While a great film is the summation of its many parts all working in tandem to achieve something special, a stellar opening scene is something special in cinema. Hooking the audience from the get go can make people invest more deeply into a character or a story than they may have predicted, which in turn elevates the power of the film as a whole. In addition, a single scene can be a powerful self-contained narrative on its own, free from the larger film in which it is contained. Through the power of strong writing, directing, and acting, the vision of the film can be boiled down into one moment for something truly powerful.
The following 13 scenes are some of the best openings in movie history and are must-sees for anyone interested in the power of a single scene. The following are presented in no particular order and are not representative of the greatest ever. They are simply fantastic pieces of film.
The Dark Knight
Maybe the greatest introduction for a character in modern cinema? Director Christopher Nolan knew that Heath Ledger’s The Joker needed an epic entrance in The Dark Knight and his bank heist says volumes about both the character and the world of the narrative in just a few minutes. Blending both the realistic thrills of Michael Mann’s Heat and the superhero world of Batman Begins for a perfect balance of both, The Joker’s bank heist is filled to the brim with twists, deaths, and reveals from start to finish as the criminal robs a mob bank and kills off his own men at the same time. All the while, Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score creates a propulsive and unnerving feeling for the entire scene. This is how to start a film, and the twisted bank robbery opening will be remembered and studied for years to come.
Touch of Evil
One of the great single shot scenes in cinema and certainly one of its most influential due to its timing in film history, the beginning of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil starts off with a ticking time bomb placed in a car. From there, the camera tracks both the car and a newlywed couple walking in the area without ever cutting for three and a half minutes. Using all manner of camera techniques, the presence of the bomb adds an ever growing tension to the scene by simply having audiences know that it is there without seeing it again. It’s an expert course in uninterrupted cinematography and storytelling that hooks in audiences thanks to the very real danger at hand, which is only relieved when the bomb finally goes off.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Three men come to a train station and take over the empty area while waiting for someone or something to arrive. For 10 minutes they sit and wait, the only sounds that punctuate the silence being the dripping of water, the buzzing of a fly, and the squeak of a windmill. It isn’t until the train arrives and their target stands at the platform that we see what the wait has been for – a lone man playing a harmonica who they intend to kill. That mysterious quiet and building tension may be off-putting at first, but Sergio Leone’s opening to Once Upon a Time in the West shows a director who has mastered the art of storytelling in film. And the use of quiet tension that is broken by the sound of a harmonica and a sudden shootout make the resolution of this opening even more powerful and evocative.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
There’s no need to describe the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s one of the most widely known and loved scenes in film history. But did you know that the cold open of the film was inspired by the opening adventures that start every James Bond film? That’s because Raiders was conceived of by George Lucas as a better alternative for director friend Steven Spielberg, who wished he could direct a Bond movie. The mystery and tension of the opening scene’s narrative says everything an audience needs to know about Indiana Jones and is a well-structured three-act narrative on its own. The ever-increasing dangers, numerous betrayals, surprise scares, and fantastic action pay homage to the serials of old that inspired the film while upping their intensity and pace for something truly fantastic. This is one of the great moments in all of film.
The Lion King
Majestic. Inspirational. Moving. These all describe the opening of Disney’s The Lion King, which sees herds of animals from across the Serengeti coming to pay respect to the newly-born son of king Mufasa. This is a scene that wows from the very first frame as the gorgeous sunrise strikes the eye while “The Circle of Life” kicks in at full force. There are no words that need to be spoken by characters here, the evocative imagery and lyrics do all the work. The ideas used are timeless, with the use of the animal kingdom adding greater majesty and spirituality to it all along the way. While there are plenty of amazing moments throughout The Lion King, its opening is a scene that will live on in the mind of audiences for generations to come.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” So begins Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which opens with the unexpected and brutal murder of a man tied up in the trunk of a car. Little explanation is given at the start, but narration from Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) soon explains how his dream of being part of the mob does not line up with the brutal realities of being a criminal. That red light-soaked stabbing and dose of reality from the start bounces off the incredibly stylish way that the entire scene is shot and edited. From there, it’s a manic dive into the life of crime that doesn’t let up for the next two hours. But the specter of the violence at the beginning hangs over it all.
Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men exists in a bleak world, one where a child has not been born for decades and humanity is falling apart as a result. Using one long tracking shot, we start on a crowd in a café grimly watching the news that the world’s youngest person has been killed, starting the film off on the bleak note of impending doom for humanity. Into this scene walks Clive Owens’ Theo, who orders his coffee and coldly leaves, walking out onto the street only to have the café rocked by a bomb, quickly followed by a woman walking out and holding her severed arm. In just a couple minutes, this entire grim future is established in an incredibly efficient but never overly explained manner. Rather, the audience is given the basis for the world’s collapse and then is forced to live in it. The explosion and disturbing aftermath is the final note on the world of the film.
“I believe in America.” Starting with a man’s story about how his daughter was brutally beaten by two men, The Godfatheropens on titular character Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) being asked to exact vengeance on the men responsible. Through the use of a slow uninterrupted pull out shot on the man, there’s a deep focus given to the words and feelings being expressed here. And while it’s nothing flashy, the cinematography is truly beautiful through its use of a dark color scheme and an intimate focus. Every word used is evocative and the meaning of what is being asked for is quickly understood, as the truth of who Don Corleone is becomes readily apparent. While quiet and small, it’s an intense and magnificent piece that says a multitude about the film, its characters, and its world.
The madness of heroin summed up in just a few short minutes, Trainspotting as a whole is a thesis on the horrors of the drug, but the opening to Danny Boyle’s film alone says everything that needs to be said. All set to the evocative and oh so appropriate “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop, we see Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his friends running from the cops while he narrates the myriad choices that make up life, ranging from minutia to how we die. But rather than choosing life, Renton chooses nothing thanks to heroin. That clash of life versus overwhelming addiction is real, raw, and unapologetic, but the speed of editing, pace of the action on screen, and song choice inject it with a devil may care energy that highlights the characters’ reckless and dangerous lifestyle.
The James Bond franchise is known far and wide for its cold opens that begin every film, and while each opening has something fun and exciting to offer viewers, I’m only going to list one here for the sake of diversity in the list. While there are quite a few that are just as good, the intro to Goldeneye is spectacular thanks to the death-defying bungie jump off a dam that kicks things off and the infiltration gone wrong alongside Agent 006 that follows. It’s easily one of the most memorable in the franchise’s history and also sets up the main narrative to follow. This was a stunning way to introduce Pierce Brosnan as 007 and remains among the best in the series’ cold opens.
The Road Warrior
Let’s count the intro and first scene together here, as The Road Warrior’s opening is so powerful thanks to their combination. Starting off in 1.20:1 ratio in mostly black and white, the voiceover of an old man introduces the audience to how the world crumbled into a wasteland and the legend of Max Rockatansky. It then explodes into full color widescreen with Max barreling down a post-apocalyptic highway, pursued by lunatic warriors in one of film’s great car chases. The juxtaposition of the dread-filled and mythic introduction against the insanity of the chase makes The Road Warrior’s beginning incredibly powerful. This is massive, legendary storytelling that sucks you in from the very beginning and never lets go.
Director John Ford’s The Searchers is a film that focuses on the juxtaposition between civilization and the wilderness found in the Wild West and that idea is present literally from the very beginning. As the door to a family cabin opens, the camera pushes out into the exterior to be greeted with sweeping vistas and the approaching figure of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, who is returning to see his relatives after years in the wild, in one of film’s most gorgeous shots. The following minutes show the tensions at play and establish the relationships that inform the entire film. Most importantly, the opening shot of the door opening is echoed in the film’s close, with Ethan remaining out in the wild while the family he has reunited takes their place in the civilization of the home and the door closing as he returns to the wild.
Following up a trippy credits sequence, the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo finds our hero in the midst of a rooftop chase, which sets off his vertigo and leads to a policeman falling to his death. Best of all, the scene introduces Hitchcock’s staggering Vertigo effect, which zooms in while dollying out to create a dizzying perspective shift. That terrifying and off-kilter vision tells you everything you need to know about how mind boggling the coming film will be in just a few scant minutes. By immediately throwing audiences off kilter, they are sucked into the narrative of obsession and tragedy from the very start.
Have your own favorite opening scenes? Say yours in the comments below.