First impressions are everything, making the start of any movie one of the most important moments of any film. 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.
Of course, different films will attack their introduction in different ways, Wes Craven chose to hark back to the terror of Alfred Hitchcock with Scream in 1996, killing off his lead marketable star to state that fact that his subversive film would not be playing by the rules of the horror genre. Meanwhile, for Francis Ford Coppola, he scored the introduction of his war movie Apocalypse Now with ‘The End’ by The Doors, an eerie way to kick off his brutal film about the loss of humanity in the face of violence.
Many hundreds of films have been able to capture their audience in a single rousing opening scene, with the aforementioned movies being joined by David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, yet, unfortunately for them, none of these films make the top 10 cut.
The 10 best opening scenes in cinema history
10. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Whilst inspired by the films of Francis Ford Coppola, there’s no doubt that Martin 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, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”.
9. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
When flashy technology wasn’t available at a filmmaker’s disposal, any monumental cinematic achievement was seen as something of a feat of artistic greatness. Even to this very day, the work of Orson Welles on the introduction of Touch of Evil is bafflingly impressive, welcoming the audience to his crime-noir with an intense, complicated one-take mastermind.
Ambitious and intricate, the shot is a technical marvel with Welles’ crane shots delicately gliding over the houses and overpasses to capture a scene that brims with tension.
8. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
“I believe in America,” Don Vito Corleone’s begging associate pleads from across the table of the intimidating crime boss at the start of Francis Ford Coppola’s all-encompassing masterpiece. Every element of quality cinema comes together in this introduction as Coppola toys with his subjects and slowly transitions the camera away from the focus of the man, and onto the powerful process of Corleone.
Here, we can truly appreciate the potency of The Godfather’s protagonist, as well as the might of Marlon Brando’s effortless performance, elevated by his improvised decision to scoop up the stray cat from the studio floor. He is a man of both elegance and terrifying power.
7. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
Changing the face of commercial Hollywood cinema, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws introduced the American movie industry to the idea of a ‘blockbuster’, creating a movie that captured the imagination of a whole generation. Unlike the mutated modern blockbuster, however, Spielberg spiked his film with genuine artistic class, with the start of his terrifying shark-based horror movie starting with a brutal attack in the water.
Visceral and truly disturbing, the scene shows a young girl being stalked and killed by a shark in the water, whilst her lover fails to see her struggles from the shore. As has been written about the film for decades, it’s what you don’t see in Spielberg’s classic movie that makes it such a terrifying watch to this very day.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
Speaking of Spielberg, he managed to outdo himself six years after the release of Jaws, with the cinematic welcome of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Equal parts mysterious, thrilling and creepy, the filmmaker introduces the audience to Jones in a scene that tells us everything we need to know about the character, whilst delivering one of the franchises greatest ever action sequences.
Brave, loyal, good-natured and ruthless, Indiana Jones is one of Hollywood’s most iconic characters for a reason, and this scene gives us every single excuse to love him.
5. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
Stange, curious and mysterious, the opening to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita lays the groundwork for one of the greatest films of the late 20th century. Showing a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus over Rome, Fellini constructs a poignant message about the presence of religion in post-war Italy, whilst also explaining how authenticity and fakery entwine in the contemporary country.
In a film that follows the life of a journalist socialite, Marcello, and his love affair with Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia, truth and faith play a key role, with this starling opening scene opening the door to such themes.
4. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Welcoming Christoph Waltz to Hollywood with a thunderous crash, the introduction to Tarantino’s fantastical war drama, Inglourious Basterds, is a scene of utmost genius, showing a filmmaker truly in touch with his own art. Opening at a French farmhouse, the atmosphere is perfectly set up as Waltz’s SS officer, Hans Landa, approaches with his band of soldiers to shake the man down, suspecting that he is hiding Jewish fugitives.
Wonderfully constructed with brutal intensity, Tarantino pairs a thrilling soundtrack together with excellent performances across the board to set up a compelling war thriller that never tops the promise of its gorgeous opening scene.
3. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
When the likes of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam constructed their iconic dream sequences in Mulholland Drive and Brazil, there’s no doubt they had Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ in mind. Opening his film about a film director who finds solace and inspiration in dreams and fantasy, Fellini’s sequence is horrifyingly accurate, throwing you back into your everyday nightmare that inextricably flicks between reality and illusion.
Packed with an incredible amount of impactful, symbolic imagery, the scene is presented without sound effects or music and lingers long after its end much like a nightmare does over one’s day.
2. Wrekmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, 2000)
Eliciting an ethereal magical beauty thanks to its captivating soundtrack and flowing cinematography, Bela Tarr’s film follows a young man who witnesses an escalation of violence in his hometown following the arrival of a strange circus attraction. The young man in question is János Valuska, played by Lars Rudolph, a brave, curious and vulnerable young man who witnesses his town descend into chaos.
At the start of the film, whilst entertaining a busy pub, Rudolph unfurls a monologue that discusses the wonders of the solar system. Strange and inextricably emotional, it is a truly inspiring scene that in itself is a magical ten minutes of cinema.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
Not only does the opening scene of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West ooze charming style, from the harmonica tune of Charles Bronson’s character to his final one-liner, but it is also a technical marvel that has a masterful grasp of pace and cinematography. Capturing the scene from several different angles and perspectives, Leone utilises a multitude of different shots that perfectly stitch together to form a riveting whole.
In addition to the cinematography is the sound, where the dialogue of the three characters is as important as the rattling windmill in the background and the whistling wind of the American west. In the commanding construction of atmosphere and character development, Once Upon a Time in the West contains the best opening scene of all time.