When I teach writing, one of the things that I repeat in nearly every class is that introductions and openings matter. They matter quite a bit. I inform my students that if they lose a reader in the introduction, chances grow slim that they will ever gain back that reader. Similarly, I tell them that a good introduction rarely devolves into a poor paper. On the other hand, a lousy intro hardly ever works its way back into “A” territory. (I hope that my intro paragraph has, up to this point, met my self-imposed minimum standards.)
Films are not much different than writing. Many of the same rhetorical strategies that produce great writing produce great cinema, and a good opening scene or sequence rarely fails to deliver on the promise of a good film. My idea of a great opening scene may differ from other people’s ideas, so let me acknowledge that all I want from an opening is to see and hear something. I do not necessarily want plot or character; I want the visual medium of film to display a beautiful imag,e and I want to hear a gorgeous score or soundtrack. If done correctly, the sights and sounds should serve as a delicious appetizer that prepares one for an entrée full of narrative and character development. Without further ado, my five favorite film openings.
Actually, there is a further ado. I tried to download video clips of the various opening scenes, but many had been removed. I felt nervous about possibly getting the JRFJ and James Parrish in trouble by using an unauthorized clip. Instead, I have inserted the films’ commercial trailers. Now, without further ado . . .
Among many of the great things that Kurosawa was able to do, two of them were filming nature as nature and capturing the unforgettable gestures of one Toshiro Mifune. The opening to Yojimbo contains both. Accompanied by an upbeat ditty, Mifune’s Sanjuro, a lone samurai, saunters across a lonely rural path, scratching himself and twisting his body and face. The scene presents the character as searching for something and not knowing where to go. Yet there is a liveliness in him that foreshadows adventures greater than a walk along an isolated and dusty road. Kurosawa could have filmed Mifune walking for a full ninety minutes, and I would still be enthralled.
This film is of course the sequel to Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964), which was of course an Italian Western remake of Yojimbo. Like Kurosawa, Leone loved to let his camera linger on the landscape. His “western” settings often absorbed the roughness of the land and his stories. The opening to For a Few Dollars More is no exception. We are presented with one long shot of a lone rider on horseback in the distance. We hear a shot and see the rider fall and the horse gallop away. Over these images, Ennio Morricone’s classic soundtrack plays.
More than anyone I can recall, Ivory (and the Merchant-Ivory productions in general) had the most fantastic knack for making any English landscape the most wonderous shade of green. Ivory’s England must have never seen a drought. And Ivory did not simply color with one shade of green; he utilized an entire rainbow of green. In the opening of Howards End, Ivory presents a dark, dusky green as Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) luxuriously strolls through the fields and gardens of her home, Howards End. The wonderfully earnest sentiment within the scene set up the film’s later themes.
The color here is not green but white. The white of Fargo is neither comforting or peaceful. The snowy and windswept roads of western Minnesota present themselves ominously. We cannot tell what is coming or what is going to happen, but it cannot be good. Jerry Lundegaard’s (William H. Macy) car violently and suddenly appears from the snow. It is impossible to tell the where or why of its travels. And I have always felt that Fargo‘s score, loud and cacophonous in the opening, has been tremendously underrated.
Out of all of my five favorite film openings, this one is easily the most narrative. Yet in a such a small span it intelligently tells the story of humankind’s self-inflicted demise through sharp editing and images. It is a lesson in brevity without being reductive and simplistic. I also enjoyed the opening’s self-conscious ode to silent film. (Indeed, the first half of the film re-packaged silent film’s greatest attributes to a Pixar generation.)