10. The Good the Bad and the Ugly
The introduction to Once Upon a Time in the West was a hard cut, but the sheer nature of the sequence, going on and on with quiet intensity and magisterial construction with credits occasionally superimposed over it almost as an off-handed, begrudging inclusion, doesn’t really allow it to qualify (still, if it’s any consolation, it may be the best opening sequence to any film ever made).
It’s no matter though – director Sergio Leone gave us the next best thing but two years before hand, a lovingly scratchy, sketchy big of primal 60’s pop art that has fun with Western iconography and just generally enjoys existing.
The introduction for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is most famous for it’s theme music, Ennio Morricone’s sighing, mystical, haunting sounds somehow formed around such disparate elements as whistling, gunfire, yodeling, and a simple two-note melody that howls into the wind with wistful woe.
Better still, it repeats the theme through three mediums, one for each main character, and each captures in some fashion the spirit of the figure: a flute captures the noble, temporal, wind-like nature of the ever-traveling Blondie (Clint Eastwood), an ocarina showcases the haunted, inhuman quality of Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), and a sort of warble of human voices that cannot be contained and knows no father or mother finds well the weird aloofness of Tuco (Eli Wallach).
The song is the greatest, and most dementedly anxious, theme tune for a film ever (even if it isn’t even the best piece of music here, facing serious competition from Morricone’s slightly less famous Ecstasy of Gold later in the film). And the pop-art that accompanies it (color-coding historical images with filters and sapping them of their realism in a wonderfully 60’s way) captures the mythical, fable-like nature of this grand Wild West cartoon.
9. Raging Bull
In the great tradition of Taxi Driver’s opening credits, Raging Bill continues Scorsese’s love affair with classical Hollywood (and his eviscerating destruction of it) by poetically and ghostily showcasing his man La Motta (Robert De Niro) preparing for a fight, walking back and forth on stage in slow-motion and throwing beautifully composed punches at us as if his life depended on it.
Mist covering the boxing ring and everything all hyper-impressionist on screen, the opening lovingly recreates the spirit and pathos of the Grand Dame that was classic Hollywood.
And then the entire film sets about absolutely decimating this images, taking it’s stunning pristine black-and-white and rubbing it’s dirty fingers all over, making it the grubbiest possible thing you can imagine and rendering it’s protagonist, a would be classical Hollywood underdog, a despicable, pitiful, grotesque little maggot who happens to represent everything about classical masculinity old Hollywood (and new Hollywood) loved so. Raging Bull’s opening credits is the ultimate cinematic bait-and-switch.
8. The Warriors
As stylized and comic-book infused as the film itself, the impressionistic opening to Walter Hill’s cinematic grime opus emerges down to it’s neck in the muck of the concrete earth as it elevates the same to abstracted heights less about people on the streets than colors in the sky.
At the same time, the snapshots of various city gangs presented without dialogue are a fascinating portrayal of a fully-lived in culture, not realistic as much as a work which captures the surrealism of life on the streets for these teenagers, and for a mainstream American society so afraid of it.
Barry Vorzon’s music, meanwhile, is just cinematic dynamite, gritty and earthy metal matched to alien electronica to capture the daily dialectic of urban life, at once hard-edged and “real”, too real, and something so alien and different to most of us it can’t ever truly be captured on film.
Hill seems to know this, and he doesn’t pretend this is the “real” streets, for that is something film cannot usually know; instead he creates a sublime nightmare, and it all starts with this elegiac yet turbo-charged opening sequence.
Bonus points: the dialogue-free moments (the characters are speaking but we can’t hear them) of the Warriors talking to each other on the train as the score blares overhead are the most honest, human bits in the film, and the only point where the characters seem less like icons and more like actual twenty-somethings.
7. The Shining
Another prime example of Kubrick’s bravura showmanship – the kind he just loves to foreground in his films and shove right up to our faces so we know he has us right away – The Shining begins with an operatic statement of wonder keeled over to the dark side. A lengthy helicopter tracking shot follows a car down a lonely, winding serpent of mountain roads so labyrinthine (and the camera so wide) that the feeling is of pure loneliness.
The shots are long, longer than we expect to the point of unease, but the blunt formalism of the credits interjects and battles for supremacy with the flowing imagery, letting us know things are not as smooth and fluid as they seem initially. It’s a prime haunt of an opening credits sequence, plenty operatic, but completely committed to it’s own ominous mood. It’s showmanship in the best Kubrickian sense of the word.
6. The Player
Robert Altman made a career out of filmic collectivism, but not filmic communalism. His works often centered myriads of people living around and near each other, but they did not, pointedly, center those people as a “group”. The only thing they shared, or ever could share, was their inability to understand other people, their self-conscious individualism masking itself as human interaction.
His films are cold, caustic, and if often humanist, decidedly snarky and sardonic in their attitude toward human frailty. Altman knows how to sharpen his knives, in other words, and he never did so with more dry wit than in The Player’s opening bravura long-take.
Winding in and out of Hollywood life and showcasing little human eccentricities with piercing, omniscient detail, he breaks the central logic of the long take by visually interconnecting people only to show how poorly connected and separate they really are.
The Player was Altman’s home-coming, Hollywood falling back in love with him after a decade of sideways glances and cold shoulders. It’s ironic that he achieved this by mocking Hollywood to it’s face louder and with more verve than just about any mainstream American film-maker ever did, but that he returned to glory with such a grand gesture of film-making prowess (long takes often considered the ultimate such showy gesture), that is most fitting indeed.
