The best movies ever made are usually defined by the strength of their individual moments. As many of them stick to the basic three act structure of storytelling, the viewer will commonly find that a movie hits it’s high points at crucial junctures in the story; sometimes with a crossroads for a character’s development, sometimes with a harrowing motivating incident, and also sometimes with a shocking twist at the story’s climax. Some movies even find their best moments in charming plot sidetracks that reveal more about the characters. But, one thing that proves to be a crucial part of a story’s success is not so much how it progresses, or even finishes, but rather how it begins. A strong opening statement from the very first scene could itself be the very thing that makes a movie go from good to great. An opening scene does the most important job of establishing tone and character into the movie. It’s the point of the movie that tells the audience exactly what they are about to get into, even if much of what follows is not what they expected. And there are so many ways that a movie can get off on the right foot. A movie can throw us right into a hectic moment of action (like the opening of 2015’s Mad Max :Fury Road), it can shock our senses (like the murder opening of 1996’s Scream), it can throw a moment of absurdity our way (like the migrating coconut debate from the opening of 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail), it can make a statement directly to the audience (Ewan McGregor’s “Choose Life” monologue from 1995’s Trainspotting), or it can soak us up into the atmosphere of it’s world (the prologue from 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), all in the first couple minutes. And it’s these moments that help to give a movie an identity. What follows bellow are my top ten choices for what I think are the greatest opening scenes in movie history. They run the gambit of being either just a fantastic opening shot or a full lengthy sequence, but what they all have in common is that they made a profound statement that set the bar high for each of their selective movies, and stand alone as singular great cinematic achievements in their own right.
THE GODFATHER (1972) – “I BELIEVE IN AMERICA”
Francis Ford Coppola’s multi-generational epic begins not with a bang, nor a extravagant set piece, but rather it begins in a quiet, dark room where old men discuss business. And yet, you could not have asked for a better start to one of the most compelling films ever committed to celluloid. Coppola plunges us into this world of Mafiosos and the criminal underworld by showing us the characters in their own element. In this opening scene, we meet Bonasera, a desperate man who has come to the home of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the “Godfather” of the powerful Italian Mafia family. In his plea to the don of the family, seeking vengeance for the rape of his daughter, Coppola keeps the camera tight on his face and slowly zooms out to slowly reveal who he is speaking to. It is a simple camera trick, but one that is beautifully executed by cinematographer Gordon Willis. And it’s simplicity is what makes it so profound. It’s made all the more powerful by how well Coppola and Willis use the light in the scene, or lack there of. Beginning the speech with a complete blank screen also puts special emphasis on the opening words; “I believe in America.” Subliminally it tells us the audience that this will be a quintessential American story, while at the same time revealing a world unseen to us as well. It’s profound as a statement, but it also is one of the greatest character introductions we’ve ever seen in a film. Without revealing Vito right away, we are able to learn from Bonasera the kind of power that Vito is able to command and the respect that he is able to summon. Only after the long pull out do we see the man himself, and by then his legend is set. It’s a deceptively simple moment and is iconic in every way. It’s the kind of opening that you would expect to see from one of cinema’s greatest achievements.
