The critical moments of a movie are the first moments, the first few minutes where it either grabs you or loses you for good. That’s what we mean when we talk about the movie experience, the wonder and delight of the shapes flickering across the screen that overcome you, and you think, “Oh yeah, this is going to work.”
Contrast that to the soul-crushing dismay when you realize that what you hoped would be a great couple of hours is instead going to be a dreary death-march of clichés, lazy writing and bad music broken only occasionally when you glance longingly at your watch and wish you could have your $11.50 and two hours back.
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You know a great opening when you see it; if fact, you feel it. My definition of “opening” is rather loose. An opening can go up to, or past the credits, or it may just be the credit sequence itself. Some openings are rather long, 10-15 minutes. Some are just a couple of minutes. There is no one formula for a great opening – the ten listed here as my personal favorites are as different from each other as Democratic Party governance is from competent leadership. But there are some common threads. A great opening tells you something about the story you will see. It might be in words of formal narration, or a sequence that takes you into the story, or in some cases it’s just a few images. There may be prominent music, or little or none. But when the opening is over, you are ready – you understand enough to begin the journey. And, more importantly, you are eager to go.
It’s easy – and serves an important purpose – to point out where Hollywood fails. But it’s a special pleasure to point out where it got it just perfect. Here are my Top 10 favorite movie openings:
1. The Guns of Navarone (1961)
This is one of the great “men on a mission” WWII movies of the Sixties, a rousing story of a band of commandos led by Gregory Peck trying to destroy the titular cannons on a German-occupied Greek island. This 5 minute opening sequence is an example of narration and music in action. Over beautiful shots of Greek ruins intercut with newsreel footage, James Robertson Justice provides a detailed prologue setting up the story (though, sadly, the narration track is not on YouTube) while Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar nominates score plays quietly.
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It’s one of the screen’s great orchestral themes, and as the narration ends and the opening credits begin it sweeps up into its full glory – rousing, majestic and stirring. You watch the Cyrillic-style star credits flash by – Greg Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn – as that score plays and you know you’re about to watch one of Hollywood’s adventures.
2. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial terrorfest is one of only two movies that every really, truly scared me. In contrast to the crowded, familiar outer space of Star Wars (see below), Scott’s universe is silent and cold, at once claustrophobic and massive.
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With the terrible emptiness of space as the background, the opening credits leisurely form the title “Alien” as Jerry Goldsmith’s superbly creepy and jarring score sets you on edge. Audiences had never seen or heard anything like it, and it set exactly the right tone of dread and disorientation that would permeate one of the greatest movies ever made.
3. The Wild Bunch (1969)
A band of cavalry troopers led by the heroic William Holden slowly ride into a dusty western town – they’re clearly the good guys, right? Director Sam Peckinpah takes it nice and slow while dropping hints – a bunch of kids torment some scorpions, and when the credits come on screen Peckinpah photo-reverses Holden’s image, like Holden is the opposite of what he appears to be.
Holden escorts an elderly lady across the street. Ernest Borgnine even offers to carry her boxes – how nice of him! Then they enter the bank and draw guns as Holden throws a civilian to the floor and orders his men, “If they move – kill ‘em!” And then they shoot their way out of town in a bloody gun battle that leaves criminals, bounty hunters and a score of innocent civilians strewn across the streets.
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Can you say “Anti-heroes?” Well, you don’t have to – after that amazing opening, you knew that you were watching something entirely new. And you knew that it wasn’t going to have a happy ending. Just an awesome one.
4. Se7en (1995)
Here, director David Fincher wants to take us into the mind of a serial killer, but not in the same way a thousand hack directors had. Se7en’s opening credits, set to Trent Reznor’s “Closer,” are displayed over a series of icky, freaky images – many of which, in retrospect, turn out to relate to the story to come (Look for the shot of the book discussing pregnancy!). You know you’re on you’re way to crazyland, and you know you have no idea what’s going to happen next.
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The credits are not a particularly delightful experience, and neither is the film. But, undeniably, there is nothing else like it, and Fincher created an opening that was worthy of it.
5. Goldfinger (1964)
There had to be a James Bond film on this list, and the most James Bond film of all James Bond film is Goldfinger. The third of the series (you can read much more about it in Lawrence Meyer’s Big Hollywood series), it set in concrete many of the Bond traditions that would follow through five decades of Bonds up through today.
A Bond opening has three parts. The first is the MGM lion roaring and the dancing dot that becomes the barrel of a gun aimed right at 007, who pivots at the last second and fires, followed by the animated sheet of blood pouring down the screen as the dot finds a corner and expands into the cold open action sequence.
The opening sequence rarely has anything to do with the plot (though the recent ones are going in a different direction). Here, Bond infiltrates an enemy facility disguised with a duck on his head. Yeah, unfortunately there’s a bit of silliness in some of these, but it fades into a nice fight in a hotel room (where the amoral Bond uses a femme fatale’s head as a shield) and gives us one of the earliest hero quips: “Shocking, absolutely shocking,” he remarks about the baddie he just electrocuted.
