A hook. Screenwriters know every script needs one. Some writers who gleefully break the rules, but it’s hard to find a movie that avoids trying to deliver a memorable first scene. It’s the writer and director’s chance to impress. To set a tone. To introduce vital characters. To make your audience react. There are countless approaches to beginning a film well, from a brilliantly written exchange of dialogue (Pulp Fiction’s restaurant scene) to an edge-of-your-seat action sequence (Indiana Jones escaping a tomb in Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Today we celebrate some notable openings in cinema, thankfully avoiding most of the obvious ones! These scenes all impressed their respective writers, for reasons they explain below. Never underestimate a great beginning, as a fantastic first scene can generate a lot of goodwill to keep someone watching for longer than they might have otherwise.
And don’t be afraid to let us know some of your own favourite movie openings, if you happen to disagree the ones below are noteworthy!
“You think I’m shit. Well, you’re wrong… because I’m champagne, you’re shit”. The acidic blend of elegance and vileness in Todd Solondz’s deliciously uncomfortable comedy Happiness can be summarised by these lines, spoken in its opening scenes by Andy (Jon Lovitz).
In a pre-title vignette, we find him in a restaurant, sobbing and coughing into his napkin as he’s dumped by the bewildered Joy (Jane Adams). It seems to be a disproportionately emotional reaction to a short-lived romance; deep insecurity stirred into an entitled rage. Joy speaks softly to Andy like a therapist trying to mediate a worsening situation. The gift he gives her (an ashtray with ‘JOY’ written on the side) now seems like a pretty cruel joke. So he’s cruel right back. “Until the day you die, you, not me, will always be shit.”
Solondz has a knack for writing characters who’ve lost control of their emotions and might spiral into a tailspin at any moment. No scene in his career better exemplifies this opening, nor his talent for presenting tableaus of utter human misery. Sitting across from each other in quiet opposition, you might wonder why we humans put ourselves through these games. The scene suggests that our decision to do so might as well be a comedy. All one can do is laugh.
When I saw Suspiria as a teenager, I was hooked and the opening sequence still gives me chills. Firstly: the typography! Designed by Studio Mafera, it’s a collision of something like Playbill and one of the Gothic san serifs. Whatever it is, it’s lovely and captures the era by being both modern and retro at the same time. Just like the film to come.
The narrator (director Dario Argento in the Italian dub, the silkier William Kiehl in the English-language version) sets the scene but is curtailed by a steep fade as the distinctive Goblin music asserts itself. The sounds of Goblin are integral to the mood and there’s a disconcerting use of percussion and wailing. The stark black-and-white of the opening credits is replaced by another shot of typography, the airport arrivals board that sets this up to be a jet-set giallo… but then we’re straight in with Argento’s saturated complementary colours promising something weirder.
As the young Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) walks through the arrivals lobby, intrusive music cuts in and out with the point of view. We see her. Then we see what she sees. There’s a cutaway to the automatic doors with a dangerous-looking mechanism suggestive of sleekly modern inquisition torture apparatus. Then, abruptly, we’re cast into the midst of a Shakespearian tempest.
Lashed by the elemental forces, Suzy hails a taxi. There’s a creeping unease as the driver refuses to understand what Suzy says to him until shown the address on a note. Yet, minutes later, he answers questions about the weather as if he can speak English fairly well.
We hear the disembodied word ‘witch’ as the car headlamps strobe through a forest’s tree trunk pillars. A striking structural shot, that just piles on atmosphere and suspense. Then the arrival at the house that seems to approach us, looming like a living thing in its rich reds, black, and gold. The amazing architecture is redolent of magic and fairytales. Again, the elements seem to attack Suzy as she lifts her cases from the cab. At that same moment, an agitated girl leaves the house, shouting to an unseen someone inside, though the wind and rain whip her words away and we don’t hear what she says. But, almost subliminally, we do!
The stranger wears red, which for Argento is a signifier of blood and often foreshadows a violent death. A voice over the intercom tells Suzy to go away. Later we realise it’s an attempt to steer her from danger. Once more, we drive through the unreal woods—beautifully lit trees banding the screen. The lone girl runs among them; a striking and scary image. The woods, the subconscious, the dark uncivilised world where wolves and witches wait for young girls… especially those wearing red.
Men in Black (1997)
Barry Sonnenfeld accomplishes almost everything a good opening needs in Men in Black; the fictional world, the titular MIB, one of the lead characters, and even the strong satirical tone.
