Those first few moments are so crucial. We take a look at the best opening scenes in film, from Indiana Jones’ brush with death to Star Wars’ introduction to a story set in a galaxy far, far away.
A truly great film will grab your attention right from the very start. It’s not a coincidence that so many of the most memorable moments in film tend to come from either the very beginning or the very end of a movie. The need for a powerful and affecting dénouement is matched only by the need for a captivating and engrossing statement of intent right at the outset. In some cases it’s just a brief couple of shots which ingrain themselves onto your mind and don’t let go, other times it can be a long opening sequence which draws you in and mentally assures you that you are wise to invest your time in seeing how events will play out.
There are so many classic opening scenes and sequences (I’m allowing myself to be fairly free and easy with the distinction between these two terms) it proved difficult to narrow this list down to just a top ten. There are so many in fact I had to jettison classics such as Touch of Evil, Citizen Kane, A Clockwork Orange, Sunset Boulevard, Pulp Fiction, The Dark Knight and The Lion King. Basically, this is my catch-all apology for any glaring ones you feel I may have unwisely missed out. I also discounted notable strong-opener Saving Private Ryan after deciding that the amazing beach battle scene was actually not the opening sequence at all as it follows a clearly distinct section taking place in a modern day cemetery. It was a tough choice, but ultimately it was sadly discounted. However, after much hand-wringing and soul searching here are my choices for the top 10 opening scenes in film of all time…
10. Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992)
Quentin Tarantino has always had a knack for a killer opening scene in his movies. Inglorious Basterds has the incredibly tense conversation between the smiling-villain Hans Lander and an unwitting French farmer, while Pulp Fiction has that ultra-cool diner scene between Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. For me though, his finest introduction came in his first movie as Mr’s Brown, Blue, Blonde, Pink, White and Orange eat breakfast with their employer Joe and his son Eddie. As the camera swirls around the circle of men, we got our first taste of what would become trademark Tarantino dialogue as such pressing matters as the real meaning of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ and Mr Pink’s stringent no-tipping policy are discussed. It’s effortlessly cool as the sharp suited gangsters shoot the shit and trade snarky digs at one another amidst a haze of cigarette smoke. It also offers us a brief glimpse into their cordial group dynamic before the heist goes bad and the bulk of the story unfolds.
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
Any film which starts with the Dawn of Man is clearly setting its scope pretty wide and in the case of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, that is almost an understatement. The opening sequence of his movie is a bizarre yet captivating recreation depicting early hominids (I looked it up) being summarily driven from their water hole by stronger rivals. Things look bleak until one morning the creatures wake to find a strange black monolith perched in front of them. The monolith itself is an iconic Kubrickian creation, simple in structure yet incredibly profound in its symbolic meaning. What the monolith may be or whatever powers it may hold we cannot be truly sure but shortly after its arrival, one of the hominids suddenly figures out how to use a bone as both a tool and a weapon. In essence, this is the dawn of man, a creature who figures out how to use rudimentary tools and slaughter other creatures. As Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ reaches a crescendo on the soundtrack, the hominid slams the bone down on a nearby skeleton before tossing it into the air, leading into one of the most memorable match cuts in cinema history. It’s a sequence that is at the same time uniquely obscure and yet instantly memorable and fascinating to watch. It’s a mere taste of the head-scratching story which is about to unfold.
8. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, 1968)
This is a slow burning masterclass from Sergio Leone as he starts off his epic western with a long opening sequence that is all but devoid of dialogue for a good fifteen minutes. As three no-good bandits wait at a dilapidated and remote railway station, the silence is only punctuated by diegetic sounds that interrupt the silence. The buzzing of flies and dripping of water helps to ramp up the tension as we wait with the men for the arrival of a coming train. Leone captures n abundance of detail through his widescreen camera and by letting the events move at such a slow and patient pace it allows the pressure to build as you watch them snarl and sneer for a good ten minutes. You can practically feel the simmering heat and smell the sweat. When the train eventually does arrive and Charles Bronson’s mythical ‘Harmonica’ finally appears, the resultant shoot-out is the brief yet explosive pay off to the whole glorious affair.
