You’ve got a couple of minutes to build a world, fill it with characters, set a tone, and hook me into sticking around to see what comes next. Indeed, the opening scene of a film is a challenge. When it goes right, great opening scenes exist as a microcosm – a short introductory film that establishes so much about the feature to follow.
When compiling a list of cinema’s very best efforts in the opening of movies, I considered a number of factors but above all I needed to really love the simple sense of immersion the opening scene creates. The world, the rhythm, the ways that the upcoming film is going to push boundaries, or exercise restraint. Tone.
The only simple rule that I followed in the developing of this list is that the opening scene must truly open the film, and that scene must actually end. In other words, “Saving Private Ryan” would not qualify – as the hugely popular “D-Day” scene is not actually the opening scene of the film. Similarly, opening scenes that run something like 20 minutes would also not be eligible due to being more of a sequence than a scene.
So, read on for my list of the most iconic, the most fantastic, and the most original opening scenes in the history of cinema. Did I get it right, or did I leave out your favorite opener? Leave a comment after you’ve gone through the list – there’s always a chance I’ll write a follow-up blog to your suggestion if I haven’t seen a film, or haven’t revisited it recently enough to put it on a list.
10. Lord of War (2005) – The Life of a Bullet
Dir: Andrew Niccol
DP: Amir Mokri
The somewhat scarcely appreciated “Lord of War” stars Nicolas Cage as an illegal gunrunner negotiating a series of dangerous deals during his rise to power in a story purportedly based on the life of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The opening scene begins with a short monologue to camera from Nicolas Cage before launching into the excellent “Life of a Bullet” sequence. The camera is seemingly strapped to a single assault rifle bullet as it is assembled in a Soviet factory, loaded into a crate of bullets and transported to the front lines of the African warzone before finally being loaded into an AK-47 and fired into the head of a child soldier.
Great subtle use of CGI allows for this poignant examination of the purpose of weapons manufacturing, it is a wonderful overture of a theme expressed throughout the entire feature film.
9. The Dark Knight (2008) – The Joker’s Bank Robbery
Dir: Christopher Nolan
DP: Wally Pfister, ASC
There was something about Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” that struck just the right chord at the right time to ignite a volcano of hype that lead to the surprising result of most people actually being satisfied with the final product. Rarely has such expectation actually been fulfilled.
It all begins with the (at the time) groundbreaking use of 65mm IMAX film stock in a sequence that follows a crew of criminals as they rob a bank and realize their unseen boss, known only as “The Joker”, is manipulating them.
The scene’s opening helicopter shot of urban Chicago is a stunning hook perfect for the large screen format. The following robbery scene is as unpredictable and exciting as any full film could hope to be. It is a perfect example of the use of a short film in front of a feature film. The positive response was clearly loud enough to reach Nolan’s ears, as the same type of tactic is used in the opening to the follow-up film, “The Dark Knight Rises”, to a lesser degree of success. For now, this scene will continue to stand as the single definitive moment of the contemporary blockbuster.
8. Funny Games (1997) – Family Road Trip
Dir: Michael Haneke
DP: Jürgen Jürges
Before Michael Haneke was winning Palme d’Ors at Cannes for films like “The White Ribbon” and “Amour”, he made a sadistic psychological thriller called “Funny Games”.
The film follows an average family that has just arrived at their lake house when two young men knock at their door asking to borrow a few eggs. A harmless interaction made subtly sinister when the boys return with the eggs broken, asking for more. Those second eggs end up broken as well. The father of the family asks the boys to leave; one of the boys breaks the father’s leg with a golf club.
The opening scene as the family drives to the lake house is utterly shocking. Haneke uses sudden, cacophonous music and blood red opening credits against the smiling faces of the happy family to imbue absolute dread in the viewer. I find myself more deeply unsettled by this scene than most other more visually horrifying cinematic moments.
Ten years after the release of the film, Haneke directed a shot-for-shot remake in the English language.
7. Trainspotting (1996) – “Choose Life”
Dir: Danny Boyle
DP: Brian Tufano
Danny Boyle’s second film, the widely adored “Trainspotting”, tells the story of Mark Renton and his pack of heroin-addicted friends as they make their way through life as junkies and stumble upon a drug deal that could make them rich.
The film opens on the friends running from security guards down an urban street as Renton delivers a monologue entitled “Choose Life” that insults the gross materialistic excesses of contemporary culture. It’s funny, introduces the friends via on-screen title cards, and establishes the mindset of the character that the film follows.
“Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Taking a unique approach to the dark themes of substance addiction, poverty, and materialism by not straying away from elements of black comedy, “Trainspotting” is without a doubt a crowning achievement of British cinema and its opening scene is a lot of fun.
6. Goodfellas (1990) – The Car Ride
Dir: Martin Scorsese
DP: Michael Ballhaus, ASC
Martin Scorsese’s cult hit “Goodfellas” opens by betraying the expectations of the viewers. Reputation has established the film as a quintessential, kinetic, music-driven epic on the Italian-American mafia. With this in mind, it’s likely to be off-putting when the first image on screen is a car driving at night on an empty highway, three mobsters inside, a banging noise coming from the trunk.