Men in Black is such an interesting watch now because it holds the test of time; not just as sci-fi entertainment but as a light-hearted engagement with bureaucracy. Safe-guarding the Earth from aliens has been finely tuned into an immigration parallel and, in 2020, do we look at the MIB as fondly for being our planetary border patrol agents? Luckily, Sonnenfeld acknowledges the refugee side of things, opening with Mexicans being caught illegally crossing the US border, first by local officers and then the shadowy Agents K and D from a division nobody’s heard of. The tension is levied as K (Tommy Lee Jones) welcomes them into America with a smile, to the confusion of the actual border patrol. Introducing us to the real story, these men in black are looking for a special immigrant named Mikey who, in a wonderful display of SFX and VFX, is a parole-breaking actual alien.
This joke is hammered home by K sarcastically praising the naïve officers for “protecting us from the dangerous aliens”, while expertly dealing with fantastical threats unknown to the masses. We’ve had entertainment and satire but Sonnenfeld weaves character work naturally into the incident as the procedural arrest leads to the elder D panicking with K narrowly saving the day. If K establishes the model MIB agent then D quickly reveals the humanity behind their mystique; he’s getting too old for this shit and wants to retire, but not before asking his partner the last time he’s actually admired the stars they monitor. We then learn the crushing loneliness of the work when K has to wipe his old partner’s memory, setting the film up for a real reluctance in befriending partners.
And let’s not overlook the real opening: a dragonfly scored to the adventurous Danny Elfman theme tune, before getting unceremoniously smooshed by a windshield. Serving the MIB means acknowledging Earth isn’t the centre of the universe, a routine job goes wrong and our entire obliteration will be a bug smear compared to the entire galaxy
La La Land (2016)
Musicals are one of my favourite film genres, with scenes worth re-watching just for the choreography alone. Over the last few years, I’ve often thought fondly about La La Land, the Academy Award-winning musical directed by Damien Chazelle, and its stunning dance sequences. I’ve chosen the bright, optimistic dance sequence taking place across a highway because it sets the tone for the film (beauty among chaos and dreariness), but with primary colours and song-and-dance! The fact that the nearly four-minute scene is just three shots stitched together to look like a single one makes it even better.
However, it’s not just how this scene is logistically impossible to recreate that makes it so dear to my heart. I almost missed watching La La Land at the cinema, as I was going through a particularly trying time in my love life. Watching a film that centred a doomed love story told through charming musical scenes helped me to work through my emotions, and I remember playing the soundtrack on repeat for a few weeks after. Eventually, the opening scene of La La Land has become a happy reminder of how far I’ve come since that time.
Also, La La Land’s opening feels extra stunning now as we’re all craving human interaction after a depressing few months stuck at home.
United 93 (2006)
Possibly the best hijacking movie ever and certainly the finest dramatic representation of 9/11, Paul Greengrass’s United 93 opens with an assured sequence that takes us into the story and considers its terrorists as people without denying the terrible reality of what they did.
The first shot shows nighttime skyscrapers, from above. There’s quiet string music, subtly unrestful… then a voice speaking softly in Arabic, perhaps a prayer. Next, we’re in a hotel room—the lighting is dim and golden. Through the bathroom door, we glimpse a young man shaving his body. In the bedroom are a few others, praying and thinking. In close-up, they look serious, vulnerable… silent. The voiceover continues.
Briefly, we see a boxcutter, the one overtly sinister accent. After 90-seconds, the music gets faster. The men are driving through a messy industrial zone. The daylight is brighter than the room and the traffic noise is jarring. We can’t help but feel pain at the contrast between the quiet, intense spiritual atmosphere earlier and the selfish, chaotic world out here.
They arrive at a bustling airport. They walk past a cop who barely notices them. We see a plane taking off… and the rest is history.
We may not have registered it consciously, but already we’ve witnessed many hints of what will come. The skyscrapers, of course. Religious extremism being hidden in the heart of America (literally, in a hotel room). The obliviousness of law enforcement. Even the way the terrorists go about their morning routine foreshadows similar scenes among air traffic control staff.
But Greengrass’s real genius in this opening sequence is not only that he generates suspense despite the story being so familiar; it’s the way that he plays to our foreknowledge. Much of this is down to John Powell’s terrific score; by the end of the film it’ll be unbearably intense, but here it soaks everything with a ritualistic quality. It binds together the hotel, drive, and airport sections, so that they all feel part of the same inevitability.
If these men hadn’t done it, United 93’s opening seems to imply that others would. It was too late for anyone to get out.