REAR WINDOW (1954) – WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Alfred Hitchcock always was a filmmaker who loved to show off all the things that could be possible in the cinematic medium. Many of his films also like to build their mystery directly from the opening moments. Without tipping his hand, Hitchcock leaves clues within a scene that will inevitably payoff later in the film. You can see this in most of his greatest films like North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). But, if you were to find the greatest opening to a film in his whole oeuvre, it would be the spectacular opening sequence in Rear Window. In the opening scene, Hitchcock shows off the amazing courtyard set that was built especially for this film (the largest interior set ever built at the time). The scale of the set is impressive on its own, but the special quality of this opening scene comes from the way that Hitchcock pans across the scenery, showing us a small window into the lives of all the people who live in this complex, and all the little side-stories that they are living in at the moment. But, it’s a point of view that’s still from a distance, and we learn towards the end of the scene that we are watching all of this from the apartment of Jimmy Stewart’s character. The shot continues, revealing that Stewart’s Jefferies is wheelchair bound with a broken leg, and the shot then scans across his own apartment, showing us more about his life, including the accident that left him with a broken limb. It’s an immersive way to open a film, showing so much without a single line of dialogue. Not only does it show off the amazing set in a spectacular way, but it gives us so much information right up front, allowing us the audience to understand the characters and the world they live in before the story itself begins. Few others could use these kind of tools of storytelling as well Hitchcock, and it’s a scene that perfectly illustrates his very voyeuristic view of everyday life.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) – THE JEW HUNTER
Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who especially puts special emphasis on his opening scenes. For a man raised on international and exploitation cinema, you would think that the idea of a movie that starts off in a big way would be one that’s clearly on his mind. And throughout his body of work, you can find plenty of great, unexpected opening scenes. There’s the restaurant robbery from Pulp Fiction (1994), the airport arrival in Jackie Brown (1997), the diner conversation from Reservoir Dogs (1991); none of which are exactly bombastic scenes, but they nevertheless do an excellent job of announcing themselves to an audience the way that Tarantino wants them to. But, out of all of opening scenes from Tarantino’s filmography, I don’t think there has ever been a greater one than the opening to Inglourious Basterds. Like the others, it’s a dialogue driven scene, but one that is so profound and brilliantly written, that it easily stands tall among the rest. It, for one, introduces us to one of cinema’s greatest villains, Colonel Hans Landa, and establishes perfectly everything that this character is about. With his calm, pleasant demeanor, he breaks down this French farmer who’s been harboring refugee Jews in his basement, and does over a kind conversation with a glass of milk. Christoph Waltz is absolutely compelling in this moment, and I knew immediately after watching this scene for the first time that he was going to win an Oscar for his performance (which turned out to be true). Tarantino himself has even stated that this is one of his favorite scenes too, and that he’s especially proud of it. Who would have thought that a calm, dialogue heavy 20 minute opening sequence would provide one of the most chilling, suspense moments in cinema history? It’s Tarantino at the height of his powers and proof that he can open a movie up like no other.
PATTON (1970) – THE GENERAL’S ADDRESS
Here we find a opening scene that breaks from convention completely. In this biographical film about the famed World War II commander, we don’t find ourselves looking into the general’s history, nor do we instead find him already in the thick of battle, like so many other historical films would have. No, instead, this Franklin J. Schaffner opens up with a sprawling American flag, a small platform stage, and George C. Scott center screen in the role of General Patton in full regalia. For the next six minutes, we see nothing else but this, and Scott delivers a speech not unlike how the real man would’ve to his battalions of troops during the war. It’s an iconic image that perfectly establishes the mythic aura of the General, showing how he presented himself to the world, and how he probably wanted others to view him as well. The remainder of the film breaks down the person that he was and shows us the more human side of the general, which is why this opening scene is so crucial for the film. The movie is a great examination in the differences between man and myth, and you will never find a scene that helps to make a man look more mythic than the opening one here. Scott is remarkable in this scene, bringing fire to every word of the speech (which was compiled by screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola from dozens of real speeches the general gave over the years. I especially love how Patton flavors some of the language, going from poignant to vulgar effortlessly (like the famous “crap through a goose” statement). It’s an often parodied moment that still holds up well today. You’ll rarely find an opening scene that manages to leave such an impression while at the same time shows so little.
TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) – BOMB IN THE CAR
One of the most popular creative ways that some filmmakers like to open their movies up with is the single, long take. What’s great about these shots is that it establishes the atmosphere of a scene far better than a more heavily edited sequence would. The only problem is that these scenes are hard to pull off, especially when they get more complicated. Some of the best examples of these complicated openings include the 7 minute introduction of the Hollywood studio from Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and the 13 minute opening shot from earth’s orbit from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). But, if you were the find the greatest movie opening using a long unbroken take, it would be the granddaddy of them all from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. With this 3 1/2 minute sequence, Welles set the bar high for this kind of cinematic trick, and all the other filmmakers who have used this technique have all aspired to come close to this scene, with only a few managing to match it. It’s an astonishing complex scene for it’s time, starting on a close-up of the bomb itself, we see it placed within the trunk of the car, and from then on we follow the trek of the vehicle through the streets as it makes it’s way to the border checkpoint. All the while, the camera also catches the introduction of our two leads, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, who follow close behind the vehicle, establishing them into the story and helping to connect them with what’s going to happen. The camera finally cuts once the explosion is heard, and by then, so much groundwork has been laid for the unfolding mystery. It’s an amazing cinematic moment and one that shows how well Orson Welles style remained strong over the years. To this day, it is still the high water mark for this kind of opening shot.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) – THE JOKER ROBS A BANK
Christopher Nolan had already earned raves for his first venture into the world of the Caped Crusader with Batman Begins (2005). When a sequel was green-lit, and it’s was discovered that the iconic villain The Joker would be involved, you could understand why Nolan felt that he had to up the ante this second time around. With The Dark Knight, Nolan insisted on shooting select scenes with IMAX cameras, which would bring even bigger scale to the already extravagant marquee sequences. And of these moments, the real stand out is the opening bank robbery sequence that introduces us to the Joker. It’s an all around amazing opening, utilizing the full potential of the IMAX image. From the opening flyover to the final reveal of a caravan of school buses, it’s a sequence that takes us for a ride and perfectly sets up the adventure that we are going to have for the remainder of the film. But the opening’s best element is how it builds up the reveal of the Joker himself. Heath Ledger remains hidden behind a mask the entire scene, appearing anonymous with the rest of his crew, until he has ensured that all of them have been taken out, leaving him the last man standing. Then, being confronted by the wounded bank manager (played by William Fichtner), he finally shows his grotesque clown face under the mask, giving us one of the most iconic introductions in cinema history. It’s an amazing way to establish an already iconic character into this new retelling. Nolan would also give the villain Bane a strong introduction in his follow up sequel The Dark Knight Rises, but this sequence is still the better of the two. With a chilling performance by Heath Ledger and spectacular IMAX cinematography on display, this was perfect way to open up a movie in a big way.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) – THE KOROVA MILK BAR
Stanley Kubrick is another director that puts special emphasis on the opening scenes of his movies. Whether it’s using an atmospheric introduction like the “dawn of man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or a scenic “god’s eye” view like the opening credits of The Shining (1980), or a non-sequitur moment like the haircuts from Full Metal Jacket (1987), he makes very deliberate decisions when it comes to starting off his movies in the right way. But, for the greatest opening to a Kubrick film overall, you can’t find anything better than the opening shot from A Clockwork Orange. This sequence is defined solely by one singular image, and that’s of actor Malcolm McDowall in the role of Alex DeLarge staring menacingly right down the barrel of the camera lens. It’s an unsettling stare that remains unbroken for the entire minute and a half of the shot. From the extreme close-up, the camera slowly zooms out revealing the full tableau of the Korova Milk Bar in one of Kubrick’s trademark camera moves. Even while more of the scenery is revealed, the focus still remains on the central figure of Alex, spotlighting him in the scene and establishing his importance, which will play out through the movie. Like Patton before, it’s an opening shot that stands out as an iconic image on it’s own, defining the movie we are about to watch right from frame one. What is also so remarkable from this scene is how well Kubrick makes it work with such stillness, with the only movement being a sip of milk from Alex and the camera itself. Add to this the chilling synth version of “Funeral Music for Queen Mary” and you’ve got one of the most unsettling and brilliant openings in movie history.
THE LION KING (1994) – CIRCLE OF LIFE
Disney’s animated films have always tried to start off their films in a big way, usually through a lavish musical number. Most are memorable in their own right, but I don’t think you will ever see a stronger opening than the one from The Lion King. Even the very first frame of the movie is epic on it’s own, with the iconic sunrise being punctuated by the powerful “NAAAAHHH” chant of the chorus. From that stunning image, we see what the sequences main purpose is all about, and that’s to establish a sense of place for this picture, which is the stunning beauty of the African Savannah, and all the amazing creatures that call it home. The sequence is beautifully presented with the accompaniment of Elton John’s now legendary tune. Even before we meet any of the main characters, this movie has already transported us and put us into another world. Of course, the sequence saves it’s most epic moment for the reveal of the iconic Pride Rock, where the characters of Mufasa, Rafiki, and of course infant Simba are introduced. And finally, it ends on one of the most iconic images Disney has ever brought to the silver screen; that of Rafiki holding the baby Simba up high for all to see, with a ray of sunshine beaming down on them. No animated movie before or since has ever announced itself as strongly as The Lion King has. It’s kinda hard to believe that in it’s early development, The Lion King was considered the B-picture at the studio. When this sequence finally came together, I bet that distinction wore off quickly because this is an A-quality opening to a movie. It’s almost too strong of an opening sequence, because Disney tried for many years after to replicate it’s success and failed. With beautiful visuals, a stirring song, and a powerful statement right from the beginning, this is the animated opening that’s king of them all.