7. Manhattan (Allen, 1979)
Woody Allen’s memorable love letter to the city he calls home may not be the director’s favourite of his own works, but for countless others it is a heartfelt and tender romantic comedy bristling with Allen’s signature wit. It opens with Allen’s character, an author called Isaac, providing a stuttering narration over luscious monochrome images of New York city in all its glory. From a characterisation point of view, it serves to give us an insight into Isaac’s love for the Big Apple as well as his indecisive nature as he continuously edits and corrects himself. Isaac is trying to start his book and keeps trying to tell us about a character and his love of New York, with the famous quote, “he adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion” proving a particular highlight. Isaac is clearly a symbolic stand-in for Allen himself, a man famously in love with his home city, who is poking fun at the very romanticisation which Allen is himself encouraging with the striking visuals that provide the backdrop for his voice over. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swells in the background to create a picture-perfect image of the legendary city from sunrise to the dead of night.
6. Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Just the phrase “a long time in a galaxy far, far away” is in itself a massively iconic opening to a film and even the oft maligned opening crawl which fills us in on the civil war that plagues the galaxy is amongst the most famous of movie introductions. However it is the first piece of action which really lures you into the story and, especially upon its initial release where there was nothing else quite like it, instantly transport you into a strange new world of intergalactic warfare. The sequence starts on the blackness of space before two distant moons slowly come into view, followed by the glowing surface of the planet Tatooine. A relatively small space craft then enters from screen right being attacked and pursued by an as-yet unseen force. There then comes the moment millions of fanboys across the globe will never forget the first time they saw. A gargantuan Imperial Stardestroyer looms slowly into view, taking what seems like an age to enter fully into shot as it indomitably stalks its considerably smaller prey. This opening scene practically reinvented what could be done in terms of Sci-Fi movies in terms of both scope and special effects. It also acts as the ideal introduction to the saga about to unfold with the sheer magnitude and overwhelming force of the Stardestroyer symbolically informing us of the Empire’s superior size and force.
5. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece starts off with a brief taster of the madness that is to follow. As the scene opens with a shot of trees swaying in the breeze, The Doors’ hit ‘The End’ begins to swirl in the background. Eerie and ethereally despondent, the music creates a hypnotic atmosphere that prompts the viewer to become transfixed on this row of trees. Then, in a moment, they are all ablaze while in perfect synchronicity, Jim Morrison’s lyrics kick in on the soundtrack, “this is the end. My only friend, the end……” In that moment, we are thrust into a world of despair, desolation and destruction. We then cut to Martin Sheen’s Benjamin Willard, alone in a sweltering hotel room, drinking and smoking himself silly, a character already engulfed by the madness of war. Famously, when filming this scene, Sheen himself got blind drunk on set and Coppola simply filmed the ensuing chaos to astonishing effect. This whole opening sequence acts as the perfect gateway into the disturbing journey the characters are about to take. It brings up the brutal savagery of war and the dehumanising effect it can have upon people. The use of ‘The End’ is an inspired choice as it is so hauntingly appropriate it grants the scene an even greater resonance.
4. Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990)
Martin Scorsese’s gangland epic plunges us straight into the middle of the action as Henry, Tommy and Jimmy are together in a car, driving through the night. We hear a faint bumping sound coming from somewhere in the vehicle followed by mutterings of frustrated disbelief by its three inhabitants. The trio emerge from their car, walk around to its rear and bathed in its hellish red tail lights; they pop the trunk (excuse the Americanism) to reveal a battered and bloodied victim. Tommy viciously stabs him repeatedly before Jimmy fires some bullets into him for good measure. With that, Henry slams the trunk shut and as the action freezes on his weary face the iconic voiceover states “as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” This opening sequence is not only shocking thanks to the brutality it greets us with from the outset, but also perfectly sets up the violent and dangerous world which Henry is operating in. The jovial and glamorous nature of the Tony Bennett tune, ‘rags to riches’ which immediately follows, only serves to exemplify the dirty and unglamorous true nature of Henry’s criminal escapades.
3. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Simple in its concept but brutally effective in its execution, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws singlehandedly put a whole generation off swimming in the sea and the film’s shocking openings sequence acted as a strong statement of intent for the rest of the movie. We start off with Chrissie Watkins, a young partygoer on Amity Island deciding to go for a night time dip in the sea. Unbeknownst to her though, she isn’t alone out their in the water. The genius of this scene is that we never actually see the shark that is stalking poor Chrissie. John Williams’s legendary music simply cues up the fact that something ominous is making its way towards the unsuspecting girl. After what seems an incredibly long amount of time, but in reality is only a minute or so, the shark finally catches up to Chrissie and begins violently dragging her under and thrashing her about like a proverbial rag doll. Finally, the sea goes eerily calm and Chrissie is suddenly nowhere to be seen. It’s the perfect set up for the chaos that is to ensue and a shocking visceral introduction that taps into our inherent fear of what may lurk unseen beneath the surface.
2. Up (Doctor, 2009)
If you haven’t seen Pixar’s Up before, then I should warn you that there is a bit of a spoiler about to follow, though as it occurs in the opening sequence, it’s hard to ignore given the remit of this top ten. With that being said, grab your tissues and lets relive the most heartbreaking opening montage of all time. Technically it happens after a couple of introductory childhood scenes, but lets not nit-pick here; it’s all part of the same section after all. After a brief openings scene where a young Carl Fredricksen meets the tomboyish Ellie and immediately falls in love with her amidst her clubhouse which he swears to one day help her move to the mystical Paradise Falls. There then follows a montage depicting the pair getting married and moving into the abandoned home they once played in together as kids.
They then get their first taste of heartbreak when Ellie tragically has a miscarriage and loses their baby. That’s right, in the first minutes of a Disney movie, the lead female has a miscarriage. Strap yourself in folks, this is going to get emotional. The pair slowly grow old together as we see glimpses of their respective careers and the quiet time spent together saving up money to go to Paradise Falls. A picture is painted of a love-struck couple, absolutely besotted with one another and bound together forever. Carl realises though, as they enter into old age, that for various reasons they never actually did as they promised as kids and made it to Paradise Falls. Carl decides to surprise Ellie with tickets to the falls but before he can give her the surprise, she is taken ill and whisked into hospital where she tragically dies leaving a dejected Carl all on his own. If you are not moved by this incredible sequence which illustrates the love between two people better than any other movie I can think of, you are made of stone and /or completely dead inside. Here is a character we never actually truly know and yet her absence and what it means to Carl permeates throughout the rest of the movie. Honestly, there’s just something in my eye.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
Steven Spielberg’s ultimate boy’s own adventure starts off with one of the most iconic character introductions and thrilling opening sequences of all time. This is one intro that if you catch on TV, you pretty much have to settle down and watch the rest of the movie. At first we see our hero only in shadow as he leads a party of sweat-drenched cohorts through a sweltering jungle. We get our first glimpse of his face when one of his companions goes to pull a gun on him and Indy spins around quick as a flash and whips the gun out of his hand. Already this is one of the coolest men in cinema history. What then follows is an audacious journey into a booby-trapped ancient Peruvian temple filled with poison darts, deadly pits, an army of tarantulas and of course, a big freakin’ boulder.
Before the boulder though, Indy has negotiated his way to the golden idol and seemingly hasn’t put a foot wrong. As the sack of dirt he puts in place of the idol begins to descend into the alter it rests upon though, his cockiness suddenly drains away and we get a glimpse of that other great Indy tradition, making it up as he goes along. He isn’t an infallible character by any means. He is forced to flee for his life and survive by only the narrowest of margins. After being double crossed by Alfred Molina (“Adios Senor”), he barely makes it out of the temple alive only to be greeted by the arrows and spears of a group of native Indian tribesman and one smiling rival in the form of Belloq. He’s then scarpering for his life once again and making for his nearby seaplane which he clambers into yet again only by the skin of his teeth. We’re only minutes into this adventure and the hero should by all accounts be dead several times over. So much action crammed into such a short amount of time and already we have a hero you root for unwaveringly. This my friends is how you start a movie.
Written and compiled by Robert Keeling.
Top 10 Films asks: what are the best opening scenes in film?
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