The most important thing that the opening of a film must accomplish is to establish a tone so that the audience fall into the same mood as the film they are watching. It doesnt have to be a big budget explosive opening in order to grab the audiences attention and sometimes an over the top opening like this risks upending the structure of the film with a sense of where do we go from here? Usually the most successful film openings bring a well developed sense of intrigue that will leave you settled into your seat desperate to know more about the story and the characters that are going to occupy your time for the next one and a half to two hours. If it is particularly inventive there will be some dramatic foreshadowing that will enable to hint you at the problems that are going to occur throughout the story. Today Im following a slightly different format for the Importance of series and Im going to talk about film openings using examples of the most impactful from the perspective of each genre. So I hope that I have you hooked you with my article opening and now without lets further ado lets get analysing some masterful film beginnings.
HORRORThe Shining (1980) The opening of The Shining is visually outstanding because mood and metaphor is established without us even needing to see a single characters face. The shot begins by panning through a lake which immediately creates a feeling of disorientation. Then from a birds eye position above the trees we watch a small vehicle make its way along the cliff-top roads. There is a clear sense of the passengers being shown to be quite isolated and as if they are heading into the unknown. Dramatic foreshadowing is then used to good effect as we watch the car move along the edge of the clifftop, a perfect connotation of a family on the edge of a collapse. The use of sound is also expertly handled and in regards to sound I'd like to make a comparison to a similar opening adopted in the film Shutter Island. Scorseses film (which by the way is absolutely fantastic and if you havent seen it already then head to your nearest cinema as soon as possible) begins however with a very overbearing soundtrack which distracts from the images on screen. Basically Martin Scorsese handles everything perfectly apart from the sound. The detectives are on the boat heading to Shutter Island, straight to the point, no messing around. We quickly learn about the characters and their purpose. This is all fine. Then however as they approach the island itslelf which is a very impressive visual spectacle this blaring, gnawing sound suddenly shrieks over the action in a manner which completely takes you out of the moment. Whereas in The Shining the sound blends in with the imagery and acts as an undercurrent to the horror on the surface, Shutter Island uses its over the top sound effects in order to basically shout at the audience YOU ARE WATCHING A PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR FILM. It was a surprisingly amateurish moment that felt as if some indulgent film student had suddenly taken over from the master and injected his own misguided sense of pacing and atmosphere. There are so many scenes praised in The Shining but I still think the opening overshadows them all. Its just pure brilliance with a director who perhaps used space and location better than anybody before him or since. After the first three minutes we havent seen a single face but there are already several connotations connected towards the figures in the car.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987)Adventures in Babysitting begins with a lead female character dancing in her room as she waits to be picked up by her date. It sounds like nothing special and in most cases this type of scenario usually isnt. This opening is a little different however. For a start the use of the Crystals song 'Then He Kissed Me'is an act of brilliance seeing as its arguably the greatest pop song ever recorded and has a habit of being used in classic scenes i.e. GoodfellasCopocabana sequence. Elisabeth Shues character who comes rushing into her room looking impossibly excited and energetic perfectly captures the young thrill of romance that so many girls the same age will be able to relate to and she doesnt have to say a single word in order to express it. Simply the choreography matching her energy to the sound of the music immediately creates a theme that will have identified its target audience just a few frames in. Any film opening that has the power to do that you have to admit has done a fantastic job regardless of whether or not you happen to be a member of that said target audience. The rest of the film cant quite capitalise on the brilliant first two minutes but as a stand alone sequence it is tremendous. So many rom-coms have make you hate the characters and the clichéd story about two minutes in because they dont establish that connection with the audience those private moments that people watching will be able to recognise and relate to.This is where Adventures in Babysitting succeeds and by attracting you to the energy and charisma of the lead character and thus making her likeable it makes you more interested in following her journey throughout the course of the story.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)Yes, in case you forgot Saturday Night Fever is a piece of drama and a damn effective one at that. Criminally underrated for want of a few sequences that now seem a bit cheesy and over the top, it is easy to forget just how powerful the underlying emotion is within this film hammered home by a phenomenal performance by John Travolta who brilliantly portrays the contrasting persoanlity traits of the external king of the dancefloor and the internal sadness that comes with his character's inability to escape his small surroundings and try and seek our something more meaningful. The opening sequence essentially captures the entire theme of the story. Tony Manero strutting down the street with a paint-can in hand is the king of his small town, everybody knows him and he is well liked and admired. The series of the cuts to the shoes and shots that make the character seem larger than life effectively mirror his shallow existence. The clips of the train running pass on its way to Manhattanat the beginning are not just inserted randomnly however and actually play a key role in the film. As we learn later Tony knows everything about the bridge the train rides through and his obsession surrounds his true internal desire to escape the confines of his limited existence. The train riding into Manhattan becomes brilliant dramatic foreshadowing of the emotional journey and breakthough the protagonist will take during the course of the film. With such great substance and style this iconic opening really takes some beating.
