GREAT MOVIE OPENINGS Part I

Good movies begin by engaging our emotions and prepare us for what's to come.  Often these first images contain dichotomies that might seem at odds with our expectations.  Such is the case with the three openings below.  Each deals with an American icon or ideal:  the American flag; the western; the All-American town.  Yet none treats these in an ordinary manner.    

PATTON.  We often think of Gen George Patton as larger than life, but it is not the man we first see in the opening shot of "Patton" but a giant American flag.  When Patton appears on stage he is at first dwarfed.(1)(2)  But not for long.  The editing that precedes his six minute speech to the troops uses close-ups (3) (5)medium long shots (4), close up (6) to fully integrate that figure with that symbol.  Yet when he speaks he uses the bluntest of language, denigrating the enemy and anyone who shows even the slightest hesitation in combat.  We know we are in the presence of a man bigger than life, the ultimate patriot, a leader of men like no other.  These first few minutes hint also at the man's humanness, his idiosyncrasies that make him both a great tactician and a rebel.  George C. Scott won the Academy Award for showing us these complexities.  

 Click on the pictures for larger images.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  We're in the middle of nowhere.(1)  Three men wait for the train from Flagstone.(2)  Given their demeanor and outfits (especially the dusters) we figure they're hired guns. Professionals.  Scary.  Supremely confident.  They don't talk.  The train is two hours late.  They're bored but stoic.(3)(4)  They wait.  There's no music, only the sounds of flies, an old windmill, doors creaking, that sort of stuff.  Finally they hear the train.  Time to do what they came for (5).  But the man they're expecting doesn't get off.  They're about to leave when they hear the sound of a harmonica.  The train pulls away, theatrically revealing their mark (6).  The man continues to play.(7)  The three wait, ready to move.(8) Finally Harmonica asks, "You bring a horse for me?"  The man in the middle grins. "Looks like we're shy one horse."  The others chuckle.  Harmonica slowly shakes his head.(9)  "You brought two too many."  The dialog, like other parts of this opening, is clever and yes, funny.  The three gunslingers draw.  The shootout is over in a few seconds.(10)  One man is left, not standing, but alive.(11)  Harmonica picks up his bag.  The entire scene takes 14 minutes.  Clearly director Sergio Leone's interests are in the lead up to the showdown, not the gunplay itself.  Though this movie has numerous references to classic westerns ("High Noon" being the most obvious in this opening), the pacing, editing, music and casting (especially Henry Fonda as the bad guy) insure that this epic widens the western genre and gives it a mythic weight.  The sudden deaths of Jack Elam(3) and Woody Strode(4) before the story really gets started alerts us to expect the unexpected.  

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BLUE VELVET.  David Lynch learned something from Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt"; outward appearances can be deceptive.  We start with a typical Americana town, flowers in bloom(1), friendly firemen(2), school crossing guards watching out for the town's most valuable possessions(3), a picture postcard Andy Hardy kind of place to raise children and enjoy the good life.  An American dream come to life.  Too good to be true?  Just wait.  A man waters his front lawn(4), his wife is having her morning coffee and watching a gangster movie on TV(5).  Perhaps a bit odd, but, hey, all's right with the world.  Suddenly the man has a stroke, falls onto the grass(6).  The camera closes in(7), then takes us under the lawn were voracious beetles are at work, their armor like bodies and gnashing mandibles devouring all around them(8).  Cut to a poster of Lumbertown(9).  

Lynch has introduced us to a hyperbolic world:  flowers are too real, lawns too perfect, city guardians beyond all praise.  Where has evil gone?  Underground, we're told.  Nothing is as it appears.  

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I intend to continue posting Great Movie Openings.  If you have an suggestions of favorite openings, let me know but clicking here.  Other movies I'm considering:  STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, MANHATTAN, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, KISS ME DEADLY, CITIZEN KANE, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, 8 1/2, THE SEVENTH SEAL.

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