The opening shot to a film is often so skilfully crafted that we have an immediate sense of the space into which we’re thrown. Whether it’s a hostile, pressured space, or a vast, sweeping one, primordial or civilized, violent or sedate, the opening shot of a film is, for me, more powerful when it arrests our attention without having even tried. There’s no grand struggle behind the lens, only the striking confidence of a single image, like a pistol shot that fires the race, the narrative strain, into motion. There are many great stills which accomplish such intrigue from the opening and I have included what I believe to be five of the best here.
DIRTY HARRY (1971)
Dirty Harry is a stylish film with a particularly strong start. It’s unfortunate that the other films in the franchise never lived up to the subtle and understated brilliance of the first. The psychopath ‘Scorpio’, played by a feral and vicious Andy Robinson, is ready for the first kill on top of a skyscraper in San Francisco. So many features make this a winning open. The musical score by Lalo Schifrin is shrill and haunting from those first notes when we look along the barrel of Scorpio’s rifle, but then it develops into a stealthy ‘acid’ bass line when Scorpio’s adrenaline kicks in. The lucid blue sky behind Scorpio is matched only by the blue of the pool in which his prey swims, both perhaps a wry allusion to two very different ideas of paradise that both the predator and his prey inhabit. Where the model in the swimsuit resides, euphoria is sold to us almost like a television advert. She is enjoying her freedom and Scorpio is relishing his. His vertiginous position, overseeing San Francisco Bay, indicates an unnervingly secure omnipresence in the topmost heights of the city.
I think that perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Scorpio’s opening kill is that his physicality is not that of an archetypal villain. His slight build, the mawkish cardigan he’s wearing, and floppy hair cast across his face combine to illustrate his malice in a different way to that of a broad and muscular enemy. As we see throughout the film, Scorpio is an abject specimen of manhood: he winces, screams and babbles incomprehensibly just when he’s about to be trampled on. Yet he is more of a menace for being so queasy to watch, so much more repellent than a man who behaves with measured, critical restrain. His rifle is his only object of power that releases the irrepressible parts of his psyche in a controlled and steady attack on humanity, which this open demonstrates.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
This is not a feature purely about psychopaths (although they are my favourite breed of fictional characters), but this opening shot from A Clockwork Orange delivers the same insidious tension. This time we are at one with the deviant and his story is honestly interpreted to us as though we are his closest confidante. Stanley Kubrick is masterful with his panning shots (see The Shining) and uses the initial close-up of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) to gradually draw out his malevolent smirk across the room. To me, there is something highly attractive about the character and this stems straight from the opening shot. His frank stare towards the camera is not just a challenge; it’s an invitation, a sign of honesty from a ‘humble narrator’ to share every detail with us, a privileged spectator. In spite of his malignant expression, his eyes are a winning blue which we shall see in varying degrees of candour and charm throughout the film.
McDowell is a sensual presence on camera, as well as a dark and seditious one. His murky habits are counterbalanced only by a kind of ironic naiveté and a genuine lack of perception regarding the pain he causes to other people until he feels it himself. But to think his vulnerability in the hands of the police, the prison cell inmates, the press and the crazed innocents he injured along the way, has been so deeply twisted from this initial stance of vicious self-regard is astonishing. It’s almost a fall from grace, if ‘grace’ translates as autonomy.
Wendy Carlos’ musical score is also a brilliant opener. The sight of Alex and his droogs would not have anywhere near the same foreboding without that deep, fatalistic note at the start. It’s a nauseating combination. It casts the Korova Milk Bar in an sordid light when the camera zooms out (though the addition of the naked female statues whose nipples provide a top up of milk also help with that). Incidentally, the opening track is based on Henry Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary in 1695. It certainly does kill your spirit.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)
This opening shot is so striking because it begins as a long shot of a barren landscape and then transforms into an extreme close-up shot of a weathered human face without moving an inch. The transition is more startling because the character’s leap into our consciousness is not a gradual one; there’s no hovering in the periphery of the camera’s range, he just casually sidesteps into view and strips us of omniscience. It’s a mark of how even we, as viewers, have an enormously limited perspective of what actually takes place in this physical space beyond the camera.
The character here is almost accusing us of daring to look beyond him when he’s been there all the time, lying in wait. American film critic, Roger Ebert, pinpoints the disorientation caused by this tactic: ‘The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives [Sergio] Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots.’ Instead of marking the camera as the prescient eye that regards everything in advance of the character’s knowledge within the frame, Leone humanises it and provides us with the insight of a victim who might easily be ambushed at any moment.
THE SHINING (1980)
I couldn’t resist including another Kubrick film! The opening to The Shining is beautifully orchestrated with sweeping aerial shots of Saint Mary Lake in Montana. Just like with A Clockwork Orange, the soundtrack is composed by Wendy Carlos and there is an uncanny similarity in the first few notes which are sullen, almost funereal, and carry the same weight of fatality.
For a horror film, the opening is hostile purely through the dread inspired by the music. Without this score, I think we would perceive these images in an entirely different way. The view of the mountainside where the solitary car winds its way, containing Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family, is lonely as much as it is absolutely captivating to watch at high speed as the camera glides us along. It’s a macrocosm of the extreme version of existential anxiety, paranoia and ostracism that Jack will begin to feel at The Overlook Hotel, where grand, spacious rooms and interminable corridors create an unprecedented captivity for the family of three. Here, Kubrick has laboured to create a sense of desertion and, with the eerie wailing in the soundtrack, a presentiment of human despair through the epic scope of space.
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
I chose Rosemary’s Baby for similar reasons, in that the aerial long shots at the beginning inspire that same dread toward claustrophobic, mock-grand spaces. The lullaby which accompanies this grainy, dreary outlook of Manhattan is composed by Krzysztof Komeda and sung by Mia Farrow, the actress who plays the eponymous character. No words, just a lowly crooning that conveys a mother’s melancholy. That’s what remains so unnerving about this open; it manages to inspire dread through the gothic buildings which are clustered together from the overhead shot and yet Farrow’s voice is chillingly calm, almost drugged and sleepy. Is this a premonition of the final scenes of the film? Rosemary is foremost a mother, and though the satanic cult which lives next door demonises her and her body, she retains a tenderness toward her child which is either the most redeeming or the most tragic aspect of her fate.