We went negative with last week’s Roundtable topic about worst movie endings. This week, let’s turn that around to talk about movies that had truly great opening scenes that really grabbed us right from the start.
This week’s topic was an easy one for me. Nothing, and I mean nothing, tops the opening to ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Not only does it define the character of Indiana Jones in a short period of time, but the scene is pretty much a mini-movie itself – with a beginning, middle and an end, as Indiana makes his way into a hidden temple to retrieve an idol, gets double-crossed by his companion, overcomes booby traps, barely gets out alive, confronts his arch nemesis, and makes his escape while dozens of tribesmen chase him through the jungle. Oh, and I hear that the rest of the film isn’t that bad, either.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person to pick this one. Has there ever been a better opening than ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘? Suspense, action, thrills… So many layers of the character of Indiana Jones are introduced by the time he’s in that plane proclaiming his disdain for snakes that it still makes aspiring screenwriters green with envy. It’s great, great stuff.
There’s exactly one movie I can think of where the opening convinced me to stay for the rest of the picture: ‘Way of the Gun‘. Sarah Silverman cameos as a loudmouth biker who gets what’s coming to her from the two leads, who then proceed to have the living daylights kicked out of them for it. If you thought ‘Jack Reacher’ was too soft, ‘Way of the Gun’ proves that Christopher McQuarrie can make a movie with real teeth.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
No matter how far Dario Argento goes out of his way to soil his cinematic legacy with dreck like ‘Dracula 3D’, no one can ever take ‘Suspiria‘ away from him. The double murder that opens his 1977 masterpiece astonishes me no matter how many times I see it. The dazzling, otherworldly Technicolor hues, the masterful lighting, the sense of hopeless isolation, a freshly-murdered corpse slowly beginning to sink through the stained glass ceiling and the snap of her neck as her lifeless body violently crashes through it, the iconic dangling that follows… To steal from Eli Roth, that unforgettable opening puts the “gore” in “gorgeous.”
While I was briefly tempted to pick the character-defining opening sequence from ’28 Weeks Later’, I elected instead to highlight the film series that has opening sequences envied by all others. That of course would be the James Bond franchise. With so many great choices from decades of films, the beginning of ‘GoldenEye‘ remains the post-’80s, post Cold War, post Timothy Dalton salvation of the iconic series. In stark contrast to both Dalton movies, ‘GoldenEye’ begins with a jaw-dropping bungee jump off of the Contra Dam. The ensuing introduction and dispatch of 006, as well as an instant classic titles sequence, set the tone for the best Bond film of that decade.
Michael Spike Steinbacher
The opening scene of Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan‘ has to rank among the best. I was just a tiny little boy when this movie came out, and I didn’t see it until it was ten-years-old, but it’s absolute perfection. Gershwin’s elegant “Rhapsody in Blue” sets the mood. The kinetic energy and vibrancy jump from the screen as Allen’s narration transports us to a time and place. Shot in black and white, it’s evocative of the past while grounded in the present. The jump cuts are like a mosaic. The scenes teem with life, the melting pot of New York set among the iconographic architecture, the by-turns gritty and elegant streets, and the constant throb of life in the greatest city in the world.
M. Enois Duarte
There are several openings I can think of as some of the best I’ve ever seen, but two in particular immediately come to mind, and both are mostly due to the music. First is the intro theme to the seminal horror classic ‘Halloween‘. According to legend, John Carpenter originally planned for the film to be watched without music, or at least let it have a minimal, very subtle presence throughout. But after being urged by producers and others, Carpenter finally gave in and quickly whipped up that now-iconic, somewhat overplayed theme we love and recognize. Those simply synthesized sounds playing against a plain black background and a jack-o-lantern on the left side of the screen is incredibly effective at setting the film’s proper tone, establishing an atmosphere of horror and shock without showing anything yet. It’s an awesome way to open a low-budget, independent feature!
The only opening I love more is one that continues to give me goosebumps and make me feel uneasy to this day. Of course, leave it to the genius of Stanley Kubrick to have that sort of effect on me. His 1980 psycho-horror classic ‘The Shinning‘ kicks off with one of the most unnerving and unsettling musical pieces ever for a movie. I have yet to find anything that comes remotely close the feeling I get from this fantastic score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. The entire film is a wonderful study on how the subtle use of classical music can seriously alter the tone of a scene. As for the opening, the avant-garde music is an uber-dark and freakishly twisted version of Hector Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique” with very light undertones of a traditional Catholic funeral march and hints of Chopin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2” in B-flat minor, otherwise known as the iconic “Funeral March.” No other opening I’m aware of so effectively generates a sense of dread and terror right at the start, setting a haunting tone that remains a permanent presence throughout. I absolutely love the opening to ‘The Shining’!
