Whether you’re reading a book or watching a film, audiences and bookworms want to be pulled into the story’s world, immersed in the life of its characters, and get a keen sense of the setting where the action is taking place. Skilled writers can ignite that connection almost instantly, and as the Guardian shared over the weekend, the literary world is full of fine examples where the first lines in fiction have been enrapturing readers for decades. Cinema is no different, and we wanted to search for the most unforgettable movie openers. These oft-quotable opening lines have acted as a foreshadowing device, added instant drama, and allowed us to understand the inner workings of different characters’ minds. We could have spent all day reciting first lines from our favorite films, but we narrowed our picks down and left you the opportunity to share your own past the break.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn where he started working for the Lucchese crime family as a kid. It’s there that he learns to never rat on his friends and always keep his mouth shut — wiseguys’ words of wisdom that come back to haunt Hill later in his criminal career. Goodfellas opening reminds us that Hill didn’t just fall into his mobster lifestyle, he was born and bred to be a mobster, surrounded by gangsters and steadily seduced by the respect, money, and power they possessed. “To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States,” he tells us next. For a kid like Hill who was busy skipping school, these crooks became his idols.
“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.”
Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body doesn’t waste time letting us know that Stand by Me is going to be a dark, coming of age story. It immediately captivates — and even scares us a little — leaving audiences anxious to know why a young boy would experience such a macabre moment. We don’t know what the encounter entails until we’re introduced to the four friends and learn of their quest. Still, we feel an immediate connection to the young narrator’s experience, thinking about the first time we saw something like a deceased relative or dead animal in our youth.
“What came first, the music or the misery?”
Thoughtful, but immature, High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon is the king of glum self-analysis. Rob’s selfish, wistful personality begins to reveal itself in the film’s opening lines. “People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over,” he continues. “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” It’s all very groan-worthy, but the record store owner is ultimately likable. His flawed, but usually well-intentioned ways, are punctuated with observations about music — something we can all relate to when reflecting on our own journey of self-discovery.
“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family, Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suit on hire purchased in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sittin’ on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rottin’ away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats that you’ve spawned to replace yourself. Choose a future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
There’s no better way to establish the frantic pace for Trainspotting than these fractured opening lines that tip us off to the film’s wonky nihilism.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word and the act.”
Pussycat’s prologue boasts lines upon lines of memorable dialogue. The poetically trash-talking women in Russ Meyer’s world have the guts to back up their bitchy words, willing to tackle any man who gets in their way. The film’s opening sets the scene for exploitation theatrics. However, the quotes that follow establish that Varla and her buxom gang aren’t just a trio of pretty faces. They’re a “rapacious new breed” and lethal to boot, “operating at any level, any time, anywhere, and with anybody.” From there, it’s easy to draw deeper connections to Meyer’s gender/sex philosophy if you choose to, but the opener is just plain fun.
Orson Welles hypnotic intro uses a dreamlike montage to establish the movie as a psychological portrait, and only one word is needed to add instant mystery and drama.
“Greetings, my friends! We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”
Many have called Ed Wood’s Plan 9 the worst movie ever made, but the cheesy sci-fi film is great fun once you learn to embrace the terribly constructed sets, questionable acting, and often unintentionally amusing dialogue. The movie’s opener, however, is a knowing wink that proves Wood usually knew what he was doing when it came to his special brand of schlock humor.
“… Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
When George C. Scott talks, we listen. Anyone else delivering Patton’s famous opening speech surrounded by all that military pomp would have been lost. Scott embodies Patton in action and dialogue. He’s a tough leader, who tells it like it is.
“‘Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.’ Uh, no, make that: ‘He-he… romanticized it all out of proportion. Now… to him… no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.’ Ahhh, now let me start this over… “
Woody Allen’s Manhattan opens with a New York City montage and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” playing as Allen’s middle-aged writer tells us that his love for the city is like the metropolis itself — a complex study in contrasts where isolation and oppression, romance and joy exist hand in hand. Allen’s opening lines set the ambivalent tone that runs throughout the entire film.
“Who are you?” “I am Death.”
Ingmar Bergman’s allegorical masterpiece set in 14th century Sweden follows Max von Sydow’s medieval knight and his encounter with death. The film’s first lines introduce death as an actual character — a monk-like figure that engages the weary knight in a game of chess. Hoping to evade the ghostly icon, the disillusioned warrior plays the game while pondering the existence of God. The stunning and enigmatic introduction immediately draws us into Bergman’s philosophical abstraction, and we too hope to find the answer to the film’s eternal question.
“People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden… “
“There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?”
White-knuckle, noir-licious dialogue like this is part of why we love Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive so much. Baby Goose is just the icing on the cake.