Fri, Jul 20, 2007 - Page 17 News List

First impressions count

Ingmar Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal' has one of the most famous beginnings in film. As it is re-released for its 50th anniversary, what other films have spectacular openings?

By Peter Bradshaw and Xan Brooks  /  THE GAURDIAN , LONDON

Marlon Brando takes directions during the filming of Apocalypse Now.

It is a classic opening sequence, one that has seeded a million imitations, both satirical and reverent. In Ingmar Bergman's arthouse movie The Seventh Seal, celebrating its 50th anniversary with a re-release this today, we see the fierce Crusader Knight, languishing on a featureless shore with a chessboard in front of him, apparently musing over a problem. The cowled figure of Death appears, and the Knight challenges him to a game, with his life as the stake. It's a superb opener: a resonant, brilliantly ingenious image and a terrific plot enabler.

A movie's opening is vital. It's where the director has the most amount of unspent capital in terms of audience attention, interest, expectation. He or she can afford to take things slowly: to involve, intrigue and perplex, yet suggest a coiled spring of action and meaning. The opening is that point of the film that is the most purely cinematic. Image, mood and feeling are uppermost, all working on our senses before the narrative drama takes over.

Some movies have exciting openers: the girl eaten by the (unseen) shark in Jaws, the swirling nightmare in Saw. But the ones that linger are the standing pools of calm. Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story has a series of static shots of the opening location. Alexander Payne's About Schmidt does something similar: a tableau of Omaha, Nebraska, closing in on the dull office where Schmidt works. Both are doing something more than establishing and scene-setting. They are immersing us in context, even savoring the taste of the story not yet begun. The opening is how the director settles a grip on our throats.

Those top 10 movie beginnings

Chosen by Xan Brooks

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Sam Peckinpah's hard-eyed elegy to the old west. Its characters, five ageing outlaws, are introduced in freeze-framed calling cards. Then we amble into a small Texas town where children are amusing themselves by dropping scorpions into a swarming mass of fire ants. This, it transpires, is a metaphor. The wild bunch are the scorpions, to be overrun by a swarm of bounty-hunters and murderous Mexican locals. This whole 145-minute movie is effectively being played out here, on the dirt before us.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Few films open so audaciously as Powell and Pressburger's wartime romance. "This is the universe," intones the narration over a great spread of novae and nebulae. "Big, isn't it?" We cut from the macro to the micro, eavesdropping on the snatched conversation between imperiled airman David Niven and US radio operator Kim Hunter on the ground. Powell and Pressburger's genius was to make the intimate exchange of these two strangers seem just as vast, potent and mysterious as the heavens above them.

There's Something About Mary (1998)

The opening scene signaled a new era of gross-out comedy. Hapless Ben Stiller is preparing to embark on a dream date with Cameron Diaz's high-school siren. But then, during a bathroom break, disaster strikes thanks to an over-eager tug on the zip. "Is it the frank or the beans?" inquires Diaz's solicitous stepfather. After that, there is really no need to show a close-up of Stiller's afflicted appendage. But - wouldn't you know it - the Farrelly brothers decide to show it all the same.

Night of the Hunter (1955)

Charles Laughton envisaged his film as "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose fairytale" and fashioned an introduction so jarringly dreamlike it verges on the comical. Disembodied Lillian Gish is floating in the stars, serenaded by a children's choir as she warns against "ravening wolves" that come in sheep's clothing. Then - whoops! - we are plunged earthwards, to the Ohio River valley, where a gaggle of kids are pointing out the legs of a murdered woman, poking out from a basement door. The stage is set for a bizarre and brilliant one-off.

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