"If a story doesn't give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage."
This will be the first entry in a continuing series of posts in which I write about, as the title states, my favorite opening scenes from movies. This isn't necessarily a discussion of movies I find particularly noteworthy (although I do quite enjoy most of them), rather it is a discussion of opening scenes that serve their purpose well. Namely, to draw the viewers in and leave them wanting more.
The Naked Kiss (1964)
What better way to start this post than with a Sam Fuller movie. Fuller remains the master of the opening scene. In all actuality, I could write this entire thing about Fuller movies but I want to have a one movie per director limit. Fuller was special in that, although many of his movies started at a fever pitch, they managed to maintain that intensity and stay compelling all the way through. Fuller came from a journalism background so he knew the importance of grabbing a reader's attention from the first sentence. The Naked Kiss deals with issues of redemption, and with the idea of the possibility of escaping one's past. Constance Towers plays a prostitute, Kelly, who wants to start a new life. First, however, she must rid herself of her pimp. The very first startling shot of this movie shows a half naked Kelly swinging her shoe at the camera. She is attacking both her pimp and the audience. After pummeling him, she takes the money owed to her so that she can leave town. In a few quick actions, Fuller has set up the entire movie.
The Last Boy Scout (1991)
A hilarious send-up of a "Monday Night Football" music promo plays over the opening credits and then we jump full force into the movie. A star football player receives a call from his bookie telling him that if he doesn't score more touchdowns during that night's game he's history. He pops a bunch of pills and heads out onto the field. After catching the ball and running down the field, he pulls out a gun and shoots members of the other team as they try to tackle him. Finally, after making it to the goal line, he turns the gun on himself and ends his life. Tony Scott is a master of the unapologetically trashy action movie and this one is no exception. This scene is perfect because it lets the viewer know immediately how far this movie will go in terms of absurdity and violence. If ever a movie grabbed the viewer by the balls right from the start it was this one.
Touch of Evil (1959)
I guess it's a bit obvious for me to choose the opening scene from this movie, but the obvious choices are obvious for a reason (wow, I used obvious three times in one sentence; that must be a record). This scene is a magnificent feat of virtuoso film making. Done in one unbroken take, we see a man stick a time-bomb in the trunk of a car. Then the car's owner and his girlfriend jump into the car and drive into traffic. We follow the car through traffic as it drives alongside the movie's two protagonists. We don't know when this bomb will explode and this tension is played to the breaking point. This scene is a classic example of suspense done right. These sorts of scenes are usually reserved for a movie's climax. Orson Welles has done a clever thing by placing it at the beginning of the movie because it imposes an air of fatality over the main characters before fully introducing them. Every subsequent scene is made that much more suspenseful because of this.
In the seventies Woody Allen could do no wrong. His comedies were so biting and on point that they still feel fresh today. As far as I'm concerned, Bananas is still the funniest movie Woody Allen has ever made. When this movie was made it seemed as though political assassinations were a daily occurrence -- especially in Latin American countries. Violent political takeovers were just a fact of life in many of these countries. Woody Allen chose to send that up in the opening scene of this brilliant and absurd comedy. He turns the political assassination into a sporting event commentated over by the ubiquitous Howard Cosell. A crowd of spectators waits outside the presidential palace of the tiny country of San Marcos. When the president exits he is gunned down. This is shot in a style resembling an Eisenstein movie. Meanwhile, Cosell gives play by play commentary over the whole thing. This scene combines political commentary, a skewering of pop culture, and a movie geek style of shooting; and it completely succeeds in the execution of all of it. The most important thing is that it's hilarious. This, of course, is the best way to start a comedy.
Although I find Paul Thomas Anderson's third movie flawed, it is still a compelling piece of work. It weaves an Altman-esque tapestry of compelling, pained characters. These are all characters dealing with pasts that they can not escape. This movie also deals with random coincidences. Magnolia contains the greatest opening Anderson has yet written. A narrator introduces us to three different stories dealing with the issues of fate and chance. All three of these stories deal with murder: the first one is deliberate, the second one is accidental, and the third one is a murder in which the victim is an accidental accomplice in his own death. These three stories have no relation to the rest of the movie except in their dealing with similar themes. They also help set up the tone for the rest of the movie. This is one of my favorite kinds of openings because it leaves me wondering what the hell could possibly happen next. This is the very definition of a ballsy opening.