamic between the trio, Axel leads a plan to capture the robbers leading to their apprehension. Murphy’s acting here highlights a talent for showmanship and spontaneity, his comedic quirks the springboard to the character’s unconventional police work.
…can we make that two honourable mentions…
(11.2) The Goonies (Donner, 1985)
“The only thing we serve is tongue….”
The “Goonies” introduction to the Fratellis takes place at the shutdown bar where the criminal gang are hiding out. It’s here where the adventure begins, where Chunk meets his new best friend Sloth, where Mikey gets his first kiss, where Data takes a fall, where Mouth nearly loses his tongue, where Andy and Brand fall in love.
10. Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Who Shot First?
Who Shot First?
The top 10 film scenes set in a bar begins in a galaxy far, far away. As Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) seeks a transport ship off Mos Eisley in order to deliver the Death Star plans to the Resistance, he meets smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewie (Peter Mayhew). Solo is the middle of fending off lowlifes like Greedo leading to the infamous “who shot first” scene. It’s not the best part of the barroom sequence though. That goes to Obi Wan’s defence of Luke after a drunk customer starts threatening him. As well as getting to see a lightsabre in action, the barroom scene gives us an introduction to George Lucas’ imaginative, lavishly detailed world and its assortment of strange and wonderful characters.
9. Top Gun (Scott, 1986)
“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”
Casablanca probably wins when it comes to the best barroom scene with singing but surely Top Gun can’t be far behind. This fun moment is essentially ace fighter pilot and “Top Gun” trainee Maverick (Tom Cruise) attempting to coerce Kelly McGillis’s Charlie Blackwood into bed with a rendition of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. Cruise is ably supported by his co-pilot Goose (a fun Anthony Edwards) with the song’s impact rising a few notches when the entire bar appears to join in with the chorus. The scene resonates shortly after when Maverick learns the lady in his sights is actually a Top Gun instructor.
8. 48 Hours (Hill, 1982)
It’s the takedown of racism that makes the scene in 48 Hours so good as Eddie Murphy’s Reggie Hammond poses as a police officer in a redneck bar. The film represents Murphy’s first big screen role and he nails the part of smart-mouthed petty con Hammond. The barroom scene gives the comic actor a literal stage to strut his fearless, combative approach to police work, successfully extracting information out of the owner as to the whereabouts of cop killer Billy Bear (Sonny Landham).
7. Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)
“As Time Goes By”
The classic barroom scene (or scenes), Casablanca is one of Hollywood’s greatest movies and, since many of its scenes are set in a bar, it has to have a place on this list. Most of the drama takes place at Rick’s Café Américain where US expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) continues to profess his neutrality in all matters WWII despite politically favouring those fighting for democracy. The scene I’d pick from Casablanca concerns Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund who arrives at the bar and requests old friend and pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) to play “As Time Goes By” as it holds a special place in her heart. It also evokes nostalgic memories in Rick as an old Parisian romance is reinvigorated.
6. Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993)
Drug Deal Gone Wrong
Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) has vowed to go straight after getting out of prison five years into a 30-year stretch. But he’s quickly drawn back into a life of crime when his cousin requests his assistance during a drug deal. The scene takes place in a seedy bar where everything that could go wrong for Carlito does go wrong. He senses the mood change shortly after arriving. In preparation, he pretends to set up a trick-shot at the pool table which enables him to arm himself with a pool cue. When his cousin is suddenly heard screaming, Carlito knows it’s his moment to fight for his escape. A gun battle ensues which eventually sets up the rest of Brian De Palma’s film as Carlito grabs the drug money and uses it to set himself up as a nightclub owner.
5. Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
“The good news is the whiskey works.”
Lost In Translation is by far Sofia Coppola’s finest effort. It’s also one of Bill Murray’s best films. The scene between Murray’s fading actor Bob Harris and Scarlett Johansson’s bored, neglected newlywed Charlotte is beautifully revealing, nuanced and subtle; a raw numbness pervading through both characters as they try unsuccessfully to blot out their individual anxieties in a city (Tokyo) that’s foreign to them. The scene in the hotel bar when they first meet is pivotal to the drama that unfolds, their friendship blossoming courtesy of mutual understanding, humility and kindness.
4. Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990)
“I’m funny, how?”
One of the defining scenes from Martin Scorsese’s ace gangster film Goodfellas, the “I’m funny, how” scene showcases Joe Pesci’s powerhouse ferocity as psychotic wise guy Tommy DeVito. He questions why fellow gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) thinks the stories he tells are “funny”. The low-lit barroom scene has a real air of Italian Americana and concludes with DeVito smashing a glass over the owner’s head. It’s a great summation of Goodfellas’ best attributes.
3. Near Dark (Bigelow, 1987)
Kathryn Bigelow’s unique and brilliant contemporary vampire western enjoys an epic barroom sequence in which a band of ruthless vampires terrorise, torture and kill a bunch of drinkers for the sheer fun of the kill. It’s representative of these bad-ass killers, each member of the gang getting time to shine under ugly fluorescent lights, their faces ultimately spattered with blood. The scene is pivotal for our protagonist Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a new member of the gang after being bitten and turned into a vampire. He has thus far refused to kill in order to survive. The barroom carnage is, in many ways, a blood-soaked theatrical exhibition for Caleb as the feral bloodsuckers show off their brutality.
2. From Dusk Till Dawn (Rodriguez, 1996)
Film scenes set in a bar don’t get more epic that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s gothic horror inspired second half to From Dusk till Dawn. It all begins when a kidnapped family are forced to stop off at a bar near the Mexico border. Little do they know the bar is a vampire lair, the attraction of beer and female flesh securing the prey for the family of bloodsuckers to feast on. When all hell literally breaks loose, the family and their captors have to band together to survive.
1. Roxanne (Schepisi, 1987)
“All right, twenty something betters.”
When it comes to the best film scenes set in a bar, there’s one that stands out above all others. Granted, Tommy DeVito’s outburst in Scorsese’s Goodfellas is unforgettable but there’s no barroom scene as pleasing to watch (and re-watch) as Steve Martin’s fire chief C.D. Bales taking down a shallow bully in Roxanne. Seeing bullies get their comeuppance is satisfying in itself but the manner in which Martin’s character pulls it off is stuff of movie legend.
When Bales is enjoying himself with friends, an argumentative, beer-guzzling customer dares to attack the nice-guy fire chief with a war of words. Everyone knows you never mention Bales’ oversized nose as he’s understandably sensitive about it. When the bully tries to get a rise out of him with belittling if juvenile name calling, he underestimates the lengths his target will go to defend himself.
Bales is smart. He turns the tables, challenging the bully to think of better abuse than the infantile “big nose” jibe. Of course, the challenged has no answer to the challenger, so the fire chief takes it upon himself to concoct a number of better putdowns. Decided by a darts throw, Bales is tasked to reveal 20 better “name calls”.
The packed bar is now intrigued. Everyone is watching. All those that know Bales understand he isn’t going to go down without a fight. In fact, there will only be one winner and his friends await in anticipation for his fight back. The rest is perhaps Steve Martin’s greatest comic moment in film.
“All right,” he begins, “twenty something betters. I start with the obvious: Excuse me, is that your nose or did a bus park on your face?” He continues: “Everybody take cover, she will blow!” My favourite joke is probably: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Sneeze and it is goodbye, Seattle” or perhaps, “Would you mind not bobbing your head? The orchestra keeps changing the tempo.”
As Bales reaches 14 jokes he’s egged on by the crowd who count as he reels off another cracker. It’s the perfect moment of the bullied securing the favour of an audience completely behind him. Each joke appears less a self-conscious jibe at his own expense, more a feeling of return fire. Every laugh is not at Bales but at the bully whose nastiness and idiocy are so pleasingly mocked.
Over to you: what are your fave film scenes set in a bar?
Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens
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