First impressions last. What is true of job interviews and blind dates is also true of movies. Getting the opening scene right is one of the most important parts of the film-making process.
Within a limited time frame, the film-maker has to grab the audience and convince them that they are about to have the time of their lives. The ‘world’ of the film must be established, the themes and the context. Conversely, a great opening can completely disorientate the audience and leave them not knowing where they are or what comes next – but desperately wanting to find out.
Often, some filmmakers spend so much time trying to create an attention-grabbing opening that they have no creativity left for the rest of the story (key example listed below). As a case in point, Brian de Palma, a master at these things, squandered two of the most astonishing single-take openings of the last 25 years on two of his worst films (The Bonfire of The Vanities and Snake Eyes).
This is one of those lists in which the word ‘definitive’ has no place. A dozen completely different lists would all have equal validity so don’t be surprised if your favourite opening isn’t here.
This is simply a personal choice of ten films that had me at “Hello.”
10. D.O.A. (1950)
It was commonplace in Film Noir for the story to be narrated by a doomed protagonist, just to make sure the audience were in no doubt that there was no happy ending in the post.
Billy Wilder used the same trick twice in Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Released in the same year as Boulevard, Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. opens with the most deliciously perfect example of the mortally compromised narrator and remains the last word in setting up intrigue from the get-go.
While the titles roll, the camera follows an unidentified man (Edmond O’ Brien) as he walks a police station, tracking him down endless corridors until he gets to the Homicide Division. “I want to report a murder,” he gravely intones, slumping into a chair. The murder was committed in San Francisco last night. “Who was murdered?” asks the Captain, and we finally get a look at this man of mystery as he announces, “I was.”
What? Who? How? And why does the Captain suddenly know who he is? Who would possibly switch channels now?