STAR WARS – EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977) – IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY
Director George Lucas had to prove a lot of naysayers wrong when he set out to create a return to the old sci-fi serials of classic Hollywood. What seemed to be a silly space based adventure in the beginning proved to be in the end a stellar cinematic achievement. With earnest direction, groundbreaking visual effects, and a stirring John Williams score, Star Wars proved to be a great success, and all those successful features can be found right there in the opening scene. After the triumphant theme starts with the opening title and the introductory crawl (a nod to the classic serials) we pan down from the vastness of space to the see the colossal horizon of a planet beneath us, and from above a small spaceship comes into from. This alone would’ve been nothing too special for audiences (especially those who had already seen 2001), but what follows the ship is our first glimpse of what we know now as a Star Destroyer; a massive fleet ship that is so vast that even the widescreen panorama can’t quite capture it’s true scope. This is the moment that announced to the world that Star Wars was no silly B-Movie, but instead a true force to be reckoned with. It’s an amazing combination of visuals, music and audacious vision, which thankfully continues all the way through the picture. From there, the movie plunges us right into the action, with little time to waste explaining it all. We soon are introduced to this world’s character which includes the droids R2-D2, C-3PO, the fearless Princess Leia, and of course the menacing Darth Vader, who gets the most iconic introduction of all. You could say that an empire was built alone right here in these crucial opening minutes, and that is enough to put it near the top of this list.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) – STORMING OMAHA BEACH
The other entries on this list are defined by either masterful cinematic techniques, exceptional displays of writing and performance, or through singular iconic imagery. This scene makes it to the top purely just for the visceral impact that it leaves on the viewer. Steven Spielberg opened his war epic with a 20 minute recreation of the D-Day invasion of Normandy by Allied forces. We are put there on the ground, seeing the battle unfold from the soldier’s point of view, and witnessed mostly from the perspective of Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller. In this sequence, we see the true brutality of combat, with soldiers dying left and right all around the periphery of the camera’s frame. It captured war in a “you are there” way that no other film had managed to before, and this is how Spielberg chose to open his movie. The reason it remains so powerful is because of this witness point of view. Hanks acts as our eyes, drawing our attention to the horrors around us in the scene, some of which is still horrifically graphic. But, apart from the impact it leaves, you also are left marveling at the way it is crafted. Spielberg used handheld photography to give the movie a documentary like feel (much of which he shot himself), and every explosion and blood spurt feels genuine, and not like something done for a movie. It blurs the line between reality and make believe better than any other war movie I’ve ever seen, and presents war combat in probably the truest sense possible; even capturing the triumph of winning the battle honestly. To pull a scene like this off in the middle of a film alone would be quite an achievement, let alone having it be the opening to your film. It’s one of the greatest cinematic moments ever and easily the greatest movie opening in history.
So, there you have my choices for the greatest opening scenes in movie history. Despite the fact that these movies are elevated by the strength of their opening moments, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every great movie needs a great opening. Can any of you recall the opening scene from Rocky (1976), or Casablanca (1943), or even Psycho (1960)? Maybe you do, but you would never consider them one of the highlights of the movie, and honestly neither of those films needed to open in a big way. Nevertheless, a great movie is still made even better by an opening scene that stands out. You have scenes like the opening of Star Wars and the “Circle of Life” that already set the bar high for the rest of the movie to live up to and the fact that they do make you appreciate the film even more. There’s also the openings that instill imagery that will never your mind like the opening shots of Patton and A Clockwork Orange. And then you’ve got moments of just pure cinematic power like Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach scene. All of these did the best thing that a movie could have asked for which is to establish a strong foundation on which the rest of the movie could comfortably build from. In many ways, your beginning may be the hardest thing to create for a movie, and these films in particular offer some perfect guides with regards to how to do it right. If you grab the attention of your audience within the first few minutes, than you have a better chance of holding on to them for the remainder of the movie and there lies the value of great opening scenes in the whole of cinematic history.