Calling it a “credits” sequence is a bit of a loose inclusion, since it is part of the film’s reality, but it’s such a wonderfully self-contained opening bit it just feels right. That is the only caveat here though. It’s as if, after years of being away, Altman had to put on his best face and give it his all.
What other way to open one of Bergman’s greatest dissections of self-fulfilling human fear than just about the most Bergman thing the famously enigmatic director ever put to celluloid. His meta-textual jumble of images, sounds, cuts, and camera motion captures the raw essentials of film at their most anxious and direct, but there’s such a cataclysmic display of energy on display it’s hard to know where to begin.
Certainly the clinically detached, pseudo-slide-show style matches well to Persona’s unhinged non-narrative and it’s frosty descent into madness so distant it can’t even be described as “slow-burning”.
The complete decimation of continuity editing is also rather Bergman, and he never pulled that particular feat off with more commitment than here; perhaps no opening credits is more worthy of debate, argumentation, fist-fight, and -length diatribe or dissection. It is wonderful in a deeply insane, self-centered way, and with Bergman, who would have it any other way?
Ridley Scott must have seen Halloween in 1978, and for his second feature film he took to heart the core of John Carpenter’s simple elegance in title design – it is the lack of complexity and complication to the work, the painstaking directness, that scares us most, for there is only what is necessary to scare us and nothing more to muddy the waters or distract us from the brutality of what is being placed before us.
For Alien, he goes even more minimalist; it’s just us, and broad, sharp lines slowly, cruelly, unforgivingly metabolizing on screen. At first they are abstracted and ambiguous, but things soon fall into place to give something more concrete, yet somehow no less mystifying and unnerving: “ALIEN”, and nothing more. It’s raw, primal, and, yes, alien.
The pain-staking crawl across the screen, a blank planet that beckons light and hope only to arrive and recede into darkness and re-blanket the screen in the hopeless woe from whence it came, is the perfect accompaniment. For a subversive kick, in addition, it re-reads the famously slow opening rebel cruiser crawl of the original Star Wars released two years before-hand for an equally cumbersome, but far more worrying affect.
It’s hard to separate a Hitchcock film from a Bernard Herrmann score, and the same is even truer for a Saul Bass opening credits sequence. Herrmann never did finer work than Psycho, creating a score equal parts jaunty, carnival-esque, and abrasively murderous, like a playful shriek madly in love with itself for how thoroughly it is prepared to destroy our sanity; it’s a cinematic mad hatter.
But the imagery gives the sound a run for it’s money, being harshly, psychotically minimalist and stripped to the bone of expanse or ego (then again, with Hitch at the center, maybe something so minimalist, as if saying “I can wow you with just grey lines and black backgrounds”, is the most egoist thing imaginable). It’s a rather stunning display of form and motion stabbing at the screen like knives to our souls.
The two, imagery and sound, together is nothing short of brutal poetry, even if a difficult opening to actually write about. It’s best conveyed with the bluntness and terse quality of the sequence itself: see it.
2. Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee chose to begin his showstopper with a showstopper, gracing his expressive, powerhouse slice-of-life expose of race relations in modern American society with a calling card that captures the film’s primal fury cold-bore. Melding grit and beauty, craft and art, into a gambit that not only threatens to explode onto the screen but does the unthinkable: reveal that, at the end of the day, Lee’s film, or any film, can never truly claim realism with the subject of race.
What they can claim is to reflect an artist’s depiction of the essence of race relations, insofar as it has been revealed to that artist, and Lee opens with something intentionally and self-consciously “constructed” to capture exactly this fact. It’s an extraordinarily bold, self-confident gesture, matched to equally bold, self-confident music from the furious, ferocious beast that is Public Enemy.
It’s an opening ready to strike, stylized beyond belief, alert and nervy, and infused with energetic dance and gloriously popping street art to bring heat and fervor to modern African-American culture. It’s hugely rewarding as both entertainment and self-critique.
John Carpenter can be a great director when he wants to be, but even at his best, he was an even better composer. His all-time greatest composition, fittingly, is matched to his eeriest, most anxious film – Halloween. The movie is tight, terse, and hell-bent on chilling to the bone, and the minimalist opening credits follows suit after the film’s bravura POV opening sequence.
The song itself is a minimalist haunt, like a shriek into the night composed of staccato keyboard angst so monotonously repetitive it soon threatens unending dread – we cannot tell where it begins or ends, it has no flow, and thus there is nothing to relieve the tension it pushes right up against the audience.
Matched to it is a stark, harrowingly direct series of orange and blood-red text superimposed over a pitch-black background, accompanied only by a singular pumpkin ever-growing on the screen in front of us. It keeps growing and growing, moving toward the screen until it begins to move off of it, only it’s eye left for us, staring into our soul, and then the eye suffocates the screen too. It’s a sequence as terse and elegant as the film, and as haunting.
Author Bio: Jake Walters is a recent graduate of Amherst College and an aspiring film-writer/ist. He shares his thoughts on film at his website, thelongtake.net and is particularly interested in film in relation to society, race, class, and gender, He writes frequently on horror films and looks to Werner Herzog, Michel Foucault, and John Shaft for life advice. You can find him on Twitter@long_take.