10 Best Movie Openings

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James and Colin team up, once again, to offer their favourite five openings of all time. Do feel free to share your faves with us too, won’t you?

James’s Top Five

5. Jaws (1975) Dir. Steven Spielberg

The movie that changed summer cinema for ever – there is so much to talk about in Spielberg’s thrilling, amazing adventure, and he certainly knew how to start with a bang. John Williams’ mournful, scary theme precedes the ‘she was the first’ moment, as the film’s original tagline put it – Amity resident Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) fancies a midnight dip with a new-found friend who, fortunately for him, is too drunk to even take his clothes off. Unfortunately for Chrissie, there’s something else in the water with her, and we all know what, don’t we? A la Psycho (1960), the first audiences must have been left reeling. Click here.

4. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) Dir. Steven Spielberg
Another one from Mr Spielberg – yes, I know, this was probably the least of the three Indy movies (and I’m not including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) in my considerations, because that doesn’t strictly speaking qualify as being a film), but it was still uproarious fun, and the opening, harking back as it does to screwball comedies of the 1930s (though with a decidedly darker tone), is quite simply a belter. I mean to say, just how much action can be crammed into ten minutes? Well, see for yourself, and if it’s your first view, I envy you. Click here.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Dir. Stanley Kubrick
Magisterial doesn’t even come close. The late, truly great Stanley Kubrick, who was quite probably the 20th century’s greatest director, has a little go here at ‘The Dawn of Man’ in his prologue to the ‘ultimate trip’ journey into mankind’s potential future that 2001: A Space Odyssey goes on to be. Seriously, the scene where a proto-human, who, along with his tribe is starving in the wilderness despite being surrounded by acres of porcine flesh, puts two and two together with a femur, thanks to the intervention of ‘The Monolith’, is one of the most hair-raising moments in cinema, period, with Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra as its backdrop. Simply jaw-dropping. Click here.

2. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) Dir. James Foley
‘Put. That coffee. Down….Coffee is for closers only.’ Blake (Alec Baldwin) is explaining the new sales competition to the harried, over-worked inhabitants of a Chicago real-estate office:

Blake: We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize?
[Holds up prize]
Blake: Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.

Blake: These are the new leads. These are the Glengarry leads. And to you they’re gold, and you don’t get them. Why? Because to give them to you would be throwing them away. They’re for closers.

He’s only on-screen for around ten minutes, and he ever-so nearly won an Oscar – Baldwin’s merciless destruction and humiliation of salesmen Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin (Al Pacino is also involved, but not in this scene) is one of the most wincingly cool rants you will ever see – it’s a tough world out there. Click here.

And James’s winner is…

1. Get Carter (1971) Dir. Mike Hodges
And thus, from my favourite gangster movie of all time comes my favourite opening – it’s almost as if Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is already in heaven, as we pan into the somehow ‘elevated’ pad of which he is looking out the window; then, of course, it’s curtains for Carter (geddit?) as we join the hitman, his employers and gangster’s moll Britt Ekland in a place that is in fact very far from paradise. Carter wants to go up North to Newcastle, to investigate the mysterious death of his brother Frank – Jack never really liked him much, screwed his wife behind his back and may even be the father of Frank’s daughter, Doreen (Petra Markham). But this is different. This, as they say, is family. Then, we have Roy Budd’s singularly haunting refrain, a sense of real menace that begins very early, and the little train trip that Carter decides to take, despite his boss’s orders. A pity for him, but nothing short of marvellous for us. Click here. 

Colin’s Top Five

5. Paris, Texas (1984) Dir. Wim Wenders
Wim Wenders could never be accused of pandering to the explosions and car chases cinema demographic – and the opening sequence to what is, for my money, his best non-documentary movie, is all the proof you’d ever need. Opening with a lingering aerial shot of the parched Texas landscape, very slowly zooming in on the hero – if you want to call him thus – Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering around the barely inhabited landscape dressed somewhat incongruously in sneakers, a suit and tie and a bright red baseball cap.

The camera slowly pans in as he takes the last sip of water out of his plastic jug, tosses it aside and continues walking to who-knows-where, as the camera follows his unsteady march, almost to vanishing point. The arid landscape, the beautiful camera work and an unforgettably spartan soundtrack from Ry Cooder all combine to set the tone for this gorgeous slow burn of a movie. Those who can’t get past this and enjoy a wonderful, if heartbreaking, story may want to check out the Steven Seagal back catalogue. Click here.

4. Goodfellas (1990) Dir. Martin Scorsese
Damn it, even the titles are subtle. The names of the director and stars sliding on and off screen, white on black, in time with the whooshing doppler-effect noise of passing cars. Smash cut into a big 1970s car speeding along the freeway with three wiseguys inside. These particular wiseguys are played by what I guess would be Mafia royalty in film star circles (and maybe outside too, but don’t quote me on that) Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Henry (Liotta) enquires in a vigorous manner as to the nature of the suspicious thumping noise coming from the boot (trunk for our US chums) of the car.

Henry opens the boot and is confronted by something poorly-swathed that is clearly supposed to be a dead body. The victim’s status is still very much ‘not dead’ – a situation that is hastily amended by Tommy and Jimmy (Pesci and De Niro) who mercilessly and repeatedly stab and shoot him. Henry steps back and the voiceover, in his words, begins: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…”. Cue the big band sound of Tony Bennett and a few more zooming titles. Marvellous. Click here.

