Nothing’s more important than first impressions, with the start of any movie required to set the scene and get the audience ready for the story to come. Whether a filmmaker is trying to envelop the viewer into the thematic world of their creation or attempting to give an early impression of the film’s intricate characters, there are many different ways a compelling introduction can welcome us into the world of the film.
Where a dynamic scene can throw the viewer immediately into the action, a lot can come from a bombshell of an opening line, capable of taking the air out of the viewer’s throat, leaving them in stunned silence. Not every film is capable of such a feat, with our forthcoming list of the top ten opening lines in film history full of some of the best names in the industry, including Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.
Included on the following list are only lines of dialogue spoken by a character of the film, so no ‘a long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away’, in addition, the lines of dialogue have to be either the first utterances in the film or the first significant line of the movie, background murmuring doesn’t count.
So, with the formalities out of the way, let’s take a look at the ten best opening lines in film history.
The 10 best opening lines in film history:
10. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
“Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, up you wake, up you wake, up you wake, up you wake!”
The iconic summer-inspired comedy-drama from Spike Lee is fueled by electric energy that lights a stick of dynamite underneath a community in Brooklyn that is tight with racial tension. Starring the director himself in the lead role, Do the Right Thing also features the likes of Danny Aiello, Giancarlo Esposito, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro and Rosie Perez.
Perfectly setting the scene, this line works as the ideal transition from the frenetic credit sequence featuring ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy, keeping up the pace of the intro whilst nodding to the urgency of the film’s central message.
9. The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)
“We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phoney emotions. We’re tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.”
For all its comedy, ingenious drama and heart-wrenching emotional core, there’s always been a strange ethereal truth to The Truman Show that rings evidently true in contemporary society. There are few moments in the movie that better demonstrate this than the opening line that speaks of the obsession with reality TV and the moral quagmire that such shows present.
Although reality TV existed in the late 1990s, Peter Weir’s classic drama was ahead of its time even still, with Jim Carrey providing one of the very best performances of his career.
8. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
“The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost, for none now live will remember it.”
Kickstarting what would become the most iconic fantasy franchise, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a template not only for how any wondrous world should be explored but also for how every blockbuster film should be produced. As to which of the three masterpieces is the best is anybody’s argument, but it should be known that the opening line of The Fellowship of the Ring is truly poetic.
Providing an intriguing setup for the world of Middle Earth that is being changed by the rolling tides of sinister influence, the soothing tones of Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel make for movie magic.
7. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)
“Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgement Day, they lived only to face a new nightmare; the war against the machines.”
The scope, ambition and apocalyptic size of James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel would have a cataclysmic effect on the future of science fiction filmmaking, putting the role of the villain front and centre, questioning whether they were even the antagonist at all. It all starts with a terrifying and instantly engaging opening sequence where the camera pans across a hazy wasteland of debris and human skulls.
Narrating the short sequence is Sarah Connor, whose monologue is disrupted by the stomp of a metallic robot foot crushing a skull into dust.
6. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
“I remember those cheers. They still ring in my ears. After years, they remain in my thoughts. Cuz one night I took off my robe, and what’d I do, I forgot to wear shorts.”
In many ways, Martin Scorsese’s classic boxing movie Raging Bull is a subversive sports film that doesn’t abide by the handbook of the genre. Less about the sport itself, or even any feat of athleticism, Scorsese’s movie is more about a fragile individual who is broken by jealousy and sexual insecurity, using his time in the ring as something of a violent punishment.
This opening monologue speaks directly to this sexual anxiety and personal fear, with the older version of the character now recalling his time as a boxer with enlightened perspective and nostalgia.
5. Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970)
“Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
The eccentric general of the United States Army, George Smith Patton, was immortalised in Franklin J. Schaffner’s iconic war movie named after the influential national icon. The opening monologue of Schaffner’s Patton refers to an actual sentence he barked at his soldiers in one of his many animated, off-the-cuff speeches that spoke of patriotism and bravery in the face of the enemy.
With The Star-Spangled Banner hung behind him, this scene in the movie is utterly compelling, becoming a terrifying, rousing call to arms, delivered excellently by George C. Scott.
4. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)
“I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be ‘sir’. Do you maggots understand that?”
Taking a significant amount of time to research the project, starting four years before the release of the film itself, Stanley Kubrick wished to provide comprehensive insight into the lives of soldiers dehumanised by their profession. In the first half of Full Metal Jacket, we follow the steady mental decline of Pvt. Pyle, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, a soldier who starts the film with effortless charm and departs it in tragedy.
The suicide of Pyle is undoubtedly triggered by the mental torture put on him by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey, whose barking demands at the start of the film perfectly set the tone and theme for Kubrick’s classic.
3. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Sure, there are a few tit-bit of dialogue before Ray Liotta delivers this iconic one-liner, but this is the first significant line in Scorsese’s classic. Whilst inspired by the films of Francis Ford Coppola, there’s no doubt that Scorsese had a significant hand in transforming the American gangster genre. Revitalising the taste for such cinema after a period of stagnation, Scorsese’s iconic 1990 movie introduced audiences back into the world of tailor-made suits, smart cars and backstabbing with a scene equally hilarious as it is downright sinister.
Driving in his car along the desolate streets of outer New York, Henry (Ray Liotta), James (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) hear something rattling around as they drive. Pulling over they open the boot and see a tied-up victim still fighting for his life, standing over him they brutally put him out of his misery before Henry famously states the classic line.
2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Short, simple and effective, the first line of Orson Welles’ film is one of the greatest mysteries of cinema history, with the meaning of the utterance only revealed at the end of the movie. Often recalled as the greatest film of all time, Orsen Welles’ 1941 masterpiece following a publishing tycoon and his troubled past is a wealthy illustration of the American Dream in all its glory and shortcomings.
Presenting a deeply flawed lead character, it is Kane’s own destructive narcissism, fueled by the allure of the American dream that leads to his lonely demise, with the opening line acting as a wistful reminder of ‘what could’ve been’.
1. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.”
There are countless iconic lines in the history of cinema, though the monologue delivered by the undertaker, Bonasera, at the start of Francis Ford Coppola’s undisputed American classic might be the very best. Begging Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone from across the table, Coppola draws every element of quality cinema together in this classic opening scene, toying with his subjects as he slowly transitions the camera away from the focus of Bonasera, and onto the powerful process of Corleone.
In a story that explores every inch of the American Dream and the perceived shortcomings of not achieving one’s personal greatness, this opening line sets the scene and provides a moment long-remembered in the history of cinema.