They pull the car over and pop the trunk to reveal a bloodied man begging for his life. One of the gangsters brutally stabs him to death with a kitchen knife; another shoots his dead body with a pistol.
With the ominous red of the car’s brake lights illuminating Ray Liotta’s face, cue the first line of the renowned voice over: “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster”. The 1953 sounds of Tony Bennett explode, and were off – back to when Liotta’s character was just a young boy, beginning his life story.
From there on it can be easy to mistake the first half of the film for a feel-good celebration of the life of crime the main characters enjoyed for many years. It is with this crucial opening that Scorsese reminds you of the implications of the mafia beyond the money and respect.
5. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – The Milk Bar
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
DP: John Alcott, BSC
“A Clockwork Orange” – a bizarre title for a bizarre film – begins on a close-up of Malcolm McDowell giving his best Kubrick stare. The camera pulls out, and, well, things only get weirder. A fantastic, tone-setting opening that makes it nearly impossible to do anything but divert all of your attention to one of Kubrick’s best films.
4. Touch of Evil (1958) – A Ticking Car
Dir: Orson Welles
DP: Russell Metty, ASC
Here it is, it wouldn’t be an “Opening Scenes” list without it. Orson Welles’ 1958 “Touch of Evil” broke apart expectations of the limits of cinematography with its at-the-time record-breaking opening tracking shot known for its length and complexity.
At this point I doubt I have much to say that could add to the decades of discussion over this famous long take. The awe of it simply holds up to this day. The shot introduces a silent story – a bomb in a car, a young couple driving the car, a crowded street – and finishes the story in the very same shot. A great achievement by a great filmmaker.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979) – The Jungle
Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
DP: Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC
The story of how “Apocalypse Now” was made is one of my favorites. It’s the kind of against-all-odds, everything-goes-wrong success story that makes cinema so great. Actors were injured, sets destroyed, it took years and years to finish, yet it was universally appraised as a masterpiece and awarded the top honor at Cannes film festival.
Something about its imagery of the Vietnam war is so deep-seated in a dark reality. The blood, sweat, and tears of the filmmakers and actors are present in every scene. You feel the experience of the soldiers and the weight of the horror of war on their minds and bodies.
It all begins with a line of trees in the Vietnam jungle. The blades of a helicopter can be heard, as well as the music of “The End” by The Doors, when suddenly the trees erupt in flames – a napalm bombing. Cross-fade this with the face of Martin Sheen laying awake in bed in Saigon and you’ve begun the defining film of the Vietnam era.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – Waiting for the Train
Dir: Sergio Leone
DP: Tonino Delli Colli
A sequence that visits all the tropes of the classic Western while still offering something new, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” begins with a scene that nears perfection.
A gang of cowboys (or are they bandits?) holds up a tiny wooden shack that is the local train station in the barren desert and lay wait for the train. A robbery? The day passes, one of the men stands under a slowly dripping ceiling so long that a pool of water collects on the brim of his hat. When the train arrives, a package is thrown off the train and the train leaves. No robbery.
Leone’s genius in this opening segment cannot be understated. As the men wait for the train, an intense rhythm of sound design is quietly orchestrated. The dripping of water, flies buzzing. No dialogue. The passage of time is authentically felt – even the shadows cast on the ground have changed direction by the time the train actually arrives.
Everything about this scene is begging to be soaked in through repeated viewings, and the mystery of who these men are and why they’re at the train station hooks the viewer into the rest of the film.
1. Inglorious Basterds (2009) – Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
DP: Robert Richardson, ASC
The best opening scene cinema has to offer? Leave it to a guy like Quentin Tarantino to create the ‘best’ of something the first time he does something different. There is no doubt dramatic power in all of Tarantino’s films, but nothing quite like the first scene of 2009’s “Inglorious Basterds”.
It is World War II. A farmer in the French countryside is met by Colonel Hans Landa of the SS – nicknamed “The Jew Hunter”. The Colonel suspects the farmer to be harboring Jews in his home and the sit at his kitchen table to discuss the matter. Underneath their feet, are, in fact, a number of refugees.
Christoph Waltz, in his first English language film, will go on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as The Jew Hunter and it is no doubt due almost entirely to this scene alone as he quietly, sharply interrogates the farmer.
The dialogue is impeccable, the tension goes through the roof; it is completely hypnotic. Notably, the farmer – played by Denis Menochet – speaks very little other than the word “yes” in the scene, yet allows his face to convey all of the emotion that the colonel deliberately lacks.
Watch it, study it, and remember it the next time someone tries to declare Tarantino “all style, no substance”.
Honorable Mention: Manhattan, Reservoir Dogs, Boogie Nights
Check out our companion piece: The Top 10 Closing Shots in Cinema HistoryContinue Reading Issue #1