Openings to films serve a purpose: they hook us in, and often act as a microcosmic representation of what is to follow. This is a list of five of the most striking and effective examples of this, with a strong focus on the collaboration between cinematography and score.
A taxi emerges from the steam rising from sewers in the street. The camera looks up at the metal car, illuminated by neon lights and made monstrous through the camera’s angle. The music rushes in – a heavy orchestral score punctuated by ominous heartbeat-tempo thuds on the timpani that speed up before culminating in a crushing final chord from the orchestra. The camera pans out, and we see Travis’ bloodshot eyes and more of the taxi’s surroundings – signs reading ‘xxx live girls’ and grindhouse cinemas. The accompanying music changes to a quasi-romantic saxophone drawl, before the orchestra and percussion come rushing back in. One of the most impressionistic and grand openings ever committed to cinema, it sets the tone for the entire film, and would go down as one of the most famous openings in history.
Enter The Void
Huge sans-serif lettering appears on the screen. The text flickers, then the credits begin to flash on screen in a variety of fonts, all to the tune of British acid electronica band LSF’s ‘Freak’. It’s super-aggressive and hard on the retinas, which perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film – a hallucinogenic dive into a neon-lit Tokyo.
Michael Haneke’s sadistic shocker Funny Games opens with a car snaking its way through the countryside. The family inside are playing various classical CDs and guessing the composer. This establishes two things: that they are educated, middle class people (important if you see Haneke’s Funny Games as Marxist piece); and that they are driving deeper and deeper into the remote countryside. The family scene is suddenly and jarringly interrupted by blood-red sans serif lettering reading ‘FUNNY GAMES’ in classical exploitation horror-film style. The classical music is replaced with grindcore metal (played by John Zorn’s New York band – Naked City). We watch the family in the car whilst the credits roll and the music continues – they (of course) are oblivious to the change in tone. I don’t think an opening has ever said ‘something bad is going to happen to these people’ more than this one!
The opening of Ingmar Bergman’s art-house masterpiece has received much critical analysis since its release in 1963. The introduction consists of a series of seemingly unconnected images that flash onto the screen in quick succession. We see a film projector – it flickers into life; we see upside-down words, a quick still of an erect penis – excitement; then a cartoon flickers on the screen – childhood; then terror as a tarantula crawls across the screen, followed by an animal being butchered. This is followed by images of people, including an elderly person’s face and a child on an operating table. He wakes up and the music increases in volume as we head towards the most famous scene: the child faces a screen with a blurred image of a woman’s face on it, which dreamily contorts into another face, then back again. The child slowly reaches out towards the face. The music intensifies and we are given a close-up of the child smiling, before the film’s title appears on the screen.
2001: A Space Odyssey
We see the outline of a sphere (possibly Earth) coming into view. A white light slowly appears behind the sphere, illuminating its edge. As the camera pans up, Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra reaches a climax; and, as the sun comes into view, the film’s title appears: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Simple, striking, and grand, it is perhaps the most well known and most celebrated film openings of all time.
Apocalypse Now, Jaws, The Lion King, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting, Manhattan, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Saving Private Ryan, Cabaret, Vertigo, Watchmen, Mean Streets, Alien, Blue Velvet…