It’s a difficult task to pick 10 of the best opening scenes in cinematic history. And thankless. One is always going to piss off or befuddle someone with one’s choices. Hopefully the fact that it is only “10 of the best” will serve to relax those readers with particular cinematic allegiances.
So, here’s 10 of the best opening scenes in cinema:
Enter the Void
Gaspar Noe provokes a strong response with his films. Watching a Noe film does not produce just a simple binary decision: one either likes it or hates it. With Noe their is his technique, subject matter, transgression, violence, style, authorial vision, and a number of other variables to consider. Noe can repulse with atrocity or stun with beauty. Watching his films is not a passive activity. With Enter the Void, Noe created a surrealist death odyssey with day-glo colors. A cinematic equivalent of James Joyce‘s Ulysses. The opening scene thrusts viewers straight into that world. A neon Tokyo in which the main character has a brief conversation with his sister before sitting down for a DMT trip—which serves as a prologue his death and possible rebirth. And we see it all through the main character’s eyes.
As the sentinel of cyberpunk, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has imprinted itself so strongly on filmmakers and audiences, that to this day it’s style and design are highly influential. Science fiction cinema, unlike literature, has to pull one into that near or distant future world rather immediately with its mis-en-scene. And Scott does this flawlessly with Blade Runner‘s opening. It features Vangelis’s dreamy and futurustic synthesizers, and a shot of a megalopolis version of Los Angeles, where plumes of fire burst forth from the night lights of the city—all of which is reflected in an eye. The eye is central to Blade Runner. It hints at the ending, in which Roy Batty tell Rick Deckard that he has “seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” According to Scott, it also serves as an Orwellian all-seeing eye of a heavily controlled state.
A Matter of Life and Death
This film made its way into my consciousness at a party in the Hollywood hills a few years. I was selling some shit book of poetry to a rag-tag collection film insiders. One of the perks of this job is that I would run these off-site events, but be free to read and write to keep my mind occupied. At the time I was reading Thomas Pynchon’s V. A short guy of baby boomer age comes up to me and we start chatting about Pynchon. Naturally it tends toward his masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow (which is quite readable and mind-bending, folks). I made the argument that Terry Gilliam could adapt it, provided it were done as series of four films (for the book’s four sections), or maybe even as an HBO miniseries. Madness, I know. But one can dream. I also noted that I thought Dr. Strangelove must have have had some effect on Pynchon’s creation of the Schwartzgerat rocket. My new friend didn’t disagree. However, he thought that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life & Death (released in the US as Stairway to Heaven), had to have been influential in writing Gravity’s Rainbow. He mentioned the opening scene and said, “Watch the movie. But pay attention to that opening scene.” These are the conversations one gets into as a Pynchon fanatic.
Once Upon a Time in the West
If there were one movie that I wish I could see for the first time again and again, it would be Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s a master class in technique. Absolute perfection from start to finish. And at 13 minutes long, it’s very cinematically nourishing. Leone knows how to balance visual and aural storytelling: footsteps, drops of water, wood creaking, fly buzzing, etc. There doesn’t seem to be an opening scene on the internet, so above is a deconstruction of the opening scene. Apologies.
Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is another masterclass in technique. It’s also one long take. Sokurov awakens from a car crash as a time-traveler entering St. Petersberg’s Winter Palace at an aristocratic ball (on the even of revolution). We see the world through his eyes. As he establishes his bearings, he soon realizes that he is seeing hundreds of years of Russian history play out before him. Joined by a 17th century French diplomat, Sokurov moves through the Winter Palace, with nearly every room transforming into a different historical tableau with figures such as Pushkin and Lenin, to name a few. The circumstances under which the film were made is as astonishing as the film itself. Sokurov and his team had four hours of available daylight in the Russian winter to film at the Hermitage Museum (formerly the Winter Palace), which was being shut down for renovations. Everything had to be flawless. They flubbed the first few takes but nailed the third, with gaffers and assistants tearing down lights in one room to set them up in another ahead of the steadycam operator and Sokoruv.
The Seashell & the Clergyman
Germaine Dulac, now forgotten outside of filmmaking circles, was involved with the Surrealists in Paris during the ’20s. Using a scenario written by the great and tormented Antonin Artaud (author of Theater & Its Double), Dulac crafted an incredible surrealist film that is every bit as great as Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou. Actually, it’s superior. The opening scene features a dark hallway with an opened door letting light spill into the space with geometric precision. Dulac’s camera tilts up and down before moving forward in a moment that must have later influenced David Lynch.
Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr is known for some brilliant films, but Werckmeister Harmonies is generally regarded as his best. Shot in black and white, Tarr took a page from Andrei Tarkovsky’s playbook and used long, poetic shots to tell the story. The residents of a small town await the stuffed carcass of a whale. Before its arrival, Tarr has his main character use some old bar flies to demonstrate a solar eclipse.
No list of the best opening scenes in cinema could be without Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola expertly weaves the napalming of Vietnam, the mental disintegration of Benjamin Willard and The Door’s “The End” into an ominous cinematic overture. One is instantly transported into this simulacra of the Vietnam War, which is as absurd and over-the-top as the war itself.
There Will Be Blood
The viewer is brought down into the depths of the Earth, where Daniel Plainview—in perfect representation of the American Dream (dirty and bloody as it is)—attempts to strike it rich by mineral prospecting. As with the best of cinema, P.T. Anderson doesn’t need any dialogue to communicate the vision here. When combined with Jonny Greenwood’s atonal score, the scene is set for a dark and bloody American tale.
Like Apocalypse Now, the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Shining is a shoe-in. Kubrick fixed a camera with wide-angle lens to the front of a helicopter and swept it across mountainous landscape and the pristine waters of a lake. As with much of Kubrick’s work, music is critical. Without Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s synthesized and foreboding interpretation of Hector Berlioz’s “Dies Irae,” the aerial shots would have looked like mere IMAX footage. Instead, the viewer knows he or she is in for dark and disturbing Kubrick version.
Readers: What other opening scenes do you readers think should have been included?