M (1931)The opening to Fritz LangsM is one of the most unbearably tense sequences ever crafted. At first we hear some children singing a rhyme in the playground about the local serial killer; they are told to hush by a lady from the building and we realise early on that the town is in a bit of an emotional state over recent events surrounding child disappearances. We then focus on a mother who is waiting for her daughter to return home whilst cooking dinner and performing various other household chores. She is relatively calm at first but as she stares up at the clock each tick feels considerably more threatening and gloomy. Again she doesnt have to say anything, its just a very identifiable situation that any number of parents will be able to relate to. She asks a neighbour if he has seen her daughter but to no avail. She then gazes down the long, empty stairs as the panic really starts to emerge. It is the gradual build from unease to all out terror that makes the moment so impactful and makes our empathy for the woman so strong as we sense that the inevitable is just round the corner. As for the film itself, I urge you to check it out if you havent done so already its a very early feature length masterpiece with incredible visuals, a tremendous lead performance from Peter Lorre and a chilling examination of an uncontrollable inner evil.
SCI-FIContact (1997) CGI may be more advanced these days but it has become far less imaginative. Opening with a shot on planet earth with the faint buzz of televison and radio signals in the background the camera pulls back through the solar system and past the planets as we begin to hear the signals from further back in time. This sequence really makes you consider the world around you and just how small you really are and engages you in the vast space of the solar system through some wonderfully crafted images. The use of sound is also awe-inspiring gradually decreasing until there is nothing but silence and the imagery all falls into the eyes of a small child. Intriguing opening which does a fantastic job in settling you into the atmosphere of the film and making you think about the wonder of the world around you.
WESTERNThe Searchers (1956)The door opens to the beautiful outdoor plains and there John Wayne's character Ethan emerges as if he has just arrived from thin air. The way the family respond to his appearance makes him appear as both a source of hope and an enigma and these are character traits of his that will run throughout the film. It is the perfect example of the film creating a general feeling rather than giving away an intense amount of details. We know that the man arriving on horseback will emerge as the main character and we are intrigued as to why there is this sense of anticipation as he comes to the door.
THRILLERDial M for Murder (1954) It is only really on reflection that you appreciate how intelligent this opening is and the reason why it is so disguised is because it is so concise and natrually handled. Consider these opening frames where so much is established through such little details. A man kisses his attractive wife as she reads the paper, it is all very dignified though somewhat still - their body language towards one another is enough to tell you that though warm in one another's company they are not exactly at the height of romance. The attractive woman then looks up at her husband to make sure that he isn't watching her before we see that she is reading an article about a mystery author arriving later in the day by ferry. The man arrives and in the next sequence he and the woman kiss romantically to the swelling soundtrack. She climbs off him looking very much a young woman in love. This is really what seperates the professional from the pretenders. 90% of directors would have probably had the married couple arguing or at least in some way forced the idea that they are not a loving couple. They then perhaps would have had the female character read the article and head off in the car to go and meet her lover. Only then would they embrace. This would be a perfectly fine opening but Alfred Hitchcock managed to do it all with such spare detail and with no need for dialogue nor forced emotion; instead he just used four minimal shots to paint a brilliant contrast surrounding the stale married couple and the exciting affair.
Apocalypse Now (1979)The opening shot of the beautiful viatnamese trees being turned to flames is an astounding metaphor for beauty and innocence being destroyed by war. It captures the randomness of wasted life, the senseless destruction of something precious and stable. The peaceful build to the flames is unsettling and entirely gripping and the lack of opening credits gives the introduction to the film an authentic and purposeful opening. The Doors soundtrack playing over the images help to capture the themes of loss, insanity and destruction that will be covered during the course of the film.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)Who could forget the opening to Reservoir Dogs? The small time crooks finishing up breakfast whilst analysing the true meaning of Madonna's Like a Virginand then making the natural progression towards the virtues of tipping a waitress. The dialogue is witty, varied and brings each character to life and is followed up by a super cool visual of the suited gangsters walking down the road to the infectious sound of Little Green Bag.
THE FINAL THOUGHTSo they may represent different genres but these film openings all have something special in common. For one they are all paced brilliantly, careful not to give too much away whilst still remaining intriguing and they also stand up as stand alone sequences which tell their own story and this in a way what film openings should strive to do. Considering the fact that they are establishing themes and presenting the appropriate atmosphere they are like short films which create a starting point that will be expanded on throughout the remainder of the action. Thanks for reading and please return this time next week when this feature will be analysing The Importance of... Arena.