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)
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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.
The perfect intro in search of the perfect intro: Woody Allen's wannabe novelist is casting about for an opening line. He rejects the first attempt as "too corny," the second as "too preachy," the third as "too angry," before - like Goldilocks - he alights on the one that's just right. Yet this hyperventilating voiceover is merely a comedic counterpoint, playing bantamweight clown to the heavyweight score (Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue) and lustrous visuals. Allen's final eureka moment is celebrated with a beautiful burst of fireworks over the New York skyline.
Three Kings (1999)
"Are we shooting people or what?" asks Mark Wahlberg's American GI as he wanders onto the parched battlefield of Kuwait. The year before Three Kings' release, Saving Private Ryan had been rightly celebrated for its harrowing re-enactment of the Normandy landings. Yet David Russell's Gulf war drama now seems more timely and telling. This is modern warfare as a kind of long-range farce. There are no heroes here, just bemused men squinting into the far horizon. They press buttons first and ask questions later.
There's the jubilant Ronettes-scored segment from Mean Streets and the woozy intro to Cape Fear, but Martin Scorsese has surely never created a first sequence more riveting than the one to Goodfellas, with its unquiet corpse rattling in the boot, its instant air of menace and its final, breezy mission statement: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." This grabs you by the lapels and won't let go.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Just as Orson Welles was destined never to quite live up to his early promise, so Touch of Evil is forever overshadowed by its dazzling opening. His fevered film noir kicks off with a virtuoso three-minute tracking shot, craning up, up and away from a close-up of a ticking time-bomb to prowl four blocks of a corrupt Mexican border town before an explosion rips the film apart. A 1998 re-edit, using Welles' original notes, took out the opening credits and removed the caterwauling Henry Mancini score. Shorn of these distractions, the intro looks more impressive than ever.
Hitchcock took a dark delight in teasing and tricking. Psycho opens with a classic false lead, panning across the skyline of Phoenix, Arizona, before selecting a window as if at random. Inside we spy a young couple (Janet Leigh, John Gavin) engaged in an illicit affair. Naturally, we assume that these are our protagonists and this is our drama, blissfully unaware that the rug is to be yanked from under our feet. A few clues hint at things to come: there is the bathroom in the corner, and a passing reference to "my mother's photo on the mantel." We have a sense of Hitchcock somehow playing fair with viewers, even as he sets out to bamboozle them.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam phantasmagoria begins at the end (or at least The End, as sung by the Doors). The jungle is aflame and Martin Sheen is burnt out in bed, sucking on a cigarette and listening to the chop-chop-chop of the overhead fan. Later he will be given a mission, "for his sins," and go boating up-river to meet a shaven-headed Marlon Brando. And yet it's hard to shake the suspicion that we have already witnessed the movie's true heart of darkness (an impression only reinforced by reports of Sheen's fragile health at the time): the sense that the real Colonel Kurtz is not spouting poetry to the natives of Cambodia; he's drunk and weepy and practicing karate moves in a Saigon flop-house.
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