Star Wars just deployed an 88-year-old cinematic trick invented by Alfred Hitchcock
When a funeral speech goes off like a bomb.
Solemn music plays over a formal procession as the players take their places. An assassin roams amidst the crowd, soldiers ready their arms, and spies flutter around the fringes of a rapt audience. As the music swells to a climactic crescendo, a shot is fired and the whole scene erupts into chaos.
It’s a classic narrative device: the suspenseful concert climax. You may recognize it from the assassination at the opera scene in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation or from its cheerier interpretation in the opening number of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. Its roots can be traced back to a 1934 Alfred Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in a six-minute sequence so potent that the filmmaker would return to remake it 22 years later. But most recently, the Andor Season 1 finale put its own spin on this cinematic device with a funeral procession that unfolds like the best of espionage sequences, until that fateful shot rings out. But in this case, it’s not a gunshot, but a speech that sets the whole scene aflame.
Spoilers ahead for the Andor Season 1 finale.
The entire season of Andor was building up to this: the attempted capture of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). The trap is set with the funeral of Maarva (Fiona Shaw), Cassian’s adopted mother whose last days were spent in renewed defiance of the Empire. Both ISB agents and Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård) and his Rebel spies stalk the streets of Ferrix waiting for Cassian to arrive to grieve the death of the woman who raised him. Meanwhile, Cassian watches in hiding. As the procession takes Maarva’s casket toward the town square, the musicians play a mournful eulogy song with (space) horns.
This nail-biting scene is an exercise in suspense, cutting back and forth between the ISB agents headed by Dedra Meero (Denise Gough), Luthen, and Cassian himself — all of them with their own agendas. Dedra wants to capture Cassian alive, Luthen wants to kill Cassian before he can give away the Rebellion’s secrets, and Cassian wants to rescue Bix (Adria Arjona) from ISB custody.
As the funeral song swells to a climax, the cuts between all these players grow more frantic. An informant appears in their midst and appears to lead the ISB closer to Cassian’s whereabouts, the Rebels take to the shadows to hide their presence, and everyone’s favorite failson Syril Karn (Kyle Soller) shows up to add even more drama. But then the procession stops. B2EMO rolls out to play Maarva’s farewell hologram message, and — in a departure from the typical concert climax scene — the music ends. But where you would typically see a gun fire or a bomb go off, we instead get a speech from Maarva that is incendiary enough to kickstart a riot.
Maarva’s speech is the proverbial bomb that blows up this hair-raising sequence, with her final words decrying the Empire rousing the mourners into a fury that ends in a battle with the Stormtroopers and ISB agents. It’s in the chaos that Cassian is able to rescue Bix, and Syril is able to save Dedra. On the surface, it’s just another barnburner of a scene in a season filled with barnburners, but it’s a sequence that has deep cinematic roots.
Hitchcock changed the suspense cinema forever when he released 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, a “wrong man, wrong place” movie about a married couple accidentally pulled into an international conspiracy to assassinate a British consul. The film climaxes in a sequence so good that Hitchcock made it twice (with more confidence, but arguably lesser effect, in his 1956 remake starring James Stewart and Doris Day). In the scene, the wife (played by Edna Best in the 1934 version) arrives at the Albert Hall, where the assassination attempt is planned to take place. She knows how the assassination will happen and recognizes the assassin, but is prevented from taking action because her child is being held hostage. So at the key moment when the gun is set to fire — at the crescendo of the song, indicated by a clap of cymbals that will hide the sound of gunfire — she screams. The assassin is distracted, and the bullet misses its target.
The whole six-minute sequence (expanded to 14 minutes in the remake) is an ingenious marriage of the visual and the auditory elements of filmmaking. The tension is telegraphed through the music itself, whose crescendo matches the narrative climax. And there’s of course the delicious juxtaposition of elegant classical music against the nasty business of murder.
Great movies would build and expand upon this. The Temple of Doom gave us gangsters fighting in a nightclub set to a jaunty musical number, and, of course, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation perfected the concept with its pitch-perfect sniper scene at the Vienna Opera. But the Season 1 finale of Andor shows that there are still ways to evolve this scene, and it doesn’t need to end in a gunshot.
Andor Season 1 is streaming on Disney+.