The 30 Best Opening Lines in Cinema History
The opening scene or moments of a film can tell us a lot, or not very much at all.
These days, most movies do not have opening credits and jump right in to the story.
Is this because filmmakers think we don’t have the attention span to sit through a few minutes of opening credits or they are just so eager to begin weaving their tale they just can’t wait?
Opening lines can be presented in many ways:
a. Title cards
d. Opening scene itself
It is interesting when you start to think about the range of the way films introduce their characters, stories and settings and how they use dialogue to set an immediate mood. Obviously, the screenplay is one of the most important elements to any film; however, the opening camera shot, score and lighting also play important roles in establishing the world for the characters to live in.
A lot of movies use opening narration to give us important details we may need to know or to catch us up on the action so we don’t miss anything. It is also a way to give a lot of exposition quickly.
Often times the first line of dialogue can tell us a lot about the lead character of the film and an introduction as to what their journey will be.
30. “One time, my cousin Walter got this cat stuck in his ass.” from Mallrats (1995)
Context: Brodie (Jason Lee) opens the film by telling us a funny story.
It turns out all he’s trying to do is remove the gerbil and can’t figure out any other way to do it.
Why is it great: Writer and director Kevin Smith received a lot of grief for his sophomore efforts following “Clerks”, but it wasn’t due to the writing.
While not as good as its predecessor, “Mallrats” is a funny film with a great performance by Jason Lee (and Stan Lee) spouting lines like this one. It’s random, hilarious and gives us quick insight into Brodie’s shallow personality.
The years have definitely been kinder to film, so much so that Smith plans on making a sequel, “Mallbrats” at some point in his life.
29. “On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan.” from The Apartment (1960)
Context: In the opening narration Jack Lemmon explains, as his character C.C. Baxter, his world of corporate life at an insurance company in great detail. We get the immediate sense he is bored in his life and hopes for something exciting to happen.
Why is it great: Lemmon’s delivery is classic with this line and for the entire film. It sets up his character’s situation and his obsessive behavior in trying to balance his social life as well as those of his cowrokers.
We now know a little about his life and are eager to learn a lot more.
28. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” from The Outsiders (1983)
Context: Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) has to write a school paper about his life experience, so he begins it with this memorable line. It’s funny and poignant all at the same time as you yet know nothing about him, his friends or the events to follow.
Why is it great: One of those full circle moments where the end is also the beginning, the line also ends the film and makes you think about the events that just happened in a meaningful way.
Should Ponyboy have faced the consequences of his actions or did he deserve to be held accountable?
27. “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television.” from Trainspotting (1998)
Context: Renton (Ewan McGregor) begins his face-paced opening tirade voiceover with this humorous line as he introduces himself to us along with friends Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) among others and their world of heroin-induced fun.
His speech goes on and on as you struggle to even keep up with what he is saying it comes so quickly.
Why is it great: The speech along with the opening montage and musical score really gets us quickly into this over-the-top excessive world these characters inhabit. We quickly want to know all about their various adventures and how low their lives will get before maybe arriving on the road to salvation.
26. “What came first, the music or the misery?” from High Fidelity (2000)
Context: Following the opening shot of a record spinning on a turntable, Rob Gordon (John Cusack) asks the audience a series of probing questions to open the film.
This includes another memorable line: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
Why is it great: Cusack has a dry, stoic delivery that works perfect for his character and you immediately feel for him. He just wants a little understanding.
Basically, Rob is trying to figure out where he went wrong in his life and had ended up working at a record store. He wonders why he keeps having bad relationships with women.
25. “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” from The Departed (2006)
Context: After starting to show us images from “Boston – Some years ago”, you begin to hear the voiceover by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) describing the city in which he lives. His words echo as we view images of violence between the citizens and police.
This sets us right into the story as he goes on to talk about the “Knights of Columbus” as well as President Kennedy further describing the environment of the film and story you are about to witness.
Why is it great: Nicholson mostly.
The line also escribes Costello’s outlook on life rather succinctly. He doesn’t mince words in discussions with others as you know exactly where you stand with him at all times.
24. “Hey boy. What you doin’ with my Mama’s car? Wait there! Ain’t you ashamed? You’re tryin’ to steal an ol’ lady’s automobile.” from Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Context: After the opening credits and brief historical descriptions of the real-life criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, we enjoy seeing a close up of this version of Bonnie’s (Faye Dunaway) lips as she admires herself in a mirror as well as her playing around naked in her room getting ready for the day.
The looks outside and sees a stranger admiring the car.
Why is it great: Dunaway is striking beautiful as she prances about trying to figure out what to do next.
The line is innocent and inquisitive and also serves as introduction to Clyde (Warren Beatty) as well.
They quickly become friends, lovers and infamous very quickly.