Often, the opening scene or THE FINAL SHOT in a film is the best part. After watching Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, forget the middle; it’s a blur. It would take well over an hour before my heart beat with trepidation again. The opening scene is the hook or an overture to entice the audience to stick around. Now that many movie goers skip the theater and sit on the couch to watch a film, is it harder for directors to create the opening scene? Or maybe movie classics were simply made better? Here’s one of the best openings in film from 1958, Touch of Evil.
Orson Welles creates dramatic irony. The camera follows a car through city streets. The viewer knows any second the car will explode. The choreography of camera, car, and pedestrian becomes a Danse Macabre. It’s a great trick executed perfectly.
The opening scene performs a few distinct functions. The first is the obvious one. The eye-popping hook. You are so intrigued, you raise your eyebrows in wonder and proceed like Alice down the rabbit hole. Opening fight scenes are a common method to capture your interest, but if it lacks an interesting tie-in to the premise, they can be counter-productive–I’m wishing the fight scene was over so we can get to the story.
The Star Wars IV opening scrawl and John Williams score demands your attention. In The Matrix, before Trinity escapes in the telephone booth, the film opens with her voice along with a visual of what is a matrix. The introduction is connected to the conclusion. It’s no coincidence that you hear the betrayer, Cypher, (Joe Panoliano) in the opening scene especially when Trinity asks him if the line is secure. Many times one can predict the last twist or ending based upon the opening scene.
An overture is a prologue, a roundup of the songs which tell the story with music. When you switch from the stage to the screen, many fantastic films bring along the overture or use a song to explain a theme of the film. Throw in movement and you have a captivating beginning. West Side Story, Trainspotting, The Sound of Music, Cabaret, American Graffiti, Sweeney Todd use an opening song to show the protagonist or historical setting. Here is a classic example:
From the opening song, you learn a lot about the swagger of Tony and the streets of New York City. A great example of an effective opening song by The Bee Gees.
Since many stories concern “man vs. nature” some of the best opening scenes show the grandeur or harshness of nature. I like There Will Be Blood or John Barry’s score combined with the train crossing the countryside in Out of Africa–no wonder Karen Blixen fell in love with East Africa. Other films with impressive openings are The Searchers, Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It. Ron Howard’s Far and Away has a great opening scene of the coast of Ireland.Even if you didn’t like the film, the opening scene establishes the heart, the headstrong “Irishness” of Joseph. He’d need that grit along with Shannon to survive as an immigrant.
The underrated, John Woo’s Mission Impossible II is my favorite of the franchise due in part to the outstanding cinematography. Tom Cruise scaling a rock wall is a perfect way to show Ethan Hunt’s fearless personality and Tom Cruise as an adrenaline junky. The actor and the character are one. I was clinging to my armchair and hooked immediately.
Intellectual Cat and Mouse
Inglorious Basterds has one of the best opening scenes in recent years depicting the tense interplay between Nazi and Jew while setting up the motivation for Shoshanna’s revenge. Many would agree the excellence of a Quentin Tarantino opening scene is his trademark. Alfred Hitchcock, too.
What are some of your favorite opening scenes?