In one of the most beautiful opening sequences in film history, Las Von Trier uses black and white cinematography, slow motions and background music “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo to show us a tragic accident.
The scene juxtaposes a young couple making love while their baby steps out of the window and falls to death. The rhythm of the clothes whirling matches the movement of the erotic body movements in a delicate way. This is the master scene of all Von Trier movies, it’s both sexy and violent, real and fantastic at the same time.
6. Three Colors: Blue
The opening of Three Colors: Blue is a master class of visual telling. First it’s the close-up of a wheel, the motif of circulation appears at the very beginning of the film. Then we see a hand of someone in the car playing a piece of blue paper, the primary color of this film also appears. Next are several beautiful shots of the girl at the back seat, whose life will terminate very soon. The car stops, it’s another close-up of a part of the car, it shows the gas is leaking from the tube, foreshadowing the accident that is about to happen.
Then it’s the accident scene, which is shot in a very clever fashion. We first see the car coming, then the camera cuts to a boy who apparently has failed many times to contain the ball with his wooden stick. As soon as he finally succeeds, he hears the bang, the camera cuts back to the car, which just crashed on a big tree. The scene ends.
What makes this scene so terrific is how director Kieslowski manages to use pure cinema to tell a story, there is not a single dialogue in the scene, but we totally understand what has happened. The tension is built in a very subtle way and is released in an unexpected fashion. Impressive filmmaking.
5. Le Samourai
The opening shot of French director Jean Pierre Melville’s classic neo-noir Le Samourai is like a painting. It’s a static shot of a bleak room full of silence, its gray-blue color scheme makes it almost like a black and white film.
First we see the quote that explains the connection between the modern gangster Jef (played by the impossible cool Alain Delon) and Japanese Ronin. Then we hear the sound of a bird and traffics outside the window. We didn’t notice there is a man there, until we see the smoke. The man slowly sits up like a ghost and turns his back to the camera, keeping distance between us and his own solitude. You can’t open a film about a lonely hired-to-kill gangster better than this.
4. Rear Window
The master of suspense is also the master of visual storytelling. In the opening scene of Hicthcock’s all-time classic, it tells us all the background stories without saying a word. First, the camera goes outside the window, spans 360 degrees to give us a whole view of the neighborhood. Then it cuts to Jeff’s living room, using two shots to indicate the high temperature. Next the camera goes out again, giving us more details about the people living in the yard.
The second time we see Jeff, the camera shows us the cause of his immobility and what he does for a living. The objects tell you everything you need to know about the protagonist.
First it’s his broken leg with his name written on it, then a broken camera he used before the accident, then the photo of the accident, more photos that reveal his occupation, last, a pile of fashion magazines that further explain it. Hitchcock started his career as a silent movie director and he remained that way all his career, using visuals to tell the story. This is pure cinema at its best.
3. Touch of Evil
Not the longest or the most effective narrative, but definitely the most ambitious and complicated opening one take in film history, the opening scene of Orson Welles’ noir masterpiece is one of its kind.
The whole scene works like a Hitchcock mini movie. A timing bomb is set at the beginning of the scene, and blows at the end. What makes this opening scene so great is its technical difficulty. The crane shot moves several streets to record what is happening; it involves not only the victims and the two protagonists, but also crowds on the street. Any tiny mistake of the movement made by anyone would ruin such a shot.
Only directors like Welles who has the talent and pursuit of cinematic marvel could pull off such a shot. It has been studied everywhere and you definitely shouldn’t miss this one scene and what comes after it.
Fellini opens his masterpiece with an utterly surreal scene. We see a man suffocating in a car in a traffic jam in a tunnel, it’s a totally silent world. He looks for help but it seems the time stops and everyone else is immobile, the bus looks like full of zombies. Finally he gets out and flies high above the sky, only to be pulled down like a balloon by another man on the ground.
Like the rest of the film, this opening scene delves into our subconscious. It shows the haunting power of dreams in a very cinematic way, again, like the opening of his La Dolce Vita, it’s full of symbolism. Finding a way to express something that can’t be directly shown, that is the magic of Fellini’s cinema.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West
Anyone who has seen this film probably have guessed that it will top the list. So here it is. It is the greatest opening scene of all time for one simple word – PACE and two main reasons: first, its effective use of various shots to tell the story and show the space. We have the big close-up shots to introduce the three main characters, the medium shots to show the inner space of the waiting room, the long shots to show the outer space of the station, and low-angel shots to show the coming of a train. The film alternates between these shots, and always uses the right shot at the right time.
Second, its brilliant sound design throughout the scene. Not only is Ennio Morricone a master of music, he’s also very good at using natural sound in a very effective way. From the beginning to the end, there is a continuous sound of a windmill, this indicates the location remains the same throughout, only time slowly passes, this gives a kind of consistency to the scene. Other sound effects include the buzzing of the fly, dripping from the ceiling, and the clicking of a gun and of course, the sound of a harmonica. Since there is no dialogue until the confrontation, the sound is vital here to build the tension.
All in all, this is a typical Leone scene. During the long wait, time is stretched and tension is built, then there is a quick showdown. It is the pace of the process that matters, not the climax that comes after it. This is one of Leone’s unconventional filmmaking techniques.