Opinion: The Top Five Movie Openings

FMV Magazine’s Simon Collings takes a look at the ‘select few’ he considers to be the Top 5 Movie ‘Openings’.

The great film director Alfred Hitchcock famously declared that once the opening credits to his masterpiece Psycho (1960) had rolled no one was allowed to enter the movie theatre.  This might seem a bit harsh but it clearly emphasised his belief in the importance of an opening to a film. 

An opening is the one chance a director has of setting the scene for the next hundred or so minutes.  It is the time to introduce to the audience the heroes, the villains and the worlds they inhabit. They can be of any length and either action packed – bombarding the viewer with information, or they can simply allow one to settle into their seats and prepare them for a great story.  It is debatable which technique is more effective with regards to grabbing the viewer’s attention but both methods are effective in their own right.

There are, of course the obvious memorable movie openings such as Citizen Kane (1941) with it’s ‘‘Rosebud’’ teaser; the opening attack in Jaws (1975) and the Star Destroyer’s overhead arrival in Star Wars (1977).  Other moments include the visually stunning opening to the sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982), as well as the portrayal of the Normandy landings in Saving Private Ryan (1998).  There are of course so many to choose from and everyone has their favourites, but here are a select few…

First up is the nearly three and a half minute tracking shot at the start of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).  In short it’s simply a long crane shot of time bomb being set, then placed in the trunk of a car, which then weaves in and out of frame but remains in the constant presence of stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. 

Although brilliantly filmed it does look a bit dated now, so much so that one could simply click a few buttons on a computer and achieve the same effect – if not better.  Yet this was the late 1950s and despite being in the hands of the most innovative filmmaker of the twentieth century, it was an extremely brave and bold opening to conceive let alone execute.  Tracking shots are seldom used in cinema – yet alone at the beginning of a film – which is a real shame because there is no better way for an audience to immerse themselves into the lives and worlds of the characters on screen.

Next is the The Shining (1980) and the eerie credit sequence of aerial shots of a car heading into the Rocky Mountains in North America.  Although it’s a simple enough opening of a car being tracked from above, it is the unsettling soundtrack which accompanies the intro which makes it stand out.   Kubrick’s deft use, mixing and merging of Native American chanting over these images consequently develop into the subliminal themes which run throughout the remainder of the film.  As the vehicle delves further into the harsh mountain terrain, a sense of isolation also emerges as the audience begin to suspect a detachment from reality is nearing. 

As The Shining is a layered labyrinth of Native American tones, on first viewing the opening shots can seem innocent enough.  However, seen again and again it clearly demonstrates how a director can create an uneasy sense of terror upon an unsuspected audience as well as lay the foundations for the entire film.  So simple, yet so effective. 

Moving onto Oliver Stone and his harrowing opening to Platoon (1986).  Accompanied by Samuel Barber’s haunting Adagio for Strings score, and after the words from the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘‘Rejoice O young man in thy youth…’’ we see a fresh-faced Charlie Sheen arrive in Vietnam.  What greets him (and the audience) as he steps off the plane is a procession of raw and daunting images including harsh weather conditions, occupied body bags and an overwhelming sense of hell and anguish.  Again it’s another somewhat mundane opening but one which offers a real and honest insight into modern warfare. 

What makes this opening – and the film as a whole – so memorable is its ordinariness, and in particular how it differs from other Vietnam films.  Take for example the opening to Apocalypse Now (1979).  Where as this iconic sequence from Francis Ford Coppola seems to glamorise the war, and in turn detract an amount of realism from the conflict as a whole, Platoon’s opening does the opposite.  There are no rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks, no romanticised notions of madness – just a straightforward depiction of war and its harsh surroundings.  This is further enhanced towards the end of the sequence by the lifeless look from a bruised and battered soldier returning from a tour as he gazes straight towards a bewildered Charlie Sheen.  No violence or explosions used by Stone, yet an equally effective portrayal of the conflict nonetheless.

Next up is the opening in Goodfellas (1990) and where the line of, ‘‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,’’ became immortalised into cinematic history.  Such as a hectic speed Goodfellas moves at, it seems that most of the film is just one long intro into the lives of these mobsters.  It is only when things start to demise for Ray Liotta that the pace of the film slows down.  Up until that point it is just fast and unflinching from the word go. 

In the opening sequence we see Liotta, along with other mobsters Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, riding in a car in the middle of the night.  They pull over due to a disturbance which seems to be located from the trunk of their car.  They open it up to discover a half-dead man pleading for his life. Without hesitation they rectify the situation in a way they only know how which then leads to Liotta’s famous words swiftly followed by Tony Bennett’s ‘‘Rags to Riches’’ score.  The whole opening perfectly sets up the first half of the film which moves at a relentless pace.  An opening so rapid, so violent, and so fearless – it’s pure Scorsese.

Now finally onto Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and the ultra-cool diner scene.  Just a bunch of guys, in suits, finishing up breakfast is basically the premise.  But such as Tarantino’s genius for screen dialogue the scene becomes so much more and remains one of the most memorable openings – not just in nineties cinema – but in any directorial debut before or since. 

We don’t know anything about these men, or why they’re there, but as they converse across the table each individual’s character is slowly revealed – all despite them talking what can be best described as nonsense.  It is clear that there is a large number of big fish sitting around the table yet none of them want to budge.  As frictions simmer, and hierarchies seemingly forming, the men set off under the order of ‘‘Alright ramblers, let’s get rambling’’ as the sounds of the George Baker Selection’s ‘‘Little Green Bag ’’ begins to form.  The whole scene gave the likes of Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi a platform to display acting of the highest quality and in turn, propel Tarantino from indie film geek into one of the nineties most innovative filmmakers – ultimately changing low-budget American cinema forever.

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