3. The Italian Job (1965) Dir. Peter Collinson
Even before we’re introduced to the cast, which at best could be called eclectic, or the back-story with its wide-boy charm and classic capers, we are treated to an opening-scene-cum-title-sequence par excellence. (Top Gear mode on) A beautiful Lamborghini Miura sweeps and growls around some of the best driving roads in the world, nestled high in the Italian Alps, the driver in a polo-neck and shades, smoking and enjoying the curves (Top Gear mode off). Legendary crooner Matt Munro oozes his way through On Days Like These as the car guns through hairpin after hairpin in the steely Italian sunshine. Even for non-drivers or closet Jeremy Clarkson fans, this is what driving is all about. The car rounds a corner, heads into a tunnel and – BAM! Click here.

2. The Dark Knight (2008) Dir. Christopher Nolan
Regular readers of Picturenose will no doubt be reassured by the fact I have been able to shoehorn this movie into a list at last. I do like TDK more than a little bit but I’ll beg your indulgence while I explain just why this is a great opener. I would venture that this is such a strong opening scene that many other film makers would be happy to have this as a denouement. They’d probably also use the budget to make five other films, but that’s by the by.

A tight-ish zoom into the middle of a glass skyscraper where a window gently pops out. A couple of goons wearing clown masks zipline to the roof of the bank opposite and begin to take out the alarm systems. Three more masked men enter the main building of the bank and begin what I believe in financial terms is called a hostile takeover of the place. What five out of six of these masked intruders don’t know is that they have all individually been given orders to ‘dispense with’ their accomplices once their role is over in order to increase their share in the proceeds. Down to two men left, one pulls a gun on the other and mockingly says: “I’m bettin’ the Joker told you to kill me, soon as we loaded the cash”. “No, no” says the other guy “I kill the bus driver.” Bus driver? What bus driver?

The bus smashes through the front wall of the bank, killing the would-be killer. The bus driver is duly dispatched, leaving one lone bank robber. Challenged by the wounded bank manager, he pulls off his mask to reveal – another mask. All this in the first six minutes of film. Click here.

And Colin’s winner is…

1. Un Chien Andalou (1929) Dir. Luis Buñuel
Anybody who grew up in the eighties would know about Pixies – the painfully hip band that you simply had to like if you were anyone at all. It turns out they were actually pretty good. I digress a little. One of their more famous musical outings was a number called Debaser, which begins with the unlikely couplet “got me a movie, oh ho ho ho/slicing up eyeballs, oh ho ho ho”. Unlikely, that is, unless you’ve seen the opening sequence from the quite deliciously bizarre Un Chien Andalou.

Written and devised by Buñuel himself and Salvador Dalí, it’s not a film for the squeamish or the easily unsettled. The imagery is, shall we say, ‘thought-provoking’ and the entire 16 minutes seem to fly past like a bad dream. What always sticks in people’s heads is the entirely unpleasant opening scene. A man strops a cut-throat razor on a leather belt, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Still smoking he wanders into the next room where he pulls open the eye of a passive, seated female and draws the blade across it, the scene cut with a sliver of cloud going across the face of the moon. Cut back to the eye and the vitreous humor is seeping out. It does get considerably more bizarre from there, with dead donkeys, pianos, sailors and a soundtrack by Wagner, but that’s the bit that lodges in the mind. A real audience-grabber. Click here.

13 thoughts on “10 Best Movie Openings”

  1. All very good indeed. I have to say, though, that for pure, breath-taking f*ck-me-ness, it has to be the seemingly never-ending spaceship going ‘overhead’ at the start of Star Wars (1977).

    I saw it on a massive screen as a teen and it totally blew me away.

    It wasn’t so much the special effects as the fact that you oh-so-gradually became aware of how stonkingly huge this beastie was. And just when you did, well, it just kept coming.


  2. Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) opening robbery scene, which culminates with a first-person shot by the cameraman jumping between buildings?

  3. Hey Brad, welcome to Picturenose! :-) Yes, good call on that – I’d forgotten it, to my shame, but have just checked it out on YouTube and you’re right, it’s very good. Cheers.

  4. I love these lists. We write them and about a nanosecond we’re scratching our heads and saying: “Hmmm…yeah, that is a good one.” We’re going to have to start doing the top 9,000 whatever soon.

    And yeah, welcome to Picturenose, Brad :-)

  5. What about Trainspotting (1996)? Ewan McGregor’s Renton et al being chased through the Edinburgh streets with Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life in the background over the wonderful ‘Choose Life’ monologue?

    Or what about A History of Violence (2005)? The long camera sweep after the hold-up and murder, outstanding film-making – have there ever been two more disturbing murderers or unsettling opening to a film?

  6. Well, yes, I suppose so Colin, but I do tend to veer more towards ‘No, your list James is absolutely the best selection possible, well done!’. Is that fair, do you think? 😉

  7. Hi Jona – a very warm welcome indeed to Picturenose, thanks for your excellent suggestions! :-)

    To my mind, while the openings of both Trainspotting and The Hurt Locker are great, I think that you are absolutely on the money with A History of Violence – a simply brilliant opening set-piece from a film that is chock-full of them. Probably Cronenberg’s finest work, wouldn’t you agree?

  8. Three openings that caught my attention were:

    (i) R. Lee Ermey brutally but hilariously dressing-down the new recruits in Full Metal Jacket (1987);

    (ii) the three assassins come to off Harmonica at a sunbacked and eerily silent station in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) , and;

    (iii) the hills are alive with…The Sound of Music (1965). :-)

  9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)? Might not technically count though, as there are a couple of minutes in the graveyard before you actually see the beach scene.

  10. Hey Nick,

    No, I think that is an excellent choice – for me, the ‘bookends’ work very well in that film and anyway, not unlike say the bone-smashing scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s all part of the extended opening anyway?

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