The Best Opening Scenes in Cinema

By
Share:

It’s been four years since Christopher Nolan’s haunting, spectacular entry in the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight. This weekend, the director will complete his trilogy featuring the Caped Crusader defending Gotham’s finest yet again. After a memorable opening scene in the second film, audiences have high hopes for their first look at The Dark Knight Rises — and we wanted to prep ourselves for an amazing introduction by looking back at other movies that kicked off their stories in wonderful ways. We’ve already proved that unforgettable opening lines can really set the tone for a film, and the opening scenes in cinema are equally, if not more, important.

The Dark Knight

Fans waited three long years to see the Caped Crusader again, and as soon as they feasted on the opening to 2008’s The Dark Knight, they knew it was worth the wait. Christopher Nolan wasted no time immersing us once more in Gotham City’s gritty universe. Heath Ledger’s The Joker orchestrates an impressive bank robbery in the film’s opening scene that introduced us to one of the best villains in superhero movie history. It was a welcome change after Jack Nicholson’s goofier, slapstick take on the character in Tim Burton’s version of Batman. Ledger’s “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” was a worthy adversary for Gotham’s great hero, making The Dark Knight a haunting and epic showdown. (Part one is above, part two is below.)

Blue Velvet

It’s all sunshine, roses, and white picket fences in the suburbs — at least on the outside. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet revealed that the shiny, happy world we all know is rotten to the core in his opening to the 1986 movie. While the façade decays before our very eyes, a doorway to a strange and seedy underworld reveals itself in the form of a severed human ear that Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont finds. “It had to be an ear because it’s an opening,” Lynch remarked in an interview. “An ear is wide and you can go down into it. It goes somewhere vast.” We quickly learn that the passageway leads Jeffrey to a host of unusual and deadly characters.

Citizen Kane

The hypnotic, eerie introduction to Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane starts with a dark and dreamy montage. The camera glides along, its focus dissolving to reveal a symbolic, psychological portrait of media mogul Charles Foster Kane. The cryptic, whispered word, “Rosebud,” sets us up for a dramatic mystery that triggers Kane’s life story.

Of course, Welles’ stunning extended take in Touch of Evil also features incredible dramatic tension created through its visuals.

The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s horror great The Shining opens with vast panoramic shots of mountainous forests and a lonely, winding road set to Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s adaptation of Hector Berlioz’s “Dies Irae” used in his Symphonie Fantastique. The wailing, ghostly sounds make the desolate landscape seem ominous, and we immediately get the sense that something terrible awaits our travelers at the end of the road. To capture the incredible shot, a wide-angle Arriflex camera was mounted on the front of a helicopter, which swooped above Glacier National Park in Montana on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Star Wars

Although it’s not as flashy and refined as today’s CGI wizardry, the magic of the 1977 Star Wars opening will never fade for moviegoers. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… ” is undoubtedly the most famous text crawl of all time, and who would have thought that the floating typeface set to John Williams’ grand score would become so iconic? The crawl was captured by longitudinally moving the camera along a physical model on the floor. It wasn’t easy to film, and the intro was updated during a restoration, but it’s unforgettable.

Reservoir Dogs

The 1992 film was the first time we heard Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue and the way he effortlessly made cinematic antiheroes cooler than cool. The pop culture references — in this case Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” — the foul-mouthed eccentricities, the snappy pacing, and the famous group shot immediately won audiences over. Tarantino gave Jan Visser and George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” a new lease on life — something he consistently does with his talented actors, honoring their past careers in fresh, interesting ways.

Manhattan

Manhattan’s protagonist Isaac Davis (played by director Woody Allen) opens the film with a famous monologue, in which the writer dictates several different opening paragraphs for a book he’s working on. “New York was his town, and it always would be,” he romanticizes while Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” plays over striking black and white shots of the big city. It’s a complicated relationship that Davis “re-writes” several times throughout the film.

There Will Be Blood

The dissonant sounds of Jonny Greenwood’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film slowly build and seem to echo across the barren landscape. There is no dialogue, just a man in the bowels of the rocky mountain range digging for silver. Eventually he strikes oil. Wind, breath, metal on stone, cracked bone, death, trickery follows. Our introduction to the hollow, manipulative Daniel Plainview is claustrophobic and absolutely astonishing.

Patton

“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,” starts George C. Scott’s famous speech in the opening of the 1970 biographical war film, Patton. The actor stars as U.S. General George S. Patton during World War II — his finest role. (The real-life war hero gave a nearly identical speech in 1944.) Scott’s hard-nosed military leader delivers his tough talk set against an enormous American flag, and it’s stunning to look at. It’s interesting to note how the jingoistic address — which glorifies the violence of war and patriotism — almost feels akin to a sports movie speech in contemporary cinema.

Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai runs a whopping 207 minutes long, but it features some of the most economical and powerful scenes and storytelling put to film. Immediately, an army of bandits galloping across the horizon draws us in. The targeted villagers plot their defense and seek out samurai warriors to help them. It’s a dramatic journey, and in just minutes we’re already familiar with the memorable characters, the intricacies of their relationships and their motivations as they prepare for battle.

Jaws

Jaws immediately establishes itself in the disturbing opening scene of the film, where Chrissie Watkins (played by stuntwoman Susan Backlinie) is attacked by an unseen beast beneath the ocean’s surface. We never actually see the monster, which makes it more terrifying. Spielberg forces us to endure Chrissie’s demise along with her. If her screams feel real to you, it may be because the director told the underwater stunt workers to pull Backlinie under when she wasn’t expecting it, because he wanted to capture a genuine reaction. Yep, this is part of why we sometimes hate summer. The film’s opening is also the first chance we get to hear John Williams’ amazing score.

The Godfather

The slow pull back to Godfather Don Corleone holding court with a cat on his lap while a man pleads for help… it doesn’t get much better than this.