The one movie that has always stuck with me for having such a terrific opening sequence is ‘X2: X-Men United‘. I just loved the way Bryan Singer introduced a fan-favorite character like Nightcrawler. It could have flopped miserably, but instead the scene is done absolutely perfectly – with Kurt teleporting himself all around the place in a balls-to-the-wall assault on the White House. I still think that’s one of the best fight scenes in any comic book movie to date, and it completely had me after the first BAMF!
If you don’t count the several minutes of complete darkness on screen, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ gives us one of the greatest opening scenes in cinema history. We literally see the evolution of man unfold on-screen. It starts with a couple of packs of apes in the wild, going about their normal routine of eating, killing, grooming and sleeping, until one of the apes figures out how to use a bone from a dead carcass as a tool and a weapon. The next scene is set in space, where we humans have built space stations and rocket ships. It’s truly one of the biggest time jumps ever in cinema. Everything about this opening scene is perfect.
I was pretty amazed by the opening sequence of ‘Mission: Impossible III‘. I first saw the film at the massive Odeon theater in Leicester Square, London. The screen was huge (as was the ticket price) and the sound was cranked up. It felt like the theater raised the volume up to heights that would cause permanent ear drum damage, then backed it down just a hair to avoid physical injury. The overwhelming screen size and the immersive audio made this brilliant opening sequence an unforgettable experience.
We’ve all seen movie intros that are actually early clips from the climax, but the presentation and on-screen action made this one unlike any other. J.J. Abrams brought a great deal of intensity to the franchise, and this climax-tease almost threw me into a panic attack. I love a good countdown in a film. (Technically, it’s a count-up here.) Phillip Seymour Hoffman counting the moments before blasting the brains out of Michelle Monaghan’s head caught me off-guard. From the tears in his eyes, it’s obvious that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) doesn’t have the answer that Hoffman is looking for. Just when Hoffman gets to the last number, to start the iconic match spark and fuse lighting set to the iconic theme song was brilliant.
After the title appears in enormous white letters on a black background, the shot fades in on a weathered “No Trespassing” sign attached to a chain link fence. The camera rises and the image dissolves into another fence, coming to a stop at the top of a gate. Off in the distance is what looks like a black castle with a lone light in a window. Through a series of dissolves, the camera moves towards the window, and in a brilliant bit of planning and work by cinematographer Gregg Toland, co-writer/director Orson Welles, and editor Robert Wise, the light in the window stays in the same spot in the frame, even when reflected off water.
Passing through the estate, we see a zoo, a lake and a golf course, all looking like they haven’t been cared for in quite a while. Once outside the window, the light goes off and through another well-planned dissolve, the viewer moves inside. A man lies in bed, in the dark, alone. The scene dissolves to a cabin in a snowstorm, but a quick zoom back reveals it to be a snow globe. The man utters the word “rosebud” and then dies.
The movie, of course, is ‘Citizen Kane‘. Before the clever use of a newsreel revealing whom this man is, I’m already hooked to see what happens next. In just over three minutes, the filmmakers have earned my trust that they will make great use of the medium to tell this story.
Honorable mentions: ‘8 ½’, ‘Manhattan’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Goodfellas’.
My favorite opener is from the not terribly well known, but fantastic 1943 Billy Wilder WWII thriller ‘Five Graves to Cairo‘. It opens on a British tank lurching over Saharan dunes, only to reveal that everyone inside is dead – minus our hero, Corporal John Bramble. He staggers out of the desert to his former headquarters at the Empress of Britain Hotel, to discover that the British have left and that German Soldiers are seconds away. Left with few options, he assumes the identity of a cook killed the night before. From there, the film only gets more harrowing with a storyline that continually reverses expectations.
Back in 1997, I was deeply skeptical walking into the theater to see ‘Contact‘. Although I’d been a fan of earlier Robert Zemeckis movies such as the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the director was just coming off ‘Forrest Gump’, his most successful and acclaimed film, but also, in my estimation, one of the absolute worst pieces of garbage in the history of everything. I cannot overstate how much I despised that movie, and how much I was prepared to hate this one as well.
The opening shot changed my mind. In three and a half uninterrupted minutes, with no actors or dialogue, solely through visual and aural sensation (or lack thereof), that astounding, beautiful, mesmerizing opening shot managed to place the entirety of mankind’s existence on this planet into context against the unimaginable vastness of the universe. The packed theater house I was in collectively drew its breath in awe. That’s how you start a movie!
What are some of your favorite movie opening scenes? Tell us in the Comments.