One of the cinema's most influential movies -- the one that launched a thousand cafe arguments -- is one you've probably never heard of, let alone seen.
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a short black-and-white film by the French director Robert Enrico, was made in 1962, as part of the filmmaker's trilogy of movies based on Civil War stories by Ambrose Bierce. The 25-minute film tells the story of a Southerner who's captured by Union forces as he prepares to blow up a bridge. They hang him from that same bridge, but the rope breaks, he plunges into the water and swims to safety and, eventually, home to his plantation and his beautiful wife. Just as they are about to embrace, however, the scene shifts to his neck being snapped by the noose: The entire episode was just a hallucination in the moment before his death.
"Occurrence" won the Oscar in 1964 for best short subject; when it was shown later on television as part of the final season of "The Twilight Zone," it also won an Emmy, making it the only movie to earn both awards, a record it still holds. Indeed, Enrico's film is an exquisite example of cinematic grammar being used at its most economical and efficient, but also at its most expressive, as the filmmaker juxtaposes his own taut editing with cinematographer Jean Boffety's lyrical visual imagery. The purity of the storytelling is brought into even sharper relief by the fact that the movie, except for lines spoken by a few soldiers at the beginning, is entirely silent.
Although "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" has slipped into undeserved obscurity, being shown mostly in college film classes, anyone who's gone to the movies lately has seen an iteration of it. In 1990 Adrian Lyne remade it as "Jacob's Ladder," a feature-length thriller starring Tim Robbins. But fans of Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ," M. Night Shyamalan's "Sixth Sense," Spike Lee's "25th Hour" and "Donnie Darko" -- the director's cut of the 2001 film opened in theaters Friday -- should check out what qualifies as the first and still-startling example of the plot twist those movies share.
Luckily, they can: "Occurrence" was released earlier this month on DVD (unfortunately, without Enrico's other Bierce adaptations, "Chickamauga" and "In the Midst of Life") after years of being hard to find on video. Viewers who dimly remember Enrico's movie from their school days will surely not be disappointed at how well it holds up, and newcomers are in for a treat that will definitely adjust their notions of what's new on-screen these days. As "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" proves, not much.