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Now, the third part of a Bond opening is the main titles, and these – with the legendary Shirley Bassey singing the best of the Bond themes – are just great. Scenes of the film play out on the golden skin of a naked model as the credits play. That pretty much sums up our James Bond. Pretty girl, beware of this heart of gold!
6. Star Wars (1977)
In nerdspeak, it’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. But since I saw it in the theater, and I don’t put up with geek nonsense, this was, is and ever shall be known only as Star Wars. And seeing it in the theater – as well as being around for the incredibly revolutionary effect Star Wars had on the movies – makes this legendary opening all the more memorable.
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We sat in the theater, the lights go down, the 20th Century Fox intro played followed by the sky blue titles on a black field reading “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Then BLAM! John Williams’s unforgettable score hits you. The iconic Star Wars graphic appears on the screen followed by the written explanation of the nonsensical plot. Then the camera falls, a musical freefall supported by the score, and BLAM! We are in a space battle with starships the likes we had never seen before that day in 1977.
Maybe you had to be there….
7. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Another terrific Sixties WWII “men on a mission” movie, but it could not be more different from Guns of Navarone in story, tone or opening. It opens cold as a hearse enters a military prison. The inmates are rioting as a condemned prisoner is being led to his doom. On the gallows stands Lee Marvin as Major Reisman, who watches the proceedings with grim detachment, pausing only to glance at the priest’s Bible with a raised eyebrow. The sentence completed, he departs. A title card announces we are in London in 1944. Reisman then gets his mission from our old pal, General Ernest Borgnine, in a great scene, snappy scene. The jousting among the characters is marvelous – we learn just what kind of man Reisman is not just from dialogue describing him but from his actions. He then returns to the prison to meet his team of convicts. Only then, about 10 minutes in, do the credits play as the sergeant introduces each one with character name, crime and sentence.
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In one economical, fluid opening, we meet and understand the hero, learn about his challenge and get thoroughly introduced to each of the Dozen. Now that’s how a movie is made!
8. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Just a title card, credits and the lush, amazing score of composer Max Steiner provide a worthy opening to what many consider the greatest American film ever made. GWTW was a huge event when released, and in those days they felt they had to make a film worthy of the hype. It was also better than three hours long. Sure, critics today have problems with it – they probably feel it lacks alienated hipster characters whining about their feelings, and they astonishingly expect a 70+ year old movie to share the same lockstep vision of political correctness that characterizes the Hollywood of today (conveniently forgetting the fact that GWTW was revolutionary in the dignity it bestowed on many black characters, a dignity you will not find in the average gangster rap video or Martin Lawrence “funny black guy in a fat suit” sequel.)
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The opening is amazing. Steiner’s music begins with a flourish that evokes the Old South with a hint of “Dixie” then turns into the sweeping, grand “Tara’s Theme” as a title card sets the stage and then the credits roll over an idealized backdrop of a life soon to be swept away. As a son of the Union whose family’s home town of Chambersburg was burned by Confederates (and whose great-great grandfather preceded me as a U.S. Army cavalryman by 125 years), I have no illusions about where the pretty life the characters live early in the movie came from, but the opening still perfectly captures the sense of these characters whose way of life would be “gone with the wind” of history during the course of this magnificent film.
9. Magnum Force (1973)
Yeah, this one tells you all you need to know about the next two and a half hours of awesome, prime Eastwood mayhem.
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A disembodied hand raises up and holds a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum revolver over a red background for a couple minutes as the credits run and Lalo Schifrin’s awesome, swingin’ n’ jazzy theme plays. That’s it. That’s all.
Then the thumb pulls back the hammer, the looming barrel swings toward the audience, and Clint intones his famous “Do you feel lucky?” line from the original Dirty Harry. Wait a beat. BLAM!
Rad. Well, a man’s got to know his limitations. And if you don’t dig that opening, it’s your manhood that’s limited.
10. The Road Warrior (1981)
Wind. “My life fades. My vision dims. All that remains…. are memories. I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams, this wasted land. But most of all, I remember the Road Warrior”
With these words, uttered by the now elderly Feral Kid, one of the best action films ever made begins. You don’t need to have seen the original Mad Max – the narration and footage bring you up to speed on the scenario, and on Max, and on why he went out to the desert….
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But the narration isn’tall. No, it’s just the beginning, because as the narration ends and director George Miller’s camera swoops down onto the endless road, the white lines shooting past, into darkness as a roar overtakes you. And the roar gets louder and louder, and then the camera pulls back out of a tunnel, but it’s not a tunnel at all – it’s the yawning mouth of the supercharger on Max’s car, “the last of the V8 Interceptors.” And we are right in the midst of Max’s latest asphalt battle for his life.
Okay Hollywood, that’s how it’s done.