With the Academy Awards coming up later this month, my attention has turned (more than usual) to movies. I often like to come up with “favorites” lists…such as “What are my favorite movie quotes?” or “What are my favorite movie theme songs?” The other day, a new one cropped up: “What are my favorite opening scenes?” That is, what are the opening scenes that grabbed me right out of the gate, scenes so good that I load the movie’s DVD just so I can play that scene and enjoy it all again?
In putting together a list, I discovered that, for some movies, the opening scene was the best part of the movie; it was all downhill from there. In other cases, the scene was just the initial salvo of the overall great movie that would follow. In either case, here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):
Cliffhanger. This almost defines great opening scenes. The rescue sequence on the rope line conveyed a sense of vertigo and terror that still lives with me today. Unfortunately, this was one of those instances where the rest of the film turned out to be disappointing in comparison.
Silverado. The claustrophobic shoot-out in the cabin, without a spoken word, was spectacularly filmed. When Scott Glenn leaves the cabin and the camera opens up to show the vast western panorama…just super!
West Side Story. A helicopter view of Manhantan, with Leonard Bernstein’s great music playing. The camera travels and eventually zooms in on the Jets in a playground. Thrilling. No stage version could top that for a kick off.
From Russia With Love. The opening scenes in James Bond movies are so distinctive that they almost deserve their own category. It’s hard for me to pick my absolute favorite. Still, I’d go with From Russia With Love. In this scene, it appears as if James Bond has been killed. How could this be? And then…(I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen the movie).
My James Bond runner-up would be The Spy Who Loved Me. The ski sequence (although not quite the very opening, it’s still before the titles run) is one of the best: great action without being so over-the-top as to be unintentionally funny.
Mission Impossible I. I loved the opening sequence to this first Mission Impossible movie because (unlike much of the rest of the movie and totally unlike any of the sequels), it actually follows the format used in the TV show. I especially liked the fade to the match lighting and original Mission Impossible theme music. Yes! The sequels abandoned this…to their detriment.
The Godfather. The opening shot of the face of the mortician (“I love America”) and eventually panning out to show Marlon Brando as the Godfather. The shift from the quiet and dark light of the office to the noise and daylight outside. Great cinematography. About as memorable as opening scenes get.
Actually, the scene is a bit reminiscent of the opening poker game sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which I guess should also be on this list.
Jaws. The scene where the young woman gets…well…eaten by the shark was enough to keep much of America out of the water for years to come.
Saving Private Ryan. In my opinion, the D-Day beach landing remains the most heart-pounding realistic battle scene ever recorded on film.
French Kiss. I noticed there weren’t any comedies here. Maybe it’s not a genre that aspires to great opening scenes. Anyway, French Kiss is at least in the ballpark. The scene on the airplane, with Meg Ryan trying to conquer her fear of flying. And then the punchline: we discover that she really isn’t on a plane at all. Classic.
I gave some thought to adding Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark to this list. But I decided that, as much as I liked them, the opening sequences went on for too long, amounting to more than a “scene” — even by my liberal standards.
I’m sure there are other movies I’m forgetting. But these are the ones that first came to mind.